How They Got Here • Houston : What looked like a tough battle between in-state rivals ended up as a Rockets rout. The Dallas Mavericks gave the West's No. 2 seed little of a fight in the first round, winning a sole game well after Houston's advancement to the next round took on the air of inevitability. That pivotal moment happened some time during Game 2 , when Rajon Rondo essentially chose to end his brief tenure as Mavs point guard and Josh Smith and Dwight Howard teamed up for roughly six dozen alley-oops as the Rockets grabbed the most convincing 12-point win in recent memory. The eventual Game 5 clincher completed an impressive series victory for the Rockets, who proved themselves to be much more than the sum of a bunch of James Harden free throws. The presumptive MVP runner-up showed well with 28.4 ppg on 46.5 percent shooting for the series, but these five games were defined by much more, including an apparent return to form for Howard and strong performances for role players like Smith and Corey Brewer. The only problem with it was that the Mavericks couldn't defend the Rockets even before their Game 2 implosion and looked overmatched. Houston did their job, but they'll face a sterner test in the conference semis. • Los Angeles : How does one sum up the Clippers' seven-game survival of the defending champion San Antonio Spurs? Billed as the most competitive series of the first round , in actuality it was one of the most thrilling, tight, and just plain good basketball series any of us are ever likely to see. Both the Clippers and Spurs played at a championship level (in this context, at least), with both teams and numerous players stepping up to make game-changing plays at both ends. Perhaps most crucially, those who ever doubted the Clippers' resilience and resolve likely see things differently now. Doc Rivers's team bounced back from a blowout loss in Game 3 and game-deciding miscues late in Games 2 and 5 to take the series via terrific showings in the final two games. Game 7 will deservedly get most of the attention when basketball fans look back on this series — it was a true classic capped by Chris Paul's incredible last-second winner after playing the bulk of the game on one leg. The series was so utterly titanic that it's difficult to understand that the Clippers still have three series to go if they want to claim the franchise's first title. It's fair to wonder if the Spurs took too much out of them, particularly now that Paul's overall health and availability are in question. Nevertheless, this team proved itself plenty capable of hanging with the elite. Blake Griffin played the best all-around ball of his career, DeAndre Jordan changed the game at both ends (sometimes not always for the best, via his free throw shooting), and role players stepped up in key spots. The Clippers certainly looked like a team that can play deep into the spring — they'll just have to beat another really good team in this round before they achieve those goals. Head to Head The Clippers and Rocket split their season series, although none of the meetings feel especially representative of what we're likely to see in this series. L.A. took the first on November 28 at Houston by 17 points as Harden attempted an uncharacteristically low 12 field goals and six free throws on his way to 16 points. Griffin dominated with 30 and 10, but he missed the next matchup on February 11 due to a staph infection in his right elbow. No matter — the Clippers won 110-95 as DeAndre Jordan was hacked into 26 free throw attempts. That was another weird game for Harden, who scored nine points on 12 shots. Harden fared better when they met two weeks later for a 110-105 home Rockets win, but he still shot only 4-of-13 from the field for his 21 points. Griffin missed that one, too, although he returned from his injury for the fourth and final contest on March 15 at Staples Center. He was understandably limited and tentative and didn't play much of a role in the Rockets' 100-98 win. Harden was his usual self with 34 points on 17-of-18 from the line. The common denominator between all these games is that Dwight Howard played in none of them due to his persistent knee issue. On the other hand, the Rockets had to face Griffin at his best just once, and he happened to put forth the game-deciding performance. If the 2-2 series means anything, it's symbolic. Until we see all the best players on the court at the same time, it's probably best to consider these teams evenly matched. -- Eric Freeman . Likely Starting Lineups Injuries forced Kevin McHale to juggle quite a bit, with Trevor Ariza acting as the lone constant in Houston's 18 starting fives . After losing Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas just before the