Rajon Rondo Sinks Sixers, Leads Celtics To Eastern Conference Finals

With just over four minutes to play and nursing a three point lead, the Celtics’ leading scorer for the regular season fouled out and left his team’s hopes of advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals looking pretty slim. Luckily for Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo had just what Boston needed to finish off the resilient Sixers at home and pull out an 85-75 victory in a decisive Game 7 to win the right to play the Miami Heat in the next round.

Rajon Rondo scored nine straight points for the Celtics with a barrage of highlights to turn their three point advantage into a 10 point lead and after Elton Brand cut the lead back down to eight, Rondo hit a pair of clutch free throws to give Boston an 80-70 lead. Rondo hit a long two followed by his first 3-pointer in five games to send TD Garden into a frenzy and scored 11 points in the fourth quarter to finish with a triple double of 18 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. The Sixers stayed resilient until the end and kept the pressure on Doc Rivers’ squad throughout the night, but Rondo’s fourth quarter burst ended their playoff hopes and pulled his team within a few games of playing for yet another NBA title.

Rajon Rondo took over down the stretch and led the Celtics past Philly with a triple double.

Kevin Garnett had 18 points and 13 rebounds, Brandon Bass added 16 points and Pierce had 15 points, nine rebounds and three blocks before fouling out. Ray Allen, who missed his first five 3-point attempts, finally warmed up in the fourth quarter and nailed two shots from beyond the arc to shift momentum back in Boston’s favor. The Sixers were led by Andre Iguodala’s 18 points, and Elton Brand and Jrue Holiday each had 15. Unfortunately for Philly, the scoring stopped there. Lou Williams finished with just seven, Thaddeus Young and Evan Turner only had six apiece and Spencer Hawes could only manage four. The Sixers hit shots when they needed to to keep themselves within reach, but they never could never take the lead down the stretch as they shot only 35 percent from the floor and Boston answered the call every time with a big bucket to extend the lead. Boston lived up to their reputation of being the veteran squad by responding every time the Sixers came knocking on the door, but the most credit has to go to Rondo for his late game heroics that earned the Celtics a matchup with the Miami Heat.

As I said in my last Celtics-Sixers post, Philadelphia and its fans should be proud of what they accomplished this season. They did benefit from playing a banged up Celtics squad (after beating a Chicago Bulls team without Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah), but they still took care of business and pushed an experienced Boston team to the brink before coming up short. They had a shot, but playing against this veteran team on the road didn’t bode well for them, especially considering the overall youth of the Sixers. Philadelphia should benefit from this experience and if they can get their hands on a few scorers, they could be competitive again next year. For the Celtics, this series lasted a lot longer than I anticipated, but they showed resilience and moxie by outlasting a young team with poise down the stretch despite being banged up and playing without Avery Bradley, their best perimeter defender. However it doesn’t really matter who advanced because the winner of this series gets the unfortunate challenge of taking on the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. Boston stands a better chance than Philadelphia, but when all is said and done it’ll be the Heat that advance to the NBA Finals.

Andre Iguodala and the Sixers came up short but they shouldn’t hang their heads.

Dwyane Wade Leads Miami To Eastern Conference Finals

After Larry Bird called his team “soft” following the Game 5 rout in Miami, the Pacers responded early in Game 6, jumping out to a 13-3 lead and dominating the Heat in the paint. But a spectacular playoff performance from Dwyane Wade and way too many Indiana turnovers gave Miami a 103-95 win on the road to end the series in six (like I predicted) and send the Heat to the Eastern conference Finals.

Wade exploded for 41 points on 17-of-25 shooting while also adding 10 rebounds, singlehandedly keeping the Heat relatively even with the Pacers in the first half by scoring 20 points in the second quarter. The Pacers had taken an 11 point lead in the first quarter as they out-rebounded Miami 14-3 and got 22 of their 28 first quarter points in the paint. But Wade’s brilliant second quarter performance had the Heat down by just two at half. The Heat also got some big help from Mario Chalmers and Mike Miller, who combined for 27 points and seven 3-pointers. LeBron James wasn’t much of a factor early, but helped close out the resilient Pacers down the stretch and finished with 28 points, seven assists and six rebounds. However, as great as Wade was and as helpful as it was for Miami to get a big game out of LeBron, Miller and Chalmers, the Pacers killed their chances with an atrocious 20 turnovers. They also got absolutely nothing out of their bench, who gave up Indiana’s 11 point first quarter lead within minutes and then allowed the Heat to extend a four point lead to 10 before the start of the fourth quarter. Indiana’s starters had a combined +/- of +13; their bench was at -73.  It’s true that the +/- stat doesn’t work cumulatively, but just looking at those number sheds a little bit of light how awful the Pacers’ bench was in this game. Indiana’s starters build leads up, but those leads evaporated as soon as the subs came in, and because those subs had to be taken out right away, the starters didn’t have enough gas left in the tank at the end from playing so many minutes.

