First Cup: Tuesday

  • Mark Bradley of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: The notion struck midway through another second quarter in which the Atlanta Hawks were extracting, without Novocain and with great force, the “d” from Indiana. “The Pacers can’t guard the Hawks,” declared a correspondent watching from on high, “and the Hawks can guard the Pacers. How’d that happen?” These are the Hawks and this is the postseason, so who knows? But know this: The Hawks can win this series and if they do, it won’t be much of an upset now. Indiana, the East’s No. 3 seed, just spent two games in Philips Arena making a case for itself as the most overrated team in the history of basketball, and the unloved Hawks … well, they’ve been lovely. Yes, this best-of-seven is tied at 2, and yes, the Hawks will have to take a game in Indianapolis, where they lost twice last week by an aggregate 32 points, in order to advance, But the dynamics of this matchup have been inverted. The Pacers, with much to lose, seem capable of losing it all. The Hawks, whose modest mission this season was not to stink before the real rebuilding begins this summer, look like a team constructed by a master craftsman. … So what happens now? The Pacers are very good at home, but they’ve been handed real reason to doubt. The looks on their faces during that second quarter spoke of anger and frustration but mostly bewilderment. This series was theirs to win. They’re in peril of losing it to a team that was built to be torn down.

  • Bob Kravitz of The Indianapolis Star: Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. So never mind what a certain not-so-humble (but good-looking) columnist wrote a couple of days back in this space: This Pacers-Hawks series isn’t over. It’s far from over. In fact, it’s just beginning, a best-of-three with two games in Indianapolis, after the Pacers’ 102-91 Game 4 loss to the Hawks. Mea culpa, mea culpa — which is Latin for “Man, did I get that wrong.” It still says here the Pacers win this series in six games — at some point I’m bound to be right about something — but it’s easy to lose the faith while watching the way they’ve regressed to the disconnected, defenseless style of play that marked the final week and a half of the regular season. What’s happened to this group? This was the league’s second-best defensive team in terms of points allowed. This was the league’s top defensive team in terms of field goal percentage allowed and three-point field goal percentage allowed. But they’re getting absolutely skewered by the Atlanta Hawks, who are making plays and leaving the Pacers players with hands on hips, shooting each other empty, angry glances. … Raise the red flags. Sound the alarm bells. This series, which never should have become a series, has left the Pacers with almost no margin of error. Color me fooled. And chastened.

  • Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle: Finally, the ball did not bounce 12 feet in the air and stab the Rockets in the heart. Kevin Durant did not get the last shot. The Rockets held on. After consecutive games in which the Rockets did everything but close out a win, they held their breath as a pair of last-chance Oklahoma City shots came up short. When Reggie Jackson’s runner and Serge Ibaka putback missed, the Rockets escaped 105-103 on Monday night, sending the first-round series back to Oklahoma City with the Thunder leading 3-1 but giving the Rockets their first playoff win since 2009. “We know we can play with these guys,” said Chandler Parsons, who led the Rockets with 27 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists. “We know we can beat these guys. We were in the same situation the last two games. No way we were going to give it up.” They had clearly earned it, coming back from a 13-point deficit and making just enough stops with the game on the line to extend their season to Game 5 on Wednesday night. “Great win by us,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. “It was a gutsy win. I told our guys before the game, ‘One thing about our team, we’re not going to lay down.’ They fought all year long. We had different lineups. We’ve had different kinds of stuff happen. The one constant has been their willingness to go out and scrap and fight. I said, ‘There’s no way we’re going to lay an egg tonight.’ We went out and we fought hard.”

  • John Rohde of The Oklahoman: The frenzied finish resulted in a 105-103 loss for the Thunder, which failed in its quest to sweep this best-of-7 opening-round playoff series. Leading 3-1, OKC will try to close out the series in Game 5 at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday at Chesapeake Energy Arena. The best news arrived roughly 90 minutes later when the Thunder boarded its charter and returned home after four draining days away from home. The team left OKC on Friday afternoon just hours after learning three-time All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook would be out indefinitely with a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee. The following morning came news that Westbrook would be lost for the entire postseason after having surgery in Vail, Colo. Later that night was Game 3, the first contest in Thunder history with no Westbrook on the court. OKC jumped out to a 26-point lead and managed to hang on for a 104-101 victory. A collective sigh of relief was visible from Thunder players, even from veteran power forward Nick Collison, who admitted it had been an emotional 48 hours.

