NBA Playoffs: The Thunder Show Championship Mettle

The Oklahoma City Thunder showed why they may be morphing into a championship team in front of our very eyes. The Boston Celtics showed the stuff that once helped them win a championship, as both teams won last night in the NBA playoffs. OkC successfully defended its homecourt against the LA Lakers to grab a 2-0 series lead, while the Celtics reclaimed homecourt, by beating Philadelphia on the road in Game 3 and going up 2-1. TheSportsNotebook recaps both games and looks ahead to tonight’s doubleheader…

Oklahoma City 77 LA Lakers 75: It was a case of déjà vu. The Lakers opened the season back on Christmas by blowing a seven-point lead against Chicago in the final two minutes. The Thunder opened the playoffs by rallying from seven down against Dallas in the last two minutes. Oklahoma City did it again, Los Angeles coughed it up again and the Thunder escaped. As the final score indicates, there weren’t a lot of offensive heroics, but let’s start by contrasting the play of the stars. Kobe Bryant had 20 points, but needed 25 shots from the floor to get there. Kevin Durant had 22, which doesn’t jump out at you, but Durant only took 15 shots. When we see the Oklahoma City star playing much more efficient basketball and his team consistently being the one who executes down the stretch, it’s fair to wonder who’s the up-and-comer, and who’s the team with all the rings. Los Angeles put forth the effort last night, evidenced in a 41-36 rebounding advantage, with both Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol giving double-digit numbers on the glass. But they didn’t execute and they didn’t hit from the perimeter, shooting 39 percent and bricking 13 of 15 shots from behind the arc. No one outside the core three players made any real contributions. Now the deck is stacked against the veteran Lakers, who not only have to win two straight at home, but a schedule quirk means Games 3 & 4 go back-to-back days on Friday and Saturday.

Boston 107 Philadelphia 91: The 76ers started off playing well and led by five at the quarter. On TNT though, analyst Chris Webber—and Sixers coach Doug Collins in the wired for sound feature—was noting that Boston was driving to the basket and not settling for jump shots. Once Philly cooled down, the game got out of hand, and the Celtics had it blown open by halftime. Kevin Garnett continued his strong playoff showing, with 27 points/13 rebounds and Rajon Rondo shot 9-of-16 from the floor in with a 23/6, plus 14 assists. When you look at Paul Pierce’s line you see some of the inefficiencies that sank Kobe—Pierce got 24, but was only 6-of-17 from the floor. Against a stronger opponent that would have mattered, but for now that big deal is that Pierce got back into the flow of play and was aggressive with the ball. The aggressiveness was reflected in getting to the foul line 14 times, where he cashed 11 of his points and also getting 12 rebounds. Philadelphia’s goats horns are worn primarily by the inside people, as Elton Brand and Spence Hawes were irrelevant to the proceedings, and Evan Turner shot just 1-of-10 from the floor.

Tonight, the LA Clippers game in San Antonio finishes all the Game 2s in this round. I would expect Chris Paul to play much better tonight. He’s a proud player, and since his problems in the opener were more the shooting touch that can come and go, I see a strong showing from him. But San Antonio’s Tony Parker is also due for a much better performance than he showed in the opener. I think Los Angeles will make this a much tougher game than in Game 1, but they’ve got to have Blake Griffin play like a star—specifically rebounding—if they’re going to win a game on the road.

Miami’s feeling the pressure (I was going to say feeling the heat, but didn’t feel like adding all the no pun intended qualifiers) as they go to Indiana. I’ll say flat-out that this is the Pacers’ series to lose right now. There is no way Miami can contain Roy Hibbert and David West in the post and while putting LeBron down at power forward in Chris Bosh’s spot might make the most sense, it also reduces LeBron’s ability to fill the lanes on the fast break. The problem that Pacers face is that Roy Hibbert needs to consistently demand—and be given—the basketball in the low post. And Danny Granger has got to step up with a 20-point night. He doesn’t have to be LeBron or Wade, but if Indiana’s best player is as out of it tonight as he was the first two games, then the interior edge won’t matter. I’m rooting for the Pacers in this series and hoping team president Larry Bird has a little chat with Granger about what it means to embrace the responsibility of being a star.