1. Expected Kobe Ending Finished By Pau
OKLAHOMA CITY -- You know things were twisted in Lakerland when the primary query about this team had become,"Will Kobe Bryant shoot often?"
It used to be a rhetorical question, but it became legitimate after he attempted a total of only 19 shots in Games 4 and 5.
Well, just when things seemed back to normal in Game 6, after he had taken 24 shots and made half of them for his best high-volume shooting night in weeks, and he was back in the familiar scenario of having the ball in his hands with the game on the line, the world flipped upside down again.
The Lakers trailed the Thunder by a point and had possession after Bryant rebounded a missed jumper by Russell Westbrook with 18 seconds remaining. Coach Phil Jackson wisely eschewed calling a timeout. The right man already had the ball and, better yet, he had Westbrook guarding him instead of the taller Kevin Durant, whose defense once again gave Bryant problems.
Bryant brought the ball up the right side of the court and his teammates evacuated over to the left. It had all the makings of another Kobe game-winner. He drove, then pulled up from 13 feet. Everything seemed to be falling into place.
Except he missed.
"Maybe it was too good of a look," Bryant speculated on his way out of the Ford Center.
He still thought it was going in. "They [the Thunder] thought it was, too," Bryant said. "That's probably how Pau got the rebound."
While the Thunder players watched the ball hit the far side of the rim, it bounced back toward the shooter, and as it traveled across the basket, L.A.'s Pau Gasol rose to meet it on the other side and softly banked it home with 0.5 seconds remaining.
Yes, soft was a positive word when associated with Gasol for a change. Surely there were other, even uglier adjectives being used for him by Lakers fans frustrated with his 3-for-10 shooting prior to the game-winner, including a missed hook shot with 38 seconds remaining on a play called for him during a timeout. It was reminiscent of Gasol shortcomings in the regular season, most notably a missed layup and two missed free throws in the final minute of a close loss at Cleveland.
But this time, in the most meaningful game of the year to date, it was Bryant coming up short and Gasol rescuing the Lakers. Hard to believe my Microsoft Word didn't just flag that sentence for being grammatically impossible and suggest a fix.
Gasol didn't see the moment as personal vindication.
"It's just great to win a ballgame," he said. "Other than that, the rest of it is not important. We've just got to give ourselves a chance to win the ballgame and put that ball back in the hoop and move on."
The Lakers do move on, after finally dispatching the Thunder in six games, and will face the Utah Jazz in the conference semifinals.
In another twist, you could say the defending champion Lakers were the ones who learned something from a Thunder team comprised mostly of playoff rookies.
"This series forced us to play hard every possession, because Oklahoma demanded that," said Bryant, who finished with 32 points for his sixth consecutive 30-plus closeout game. "We feel like we're a better ballclub for it."
And in at least one regard there isn't a tougher opponent remaining in the playoffs.
"We won't see another team that athletic the rest of the way," Bryant said.
The Lakers had to remember to handle some of the basic things, and so in a sense they won Game 6 by a 95-94 score because they started to become like the Thunder.
"They have guys that go get the ball and make plays, whether it be defensively, offensive rebounds, whatnot," Odom said. "We kind of had to do the same things. Throughout a basketball game you can still contribute."
So the Lakers advance. They'll face the Jazz for the third consecutive postseason. Finally a development that feels normal.
2. D-Will, Jazz Finish The Nuggets In Six
By Kevin Arnovitz
SALT LAKE CITY -- Game 6 was not their most graceful exhibition of basketball, but the Utah Jazz got it done.
In a battle of attrition that saw two exhausted, undermanned teams commit 70 fouls and step to the foul line for 91 attempts, the Jazz prevailed 112-104, closing out the Denver Nuggets in six games. Utah will now travel to Los Angeles to face the Lakers for the third consecutive postseason. The series begins on Sunday afternoon (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).
For a Utah team that backed into the playoffs without Andrei Kirilenko, then lost starting center Mehmet Okur in the first half of Game 1, the series was a vindication of its execution-oriented system.
"There's not a greater feeling in the world from a coaching standpoint than to watch guys truly try to do the best they can to win a game," Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said. "That's what makes it fun to be involved with."
Friday night's game was marred by sloppy play on both sides, with less-than-stellar performances from the marquee names. Although he battled foul trouble, Jazz point guard Deron Williams managed to record his sixth consecutive double-double of the series, finishing with 14 points and 10 assists. Over the course of the series, Williams bolstered his résumé as one of the game's premier point guards by managing Utah's makeshift lineup with poise and precision.
The most critical moment for Williams on Friday night came several minutes after the outcome was apparent. During the game's final possession, with the Jazz leading 112-102 and 20 seconds remaining, Williams was checking Billups on the defensive end when Chris Andersen pasted him with a screen. Williams bruised his left elbow in the collision and was examined by the Jazz's medical staff after the final buzzer. After the game, Williams downplayed the injury.
"I got hit with a screen," Williams said. "I didn't really see it coming, but I'm all right."
Williams is listed as a go for Sunday's game in Los Angeles.
Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony suffered through a 6-for-22 night from the field, topping out at 20 points. The Jazz took full advantage of Nene's absence by running early double-teams at Anthony nearly every time he touched the ball.
"I think they made an adjustment just by doubling the ball quicker on the pass," Anthony said. "[Sloan] knowing that we didn't have another post presence like we have in Nene, I think he took advantage of that."
