NBA Playoffs: The Stars Define Tuesday Night

Last night, as I watched Jaleel White (formerly Steve Urkel of Family Matters) get eliminated from Dancing With The Stars (yes, I watch the show. Not fanatically. Not at the expense of Monday Night Football in the fall season, but enough to get a strike against me, per the Miller Lite commercials), I thought that Jaleel could’ve gone the distance, but often didn’t seem to unleash everything at the key moment. If there’s any sport that can be correlated to DWTS, it’s the NBA, with its special emphasis on individual stars seizing moments. And last night was all about three stars—Paul Pierce and Kobe Bryant because they were there, and Derrick Rose because he wasn’t. TheSportsNotebook recaps the three games and looks ahead to three more tonight…

Philadelphia 109 Chicago 92: The obvious question that comes to mind is how much this had to do with the loss of Rose for the rest of the playoffs with his torn ACL. But even without Rose for about half the regular season, the Bulls were the best defensive team in the league. The Sixers shot 59 percent. That can’t be about Rose’s absence. They outrebounded Chicago. That has nothing to do with Rose’s absence. Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng were non-factors offensively. I suppose you can make the indirect argument for Rose’s value in getting them the ball, but with 14 points combined, that’s taking the point to an extreme level.

You can point to Philadelphia guards Jrue Holiday scoring 26 points and Lou Williams lighting it up with 20 off the bench as evidence of Rose’s defensive value. I’ll give some credence to this, but ultimately I have to see a team that hadn’t emotionally adjusted to not having their star player. Its one thing to strategically adjust during the regular season, knowing the Man is one the way back for the biggest games. It’s another thing to look at your huddle without him and know this is all there is from now until June. Chicago has absolutely demonstrated they can win two playoff rounds with their current roster. They have further demonstrated you can’t even count them out against Miami or the Western Conference winner with the current roster.

The team knows how to play without Rose—they aren’t better without him, it’s still a huge loss, but they can compete at an extremely high level. That leads me to believe this current battle is mental. I respect what the Bulls have accomplished as a team and what Tom Thibodeau has done as a coach, so I’m not ready to write off their title hopes based on last night.

Boston 87 Atlanta 80: If Paul Pierce’s basketball game would have been a DWTS number last night, he would’ve gotten 10s across the board. On the floor, he had 36 points and 14 rebounds and virtually singlehandedly pushed the Celtics to a road win without a suspended Rajon Rondo and an injured Ray Allen. And for all Boston’s woes in the early part of the playoffs, suddenly they’re exactly where you expected them to be and have taken homecourt advantage. Kevin Garnett was good last night. Atlanta helped the C’s out by settling for missed three-point shots all night, while Boston took the ball to the hole and created a 26-16 scoring advantage on free throws. But this was Pierce’s night.

LA Lakers 104 Denver 100: It was Kobe’s night in Hollywood as he poured in 38 points. Bryant’s performance wasn’t quite the epic that Pierce’s was, because the Lakers had some help involved. Andrew Bynum is terrorizing the Nuggets inside, with 27 points and 9 rebounds, following up his insane points/rebounds/blocks triple-double in Sunday’s Game 1. I picked Denver to win this series, but I thought that Al Harrington and Javale McGee could at least hold their own in the low post. They’ve done nothing of the sort, small forward Danilo Gallinari hasn’t made an impact and this series has turned into the Kobe & Bynum show. If Denver is going to pull the upset they need to win four straight, because no one takes a Game 7 in Staples from Bryant.

Tonight the top half of the Western Conference bracket goes into action with San Antonio going to Utah, the LA Clippers visiting Memphis and in the East its Indiana-Orlando. The Spurs-Jazz series is lacking in drama and lacking in any reason to think Utah can win a single game—just pushing the series back to San Antonio for a Game 5 would be a moral victory. And Orlando, having taken home court from Indiana, tries to show they can hold it.

As to the Clips-Grizzlies,  I erred in yesterday’s post saying this game would be played last night. So I’ll just rehash the preview I wrote….  “Do the Grizzlies roll over after blowing the 27-point lead in the fourth quarter of Game 1 at home? Or do they realize that they can’t get outrebounded again, bring max intensity to even the series and vow to themselves that they can get homecourt advantage back when the series reverts west? The talent is still there. There was no reason to think, in general, that the Clippers couldn’t get one win on the road, while Memphis still won the series. If that’s the Grizzlies’ mindset, they can bounce back. If they feel like they gave a shot at the Finals, this potentially good series can get away early.”