Five NBA playoff observations from a night that featured a pair of unexpected blowouts and an escape act in Salt Lake City:
1. Utah may have to decide whether to keep Carlos Boozer or Paul Millsap this summer if both power forwards opt to entertain free-agent offers.
And Boozer (23 points, 22 rebounds) may have made the decision even harder after his performance in Utah's 88-86 victory against the Lakers on Thursday in Game 3 of the first-round series. Maybe he knew what he was talking about when he hinted earlier this season that he might leave $12.6 million on the table next year and become a free agent this summer.
Who wouldn't want a beast of a low-post talent who carried the Jazz to a four-point first-half lead with 13 points and 16 rebounds while the rest of his teammates were busy shooting 3-for-23 from outside the paint? Who wouldn't want a power forward savvy enough to recognize a double team approaching him in the final minute of a tie game and, in response, dish it to point guard Deron Williams for a textbook pick-and-roll hoop? And who wouldn't want a 6-foot-9, 266-pound talent capable of spinning around Pau Gasol for a critical dunk with 16.9 seconds left? Williams may garner the headlines for hitting the tiebreaking shot with 2.2 seconds remaining, but it was Boozer who laid the foundation for Utah's first victory in the series, and for that, he may be smiling all summer long.
2. Kobe gets a rude welcome to Salt Lake City.
When the reigning MVP shoots 1-for-10 in the first half, you might think it is just an off night. But when Kobe Bryant finishes 5-for-24 from the field, there has to be something else going on, and that something else was Jazz guard Ronnie Brewer. The three-year veteran hounded Bryant all night with his quickness and patience. When Bryant drove, Brewer was there to guide him into Utah's help defense. When Kobe measured up Brewer for a one-on-one challenge, the former Arkansas Razorback held his ground, refusing to bite on the many tricky steps and lunges Bryant is so good at utilizing to fly past defenders.
"It was a combination of me not shooting the ball well, and they did a good job of mixing up their defenses," Bryant told reporters after the game.
3. Erick Dampier was tired of watching San Antonio's Tony Parker waltz into the paint -- and he did something about it in Game 3.
Give Dampier (three blocks, nine rebounds in 23 minutes) a little credit. After mouthing off about the Mavericks' need to keep Parker out of the paint by knocking him down, the Dallas center backed up his words without raising the NBA's ire. The Mavs didn't need to flatten Parker in a 88-67 home victory that gave them a 2-1 series lead; they just needed to keep him and the rest of the Spurs away from the rim. With Dampier leading the way, coach Rick Carlisle took advantage of the Mavs' long frontcourt, having his big men collapse toward the basket on almost every San Antonio drive in the first half. The result: Parker blew past by the likes of Jason Kidd only to find a raft of arms blocking his final approach to the hoop. Parker wasn't alone in his frustration, as the Mavs forced San Antonio into 12 misses on 17 attempts in the paint in the first half.
Considering they also shot 1-for-9 from beyond the the arc in the first half, the Spurs didn't have many options left. Tim Duncan struggled to launch shots against Dampier, Matt Bonner was ineffective and Michael Finley was all but invisible against an active Josh Howard. Once Dallas extended a 16-point lead to 26 with 7:53 left in the third quarter, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich stopped beating his head against the wall and pulled his starting crew in hopes of a brighter Game 4 on Saturday.
4. Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo may not have won a Rookie of the Year award like his Bulls counterpart, but he sure played like he did.
Lost amid the strong start by Paul Pierce, who paced the Celtics to a 107-86 demolition of host Chicago in Game 3, was another chapter in Rondo's development into a star floor leader. Yes, Rondo's 20 points were impressive, as were his 11 rebounds. What set his Game 3 performance apart, though, were the five steals that seemed to spike the Bulls just as they appeared on the cusp of finding some sense of rhythm.
Combined with the nervous energy the Bulls played with early, Rondo led a Celtics defense that forced 22 Chicago turnovers, accounting for 24 Boston points. Considering Rondo is averaging almost a triple-double in the first round (22.7 points, 10.7 rebounds, 9.7 assists), perhaps we all should take a deep breath before we declare Derrick Rose the East's best point guard anytime soon.
5. Three Game 3s on Friday's schedule.
• Cavaliers at Pistons: If Detroit coach Michael Curry wants to make LeBron James & Co. sweat in Detroit, perhaps he should start his bench, which led his team to a 32-17 advantage in the fourth quarter of Game 2. That's the only quarter Detroit has won in the series. Such a drastic move, of course, isn't likely to happen with so many distinguished veterans in the locker room, which could make for a depressing weekend in Motown.
• Trail Blazers at Rockets: If not for Brandon Roy's superhumaneffort in Game 2, Houston would have headed home with a 2-0 lead. The Blazers' Steve Blake needs to do more to slow down second-year point guard Aaron Brooks, who is averaging 25 points and six assists while shooting 69.2 percent from three-point range in the first two games.
• Magic at 76ers: Philadelphia (42.9 percent) is the team hitting from three-point range while Orlando (26.8 percent) is struggling from beyond the arc through two games, a reversal from the regular season when the Sixers made a league-low 31.8 percent and the Magic ranked seventh at 38.1 percent. Orlando salvaged a home split with its Game 2 victory, and the good news for the Magic as the series shifts to Philadelphia is that they tied for the second-best road record in the NBA this season (27-14).