Wednesday April 29th, 2009

Five NBA playoff observations on a night in which the Celtics and Bulls gave us another thriller.

1. If ESPN Classic showed the entire Boston-Chicago series tomorrow, would anyone complain?

Three overtime games. Four overtime periods. More clutch shots through five games than either team had in the regular season. If these two teams played a best-of-35, one team would win 18, the other would win 17 and Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo would have to be carried off the floor on stretchers. Boston vs. Chicago is David Stern's dream, two evenly matched teams with exciting styles and an encyclopedia of storylines. Boston's 106-104 (yes) overtime victory in Game 5 on Tuesday (RECAP | BOX) puts the Celtics in the driver's seat as the series shifts back to Chicago, but the Bulls have reasons to be optimistic.

For starters, Boston's stars have to be exhausted. Rondo played 49 minutes on Tuesday (after playing 55 in Game 4 on Sunday) and Pierce sweated out 51, a minute less than he played in Game 4. Foul trouble limited Allen to 26 minutes, a welcome respite after the sharpshooting guard played 46 on Sunday. Why the heavy workload? Because Boston's bench has been brutal.


Mikki Moore has been so ineffective in the first four games that Doc Rivers didn't even call his name in Game 5.

Tony Allen is supposed to be the Celtics' defensive stopper, but Ben Gordon has abused him in limited minutes. And Allen's ill-advised foul of an off-balance Gordon in overtime on Tuesday gave the Chicago guard three game-tying free throws.

Stephon Marbury's confidence in his perimeter shooting has bottomed out. Marbury had a chance to give Boston a lead late in the fourth quarter but he passed on a wide-open three-pointer to dish it to Rondo, who missed an awkward baseline runner.

Chicago is young, hungry and a terrific home team. And the Bulls are headed back there knowing that despite subpar shooting nights from Gordon (6-of-21) and Derrick Rose (6-of-17), they were two Brad Miller free throws from double overtime and a chance to win the game. They are nowhere near out of this series.

2. You have talked the talk, NBA. Now walk the walk.

Over the last few years, the NBA office has chided reporters (this one included) about criticizing the league over "superstar calls." The league insists that no player is above the law and everyone is treated fairly. Well, time to prove it.

In case you missed it, in the first quarter of Orlando's 91-78 victory against Philadelphia in Game 5 (RECAP | BOX), Dwight Howard threw a hard, intentional elbow that clipped Samuel Dalembert's skull. Technically, it was an elbow. But it was really a punch, a punch Howard had complete control of and threw with 265 pounds of muscle behind it. Had Howard connected cleanly, he could have seriously injured Dalembert

The NBA prides itself on its ability to protect players and mete out quick punishments. Howard's infraction is a suspension-worthy offense. Heck, Howard even sounded resigned to being suspended after the game; his only defense was that the Magic "were trying to be a more physical team." Will the fact that it was a star of Howard's stature influence discipline czar Stu Jackson's decision to suspend him? Or will the NBA treat him like any other player? I'll say this: If Adonal Foyle were the culprit, he wouldn't be making the trip to Philadelphia for Game 6.

3. The 4th annual Jerome James Playoff Contract Award goes too ... Jason Kidd!

Calm down, Kidd fans. I am in no way comparing Kidd to James, who parlayed a couple of decent playoff games in 2005 into $30 million in guaranteed money from Isiah Thomas. But Kidd, who figured to receive no more than the mid-level exception in free agency this summer, is proving that once again he is a force to be reckoned with in the postseason. He averaged 10 points and 5.6 assists in Dallas's five-game thumping of the Spurs, which culminated with a 106-93 victory in San Antonio on Tuesday (RECAP | BOX). More than that, he looked like the same floor leader who led the Nets to back-to-back NBA Finals.

The market is too unpredictable to even guess how much Kidd is worth now (though Cleveland and the Lakers figure to be his biggest suitors), but even at 35, I don't think any team in the league will blink at offering him a multiyear contract.

4. Do you think Portland wishes the NBA gave it a preseason playoff game?

I wonder what the Trail Blazers-Rockets series would have looked like had Portland not submitted that Game 1 clunker, a blowout loss that can be attributed (at least the blowout part) entirely to nerves. Since then Portland has been superb on its home floor -- Brandon Roy was his usual stud self, dropping 25 points and was plus-20 in Tuesday's 88-77 win (RECAP | BOX) -- and tough on the road. The young Blazers face a huge challenge winning a Game 6 in Houston. But if they win that game, they will win the series. Period. They are that good at the Rose Garden.

5. Wednesday's schedule.

• Hornets at Nuggets: Get a good look, New Orleans. Game 5 might be the last time you see this group together. It's no secret that Hornets owner George Shinn will look to slash payroll in the offseason. That means Tyson Chandler or David West will probably be packing his bags. Can the Hornets stave off elimination and force a Game 6 back in New Orleans? I doubt it. It's not just the 58-point pasting they took on Monday; it's Chandler's ankle, West's stamina and Chris Paul's ankle. The confluence of issues will likely spell the end of the road for New Orleans.

• Heat at Hawks: Big game in Atlanta. The Hawks surprised everyone (myself included) by swiping a victory in Miami to even the series at 2-2. Now they are back in control with two of three games at home if the series goes the distance. Keep an eye on the small forward matchup: Miami's Jamario Moon is out for the rest of the playoffs with a sports hernia. Moon is an excellent open-floor player and a solid defender. James Jones has been terrific as a starter -- he's making 61.5 percent of his three-point shots in the playoffs -- but the Heat are now without a quality reserve. Could hurt them.

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