Author: Rob Mahoney

Jamal Crawford

NBA Playoffs: Atlanta wins ugly, but moves on to the second round


In all honesty, I would never wish repeat viewing of the Atlanta Hawks’ series-clinching victory over the Orlando Magic on my worst enemy. The on-court product was brutal. Neither team could convert any of their shots, the turnovers were many, and the execution on the whole was fairly awful. Atlanta’s 39.2 percent shooting from the field wasn’t acceptable by any conventional standard, but this wasn’t exactly a conventional game, nor a conventional series. In this bizarro dimension, 39.2 percent is apparently passable, and as the playoff trope often goes: Atlanta’s shooting wasn’t good, but it was good enough.

The Hawks certainly won’t complain with winning Game 6 to close out the series and move on to the second round, regardless of the quality of their competitive display. All of the ugly possessions in the world can’t change the verdict already in the books, and can’t make the Hawks anything lest than Eastern Conference semifinalists.

Orlando’s peripheral players extended their well-memed inability to hit shots, but their shooting problems were exacerbated by a team-wide disinterest in hitting the glass. Dwight Howard did his job — as has been the case all series — to grab 15 boards, but the rest of his team totaled just 16 of their own. 16. Meanwhile, the Hawks collected 36.8 percent of their own misses, and Joe Johnson (of all players) grabbed a game-high seven offensive boards. That’s not superior size, strength, or athleticism, but merely an active guard finding the right spots to create extra possessions. Any Magic player could have done the same, but instead they failed to keep Johnson (and Al Horford) boxed out and didn’t seek out loose balls with the same fervor as their opponents. Orlando played hard, they didn’t apply themselves in this one particularly problematic area — and it cost them.

Still, even with the underwhelming performance on the glass, the Magic had two shots at sending this game into overtime, and failed to convert. The first set produced a wide open three for J.J. Redick, which fittingly found nothing but rim. The second — a gifted opportunity after Horford landed out of bounds while collecting the rebound off of Redick’s attempt — was heavily pressured. Hedo Turkoglu had a five-second count breathing down his neck as he attempted to inbound the ball, and his passing angles were already limited due to his location near the right corner along the baseline. Jason Richardson ultimately received the pass, but was pressured to shoot immediately, and then contested by Josh Smith. It wasn’t to be, as the Hawks dodged both bullets and won Game 6 in regulation.

Maybe Atlanta — a team that had its three leaders in field goal attempts shoot a combined 13-of-55 from the field — isn’t the most worthy second round club, but they successfully managed to not play worse than Orlando. They forced the Magic to play them on uncomfortable, difficult terms, and gutted out an ugly series with an ugly win. Johnson got his (and got his shot attempts), Crawford dropped 19 points, the defense held strong, and the game was won, however unglamorously.

Such a performance may not bode well for the Hawks’ chances against the Bulls in the second round (anything more than a single Atlanta win in that series will be a huge surprise), but it’s good enough for now. Tonight, the Hawks are victors. Victors who couldn’t make a shot, mind you, but victors nonetheless.

NBA Playoffs: Spurs tear a hole in the fabric of the universe, improbably beat Grizzlies to stay alive

Gary Neal

This series, these playoffs, or this calendar year may be over before anyone has fully recovered from Game 5’s madness. San Antonio somehow managed to escape with a win, but I’m not quite sure anyone could properly explain how it happened.

The Grizzlies converted down the stretch in the fourth quarter. They worked the ball inside to Zach Randolph time and time again, and were sustained by the results. They hit their free throws, and they got key stops. But the Spurs’ resolve was commendable, their execution enviable, and their luck impossible; after an incredible San Antonio effort to merely keep the game within reach, Manu Ginobili and Gary Neal hit a pair of insane shots to force overtime — the first a step-back, heavily contested, foot-on-the-line two-pointer from the right corner, and the second a single-dribble, pull-up three from the top of the key. Neither should have gone in, but both did, and now we’re left to pick up the pieces of a shattered near-reality. Against all odds, the San Antonio Spurs are still alive.

For now. Ominous, right?

Though in truth, it’s hard to dissect exactly what this game means. We knew that the Grizzlies could compete in any environment. We knew that they held a substantial advantage by taking a 3-1 series lead. We knew that the Spurs weren’t going to roll over. All of that has only been confirmed, though confirmed in a way that tells us so very little about what to expect in Game 6. San Antonio isn’t in a drastically different place than they were 24 hours ago, but they are one win closer to making it out of the first round. That’s something, but it isn’t a something that’s instructive about what to expect going forward.

Memphis was so, so close. Randolph was a dominant force, but Sam Young had an amazing two-way game (and made Richard Jefferson look absolutely silly in the process), Marc Gasol did it all, Mike Conley connected on his jumpers, and the bench came up with some huge buckets. It was all for naught in the “one game at a time,” microcosm, but only because the Spurs fell into a miracle. San Antonio’s late jumpers were fired from fingertips but delivered by divinity, as some force beyond human comprehension guaranteed at least one more game in this series.

