NBA finals, Celtics Lakers: Five keys for both teams to win it all

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Odom_Allen.jpgDavid Stern is smiling. As always, the Midas touch commissioner got what he wanted. Two years ago the Lakers/Celtics NBA Finals was a ratings bonanza. The two most storied franchises in the NBA. Two large and passionate fan bases (based in large markets). A genuine rivalry renewed on the league’s biggest stage.

Plus don’t forget — two very good teams. Two very different teams, but two good and competitive ones. Two teams that have earned their way to this point. Each with dreams of hanging another banner in the rafters.

Celtics five keys to victory:

Defend like it is 2008
The Lakers are not used to real defensive intensity. Despite all the talk of the zone Phoenix ran, the Lakers still pretty much scored at will all series against a shorter Suns team. Before that LA saw a small Utah team. Boston is long and brings a focused defensive intensity that the Lakers have not seen. As happened in Game 1 against Orlando, that intensity could cause the Lakers to step back and cost them a game. Their inability to overcome Boston’s defense cost them a series in 2008 and is the ultimate weapon for the Celtics again.

Rajon Rondo
He is the offensive leader of the Celtics. And he plays the position and a style that the Lakers have had trouble stopping all season. Derek Fisher cannot contain Rondo. If he can slash and drive into the heart of the Lakers defense, the Lakers rotations will be strained and Boston will get their points.

Ray Allen’s defense
You cannot let Kobe Bryant take over, particularly at the end of games. Ask Alvin Gentry about it. Ray Allen will have the assignment, but it is really a team assignment with double teams and rotations. If you let Kobe beat you, he will. If you force the other Lakers to beat you, your chances go way up. If Allen can wear Kobe out on the other end of the floor, and score some points in the process, that would help.

Be physical
The Lakers can still be pushed around. Ron Artest and Andrew Bynum change the dynamic some from 2008, but Pau Gasol and Lakers bench players can often shy away from physical play, they become less effective. Take Gasol out and the Lakers offense becomes stagnant. Push them around as much as the referees will allow.

The Bench
In 2008, James Posey came up huge for the Celtics off the bench, he was maybe the Celtics second most valuable player behind Paul Pierce. Posey is sitting at home right now — somebody else has to step up. It doesn’t have to be the same guy every night — it can be Sheed one night, Nate Robinson another. But the Celtics need production out of their bench to score enough to knock off the Lakers.

Lakers five keys to victory:

Stop Rajon Rondo
For a couple years now, quick slashing point guards have been the bane of the Lakers existence. Derek Fisher can’t slow them and once into the teeth of the Lakers defense things can break down. Fisher has to do better (as he has done in the playoffs) and the Lakers rotations have to be sharp. Los Angeles has already controlled Russell Westbrook, Deron Williams and Steve Nash enough to win the first three series, now they must do it one more time.

Ron Artest’s defense
Two years ago Paul Pierce did whatever he wanted against the Lakers defense — Ron Artest was brought in specifically to stop that. (Well, Pierce or that LeBron guy, whoever they had to deal with.) The Lakers will lose if Pierce gets loose again and the rest of the Lakers defense focused on stopping Rondo. Artest will have to take Pierce out himself.

Pau Gasol
Last year in the finals, Pau Gasol spent much of the time matched up on Dwight Howard and he held his own. Nobody talked of toughness then. But it still comes up when fans get frustrated, and in this series the long Celtics front line will be physical him again. Garnett will try to intimidate. If Gasol fades away, so will the Lakers offense and their chances to win. However, Garnett’s lateral quickness is not what it was and Gasol may be able to face up and attack KG this time.

Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant is on maybe the best playoff run of his career — 29.4 points per game overall on 48 percent shooting and 41 percent from three. He is hitting the big shots again, but more importantly since his knee was drained last he has been quicker and elevating higher. He has gotten to his spots on the floor. The Celtics usually defend Kobe by sending hard double teams at him, trying to get the ball out of his hands. Kobe has to make the smart passes (and his teammates need to step up) then take the shots when he gets them. If he forces it, he plays into the Celtics hands.

