Playoffs Roundup: Weekend of May 2-4 2014

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Photo: Bruce Ely/The Oregonian


Spectacular Damian Lillard buzzer-beater dumps Houston out of the playoffs
The Portland Trail Blazers won a playoff series for the first time in 14 years thanks to a three-point shot at the buzzer that will go down as one of the greatest makes in NBA history. With just 0.9 seconds remaining, the Blazers trailed 98-96, and the series seemed destined to go to a Game 7. Second-year sensation Damian Lillard had others ideas, however. Lillard came around a screen off the inbound pass, Chandler Parsons couldn’t get to him in time and James Harden failed to recognize that he needed to switch. Lillard got a clean look, beat the buzzer and swished the ball through for the series winner.

It was a win that seemed highly unlikely after the previous possession, when Parsons somehow ended up with the ball in his hands after a mad scramble, and gave Houston the lead.

After a slow start in which Portland got off to a 7-0 lead, Houston battled back, led by Harden who had 34 points, and Dwight Howard who was fantastic down the stretch—he beat Robin Lopez over and over again in isolation and dominated the offensive glass. The Blazers held tough, however, and Lillard was given ample support by LaMarcus Aldridge who had 30 points and 13 rebounds in a sensational bounce-back game.

The Blazers move on to the second round to face the Spurs, while Houston will be left licking their wounds—a quick playoff exit in a season in which many saw them as genuine championship contenders. It was fitting, however, that their season was lost on a play that, as good as it was, highlighted their incompetent perimeter defense. Searching for some solid wing defenders should be high on Darryl Morey’s list of priorities this summer.

 

Photo: Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports


Paul George and the Pacers overwhelm the Hawks for the series win
Paul George had 30 points and 11 rebounds as the Pacers avoided the fate of the 2007 Mavericks, 2011 Spurs and 2012 Bulls: all one-seeds that fell to the eighth best team in their conference. The Pacers looked a lot like the team that had the best defense during the regular season, restricting the Hawks to 30 per cent shooting from the floor and 25 per cent from three-point range despite the fact that the Hawks attempted an NBA record 44 three-pointers. Roy Hibbert, who had been unwatchable for the first six games of the series, scored eight early points to get his and his team’s confidence flowing.

The Pacers blew the game open in the second quarter. Trailing 34-33, they went on a 14-3 run to end the half and seize control of the game. After that it was a formality. The Hawks just couldn’t get anything going offensively. The three-ball wouldn’t fall and Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap—two guys that Atlanta relies upon offensively—went a combined 11 of 37 from the floor. Ultimately, the Hawks lost this series at home in Game 6—a game in which they led in late and should’ve closed out.

The Pacers have now played two solid games in a row, especially at the defensive end, but they move on to play the well-rested Washington Wizards in round two. The Wizards, considering how well they dispatched the Bulls in round one, should be considered slight favourites. However, Washington plays more traditional big men, as opposed to the Hawks who spread the floor from 1 to 5. That means that David West and Roy Hibbert should have an easier time defensively.

It will be an intriguing series and both teams will feel they have a great shot at making the Conference Finals.

 

Photo: Layne Murdoch/Getty


Thunder pummel the short-handed Grizzlies to clinch the series
When the Oklahoma City Thunder are firing on all cylinders, few teams in the NBA are as scary. And in Saturday night’s Game 7 against the Grizzlies, the Thunder looked very scary indeed.

Kevin Durant continued his turnaround in form, getting the better of Tony Allen and scoring 33 points—21 in the first half. But the driving force behind OKC’s 120-109 victory was Russell Westbrook. The NBA’s most divisive superstar had his second triple-double of the series, scoring an efficient 27 points, as well as 10 rebounds and 16 assists. When Westbrook plays like he did on Saturday night, his critics go very silent.

Despite the lopsided final score, the Grizzlies gave it their best shot. With Zach Randolph suspended for punching Steven Adams in Game 6, Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger was forced to change his lineup and approach. Joerger opted to go small, starting Mike Miller at power forward and operating with Marc Gasol as the lone big man. In the first half, it worked, if only for a while. Gasol played brilliantly as the anchor in the middle, while his teammates spread the floor. It was a far different Memphis style than we’re used to seeing, and OKC struggled to adapt. But trailing by 10 in the second quarter, the Thunder went small themselves. It worked. They went on a 27-14 run to end the half, capped off by a Durant three-pointer.

In the second half, the Thunder continued to play small—Caron Butler saw minutes at power forward—and they blitzed the Grizzlies who were overwhelmed by their opponent’s pace and athleticism.

Memphis can bow out with their heads held high, however. They overcame injuries to win 50 games in a loaded Western Conference and took one of the championship favourites to the brink of elimination. As for OKC, nothing short of a trip to the NBA Finals will be deemed a success this season. Their journey continues.

 

Photo: Yahoo Sports


Clippers outlast the Warriors in thriller to set up date with the Thunder
When the first-round matchups were set, many predicted that the Warriors-Clippers would be a playoff series for the ages—two high-octane offences with stars and athleticism a-plenty slugging it out in the first round. But the games, as competitive as they were, did not quite live up to the hype—that is, until last night’s Game 7.