playoffs, McHale has turned to veteran Jason Terry alongside Harden in the backcourt and third-year man Terrence Jones, a former starter who missed 49 games due to injury , next to Howard and Ariza. That five-man unit didn't see much regular-season run, but it performed well, outscoring opponents by 25 points in 85 total minutes over 10 appearances. It decimated the Mavericks in Round 1, walloping Dallas by 42 points in 64 total minutes in Houston's five-game victory. Harden runs the show, dominating by slithering to the rim, drawing fouls in bunches and creating open looks for others; he averaged 28.4 points and 7.8 assists against Dallas and it felt almost perfunctory. Another Houston storyline — Howard looking healthy and explosive, soaring for swats and alley-oops while averaging 16.6 points, 13.8 rebounds and three blocks per game — drew much more attention. Howard was a legitimate deterrent, locking down the lane and making the Mavs reconsider their shots. In Howard's minutes, 26.5 percent of Dallas' attempts came inside the restricted area; when he sat, that rose to 36.4 percent. When he played, 28.2 percent of the Mavericks' shots came from midrange; when he sat, that fell to 18.5 percent. In other words, his mere presence shifted 10 percent of Dallas' shots away from the rim. A full-force Dwight makes opponents think twice, and opponents that think twice can make mistakes, playing into the hands of a Houston attack that finished third in the NBA in points off turnovers this season.
How They Got Here Cleveland : It should have been a typical first round series. Hell, had the thing taken place in 1995, we wouldn’t be “here” at all. Boston would have been out in three. Game 4 never would have happened. [ Follow Dunks Don't Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball ] The Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics engaged in a routine, one-sided blowout sweep that featured a championship contender going up against a young upstart that truly shouldn’t have even made it into the playoff bracket. Most prognosticators seemed to agree that Boston shouldn’t have taken a single game, and though the C’s made it close early in Game 1, the series was neither compelling nor all that threatening to Cleveland’s championship chances. Boston did well to not be totally blown out of the water, but the single-digit losses in Games 2, 3 and 4 weren’t really telling. Cleveland owned this series, toying with a game Boston club while biding its time until an over-.500 opponent could show up. It was that Game 4, however, that changed everything. And had this matchup existed back in the days of the best-of-five series’, Cleveland would already be penning in play-dates for June. In what was a lousy basketball play, Celtics center Kelly Olynyk managed to separate Cav forward Kevin Love’s shoulder on a loose ball foul. The move sent Love out for four-to-six months, and with just six weeks left in Cleveland’s expected basketball season, the foul knocked the first-year Cavalier out for the season. In a lame attempt to stand ground, J.R. Smith flagrantly fouled Celtics swingman Jae Crowder later in Game 4, and Smith is lucky to be only suspended for the first two games of the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Cavaliers had spent 85 and one-half games preparing for an expected post season showdown with the Chicago Bulls, and in the space of one needless afternoon they had to watch as its enviable basketball core took a few hits to the bow. Chicago : Chicago fans can relate. Crying Time is over, however. The Bulls, working with the league’s best record and top seed, missed out on a chance to avenge the team’s 2011 playoff loss to LeBron James’ Miami Heat in 2012 when MVP guard Derrick Rose tore his left ACL in Game 1 of the 2012 playoffs. Two seasons stuck in purgatory followed, while the team used tape and timing in its attempts to work its way through an 82-game 2014-15 regular season in one piece. Somehow, it worked. The team will enter Game 1 of this series with its starting lineup intact, with Rose healthy and with a 54-point thrashing of the Milwaukee Bucks to build upon. Of course, the Bulls shouldn’t have had to go to six games in order to down Milwaukee. The Bucks are a game outfit, lousy with long arms and defensive-minded movers, but Chicago slept through too many offensive possessions in a series that could have ended in a sweep. In spite of the ridiculous Game 6 margin, Chicago’s too-close margin of victory in Game 3 and relative unease in the two contests that followed should give the team pause. Whether that matters moving forward is up for the Bulls to decide. They made it to Cleveland healthy, one of the rare October goals that we get to talk up in May, poised