Scott Howard-Cooper
Saturday April 25th, 2009

Observations and analysis on the day some NBA series are heating up . . .

Kobe Bryant got the ball the first Lakers possession and shot. He got the ball the second possession and was going up before getting stripped. He scored his team's first 11 points. (RECAP | BOX) This was not Bryant the distributor as in the first three games. Deciding to take over, deciding to take no chances with the Jazz within 2-1 in the series and revved by the home crowd, this was Kobe being Kobe.

It was pretty predictable. Bryant trusts his teammates more than ever and, as proof, had eight more assists than any other Laker the first three games, but no way he risks 2-2 with some version of "I want to get everyone involved." They could be involved this time by running to the other side of the court.

Bryant went from needing about eight minutes for his first basket in the opener, nine minutes in Game 2 and until deep in the second quarter in the Game 3 loss to saying on the off day Friday that maybe he had been waiting too long to look for his shot. Then he dropped 24 points on the Jazz in the first half alone.

• Just what the rest of the league needs. The Lakers with more options and depth.

Phil Jackson shuffled his lineup and moved Andrew Bynum to the bench and started Lamar Odom at power forward while moving Pau Gasol to Bynum's spot at center. Odom responded with 10 points, 15 rebounds and six assists as Gasol had 13 points 10 rebounds. If L.A. gets Yao Ming and the Rockets next, Jackson can flip back to Bynum. It's all good.

Meanwhile, Shannon Brown has gone from out of the rotation to the backup point guard. And the Lakers still have Jordan Farmar.

• The Jazz has changed lineups and changed cities until it is basically out of options heading into Monday night at Staples Center and the potential summer sendoff. That's the unavoidable conclusion. Deron Williams had another good game on Saturday, Carlos Boozer had another good game, but if the Lakers come to play, it's all over.

• The 3-1 series lead (RECAP | BOX) is commendable enough for Dallas, listing opponent or not. To be in control without anything close to offensive breakout by Dirk Nowitzki, though, is downright impressive.

It's all the more unexpected because Nowitzki averaged 30.3 points the final eight games of the regular season and scored at least 25 each time. The first four against San Antonio resulted in 19, 14, 20 and, on Saturday, 12 points. At 44 percent, Dirk wasn't shooting poorly. He just wasn't shooting a lot.

Yet the Mavericks are in a very good place, an encouraging sign moving forward that if they can win a series with Nowitzki as a complementary player on offense, imagine what could happen if he starts going regular season again. The other good news for Dallas is his rebounding. Nowitzki is at 8.5 boards a game for the series, at first glance a slight up-tick from the 8.4 of the previous 82 games but actually more than that because the Mavs and Spurs are taking far fewer shots per outing than Dallas and its opponents did in the regular season. He is grabbing more boards with fewer opportunities.

• No surprises for San Antonio. Tony Parker will score and Tim Duncan will score, but there's no dependable third weapon. No third weapon means no second round.

In one stretch of Game 4, Parker and Duncan combined for 38 of the Spurs' 41 points. When the pair was both resting late in the third quarter, 58 of 68 points were on the bench.

Erick Dampier is at 7.5 rebounds a game in 27 minutes per. In case anyone wants to recognize him for something other than drawing a target on Parker's back.

• Now it becomes a test of composure for the Hawks, the darlings of the playoffs a year ago at this stage while pushing the heavily favored Celtics to the brink but now, suddenly, dealing with their own determined underdog.

A 1-0 series lead and homecourt advantage has given way to a 15-point loss followed by a 29-point loss (RECAP | BOX). It's the Heat of Dwyane Wade and little else, so a comeback isn't exactly out of the question, but being competitive in a game would be a step forward for Atlanta.

This has been the season of Miami fighting back, from the disastrous 2007-09 to make the playoffs at No. 5 in the East and then in the first round. The Hawks get their turn to either make a stand or put themselves in a likely insurmountable deficit.

• The reversal in the series has happened so fast. Saturday, the Heat took control from the start -- 50-29 at halftime -- and crushed the Hawks spirits.

• Didn't you used to be Jermaine O'Neal?: That was some big lift of 22 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks. O'Neal hadn't scored 20 in a game since March 15, hadn't collected at least 10 rebounds, hadn't collected a double-double since Feb. 21 and hadn't reached all the way to a 20-10 outing since Dec. 20.

• We don't just have a series with Denver's lead down to 2-1 and another home game ahead for New Orleans after Saturday's narrow New Orleans win (RECAP | BOX). We have a chippy series -- four technicals in Game 1, three in Game 2 and two on Saturday along with flagrant fouls by Tyson Chandler, James Posey and Chauncey Billups.

It's great playoff emotions, with Hornets coach Byron Scott calling Dahntay Jones dirty, Jones doing his best to irritate New Orleans, passions increasing as the Hornets join the series, and temperatures likely to rise in kind among home crowds in both cities. But it also means when the refs have their game-day meeting Monday, either the morning/early-afternoon session or at the arena, there may be a heavier emphasis than normal to maintain control. Game 4 could be called very, very tight.

• Nice response by Chris Paul after two games of Billups hogging the point-guard spotlight, but the Nuggets are willing to absorb his 32 points and 12 assists on these terms any day. (The numbers would have been even better had Posey not cost him an assist by travelling under the basket and David West by missing a lay in, both mistakes in the fourth quarter that also helped Denver stay close).

Paul also had six turnovers. More than that, he took five shots in the final period and missed all five and didn't get into the lane to do damage like the previous three quarters. In the fourth, he missed a jumper, missed a three-pointer, missed a jumper over the outstretched arm of 6-9 Kenyon Martin, missed a fade-away and missed a long three that had to be rushed to beat the shot clock. The Nuggets turned the best point guard in the league into a perimeter player and made sure he wouldn't be the guy to beat them, double-teaming the ball out of Paul's hands at the end and even showing a trap as soon as he crossed mid-court.

• The key stretch for the Hornets: Paul finally came out for a rest with 9:22 left in the fourth quarter and New Orleans leading 79-72. By the time CP3 went back in with 7:09 remaining, the Nuggets had failed to capitalize other than shaving one point off the deficit. It was 82-76.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.