Dwyane Wade was simply unstoppable and led the Heat past Indiana and on to the Eastern Conference Finals.

David West led Indiana with 24 points, George Hill had 18 and Danny Granger added 15, but it wasn’t enough to match Wade’s prolific night. Roy Hibbert continued his streak of underperforming, finishing with just 12 points and eight rebounds. Some of the disappointment in Hibbert’s inability to dominate a Miami side without Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem has to fall on Frank Vogel, who didn’t get him enough shots, but the majority is on Indiana’s “All-Star” (don’t even get me started on how Hibbert made the cut but Granger was snubbed as an All-Star). West was dominating the paint and getting good post position against Shane Battier, but Hibbert couldn’t establish good post position against Ronny Turiaf or Joel Anthony, often catching the ball out of the paint and far away from the basket. You combine Indiana’s awful bench, the 20 turnovers, Hibbert’s ineffective post game and his lack of a presence in the paint on the defensive end (Wade was on fire but if you’ve got a 7-footer protecting the basket, a lot of Wade’s drives to the rim shouldn’t be so easy), and it’s no wonder the Heat got the win and the series.

I said all along that without Chris Bosh, the Heat were in trouble (and I still stand by that, Miami doesn’t win the Finals without Bosh on the floor). I said the balanced scoring of the Pacers would give them an advantage over two superstars, and although the Heat advanced, I was pretty much right. Without Miller and Chalmers going off tonight, the Pacers force a Game 7. But the brilliance of Wade and LeBron cannot be denied in the last few games of this series. They simply overpowered Indiana and with a mediocre Hibbert failing to make this series his, the Heat advance to the next round. Indiana should be proud of what it accomplished this year and even in this game, never quitting and staying resilient until the end. They have a bunch of solid pieces, a great coach, a promising future and they gave the Heat a good series. Hopefully Hibbert is more aggressive next year as Danny Granger and Paul George continue to develop. But unfortunately for my sleeper team, two elite superstars look like they’re about to waltz into the NBA Finals.

Danny Granger and the Pacers had a great season, but they killed themselves in Game 6 and Wade took over.

Sixers Force Game 7

The Sixers needed a boost in Game 6 to stave off elimination and force a Game 7 back in Boston this Sunday. It turns out they got one from Philadelphia’s old hometown hero. Allen Iverson made an emotional return to the court before the game that had the whole arena cheering. After such a heartwarming moment for AI, the Sixers and the fans, Philly would have been hard-pressed to lose this game. Jrue Holiday got his offense going early and the balanced scoring of the 76ers gave them a huge 82-75 win to send the series back to the TD Garden for a decisive winner-take-all Game 7.

Holiday led the Sixers with 20 points and six assists. Elton Brand followed up Holiday’s big night with 13 points and 10 rebounds, Andre Iguodala and Evan Turner had 12 apiece and Lou Williams had 11 off the bench. As has been the case for the majority of this series, it was a low scoring, slow, defensive game, which definitely favors Philadelphia. The Celtics shot just 33 percent from the floor and could only manage 75 points with Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen only putting up nine each. Paul Pierce led the Celtics with 24 points and 10 rebounds and Kevin Garnett finished with 20 points and 11 rebounds, but they got little help from their teammates in another poor offensive outing for Boston. After Brandon Bass’ big night in Game 5, he could only manage eight points on an appalling 2-of-12 shooting night. But who the Celtics really missed was Avery Bradley, who sat out for a second consecutive game with the dislocated shoulder. Bradley is Boston’s best on-the-ball defender, and without him on the floor, Holiday was able to elevate his offensive game and really hurt the Celtics with penetration and solid 7-of-15 shooting. Bradley needs surgery on his shoulder and is done for the rest of the postseason, which means someone will need to find a way to slow down Holiday for the decisive Game 7.

