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2012 NBA Playoffs Recap, Days 15 & 16

The Clippers were the last team standing at the conclusion of a brutal Game 7 in Memphis. The Lakers finally used their size to eliminate the Nuggets and the Celtics and Heat win Game 1. (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

Celtics rally to take Game 1
The 76ers played well enough to steal Game 1 in Boston. Unfortunately, they let the opportunity slip away with dismal shooting in the 4th quarter. In addition to lousy shooting, the 76ers showed their inexperience. They took poor shots, struggled to move the ball, and looked lost defensively. On the other hand, even when the 76ers imposed their will earlier in the game, it never felt like they would win. The Celtics were just waiting for the right time to exert themselves.

The reality of this series is the Celtics will do what they want and the 76ers will struggle to stop them. Boston is too experienced. They know what to do in nearly every situation while the 76ers are essentially learning on the fly. Down the stretch in Game 1, the 76ers had Lou Williams hoisting fall-away threes from the corner and Evan Turner trying to create space in the lane for contested jumpers. Conversely, the Celtics had Kevin Garnett squaring up from the elbow and Paul Pierce attacking the lane. That’s two sure-fire Hall of Famers taking the decisive shots for Boston while Philadelphia relied on a 2nd year point forward and a career irrational confidence guy off the bench (credit to Bill Simmons).

The 76ers played solid D, shot well, established their transition game, and scored easy buckets. Aside from an extended shooting slump in the 4th quarter, Philadelphia played about as well as they can play. The Celtics are simply better, smarter, and more experienced. This is a learning experience for the 76ers and an extended practice session for the Celtics.

If the 76ers have any hope of making this series interesting, it’s that the Celtics have lost focus at times against lesser opponents (Games 1 and 6 vs. Atlanta). It also doesn’t hurt Philadelphia’s chances that Boston is an injury away from completely falling apart. They’re already walking wounded while the 76ers are almost completely healthy.

After only one game, the series is hardly over, but I’m not expecting the 76ers to do much more than learn throughout the series. As they demonstrated in Game 1, the Celtics know how to win. I’m not sure there’s much the 76ers can do to stop them.

Lakers survive Nuggets, face Thunder
No team had a better first round than the Denver Nuggets, and that includes the eight teams that actually advanced. The Nuggets went toe-to-toe with Goliath and had Goliath running for his life before he remembered he was bigger and stronger.

Denver’s nucleus is in place. It’s a good one, too. George Karl and his team will certainly use this experience to build on. Even in defeat, Karl confirmed he has a budding star in Ty Lawson, a unique and powerful force inside in Kenneth Faried, and one of the NBA’s deepest teams with young talent like Aaron Afflalo, Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov, Corey Brewer, and JaVale McGee (if he’s retained). The future is bright in Denver. Considering it’s been only 14 months since the organization shipped its franchise player out of town, that’s quite a turnaround.

As for the Lakers, we’ll soon learn what Game 7 meant to them. Was it one of those games when a team “finds itself”? Or, were the Lakers using their size and power out of necessity and desperation? What version of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum will the Lakers get in the next round; the Games 5 and 6 version, or Game 7?

While I credit both players for having an exceptional game 7, I don’t understand why they needed a reminder to play with urgency and determination. Isn’t this the playoffs? Bynum could control any game he wanted. Instead, he drifts in and out of focus and forces Kobe Bryant to carry the load. The same is true for Gasol, except when Gasol loses focus, he can’t be found anywhere near the rim, which, you know, is kind of a problem for your power forward.

All in all, the Lakers survived Denver despite a lackadaisically effort at times and an identity crisis. Kobe is undeniably the team’s heartbeat. That doesn’t make him the Lakers ticket to success, though. That title goes to Gasol and Bynum. If that inside duo performs well, the Lakers have a favorable chance of advancing to the Western Conference Finals for the fourth time in five seasons.

Clippers shock Grizzlies, advance to San Antonio
On Saturday I said I’d be shocked if the Clippers pulled out a Game 7 victory on the road. Sure enough, the Clippers found a way to fend off the bigger, stronger Grizzlies and advance to the Western Conference Semifinals.

The story of Sunday’s victory was Los Angeles’ bench. Starters like Blake Griffin and Caron Butler struggled mightily throughout the afternoon. After a strong start, even Chris Paul looked brutally bad in crunch time. And yet, it was during the 4th quarter that the Clippers won the game and ultimately, the series.

If you had Mo Williams, Nick Young, Reggie Evans, Kenyon Martin, and Drew Bledsoe as the Clippers most effective 4th quarter unit of a Game 7 on the road, then good call. If you’re like every one else, though, you’re probably dumbfounded. I still can’t process how the Los Angeles bench scored 25 of the Clippers 27 4th quarter points. Or how Rudy Gay and Zack Randolph went M.I.A. in the biggest quarter of the season. Or how Mike Conley decided to play his worst game of the year on the team’s biggest day. Or how O.J. Mayo just decided to exit the series altogether after Game 2. There are just so many questions about what happened to this Grizzlies team that cannot be explained.

The order of blame, at least in my opinion, goes like this: 1. Lionel Hollins – He blew Game 1 and his team never fully recovered until they were in a 3-1 hole. He also could never get his team to do what they needed in crunch time. Either they don’t listen to him, or he’s an idiot. Neither is a good sign. 2. Marc Gasol/Zack Randolph – When the Grizzlies needed them most they were rarely there. Gasol struggled in Games 3 and 4, Randolph in Game 1. In a pivotal Game 7, Memphis was outrebounded after dominating the boards in Games 5 and 6. Offensively, neither player could stem the Clippers momentum by getting that gigantic bucket to stop the bleeding. Star players must be able to stop the bleeding. MUST. 3. Rudy Gay – Star players should also dominate a playoff series at certain times. Outside of his back-to-back threes in the closing seconds of Game 3, I can’t remember a single stretch where Gay dominated. 4. Memphis’ toughness – they were outworked and outhustled by a hungrier team. Even worse, a smaller, less talented team bullied the big, bad Grizzlies right out of the postseason.

As for the Clippers, it will take a monumental effort to take down the Spurs. Here are a few reasons why:
–       Chris Paul, whether due to injury or not, has looked very pedestrian in the last three games. His 4th quarter performances in Games 6 and 7 were downright awful.
–       Los Angeles loves to play Reggie Evans during crunch time. Gregg Popovich isn’t afraid to intentionally send poor shooters to the charity stripe to ruin momentum and force a coach’s hand. Evans could find himself on the bench in crunch time as a result.
–       The Spurs bench is even deeper than Los Angeles’, so the Clippers will need consistently good outings from Nick Young and Mo Williams. That’s like asking Lindsay Lohan to be a model citizen.
–       I could go on, but I’d run out of space.

Heat take Game 1
The Pacers are significantly better than the Knicks and yet I feel the same way about this series as I did about the Knicks-Heat series in Round 1. The Heat are too good to lose four times to a team of nice players that lacks a legitimate superstar and crunch time scorer. In Game 1 on Sunday, the Pacers went blow for blow with the Heat for the first 40 minutes. Then, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade took over and the Pacers had no response. The game quickly got away from Indiana and they were left scrambling the rest of the way.

The Pacers are a nice team. They have strengths that will exploit Miami’s weaknesses. They’re tough and fearless, too. Those attributes should equate to a win or two in this series. Unfortunately, without a crunch time performer to go head-to-head with Miami’s superstars, I just don’t see the Pacers having a legitimate chance of winning. For the sake of my entertainment, I hope I’m wrong.

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