for a pairing that seems like it was scheduled in a different era. Head-to-Head None of this truly matters. We’ve spent days trying to convince ourselves that it does, talking ourselves into the idea that our work from the winter wasn’t sweated out in vain, but things are different now. Chicago will field its sublime starting five for the first time against Cleveland, a trait they couldn’t fall behind in four regular season meetings. Cleveland took three of those four meetings, and it will line up without Kevin Love for the entire series and J.R. Smith out for the first two contests. It may take until Cleveland’s 89th game, if that, to truly see this matchup in full. The teams met on Halloween night for the first time in the regular season, in a nationally-televised affair that reminded the world that LeBron James was pretty damned dominant while introducing the same world to the idea that the Bulls can really give games away – Chicago fell in overtime by a 114-108 score, as Derrick Rose sprained both his ankles in the loss. The Cavs were just beginning to turn their season around on Jan. 19 when an injured Bulls team (working without Joakim Noah and Mike Dunleavy) watched as Cleveland’s ball movement whipped the Cavs into a 108-94 win, with new addition J.R. Smith hitting 6-9 three-pointers. Chicago returned to cobble together one of the more satisfying wins of its season on Feb. 12, downing the Cavs by a 113-98 score at home, with Rose notching 30 points. He may have done as much while playing on a re-torn meniscus . Smith kept up his sweet (and often) shooting ways in the final game of the regular season series, nailing 8-17 three-pointers (that’s 8-17 from the floor as well, mind you) in Cleveland’s 99-94 win. The Bulls were without Rose in that contest, as he recovered from knee surgery. Likely Starting Lineups Losing Kevin Love for the season is an absolute shame, awkward basketball plays are often going to lead to nasty injuries, but you hate to see these sorts of things go down in April and May. The Cavaliers have a stealth Sixth Man of the Year award candidate in Tristan Thompson in place, and there are several reasons to leave Thompson on the bench in this series. He started 15 regular season games and doesn’t exactly prefer coming off the pine, but if Thompson could reprise his role even with Love out the Cavs could at least pretend that everything is the same and that LeBron James could still rule the world as a stretch power forward. Thompson will probably start alongside James, Kyrie Irving, Timofey Mozgov and Iman Shumpert, however. Depth is not one of Cleveland’s strengths, but all manner of James-led lineups did exceedingly well offensively during the regular season, and Thompson could absolutely own the offensive glass against a Bulls lineup that remains averse to defensive rebounding. Even when he was healthy, at his Defensive Player of the Year-peak, Joakim Noah was not a pitch-perfect defensive rebounder. And even though Pau Gasol racked up endless double-doubles during the regular season, he is not a good defensive rebounder in traffic. Both will start for Chicago alongside Mike Dunleavy Jr., Jimmy Butler, and Derrick Rose. If you’re scoring at home, this is the first time Chicago’s expected starting lineup will take on the Cleveland Cavaliers this season. If, in missing Love and Smith, you could call the Cavaliers “the Cleveland Cavaliers.” Matchups to Watch LeBron James vs. Everyone We’re not being flip. James absolutely locked down Derrick Rose during Derrick’s MVP season in 2011, switching over to the Bulls guard late in games as James’ Heat managed a five-game knockdown of the top-seeded Chicago squad. That option remains in place, as the sometimes-there Rose plays in his first May since 2011. From there, James could also flip over to handle a borderline inert Joakim Noah if need be. Noah is not the threat he was last season. Teams play off of him on the perimeter, mindful of his expert passing and well aware that he rarely takes the same corkscrew jumpers he used to make with regularity. Noah is not to be trusted with the ball around the hoop, he’s missed 23 of his last 35 free throws, and James can absolutely roam when Cleveland goes to small lineups, secure in the knowledge that Joakim Noah can’t hurt him. Sigh. Offensively, James should be allowed to bully his way through Jimmy Butler and Tony Snell, and center Pau Gasol will offer little resistance at the rim despite those two blocks that always make it into the box score. This has to be James’ series. Kyrie Irving might be the most important player on the floor against the Atlanta Hawks or Washington Wizards or whomever the West wants to spit out, but this is LeBron’s time to take over. Cleveland’s season