  • Tim Smith of the New York Daily News: Ten days ago the Nets defended their home court at Barclays Center and opened their first-round series against the Bulls with a victory so resounding it seemed they were launching into a run that would carry them deep into the postseason. On Monday night, the Nets returned home having lost three straight games, including a triple-OT fiasco that followed an epic fourth-quarter collapse in Game 4. Gone was the ebullient spirit of that inaugural playoff game at Barclays Center, replaced by an atmosphere of desperation and disappointment as the Nets, in a 3-1 hole , stared down elimination. Only eight teams have rallied from that same deficit, but the Nets were 5-0 in Game 5 elimination games. There was hope. Brooklyn stoked that ember of hope and beat the Bulls at their own game, staving off elimination with a 110-91 victory . Now they head back to Chicago to face another elimination game on Thursday. “Our backs are against the wall right now,” said forward Gerald Wallace. “We’re in fighting spirit. We’re a fighting team and we’re not ready to go home. We feel like we’re better than this team. We feel like we’re good enough and a better team and we can come back and win three in a row just like they did.”

  • Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune: The Bulls needed Kirk Hinrich for all 59 minutes he played in a Game 4 triple-overtime win. Monday night in Game 5, they had to figure out how to proceed without him. The simple solution, with Hinrich sidelined by a bruised left calf, was a heavy dose of Nate Robinson, who was coming off his 34-point explosion in Game 4. The offensive-minded Robinson, however, is light years behind Hinrich in terms of defensive ability. Rookie Marquis Teague and Marco Belinelli spelled Robinson for brief stints, but Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau relied heavily on his diminutive point guard, playing him 43-plus minutes. As Hinrich watched from a row behind the bench, Robinson played with his typical high energy but failed to match his Game 4 output. He looked for his teammates more than his own shots for a good portion of the game and seemed to run out of steam in the end. He scored a team-high 20 points and had eight assists in the Bulls' 110-91 loss to the Nets. Robinson went 1-for-5 from 3-point range and committed three turnovers. His most costly miscue came with two minutes left in regulation. Robinson picked up his dribble against Deron Williams and tried to force a pass to Luol Deng. Nets forward Gerald Wallace stepped into the passing lane and broke free for the game-clinching dunk. "Had a crucial turnover down the stretch that really hurt us,'' Robinson said. "I take the blame for that, and that's something I have to do better."

  • Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Post: Faces crinkled and shoulders shrugged in befuddlement. The question: What now? The Nuggets, down 3-1 to Golden State in their opening round playoff series, have had few defensive answers to the Warriors' offensive onslaught. What to do? It is suddenly a tough question. "Uh ... I don't know," Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried said. "I really don't." Nuggets guard Andre Miller: "That's the coaches' decision to figure out the adjustments, who is guarding who, certain things like that. It's a pride thing, and I think the coaches will figure out a way to adjust to things." Nuggets guard Ty Lawson: "Man ... whatever the coaches come up with." The problem is, most everything the Nuggets have tried on defense in this series hasn't worked after Golden State's all-star forward, David Lee, went down with an injury in Game 1. Warriors coach Mark Jackson then went with a small, three-guard lineup that has given the Nuggets fits. Lee's absence has turned the Warriors from a conventional team to a wild card, from having a dual low-post game to running a spread — four shooters on the perimeter, each with the ability to create a shot for their teammates. As a result, the Nuggets' defense been stretched thin and distorted beyond recognition.

  • Carl Steward of The Oakland Tribune: In 438 best-of-seven playoff series throughout NBA history, only eight teams have rallied from 3-1 deficits to win. But coach Mark Jackson is having nothing with the odds that favor the Warriors to advance as they head into Denver for Game 5 on Tuesday. "We expect to see a tough Denver Nuggets team that's fighting for its playoff life, that's prepared and ready to keep the series going," Jackson said Monday. "The most difficult game is the close-out game. I've got a young team, and if we keep doing what we're doing, we'll put ourselves in position to move on. But it's a tough task, because this is a very good Nuggets team." The last team to complete a comeback from being down 3-1 was the 2006 Phoenix Suns. Kobe Bryant led the seventh-seeded Los Angeles Lakers to the 3-1 advantage, but Phoenix won three games fairly handily to salvage the series. In 2003, the Orlando Magic got up 3-1 on top-seeded Detroit, but the Pistons rallied after the Magic's Tracy McGrady pronounced that it felt good to get out of the first round. The Warriors are making no such pronouncements. … Another number that doesn't favor the Nuggets: In seven of his eight seasons as Denver's coach, George Karl has failed to get out of the first round, three of those times with home-court advantage in the series.

