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The five best NBA finals. Ever.

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wreed.jpgWe are staring at another great one. Potentially. These 2010 Lakers and Celtics match up pretty evenly, both are championship tested; both have big stars and thrilling role players. This is going to be fun.

But can it match up to the all-time greats? The best finals series ever? That is one tall mountain to climb. I mean, just look at the competition, the five best NBA finals series ever:

1970, New York Knicks beat the Los Angeles Lakers in seven games

Everyone kept expecting the Lakers to break through with a title — they had the most talent in the league, but they kept losing to a better team in the Celtics. Now the LA stars were taking on another real team, this one from New York.

This series had a couple of legendary moments. First there was Game 3, where Knicks legend Dave DeBusschere hit what looked like the game winner with three-seconds to go, only to have Jerry West hit a three-quarter court shot to tie it. Maybe the greatest shot in NBA Finals history.

Then there was Game 7, when the Knicks lone star player Willis Reed was not expected to play. But he came out of the tunnel, fired up the fans, and played a few minutes of quality basketball where he fired up his team. And the Knicks won Game 7 and the title on that emotion.

1998 Finals, Chicago Bulls beat the Utah Jazz in six games

Michael Jordan’s greatest moment. Which is saying something. But in capping off the second of the two Bulls three-peats Chicago had to beat the best team they had faced in the finals. That Jazz team had Karl Malone and John Stockton at their peaks.

The Jazz won game one, the Bulls Game 2 and then Chicago had a defensive game for the ages in Game 3, holding the Jazz to 56 points. For the game.

But it was the final 30 seconds of Game 6 that had Jordan leaving on top. The Bulls were down one point. First Jordan made a blind-side steal on Malone in the post. Then he made the one of the signature shots of his career — the cross-over (and push off) on Byron Russell, followed by the pure jumper that won the game. And the series. The perfect shot that capped of Jordan’s career.

1976 NBA finals, Boston Celtics defeat the Phoenix Suns in six games

Can one game propel an NBA finals into the best five ever? It can when you are talking about the best game ever.

Game five is legendary. It had been a dramatic game that was tied 95-95 at the end of regulation. Then at 101-101 at the end of the first overtime. In the second overtime the Celtics had a three-point lead late (remember, this was before the three-point shot) and it looked like a win. But then a Suns jumper by Dick Van Arsdale makes it a one-point game again.

Then on the inbound Paul Westphal steals the ball from John Havlicek, and the Suns have life. Curtis Perry missed a jumper but the rebound is taped back out to Perry who doesn’t miss twice. Suns 110-109.  But Havlicek is not to be outdone. He gets the ball with five seconds to go and drives down the left hand side and puts up an off-balance runner that falls as time ticks off the clock. Celtics win 111-110, fans storm the court. It’s all over…

Except it’s not. The referees know there should be one second left on the clock. They pull the Celtics out of the locker room for a final play. The Suns have to go the length of the court in one second to get a game winner. But then in a moment of veteran savvy Westphal calls a timeout, when the Suns have none. It’s a technical foul — and Boston hits the free throw to go up 112-110 — but the Suns get to take the ball out at half court.

Gar Heard hit the turn-around jumper near the elbow to tie the game again and send it to a third overtime. Just go watch the shots yourself.

The Celtics won the third overtime handily, and won the series in six. But Game 5 alone made this an all-time great.

1969 Finals, Boston Celtics beat the Los Angeles Lakers in seven games

Lakers fans, you may not want to read this one or compare it to 2010.

The Lakers had the big-name stars in their prime: Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor. The Celtics had stars like Bill Russell — who was the player coach — and Sam Jones, but they were both injured. The Celtics were considered too old. They had finished fourth in the East, then surprised everyone in the playoffs.

Game 1 saw Jerry West just go off, to the tune of 53 points. Havlicek answered with 43 in Game 2. Game 4 had Don Nelson (yes, that Don Nelson) hit the game winner on a shot that hit the back of the rim as time expired, go straight up higher than the backboard, then fall back through. We had ourselves a shootout, a series that went seven games.

That Game 7 was in the Fabulous Forum, and no home team had ever lost a Game 7 in NBA finals history. Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke had balloons put in the rafters to fall when the game was over, because he was sure of victory. What he did was motivate the Celtics, who were angered by the balloons (not as much as West, however) and Boston hit 8 of their first 10 shots and went on to win the title. The balloons never came down.

It was the Celtics 11th title in 13 years. It was also the last one for that dynasty.

