This time, it was the best player on the Atlanta Hawks, Josh Smith, walking off the court in disgust with just over four minutes left. Unlike Iman Shumpert (Knicks), who was carried off the court, and unlike Derrick Rose (Bulls), who was helped to the locker room by teammates, Smith walked of the court under his own power, and later exited the arena on his own two feet, according to the team.
But the initial diagnosis is a sprained knee, and Atlanta was a completely different team without him in blowing a second-half lead and losing to the Boston Celtics 87-82 Tuesday night despite the absence of Rajon Rondo, who served a one-game suspension for intentionally bumping a referee.
Until he left the game, Smith was a wonder to watch. The thing that makes him so special is the way he vacuums rebounds off the defensive glass, puts his head down and immediately starts dribbling upcourt, a power forward who can lead the fast break with the same aplomb as a point guard. Smith had been doing that all night against the Celtics, and the Hawks were ahead by 11 late in the third quarter before the tables turned.
First, Paul Pierce got heated up — and he never slowed down, except when he paused to do a “Tebow” after one particularly impressive offensive possession in a string of them.
Then, Smith appeared to hurt left his knee when he landed awkwardly after missing a layup with 5:14 to play. A minute later, he was walking through the tunnel, done for the night. The Hawks said he would be re-evaluated today. (Click here for the boxscore.)
From Mark Murphy of the Boston Herald: “The Celtics evened their first-round series with the Hawks at 1-1 with a 87-80 victory, coming back in the fourth quarter to take the lead with the most ramshackle lineup imaginable. But there’s no disputing the Celtics player who drove this one home. Paul Pierce, with a 36-point, 14-rebound gem, carried the Green throughout his 44:21 on the floor. “It ranks right up there when you factor in no Ray, no Rondo,” coach Doc Rivers said. “Literally, the only way we were going to win the game — I mean, that was the only way we were going to win the game — is if Paul played like that. He knew that. So did they, yet he still did it. It just tells you how special he is.” Kevin Garnett picked up his game late with six of his 15 points in the fourth quarter, and overall the Celtics were at their stingiest of the early series in that stretch, when the Hawks responded with their lowest-scoring quarter (14 points). Marquis Daniels, who rotated between guarding Joe Johnson and Kirk Hinrich down the stretch, provided the kind of reserve value Rivers has been counting on for the past month. Coupled with strong late defense by Mickael Pietrus — an early non-entity because of foul trouble — this duo was an important part of the Celtics’ finishing unit. And then there was Keyon Dooling’s 3-pointer with 6:34 left in the third quarter. The Celtics had missed their first 19 treys of the series before that shot, but Dooling’s corner bomb broke an emotional dam. He hit another from the same spot three minutes later, and the engine finally had turned over. The Celtics, who outscored Atlanta by a 33-16 margin the rest of the way starting with Dooling’s second trey, were ready for their most satisfying comeback of the season.
