The continuing theme of the past four days has been an inability of NBA playoff teams to close games out. Careless with huge leads All Star players take bad shots, over dribble and turn the ball over. Yesterday it was the Los Angeles Clippers. Today it was the Brooklyn Nets who faced an elimination game in Miami and for the most part played with toughness and grit even as they faced an aggressive Dwayne Wade. It was Wade’s most explosive performance of the playoffs. By halftime of game 5 he had already scored on post ups, turnarounds, layups, and was the primary option for Miami. They needed every one of the 20 points he scored in the first half. The Heat struggled from the three point line and most of their two point shots were contested so credit the Nets for their defensive energy. They never allowed the Heat a sustained run and were able to stay close in the first half. Their second quarter unit was particularly efficient pushing the pace and driving the ball with Mizra Teletovich attacking the rim. The Nets went on a 8-0 run to end the first half and were up by 7.
As expected the Heat came out of the locker room like someone wanted to burn their house down. They quickly erased the halftime lead. Hardly fazed, the Nets withstood the huge surge of energy and built a double digit lead as Lebron hardly resembled the player who scored 49 points. Wade kept at it and Bosh drained threes. But the second half was all about Joe Johnson. He carried the Nets offense in the third quarter. And in the 4th a 7-0 run capped off by a Joe runner in the lane and a Paul Pierce three gave the Nets a 9 point lead. Joe was spectacular hitting one shot after another over Lebron James but in the last two minutes the Heat’s defense collapsed and Joe had no space to maneuver. The Heat went on a 13-3 run capped by the ageless Ray Allen who made a corner three to give the Heat their first lead of the quarter with thirty seconds left. The Nets last chance to extend the series fell flat when Joe Johnson’s dribble was predictably interrupted by Ray Allen and then Lebron James. He couldn’t get a shot off. Heat 96 Nets 94. The Heat celebrated wildly (really why?) but this sobering fact is true: in the past four days 5 teams (Thunder, Wizards, Nets, Clippers and Nets) have choked away victories. Goodbye Brooklyn. This is what $100+ million dollars in salary, $70+ million dollars in luxury taxes gets you: summer vacation beginning in mid May. The Heat will rest before their fourth consecutive Eastern Conference Final begins.
Goodbye Paul Pierce? Paul Pierce, a free agent, will take time to decide about his future and another year in the NBA. The Paul Pierce book has already been written. He has paid his dues, put in his time, willed his teams to victories, competed like no other, won a title. The 1997 draft pick out of Kansas, the small forward who began turning heads when he was paired with Antoine Walker and then with Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen has extracted every ounce of talent out of his body. The only thing left is for him to leave when he wants to leave. “I think I still have something in the tank”, he said postgame, realizing he is far from the player of 6 years ago who fell down, got up and willed his Celtics to a title against the Lakers. At this point in his career desire is what matters most.
San Antonio 104 Portland 82: The Blazers were no match for the Spurs, not in game one, not in game two, not in game three. In game 5, as in most of the games in this series- game 4 being the one exception- the Blazers didn’t have enough weapons or enough defense. They kept it close in the first quarter of their elimination game but when the Blazers go to their bench all bets are off. The Spurs increased the lead to double digits but a pall hung over the arena as Tony Parker suffered a hamstring injury. But against the Blazers Parker wasn’t necessary. Paddy Mills had filled in for him all year long and was an adequate replacement.
LaMarcus Aldridge kept the Blazers in the game in the first half and they trailed by 7. But the Blazers couldn’t keep up. They were on the wrong side of a 8-0 run to start the third and were outscored 26-19 in the quarter. Their suspect defense and inefficient offense was ripe for the Spurs to establish a double digit lead even as Parker never came back. The Spurs, on a mission this year to atone for the worst loss in their franchise history, are right on schedule. They win the series in 5. Next stop Western Conference Finals. Next stop for Blazers: bench help.