NBA Playoffs Celtics Cavs Game 5: Let's not overlook the return of the Celtics' horsemen

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pierce.jpgI understand the reaction. I had the same. Shock. Disappointment. Disbelief. It’s not about who you root for. LeBron James performing at a high level? It’s good for the NBA. It’s good for the playoffs. It’s good for the sport. And his monumental failure last night left a lot of basketball fans feeling betrayed, and left the media baying like wolves at the edge of the woods, waiting for the last fires to die out in Game 6.

But beyond all that, we’ve got to take a moment and see, very clearly, that this Celtics team, at least right now, is everything they have said they were.

They told us not to worry when they looked old, weak, and vulnerable in the regular season. They said they would turn it on, that they were just bored, that they could and would show up. They said they were the real contenders and that all the media attention elsewhere was misguided and misplaced.

And they have been right, so far.

The Celtics, as it was in 2008, start with their defense. And while LeBron James had ample opportunities he simply dismissed outright in Game 5, the Celtics gave him good reason to shut it down. Receive the ball on the perimeter, and face a primary defender set at the arc and a second one just to the inside, with a third ready to spring up from the low block. They had the book on James, and they executed it. This is not easy.

It takes discipline, devotion, and a system of rigorous principles. He beats the first two men? Foul. Hard. Make them reset or shoot free throws. Whatever it takes to deter him. Don’t worry about the fouls, we’ve got enough bigs.

Meanwhile, they made Mo Williams into a joke. Williams, a former All-Star point guard, couldn’t dribble. And that’s not an exaggeration. The Celtics converged on Williams on any probe inside and either forced a turnover or a wild exit pass to reset the offense. And that meant the Cavs had less than 10 seconds usually to execute their offense.

Much will be said of James’ terrible offensive performance, but let’s not overlook what the Celtics did to the Cavs’ much ballyhooed defense. Rondo wasn’t even needed in the first half. And when he was needed in the second, he delivered. The Celtics beat them in every way possible Kevin Garnett is still a long, tall, lanky former-MVP who can nail turnarounds and hook shots as long as a seven footer isn’t defending him. Ray Allen? That spring around two slip screens, catch-and-shoot? That’s as reliable as 7-11. Always open. Allen’s dedication to his jumpshooting craft is paying off, and the Cavs’ simply have had no answer. But all that was still survivable until the Truth showed up.

Pierce did it all last night, nailing the elbow jumper he’s known for, taking threes in transition, dropping low for pump-fake easy shots, the works. When Pierce, Allen, and KG are firing? That team is damn near unstoppable. When Rondo’s doing it, too? You can take out the near. Just unstoppable.

And that’s all before you get to a bench. The Celtics’ bench is shakey. Has been all season. But they need so little that to get the performances they’ve gotten in the playoffs from Glen Davis, Tony Allen, and even, to some degree, Rasheed Wallace, just adds to their danger.

There’s no telling how this team will match up with the Magic if they manage to win Game 6 or 7. But last year Paul Pierce said on Twitter that the Magic were poodles and the Celtics were Rottweilers. That was dismissed earlier this season as delusional.

Turns out that when the chain’s off, the bite is worse than the bark.

John Wall pushes down Jusuf Nurkic from behind in retaliation (video)

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John Wall didn’t like how Jusuf Nurkic bumped him, so Wall shoved the Nuggets center from behind and sent him to the floor.

An overreaction to the bump? Probably. Wall got hit with a technical foul.

But I’m mostly just impressed Wall was strong enough to push over Nurkic.

DeMar DeRozan throws down massive dunk against Timberwolves (VIDEO)

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DeMar DeRozan is having one of those seasons for the No. 2 team in the Eastern Conference, the Toronto Raptors. During Thursday night’s win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, 124-110, DeRozan scored 27 points while adding eight rebounds, five assists, and shooting a whopping 13 free throws.

DeRozan also sealed the victory in the final minute with a huge put back dunk.

The Raptors led by 9 points with a minute left as they were inbounding the ball. A long pass from the baseline to a streaking DeMarre Carroll resulted in a blocked layup, but DeRozan was there to clean up the mess.

