NBA Playoffs Celtics Magic Game 5: Stan Van Gundy has to be willing to gamble

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Thumbnail image for Howard_blinded.jpgOnce again, Orlando, this is it. You staved off the monster, backing into a cave and swiping at its tentacles, forcing Rajon Rondo to the locker room, forcing Kevin Garnett into tough decisions (other than yelling and barking), and generally didn’t suck. Congratulations. Now you just need to do it three more times in a row.

Stan Van Gundy is often labeled with, and I’m sorry to apply simplistic adjective here but I’ve got little choice, the stupid moniker of the Master of Panic. Guys that panic don’t get their teams to the Eastern Conference Playoffs in consecutive years. But if panicking means overreacting to the situation, this is one scenario where SVG needs to embrace that label. The rotations must change.

Van Gundy needs to turn to unlikely and unconventional sources to give his team the best attack it can provide. Boston will likely be refocused. Rajon Rondo will likely be back to his werewolf-like self. Kevin Garnett may not miss as many open looks. So the Magic have to be willing to turn to alternative options if the Celtics are able to create the havoc they wreaked in the first three games. That means more time for J.J. Redick, Brandon Bass, and some looks for Ryan Anderson, and less time for Jason Williams, Mikael Pietrus, and especially Vince Carter.

Redick should be a no-brainer. The argument will be that you don’t disrupt the rotation and “psyche of your team” in the Eastern Conference Finals. No, you don’t disrupt the rotation and psyche of your team when you start the Eastern Conference Finals. Down 3-1 versus a very pissed off Celtics team that annihilated you in the first three games? That’s when it’s totally fine to pull any trick you think will work out of the bag.

Redick is +21 in this series (via PopcornMachine.net), versus Carter, who is -23 .Even if you for some reason feel that after Carter’s complete quitjob in Game 4 (going 1-9, getting torched on defense, and not showing any interest in coming back in the game in the fourth quarter) he’s your best option, you can still give Redick significant minutes. Redick’s handle isn’t superb, it’s true. But he’s a better option to run the offense than Jason Williams, who has been a complete disaster. Jameer Nelson is ready to log long minutes, and switching to a Redick-Carter backcourt means you have your best perimeter weapon (when he feels like trying) and the best pick and roll ball handler in this series in while Nelson rests. This is the time for trying new things. Just because you caught the Celtics napping at home doesn’t mean they won’t bring the thunder tonight. You need lightning in a bottle to respond, and so far in this series, the Magic’s regular rotations have been cumulus clouds drifting past a peaceful landscape.

In the front court, the Magic may want to consider some unorthodox alternatives, particularly if Dwight Howard winds up in foul trouble. Does playing Rashard Lewis at small forward against Paul Pierce sound like a nightmare? Absolutely. But it’s not like any of your other options, especially Carter or Matt Barnes, have had any success whatsoever. Lewis has the length to contest Pierce’s pull-up jumper and the size to give him problems if he should drive. What happens for those stretches at power forward then? Brandon Bass and Ryan Anderson. Anderson has seen no time in this series, due to his inexperience in both the playoffs and the system. Again, I would respond, “It’s not like the traditional approach has been effective!” Anderson has the size to body up against Sheed and the physical nature to combat Glen Davis, plus range to give both of them significant problems. Why have all this stocked talent if you’re not going to use it?

Then there’s Brandon Bass, who is quite the mixed bag. Questionable on defense, a definite spark on offense. Bass has shown at least a willingness to be aggressive against Boston which is more than you can say for several of the Magic’s wing players. Plus he has touch, which Dwight Howard has struggled with.

There are plenty of reasons to go in with what you feel are your best players and stick to the script that made you so successful during the regular season. But you’ve also got to turn to alternatives when that formula has been neutralized, tazered, dragged outside and left for dead. The Magic aren’t just up against the wall, they’re at knife point. If they want to see tomorrow, and another game in Boston (at which point you’ll see a whole lot of puckering from the guys in green whether they show it or not), they’ve got to be willing to try some new things.

Variety is the spice of life. The Boston Celtics beating the crap out of you for four quarters and you not adjusting? That’s the overcooked toast.

Rumor: 76ers increasingly confident about signing LeBron James

AP Photo/Chris Szagola
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LeBron James-76ers rumors have been mainstream for the better part of the year.

And they’re not going anywhere.

Marc Stein of The New York Times in his newsletter:

I now fully understand why whispers about the Philadelphia 76ers and their growing behind-the-scenes confidence that they can woo LeBron to Philly this summer are getting louder.

