Denver Nuggets 102, Los Angeles Lakers 99 (Lakers lead series, 3-2)
Atlanta and Chicago managed to dig in and keep their seasons alive, but Indiana won. Indiana, at home, pulled away in an impressive fourth-quarter run to end the season of a clearly inferior Orlando Magic club. A half-hour after the Pacers took care of business in Indiana, the Lakers jogged onto the court at the Staples Center to take on a team they'd already beaten five of seven times this season, regular season included. Nothing seemed to fully click. Los Angeles never seemed to be in charge.
So why couldn't the Lakers close it out? Too timid, Andrew Bynum? Too soft, Pau Gasol? Too tempestuous, Kobe Bryant? Too much the offensive pushover, Mike Brown? Too outclassed, rotation helpers?
Why can't the Nuggets just be this good?
They are this good, you know. They nearly stole Game 2 in Los Angeles, the team is rife with depth and ever-evolving new additions like JaVale McGee and you got the feeling that behind George Karl this team would not fold following what could have been a crushing close Game 4 loss in Denver on Sunday night. The Nuggets were methodical, but they smartly took advantage of leak-outs. Ty Lawson's shooting (4 of 12) fell off, but he kept the Lakers on edge enough to register eight assists. Bynum and Gasol, deliberate in their attack, just do not like playing against active types like McGee and Kenneth Faried.
And Andre Miller, as we'll probably be writing sometime in 2019, has plenty of game left.
Twenty-four points and eight dimes off the bench for Miller, who had his body squared and timing down all night. McGee was just as annoying as George Karl probably hoped he'd be on his way to 21 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks off the bench. And Danilo Gallinari did the best he could trying to keep Kobe Bryant from turning into the complete hero late — Bryant just had to settle for being typically brilliant, finishing with 43 points on 32 shots in a late-game flurry of 3-pointers; nailing 5 of 11 from behind the arc.
If you want to point to Bynum's contention that closeout wins were "easy," as some sort of motivation that put Denver over the top, sure. Go ahead. It was a careless quote, and taken literally it stands as further evidence that Andrew really has his head in a different place than the rest of us.
I'm not sure Bynum articulated his thoughts correctly in that discussion, though. Because if he meant that closeout wins are easy if you break an opposing team's spirit early with aggressive and active play, then Andrew Bynum is absolutely right. And if you want to credit his words with the motivation needed to pull Denver from the doldrums, that narrative is all yours. I'm sure it didn't hurt the Nuggets one bit.
Denver's good, though. Pretty damn good, in fact, and I didn't see a whole heck of a lot on Tuesday that I haven't seen from this group all year and throughout this series. Yes, they entered the game down 3-1, but this series' record could have easily been switched save for a few things going Denver's way. If we want to build up the bluster behind some sort of major Lakers letdown, well, I'll save that for others. There's a reason Kobe Bryant was so calm at the postgame presser, borderline sanguine despite having to go back to Denver to run up and down in that thin air.
It's because he knows better. He knows the Lakers and Nuggets are two second-round teams playing in the first round, and he knows that every single part of this very good (and championship-worthy) Lakers team is still going to have to be on point in order to put Denver away four times in seven tries. Much less five or six tries.
Gasol will have to respond. Bynum will have to sustain. Kobe will have to treat his 3-point explosion as a one-night fling. The team is going to have to find a way to make everyone on that perimeter dangerous.
The Nuggets aren't going anywhere on their own. You're going to have to force them out.
Chicago Bulls 77, Philadelphia 76ers 69 (Philadelphia leads series, 3-2)
If you didn't catch it, good. This was brutal.
In a nutshell, the Chicago Bulls (without Derrick Rose penetrating or Joakim Noah's much-missed ability to develop spacing and movement from up top) can't score. And though all the Philadelphia 76ers had to do was take advantage of the one day that they had to spend in Chicago taking care of business, the team didn't come through with the sort of hustle needed to do something with a cornered animal. I apologize for the clichés, but Chicago was desperate and played like it. And Philly, for whatever reason, just didn't have the nerve to compete with crazy.
Luol Deng flung the ball in this game. He didn't shoot it as much as he flipped it. He cocked his one healthy wrist back, and trusted his own arc. You rarely see that with Lu, and those of us who have trouble with perimeter shooting (and attempt to be precise with shots, instead of letting the arc and spin do the work for us) can relate. Deng typically tries to guide each sho, which is why he's had trouble working as a consistent performer from behind the 3-point arc during his career. In this game, for whatever reason (with the pressure at the absolute highest point it's been all season), he relaxed and let it rip. I'm not talking about shot selection, though Deng was aggressive in that area. I'm referring to actual mechanics.