depends on it. Derrick Rose vs. the Clock The Bulls run a simplistic offense that doesn’t take advantage of the superior passing of Pau Gasol, it doesn’t relate to the sort of movement that made winners out of San Antonio and Golden State (and made a loser out of Milwaukee), and it too often fails the significant offensive talent that is both on paper and on the court. That’s a failing of the Chicago Bulls coaching staff. Derrick Rose could do something about that if he would push his team into faster sets in the half court. Rose doesn’t have to be the All-Encompassing Scoring Point guard, gobbling up both assists and points a la Stephon Marbury, he just has to make sure the ball enters the three-point line (via, shout out to Tex Winter, a pass, drive, or shot) faster than it has been. Too often in the regular season and first round the second Bull to touch the ball in a possession would be getting a taste with half of the shot clock expired, and the Bulls cannot afford to work without sweated brows against a Cleveland defense that only improved from terrible to mediocre in the regular season. Chicago vs. the Corner Three Thompson may start, and the Bulls may field two seven-footers with two more potentially game-tilting big men left to come off of the bench, but the Cavs can’t help but go small in this series. Mike Miller may have been put out to pasture, but once J.R. Smith returns the Cavs will field James and James Jones at forwards for stretches, with Iman Shumpert and Smith whipping around the perimeter. Jones infamously tossed up an ohfer in Game 4 of the Celtics series, but if he can spring free while Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson hobble around, the Cavs will have an advantage. Cleveland will miss Love, to be sure, but they might be replacing him with more accurate three-point shooters that are more aligned with the offensive system that David Blatt has conjured up – one that repeatedly made Kevin Love an afterthought. Nikola Mirotic vs. Tom Thibodeau Mirotic, who came up second in Rookie of the Year voting, played just 15 minutes a game in the regular season against Cleveland. Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau routinely played Mirotic at small forward against Milwaukee, ignoring ungodly amounts of evidence that suggested – nay, screamed – that this was not a smart basketball thing to do. The idea of tossing out a late-third quarter lineup that features Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic is a warming one. All three have various offensive and defensive traits that suggest that the bumps in one’s head could fill in the holes in another’s. It didn’t work against Milwaukee in the first round, however, and it probably won’t work even against a lacking defensive team in Cleveland. Mirotic has to be able to work his outside-in routine against Tristan Thompson, he needs minutes in the front court, and Bull helpers Jimmy Butler and Mike Dunleavy have to prove able to rebound competently in what Thibodeau would conclude to be a “small” lineup. How Cleveland Can Win It’s simply stated, but basketball is often a simple game with just five to a side and one guy destroying all. LeBron James has to burrow his way into repeated paint finishes both in the half court and in transition. Chicago will tempt him into endless mid-range jumpers, and while he can win a game or four on pull-ups, these are the things that don’t sustain. He has to stay active, he has to be a scorer, and he can’t play the martyr. Kyrie Irving and J.R. Smith can win a game or two for Cleveland. Timofey Mozgov can slip and slide his way to opportunistic finishes and put-backs. Shumpert could thrive in transition. Fine. Whatever. This is what LeBron James came back to Cleveland to do. How Chicago Can Win The Bulls have to play bigger than the sum of its parts. Tom Thibodeau, whether he wants to believe it or not, has an offensive-minded team now. He needs to coach like it, and the Bulls need to play like it. The ball needs to move, the sets can’t be predictable, and the players need to be trusted. Similarly, the Bulls need to trust themselves as the work their way into possessions – Rose needs to freelance, Jimmy Butler gets to call his own post-up shots, Gasol can pretend he’s in the Triangle again, and if Joakim Noah can make a winner out of that ridiculous spinning jumper on two legs, then he’s more than capable of tossing that mess in on one. Chicago was built for this. It’s been four damn years and they’re right back where they want to be. This team and this city have given up far too much to give up now. This is it, men. This is it. Totally Subjective Entertainment Value Ranking: 10 out of 10. Either the Atlanta Hawks or the Washington Wizards will play in the Eastern Conference finals. Your entertainment value is on this side of the bracket. This was everyone’s pick back in October. This is the one. Prediction: Bulls in seven. In Cleveland. - - - - - - - Kelly Dwyer is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at KDonhoops@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @KDonhoops