Why shouldn’t they be increasingly confident? Led by Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, the 76ers have already won a playoff series. The Cavaliers are mired in a tight first-round series with the Pacers, and LeBron’s supporting cast has mostly stunk.

This has the makings of LeBron’s previous free agencies – when he left barren Cleveland for Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh with the Heat in 2010, when he left aging Miami for Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love with the Cavaliers in 2014. Whatever motivations and narratives attached to LeBron’s decisions, he has left sinking teams for better-positioned ones.

The 76ers are good enough to fit that. They also have the cap flexibility to acquire him without sacrificing roster strength.

That LeBron has positioned himself as a mentor to Simmons – who shares an agent, Rich Paul, with LeBron – would only make signing with Philadelphia easier. LeBron could sell the narrative of teaching and grooming Simmons. LeBron, who cares about his legacy, must explain why he’s again leaving his hometown team in a way that won’t alienate everyone – not easy considering his homecoming message upon his return. Working first-hand with his protégé would look understandable, maybe even commendable.

All that said, growing confidence could be going from a 1% chance to a 10% chance. That’d be a 10-fold increase while leaving Philadelphia a big underdog.

LeBron’s free agency is still a huge unknown – including, at least in part, to LeBron himself. But I believe he has already started to consider options, even if he hasn’t made up his mind. And when that happens, signs could emerge behind the scenes. Perhaps, the 76ers have a read on those.

Or maybe they’re seeing what we’re all seeing: The 76ers are rising while the Cavs are just trying to keep their heads above water. Which situation would LeBron choose?

Victor Oladipo on his final shot: “It was a goaltend”

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Ultimately, the NBA’s Last Two Minute Report will back up Victor Oladipo — it was a goaltend.

With the score tied 95-95 and just six seconds left in the game Wednesday night, Oladipo attacked LeBron James in isolation, and like so many before him thought he was past LeBron only to have a chase down block from behind end his bid — except video replays shows Oladipo laid the ball off the backboard a fraction of a second before LeBron blocked it. That makes it a goaltend, a defender cannot block a shot that has already touched the backboard. Check out the slow-mo video.

The officials didn’t call it that way on the court, and the play is only eligible for video review if a goaltend is called (to be fair to the officials, that was an incredibly close play that is very difficult to call in real time). From there, LeBron went on to hit the dramatic game-winning three that gave Cleveland the win and a 3-2 series lead.

After the game, Oladipo and his teammates were pissed about the no-call.

“I got a step on him,” Oladipo said via the Associated Press. “I felt like I even got grabbed on the way to the rim, tried to shoot a layup, it hit the backboard, then he blocked it. It was a goaltend. It’s hard to even speak on it. It just sucks, honestly. It really sucks. Even though we fought our way back, we tied the game up, that layup was huge.

“Give him credit where credit is due. The three was big-time. Definitely huge. But who’s to say they even run that play? We don’t know what happens. It’s unfortunate. It really sucks that they missed that.”

LeBron didn’t see it that way.

“Of course I didn’t think it was a goaltend. I try to make plays like that all the time and I mean he made a heck of a move, got me leaning right and he went left and I just tried to use my recovery speed and get back up there and make a play on the ball. And I was able to make a play.”

We’ll see what the Last Two Minute Report says, but to my eyes that was a goaltend, it clearly comes off the backboard.

That call is also not why Indiana lost. If Pacers’ fans want to place blame, Oladipo going 2-of-15 on the night was a bigger issue. Or Darren Collison having an off night and going 1-of-5 from the floor. Or maybe it’s just the fact that LeBron James is the best player in the game and can drop 44 on the Pacers — including the three that may well have made the goaltend moot anyway — and Indiana can’t stop it. One call late does not by itself decide a 48-minute game.

But it was a goaltend.

Giannis Antetokounmpo puts it on himself to be more aggressive in Bucks-Celtics Game 6

AP Photo/Morry Gash
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Giannis Antetokounmpo was criticized after Game 5 of Milwaukee’s Eastern Conference series against Boston for not doing more, particularly on the offensive end.

The harshest critic: Antetokounmpo, himself.

He took only 10 field-goal attempts, his third-lowest total of the entire season. Antetokounmpo still had a brilliant stat line, finishing only one assist shy of a triple-double, but the Bucks lost 92-87 and now go back to Milwaukee trailing the first-round matchup 3-2.

Game 6 of the Celtics-Bucks series is the lone matchup on the Thursday night NBA schedule.