Homecourt
The Lakers have been a better team at home these playoffs. In both the Oklahoma City series and the Phoenix series, the Lakers fell apart on the road only to get right at home in Game 5 and win the series one game later. With the 2-3-2 format in the Finals, the four games at Staples Center could be the biggest difference for the Lakers from four years ago.

Watch Russell Westbrook drop 36 on Golden State in Oklahoma City win

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Once again, Russell Westbrook was the force of nature the Warriors could not solve.

The athletic point guard forced turnovers, threw it down in transition, and drove right past Stephen Curry or  was guarding him. The result was 36 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists — Westbrook’s first triple double of these playoffs.

“He’s got such great force and great will,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said after the Thunder’s Game 4 win. “And he’s really a high IQ basketball player, he sees a lot of things going on out there… As a coach, you have great respect and admiration for a guy who plays the game that hard and gives to our team what he gives.”

He helped give them a win that has the Thunder on the verge of a return to the NBA Finals.

Russell Westbrook, Thunder defense again overwhelm Warriors 118-94, take commanding 3-1 lead

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 24:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder reacts in the first half against the Golden State Warriors in game four of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 24, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)
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One year ago, it was the Warriors’ adjustments, the Warriors’ defense that was propelling the franchise to its first title in 40 years.

This season, the Thunder turned the tables on the champs.

The length and switching of the Thunder defense resulted in 16 steals Tuesday night — and that means easy transition buckets for OKC. That swarming defense had an off Stephen Curry open the game 1-of-10 shooting, turning the ball over six times on the night, and finishing 6-of-20 shooting, 2-of-10 from three. The Thunder defense has made the Warriors shooters tentative; they are hesitating before making a play rather than just shooting in the flow, something that has seemed impossible to do to Golden State for a couple of seasons now. As a team, the Warriors shot just 30 percent from three and 41.3 percent overall, with Klay Thompson in the second half being the only guy who could knock down shots.

Curry was also asked to guard Russell Westbrook for long stretches of the game and that didn’t go well. Westbrook was the Thunder engine again and finished with a triple-double of 36 points, 11 assists, and 11 rebounds.

Once again the Thunder played fast, aggressive and beat the Warriors at their own game — a 118-94 Thunder win. Oklahoma City now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out Thursday night in Golden State. If not, it feels like Saturday night will be the end of the Warriors 73-win season.

And maybe just the beginning for a talented Thunder team that is just now coming together.

Right now, everything the Thunder try works.

For example, on offense, Billy Donovan made another smart adjustment — if the Warriors were going to ignore Andre Roberson (allowing bigs like Draymond Green or Andrew Bogut to patrol around the rim), the Thunder would start using Roberson like a power forward who set picks, rolled to the rim, and surrounded by shooters he and his teammates could make plays. Roberson finished with career high 17 points on 12 shots.

“He’s a pretty active player so he got some offensive boards and he snuck behind our defense a couple times and we did not guard him correctly,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.

It all worked in the first half again, when the Thunder were attacking the rim — leading to 28 first half free throws from the Thunder — and after a tight first quarter OKC stretched the lead out to 20 points behind a 16-point quarter from Westbrook. This is when the Thunder took charge of the game.

“He’s got such great force and great will,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said of Westbrook. “And he’s really a high IQ basketball player, he sees a lot of things going on out there… As a coach, you have great respect and admiration for a guy who plays the game that hard and gives to our team what he gives.”

Golden State made a comeback in the third that was all Klay Thompson — he had 19 consecutive points for the Warriors, and the lead got cut down to 6 at one point. Thompson finished the night with 26 points on 17 shots and was clear and away the best Warrior (with Harrison Barnes second).

But then Westbrook led a push back that again stretched the lead out, and he got help from Dion Waiters with a three (Waiters played well again and had 10 points on the night). The Thunder never looked back.

