Hornets' title window closing fast, Lakers too good, more observations
The salary-shedding Hornets may have reached their playoff peak back in 2008
The only team that can beat the Lakers in the West playoffs is ... the Lakers
The Spurs and Trail Blazers will try to stave off elimination on Tuesday
A handful of playoff thoughts on a night in which few leads were safe ... unless they were of the 50-point variety.
1. The Hornets make history -- of the wrong kind.
Wasn't it the Hornets who took the defending champion Spurs to seven games in the second round last season? Wasn't it the Hornets whose star point guard, Chris Paul, was supposed to lead them to the Western Conference finals, according to three SI.com writers (including this one)? Not anymore. Not after allowing the Nuggets to shoot 70 percent in the first quarter and 56 percent through three periods, en route to a stunning 121-63 rout in Game 4 in New Orleans on Monday. Not after turning the ball over 27 times largely via a variety of listless, tentative passes. Not after allowing Denver to convert 11 first-half baskets at the rim, from dunks by the likes of Nene and Kenyon Martin to layups courtesy of Chauncey Billups and Carmelo Anthony.
It's easy to overreact to a loss of this proportion, but the Hornets played with such little fire, it's fair to wonder if their title window is closing almost as soon as it opened. Consider the Hornets already tried to unload one of their few low-post presences at the trade deadline only to have the deal rescinded when Tyson Chandler failed his physical with Oklahoma City. Should the Hornets be successful trading Chandler this summer, where does that leave them room to improve? Winning costs money -- to retain the talent in place and to add the pieces necessary to take steps up the playoff ladder to the Finals. If the Hornets were in salary-shedding mode even before dropping a playoff game at home by a record-tying 58 points, the future isn't so bright.
2. Zaza saves the Hawks with old-fashioned dirty work.
In the NFL, a quarterback will often treat his offensive linemen to a nice dinner or some expensive timepieces as thanks for protecting him through the long season. After saving the Hawks' season in an 81-71 win in Game 4 in Miami, Zaza Pachulia has earned at least a box of doughnuts from point guard Mike Bibby.
Late in the first half, Bibby helped fuel a furious Heat comeback from a 21-point deficit with a pair of foolish fouls, one handing Miami the ball back after James Jones' four-point play, and the second handing Jones another four-point play. In all, Bibby, who was brought to Atlanta last season in part because of his good reputation in the clutch, helped Miami cut the lead to 10 in the span of about 15 seconds.
But midway through the third quarter, Pachulia went to work: a defensive rebound here, a steal there, a shooting foul drawn, a layup off a Josh Smith feed, a tip-in off a Smith miss. Less than 10 minutes into his second-half stint, the Hawks had rebuilt a lead that had fallen to five back up to 11. Equally important, the Hawks had weathered the Miami charge long enough to finally see the cold-shooting Joe Johnson and Bibby start hitting enough shots to help them reclaim home-court advantage. And all it took was 12 points and 18 rebounds from a center who averaged 19.1 minutes this season.
3. The Lakers face a fight from within.
Too much size. Too much flexibility. Too much firepower. The Lakers were simply too much for the Jazz, as evident in L.A.'s series-clinching 107-96 victory in Game 5. While the rest of the conference has been built in the traditional method -- guards on the perimeter, big men taking care of the paint -- the Lakers sport a hybrid template: multiple bigs with the ability to pass (Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol), guards who can post deep (Kobe Bryant), length and shooting from almost every spot on the floor, an ability to play fast or slow. There are few teams that can even approach the Lakers' level or talent, which is why the only thing that can stop L.A. from a date in the Finals ... is itself.
In every game against the Jazz, the Lakers suffered late-game lapses, some of it from poor bench play, more of it due to boredom, we suspect. That doesn't hurt against a team without the offensive weapons to capitalize on it, such as the Jazz. But a more dynamic team, a tougher defensive club, won't be so forgiving to the Lakers if they mail in another fourth quarter.
4. Perhaps the demise of Jermaine O'Neal will have to wait.
For the third consecutive game, O'Neal played a lot like the effective low-post presence the Heat hoped for when they acquired him from Toronto for Shawn Marion earlier this season. The 13-year veteran may not have the explosion he once did, but he demonstrated the kind of guile that sent him to the free-throw line 10 times Monday night and the talent to take advantage of an undersized Hawks front line for 20 points on 7-of-11 shooting. With a better night out of Dwyane Wade, the Heat may well have been headed to Atlanta with a chance to close out the series.
5. Tuesday's schedule.
Rest up your thumbs, NBA fans, the "Previous Channel" button on your remotes is about to get a workout. Four intriguing Game 5s await.
In the East, the Bulls and Celtics resume the playoffs' highest-scoring series (bet you never saw that one coming with Boston involved). However, it won't be much of an exciting conclusion if Ben Gordon can't play or is extremely limited because of a strained hamstring. On paper, the Magic should be awaiting the winner of the Bulls-Celtics bout, but thanks to a pair of last-ditch shots by Andre Iguodala and Thaddeus Young in Games 1 and 3, respectively, Orlando is staring at a potential seven-game battle with Philadelphia. The goods news for the Magic is that Hedo Turkoglu is coming off an 8-for-11 shooting performance -- and a game-winning three -- in Game 4 after shooting 23.3 percent in the first three games while dealing with the lingering effects of an ankle sprain.
The nightcaps feature the Spurs and Trail Blazers both trying to stave off elimination at home. While their pride suggests the Spurs aren't ready for summer vacation yet, Tim Duncan can't take on the Mavericks' active front line alone, and Tony Parker is visibly wearing down late in games. Energy isn't a problem for the young Blazers, but defense has been against Houston. The Rockets have shot 48.1 percent from the floor in building a 3-1 series lead.
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