NBA Playoffs Cavs Celtics Game 1: Elbow this

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Thumbnail image for Williams_Pierce.jpgEverything was going so well for Boston. Shaq missing chippies. Rajon Rondo dominating. Kendrick Perkins protecting inside. Kevin Garnett playing as well as he has this season. A lead, in Cleveland, and just a quarter and a half to close. Plus, LeBron’s elbow was making him timid.

Elbow this.

(Click here to see PBT’s first half analysis.)

Following  a Mo Williams posterization of Paul Pierce in the third quarter, the Celtics were never the same. The Cavs went on to outscore 58-39 in the second half and win Game 1 in Cleveland 101-93 to take a 1-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. And with the game hanging in the balance, LeBron James did what makes him LeBron James, and the MVP. Whether you believe he was injured or not, and some people in Boston do not think so, James’ performance down the stretch was sublime.

James drove inside past multiple defenders, forced the issue, and when the call didn’t come, collected his own offensive rebound and scored the putback. James followed it up with a dagger pull-up three that ended any doubt of the outcome. James didn’t settle for a pull-up crossover mid-range jumper when he needed to drive, and with the surge of momentum, he buried the Celtics in a game they are going to wonder how they managed to drop it. This after a first half in which he took only two jump shots and seemed considerably intimidated by the bruised and strained elbow he’s currently dealing with, and which he had wrapped in a more heavily padded sleeve tonight.

The Celtics played superbly for two and a half quarters, and then following the Mo Williams dunk, everything changed. Williams went nova, nailing threes and jumpers and leaners, playing from mid-range how Rondo had played previously. Rondo, saddled with four fouls, was sent to the bench, and the ensuing lack of focus from the C’s allowed the run to get the Celtics back in the driver’s seat.

Going forward, there are tons of questions on both sides. The Cavs can’t expect to win this series if Rajon Rondo is going to carve them up like he did for most of the game. Rondo was able to get to the basket whenever he wanted, and often he simply drew the defense in and made smart pass after smart pass. 27 points, 12 assists, and 6 rebounds for Rondo, in a loss? That’s crushing. But it also means that the Cavs are going to have to do some serious work on how they’re going to contain him, because winning with Rondo doing that is unlikely again.

They’re also going to have to look at how to better defend Kevin Garnett. Garnett’s 9-20 line could very easily have been 11-20 or better, and he was able to move around Anderson Varejao and over Antawn Jamison. They’ll need to consider a double in certain situations and when it’s an acceptable risk (read: when Ray Allen is not in the game).

For the Celtics? Where to begin?

James… what are you going to do? If he just dropped 35, 7, 7, 3, and 2 with an injured elbow, it may take an act of God to stop him, and at this point, we’re not sure that’ll do the trick. But they can’t allow Mo Williams to take over a game like that. Tony Allen needs more time if Rondo is in foul trouble, but really, Rondo can’t get in foul trouble. The Celtics had this game and they let it get out of hand. They simply ran out of the extra effort down the stretch. For two and a half quarters, they looked like all that old talk was silly. At the end, they looked more like a Weezer than the dudes that sing “Island in the Sun” (hey-hey).

Additionally, Shaquille O’Neal’s putback down low late in the game showed that by resting O’Neal, they were able to wear out the C’s to a point where Shaq’s size made an impact. The Celtics are going to need more from Shelden Williams and Rasheed Wallace to prevent that from happening. And don’t even get us started on Paul Pierce’s defense down the stretch, which allowed the James three among other plays.

So now both teams will make adjustments, James’ elbow will heal a bit more, and the Celtics will try to move on from a huge opportunity that got away.

Stephen Curry to begin “modified” practices with Warriors

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Golden State has flipped the switch in the first round, going up 3-0 on overmatched San Antonio. The Warriors have been outscoring the Spurs by 20.2 points per 100 possessions in the series, allowing less than a point per possession on defense and scoring when and where they want. Kevin Durant is averaging 27.3 points per game, Klay Thompson is shooting 63.3 percent from three and scoring 25.7 points per game, and the Warriors are clicking.

But they are not yet whole — they need Stephen Curry back. Not for this round, but before the Western Conference Finals for sure.

Curry was re-evaluated Friday and will begin practicing with the team in a limited — or “modified” to use the team’s term — way.

The target has always been a return somewhere during the second round, and that still seems to be on track. That is also a little faster than traditional for a Grade 2 MCL sprain, which can take up to two months to heal (not the 4-6 weeks of the Warriors timeline), but the Warriors are being cautious here for now.

Eventually, the Warriors will need him back — their offense is built around Curry and his ball movement and movement off the ball. Curry’s gravity to draw defenders, even when he doesn’t have the ball, opens up the floor for others. Put simply, if he’s 28 feet from the bucket on the weak side defenders still have to watch and be near him, and help defenders need to be aware, which pulls the defense to wherever he is. Without Curry and the Warriors take more midrange jumpers, it’s just in the first round series against the Spurs they are hitting them.

