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Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Score, the Key Stat, the Bottom Line: Playoff Quadruple-Header Edition

There is nothing like the first two days of the NBA Playoffs--back to back quadruple-headers that offer fans a tasty hoops buffet: whatever style or flavor of basketball you enjoy there is a series that provides it. Saturday served up Vince Carter's postseason return to Toronto, a tough loss for the defending champion Heat, a wire to wire home win for the Pistons and a strong second half performance by Tracy McGrady that carried the Rockets to victory.

The Score: New Jersey 96, Toronto 91

The Key Stat: New Jersey outscored Toronto 20-8 in fast break points and 46-22 in points in the paint, largely because of Jason Kidd's ability to push the ball up the court and find his teammates with pinpoint passes. Toronto had a +10 point differential when Chris Bosh was in the game during the first half and a -20 point differential when he was not in the game during the first half; foul trouble limited Bosh's first half minutes and he scored 16 of his 22 points in the second half.

The Bottom Line: Richard Jefferson has always been a key component for New Jersey and when he is rolling the Nets can compete with just about anybody. Jefferson had a game-high 28 points on 11-21 field goal shooting. Toronto fans enjoyed heckling ex-Raptor Vince Carter throughout the game. Carter was a non-factor for most of the contest, but when New Jersey's offense died in the fourth quarter he came up with nine points, half of his team's total in the period. Kidd shot poorly (3-11 from the field, eight points), which cost him the opportunity to post a triple double, but he led both teams in assists (15) and rebounds (10, tied for game-high honors with Toronto's Rasho Nesterovic). Toronto's trump card in this series was that the Raptors had home court advantage but the veteran Nets stole that in game one and their experience should help them to eventually prevail in what looks to be a competitive and entertaining series.

The Score: Chicago 96, Miami 91

The Key Stat: Fast break points played a key role in this game, too, as Chicago outscored Miami 25-4 in that category (Shaquille O'Neal's scoring in the halfcourt limited the Bulls' edge in points in the paint to 36-32).

The Bottom Line: Shaquille O'Neal was Miami's most effective player, scoring 19 points on 9-14 shooting and grabbing six rebounds, but he only played 27 minutes before fouling out; he had 17 of his points in the first half. Foul trouble limited Bulls' starting point guard Kirk Hinrich to 19 minutes but he shot just 1-7 from the field and Chicago played better when he was not in the game; rookie Thabo Sefolosha came in for him and gave Dwyane Wade fits defensively in addition to scoring nine points in just 18 minutes. Sefolosha's length and quickness enable him to be disruptive on defense in a way that is reminiscent of a young Scottie Pippen (the rest of Sefolosha's game is a long way from being Pippen-like, but he is a nice young player with plenty of the proverbial "upside"). Wade seemed out of sorts for most of the game, though he did explode for nine fourth quarter points, including seven in the game's last 3:06 after O'Neal fouled out. Wade finished with 21 points but had just three assists and two rebounds while committing five turnovers and five fouls. Luol Deng led the Bulls with 33 points on 14-22 shooting, while Ben Gordon made up for Hinrich's missing offensive production, tallying 24 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds. Gordon is the ultimate feast or famine player: his overall stat line looks good, but he also had five turnovers and shot 7-19 from the field--he kept both teams in the game, uncorking lightning quick moves that led to sweet runners or pullup jumpers and then firing wild shots that caromed off of the backboard or passes that sailed more wildly than Rex Grossman's worst interceptions. Ben Wallace's contributions also deserve mention: he played a game-high 45 minutes and had a game-high 14 rebounds as Chicago enjoyed a 46-33 edge on the glass. On ESPN's Around the Horn, Tony Reali likes to ask if a player or team should be encouraged or discouraged by recent developments. Should Chicago be encouraged by this win or discouraged to escape by such a small margin after O'Neal fouled out and Wade had a subpar game? Any time you win and don't suffer an injury to a key player you should be encouraged but it is clear that this series will go through some twists and turns before a winner emerges.

The Score: Detroit 100, Orlando 92

The Key Stat: During the season Detroit ranked first in fewest turnovers committed per game (11.7) and Orlando ranked 30th (last) in that category (16.3). That trend continued in this game, with Orlando committing 21 turnovers compared to just 11 by Detroit. How costly are those squandered possessions? Orlando shot .581 from the field compared to Detroit's .493 and still lost; not many teams lose when they make nearly 60 percent of their shots. Another area of concern for Orlando is free throw shooting: the Magic shot just 18-36 (.500), while Detroit shot an adequate 23-31 (.742).

The Bottom Line: The Pistons never trailed in this game, led by as many as 16 points and were ahead 91-77 with less than 4:30 remaining. Then their well oiled, precision offense bogged down and the Magic pulled to within 93-90 with :53 left. Tayshaun Prince's dunk off of a very well run play in a half court set made it a two possession game (Prince was fouled but missed a free throw that would have made the score 96-90) and Chauncey Billups closed out the win by sinking five of six free throws. Billups finished with 22 points and 11 assists despite shooting just 5-13 from the field. Richard Hamilton also had 22 points for Detroit as each Piston starter scored in double figures. Dwight Howard had 13 points and 19 rebounds for Orlando but he also had six turnovers and shot just 3-11 from the free throw line. Hedo Turkoglu led Orlando with 17 points. The Pistons will win this series because they are a better team than the Magic but two questions remain: (1) Will Detroit focus enough on the task at hand to sweep Orlando? (2) If the Pistons look a little shaky closing out a win at home against a sub-.500 team how will they perform in similar situations in later rounds against tougher opposition?

The Score: Houston 84, Utah 75

The Key Stat: Tracy McGrady scored one point in the first half on 0-6 field goal shooting, though he did have five assists. He bounced back to score 22 points on 8-11 shooting in the second half, including 16 points on 7-8 shooting in the third quarter alone. The teams combined to produce 13 fast break points. Yes, Houston and Utah are the "anti-Suns."

The Bottom Line: As ESPN reminded viewers approximately 10,000 times during the broadcast, McGrady has yet to lead a team to the second round and he has already stated that he should get all of the blame if Houston fails to get out of the first round this year. In the first half, McGrady seemed to feel the weight of all of that self-imposed pressure but in the second half he just settled down and played his game. Utah led 40-31 at halftime, but when McGrady came out firing in the second half the Jazz had no answers; T-Mac's third quarter outburst propelled the Rockets to a 59-53 lead by the end of the period. He finished with 23 points, seven assists and four rebounds, while Yao Ming had 28 points and 13 rebounds. Deron Williams led the Jazz with 15 points and nine assists, adding nine rebounds; Derek Fisher also had 15 points. Carlos Boozer snared 12 rebounds but only scored 11 points on 4-17 shooting. This will be a low scoring, grind it out series but, as Bill Walton noted near the end of the game, Houston has two superstars and Utah has none, so the Rockets should eventually win this series.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:02 AM


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