  • Ronald Tillery of The Commercial-Appeal: Lionel Hollins went with a trust factor over gut feeling. Who can I trust? That’s the question Hollins and Los Angeles Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro will ask themselves over and over again Tuesday night during a pivotal Game 5 of their Western Conference playoff series in Staples Center. Game 5 winners have gone on to win playoff series 83 percent of the time. So it’s no wonder that rotations shorten and coaches lean on a select group they deem old reliable in a long playoff series. “We’re trying to play the people who are producing and not have huge gaps or lulls,” Hollins said. “I’ve been trying to piecemeal rotations and keep our (starters) fresh. Everybody that got in (the rotation) during the regular season isn’t getting to trot out there. It’s just the way it is.” The series is knotted at 2-2 but the coaches couldn’t be further apart in philosophy. Hollins hasn’t dug deep into his bench and even regular-season super sub Bayless disappeared over the past three games. Conversely, Del Negro relied on most of his roster. He’s played all but two healthy players in the series.

  • Phil Collin of the Los Angeles Daily News: They've bludgeoned each other for four games and they will for at least two more. But the more the Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies have at each other, the less pure basketball tactics will make a difference. In tonight's Game 5 of the best-of-7 Western Conference playoff series, mind over matter figures to trump anything out of a playbook in the Staples Center clash. "The biggest thing is a sense of urgency is going to be the key," Clippers guard Chauncey Billups said. "They played desperate basketball, now it's our turn. We have to make a few adjustments, but it's our turn now to play with a sense of urgency." The first-round series has been a classic case of NBA playoffs through the years. The teams are seeded fourth and fifth, and the team playing at home has been the aggressor and the victor. It's no surprise the series stands at 2-2, especially after they went the full seven a year ago. How close are these teams? To a man, they'll point out the one physical matchup that has illustrated the direction of this series, and it's rebounding. Win the rebound battle, win the game. And a closer look at the four games shows the margin of rebounding is eerily close to the margin of the final score.

  • Jerry Brewer of The Seattle Times: As I've written before, this was the best time for the NBA to return, and now that Seattle feels left at the altar, old wounds have reopened, and old bitterness has resurfaced. With no expansion on the table, there is no clear path to acquire a team, and while the deal to build a $490 million Sodo arena could stay together for up to five years, can the fan base really stand to go through another relocation tug of war with an incumbent NBA city? It's impossible to trust that a victory is possible until Stern retires. Count the days until Feb. 1, 2014. Maybe then, when Adam Silver takes over as commissioner, the game will have clear rules. Hansen tried to win the right way. He tried to do it with transparency; no buying the Kings and pretending to want to stay in Sacramento. He tried to do it with record-setting money and a polished business plan. But the NBA is a liar's game, full of hypocrites, improper alliances, a lack of financial creativity and a commissioner who is more powerful than the owners he represents. Stern revises the rules according to his whims. It seems Seattle was destined to lose in this ever-changing game. We're back in a familiar place with that spirit-crushing league. Abandoned. Again.

  • Ailene Voisin of The Sacramento Bee: "Justice prevailed," said Jerry Reynolds, who has been with the Kings since their inaugural 1985-86 season in Sacramento. "This is the right decision. Seattle is a great city that deserves an NBA franchise. And at some point, they'll have one." But … "But this is our team," Reynolds added forcefully, and note the high level of cooperation that was necessary to facilitate the public/private partnership for a downtown sports and entertainment complex. "Sacramento is a major-league city, and it simply has to have a major-league sports team to grow. "When we travel around the country and see how these arenas have revitalized downtowns in Los Angeles, Indianapolis, Miami, to name a few cities, I keep thinking that a downtown arena here can be just as special. And this was probably Sac's last best chance."