With the Clippers beating the Grizzlies on Sunday, the second round of the playoffs is now in full swing.
We hoped for the basketball gods to stop hitting players with the injury bug after watching so many occur in the first round, but those hopes went out the window when Miami’s Chris Bosh suffered an abdominal strain Sunday, leaving him in doubt for at least the rest of the series against Indiana.
Here’s hoping we can witness some good old basketball without feeling the blues from constantly losing key players.
Two games are on slate tonight, with the 76ers looking to steal homecourt against the Celtics in Game 2 and the Lakers facing the Thunder in Game 1.
Two seasons ago, the Lakers and Thunder met in the first round of the playoffs. Although Oklahoma City lost in six games, they were one solid Nick Collison boxout away from sending the series to a Game 7.
Things have changed for the Thunder. They gained further valuable playoff experience last season before losing in the Western Conference finals to the Mavericks; Kendrick Perkins is now manning center; and the overall play of their young nucleus has improved drastically.
Then there is Derek Fisher, who will now battle the team he was part of earlier in the season, and Metta World Peace, who will feel the wrath of Oklahoma City after elbowing James Harden in the head three weeks ago.
From Mike Bresnahan of Los Angeles Times: “The Lakers-Oklahoma City series was already going to be rollicking, a classic case of young versus old. Then came the bonuses from the basketball lords the last two months. Derek Fisher ended up with the Thunder after being traded by the Lakers in March. James Harden took an elbow to the side of the head from Metta World Peace last month. Welcome to the newly refurbished Western Conference semifinals. The Thunder has awaited this matchup longer than the nine days since its first-round sweep of Dallas. It goes back to April 22, when World Peace earned his seven-game suspension and the ire of everybody in the NBA’s newest city. ”It’s going to be intense,” Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said. “The crowd’s obviously going to have a field day with that and I’m sure their players will generate some type of energy from it. For us, we’ve just got to keep our poise and do what we do.”… Two years ago, when Bryant and Fisher were still teammates, Oklahoma City gave the Lakers all sorts of problems in the first round before falling in six games. Pau Gasol’s last-second tip of Bryant’s miss turned an apparent Game 6 loss into a 95-94 victory with the flick of two hands. ”I kept battling, kept hustling,” Gasol said at the time, and he’ll have to do more of it this series. Oklahoma City is all grown up now, if that can even be said about a team with a ridiculous nucleus of under-25 guys. Kevin Durant is 24 years old. Russell Westbrook is 23. Serge Ibaka and Harden are 22. Kendrick Perkins, the old man of the group, is 27.”
Even shaking hands before the game has become news between these teams, and now the pregame rituals of greeting the opposition will surely be heavily watched for extra entertainment.
From John Rohde of The Oklahoman: “Lakers forward Metta World Peace, who was suspended for seven games for elbowing the Thunder’s James Harden on the left side of the face on April 22, told ESPNLosAngeles.com he has no interest in visiting with Harden at the outset of the second-round playoff series against OKC. ”I don’t shake substitutes’ hands,” World Peace said of Harden, a near-unanimous selection as this season’s Sixth Man of the Year. World Peace issued an apology following the incident and told reporters he attempted to reach out to check on Harden’s health through a third party. However, World Peace and Harden have yet to speak. ”I’m not worried about him, or what he has to say,” Harden said Sunday. World Peace claims Thunder players ignore the mutual sign of respect before tipoff with a handshake or fist pound. ”I shake everybody’s hand before the game, but Oklahoma City, they don’t shake hands,” World Peace said. “Only some of them, but I don’t think they really shake hands before the game. Kendrick Perkins and now (Russell) Westbrook don’t shake hands either. (Westbrook) used to shake hands, but now he don’t shake hands anymore.” Oklahoma City’s Nick Collison responded: “Shaking hands is, like, so low on our concerns right now, it’s not really an issue. We’re going to be ready to play. You’ve got to win four games. That’s our job. You can’t win four until you win one.”
