Bernucca: Any of East’s four teams could reach the NBA Finals

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Did the Boston Celtics take the bait?

After the Celtics easily handled the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 3, reclaiming home-court advantage and the upper hand in their series with a convincing win, Sixers coach Doug Collins tried to plant a seed of overconfidence in Gang Green.

“I think they are looking at that other series a little bit,” Collins said. “I think they see Chris Bosh being out (for Miami). They see a tremendous opportunity for themselves.”

Whether Boston did or didn’t, it doesn’t say much about its performance in Game 4.

If the Celtics did take the bait and start looking ahead to a Game 5 clincher and a trip to the Eastern Conference finals, then perhaps they are not as mentally tough as we’ve been led to believe.

If they didn’t take the bait, then the 76ers are better than we’ve been led to believe.

While Collins’ words were not veiled very well and almost juvenile in their delivery, they were right on one count. There is a tremendous opportunity for some team in the East.

Think about it: Can you unequivocally say that any of the four remaining teams is a lock to get to the Finals? Conversely, can you unequivocally say that any of them won’t get there?

Let’s start with the Sixers, the team almost everyone seems to automatically dismiss. You may point to their smallish front line, extended stretches of offensive ineptitude and lack of a late-game stud, which are all valid points.

You can also point to the fact that they have out-executed the precision-drilled Celtics in the fourth quarter in both of their wins, one of which was in Boston. Who can say they cannot win there again?

How about the Celtics? They have now had late lapses on three occasions – once against Atlanta and twice vs. Philadelphia, which has forced an aging team to work longer and harder than necessary. At the same time, they have remained on task, still hold home-court advantage and handled Miami late in the season.

The Pacers certainly bear watching, having won six of their last seven games while imposing their brand of smashmouth basketball on both Florida teams. A win Sunday vs. Miami would give Indiana a 3-1 lead and vault it to the head of the class in the East.

But a loss would be a momentum-killer and waste the home-court advantage the Pacers fought so hard to get. And as its playoff opener against a weak Orlando team illustrated, Indiana is entirely capable of melting down at home.

The Heat? When the conference semifinals began, most folks had Miami penciled in for a return trip to the Finals. Then Chris Bosh went down, Dwyane Wade went ballistic and Erik Spoelstra went into stealth mode a la Pat Riley.

On Sunday, LeBron James needs to man up, and the role players need to show up. If they do, the Heat will take a huge step toward getting back on track.

The Sixers have the most to overcome, given their roster. The Celtics have the most urgency, given their age. The Pacers have the most to gain, given their opponent. And the Heat have the most pressure, given their expectations.

The basketball hasn’t been particularly good. But the unpredictability has been great.

All season, we considered Chicago-Miami a fait accompli for the conference finals. But the Bulls are already on the golf course and the Heat could be joining them, possibly as early as Wednesday.

Pacers-Sixers, anyone?

There is a tremendous opportunity for one of these four teams.

There also is tremendous temptation to look ahead and envision it.

TRIVIA: Name the four active players who have scored 50 points in a playoff game. Answer below.

THE END OF CIVILIZATION AS WE KNOW IT: For the second straight week, a player received death threats on Twitter. Last week it was Bulls guard C.J. Watson. This week it was Lakers guard Steve Blake, who missed an open 3-pointer at the end of a Game 2 loss to the Thunder. A tweet was sent to Blake’s wife’s account read, “I hope your family gets murdered.”

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Los Angeles Lakers forward Metta World Peace, trying to describe how his team would bounce back from a rout in Game 1 while simultaneously losing his mind:

“It’s the same thing like a man has five wives. He’s been divorced once and he got married again. You’ve got to move on. He didn’t want to get divorced, she didn’t want to get divorced. But hey, she said, ‘OK honey, I want half.’ She said that. You know she said that. It’s a metaphor. The name of my podcast is Mettaphorically speaking. She got married again, he got married again. Moved on and it’s a new life. That’s how the game is. It is a fun game. At the same time, still a lot of passion involved. She will love her husband. We will love the game, too. Have fun, play with passion and it’s a whole new day.”

LINE OF THE WEEK: Roy Hibbert, Indiana vs. Miami, May 17: 33 minutes, 9-16 FGs, 1-2 FTs, 18 rebounds, one assist, one steal, five blocks, 19 points in a 94-75 win. With LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Danny Granger and David West on the floor, Hibbert was by far the most dominant player, significantly impacting the game at both ends and sending Miami coach Erik Spoelstra scrambling for solutions in the middle.

LINE OF THE WEAK: Dwyane Wade, Miami at Indiana, May 17: 37 minutes, 2-13 FGs, 0-2 3-pointers, 1-2 FTS, five rebounds, one assist, one steal, two blocks, five turnovers, five points in a 94-75 loss. This was Wade’s worst playoff game since a two-point stinker as a rookie in 2004 and was exacerbated by his shouting match with Spoelstra during a timeout in the third quarter.