More on Smith from John Hollinger of ESPN.com: “This one isn’t in Rose-Shumpert territory — Smith walked off the court and left the arena under his own power — but even a lesser injury would likely eliminate Smith for the rest of this series, and that in turn would effectively end any threat Atlanta posed to the Celtics. Certainly that was the case in this game, as an Atlanta side that floundered through much of the fourth went completely off the rails once Smith checked out. And Paul Pierce took care of the rest. Calling this a throwback performance damns with faint praise; this was one of the best games of a fabulous career. Pierce had 36 points, 14 rebounds and four assists while being asked to carry a Boston offense that was missing Rajon Rondo and sharpshooter Ray Allen. … The Celtics cut the lead to five when Doc Rivers decided to skip the final pit stop: While the Hawks went to their bench to start the fourth quarter, he left Pierce, Avery Bradley and Garnett on the floor. While Joe Johnson, Jeff Teague and Smith rested to start the period — Johnson and Teague for 2:23, Smith for 1:36 — Boston seized the opening and tied the game, holding Atlanta scoreless for nearly four minutes to start the fourth. It was a calculated gamble on the part of Rivers, but with two days off before Friday’s Game 2 and Boston having granted its players plenty of rest in the final two weeks of the season, it paid off huge. Both Pierce and Garnett had enough spring to push Boston through the fourth, while Atlanta was burned by treating it too much like a regular-season game. ”We tried to play small,” Hawks coach Larry Drew said, “to match up with them and try to open the floor a little bit, but we didn’t have that low-post presence that we needed.” Moreover, Johnson couldn’t take advantage either. One wonders if the task of guarding Pierce most of the night wore him out; while Pierce had the luxury of guarding less threatening Hawks (such as Marvin Williams, who shot 1-for-6 in 21 impact-free minutes), Johnson’s fourth quarter included two turnovers in a crucial three-possessions stretch and just one made basket. While his final line wasn’t bad (7-of-17, 22 points), he seemed tentative to pull the trigger the entire night and lapsed into overdribbling at times. Regardless, once his co-star Smith went out, the Hawks were at a huge disadvantage. And that disadvantage will persist throughout the series if Smith’s knee keeps him out. Horford won’t be back ’til the next round at the earliest (if there is one) and Pachulia is now targeting Game 5, perhaps optimistically. Atlanta faces the prospect of needing to win in Boston with Jason Collins, Ivan Johnson and Erick Dampier (remember him?) as its only bigs.”
Rose, meanwhile, watched Game 2 of the Sixers-Bulls series from a luxury suite after bringing out the game ball and receiving a standing ovation from the crowd.
The fans in Chicago had little to cheer about the rest of the night – especially during a lopsided third quarter in which the Sixers regained their confidence and seized so much momentum with a 109-92 victory that it just might carry over into Game 3 at Philadelphia on Friday night. (Boxscore)
From Bob Cooney of the Philadelphia Daily News: “(Evan) Turner, spurred on by his hometown crowd that booed him on each of his possessions, bulled his way to 19 points, seven rebounds and six assists, while (Lavoy) Allen, picking up minutes for a foul-plagued Hawes, chipped in 11 points and nine rebounds. The Sixers’ backcourt dominated the Bulls, who were without Derrick Rose, sitting out his first game after tearing his left anterior cruciate ligament late in Game 1. Jrue Holiday, who made 10 of his first 11 shots, finished with a game-high 26 points and also dealt six assists. Lou Williams, who has struggled this season against the Bulls, poured in 20 and also dished six assists. Trailing 55-47 at the half, the Sixers outscored Chicago by a remarkable 36-14 in the third, missing just seven of their 22 shots and holding the Bulls to 5-for-20 shooting. Most impressive was the burst of confidence that overcame the Sixers. They beat the Bulls to loose balls, made tough shots in the lane, and fought inside for every rebound. And when Andre Iguodala hit Williams for a backdoor alley-oop that resulted in a wicked two-handed slam, the momentum swing was palpable.”
Momentum swings are one of the things that make the playoffs so intriguing, especially when they carry from one game to the next. As we make our way though the remainder of the Game 2s tonight, we’ll see whether any of the visitors can pull off something similar to what the Sixers did.
From K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune: “Motivation — whether it be Rose or fan letters from Scottie Pippen and Kyle Korver — isn’t going to advance the Bulls in these best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinals. Memory is.
Failing to draw on experience gleaned from playing 27 regular-season games without Rose, the Bulls got run out of the United Center. The 76ers evened the series with a convincing 109-92 victory and head home for Game 3 on Friday night in Philadelphia. Playoff basketball is all about talent, matchups and execution, and the Bulls lost a lot of that first quality when Rose suffered a season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament in Game 1. They then failed on several of coach Tom Thibodeau‘s tenets — getting outrebounded 38-32, allowing a season-opponent-high 59 percent shooting and failing to play with pace or inside-out offensively. A dreadful second half, in which the Bulls allowed 64.3 percent shooting and 13 of the 76ers’ 25 fast-break points, drew a postgame visit of encouragement from Rose. Joakim Noah and Luol Deng opted for less positive summaries. ”We got our asses kicked,” Noah said. “Let’s see what we’re made of.” Added Deng: “We have to play better defense. This was embarrassing.”
