Johnson’s 20 in fourth quarter helps Hawks draw even with Celtics

Joe Johnson couldn’t be stopped. The top seeded Celtics had no answer for the explosive leading Hawks’ scorer who scored 20 of his game high 35 in a fourth quarter comeback to lead the big underdog to a second straight home win 97-92 in Game Four-leveling the best-of-seven first round series at two games apiece.

In a back and forth riveting playoff game at Phillips Arena which saw the eighth seeded Hawks comeback from a 16-3 hole to take an eight-point lead before a strong third quarter by Boston put them down 10, the home team rallied outscoring the Celts 32-17 in the last 12 minutes to win their second straight. Most expected them to go quietly and get swept after not being competitive in the first two games but Atlanta had other ideas taking Game Three 102-93 and using that strong fourth quarter to square the series and put all tons of pressure on Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen  along with the rest of former Hawk point guard Doc Rivers’ team.

It was Johnson and super athletic deluxe Josh Smith (28 pts, 12 of 13 FT, Hawks franchise playoff record seven blocks, six rebounds) who took all the Hawks’ shots combining to score all 32 points dominating the paint against a normally strong Boston defensive club. In particular, they weren’t able to shutdown Johnson, who toasted Allen on effective pick n’ roll isolation all quarter scoring on an array of floaters. Maybe the biggest shot in a game where his team trailed 75-65 after being outscored 27-14 in the third was a classic schoolyard crossover where defender Leon Powe was so badly faked out that he fell down allowing Johnson to step back and drain a trey from the left arc, putting Mike Woodson’s team up four with 4:41 left as a raucous crowd erupted invoking memories of Atlanta-Boston series past which featured NBA Hall of Famers Dominique Wilkins and Larry Bird.

At one point, Johnson scored nine straight including a couple of ridiculous finishes where he sliced and diced the Boston D. Along with some money free throw making from Smith, they wouldn’t allow Atlanta to lose insuring that there would be another home game in the series.

Two late James Posey three’s weren’t enough as Johnson and Smith finished off the Celts at the line. In fact, the dynamic duo finished with 18 of Atlanta’s 29 free throw makes. Overall, the Hawks shot lights out going 29 for 33 as compared to the Celtics’ 10 of 18. That was the biggest difference.

They also got invaluable contributions from rookie Al Horford on the defensive glass as he finished with a game high 13 boards. Josh Childress came off the bench to grab nine rebounds including a big offensive board late to get a new shotclock. He also had a highlight reel tomahawk jam netting four points and two assists in nearly 32 minutes.

The game also featured some nastiness with Garnett and Atlanta backup center Zaza Pachulia going nose to nose before cooler heads prevailed. Pachulia took exception to a KG elbow going right after the Boston superstar nearly butting him. Both got T’s as did Sam Cassell and Johnson in which each respective coach came out making certain nobody from the bench got involved.

Good thing too because league commish David Stern was in the house looking on. There could be fines but it doesn’t look like there will be any suspensions which would be the best case scenario with a best two-of-three deciding this series.

“We all know he’s a great player,” Pachulia later indicated of Garnett who finished with 20 points, nine rebounds and six steals in a losing cause. “He’s done a lot of good things for the league. He’s a future Hall of Famer. But it doesn’t matter when we’re on the court.”

“I don’t take anything from anybody,” Pachulia added. “The message was, ‘We’re right here. Even if we lose, it’s not going to be easy.”’

Message delivered.

Two Advance: In the other two first round games played Monday night, both Orlando and the Lakers advanced to the Conference Semis.

The Magic got another 20/20 performance from man child Dwight Howard (21 pts, 21 rebs) as they eliminated the Raptors posting a 102-92 Game Five home win.

Howard paced a balanced attack which saw all five starters hit for double digits including a double/double from Rashard Lewis (18 and 13), 19 from Jameer Nelson and Hedo Turkoglu’s 12 along with a game high nine assists.

