We are just past the midpoint of the Conference semi-finals and have been witnesses to some incredible post-season basketball. From the late-game heroics of Derrick Rose, Paul Pierce and LeBron James to the villainy of hack-a-whoever in the Rockets-Clippers series, these playoffs have had it all.
We’ll begin with the aforementioned Rockets-Clippers series which has seen the Clippers frankly outclass the Rockets right up until last night’s 124-103 victory at the Toyota Center in which the Rockets finally seemed to realise that they are going to have to try to beat this team, an odd decision to come to give they had plenty of opportunity to assume a commanding lead in the temporary absence of Chris Paul. The Rockets have come back from 3-1 down in a series before, indeed they went on to win the NBA title that year, but this isn’t your Dad’s Houston Rockets. This team is pathetically weak, strategically speaking. By all accounts, no opponent spends much more time preparing for the Rockets than to say “stop James Harden, don’t let them run on you”. The gaping absence of the third superstar that Daryl Morey was so keen to add last offseason, coming closest to Chris Bosh, has been all-too evident with Dwight Howard’s occasional on-court petulance and inability to hit free throws proving damaging. On the other side, DeAndre Jordan’s inability to hit free throws hasn’t cost the Clippers at all. Expect the Clippers to close this one out tomorrow night at Staples.
Elsewhere in the West, the Grizzlies and Warriors are locked at 2-2 with game 5 tonight in Oakland. The Grizzlies seemed to finally have figured out the Warriors, until rookie head coach Steve Kerr added the wrinkle of “not guarding Tony Allen whatsoever” and it worked! They also hit 44% of their attempts from three and kept every Grizzlies player under 20 points. Dallas proved that a jump shooting team can win the NBA title, but the past couple of games have shown that the Warriors might not quite have the experience to go all the way. Might. Whoever comes out of this series, assuming they do so physically unscathed, looks a strong contender for the title.
In the East, the Cavaliers took advantage of Pau Gasol’s absence to open up a 3-2 advantage on the Bulls, who endured a slightly sub-par game from Derrick Rose, despite Jimmy Butler’s 29 points, to lose. For the Cavs, LeBron was imperious with 38 points and 12 rebounds, and Kyrie Irving, fighting through all manner of tendon issues in different parts of his body, scored 25. Perhaps the key plays, however, came from backup point guard Matthew Dellavedova, who hit a big three to push the lead into double figures right before Nikola Mirotic hit a half-court buzzer beater to end the third quarter. The Bulls never got closer than 10. Dellavedova also managed to get Taj Gibson tossed for lashing out after he had hooked Gibson’s legs as the two got tangled under the basket. If LeBron is going to play like he has been the last couple of games, the Cavs will win this series, indeed probably the East. The Bulls will need Derrick Rose to get back to his form of earlier games. They might be able to grab the tying game at home, but game 7 back in Cleveland will be very tricky.
Finally, the Hawks and Wizards are tied at 2-2 as the series moves back to Atlanta for game 5. The Wizards have suffered badly with the loss of John Wall, who has five non-displaced fractures in his left (non-shooting) hand. Wall has been upgraded to “questionable” for this game, but how effective he can possibly be with such an injury remains to be seen. The Wizards attack was balanced in game 3, with five players scoring in double figures but the Hawks were only 30% from three, improving that to 47% in game four. This is a finely balanced series as well, though it is hard to see either team getting through the Cavs, should they meet them in the Eastern Finals.