1984/1985 NBA Finals, combined, Boston and Los Angeles (Celtics won 1984, Lakers won 1985)

Two different years, but it’s hard not to think of them together, the same way it is hard not to think of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird separately. This was the two titles that may have been their peak.

The Celtics beat the Lakers in 1984 in a physical, hard-fought seven game series. Kevin McHale turned the emotion of this series when he clotheslined Kurt Rambis. That came in Game 4, which was an epic overtime battle that became one of the defining moments of the Bird-era Celtics. It was one of the best Finals games, ever. Boston had to go seven but won a series that validated Bird and his legend and finally gave him a win over Magic in a big game.

Then 1985 it was Magic’s turn. It didn’t look that way at the start, with Boston winning Game 1 in what became known as the Memorial Day Massacre, a 148-114 thrashing of the Lakers. It was so bad Kareem Abdul-Jabbar apologized to his teammates afterward. And while Magic was Magic in 1985 the Lakers were still Kareem’s team and he took over. He scored 29 in the deciding Game 6 and was the series MVP.

Jimmy Butler has meniscus injury, not ACL. Will miss time, return TBD.

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Rarely is a meniscus injury good news, but it is for the Timberwolves.

It looked like Jimmy Butler had torn his ACL in a loss to Houston Friday night, he had to be helped off the court and he could not put weight on it. But instead, he has an injured meniscus in his right knee, an MRI revealed.

Notice the report says meniscus “injury” not “tear.” The type of surgery and recovery times differ depending on the severity of the injury. With that, there is no timetable for his return yet — he could be back for the playoffs. Or not. We don’t yet know.

Butler leads the NBA in minutes played per game, although he had eight days off before Friday’s game. He was selected an All-Star reserve by the coaches but chose to sit out the big game because he said he needed rest for the rest of the season. His coach, Tom Thibodeau, leans heavily on his best players and does not subscribe to the kind of rest we see in Golden State, San Antonio, and other programs trying to keep players fresh.

Minnesota has to hang on for the playoffs, the team is -8.3 points per 100 possessions when Butler is not on the court this season. At 36-26, the Timberwolves are currently the four seed in the West, but just three games from falling out of the playoffs.

Steve Ballmer: “Difficult” Blake Griffin trade moves Clippers toward modern NBA

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Last summer, Clippers owner Steve Ballmer went all-in on Blake Griffin. They wooed him with a mini-museum tour of his life, did a mock jersey retirement, told him they wanted him to be a “Clipper for life,” then sealed the deal with a five-year, $173 million maximum contract offer. Griffin accepted and never even met with another team.

Within eight months, the Clippers traded Griffin to Detroit for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovich, and a lightly protected 2018 first-round pick.

What changed? Was it another injury to Griffin that sidelined him and had the Clippers questioning their investment? Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN asked Ballmer about the decision.

“[Griffin] is obviously a superstar player,” said Ballmer. “But if you look at what happened injury-wise, if you look at the kind of chemistry we were getting on our team, the thing you can see at the high level with the numbers when I started — one guy got all the assists, one guy got all the points and one guy got all the rebounds. It’s not all quite that way, but I think in the modern NBA, we were seeing it more and more — there’s a greater distribution of responsibility….

“We have to add some pieces obviously, but I think we’re building for what I think is the modern NBA, and that trend has only accelerated since we signed Blake last summer.”

Ballmer thinks he can use this trade and the Chris Paul one last summer to begin to retool a roster in that fashion, saying that winning a ring is his goal. Maybe he can, but…

The Clippers are a long way from being that kind of a modern NBA team.

Talent still wins out in basketball. Those elite “modern NBA” have superstars — Stephen Curry, James Harden, etc. — who rack up a lot of numbers, but also where the other players are versatile threats. With Brad Stevens in charge, Boston runs a modern, egalitarian offense, but at the heart of it is Kyrie Irving and, eventually, Gordon Hayward as stars who can just get buckets and use their gravity to draw defenders, opening things up for others. Then there are All-Star level players around them such as Al Horford.

Without Chris Paul and J.J. Redick this season, the Clippers had to run the offense through Griffin because, well, who else? Danilo Gallinari can create some when healthy, but he’s really a second or third option and works better of the ball. DeAndre Jordan is a threat as a roll man but it takes a special point guard and passer to bring out the best in him. Austin Rivers has developed into a solid rotation point guard in the NBA, but he’s not a No. 1 option. Lou Williams is really their only other guy who can create at that level. The Clippers may have leaned on Griffin too much, but it’s not like Doc Rivers had better choices sitting around.