Jrue Holiday took advantage of Avery Bradley’s absence and helped the Sixers force Game 7.

Now the series shifts back to Boston and the pressure is on the banged up Celtics to close out the Sixers at home. However, the Sixers are at a disadvantage because they will be playing on the road in a Game 7 with high stakes against a veteran Boston team that knows how to win playoff games with everything on the line. I’m not convinced Philly will be able to handle the magnitude of a game this important whereas the Celtics live for these kind of games, injuries or not. Paul Pierce will come to play, Kevin Garnett has been a big factor in almost every game of this series so far and Rajon Rondo will step up his game at home. It will take a monumental defensive effort from the Sixers to keep this thing close and they’ll also have to put the ball in the basket even better than they did in Game 6.

Win or lose, Sixers fans should be proud of their team for overachieving during the postseason. They did benefit from playing a Bulls team without Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah and they’re also facing a hobbled Boston side right now, but this Philly team has put fans in the bleachers for the first time all year and Doug Collins has done a fantastic job despite not having any prolific scorers. Hopefully Sixers fans will support their team just as much as they have during this postseason next year. For Boston, this game will show everyone just how banged up they really are. At this point, I don’t think either team will compete with the Heat or the Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals, but if the Celtics can somehow play like they were just a few weeks ago when Pierce was healthy, that perception might change.

The Celtics are banged up and limping into Game 7. Will they finish the Sixers off at home?

Heat Punish Pacers In Physical Game 5

After the Pacers took a 2-1 series lead, it looked like Indiana was going to be able to run away with this series. Now momentum has completely flopped after the Heat won two games in a row in punishing fashion to take a 3-2 lead. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade put on another two-man show, Danny Granger and David West went down with injuries and Miami physically abused the rest of the Pacers in a 115-83 rout in Game 5.

LeBron James led the Heat with 30 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists and Dwyane Wade added 28 points. Indiana was in the game in the first half as Danny Granger knocked down three 3-pointers early, but after he landed awkwardly on his ankle on another 3-point attempt, he didn’t return and Miami blew the game wide open. Granger had 10 points before leaving the game and no one other than Paul George and David West reached double digits in scoring. George led the Pacers with just 11 points and West had 10. The Heat ended the half on a 8-2 run after Granger went down and then outscored Indiana by 10 in the third as West left the game right before the fourth quarter.

If Granger’s ankle injury hinders him in anyway for Game 6, the Pacers have no chance.

This was Indiana’s worst playoff game by far. They were out-rebounded 49-35, and whoever has won the battle for the boards in this series has won the game. Almost half of Miami’s 43 field goals were in the paint. The Heat racked up 10 blocks compared to Indiana’s three. Roy Hibbert has completely regressed into a non-factor despite his extreme height advantage over anyone on the Miami Heat. The Pacers shot 33 percent from the field compared to Miami’s 67 percent. Shane Battier outscored Indiana’s leading scorer by knocking down four 3-pointers to finish with 13. Granger and West went down with injuries and Granger is now questionable for Game 6 in Indiana. And to top it all off, the Heat banged up the Pacers even more with a couple of cheap fouls that earned suspensions from the league. In the first half, a hard foul from Tyler Hansbrough on Wade appropriately earned a flagrant one foul, which was the correct call because it was harsh, but Hansbrough made a play on the ball. That foul earned retaliation from Udonis Haslem, who clobbered Hansbrough and made no play on the ball. For some unknown reason, the foul didn’t earn a flagrant foul of any kind, even though it was clearly flagrant two material. And later on in the game when the outcome was all but decided, Dexter Pittman found an opportunity to retaliate on Lance Stephenson for making the choke sign in Game 3 as LeBron missed a free throw. Pittman nailed Stevenson in the throat with an elbow as he was crashing the boards and was seen on camera winking after the foul. Haslem earned a one-game suspension and Pittman was given three.