The Clippers held the Warriors at bay at the Staples Center, 126-121, and will now move on to face Kevin Durant and the Thunder in the second round. Doc Rivers’ team got contributions across the board—Chris Paul had an excellent bounce-back game after a quiet Game 6, with 22 points and 14 assists. However, it was once again the Clippers’ big men who proved too much for an Andrew Bogut-less Warriors to handle. Blake Griffin had 24 points, five rebounds and six assists, while DeAndre Jordan, a menace on the glass all series, put up 15 points and 18 rebounds, including a vital put-back dunk down the stretch when his team was trailing.

The Warriors once again started Draymond Green at centre, and he did not disappoint, putting up 24 points and seven rebounds. Star man Steph Curry did not die wondering in this game either, scoring 33 points and getting to the line 16 times. Curry gave the Warriors the lead with two minutes left with a pair of free throws before Griffin made two straight buckets, and DeAndre Jordan scored to open up a five-point lead for the Clippers. Green nailed a three to close the gap to two, but the Clippers sealed the series at the free throw line.

The Warriors now face an uncertain offseason, with coach Mark Jackson unlikely to be back. Jackson will rue the absence of Bogut in this series, a player who could’ve offered his team rim protection against the Clippers big men. The Clippers, on the other hand, move on to face the Thunder in what is sure be a fascinating series.

 

Photo: NBA.com


The Nets hold on to win a wild one in Toronto
The Brooklyn Nets advanced to the second round of the playoffs on Sunday, but only just. They hung on for dear life to beat the Toronto Raptors, 104-103. The game came down to the final possession after Terrence Ross stole Shaun Livingston’s inbounds pass with the Nets up by one. With six seconds left, Kyle Lowry had the ball in his hands, but was met by three defenders at the top of the key. He got off a shot, but Paul Pierce, always huge in the biggest of moments, blocked it. Game over. Season over for the Raptors.

That the Raptors pulled themselves to within a shot of advancing to the second round is a testament to how doggedly they’ve fought all season. After a first quarter in which Amir Johnson, playing on one ankle, dominated (Amir finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds), the Nets began to play their game and pull away. Joe Johnson, the scourge of the Raptors all series long, once again had his way backing down DeMar DeRozan in the post—he finished with 26 points for the game. When the Raptors guarded Johnson one-on-one, he scored off the dribble, and when they threw a second defender at him, he kicked it out to the waiting Nets shooters on the perimeter. Marcus Thornton, who finished with 17 points off the bench, was a grateful recipient of the Raptors double teams.

The Raptors struggled all game defensively, and on offence, DeRozan and Lowry could not get it going until late in the game. Some days you struggle, but as a team the Raptors will be disappointed that they were beaten up on the boards. Brooklyn finished the game with 16 offensive rebounds, which is not usually one of their strengths. All in all, however, this has been a season where the Raptors, six and 12 prior to the Rudy Gay trade, have defied all expectations. There’s no shame in losing to an experienced, veteran-laden team like the Nets, and the team has a young core that should benefit immensely from their experience in the playoffs.

As for the Nets, they move on to face the well-rested Miami Heat. The Nets swept the Heat in the regular season, but the playoffs are a different animal altogether. The reigning champs will start off as favorites in this one.

 

Photo: Chris Covatta/Getty Images


The Spurs play a complete game to dispatch the Mavericks
The San Antonio Spurs led from start to finish in Game 7 of their series with the Dallas Mavericks. The Spurs built up a 12-point lead by the end of the first quarter, and led by 22 points at the half—they ran out comfortable 119-96 winners in the end. The Mavericks barely came close to making a serious run all game. Tony Parker had a huge game scoring 32 points for the Spurs, while Manu Ginobili was fantastic off the bench once more. Ginobili, San Antonio’s most consistent player in the series, had 20 points, five assists and six steals.

The Mavericks could get nothing going on offence all game. Dirk Nowitzki had 22 points, but other than Devin Harris’ 17, Dallas simply had no answers. They were held to just 40 per cent shooting from the floor, while the Spurs were a scorching-hot 56 per cent from the field.

All in all, the Mavericks can be happy with the effort they put in this year. Winning 50 games in the Western Conference with a team full of (aside from Dirk) good-but-not-quite-great players is quite an achievement. No one expected them to push the Spurs to seven games. Defence remains the Mavericks’ chief concern, however, and they’ll need an upgrade at that end of the floor this summer if they’re to make a push again next season.

The Spurs avoid the upset and move on to face the Portland Trail Blazers. The Blazers are a team that most people felt were the weak link in the Western Conference playoffs, but they shocked many by dispatching the Rockets. Their offence is the best in the playoffs so far, and will give the Spurs plenty to think about. San Antonio looks to be hitting their stride at both ends, however, and Portland’s defense is their big weakness. Look for the Spurs to exploit the Blazers at that end to win the series. 

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