1. McGee Alters Lakers' Postseason Plans
LOS ANGELES -- Anyone looking for a culprit in the Los Angeles Lakers' stunningly inept effort to close out the Denver Nuggets in Game 5 should not use Andrew Bynum's "easy" comment and its motivational impact on the Nuggets.
"Easy" is the wrong word. Try the synonym, "simple," instead, which made an appearance in a comment by George Karl over the weekend.
"Sometimes the simplest moves give you the biggest returns," Karl said.
That could be applied to the Nuggets' three-way trade with the Washington Wizards and Los Angeles Clippers just before the deadline in March, when Nene went to Washington, Nick Young was sent to the Clippers and JaVale McGee came to Denver. It was supposed to be a matter of the Nuggets getting out from Nene's contract, the Wizards clearing more immature players from their locker room and the Clippers getting another guard to replace the injured Chauncey Billups.
No one could have guessed that it would be the midseason deal that has made the biggest impact on the playoffs so far. Think about it. There isn't a player who switched teams this season who has played a larger role in winning two playoff games than McGee has in Game 3 and now in Denver's 102-99 victory Game 5 against the Lakers.
As Lakers coach Mike Brown put it, simply, "Both times McGee's had a big game, they've won."
On Tuesday night, McGee had 21 points and 14 rebounds. He blocked two shots, but that stat was as reflective as velvet when it came to his defensive impact. He altered so many shots that were attempted over him that next game I'm going to tweak the stat I normally keep for Bynum and track SOJOA: Shots Over JaVale's Outstretched Arms.
"He's really improved his game," Kobe Bryant said. "He seems to be coming into his own in this playoff series and showing a lot of versatility and skill around the basket. Defensively as well, he's changing shots. So he's blossoming this series."
Said Brown: "I felt he came into tonight's game trying to make a statement."
So what was the message?
"Just trying to say I'm here and I'm just trying to help this organization win," McGee said.
He might as well have added: I'm also trying to get the word out that I'll be a free agent this summer, so anyone looking for a 7-foot center with arms that stretch out like the basket support, with an ambidextrous offensive repertoire that includes a hook shot and up-and-under scoops, call my agent.
Nuggets general manager Masai Ujiri believed that Karl and the Nuggets' coaching staff could get more out of McGee and that escaping the negativity in Washington could allow McGee to prosper.
"Masai knows what he's doing," Ty Lawson said. "He knew that if he put [McGee] around players that want to win -- I'm not saying the Wizards don't want to, but -- players that are proven winners and want to win, he's going to change his mindset. He left the salute in Washington, and all that. He's come here. Just playing hard and he's getting better and better. He's maturing and getting more focused."
We heard a lot of similar talk after McGee had 16 points and 15 rebounds in his breakout Game 3, then he followed it with a pedestrian eight and four in Game 4.
He still hasn't arrived, but he has moved past the fluke category now that he has outplayed Bynum in two out of three games.
Ah, Bynum. Not a good idea to say "Closeout games are actually kind of easy" on the eve of playing one.
Karl pounced on it, inserting it at the end of the team video. (Can we ban the phrase "bulletin-board material?" When was the last time you saw an actual bulletin board in an NBA locker room?)
Bynum had the least impressive double-double you could imagine. His 16 points and 11 rebounds weren't enough for a player as critical to the Lakers' fortunes. We'd harp on Dwight Howard for anything less than 20 points, and since Bynum has been mentioned in connection with him so much this season, we need to harp on Bynum the same way.
It shouldn't matter that Denver's entire defense is focused on him, and every move he makes is accompanied by at least two defenders. As Brown said, Bynum can get to the block sooner, run downcourt faster, or post deeper if he wants to avoid or beat the double- and triple-teams.
Also, chill with the "easy" talk.
"If a guy wants to say that, in my opinion, he's got to back it up," Brown said.
Even Bryant is no longer taking anything for granted. When the Houston Rockets pounded the Lakers in a potential closing Game 6 in 2009, Bryant talked of wanting to "get out of this series and try to prepare for the next one."
He sounded a little less presumptive Tuesday night when discussing the Lakers' missed chance to get additional rest for a second-round series with the Oklahoma City Thunder, saying, "I don't care if you give us a year to rest. If we're fortunate enough to move on and play Oklahoma City, that year is not going to make us faster."
Game 6 in Denver Thursday night will, at the very least, make the Lakers less rested for a team that finished off a sweep of Dallas over the weekend. It will make them more road-weary, as they would have to go straight to Oklahoma City from Denver for the next round. Or they could lose and have to come back to L.A. for Game 7 on Saturday.
Bryant did his best to end Tuesday, with a 14-point fourth quarter that included four 3-pointers. But he missed his final two attempts, the last one getting deep inside the cylinder before rimming out.