The Denver Nuggets had nothing to be embarrassed about despite losing Game 2 in Los Angeles 104-100, but they still are in an 0-2 hole against a franchise that has gone 42-1 when winning the first two games of a postseason series.
The Nuggets kept this one competitive for 48 minutes, but the Lakers’ superstar threesome of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum is looking like it may be too much for them to handle.
Bryant scored 38 points, Bynum followed up his triple-double with a career playoff-high 27 points and nine rebounds, Gasol had 13 points, 10 rebounds and five assists for the Lakers (boxscore here), who haven’t trailed in either of the first two games.
Los Angeles’ 19-point lead in the third quarter dwindled to four with 3 minutes to play, but Ramon Sessions scored four key points in the final 1:14 before Bryant’s icing free throws with 9.4 seconds left. ”I think losing last season, and the way we lost, we’re approaching this postseason much more focused,” Gasol said. “We’re not overlooking any team, any game. We’re doing whatever it takes to be successful. … Overall, I think we played well again. We just allowed them to play their game a little more than in the first game.”
From aspiring comedian Benji Hochman of the Denver Post: When the Nuggets play the Lakers at Staples Center, it’s often reminiscent of two guys fighting for a girl. There’s the nice guy who’s hanging around, never seemingly having an edge, but still in the mix. And then there’s the dude who just knows. He’s going to get the girl. And he gets the girl. The Nuggets made a late push Tuesday in Game 2, making the courtside celebs peek up from their smartphones for a moment. But in the end, all was status quo in La La Land. … Kobe was Kobe. The Lakers’ luminary was locked in. ”In the first half, Kobe made shots that were undefendable,” said Nuggets coach George Karl. “(In Game 3) the double-teams will be there, but I don’t think they’ll be consistent.” Taking advantage of single coverage by Arron Afflalo, Danilo Gallinari or Corey Brewer, Bryant scored 38 points on 15-for-29 shooting. He shot jumpers with arrogance. With fresh legs — playing in just his second game in 10 days — Bryant overwhelmed Denver with his crossovers and stutter steps or, on occasion, twirling, swirling spins in the lane for a layup.”
The Nuggets still have a shot at making this a series, one would think.
But if one read the column by the Denver Post’s Mark Kiszla, one might think otherwise: “How do we know it is spring in Denver? You mow the lawn for the first time. Nuggets coach George Karl gives a concession speech after his basketball team gets bounced from the NBA playoffs. During a 104-100 victory, the Los Angeles Lakers crunched Denver at crunchtime Tuesday night. It’s that time again, when Karl has a nasty habit of making his team disappear in the postseason. With the exception of 2009, when Chauncey Billups served as the coach on the floor for Denver and the Nuggets made a run to the Western Conference finals, Karl’s record as coach of this team is laughably bad. How bad? After the loss Tuesday to Los Angeles, it is 6-26 during seven of the last eight postseasons. In this NBA playoff mismatch, the Lakers have those go-to players whom Karl often insists are overrated. Kobe Bryant is toying with Nuggets guard Arron Afflalo, who as a child idolized the Los Angeles superstar. Lakers center Andrew Bynum constantly reminds us just how much the potential of the Denver big men is unrefined. What is hurting the Nuggets worse, the Lakers’ talent or the Lakers’ experience? “I think it’s the experience of their stars,” said Karl, who pondered the question painfully long and extremely hard. “The thing our players have got to understand is we need five, maybe six guys playing at a high level to win. (The Lakers) might need two or three guys playing at a high level. So that’s talent.” But there should be one distinct mismatch in this playoff series: With more than 1,000 NBA victories and nearly a quarter century in the league on his résumé, Karl should be dominating Mike Brown, his counterpart on the L.A. bench. There has been zero evidence, however, that Denver has a coaching advantage.