Turkoglu was presented with the NBA’s Most Improved Player before the game beating out Memphis’ Rudy Gay and Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge. Reserve guard Keith Bogans also came off the bench nailing three triples for 11 points, six boards and two assists in 35 minutes.

Toronto was paced by star power forward Chris Bosh’ 16 and nine rebounds. Supersubs Jason Kapono, Carlos Delfino and Jose Calderon each netted double figures combining for five treys and 39 points. Raptor point guard T.J. Ford added 14 but only five assists while turning it over four times.

Orlando now will await the 76ers-Pistons winner. That series is tied 2-2.

Meanwhile out West, the top seeded Lakers advanced with a hard fought 107-101 Game Four road win over the Nuggets, sweeping their talented opponent out of the playoffs. It’s the fifth consecutive year Denver’s bowed out in the first round. According to TNT, the Nuggets became the first 50-win team in playoff history to be swept in Round One.

Kobe Bryant came alive in the final quarter scoring 14 of his 31 in the last five and a half following a 17+ minute drought. Making an assortment of Kobe-esque shots as only the Laker superstar can do, he carried his team down the stretch in shooting down a more pesky Denver team finishing them off to advance to Round Two where they’ll play either Utah or Houston. The Jazz lead that series 3-1.

Bryant is a lot like Michael Jordan in that when his team needs it most, he’ll step up and make the very difficult big shots which provide sparks. This was a fun game to watch with the Nuggets refusing to go away thanks to some ridiculous hot shooting from sixth man J.R. Smith. The 22 year-old out of Freehold, New Jersey hit a couple of deep three’s including a 28-footer. That along with a three-point play put Denver back ahead by one 96-95 with over three minutes to play.

But a tough Kobe trademark 15-foot floater along with some great passing to setup an uncontested Luke Walton trey from the right corner put Los Angeles on top 100-96 with 2:37 left.

The Nuggets never seriously threatened again. It was the first time in franchise history they were swept out of the postseason.

“My wish would be that we had four games like tonight and we all could have been happier,” Nuggets coach George Karl lamented of his team which doesn’t always play disciplined on both ends.

“I’ve said all along, when they play the right way, they’re fun guys to coach.”

The dilemma for Denver moving forward is how do they change that chaotic style into a winner. They can score with Carmelo Anthony (21 pts, 11 rebs) and Allen Iverson (22 pts, 10-of-22 FG, only 2 assists) plus Smith, who becomes a free agent this summer. However, where’s the D? Marcus Camby plays hard as does Kenyon Martin, who has never quite fit in since bolting the Nets.

Unless Denver alters their style meaning not as much reliance on the offensive end at one-on-one emphasizing better team oriented play in the halfcourt set, they’ll continue to win games but not when it counts most.

It’s high time for an adjustment.

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Paul dismantles Mavericks again

Hornets' star point guard Chris Paul shoots over Dallas' Erick Dampier. Paul finished with 32 points and a franchise record 17 assists in his team's 127-103 rout of the Mavs in Game Two.

Chris Paul is a great player. That much we know. The third-year Hornets’ point guard deserves serious MVP consideration. The former Wake Forest star has done nothing thus far in his first NBA playoff series to hurt his candidacy.

A couple of days removed from an auspicious playoff debut which included 35 points with many coming in the second half of his team’s 104-92 Game One win, the 22 year-old followed it up with 32 points along with a Hornets’ franchise playoff record 17 assists in a 127-103 Game Two rout of the Mavericks. The old record was held by Muggsy Bogues, who dished out 15 back in 1993.

“I’m sure there is, but to me, I hope not,” Paul answered to reporters who asked if there was a way for Dallas to contain him.

“One thing I’ve learned through this season and watching these games is that you have to be aggressive,” he pointed out after finishing an efficient 10-of-16 from the floor while shooting 12-for-14 at the line.

“If I just sit back and let them trap me, then they succeed in what they had to do. I know I have to pick my spots when I get the ball and let other guys go, but at the same time I have to be aggressive and attack and that’s what we did.”