The Spurs will have to do better next time. They have two games in which they have to get it right — lest they enjoy a long summer and their place as a footnote in the record books — because the Grizzlies aren’t going to fold, even after a loss like this one. There may not be any predictable shift in the series’ momentum, but we know Memphis will run, and swarm, and fight for every point in Game 6 on their home court. Those miracle shots probably won’t be there for a late-game bailout, and honestly, a 33-point, six-rebound, six-assist performance from Ginobili may not be either. Tony Parker may not be quite as accurate on his jumper, even though his three straight Js sealed the win for San Antonio in overtime of this game. Can San Antonio really bring more of the same (but better) over the next two games to make it through this series alive?

Beats me — I’m still dumbstruck. The odds of pulling off two more wins in a row are certainly against the Spurs, but considering the events of Game 5, I’m not sure probability as we know it is really a factor here. The dynamic of the series hasn’t shifted, but the dynamic of the universe may have; after an outcome as absolutely insane as that one, no one should have call, nor gall, to say what either team is capable of.

Trevor Ariza: Hero of the casual, unsuspecting sports fan

Los Angeles Lakers v New Orleans Hornets - Game Three
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The NBA playoffs are a basketball fan’s dream; there are anywhere between two and four competitive basketball games on every night, each with their own allure, their own stars, and their own evolving narrative. There’s so much to enjoy and so much to learn, and unfortunately — due to wide, national broadcasting and the influx of casual sports fans — so much to misunderstand.

Case in point: Trevor Ariza, Chris Paul’s uncharacteristically efficient sidekick. Those joining the NBA season already in progress have seen Ariza at his finest against the Lakers, performing at a high level on both ends of the court. On-ball perimeter defense has always been among Ariza’s strengths; he has the length and athleticism to bother even the league’s finest scorers, and has done solid work against Kobe Bryant in this particular series. Yet offensively, Ariza has been oddly successful. He’s posted three games with 19 or more points on decent shooting percentages, and even grabbed 12 rebounds (to go along with 12 points) in another contest. For five games, Ariza has been everything that his reputation once suggested he could be, granting unsuspecting sports fans all the fodder they need to trumpet his success.

Ariza has held up well under the bright lights, but he hasn’t evolved from the player we’ve seen in an 146-game sample over the last two years. Basketball players are prone to periodic ups and downs, and Ariza happens to be experiencing a favorable swing at the best possible moment. He’s posted a 16.6 PER in the playoffs thus far — a far cry from his 11.3 regular season mark — and given his team a huge lift in their attempt to upset the Lakers in the first round.

That’s why he’ll be a water cooler talking point and a sports bar spectacle. Those merely stopping by to catch a playoff game can watch Ariza’s effective play and eat up his story (An unassuming non-star and a “wronged” player returning to face the team who wronged him!), but League Pass junkies know better than to be fooled by this kind of mirage. There’s nothing in the film or in the numbers that suggests Ariza’s new-found efficiency is indicative of legitimate improvement. It’s fun nonetheless to see him working on a more efficient level, but all of the good will and media attention in the world won’t make Ariza anything but himself. This is still the player who shot under 40 percent from the field and just over 30 percent from the three-point line during the regular season. This is still the player who dribbles away possessions while obliging his own delusions. He’s merely experiencing a very natural — and temporary — upward trend in his production, and as the sample size continues to increase, his numbers will trend back to their regular season anchor.

The Lakers will probably win the series, so it’s unlikely we’ll ever have that opportunity. Still, these exceptional shooting performances (5-of-8 from beyond the arc?!) are just that.

NBA Playoffs: Magic demolish the Hawks, turn the series on its head

Atlanta Hawks v Orlando Magic - Game Five
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On Tuesday night, the Orlando Magic returned to the comforts of reality, while the Atlanta Hawks experienced a jarring awakening. The first four games in this series weren’t an accurate representation of the performance of either team, but Game 5 shifted the matchup back toward balance, as Orlando thoroughly dominated both ends of the court en route to a 101-76 victory.

Dwight Howard remains the best player taking the court in this series, but Tuesday’s game was won by the rest of the Magic rotation. They of the underwhelming first four games finally executed on offense up to their capability. Pick-and-roll play won the day, even with Howard serving only as a distraction; Hedo Turkoglu, J.J. Redick, and Jameer Nelson created a ton out of basic screen action, and generated points for themselves and their teammates by exploiting Atlanta’s weak defense. Nine Magic players scored seven or more points, a far cry from the solo act that had previously anchored Orlando’s offense by necessity during this series.

The Hawks will need substantially better defensive coverage if they’re to counter the Magic in Game 6, but there’s only so much that Atlanta can do in their current strategic framework. Covering the pick-and-roll is incredibly difficult without utilizing a third defender, but by electing to stay home on Orlando’s shooters, a two-man defense is all that Atlanta can really employ. The Magic seemed to be in a bind with their inability to involve any of their perimeter players in a fluid offense, but all it took to solve the riddle were a few well-placed screens and smart navigation of interior space. The Hawks hold the 3-2 series lead, but the pressure is on them to respond — and I’m not sure that they can.