Losing Pittman is pretty irrelevant since he was only playing in garbage time but losing Haslem might be significant if Roy Hibbert ever wakes up. Haslem has been scoring and rebounding pretty well for the Heat off the bench in the last two games, especially in Game 4 when he helped finish off Indiana in the fourth quarter. However, if Granger and West aren’t at 100 percent for Game 8 in Indiana, the Pacers are finished even without Haslem. Although the Pacers’ bench gave them everything they could ask for in Game 5, Indiana’s starting five couldn’t get the job done. George Hill disappeared with only six points and Hibbert was just as bad with eight. The Pacers need to make serious changes in their play for Game 6 or they will be the sleeper team of the 2012 NBA Playoffs that fell short of accomplishing anything truly impressive.

Udonis Haslem was rightfully punished for his dirty foul on Tyler Hansbrough with a one game suspension.

Thunder Finish Lakers Off, Advance To Western Conference Finals

I predicted the Oklahoma City Thunder would finish off the Lakers in six games, but it turns out they were more dangerous than I anticipated. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Thunder got the job done in five games and made it look relatively easy in the process, either blowing LA out or coming back in the game’s final minutes with a relentless fury that the Lakers couldn’t match. With their convincing 106-90 victory on Monday, the Thunder sent Kobe Bryant and the Lakers home and advanced to their second straight Western Conference Finals.

Russell Westbrook led OKC with 28 points, Kevin Durant followed up with 25 and James Harden added 17 off the bench. No one else reached double digits for the Thunder, but their role players each pitched something in. Serge Ibaka had eight, Nazr Mohammed had seven off the bench, and Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison each had six. Kobe Bryant led all scorers with a dominant 42 points on 18-of-33 shooting, but as has been the case in this series and the majority of the playoffs, received little help from his teammates. The Lakers were out-rebounded 51-35 as LA’s bigs continued to underachieve. Andrew Bynum finished with just 10 points and four rebounds and Pau Gasol had 16 rebounds but could only muster 14 points, which didn’t help the sentiments that he needs to be shipped off after this season. Kobe looked like the only one who cared and couldn’t carry the burden of having no bench and disappointing stars around him against this tough Thunder team.

Westbrook was a problem for the Lakers all series long, but it was his circus shot that sent Kobe and his disappointing supporting cast home early.

For the Lakers, their inability to compete has to be a little disconcerting. Knowing LA’s history of success and how they’ve been competitive each and every year for such a long time, some offseason moves are going to happen. A year for the Lakers without a championship is a failure in LA’s book and because of how competitive Kobe is, management will be forced to make some changes to give their superstar one more chance to win his sixth ring before he finally retires.

Kobe was able to keep the Lakers relatively even with the Thunder for almost three quarters, but when Russell Westbrook picked off Ramon Sessions’ pass and made a spectacular circus shot for a three-point play, the crowd ignited and Oklahoma City never looked back, outscoring the Lakers by ten in the fourth. Oklahoma City’s two elite superstars and their superb Sixth Man of the Year proved to be too much for LA’s one-man attack, as Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka were able to bother Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol just enough to limit their contributions. Ramon Sessions was completely underwhelming for the entire series, Steve Blake and the rest of the bench completely disappeared at times and the Thunder will able to storm back in two games to get huge wins. The Thunder will meet the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, which is sure to be a battle between two unstoppable forces; the Thunder have lost one game in the postseason so far and the Spurs have won 18 games straight. This series will really be a pick ’em, but you can be sure whoever comes out of the West will be hard-pressed to not win it all.

Kobe Bryant and the Lakers need to make some changes this summer.

Brandon Bass Gives Boston 3-2 Lead

It wasn’t a member of Boston’s big three that beat the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 5. It also wasn’t Rajon Rondo who gave the Celtics a 3-2 lead heading into Game 6 tonight. But Brandon Bass’ breakout night helped the Celts pull away in the third quarter at home and get a huge victory at home that puts pressure on the Sixers to defend their home court. Bass scored 18 of his playoff career high 27 points in the third, which gave the Celtics a convincing win when combined with solid nights from Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rondo.

Garnett had 20, Rondo had 13 points and 14 assists and Pierce added 16 points. Ray Allen, who moved back into the starting lineup, only had five, but Bass’ big night made up for it. The Celtics also got a big boost off the bench from Greg Stiemsma, who had 10 points and three blocks. Avery Bradley did not play, missing the game because of his dislocated shoulder. Elton Brand led Philadelphia with 19 points but had no answer for Bass on the defensive end. Lavoy Allen had 12 off the bench and Evan Turner, Jrue Holiday and Spencer Hawes all reached double digits in scoring, but the Sixers’ normally stifling defense allowed 101 points for the Celtics. Scoring has never been the Sixers’ strong point, so Bass’ explosion on the offensive end was more than enough to give the Celts a much-needed win.