Whatever strategy the Mavs are trying isn’t working. They led Paul and New Orleans for a good portion of Game One but the point guard took over the second half getting 15 in the third quarter to help outscore Dallas by 24 in the final 24 minutes.

Complicating matters in Game Two was that Paul had plenty of help with five other teammates hitting for double digits including David West with 27 and veteran sharp shooter Peja Stojakovic adding 22 including five from downtown. 

Paul completely outplayed former Net Jason Kidd, who had only seven points and eight assists finishing a dismal minus-17 in 30-plus minutes.

Dirk Nowitzki paced the Mavs with 27 points, five rebounds and five assists. The 2006-07 regular season NBA MVP will need a lot more from Kidd and sidekick Josh Howard, who finished with just 10 on three of 10 shooting.

The series does shift to Dallas Friday night. So maybe they’ll be reenergized.

In other series action, the Spurs made it two-for-two against Shaq and the Suns coming back to defeat them 102-96. Tony Parker lit up Phoenix for 32 and seven assists. If they couldn’t contain the speedy point guard off the dribble, then it’s also true they couldn’t deal with NBA Sixth Man of The Year Manu Ginobili, who sliced and diced them for 29 including three triples. 

Game One hero Tim Duncan added a double/double (18 and 17) with four assists and three blocked shots. The Spurs outscored the Suns 27-11 in the third quarter to turn a seven-point halftime deficit into a nine-point lead.

They’re build as much as a 15-point cushion before veteran PG Steve Nash rallied Phoenix within five 96-91. But a Duncan free throw and a Parker step back 18-footer over Shaq sealed the game.

Though O’Neal was more effective netting 19 points, 14 boards and four blocks, it wasn’t enough. Nash scored 23 and dropped 10 dimes. Amare Stoudemire led the Suns with 33 but went ice cold in the second half making only two field goals in 11 attempts. His disappearance along with Grant Hill replacement Boris Diaw’s (9 pts, minus-17) soft play near the rim hurt Phoenix’ chances of gaining a split.

Valuable sixth man Leandro Barbosa also finished with a goose egg going 0-for-7 with three misses beyond the arc.

You just can’t win like that against the Spurs at this time of year. They’re the defending champs for a reason. A lot of people questioned how they finished the season but that final regular game blowout of Utah should’ve been a warning that Gregg Popovich’s team would be ready. They’re too polished and have way too much pride.

Maybe Charles Barkley said it best during TNT’s postgame analysis when he asked a female camerawoman how to say, “We can’t defend Parker, Duncan and Ginobili,” in French.

Phoenix was never a good defensive team. Even with Shaq, the Spurs have exposed the mismatches. They don’t get much credit for their offense but really know how to attack holes.

In the one Eastern match-up, the Magic went ahead 2-0 on Toronto edging the Raptors 104-103. They got a 29 point, 20 rebound effort from star center Dwight Howard. The second consecutive such game making the 22 year-old Atlanta native the first such player to accomplish that since Kevin Garnett did it with the Timberwolves four years ago.

When the Magic needed a money bucket late with the game slipping away, Hedo Turkoglu hit a tough lay-up and a couple of free throws to give them a 104-101 lead. The normally dependable outside threat had an off night missing on all four treys and shooting only 4-for-15 from the field. However, none of that mattered when his team fell behind by one on a Carlos Delfino free throw.

A three each by Delfino and Jose Calderon had rallied the Raptors back after falling behind by 18 in the first quarter. They shot themselves back into it making 11 three’s including four from the dangerous Jason Kapono with three also coming from Calderon.

In fact, the trio of reserve guards combined for eight of the team’s 11 three’s and 54 of their 103 points. Only All-Star power forward Chris Bosh hit double figures with 29, 10 boards and six assists. He had a chance to be the hero on the last possession but misfired allowing Orlando to escape.

Expect to see some changes in the Raptors’ lineup when the series continues Thursday night.

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