NBA Playoff Recap -
Sunday, May 17
One of last year's NBA Finals participants is still alive in the 2009 postseason. The other one ran out of steam. The Lakers moved on and the Celtics were sent packing as the conference semifinal round came to a close.
In Los Angeles, the Western Conference's top seed eventually found its way into the final four, shutting down a Houston team that was long on heart but short on offensive consistency. In a Game 7 that shared the anticlimactic feel of Game 5, the Lakers bolted to an early lead and cruised to an easy 89-70 win over Rick Adelman's Rockets. Most NBA games and playoff series come down to the fourth quarter, but not in the case of this West semifinal showdown. The series was far better than the best-of-seven set between the Atlanta Hawks and Miami Heat, but just like that Eastern Conference first-round fight from late April, L.A. and Houston managed to decide most of their donnybrooks before halftime, especially as the series wore on. Game 1 and Game 3 were relatively even after one quarter of action, but in the other five games of the series--especially the last four--one team left the first 12 minutes with a double-digit advantage... and powered its way to victory. Game 7 only affirmed that trend, as the Lakers used the feel-good vibes of Staples Center to smother the Rockets at the defensive end of the floor. With Ron Artest throwing up airballs, and Laker role player Trevor Ariza scoring 9 of his 15 points in the opening stanza, the home team established a 22-12 lead after one period.
From there, things only got worse for a red-shirted roster that ran out of Rocket fuel. Houston reserve Von Wafer scored 6 of his 10 points midway through the second quarter to keep the Lakers from exceeding a 20-point lead at the half. It was that bad for a ballclub who--aside of Wafer--proved to be very thin against Phil Jackson's thoroughbreds, who entered the locker room with a 51-31 advantage at the break.
The specific key to this Game 7 rout was the ability of the Lakers to impose their size on the Rockets in the absence of Yao Ming. Many pundits naturally thought that once the Chinese star left the series with a broken foot after Game 3, the Lake Show would make quick work of the West's No. 5 seed. That, however, didn't happen, as Houston used a plucky small-ball lineup to torment "The Jackson Five" with its speed and ball movement. On Sunday, however, size did matter in the land of plastic surgery. While Ariza made a difference on the perimeter, L.A.'s big boys, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, combined to score 35 points and snag 24 rebounds, 18 of them by Gasol. With the Lakers playing over the top and hammering Houston on the boards, 55-33, the Rockets' only chance was to shoot the cover off the ball. Instead, the team from Texas hit only 37 percent from the field, and that included a 4-of-4 hot streak to end the final three meaningless minutes of regulation time. One of the fundamental truths of playoff basketball is that role players and X-factors usually step up at home, and at a time when Houston needed to create one very big exception to that rule, the Rockets couldn't do the deed. The scoring punch of Ariza, combined with the brawn of Bynum and the active defense of Luke Walton on Artest, enabled L.A. to cruise on a day when Kobe Bryant stayed in the shadows with a startlingly quiet 14 points on 4-of-12 shooting. If you had told Adelman that the Lakers would score only 89 points and get just 14 from Kobe, the Houston boss would have loved his team's chances in this make-or-break battle. But because Houston couldn't hit the side of a barn (the Rockets had just 58 points with 2:34 remaining in the fourth quarter) and received virtually nothing from its entire roster, the Lakers--4-3 winners in this seven-game grinder--will now get to defend their conference title against the second-seeded Denver Nuggets. Game 1 of the Western Conference finals will be at Staples Center on Tuesday at 9 p.m. Eastern on ESPN.
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In Boston, a Celtic club that was depleted, diminished and drained could not summon up one more Magic effort in a Game 7 on home hardwood. Stan Van Gundy's team finally shook off the fourth-quarter jitters to win a series in which it largely outplayed Doc Rivers' roster. Orlando strode into TD Banknorth Garden and silenced the leprechauns of seasons past, whipping the Celtics by a 101-82 score. Whereas the Magic built big leads and watched them shrink in Games 1 and 5 in Beantown, Game 7 witnessed a distinctly different trend. Orlando--despite confident 3-point shooting and lock-down defense on everyone other than Ray Allen (who scored 23 for Boston)--could only carve out a 66-61 lead after three quarters. Given the history of the Celtics franchise, in seasons ancient and recent, the boys from Boston had to feel confident about their chances. But as soon as the final, fateful period began, the nervous but talented team from north Florida finally maxed out at crunch time.
Orlando scored the first 11 points of the fourth quarter to build a 77-61 lead and coast from that point onward. The star in that stretch was the man who had struggled more than anyone else on the Magic roster through the first six games: maligned forward Hedo Turkoglu. After missing stacks of clutch shots--particularly in the wrenching Game 4 loss that brought Boston back into the series--Turkoglu turned into a pass-first, shoot-second player in Game 7. The adjustment proved to be a brilliant one, because the new approach profoundly affected the trajectory of the forceful fourth quarter that slammed the door on the Celtics' season. During Orlando's game-defining 11-0 run at the start of the final stanza, Turkoglu scored or assisted on 8 of those points. In the entirety of the fourth quarter, Turkoglu dished out 5 of his career-high 12 assists while also scoring 10 points, including the game's ultimate dagger, a 26-foot 3-point shot that gave Orlando a 93-78 lead with 3:55 left. The Magic's 35-21 fourth-quarter scoring spree was first and foremost a product of Hedo Turkoglu's timely transformation.
One other player performed above and beyond the call for Stan Van Gundy, making a distinct imprint on this Game 7 runaway for the visitors. While countryman Tony Parker has excelled in postseasons past, Mickael Pietrus is this year's difference-making Frenchman. Pietrus scored 7 of his 17 points in the first four minutes of the all-important fourth quarter, giving Orlando extra scoring punch and balance at the offensive end of the floor. By becoming a credible offensive threat on a team loaded with dangerous shooters, Pietrus forced Boston's defense to scramble, and that's what enabled Turkoglu to accumulate so many assists. Pietrus's contributions also gave the Magic great floor spacing, which helps explain why Orlando was able to go 13-for-21 from 3-point range, the single most decisive statistic to emerge from the contest.
One Turkoglu transformation plus one potent Pietrus performance equals a Game 7 victory over the vanquished champions from Boston. With newfound confidence borne of an escape from a hugely difficult series, the Magic will now try to overthrow King James, as the Eastern Conference finals begin on Wednesday night on TNT. Game 1 will be held in Quicken Loans Arena at 8 p.m. Eastern time, when the Magic go to Cleveland to take on the Cavaliers. If Hedo Turkoglu is anything like the man who slayed the Celtics in the Game 7 spotlight, Orlando could give the Cavs a serious challenge over the next two weeks.
By Matt Zemek
Pro-Basketball Fans staff-writer
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