The real story of this series, however, will come down to the battle of the stars, including two of the best scorers in the regular season: Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant.
Bryant has struggled in all three of the games played in the regular season against the Thunder, shooting no better than 34.6 percent in any of them. Durant fared better, averaging 29.6 points on 42.3 percent shooting.
Even if Bryant is able to match Durant point for point, defensive issues will remain for the Lakers, who are still struggling with pick-and-roll defense. Ty Lawson gave them fits in the first round, and they will get a double dose of penetration facing the likes of Westbrook and Harden.
From Arash Markazi of ESPN Los Angeles: ”If they feel good about their flow offensively, to a certain degree, it seems they defend better,” Brown said. “So I have spent just as much time with this team on offense as I have on defense. This has been an unusual season from that standpoint.” Against the Thunder, however, the Lakers cannot wait to get comfortable on offense before they get comfortable on defense. With a three-time scoring champion in Kevin Durant, two-time All-Star in Russell Westbrook and Sixth Man of the Year in James Harden, the Thunder have the kind of weapons the Nuggets simply didn’t have. ”We can’t get beat in transition,” Brown said. “We can’t give up second shots. We have to make sure we’re playing the pick-and-roll the right way and we have to have ball reverses. We have to get the ball from one side of the floor to the other and we have to play big because that’s who we are, but we have to be better than we were in this series.” Even when the Lakers held a 3-1 series lead against Denver, Dallas Mavericks center Brendan Haywood said the Lakers would be easily beaten by the Thunder in the second round because as much as the players and coaches on the Lakers have changed from last year, defensively they have yet to close the holes that killed them last postseason.”
Perkins, who will have his hands full guarding the bigger Andrew Bynum, has had eight days to rest his strained right hip muscle. Still, he will be a game-time decision, though his teammates feel confident of his return.
More from Rohde: “He went through some of the drills (Sunday) in practice,” Brooks said. “He’s taken a step in that direction (starting on Monday). We’ll see how he responds after the day’s work tomorrow morning. We can assess that better. He did participate in some of the work today.” Two of Perkins’ teammates where all smiles when discussing Perkins’ condition. “He went through practice today and looked good,” reserve forward Nick Collison said. “I’m sure if it never would have happened, he’d feel better than he does right now, but I think he’ll be able to go.” Thunder reserve guard James Harden said Perkins “looked good” and smiled before joking, “He looked athletic … finally. Nah, he’s very healthy and he’s ready to go, too.”
On Saturday, the Sixers surrendered a 10-point fourth-quarter lead, and the Celtics took Game 1, hitting one clutch shot after another and coming up with all the big plays down the stretch while shutting down Philadelphia’s offense.
Elton Brand (neck) and Thaddeus Young (ankle) are expected to play. They will have to step up their games to have any chance of winning against the battle-tested Celtics.
From Bob Ford of The Inquirer: “The time for character building and confidence boosting is long gone, and veteran players like Elton Brand – who watched the final 20 minutes, 21 seconds of Game 1 versus Boston from the bench – know that better than anyone… Brand and Thaddeus Young, playing against Chicago and Boston in the postseason, have not been very good at all. In the seven playoff games so far, they have combined for a 48-minute average of 13 points and nine rebounds. The Sixers got away with that lack of production – barely – in the Chicago series, somehow managing to win two games in which they scored fewer than 80 points and three games in which they shot less than 40 percent from the field. They won’t be so lucky against Boston, a composed team that locates an opponent’s weaknesses and targets its game there.”
Better overall point guard play is also in order. Jrue Holiday and Louis Williams combined to shoot just 7-of-24 and had a total of four assists.
Evan Turner had 16 points and 10 rebounds but faded down the stretch. Spencer Hawes had 15 points and hit some key baskets late in the game.
Kevin Garnett had a masterful Game 1, and he has not looked this good since he became a Celtic back in the 2007-2008 season, when he won Defensive Player of the Year and helped the Celtics win a title.
