NBA playoffs: One series settled, others still up for grabs in weekend action

NBA playoffs: San Antonio is through to the Western Conference finals, awaiting the Thunder-Lakers winner. In the East, it's going to take a little longer between the Heat and Pacers and Celtics and Sixers.

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    Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul, right, puts up a shot as San Antonio Spurs center Tim Duncan defends during the second half in Game 4 of an NBA basketball playoffs Western Conference semifinal, Sunday, May 20, in Los Angeles. The Spurs won 102-99.
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The Philadelphia 76ers proved that they are resilient and capable of mounting comebacks in what could be called an improbable Friday night victory over the Boston Celtics, 92-83, to knot their semifinal series at two games apiece. Game 5 is Monday night in Boston.

The Celtics held a 46-31 advantage at halftime and the 76ers were shooting abysmally at just over twenty percent from the field. But they never relented in the second half and showed the sea of their red-shirted fans at the Wells Fargo Center that they have what it takes to win under pressure.

Over this series, each team has amounted to the equivalent of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; with stellar and mediocre performances in alternating games. Philadelphia’s bench was a major reason for their Friday evening reawakening. Combined, they scored 44 of Philadelphia’s 92 points (very helpful when considering that starting big men Elton Brand and Spencer Hawes had a combined total of five points). As a team, the 76ers also hit 46% of their three-point shots (5 for 11), and grabbed 52 boards to Boston’s 38. Lou Williams, considered a crucial part of Philadelphia’s offensive strategy, had been subpar until Friday night – where he tallied 15 points and eight assists. If he gets hot, it could spell trouble for Boston going forward.

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After giving up only seven turnovers in last Wednesday’s game, Boston’s giveaways ballooned to 17 on Friday. With 76ers reserve forward Lavoy Allen stuck like fly paper to Kevin Garnett for over 30 minutes, Boston’s offense was obviously thrown for a loop, and Philadelphia took advantage of that weakness in the second half. In the waning minutes of the fourth quarter, the 76ers’ Andre Iguodala hit two clutch shots – a three and a two – that kept Philadelphia up for good.

Aside from Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo’s strong offensive play (Rondo had 15 points, 15 assists and two steals, and Pierce had 24 points to lead all scorers), the Celtics were weak on the inside, attempting to shoot largely from the outside and largely conceding rebounds to Philadelphia’s big men. When Boston’s won, they’ve gone strong to the hoop and have made the 76ers foul them. When they lose, they go back to the perimeter offense. Pierce and Rondo will have to take the lead here in the next couple of games if the Celtics want to advance. But even more likely, this game will go down to the last basket of Game 7 – and justifiably so, in what’s been an exciting and thoroughly unpredictable series.

Spurs prove they’re the team to beat in sweeping Clippers

San Antonio, for all the talk of their collective age in the face of the Los Angeles Clippers’ young and highly athletic starters, stoically pushed back the clock in taking a pair of games from Los Angeles in successive days, 96-86 on Saturday and 102-99 on Sunday to win their Western semifinal series, 4-0. Aside from the fact that they closed out the series on L.A.’s home court, San Antonio made nothing short of a phenomenal comeback on Saturday – they were down by 24 points at the end of the first half, but patiently and systematically ate away at that lead during the third quarter to stun the Clippers. It was a vintage performance for a savvy and well-coached San Antonio team that’s now won 18 games in a row and eight consecutive playoff contests.

Tim Duncan, the Spurs’ anchor, emphasized how proud he was of his club’s teamwork: “We did not plan on being down that much in the first quarter, but we understood that they were going to make a run early, and we needed to sustain. We’ve been through enough of them to understand that’s how it goes. It was great poise by our entire team.” This poise and patience was rewarded when the Spurs stepped on the gas in the third quarter – mounting a remarkable 24-0 scoring run in the process – and left the Clippers rudderless in their wake. The Clippers’ phenom Blake Griffin was the only standout for L.A., scoring 28 points – with Mo Williams coming off the bench to score 19.

Sunday night’s game was a lot closer, and it took longer for San Antonio to come back than in Game 3. But the Spurs once again demonstrated the diversity of their lineup to help them prevail over L.A. in the series’ closing game. They now await the winner of the Oklahoma City Thunder/L.A. Lakers series, which the Thunder now lead by three games to one.

Heat uses inspiration to knot series at two with Pacers

The Miami Heat are probably sick and tired of hearing how it’s basically a two-on-five matchup with the Indiana Pacers – with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade carrying the Heat against the entire Pacers roster. And Sunday did little to change that impression. Playing through the continued absence of Chris Bosh, James and Wade scored an extraordinary 70 of the team’s 101 points en route to defeating the Pacers, 101-93.

In fact, from the latter part of the second quarter to nearly the end of the third, Miami’s dynamic duo scored 48 of the team’s 50 points – a pair of free throws by Udonis Haslem being the only others. Haslem, who was wearing a bandage over his right eye, resembled Long John Silver, but his shots had the pinpoint accuracy of Robin Hood: scoring four critical jump shots in the last quarter. His toughness in the clutch was in many ways the difference maker for the Heat. At the end of the game, the first person James approached was Haslem, giving him a bear hug and whispering encouragement into his ear. And his contributions were not limited to scoring. Along with teammate Ronny Turiaf, Haslem was hyper-effective at setting screens and clearing the lane for James and Wade to score inside. Wade cited that after the game.

Wade, for his part, took some time on Friday to travel up to Bloomington from Indianapolis to visit with Tom Crean, his former coach at Marquette University. Wade, who calls Crean his “mentor” and a “father figure”, visited with the now-Indiana University coach in IU’s Assembly Hall, chatting with Crean and his team, watching film and clearing his mind. Wade had what could be called an historically poor game with only three points in Game 3 – in the process missing seven of eight field goals – and inspired by Crean’s thoughtful counsel, he seemingly couldn’t miss a shot in Game 4.

In a post game interview on Sunday, Wade said it was all about “making adjustments." If the Heat continue to make the necessary adjustments, and grab a couple of wins in the process, they’ll be on to the next round.

Lakers on the ropes against surging Thunder

After winning their first game comfortably at home, the Oklahoma City Thunder have won two of the succeeding three games by a total of 10 points. But it’s the way in which they won their last game played on Saturday night that should give the Los Angeles Lakers grave concern. In losing 103-100, a Lakers team very uncharacteristically gave up a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter for the first time since 1983 – and on their home floor, no less.

Even so, the Lakers had more than one chance to win in the game's closing seconds, but errant passes and shooting decisions prevented that. Los Angeles’ Kobe Bryant's performance, as usual, was sparkling – scoring 38 points and pulling down nine rebounds. And all told, all five Lakers starters scored in double figures; but coach Mike Brown, who played only an eight-man rotation in this game, could only get a total of ten points from his bench.  

Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant was close behind Bryant with 37 points – he and guard Russell Westbrook combining for a total of 68. And NBA “sixth-man of the year” James Harden, though contributing twelve points off the bench, was only two for eleven from the field. Lingering effects from his regular-season run-in with the Lakers’ Metta World Peace? Perhaps. Regardless, Harden needs to have a stronger shooting performance in Game 5 to get the Thunder comfortably into the next round. Oklahoma City, now returning to their home court Monday night, should be rolling into the next round against San Antonio after this week.

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