 

Kenyon Martin: I once played high

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Former NBA commissioner David Stern said the league began testing for marijuana because players complained of other players playing high. Chauncey Billups said he knew teammates who played better high.

But Stephen Jackson is the rare former NBA player who admitted to playing high.

Now, he has company.

Kenyon Martin – who played for the Nets, Nuggets, Clippers, Knicks and Bucks in a 15-year career – via Bleacher Report:

We were playing in Indiana one day. I wasn’t feeling well. I had a hamstring, a hip or something. So, I smoked. I wasn’t going to play originally. So, we got to the arena, and I’m like, “I feel good.” I went and told the trainer, “I’m going to go today.” I went out there and had a great game.

If you want to guess which game this was, here are the possibilities.

This was part of a great feature on marijuana in the NBA and NFL. Matt Barnes, Al Harrington and Gary Paton also participate. I highly recommend (pun intended) watching it in full.

Nuggets president Tim Connelly: Next season playoffs or bust

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The Nuggets have steadily improved over the last four years – 30-52 to 33-49 to 40-42 to 46-36.

But even 46 wins weren’t enough to get Denver into the playoff this season, extending the postseason drought to five years.

Nuggets president Connelly, via Gina Mizell of The Denver Post:

On if next season is “playoffs or bust”:

“I think we’re there. How many times can you be the bridesmaid? Our young core, three of our best players are 23 (Gary Harris), 22 (Jokic) and 21 (Jamal Murray), and they’ve proven they’re capable of doing it at the highest level. I think all of us are, quite frankly, sick of this time of the year having a press conference.”

There’s certainly something to be said for injecting urgency. The Nuggets are already good enough to make the playoffs. They just happened to play in a historically deep Western Conference. But that doesn’t mean they can’t take more responsibility.

Denver lost to the Hawks (twice), Grizzlies (twice without Mikey Conley), Mavericks, Kings and Nets this season. Flip any of those games, and the Nuggets would have made the playoffs.

But I’m not sure what “or bust” means.

Connelly said Michael Malone would return as coach next season. If Denver misses the playoffs, would he get fired? Would Connelly come on the hot seat? What if the Nuggets again produce a record that typically qualifies for the postseason?

Even if Denver misses the playoffs next year, the 2019-20 team would have a 22-year-old Jamal Murray, 25-year-old Gary Harris and probably a 24-year-old Nikola Jokic under contract. That’s still a pretty good place to be.

Because of Jokic’s rapid ascent, the Nuggets are trying to accelerate the timeline. They most notably signed Paul Millsap last summer. (Injury cost him most of the season and contributed to Denver falling short.) They could also emphasize the present by re-signing Will Barton this offseason.

But playoffs or not next year, the Nuggets have a bright future. Connelly just doesn’t want them leaning on that excuse, though following through on his edict could create complications if Denver again narrowly misses the postseason with a good record.

Adam Silver: NBA could eventually reseed in conference finals

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NBA commissioner Adam Silver has three major talking points on 1-16 playoff seeding (rather than the current system of 1-8 seeding by conference):

1. He likes the idea of it.

2. He doesn’t feel bound by the tradition of an East vs. West format.

3. Travel is a big impediment. Not only would there be more playoff series between teams farther away, the regular-season schedule would have to be balanced and therefore include more games between teams currently in opposite conferences.

(An important point I think Silver doesn’t raise nearly enough publicly in regard to a balanced schedule: That’d mean more away games that start at 10 p.m. for Eastern Conference fans and more away games that start at 4 p.m. for Western Conference fans. That can’t be good for TV ratings.)

The NBA commissioner added another consideration in the debate.

Silver on ESPN:

The other thing you could potentially do is reseed at the conference finals. And that deals with if your two best teams are in the same conference. So, there are some other approaches to deal with. You want the two best teams to meet in the Finals.

A balanced schedule wouldn’t be necessary with this setup. The semifinals would either be fairer and produce a better NBA Finals or have the same matchup we’d get in the current system.

Even more importantly, this could pass.

As fun as it is to debate the optimal postseason format, there’s no way enough Eastern Conference owners (at least five, necessary to create a two-thirds majority) approve. They want to protect their eight playoff spots and guaranteed Finals spot.

But what if Eastern Conference teams were still guaranteed eight playoff spots and two semifinals spots? That be enough. The Rockets and Warriors – two Western Conference teams – are the NBA’s best this season. In coming years, it could be the 76ers and Celtics – two Eastern Conference teams. That’s far more variable than which conference is stronger throughout.

If teams in championship contention feel the very top of their conference will be weaker than the other conference, they could resist. But that still leaves contenders that don’t feel that way and non-contenders that want the additional shared revenue a better NBA Finals would generate.

That’s a plausible path to 20 yes votes and something we should take seriously.