Kevin Durant added 26 points (but on 8-of-24 shooting, not his best night), while Serge Ibaka added 17. The Thunder may be the only team in the NBA with the depth of athletes to run with Golden State, and they are doing it and making it work.

The Warriors defense has no answer for the Thunder attack, and Golden State is getting away from some of their identity. They have always switched nearly every pick with their small lineup, but because of rebounding concerns this series they have gotten away from that. The Thunder have figured out how to exploit that.

The Warriors have just not adjusted to the length of the Thunder defense — Golden State turned the ball over 21 times, 19.9 percent of their possessions. If you give it away one every five times down the court to a good team, you lose.

“I thought we competed again tonight, I just thought we didn’t play very intelligently,” Kerr said postgame. “Too many turnovers, careless passes. This is probably the longest team in the league we are facing and we continue to try and throw passes over the top of their outstretched arms. Probably not a great idea.”

In addition to Curry, Draymond Green had his second poor game in a row — 1-of-7 shooting with six turnovers, and again he was out of position on defense too often. He has played like a guy flustered by the opponent.

A lot of the Warriors have, while the Thunder just gain confidence. The kind of confidence that will carry them back to the NBA Finals.

 

Thunder’s Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant put on first-half show at Warriors’ expense

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I’d say Warriors fans are stunned, but more than that Warriors players look stunned — they are getting steamrolled by Oklahoma City again, giving up 72 first half points and being down by 19.

I guess we tell Warriors’ fans what we have told the fans of teams they have steamrolled the past couple years — enjoy the show, you don’t get to see many like this.

Above was a Kevin Durant to Russell Westbrook fastbreak assist and bucket. Now check out the fantastic Steven Adams pass, and a highlight package of Westbrook dropping 16 in the second quarter on the Warriors (21 in the first half).

 

Charles Barkley: “I’ve never seen the NBA as bad as it is”

HOUSTON, TEXAS - APRIL 04:  Former NBA player and commentator Charles Barkley looks on prior to the 2016 NCAA Men's Final Four National Championship game between the Villanova Wildcats and the North Carolina Tar Heels at NRG Stadium on April 4, 2016 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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Charles Barkley is walking entertainment and the brilliant Inside the NBA would not be the same without him and his off-the-cuff opinions (which is a great thing in sports talk, not so much with national policy).

But he remains the leader of the annoying #getoffmylawn crew of older players who don’t like today’s game.

Barkley was on the Bickley and Marotta on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM last week and went off again on the state of the game, (hat tip For The Win).

“People think us old guys hate when we talk about it. It has nothing to do with the Warriors’ greatness, LeBron’s greatness. But I’ve never seen the NBA as bad as it is, and I’ve been saying it the last three or four years. We’ve got too many young players coming out of college that don’t know how to play. It’s frustrating for me because I want to see competitive basketball.

“We took a survey on our crew … How many actual NBA teams would you buy season tickets for?” he added. “Four in the west and Cleveland obviously in the east. That’s not good for our league.”

To be fair, Barkley speaks for a lot of people here.

I think they are all wrong, but he speaks for them. And I think they are a plurality. Based on television ratings going up even as streaming of live games spikes (as someone who works for Comcast/NBC, I can say the in-market streaming of CSN teams such as the Warriors, Celtics, Wizards, etc. did well this year and grew faster than projections), as I look at the crossover appeal of Stephen Curry, the sendoff Kobe Bryant got, the popularity of LeBron James and Kevin Durant etc, the league is doing well by any measure.

But more than that, the game now is more entertaining than it’s been in years. Tell me how grabbing some guy on the perimeter, the clutching and clawing to slow the game down in the 1990s leading to 86-82 slogs, was more fun than the skill being shown today. Jordan was must watch, frankly Barkley was fun, but Mike Fratello’s Cavaliers teams? The Mavericks and Clippers of that era? I think Barkley and others look at the past through some Mr. Magoo glasses, but that is their prerogative. I loved 80s basketball. I liked 90s basketball. But to constantly dismiss the game today just sounds like someone clinging to the past.