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.

Kevin Love shut down at the rim by Bismack Biyombo (VIDEO)

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Once again, Bismack Biyombo was a force in the paint that the Raptors leaned on heavily during their Game 4 win against the Cavaliers.

His biggest play of the night was this clean block of Kevin Love at the rim. Love passed to LeBron James in the post, caught his defender napping and cut the rim, got the pass back from James and… denied.

Biyombo also got LeBron James at the rim but was called for a foul much to the dismay of Biyombo, Raptors fans, and the ESPN broadcast crew (it was the right call — watch Biyombo leap across the lane, he is anything but vertical, he contacts LeBron’s body, that’s a foul).  Either way it’s worth watching.

NBA VP explains decision not to suspend Draymond Green; says very different play than Dahntay Jones

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 22:  Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors drives against Steven Adams #12 of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the second quarter in game three of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 22, 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 Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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All day long NBA Twitter — and the Warriors, and the Thunder — waited for the shoe to drop on a decision about suspending Draymond Green for a kick to the “groin” of the Cavaliers’ Steven Adams.

Everyone just waited. And waited. And waited.

It took that long because the league wanted to be thorough — watching the film, looking at similar incidents (and the punishments there), talking to the players and the referees, and thinking it through. It was a decision with a huge impact on the series (Golden State was not winning Game 4 without Green).

So why did NBA executive vice president of basketball operations Kiki VanDeWeghe decide not to suspend Green, rather upping the foul to a flagrant 2 and taking on a $25,000 fine?VanDeWeghe talked in some detail to Sam Amick of the USA Today in a piece you should read right now. This is just a highlight.

We have professional investigators that conduct the investigation. They talk to the players, they talk to all the referees, including the replay officials, and they all come back and report to me. I obviously discuss it internally, and especially with referee operations, get their perspective. But at the end of the day … every play is different and that’s the problem. You take into account everything. You take into account t what the referees have said. They obviously went with a Flagrant One last night, and you take into account the comparables. The problem with comparables is they never tell the whole story.

One comparable a lot of people supporting the suspension brought up was the one-game suspension for Cleveland Dahntay Jones just a day before (for a punch to the groin of Bismack Biyombo. Except VanDeWeghe says it was not comparable.

But just to talk about the Dahntay Jones situation, I think that was basically a completely different play. That, you had somebody (who was) tussling for a rebound, and Jones brings back his hand his hand is open. And as he brings his hand back forward and makes contact with Bismack’s (Biyombo) groin area, the fist is closed. And so you have contact with a closed fist, so to me that’s a very different scenario and, to me, a different fact pattern, so it’s very different from what we’re talking about with Draymond, that I viewed as a flail that is becoming, you know, pretty common amongst our players in trying to sell calls. Draymond does it a fair amount, Westbrook does it a fair amount, and a number of other players. Unfortunately, in this particular one, Draymond’s leg connected in the same Adams groin area, the same area, as the Jones one, but everything else about the call, or the play, was really different.

That is what the Warriors tried to sell, and the league came to find — Green was fouled but in trying to sell that call a little he accidentally kicked Adams where men least like to be kicked.

None of this is going to change anyone’s mind — if you’re convinced Green’s kick was intentional, and he should have been suspended, there is no evidence that will get you to think otherwise. This is just context, it helps everyone understand the process and the decision. More information is a good thing.

Raptors race out to lead, hang on to beat Cavaliers 105-99, even series 2-2

TORONTO, ON - MAY 23: Kyle Lowry #7 of the Toronto Raptors handles the ball in the fourth quarter against LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers in game four of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 23, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 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 Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
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Now this is some adversity.

After winning 10 straight games to open the playoffs, the Cavaliers struggled in Game 3 in Toronto last Saturday, but that felt almost like a setback rather than a change of direction in the series. At least it did until Game 4 tipped off.

Toronto again came out with fantastic energy again on defense, scrambling and contesting everything. The Cavaliers were not attacking (well, except LeBron James) and were kicking out for threes — and missing. As a team, Cleveland was 3-of-22 from three in the first half. Meanwhile, Kyle Lowry was hot on the other end, both hitting long threes and setting up teammates. Lowry was 8-of-11 shooting in the first half, 4-of-6 from beyond the arc, and had three assists as well.

Raptors led 57-41 at the half. They needed every point of that down the stretch.

Cleveland started the second half on an 11-0 run and came back behind Kyrie Irving (15 second half points), LeBron, and a more focused defense. With six minutes to go in the game Cleveland even took the lead. It felt like this was when the Cavaliers would assert themselves as the best team in the East.

Except the Raptors out hustled and out executed the Cavaliers down the stretch. Bismack Biyombo was grabbing key rebounds inside (Patrick Patterson had a huge offensive rebound as well), and Lowry and DeRozan remained hot — the guards combined for 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting in the fourth quarter — not taking threes (0-of-1) but attacking and getting to the basket an the line.

The result was a 105-99 Toronto win that evens the Eastern Conference Finals at 2-2 heading back to Cleveland Wednesday for Game 5.

“I thought we come back, had control of the game, was up three points, then we made some defensive mistakes you can’t do down the stretch, and they cost us — each time we made a mistake they made us pay,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said postgame.

This was another game where Toronto played with great defensive energy and the Cavaliers responded by settling — they took 41 threes in Game 3 (hitting 13), Monday they were 13-of-42. J.R. Smith was 3-of-11, Kevin Love 2-of-7 (and sat out the fourth quarter with a potential injury, he was limping). The guys that kept the Cavaliers in it in the fourth (besides LeBron, who was fantastic again) were Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye, who combined 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting. But it was not enough.

“We’ve got to be more well balanced,” LeBron said on a night he finished with 29 points on 11-of-16 shooting. “We started the game, we had some great looks, but when they’re not going you’ve got to be able to switch it up and get into the paint and do what you can do. I was able to get into the paint a little bit, Kyrie as well, but we just haven’t shot the ball from the three point line.”

Offensively, the Raptors were carried by Lowry and DeRozan, which was the case all season. Lowry had 35 points on 20 shots and looked every bit the All-Star version of himself.

“He’s made shots,” Lue said. “He’s being aggressive. He’s making shots. Tonight he made some early baskets that gave him some confidence, I thought, in the first quarter, and he carried it throughout the game.”

DeRozan had 32 points on 23 shots and was getting to the spots on the floor he liked. Once in Toronto both Biyombo and Patterson have done a good job of switching up their screen angles on the pick-and-roll, and the Cavaliers get flummoxed by this.

“We’ve got to find a way to be more consistent,” Lowry said. “(He and DeRozan) need to find a way to be consistent throughout a whole series.”

Then again there was Biyombo, the free agent to be making the case he should get paid big this summer. He finished with 14 boards — including a number of key ones late — and three blocks. His presence inside has the Cavaliers hesitant to attack the paint.

This sets up a lot of interesting questions heading into Game 5 Wednesday.

Can Toronto play with the same energy on the road? Can Cleveland adjust to the Toronto defense and get back to attacking the paint? Will Lowry stay hot? Will Love regain his stroke?

The bottom line is this is a series now — best of three. And the Cavaliers are no lock to advance.

Watch Kyle Lowry’s red-hot shooting second quarter

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Kyle Lowry found his shot back home in Toronto.

After a rough first couple games (actually a rough couple rounds to start the playoffs), Lowry has gotten hot back home, and that seemed to peak in the second quarter when he shot 6-of-7 overall and 3-of-4 from three. He had 15 points, 20 in the quarter, and the Raptors were up 16 at the half.