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.

Report: Clippers’ Chris Paul cleared, could play against Warriors on Thursday

Los Angeles Clippers' Chris Paul shoots as Portland Trail Blazers' Al-Farouq Aminu watches during the first half of an NBA preseason basketball game Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
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Chris Paul tore a ligament in his left thumb last month, and the Clippers announced he’d miss 6-8 weeks.

He could return just over five weeks after injury, when the Clippers face the Warriors on Thursday.

Clippers coach Doc Rivers, via Andrew Han of ESPN:

“He looked great. He went through the whole practice [on Tuesday]. You know, so it was good. Really good,” Rivers said before practice on Wednesday. “He could play tomorrow. I mean, I can’t tell you if he will or not, but he’s been cleared medically. But we just want to make sure that he’s comfortable playing.”

The Clippers have slid to fourth in the West, leading the fifth-place Jazz by just half a game. It’s probably too late to catch the third-place Rockets, who are five games up. But maintaining home-court advantage in the first round is important.

Paul should help.

The Clippers remain dangerous when healthy. They’ve outscored teams by 15.1 points per 100 possessions when Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and J.J. Redick share the court. With those four, they score and defend at rates that would lead the league if it weren’t for Golden State’s historic offensive rating.

DeMarcus Cousins on trade from Kings: “I’m not sour”

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DeMarcus Cousins met with the press for the first time in New Orleans, and they got a vision of the relaxed and happy side of the big man.

He was cracking jokes, saying he thought himself and Anthony Davis would blend perfectly, and being engaging.

One of the best parts was Cousins being asked how competitive he is, and Cousins replied “About 17 technicals worth.”

Cousins also talked a fair amount about how he and Davis would work together.

Cousins talked a good game, now he has to show it started Thursday on the court against the Rockets.

Report: Wizards trade first-round pick to get Bojan Bogdanovic and Chris McCullough, unload Andrew Nicholson

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 30: John Wall #2 of the Washington Wizards battles Bojan Bogdanovic #44 of the Brooklyn Nets for a loose ball during the first half at Verizon Center on December 30, 2016 in Washington, DC. 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 Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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John Wall has been so good, he made himself right.

The Wizards’ starters have been awesome, and their bench has been about equally bad. With Washington surging to third in the East, and the fourth-place Raptors making their move with Serge Ibaka, this was no time to idle.

So, as Wall predicted, the Wizards traded for bench helpBojan Bogdanovic and Chris McCullough from the Nets.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

Andrew Nicholson, with three years and $19,911,007 remaining after this season, had negative value. He was part of the reason the Wizards’ bench stunk. Likewise, Marcus Thornton provided little in reserve. A 29-year-old on an expiring minimum contract, he was likely included only so Washington didn’t exceed the roster maximum of 15 players.

Essentially the Wizards traded a first-round pick for Bogdanovic, McCullough and shedding Nicholson.

Bogdanovic will provide wing scoring for a reserve unit badly in need of juice. He has been an ineffective defender, but his 6-foot-8 frame offers a path to improvement on that end.

The 27-year-old will be a restricted free agent next summer. Assuming re-signing Otto Porter is the priority, keeping Bogdanovic could push Washington into the luxury tax — likely a non-starter. This could win up just a rental, but there’s plenty of time to evaluate Bogdanovic’s (and everyone else’s) long-term fit.

The Nets drafted McCullough No. 29 in 2015 as a project, and he remains one. The 22-year-old has spent far more time in the D-League than the NBA this season. It’s unlikely he contributes this season, as lower as the bar is for the Wizards’ bench. He has two additional seasons left on his rookie-scale contract, time for Washington to figure out what it has.

Now, Brooklyn has a couple first-round picks this year — the Celtics’ and the Wizards’. That doesn’t amount to much, but the Nets are so far from relevance, getting even younger is a wise path forward.

Report: Pacers both exploring Paul George trade market with Lakers, seeking deals to get him help

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - JANUARY 27:  Paul George #13 of the Indiana Pacers celebrates after making a basket during the game against the Sacramento Kings at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on January 27, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  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 Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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The Pacers are coming up on a franchise fork in the road.

Ideally, Pacers’ president Larry Bird and company would like to keep Paul George in Indiana and join Bird himself as one of the legendary basketball players of the Hoosier state, in PG’s case as of the greatest Pacers of all time. But to do that would require building a contender around George in Indiana — and that means bringing in more talent fast.

George was direct with the Pacers owner in a recent meeting saying almost exactly that, reports Sam Amick of the USA Today.

So when George met with team owner Herb Simon in recent days and told him that the Hoosier state was still the place for him, how he would love nothing more than to eventually go down as the greatest Pacer of them all, it came with one qualifier.

If they can contend for a title.

However, if contending isn’t in the cards, George could bolt as a free agent in 2018 (there are plenty of people around the league who will tell you George would love to be a Laker and be back in Los Angeles, where he grew up). That concern has the Pacers thinking maybe they should see what the trade market is for PG, if they can get something for him rather than nothing in 2018.

So while the Pacers are saying they don’t plan to move him, they are trying to get a sense of that market, reports Adrain Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

The Pacers are working the trade deadline on parallel fronts: Pursuing deals that will bring talent into Indiana to sell George on signing a long-term extension – and soliciting deal offers on George that would signal a rebuild around center Myles Turner, league sources told The Vertical.

Ultimately, the Pacers will have to evaluate the two paths and make a decision before Thursday’s 3 p.m. ET deadline. There’s no urgency to make a deal for George, unless the Pacers fear the Boston Celtics could ultimately provide Indiana the best possible package of assets in a deal – and think that option could disappear if Boston makes a deal with Chicago for Jimmy Butler.

One of the teams moving to get in on the George market is the Lakers, according to Sam Amick of the USA Today.

The fact that the Lakers are in the process of trying to land George right now, with new lead executive Magic Johnson moving fast to fill that superstar hole that Kobe Bryant left behind, only makes these next two days all the more compelling.

Magic had said in interviews on Tuesday that the young core of the Lakers was “untouchable.” It couldn’t be in this case, it would take Brandon Ingram and at least another young player from that core to even get the conversation started — is Magic going to sell out the young core in his first days in power to get a star player immediately?

Unless Boston is willing to part with one of their Brooklyn picks this year or next, it’s hard to imagine a deal sending George outside Indiana done in the next day before the deadline (3 p.m. Eastern on Thursday). And the word around the league so far is Boston is not giving those picks up.

It feels like Indiana is more likely to bring in help at the deadline — they have engaged in talks for Jahlil Okafor among many others — but failing that will take a harder look at trading George around the draft or this summer.

There is one complicating factor here — the designated player rule. If George can make an All-NBA team this season or next, he would qualify to get the designated player contract extension, five years and $210 million, at least $30 million more than any other team could offer. If George qualifies the Pacers would offer the deal, and he would take it.

The problem is qualifying. George is a borderline All-NBA player, but there are just six All-NBA forward slots available, and the competition is fierce: LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, Giannis Antetokounmpo, LaMarcus Aldridge, Jimmy Butler, Gordon Hayward, and the list goes on. George made the All-NBA team last year, but he’s on the bubble again this year.

The Pacers likely wait to see if he makes the team again and if they can offer him the designated player deal. If not, George could be moved this summer (or the Pacers could wait until next deadline and see if George is on pace for an All-NBA nod next season, but if not the trade market for him will be less robust because he’s a rental).