It almost seemed impossible to imagine Game 7 between the Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs actually living up to the hype. I mean, how do you write an ending worthy of six games that featured so much drama, such intensity and so much excellent play by both sides? Forty-eight minutes, 31 lead changes, 16 ties and one unforgettable performance later, I think it's safe to say we found a fitting conclusion. [ Follow Dunks Don't Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball] The Clippers beat the Spurs, 111-109 , at Staples Center on Saturday, with point guard Chris Paul hitting an absurdly tough game-winning runner over the outstretched arm of the great Tim Duncan with one second remaining: Paul made that drive, and that shot, on one leg. Hell, he played the last three quarters on one leg, after pulling up lame late in the first quarter with what the Clippers would call a strained left hamstring . After he left the game and headed to the locker room with a member of the team's training staff, the Clippers listed Paul as questionable to return. But this was Game 7. Paul missed just over seven minutes of game time, checking back in at the 6:27 mark of the second quarter. He couldn't play with his typical pace; at times, he looked like he could barely jog. But he still completely controlled the game, right up to and including that series-deciding leaner. After Paul's shot, San Antonio had a chance to respond with one second left. As the Spurs came out of their timeout, though, the clock operator at Staples Center started the game clock early, running off the final second as San Antonio prepared to trigger its inbounds — essentially giving the Clippers a free look at what Gregg Popovich had drawn up in the huddle. A furious Pop stomped his way to the scorer's table to register his displeasure. So, too, did Spurs owner Peter Holt, who chucked some choice words at the quick-trigger-fingered clock operator. Without a timeout remaining to reset, the Spurs just started over. Matt Barnes knocked away a lob pass intended for Kawhi Leonard, providing a somewhat bizarre finish to an amazing game headlined by Paul's all-time effort. The eight-time All-Star scored 22 of his 27 points after his return from injury, making seven of his 10 shots from the field. When he got the ball in the backcourt, he kept throwing hit-ahead passes to try to propel his teammates forward, pushing tempo by passing since he couldn't do it off the dribble. He looked often to Blake Griffin, L.A.'s playmaking power forward, who had experienced ecstasy , agony and exhaustion in this series, playing frantically and frenetically for 41 minutes a night ... and of whom, with Paul encumbered, the Clippers would need to ask even more. "I kept telling BG when I did whatever to my hamstring to just bring us home," Paul told TNT's Jamie Maggio after the game. Griffin responded, scoring 24 points, grabbing 13 rebounds and dishing 10 assists — with 18 of the points, all of the rebounds and nine of the assists coming after Paul's injury — to log his second triple-double of the series and the sixth of his career. He was the Clippers' primary offensive initiator with Paul hobbled, and their primary interior defender late, after coach Doc Rivers pulled DeAndre Jordan from the game midway through the fourth to match San Antonio by going small. Griffin promptly met a driving Leonard at the rim to force a missed layup before collecting the ball, pushing it up the court and feeding J.J. Redick for a 3. If Blake doesn't stop the Kawhi layup, San Antonio's up five with five minutes to play. Instead, it was a tie ballgame, 97-all. With Griffin making plays all over the floor, Paul was able to limit his scope. In the half-court, he spent much more time than usual working off the ball on the perimeter, acting as a spot-up shooter and drilling all four of his 3-point tries after his injury. Watching those hit-ahead passes, those lock-and-load triples and those cautious moments on the ball, especially after seeming to reaggravate the hamstring midway through the third , you got the sense that Paul was pacing himself, that he was preserving what little of his burst remained for the moments when it was absolutely necessary. With 8.8 seconds left and the score knotted at 109 after a pair of Duncan free throws, it was absolutely necessary.
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