"I used to have a coach who used to say the basketball gods would not allow us to win this game tonight because we didn't deserve it," Bryant said.
I'm guessing that wasn't Del Harris. Probably Tex Winter, the long-time Phil Jackson assistant. After all, who would have thought when we talked about impact centers in this series, it would be JaVale McGee, not Andrew Bynum?
Around The Association
Recap | Box score
MVP: Andre Miller was sensational in the fourth quarter, controlling the flow of the game as the Nuggets built up just enough of a cushion to withstand a furious Lakers rally into the final seconds.
X factor: JaVale McGee continued his excellent series, notching 21 points on 12 shots and 14 rebounds. He finished lobs, he cleaned up the boards -- McGee is having a reputation-changing series.
That was ... thrilling: A tiring brickfest of a game became an intense semi-classic as Kobe Bryant hit a procession of improbable 3s to drag the Lakers back into the game against the tide of Miller's brilliant fourth quarter. Just awesome.
Recap | Box score
MVP: With Chicago's two headliners in street clothes, Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng have been forced into larger roles in this series and have, for the most part, looked miscast. Facing elimination on Tuesday, that changed. Together they had 43 points and 21 rebounds, and saved their best for last. Deng hit a trio of 3-pointers in the fourth quarter that didn't just pour cold water on the Sixers' comeback bids, but drowned them, and Boozer went for 14 and 8 after the break.
LVP: Philadelphia, with a giftwrapped opportunity to advance to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2003 -- and become just the fifth 8-seed to do so -- was dreadful. It tied a franchise postseason low for points in a half with 26, shot 4-of-23 in the second quarter, and connected at a 32 percent rate overall.
Defining moment: When Taj Gibson fell to the hardwood late in the third quarter, grabbing his ankle, it seemed like the Sixers' winning formula of "play tough defense and wait for a crippling lower body injury to befall a key Bull" might work yet again. It didn't. Gibson returned in the fourth, to raucous applause, and Chicago sent the series back to Philly.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Al Horford. Horford, out for months before returning in Game 4, scored 17 points in the second half. Horford adjusted to the defensive pressure after a difficult first half and carried a team that struggled mightily on the offensive end. With Horford in the lineup, this is a new series.
That was ... a wild ending: With the Hawks up one and 10.9 seconds left, Rajon Rondo stole a lackadaisical inbounds pass. But Rondo lost control in the final moments, and the ball bounced harmlessly away as time expired.
X factor: Josh Smith's point guard skills. On select possessions in the second half, Smith played the role of point guard, handling the ball at the top of the key and finding teammates for shots. Smith racked up six assists -- many of them on buckets at the rim -- to complement 16 rebounds and 13 points. If not for his terrible inbounds pass on the final possession, he'd be your MVP.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Darren Collison. The Pacers' backup point guard checked into the game with 2:39 left in the third quarter. He wouldn't see the bench again as he scored 15 in the final period. In his 23 minutes, he shot 9-for-10 and finished with 19 points, six assists and one turnover in Indiana's closeout of the Magic.
X factor: Depth. Even with Hedo Turkoglu and Jason Richardson giving him nothing in 65 combined minutes, Stan Van Gundy really didn't go more than six deep. By the fourth quarter, an out-of-gas Glen Davis visibly symbolized Orlando's valiant attempt to stay in this series.
That was ... fun: There was a March Madness feel to this star-less game after halftime as a barrage of 3s kept the lead bouncing back and forth. Bodies were flying and diminutive point guards George Hill, Darren Collison and Jameer Nelson put on a show.
3. Tuesday's Best
Kobe Bryant, Lakers: He almost finished the series by himself. Down 15 points midway through the fourth, the Lakers pulled within one on a firestorm of unconscious Kobe shots (12 points on four 3-pointers in the final 4:47). Bryant flatlined thereafter, but his final line still ain't too shabby: 43 points (13-for-32), six rebounds and five assists.
4. Tuesday's Worst
Magic disappearance: Orlando was up two heading into the fourth quarter, but the fight it had put up in virtually every other game was gone. The Magic scored only 16 points while the Pacers rattled off 36 en route to a series-deciding Game 5 victory in Indianapolis.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
If a guy wants to say that ... he's got to back it up.
-- Lakers coach Mike Brown, on Andrew Bynum's comments leading up to Game 5 that closeout games are "actually kind of easy."
8. Rocky Mountain High
9. Stats Check
Darren Collison did not start a game for the Pacers in their just-concluded series win over the Magic, but he contributed 23 assists and only one turnover. The last player with 23 or more assists and no more than one turnover in a postseason series was John Paxson for the Bulls against the 76ers in the second round in 1990 (26 assists, one turnover).
10. Dunk Of The Night