Via CJZero on Twitter:

Three things we learned Thursday: Memphis, Marc Gasol just win every close game

Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) shoots between Portland Trail Blazers forward Al-Farouq Aminu, from left, center Mason Plumlee, and forward Jake Layman (10) in the second half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
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Here’s what you missed Thursday around the NBA while you were drinking homemade glow-in-the-dark beer with jellyfish genes in it (no, you try it first, I insist)…

1) Don’t play Memphis in a close game, they just find a way to win.
Last week, when Mike Conley went down with a back injury and was going to miss six weeks (give or take), we questioned if Memphis could keep their heads above water. They promptly went out and lost to a very good Toronto team.

Since then they have won five in a row, capped by an impressive 88-86 win over Portland Tuesday. Impressive because:

• Memphis is now 12-0 in games that were within 3 points in the final minute. You get in a close game with Memphis, you lose. (Statistically, we know some of that is luck, that there will be some regression to the mean, but that stat has propelled a team has been outscored by nine points this season, one that should be 12-12, to the 16-8 record they have.)

• Memphis trailed Portland 79-68 with less than five minutes to go, and still won.

Marc Gasol had 36 points and has been an absolute beast since Conley went down, doing whatever it takes to win.

• Toney Douglas — a guy the Grizzlies just picked up off the street this week, basically — comes in and is clutch down the stretch for them, including hitting the game-winning free throws with 0.5 seconds left (Damian Lillard tried to argue the call, to no avail).

The schedule gets tough for Memphis the next couple of weeks — Golden State, home-and-home with Cleveland, then Boston and Utah looming not long after — but do not doubt the Grizzlies. No team is as resilient as this bunch.

2) Bulls prove Spurs aren’t perfect on the road. It was bound to happen, the San Antonio Spurs were 13-0 on the road, they were going to stumble at some point. That point turned out to be Thursday night in Chicago, where the Spurs came out of the gate like they went out and had a big pregame meal of Lou Malnati’s pizza — 32 points on 30.6 percent shooting in the first half for San Antonio. The Spurs didn’t defend poorly, for example Kawhi Leonard held Jimmy Butler to no first-half points — in fact, midway through the first quarter Taj Gibson and Robin Lopez had scored almost all the Bulls’ buckets — but the San Antonio offense was dreadful. Throw a little credit to the Chicago defense if you want, but this was more San Antonio stumbling than a Chicago return to the Thibodeau era.

The Bulls were up 12 at the half and were able to hang on despite a strong second 24 minutes from Leonard (17 of his 24 came in the second half) and get the win. Dwyane Wade had 20 points and hit a couple of key buckets late to stabilize Chicago. For a Bulls team that is going to be in a playoff battle all season — they are the seven seed right now, one game ahead of the Pacers in ninth — these kinds of wins at home can prove huge.

3) What is it with Minnesota and second half? On the road, the Minnesota Timberwolves had played the Toronto Raptors even for the first 24 minutes — it was 59-59 at the half. And yet, there was a sense of dread for Timberwolves fans because all season their young team has just come apart in the third quarter — and then Toronto opened the second half on an 11-2 run. Minnesota, to their credit, crawls back into it, but midway through the fourth the Raptors go on a 17-4 run sparked by Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and the Raptors pull away for the 124-110 win. The Timberwolves lost another game because they can’t defend well.

Minnesota shows flashes of the kind of brilliance that has everyone thinking they might be a contender in a few years. But we all expected too much too soon from this group. Those impressive stretches are followed by ones where they play like a young team, they don’t defend well, and they throw those good efforts away. Not that they were going to beat a good Toronto team on the road, but the Timberwolves can be frustrating to watch. Patience is hard, and Minnesota fans are being asked to show a lot of it. We can debate if it’s time to bring Ricky Rubio off the bench and let Kris Dunn sink or swim, but that’s not the core problem. Ultimately, the Timberwolves are young and playing like it. They don’t know how and aren’t putting in the effort to defend well yet. Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, they can be the core of a contender eventually, but there is a lot of learning to do along the way. Tom Thibodeau can teach them. But it’s going to require patience.

Watch Joel Embiid completely erase Anthony Davis’ layup

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Anthony Davis is languishing in New Orleans, but at least Thursday night’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers pitted The Brow against The Process. That is, Joel Embiid.

When the two multi-talented big men met on the floor in New Orleans, Embiid got the better of Davis on at least one play.

With the ball on the left wing, Davis was able to get a step on Ersan Ilyasova out of the triple-threat position. As Davis dribbled toward an open lane, Embiid slid over to add some extra protection:

Great timing and court feel from Embiid, who has looked like a strong candidate for Rookie of the Year.