The Hawks’ offense wasn’t going to stay afloat forever. Not with Josh Smith’s decision-making, Jamal Crawford’s quick trigger, and Joe Johnson’s willingness to take tough shots to his team’s detriment. Plenty of those difficult looks found the net in the first four games of this series, but Atlanta’s offense was impressive precisely because its success was fleeting. Logic told us that the Hawks shouldn’t be able to consistently create offense with such difficult shots, and that logic was correct. That didn’t stop the shots from falling, but it did suggest that if the series went on long enough, we may start to see a swing in a different direction in Atlanta’s shooting percentages. That swing came in Game 5, and Orlando dominated as a result.

That said, Orlando’s margin for error remains small. Stan Van Gundy can find some peace of mind now that his team’s shots are falling and the open attempts are coming a bit more easily, but the Magic must continue to execute their altered game plan without becoming too reliant on Howard’s post play. Orlando played terrific basketball without even having Howard on the floor in Game 5, and there’s no reason why that can’t develop into a trend over the remainder of the series; the Hawks have no player uniquely capable of punishing the Magic at the rim (the defensive job that Brandon Bass and Ryan Anderson have done on Al Horford, the Hawks’ top interior threat, has been unfairly overshadowed by Orlando’s more public failures), and proper defensive execution sans Howard can still take away most of what the Atlanta looks to do on offense.

Still, all it takes is a bit of luck — if, say, Crawford and Johnson can manage to produce on contested jumpers just once more while playing reasonably effective defense — to end Orlando’s season. The Magic are the better team in this series, but that fact would be irrelevant under the weight of a first-round exit, eve one fashioned with pull-up jumpers and poor shot selection.

NBA Playoffs: Grizzlies go for the kill, take 3-1 lead over Spurs

O. J. Mayo

The San Antonio Spurs are lost. Their will is broken, their vaunted offense has withered and died, and the three-star core that has brought so much success to the Spurs franchise just isn’t producing at an acceptable level.

Or, more accurately, the Memphis Grizzlies have erased the Spurs. They’ve broken San Antonio’s will, and smothered the Spurs’ vaunted offense with a hyperactive defense. The three-star core that has brought so much success to the Spurs franchise has been shackled, while the best players in this series have worn three shades of blue.

Regardless of which perspective you prefer, the facts remain the same: The Memphis Grizzlies demolished the San Antonio Spurs in the second half in Game 4, and rode out their momentum to a 104-86 win and a decisive 3-1 series lead.

Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol made some remarkable plays on both ends of the court, but scored just 20 combined points and grabbed 18 combined rebounds. This wasn’t merely a case of of that tandem working over San Antonio’s bigs, but instead a comprehensive dominance by the Grizzlies from top to bottom. Gasol made Tim Duncan a non-factor. Darrell Arthur came in off the bench to provide some great two-way production in the second half. Mike Conley finished with just 6-of-15 shooting from the field, but ran the offense expertly and hit some key baskets. O.J. Mayo and Tony Allen D-ed up and made smart cuts. The Grizz just worked and worked and worked, and countered each of San Antonio’s runs with a relentless commitment to forcing turnovers and moving within the offense. By the end of the game, the Spurs had turned the ball over on nearly one-fifth of their possessions, and the Grizz had scored at a rate of 119.5 points per 100 possessions. Memphis topped the No. 1 seed with a bullet, an exclamation point, and just about every emphatic accessory one could possibly think of.

What’s worse: the Spurs had the best production out of their bench in this series, as George Hill, Tiago Splitter, and Gary Neal contributed 31 points between the three of them. Most of Neal’s production came after the game had already been decided, but Splitter’s near double-double and Hill’s contributions were no mirage; San Antonio had two solid bench contributors scoring efficiently, but just didn’t have the bulk production necessary from the starters, nor anything resembling an effective defense.

One need only to watch the third quarter for a full sampling of the Grizzlies’ authority. The Spurs shot 6-of-15 from the field and 1-of-4 from three-point range. They attempted just two free throws, and turned the ball over seven times. Meanwhile, the Grizz rattled off punishing 14-0 and 10-2 runs to open and close the quarter, and finished with 30 in the frame overall. Five of Memphis’ players scored five or more points in the third, and the team’s six assists in those 12 minutes doesn’t even do justice to the quality of their teamwork. The Grizz are clicking, and with each interior pass, well-timed rotation, and quality shot attempt, San Antonio’s existence dwindles away.

Who knows what will become of San Antonio next season and beyond, but this year’s team is in the ground, awaiting only the closure of a proper burial. This isn’t another premature eulogy, the kind to which the Spurs are no stranger; San Antonio is done. Cast a cold eye on life, on death, on Spurs. Horseman, pass by.