6 Takeaways from Wednesday's NBA Playoff Action
Wednesday's NBA playoff action was all about urgency. The teams that showed some, like the Houston Rockets and Boston Celtics, were met with good results and were able to stave off elimination.
But for the Atlanta Hawks, who played like they were ready to go home, a lack of urgency was the biggest factor pushing them toward a postseason demise.
On an individual basis, Paul George showed a glimpse of what his future might hold, James Harden shot the lights out and Omer Asik rose to a very personal challenge. Plus, Kevin Durant endured another lesson in just how tough life is going to be without Russell Westbrook.
As the playoffs roll on, tensions are mounting, momentum is shifting and desperation (for some teams) is reaching a fever pitch.
J.R. Smith Probably Knows Who Jason Terry Is Now
Before Game 5 on Wednesday, J.R. Smith threw a little shade on Jason Terry:
Asked about Jason Terry, J.R. Smith says, "Who? I don't even know who that is?" #Knicks— Ian Begley (@IanBegley) April 30, 2013
Maybe somebody should have asked Smith if his elbow remembered Terry's jaw. After all, it was an altercation between those two body parts that netted Smith a one-game suspension for Game 4—which Terry's Celtics won.
And now that Boston has notched a 92-86 win in Game 5, the apparently forgetful Smith will get at least one more contest to get acquainted.
Speaking of short memories, Smith is definitely going to want to wipe his latest performance from his brain as quickly as possible. On the night, the league's Sixth Man of the Year made just three of his 14 field-goal attempts and displayed the terrible shot selection that had held him back until this season.
Terry didn't have a particularly good shooting night, but he forced the issue far less than Smith did, and managed to knock down 5-of-9 from long range.
With Carmelo Anthony receiving so much defensive attention, it's critical for Smith to avoid another dud like the one he posted on Wednesday if the Knicks hope to avoid the ignominy of becoming the first NBA team to surrender a 3-0 series lead.
It's safe to assume Smith would remember that.
The Celtics Are in the Driver's Seat...In a Way
Obviously, the Knicks' 3-2 lead in their first-round series against the Celtics means Melo and Co. still have a massive edge overall. A loss doesn't end the Knicks' season.
That's not true for the Celtics.
But at the same time, the strategic advantage in this series has swung in favor of the Celtics, and it's now the Knicks who have to adjust.
A heavy emphasis on isolation basketball has been both a blessing and a burden for the Knicks. When their shots are falling, Anthony and Smith look unstoppable in one-on-one situations. But when the Celtics have made those looks more difficult, as they have in Games 4 and 5, Mike Woodson's offense hasn't had a viable Plan B.
Melo with 27 possessions via Synergy tonight, 14 were ISOs. Six in the post.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) May 2, 2013
(And no, passing the ball around the perimeter and hoping a defender bites on a pump fake is not a viable Plan B.)
New York needs to find a way to re-incorporate a few pick-and-roll sets back into its attack, if only to give the Celtics something else to think about.
It's possible that Tyson Chandler's injury is preventing him from being an offensive factor, but he's playing significant minutes (34 in Game 5), so it seems like he should be capable of pairing with Raymond Felton for a few of the duo's long-lost lobs.
Frankly, it almost doesn't matter what new offensive wrinkles the Knicks throw at the Celtics.
But they have to try something because isolation sets simply aren't working anymore. Anthony shot just 8-of-24, Smith was 3-of-14 and Felton—the only other reliable offensive threat—isn't a valuable distributor when he's looking for his own buckets.
New York registered just 13 assists on 32 made baskets in Game 5. That'll have to change in Game 6 or Boston might be coming back to Madison Square Garden for Game 7 with a shot to make history.
The Hawks Look Like They're Ready to Call It a Season
Before I start shoveling dirt on Josh Smith, Larry Drew and the Hawks, it's worth mentioning that we've seen this before.
After losing Games 1 and 2 in Indiana by a combined margin of 32 points, the Hawks went back to Atlanta and won a pair of contests to even the series. And if we've learned anything from this series, it's that neither the Hawks nor the Pacers play very well on the road.
But it's especially hard to imagine Atlanta rallying in Game 6 after seeing the way it rolled over in a 106-83 loss on Wednesday.
After taking a one-point advantage into the second quarter, the Hawks progressively fell apart, shooting just 33 percent from the field and avoiding an even bigger blowout only because they got to the line 37 times.
The Pacers were more than happy with the game's slow pace and physical nature—both factors that played to their strengths.