Brandon Bass lifted the Celtics to victory with a big performance in Game 5.

With Game 6 tonight in Philadelphia, the pressure is now back on the Sixers to stave off elimination and force a decisive Game 7 in Boston. The Sixers have been great at home in the postseason as they find their arena filled with fans that didn’t make their presence well known during the regular season. However, Boston has the experience and knowledge of how to win playoff games, so Philly will have their hands full. Doc Rivers was a top candidate for the Coach of the Year Award and the Celtics should still be favorites to close out the overachieving Sixers tonight.

Philadelphia should be proud of what their team has accomplished this season, and hopefully fans will fill the Sixers’ arena next season after this. But as I’ve mentioned numerous times, Philly only made the second round by virtue of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah injuries in the first round. They gained confidence after winning the series and have battled with this banged up Boston team, but the Celtics are just too good to pick against. It’s going to take longer than the five games I predicted, but even if the Sixers defend their court and force Game 7, Boston should advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Sixers have their backs against the wall. Can they take Game 6 at home tonight?

Spurs Sweep Clippers, Advance To Western Conference Finals

San Antonio was down late, on the road, against a Clippers team that was finally enjoying a quality performance from Chris Paul. But Tim Duncan and the Spurs would not be denied and swept Lob City in Game 4 with a 102-99 win. The victory marked their second sweep of the playoffs this year and their 18th win in a row, a streak extending back to the regular season.

The Clippers battled, Chris Paul dropped 23 points and 11 dimes and still the Spurs came out on top to finish Lob City off. Blake Griffin added 21 and Eric Bledsoe had 17 off the bench, but there was no answer for the Spurs’ execution in the game’s final two minutes. The Clippers fought hard, got decent scoring off the bench and DeAndre Jordan even pitched in 10, but San Antonio proved to be a little too much for this team in only their first year together. Tim Duncan led the Spurs with 21 points and nine rebounds and Tony Parker had 17 points. Daniel Green had 14, Gary Neal matched that number off the bench and Manu Ginobili and Tiago Splitter added 11 apiece. As has been the case throughout the series and the playoffs so far, the Spurs’ depth and incredibly balanced scoring overpowered San Antonio’s opponent and their execution under Greg Popovich has been flawless up to this point. The Clippers gave the Spurs everything they could handle at home but San Antonio is playing the best basketball in the NBA right now.

Say what you want about his age, but Tim Duncan is still getting it done.

The Spurs really are the complete package right now, despite the fact that one of their best three players has been aging ever so steadily over the past few years. Even so, Tim Duncan hasn’t slowed down. His athleticism and defense on skilled post players leaves a little to be desired, but his offensive technique, rebounding and passing ability and his sheer experience and knowledge on how to win games makes the Spurs a big contender. Tony Parker is playing great basketball on both ends of the floor, Manu Ginobili is scoring off the bench again and almost all of the Spurs’ role players and reserves are fully capable of scoring, knocking down 3-pointers and playing defense. It was nice to see Chris Paul play well, but down the stretch, Daniel Green was able to shut him down and keep the Spurs on top at the end. This is just one of many examples of how this well-oiled machine functions as parts of a complete team and will provide a huge challenge to either the Thunder or the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.

As I mentioned before, Clippers fans shouldn’t hang their heads after their team won its third playoff series in 35 years. The result was disappointing, but Lob City was only in its first year and if the Clips can get Chauncey Billups back, replace Vinny Del Negro with somebody better (almost anyone applies here) and maybe improve at center and small forward, they could be dangerous next year. This year was a learning process and LAC still accomplished so much; unfortunately, they got the difficult task of matching up with the San Antonio Spurs juggernaut in the second round. Although they have a lot of unrestricted free agents at the end of this year, if they can sign the majority back and make improvements where necessary, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin could be a force in the playoffs next year. As for the Spurs, this sweep just highlighted how dangerous this “old” team really is. Whoever gets them in the Western Conference Finals will certainly have their hands full.

Don’t hang your heads, Clippers fans. Lob City got a tough matchup and will be back next year.