GAME OF THE WEEK: Indiana at Miami, May 22. This will either be a scratch-their-eyes-out Game 5 of a series that has been much more competitive than anyone envisioned, or the Pacers will be trying to eliminate the Heat, who could be looking at big-time changes on the staff and roster with anything less than a return trip to the Finals.

TRILLION WATCH: Clippers forward Bobby Simmons had a 3 trillion in Tuesday’s opener vs. the Spurs. He was matched by Philadelphia’s Sam Young in Wednesday’s Game 2 loss to Boston. The 4 trillion by Celtics center Ryan Hollins on May 4 is still the “pinnacle” of the postseason.

TWO MINUTES: Through the first two games of the Clippers-Spurs series, Chris Paul was shackled. The All-Star point guard was 7-of-22 from the field with 16 points, 15 assists and 13 turnovers. Paul is visibly bothered by hip and groin injuries – there have been times during games where he has been twisting his body, trying to loosen up his hip – but refuses to use his aches and pains as a copout. “No excuses, I’ve just got to play better,” he said. “But I don’t ever recall having that many turnovers (8 in Game 2).” The Spurs have somewhat neutralized Paul’s effectiveness in the pick-and-roll by overplaying him at the top of the circle and pushing him down one side of the floor. Unable to get into the pick-and-roll, Paul is sending the ball to the top, where it moves to the other side of the floor for a lower-percentage jump shot. The Clippers had 48 points in the paint in the first two games, or two less than the Spurs had in game 2 alone. “I’m just trying to stay in front of him and try to contain him and make sure he takes hard shots,” Spurs guard Tony Parker said. “Obviously Timmy (Duncan) is helping me out, too, and Boris (Diaw) and Tiago (Splitter). It is not just me. It is the whole team. It is a team defense. It is everybody being focused on Chris and making sure he doesn’t keep going.” Paul was a bit better in Game 3 with 12 points and 11 assists but made just 5-of-17 shots. “I don’t know if he’s 100 percent Chris Paul,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. … The key moment of Philadelphia’s Game 2 win in Boston clearly was Kevin Garnett being called for an illegal pick with 10 seconds left – a rare whistle in that situation – and the Celtics trailing by three points. Somehow, the 808-word AP game story made no mention of it. Really. … The Heat’s biggest problem vs. the Pacers has been their inability to make a perimeter shot. They are 5-of-42 from the arc, including a combined 1-of-15 from LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Meanwhile, their spot-up shooters can’t throw it in the ocean. James Jones is 0-of-6, Mario Chalmers is 1-of-6 and Shane Battier is 1-of-9. Miami cannot overcome the absence of Chris Bosh without making some jumpers. The more the Heat miss, the more the Pacers can pack the paint and funnel penetration toward Roy Hibbert, whose impact on the series appears to grow with each game. “I can wander a little bit more and make the paint look a little more crowded and block more shots,” Hibbert said. “When (Bosh is) there I have to respect his ability.” … In a span of 10 playoff games, the Clippers have erased a 27-point deficit to win and blown a 24-point lead to lose. … There was plenty of overtime available for maintenance crews at Staples Center this weekend. After the NHL’s Kings played Thursday night, the Lakers’ floor had to be put in for Game 3 vs. the Thunder on Friday. Following that game, that floor had to be swapped for the Clippers’ floor for Game 3 vs. the Spurs on Saturday afternoon. The floors had to be swapped again, because the Lakers faced the Thunder in Game 4 on Saturday night. The Lakers’ floor was removed for another Kings’ game this afternoon, and the Clippers’ floor will have to be put back for tonight’s Game 4 vs. the Spurs. It takes a 35-person crew 75 minutes to change basketball floors and 135 minutes to switch from hockey to hoops. … When the Lakers acquired Ramon Sessions at the trading deadline, the move was applauded because most felt the club needed more quickness at point guard at both ends of the floor. Initially, that is what Sessions provided, averaging 12.7 points and 6.2 assists in 23 games after the deal. But what may have been overlooked is that this is Sessions’ first postseason, and at times it has looked that way. Over his last five games, he is averaging just 6.2 points and 2.8 assists while shooting 11-of-39 from the field. Sessions sat out the entire fourth quarter of the Game 7 win vs. Denver and the last 9:06 of the Game 2 loss to Oklahoma City. In his place was Blake, who had 24 playoff games with four different teams under his belt prior to this postseason. Sessions snapped out of it with 12 points and four assists in Game 3 on Friday and 10 and five in Game 4 on Saturday but again was not on the floor down the stretch of either game. … The Spurs have won 17 straight games dating to the regular season, matching the second-longest winning streak extending into the playoffs in NBA history. The 2004 Spurs won 17 straight games, including their first seven playoff games, before losing the last four of the conference semifinals to the Lakers. The 2001 Lakers won 19 consecutive games, including their first 11 postseason games, before losing Game 1 of the Finals in overtime to Philadelphia. They quickly regrouped to win four in a row and the title. …

Trivia Answer: Ray Allen, Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki. … Happy 34th Birthday, Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje. … Did the WNBA season start this weekend? I didn’t notice.

Chris Bernucca is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear Wednesday and Sunday. You can follow him on Twitter.

 

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