It worked. He made four of five 3-pointers on his way toward 24 points, all while hounding all manner of 76er wings on the other end. The Chicago defense was typically stout, taking Philly out of whatever pick-and-roll it attempted while keeping the Sixers on the perimeter, and mitigating all the Philadelphia transition opportunities. Good thing, because though the Bulls shot poorly, they weren't hoarding many offensive rebounds.
Carlos Boozer's night wasn't pretty or particularly efficient, but he did pull in 13 needed rebounds and find his way toward 20 points. Every bit helps. Ronnie Brewer caused all sorts of havoc off the bench, and Taj Gibson was fantastic defensively. Whether he's injured or suspended (Taj did toss a couple of elbows Elton Brand's way in one second-quarter scrum) for Game 6 is of no concern to me right now — that guy is a beast defensively.
Disappointing night for Philly, now that I've taken my red-and-black goggles off. I understand that it's hard to match the intensity of a desperate bunch, but I thought we'd see a little more. It doesn't bode particularly well for the second round.
Indiana Pacers 108, Orlando Magic 85 (Indiana wins series, 4-1)
It was surprisingly well-played, this Game 5, but also exactly on par with what we should expect from the East's third seed and an Orlando Magic team playing hefty minutes with little depth and without its best player. For a while the Magic hung with the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday night, entering the fourth quarter with a lead and riding on a retro night from Jameer Nelson. Indiana's depth, weirdly, took over from there.
The Pacers spread the floor expertly in the final frame, outscoring the Magic by a 36-16 margin over that 12-minute term mainly because the Pacers were hitting from the outside (good shots, nearly the same good shots that spun out and cost them Game 1 of this series), and partially because the Magic just could not keep up with Indiana's screen-and-roll attack. Orlando's dragging front line of Glen Davis (especially), Hedo Turkoglu and Ryan Anderson were no match for the Pacers quicker wings and guards. The impressive re-emergence of Darren Collison helped push the Pacers over the top.
Collison finished with 19 points off the bench, and while he's struggled with consistency all season this game marked the third in a row in which the much-beleaguered third-year point man has contributed to a winning Pacer cause. He missed just 1 of 10 shots on the night, turned it over only once in nearly 24 minutes despite playing an up-tempo brand of ball, and dished six assists. For someone that has really struggled since being branded one of the game's Best New Thangs two years ago, this was great to see. As was Leandro Barbosa's ability to close quarters and Danny Granger's 25 points on 20 shots.
And, really, it was great to see Jameer Nelson back. Even 5 1/2 months into the season he still looks out of shape, but he managed 27 points on 21 shots and didn't turn the ball over in 39 minutes. We'll have much more on the Magic later on Wednesday, and we want to keep this Pacers-heavy, but it was a welcome return, Jameer. If only for a night.
If Indiana can legitimately run eight deep (nine, even, because Lou Amundson nailed a couple of shots off of broken plays in this win) against Miami, we could have a series on our hands. Stay aggressive, stay confident.
And welcome back to the second round, Pacer fans. This is a team worth getting behind.
Atlanta Hawks 87, Boston Celtics 86 (Boston leads series, 3-2)
Upon further review, one of the worst stretches of basketball I've ever seen may have been one of the better 11 seconds of basketball I've ever seen. And maybe it's time to embrace this "Shark Sandwich" of a series for what it's probably going to be for one or even two more games.
To start, that last play: Bad pass, bad play, bad turnover, bad ending to a bad game. Yes, but also a great anticipation from Rajon Rondo, fantastic on-ball defense from Josh Smith (who is working on one knee), and a gutty recovery from Al Horford — a player that you know can't be enjoying life right now playing through a semi-mended torn pectoral muscle. Dan Devine was right to, erm, "shark" all over that play. Hell, we encouraged him to "shark" all over that play. But at what point are we going to start embracing this particularly nasty strain of basketball for being somewhat engaging? Why can't we learn to love the Hawks and Celtics five games in? No, I don't do drugs.
This series will never be pretty. The Celtics are too good defensively, the Hawks' rotation is far too thin, and neither team can string consistent scores together with these banged-up and lacking rosters. The Hawks have started three different lineups in this series, and the Celtics feature two scorers that appear to be struggling to get up and down the court at times, between Paul Pierce's stiff knee and Ray Allen's calcium-rich ankles.
These games are entertaining at times, though. With no dog in the fight, it's fun to watch Rajon Rondo pass on layups in order to drive his assist totals up, or Joe Johnson attempt to keep up. And while you might not like the long shots or occasional blown dunk, one has to admire Josh Smith playing nearly 47 minutes on one knee, pulling in 16 rebounds and dishing six assists. And Horford's 19 and 11 night.
(Ryan Hollins throwing down alley-oops. Ryan Hollins, alley-oops.)
This is all a desperate attempt to salvage something, I admit, but scraping crumbs is all we can do in a series like this. These two teams know each other too well, and their respective lineups have too many holes to give us something magnificent. For now, we better learn to laugh.