For a good stretch of the second quarter, it appeared as if the Jazz would put the finishing touches on a dispirited Nuggets squad. Utah worked through its to-do list with ruthless efficiency, building a 15-point lead. But Denver rallied behind Joey Graham, who'd seen all of five minutes of playing time over the previous five games. Graham, who was a prime beneficiary of Utah's strategy to smother Anthony, scored 19 points in the first half and helped shave the Nuggets' deficit down to two points at the half.
The third quarter featured a vintage Chauncey Billups, who scored 17 points in the period. When the Nuggets veteran wasn't draining jumpers from beyond the arc, he was sternly lecturing Arron Afflalo after a defensive breakdown. In a game that was begging to be taken over by someone, Billups looked to be that guy during Denver's better moments in the second half.
Ultimately, the combustible Nuggets disintegrated in the opening moments of the fourth quarter, when Utah scored on its first 10 trips down the floor. Undersized Utah power forward Paul Millsap paced the spurt with a pair of acrobatic left-handed finishes around the rim -- both and-1s -- after which the Jazz never trailed again.
It was an unsettling familiar meltdown for Denver. The Nuggets were hit with four technical fouls in the game and tied a new franchise record with 39 personal fouls. As profound as the emotional missteps were, the Nuggets' true undoing -- both Friday and in the series -- was their inability to defend Utah for sustained stretches of the series.
"Sometimes when we play against very, very disciplined teams, we tend to break down," Billups said. "I knew we'd have a tough time covering their half-court offense because they're just so thorough and so good."
For a Denver team with limitless expectations coming into the season, the Nuggets will have a long spring and summer to stew. Coach George Karl is recovering from cancer treatment and Anthony's long-term status in Denver is uncertain.
"Everything is blank," Anthony said, trying to process the implications of his team's early exit from the postseason. "The season is over, just like that."
3. Daily Dime Live Recap
ESPN.com writers and TrueHoop Network bloggers chatted with fans and gave their in-game opinions throughout Friday's games -- all in Daily Dime Live.
4. Extreme Behavior
Carlos Boozer, Jazz
Booz cruised to the series win, posting 22 points and 20 rebounds in the Game 6 win over the Nuggets. The Jazz will need his size and power against the Lakers.
John Salmons, Bucks
Just when he established himself as a solid 20-point guy in the playoffs, he drops a 2-for-13 shooting night, good for eight points as the Bucks were pushed to a seventh game.
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
"It's great for us to get through it and understand that we're not the best thing since sliced bread. We actually have to work."
-- Lakers forward Ron Artest
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Melo Walk-Off
7. Get In The Zone
MILWAUKEE -- Hawks coach Mike Woodson employs a zone defense about as often as the Milwaukee Bucks draw sellout crowds.
In other words, not very often.
But there were the Atlanta Hawks spread out in a 1-2-2 formation in the third quarter of what can delicately be termed an offensively challenged game for both teams Friday night, and the tactical adjustment worked wonders.
Woodson estimated that he used a straight zone on about four or five possessions, although Bucks coach Scott Skiles thought the number was a little bit higher. But whatever the case, that zone contributed to a stretch in which the Bucks missed 12 consecutive shots and were on the wrong end of a 27-4 run to begin the second half.
What had been a three-point halftime deficit for the Hawks turned into a 20-point lead, 58-38, with 2:02 left in the third quarter -- silencing the Bucks' third sellout crowd of the postseason (they had only five sellouts in the regular season) -- and Atlanta withstood a mini-run by Milwaukee in the fourth quarter to win Game 6 83-69 and send the only remaining first-round Eastern Conference playoff series back to Atlanta for a Game 7 on Sunday afternoon.
To read the entire column, click here
8. Chatting With Adande
Daniel Smith (Grand Rapids, MI): Can the Celtics stop Lebron and the Cavs? How close will this series be?
J.A. Adande: I'm disagreeing with Charles Barkley on this and think it will be a six-game series before Cleveland moves on. Celtics might have found a little something. Like the Spurs, this whole season was pointed toward this time of year. It's working for San Antonio and Boston could have the same benefit. That said, if LeBron's elbow lets him take over and he decides to do so, that's that.
For the full Adande chat, click here
9. C's Not Feeling Like Underdog
The Celtics are set to open their first playoff series on the road since the Big Three united. Due mainly to their regular-season success the past two seasons, the Celtics enjoyed the higher seeding in each of their previous seven series, but now must travel to start a series for the first time since eighth-seeded Boston got swept by top seed Indiana in the opening round in 2004.
By virtue of the seedings, as Paul Pierce has observed, the fourth-seeded Celtics are naturally underdogs to the top-seeded Cavaliers. Even the folks in Vegas set Cleveland as a hefty Game 1 favorite.
But coach Doc Rivers suggested that's not exactly a new role for Boston.
"I don't know if we feel like underdogs; I feel like everyone feels like we are [underdogs]," said Rivers. "I think that's the better way to word it. We've been there before. Going into the [NBA Finals versus the Lakers in 2008], no one picked us, except maybe people in Boston. I don't care one way or another. We have to go out and earn it."
If Boston wore a target last year as the defending NBA champion, it seems OK with handing that paper crown to the Cavs.
"Cleveland is the beast of the East," said Garnett. "They're the No. 1 team. We respect that.
"Both teams have different weapons. It's going to come down to execution and making shots, obviously. All the components that make a basketball game what it is are going to come into play in this series."
To read the rest of Forsberg's story, click here