Just as we've begged, since the playoffs began and it became obvious that New Orleans would be better served to start its sets earlier in the shot clock, the Hornets pumped it up a bit in the fourth quarter. And has been bandied around the Internet in the hours since, Chris Paul either scored or assisted on 19 of 24 fourth-quarter possessions for New Orleans. That's admirable and somewhat astonishing and -- pull up your jaw -- that's what Chris Paul needs to do.
Because, sorry New Orleans, the rest of the Hornets just aren't that good. There are plenty of playoff-worthy players on this team, but this is the sort of play from Paul that was missing down the second half of this season as we went from "Geez, guys, Chris Paul should probably be the MVP" to "Geez, I know his stats are good, but Chris hasn't seemed to care since he took down his Christmas tree." Now we have Paul back, and though the Lakers are heading home with Staples Center-advantage in a best of three, that in itself is an accomplishment for NOLA.
And it's all on Paul. I can point to Carl Landry's stringy defense or the way Jarrett Jack moved off the ball in the game's biggest possession. I can remind you that Emeka Okafor is stepping out of his comfort zone to help expertly on both drivers and posters, and that Trevor Ariza's 19 points on 17 shots is the Trevor Ariza-equivalent of Kevin Durant dropping 32 on 10 shots. Applaud them, you should, but this is all on Chris Paul.
The Lakers didn't trap as hard as they should have. Game 2 and Game 3 features strong feints toward Paul, moving him both to his strong hand but also to the right corner, as two Lakers plus a roving and zoning third defender came at Paul after he initiated the screen and roll with a nervous Carl Landry. The Lakers' lack of thrust in that department didn't always reveal itself with Paul and Andrew Bynum alone on an island (though that did happen a few times in Game 4), but it was enough to keep Paul engaged in a play. And though New Orleans took too long loading its sets even deep into the fourth quarter, the occasional quick hits were what put the Hornets back in the winner's circle.
Twenty-seven points, 15 assists, 13 rebounds, five turnovers and two steals for Paul in AN 83-POSSESSION GAME. I can't stress that aspect enough. This game was slower than a horse and carriage, and yet Paul put up a line worthy of a 110-possession Paul Westhead-coached game. This cat is astonishing.
Your turn, two-time defending champs.
With a week or two left in the regular season, any NBA analyst worth his or her salt, sugar, suffering or spice had the Atlanta Hawks dutifully taking care of the Orlando Magic in the first round of the playoffs. It was the proper result, considering the matchups, the regular-season record, Jason Collins' role in the proceedings, and the fact that the Magic had done nothing less than let us down since the midseason trades that broke up the post-finals core that had done nothing but let us down.
Then the Hawks lost six in a row to end the regular season, and the less hearty souls among us -- myself leading the charge -- chicken-Hawked out. We gave up on Atlanta, ignored everything we'd gleaned from watching that endless regular season (a 82-game marathon that we'll no doubt miss next season), and picked the Magic.
And the Hawks, mercurial as ever, are rubbing our faces in it. Good for them.
It wasn't the most admirable of wins; TNT commentator Steve Kerr often acted as if he'd rather be anywhere else but Atlanta as the Hawks barely put this one away, but the Magic are down 3-1 and their opponents have earned it.
They've managed to chase the ball well enough as it dances around the perimeter, Atlanta has closed out on the eventual shooters, and they've taken away what little remains of Orlando's transition game. Toss in Gilbert Arenas' four airballs (by my count; I haven't re-watched the game at this point so there could be more) and a litany of bad decisions by Hedo Turkoglu (I won't include the game's final shot, as that was all he could muster), and you have a Hawks victory that makes sense.
It better. The Hawks were one so-so Turkoglu look away from watching this mess head into overtime, where a five-minute stretch of unrepresentative basketball could have sent this series back to Orlando while giving the Magic the home-court advantage in a best of three. It was that close. And that's why we don't trust the Hawks. That's why, knowledge be damned, we'll still tune into Game 5 thinking that this is a series, even if all indications (Atlanta's recent dominance of Orlando, plus the 3-1 lead) screams otherwise.
Orlando's shots scream off the rim, by the by, 2-23 long-range shooting on this game, 40 percent shooting overall in the series (remarkable, considering Dwight Howard has made exactly two-thirds of his shots over four games), a miserable turn for a team that was supposed to be full of "you got it, buddy"-scorers plus the nouveau Bill Russell that annoyingly blocks shots out of bounds.
Atlanta, meanwhile (and I'm getting giddy as I write this) is led by Jamal Crawford in a playoff turn that counts. The NBA's toughest-luck scoring guard is putting the Hawks over the top, and even if you still cringe at one shot in four of JC's, don't worry. He's got an answer for you on the next possession. Usually going to his right.
No, we still can't trust the Hawks. I know I'm acting like the guy who still believes in a nice, flat Earth even on his fourth revolution around this blue marble, but the Hawks just aren't there yet.
They're there, though. A game away from the second round, in a way that in no way reminds of the times they've made it there before. Same unreliability, different result. Atlanta Hawks. Go get 'em.
(I missed both the 76er and Boston wins on Sunday due to family commitments. I trust you'll understand.)