From Mark Murphy of Boston Herald: “Kevin Garnett insists with dagger looks and sharp rejoinders that his game has not changed of late. He takes such suggestions as insults, and says this is simply the way he has been all along. Well, not to argue with a man of wealth and taste, but . . . baloney. On rye, with a dash of hot mustard. We’re not suggesting Garnett made a deadline deal with Mephistopheles or anything, but he has clearly been a greater force of late. The eyes have it, and the numbers offer support. So does Flip Saunders, the coach for his first 10 NBA years and now a consultant for the Celtics. “From an offensive standpoint, I’d agree that this is the best he’s played in a while,” Saunders said. “And it’s because he’s being more assertive than maybe you’ve seen in the past.” The Kevin Garnett you’re seeing now is the one for whom Doc Rivers lights a candle each gameday. The one who realizes that being a team player means getting his. On Saturday, Garnett scored 29 points and the Celts needed every single one in a 92-91 win over Philadelphia. It was his third highest playoff output as a Celtic, and the other two came in 2008. “Well, I think there’s a couple of things,” said Saunders, who had his own struggles getting Garnett to play inside in Minnesota. “I think No. 1 is that KG’s going to do whatever someone asks him to do. He might be reluctant, but I (think) he’s going to try to do it. “But I think the other thing is that he’s having success, and just like anybody, when something is working, it makes you more willing to go back to it.”
Rajon Rondo notched a triple-double and came up with all the clutch plays down the stretch, on both ends of the floor to seal the victory.
From Chris Forsberg of ESPN Boston: “All the 26-year-old point guard did was produce his 21st career triple-double, including the eighth postseason one of his career, while registering 13 points, 17 assists, 12 rebounds and four steals over 40:14. Maybe more impressive: Rondo posted 11 points, eight rebounds and nine assists in the second half alone, nearly getting a triple-double in a mere 21:27 of second-half court time, all while helping Garnett rally the Celtics from a double-digit, fourth-quarter deficit to steal Game 1 at TD Garden… Like how Rondo, when not quarterbacking every aspect of the game’s final five possessions, alertly fouled Jrue Holiday with 3.4 seconds remaining in a three-point game. The Celtics were at the limit, but instead of allowing a transition look at a potential tying shot, Rondo waited for time to run off the clock and then sent Holiday to the line for two freebies. He made both, but the Celtics were able to put the inbounds pass in Rondo’s hands and he ran a, ahem, bootleg to waste the final seconds and secure the win. ”I think sometimes his basketball intellect is overshadowed by some of his moments [on the court],” said Dooling. “He’s the smartest player in the game. If you look, he’s a coach on the floor.”
The key in keeping up with the athleticism of the Sixers was going small and matching up with their size.
More from Murphy: “It can be a little too easy to fall in love with any exotic lineup, but as the Celtics discovered during their Eastern Conference semifinals series Game 1 win over Philadelphia on Saturday night, their small lineup may be one of their best weapons against the more athletic 76ers. Brandon Bass, Greg Stiemsma and Ryan Hollins — essentially their center/power forward rotation beyond Kevin Garnett — all remained on the bench in the fourth quarter. Instead, coach Doc Rivers played Paul Pierce at power forward next to Garnett and made all of his substitutions on the wings, with Mickael Pietrus and Keyon Dooling each making brief appearances to give Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley breathers. Otherwise, the three-guard lineup of Ray Allen, Rondo and Bradley was Rivers’ counter to the Sixers’ remarkable speed and athleticism. Look for more of the same. “They make us play small,” Pietrus said. “They want to run because they are so young. They grew up together, so they really know each other. But nobody expected Philly to be in the playoffs. But you have to keep an eye on them, because that team can beat you. You don’t want them hanging around.”
James Park is a regular contributor to Sheridanhoops.com. You can find him on twitter @nbatupark.