“Game 6, I’ve got to come out and be more aggressive,” Antetokounmpo said. “It’s on me. I had open shots, but they weren’t my shots so I didn’t feel comfortable taking them. … I’ve got to be more aggressive, make more plays because definitely, my teammates need me.”

It’s not like he was choosing to not be involved.

The Celtics got Marcus Smart back for Game 5, and Boston is much better defensively when he’s on the floor. Open looks seem to happen far more infrequently when Smart is out there, and the Bucks must solve that riddle or else their season is about to end.

Smart wasn’t the only defensive hero for Boston in Game 5. The Celtics put Semi Ojeleye on Antetokounmpko, and it worked as well as Boston could have hoped.

“Giannis is a heck of a player,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “You’re not going to be perfect against him. You’re not going to hold him down by any means. He makes plays for other people, he’s very unselfish … but we just felt like we needed a little bit more ball pressure overall, and so that was the decision to go smaller.”

If Antetokounmpko doesn’t come up bigger Thursday, it’ll be Boston going to the second round.

Here’s some of what to know going into Game 6:

CELTICS AT BUCKS

Boston leads 3-2. Game 6, 8 p.m. EDT, TNT

NEED TO KNOW: Since 2002, there have been 29 NBA teams with at least one postseason series win to their credit. The lone exception: The Bucks. It’s been 17 years since the Bucks advanced to the second round, and the Celtics are on the cusp of adding another year to Milwaukee’s wait. So far in the series, Milwaukee has outscored Boston 520-519 – which would indicate that it’s been a super-close matchup. That’s not the reality. There have been wild ebbs and flows, with one team leading by 16 points at some point in each of the last four games.

KEEP AN EYE ON: Free throws. Boston is 99 for 130 in the series from the line, while Milwaukee is 68 for 100. The Bucks have been called for 30 more fouls in the series, 124-94 – which works out to six more per game.

PRESSURE IS ON: Clearly, the Bucks. They’re facing elimination, of course, so there’s the pressure. Antetokounmpko was on the Milwaukee team that won two elimination games against Chicago in 2015 (before the Bucks eventually lost that series in six games). And he also remembers the sting of last season, when the Bucks went home for Game 6 trailing Toronto 3-2 and wound up letting a pair of late leads slip in what became a season-ending loss.

INJURY UPDATE: Getting Smart back was a rare bit of good news for Boston in this injury-marred season, one where the Celtics have been without Gordon Hayward since opening night and ultimately lost Kyrie Irving for the playoffs. Smart hadn’t played in about six weeks after tearing a ligament in his right thumb, but was a clear difference-maker for the Celtics in Game 5.

For more AP NBA coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Thunder star Russell Westbrook scores 45, leads 25-point comeback against Jazz

AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
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The Thunder lost three straight games, fell behind by 25 in the second half at home and looked as if they had no interest in returning to Utah.

Then, Russell Westbrook reminded everyone why he’s a superstar.

Westbrook is a singular force who can take over a game and rally his teammates – not a liability who makes everyone around him worse. His confidence and determination in the face of calamity were invaluable tonight. He kept attacking, and as shots started to fall, he and his teammates massively increased their defensive intensity.

The result: A 107-99 Game 5 win over the Jazz that looked highly improbable 21 game minutes before it ended. But Westbrook (who finished with 45 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists) singlehandedly outscored Utah in that final stretch.

The Thunder are hardly out of the woods yet. They still trail 3-2 in the series with Game 6 Friday in Utah. Teams with home-court advantage in a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6 win it just 37% of the time. Those teams win the series just 26% of the time.

But thanks to Westbrook, Paul George (34 points) and plain all-around defensive effort, Oklahoma City still has a shot. At minimum, the Thunder won’t send George into unrestricted free agency with four straight losses.

Not that Oklahoma City erased all concerns.

Rudy Gobert devoured the Thunder’s offense in the paint – at least while he could avoid the foul trouble. Utah was +7 in Gobert’s 30 minutes and -8 in the 18 minutes he sat.

The Thunder made most of their comeback with Carmelo Anthony on the bench. They continued to play well once he returned in the fourth quarter, but by then, the Jazz had lost all rhythm.

Utah – led by Jae Crowder‘s 27 points – looks deeper. Anthony was still Oklahoma City’s third-leading scorer with just seven points.

And the Thunder haven’t won in Salt Lake City this series.

But they’ll make another trip there. Considering where this game and series looked midway through the third quarter tonight, that’s a heck of an accomplishment.