What is going to be interesting is to see what the Clippers do this summer — do they back up the Brinks truck and re-sign DeAndre Jordan? Do they try to bring back Bradley and Patrick Beverley? Do they keep or trade Lou Williams, who just extended with the team but at a very reasonable price ($8 million per year)? Can they move Danilo Gallinari (which would require attaching a first-round pick)?

Ballmer says he doesn’t want to bottom out and rebuild, but if Jordan leaves how much does that change the scenario? The Clippers 2019 first-round pick belongs to Boston but is lottery protected. What the Clippers don’t want is for a year from now to be exactly where they are today in the standings — on the cusp of the playoffs trying to get in. While the lottery odds change in 2019, they need to either be a rebuilding team that’s going to keep that pick, or find a way to push up into the standings (which is not going to be easy in a deep West).

It’s good to be moving toward a more modern NBA, but it’s going to be a process for the Clippers.

 

Lonzo Ball rusty in return, likes playing with Isaiah Thomas

Associated Press
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LOS ANGELES — Lonzo Ball took the pass and set his feet at the arc. Dallas’ Dennis Smith Jr. gave him space, so Ball put up the shot — and drained it.

And Staples Center erupted.

Lonzo Ball returned to the Lakers for the first time in 15 games following an MCL sprain. He was up and down (3-of-8 shooting) as to be expected, but had nine points, seven rebounds, and six assists in 17 minutes. (He will not play Saturday in a back-to-back in Sacramento.)

“I feel pretty good, only played 17 minutes so nothing crazy out there…” Ball said. “I could feel (his MCL), but the doc says I can get no worse. Just sliding a little bit, especially going right. Other than that it was OK.”

“I thought he looked good, I thought his shot looked good,” said Lakers coach Luke Walton, noting that he could have played Ball a little more under the minutes restriction.

Ball had three three-pointers on the night (3-of-6 from three). His shooting motion isn’t any quicker or less quirky, but he’s gotten much better and knowing when he has the room to get it off. When his feet are set and he has room, he can knock it down.

His ability to push the pace, find teammates and pick up the pace is a welcome return to the Lakers.

Ball fit in well as part of a blowout win over a Dallas team that, to use coach Rick Carlisle’s words, “played without any force.” The final was 124-102 and it was never really in doubt for Los Angeles. The Mavs looked like a team tanking, not that their owner would ever tell them to… oh, wait. Carlise and the Mavs are not trying to lose, but this is a time when Dallas needs to get a look at its players about to be free agents — Nerlens Noel, Doug McDermott, Yogi Ferrell — and young players to see who will be part of the future. The question is how to best utilize them.

“You got to trust your gut in a lot of instances,” Carlisle said of how to evaluate his young players. “It’s not rocket science, certain things become obvious. But it’s important to compete.

Luke Walton is doing the exact same thing and he liked how his team competed. He tried something different playing Ball and Isaiah Thomas together for stretches.

“I liked it a lot,” Ball said of being on the court with IT. “Two playmakers on the court, I think we benefit from it. Look forward to playing with him all the time.”

The two were -6 when on the court in a game the Lakers won in a blowout. Still, expect to see more of that and some other odd combos the rest of the way.

Nikola Jokic’s third straight triple-double leads Nuggets over Spurs, 122-119

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DENVER (AP) — Nikola Jokic had 28 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists before fouling out, Wilson Chandler had 18 points and a season-high 16 rebounds, and the Denver Nuggets beat the San Antonio Spurs 122-119 on Friday night.

Jokic has a triple-double in three straight games and six this season, but didn’t stick around for the finish. He was called for five fouls in the fourth quarter and fouled out on a charge with 1:46 left.

Gary Harris scored 23 points to help Denver win its fourth straight and seventh in its last eight.

LaMarcus Aldridge had 36 points and Patty Mills scored 20 for San Antonio. The Spurs lost for the sixth time in seven games despite the return of Aldridge, who missed the last two games before the All-Star break to rest his sore right knee. He looked strong Friday, hitting 13 of 23 shots and 12 of 14 free throws.

The Spurs rallied from down nine in the fourth to take a two-point lead late in the game. They were 14 of 17 from the line in the fourth quarter but couldn’t hold on.

With the game tied at 114, Harris made a layup to put Denver up for good. Mills made a free throw and Harris scored on a step-back jumper and then a dunk with 45 seconds left to make it 120-115.

After Aldridge hit a jumper to cut it to three with 33 seconds left, Mason Plumlee‘s dunk with 10 seconds to play sealed it.

 

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