The 76ers blew a 2nd half lead and appeared destined for a Game 7 in Chicago. The Celtics flirted with going back to Atlanta in order to close out the Hawks. In Denver, the Nuggets outran the Lakers to force a Game 7. (Photo by Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)
76ers advance past Bulls
I’m not sure why Games 5 and 6 of the 76ers/Bulls series were blacked out in my area, but they were. Probably has something to do with Comcast and DirecTV’s Montague-Capulet turf war. Needless to say, I was unable to catch the game live except for the final seconds of Game 6, which my brother kindly broadcasted to me via Apple Facetime. Since I didn’t watch, I’ll avoid recapping the game. Instead, I’ll do something I never, ever, not in a million years, thought I’d do; I’d like to thank Andre Iquodala.
I, like most Philadelphia basketball fans, haven’t been supportive of Iquodala for most of his tenure, and to some degree, rightfully so. The guy’s overpaid, thinks he’s a superstar when’s he barely a star, and he settles for horrible shots in decisive situations way too many times. Amazingly, with the 76ers down one and seconds ticking away in the 4th quarter, Iquodala finally bagged the jump shot and attacked the rim like a bat out of hell, going coast to coast to draw a foul with two seconds remaining. Cool as ice, Iggy drained both free throws and put the 76ers into the 2nd round of the NBA Playoffs.
Had Rajon Rondo in Game 5 of the Celtics-Hawks series on Tuesday night done what Iquodala did last night, the Celtics would have had Thursday night off. Had Mike Conley Jr. did what Iquodala did, the Clippers would be on the verge of elimination tonight, not the Grizzlies. It was a stellar play by Iquodala, one many NBA stars would never think to make or would be too afraid to try.
Say what you will about Iquodala, but he’s never been afraid. Not of pressure, not of the fans who relentlessly dog him, and especially not of having the ball in decisive moments. He’s not a superstar, but he’s a professional in every sense of the word. On Thursday night, he won the 76ers a playoff round for the first time since the other AI ruled the Philadelphia hardwood.
(Also, the closing minutes of Game 6 proved Gregg Popovich deserved Coach of the Year. The Bulls did everything wrong in those final seconds. Even the Spurs third string point guard knows better than to pass the ball to a subpar foul shooter in a situation like that. Besides, what was Omer Asik doing on the floor anyway? The 76ers were obviously going to foul.)
Celtics outlast Hawks, advance to round two
It took me a few minutes to process what I was watching Thursday night. The Celtics had a nine point lead late in the 4th quarter. The Hawks looked finished in what would be a disappointing end to another season of untapped potential. Then, everything went backwards.
Al Horford decided he wasn’t ready for it to be over. Horford scored 8 of the Hawks next 12 points, played lock-down defense, and physically took over the game. Atlanta executed their offense to perfection and smothered the Celtics on the defensive end. Conversely, Boston, in very un-Celtic fashion, looked panicked. They surrendered uncontested dunks and layups and looked completely out of sync offensively. Kevin Garnett bricked two jumpers he normally drains, Rajon Rondo inexplicably traveled with an easy layup in front of him, neither Paul Pierce nor Ray Allen could connect, and even Doc Rivers paced the sideline like he had no idea what was happening. The Celtics were in disarray. Losing would mean a Game 7 in Atlanta against a team with renewed life and confidence.
Then, in typical Atlanta Hawks fashion, the Hawks fell apart. After Horford took over and gave Atlanta a three point lead, he didn’t touch the ball on the Hawks next three possessions. (Shockingly, the Hawks didn’t score on those possessions.) Atlanta’s failure to stretch their lead allowed the Celtics to compose themselves and retake the lead on a Garnett jumper. After Ray Allen shockingly missed a free throw, the Hawks still had a final chance to tie or take the lead. After again ignoring Horford on their first inbound attempt, the Hawks finally went to their big man in the closing seconds. Horford drew a foul and went to the free throw line for two shots with his team down two.
BRICK. Horford missed the first and inexplicably made the second. (There were only two seconds left. The Hawks had no timeouts. Did they think a full court heave had a better chance of connecting than grabbing an offensive rebound for a put-back? Oh yeah, I forgot, they’re the Atlanta Hawks.)
It’s tough to blame Horford for the loss when he gave the Hawks a late lead before they ignored him for two solid minutes. Still, his offseason just got a lot less relaxing. I’m sure every time he sits down over the next few months, regardless of where he’s at, he’ll think about clanking that first free throw off the rim. Hordford is a two time NCAA champion. He knows how to win and what it takes. He’s the only Atlanta Hawk with the stones to get it done. Players like that don’t shrug off failure. It motivates them. I feel bad for Al Horford, but it’ll be fun to see him healthy and hungry in the fall.
And so the Celtics move on. On the same night the Hawks dominated a significant stretch of the 4th quarter, the Celtics looked lost and completely flustered. It was hard to process. Fittingly, Grey’s Anatomy (my wife borrowed the TV for a stretch) ended with a plane crash that looked an awful lot like LOST. Again, everything was backwards. It was just one of those nights.
Nuggets force Game 7
Kobe Bryant, despite a stomach bug that left him fatigued and dehydrated, was the only motivated Laker on the floor in Game 6. Apparently, he’ll have to eliminate the Nuggets on his own because his teammates have not shown any interest in contributing over the past two games. Bryant scored 31 points on 57% shooting on Thursday night while Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol combined for 14 points on 24% shooting. Bynum did grab 16 rebounds, but Gasol was downright awful.
Remember four years ago when Gasol terrorized the Spurs in the 2008 Western Conference Finals? Or what about when Gasol carried the Lakers to the 2010 title? What happened to that Pau Gasol? Sure, he’s older, but he’s not that old. Gasol has one double-double in this series – a measly 13 and 10 in Game 2. Gasol and Bynum were supposed to be the Lakers ticket to advancing past the Nuggets. In the Lakers three losses in the series, Bynum and Gasol have been outplayed by JaVale McGee, Timofey Mozgov, and Kenneth Faried. Read that sentence again. What?!?!?
Game 7 will obviously tell us a great deal about the Lakers. Are they a championship contender simply being lazy in the first round? Or, are they a good team that can’t consistently play at the level necessary to survive the playoffs? One thing is for sure, aside from Kobe, the Lakers lack maturity (Bynum) and depth (every Laker not named Kobe Bryant). The return of Metta World Peace will undoubtedly improve the Lakers chances. As big of a nutcase as World Peace is, he can still frustrate great offensive players with success.
In fairness to the underwhelming play of Bynum and Gasol, the Nuggets were spectacular in Game 6. Ty Lawson was as dominant as he was during North Carolina’s title run in 2009, scoring 32 points on 5/6 shooting from three with 5 rebounds, 6 assists and 0 turnovers. Corey Brewer was equally impressive off the bench and Faried’s energy and athleticism continues to harass the Lakers big men. Again, the Nuggets were spectacular. They know how to beat this Lakers team. More importantly, they know they CAN beat this Lakers team.
Do the Nuggets have any idea how difficult it will be to eliminate Kobe Bryant in a Game 7 in Los Angeles? Probably not, but that’s what’s great about being such a young team; ignorance is bliss. The Nuggets know they’re good enough to win this series. They know they can win in LA. They’ll soon learn what it takes to win a Game 7 on the road.