Josh Smith picked up three personal fouls and a technical in a five-minute span during the third quarter, prompting many diehard Hawks supporters to wish for a merciful end to the J-Smoove era:
I can't wait for Josh Smith to wear a different uniform. Hell of a talent, but I'm so unbelievably done with him.
— Adam Fromal (@fromal09) May 2, 2013
And Jeff Teague, who was just 3-of-16 and showed obvious frustration by tussling with Paul George, deserves to be singled out as well.
Give the Pacers credit for defending their home court by, well...defending. But Atlanta got crushed on the boards by a margin of 51-28 and generally lost every hustle battle. All told, it sure seems like the Hawks are team that's ready to pack it in.
The World Needs More Paul George Games Like This One
If there's a knock on George, it's that his perimeter accuracy could use some work.
The 22-year-old All-Star hit just under 42 percent of his shots during the regular season and had made under 40 percent of his attempts in the first four games of the Pacers' first-round series.
But George was a LeBron James-ish 7-of-8 in 34 highly efficient minutes in Game 5. Plus, his 21 points, 10 rebounds and five assists earned him a spot in Indiana's franchise record book:
Paul George has two games this postseason w/ 20+ Pts, 10+ Reb, 5+ Ast. Mark Jackson ('98) is only Pacer to do it once in previous 25 years.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 2, 2013
David West's first dominant game of the series may have contributed to George's more reserved approach, but if he can make a habit of taking fewer shots (but more good ones), it'll go a long way toward shoring up his biggest weakness.
The defense, rebounding and all-around offensive skills are all there. Now, it looks like George's shot selection is catching up.
It's Official: Kevin Durant Needs Russell Westbrook
In the three games since Russell Westbrook went down with a torn meniscus, Kevin Durant has scored 115 points points on 36-of-69 shooting. Despite the undivided attention of the Rockets' defense, KD has been spectacular.
But the numbers don't tell the whole story.
Fatigue has been a huge factor for Durant, as the Rockets have focused the entirety of their defensive energy on stopping No. 35. Even a scorer as great as Durant has his limits, and he appeared to reach them in the fourth quarter of the Rockets' Game 5 win.
KD went scoreless in the final quarter as coach Scott Brooks seemed totally incapable of finding a way to generate offense that didn't revolve around the individual brilliance of Durant.
Kevin Martin laid an egg, going just 1-of-10 from the field, and only Serge Ibaka and Reggie Jackson joined Durant in double figures.
There's only so much Durant can be expected to do, and unless the Thunder devise some kind of scheme to take the pressure of off their leading scorer, the Rockets will continue to harass him until he eventually wears down.
Based on what we've seen from Brooks so far, it's difficult to imagine he's got any shrewd moves up his sleeve. OKC didn't play a particularly complicated brand of offense when it had two healthy stars, and now that that number has been halved, things are even more predictable than ever.
So if the Thunder are going to avoid losing control of this series without Westbrook, Durant is going to have to find a way to take his game up yet another level. That's a daunting task, but based on the total lack of ingenuity coming from the bench, it appears he's on his own.
Harden and Asik Are Not to Be Trifled with
James Harden was the best player on the floor in the Rockets' 107-100 win, pumping in 31 points on just 16 shots and having an answer any time the Thunder threatened to make a game of it.
His individual dominance is nothing new; he's been serving as Houston's one-man wrecking crew all season. In fact, Durant might do well to take a cue from his former teammate on how to handle the onerous responsibility of carrying an entire offense alone.
Omer Asik, on the other hand, is hardly known for outsized individual performances. Don't be mistaken; the Turkish big man is a dominant interior defender and a fantastic rebounder.
But he was the target of what everyone's now calling "Hack Asik" for a reason: He's not a particularly reliable offensive weapon.
(As an aside, he was actually the target of "Hack Asik" for a second reason: Scott Brooks had no idea what to do on defense and desperately went to the gimmicky strategy as a last resort.)
Anyway, Asik could easily have wilted under the pressure and embarrassment of being intentionally fouled down the stretch. Instead, he didn't let the moment, his 56 percent free-throw shooting or his nerves get to him.
On the night, Asik drilled 13 of his 18 free-throw attempts, including 11-of-16 in the last half of the fourth quarter. The strategy was an abject failure on the part of OKC, and Asik earned the satisfaction of singlehandedly salting the game away.
In Harden and Asik, the Rockets have a pair of incredibly tough—and proud—competitors that have helped turn a 3-0 series into one that could get very interesting if the Rockets take care of business at home in Game 6.