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New York at Atlanta (ESPN, 1:05 p.m.)
The Hawks nearly played the part of extremely rude host on Friday night.
Boston showed up, hat in hand, with Doc Rivers resting future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett in addition to the injured Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen and Mickael Pietrus. Enjoy the gift, Boston basically said, opting to put health and rest for its team over homecourt advantage in a first-round series that will likely open next weekend.
Atlanta nearly returned the thoughtful gesture as if it were a wedding gift given more than one year later.
Despite Joe Johnson's 30 points, the Hawks nearly fumbled away a substantial edge in the fourth quarter and held on for a 97-92 win. New York was having its own issues, stumbling to a 98-90 loss in Cleveland that made the outlook for catching Orlando for the No. 6 seed bleak. The Knicks are left to jockey for the final two positions in the Eastern Conference playoff picture with Philadelphia, with whoever finishes No. 7 likely to draw the Miami Heat.
Of greater importance to former Hawks coach Mike Woodson and Knicks nation is developing chemistry and cohesion with Amar'e Stoudemire returning to the starting lineup. The Knicks forward returned from a back ailment on Friday with some spring in his step, but was unable to spark his surging team or co-exist effectively with Carmelo Anthony, who went back to his conventional small forward spot. Look for that to be the focus in front of what should be a packed house at Atlanta's Philips Arena that's likely to include a vocal contingent of Knicks fans.
Woodson, who coached the Hawks from 2004-10, was elevated to interim head coach on Mar. 14 upon Mike D'Antoni's dismissal and has guided the team to a playoff appearance. He's already lost, 100-90, in his return to Atlanta on Mar. 30 thanks to unexpected bench production from Willie Green (8-for-9, 20 points) helping offset a 36-point night from Anthony and a career-high 25 points from Georgia Tech product Iman Shumpert, who thrived in his return to the area.
Stoudemire was out for that game but had 10 rebounds in the only other meeting between these teams, a Jeremy Lin-led 99-82 rout at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 22 that seems like forever and a day ago. Because that result was produced by D'Antoni's system and came in the midst of Linsanity, there isn't much to take from that first encounter.
Expect the keys to this one to include stopping Jeff Teague from getting the Hawks transition game going, Shumpert and Landry Fields attempting to limit Joe Johnson, Stoudemire getting re-acclimated to a major role and Josh Smith and Anthony going at one another. Zaza Pachulia remains out for Atlanta, but Erick Dampier could return to help Jason Collins deal with Tyson Chandler in the post, giving the Hawks a fighting chance on the boards.
Atlanta opened as a 3 ½-point favorite but the number is sitting at 2 ½-points at most shops. The total is 191.
Oklahoma City at L.A. Lakers (ABC, 3:35 p.m.)
In a huge game for both teams, the L.A. Lakers hope to prevent the Oklahoma City Thunder from sweeping all three encounters in this lockout-shortened season.
Not only is this a matter of pride for Laker nation, but also a must-win if they want to keep the Clippers behind them in the race for the Pacific Division and the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. OKC is in its own race for the top spot with San Antonio, which holds the tie-breaker should the teams end up with identical records.
Kobe Bryant returned from resting a shin injury that resulted in two weeks of inactivity, but struggled to make an impact against the Spurs in a 121-97 loss on Friday. Bryant, who pledged to be a more effective teammate after watching Andrew Bynum and Ramon Sessions thrive with greater responsibility, took few shots and early and picked his spot, ultimately finishing 7-for-12 from the field for a team-high 18 points.
His effort against the Thunder this season hasn't been as efficient, nor his shot selection as judicious. In the Feb. 24 loss in Oklahoma City, Bryant shot 7-for-24 and came up empty in clutch situations despite not having to face Thunder stopper Thabo Sefolosha. OKC's top perimeter defender was back for the Mar. 30 meeting at Staples Center and helped hold Bryant to 7-for-25 shooting in a game where Andrew Bynum's 10-for-15 night and a 30-18 first-quarter lead wound up wasted.
Los Angeles natives Russell Westbrook and James Harden look forward to coming home and thriving against the team they grew up watching, so count on an emotional effort from both, especially given what's at stake. Bynum has been on a tear, so another point of emphasis is going to be how he fares against Kendrick Perkins and the NBA's top shot-blocker, Serge Ibaka.
Another interesting story line revolves around Derek Fisher, who received a standing ovation when he checked in off the Thunder bench last month. Often the defensive scapegoat against elite athletes like Westbrook, Fisher has found a more suitable role knocking down perimeter looks and leaving the playmaking to Harden in OKC's second unit.
Given the ties that bind them and the likelihood these teams run into each other in next month's Western Conference semifinals, count on plenty of messages being sent in what should be a physical showdown. Oklahoma City has earned the rebounding edge in both games and imposed its will. Count on the Lakers looking to reverse that trend at home as they ratchet up their intensity with the playoffs looming.
The Thunder are listed as one-point road favorites over the Lakers, while the total is hovering between 199 and 200 points.