NBA Finals, Lakers Celtics: Rondo shut down in game one

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With 8:45 remaining in the very first quarter of game one, the Celtics looked to set up their half-court offense after Ron Artest made a jumper. The Celtics brought the ball up and gave it to Kevin Garnett on the wing, who swung a two-hand pass to Rajon Rondo on the other side of the perimeter. 
It was a simple pass early in the shot clock, the type of thing an offense does before they actually get down to the business of trying to put the ball in the basket. 99% of the time, that pass gets to Rondo without incident. That wasn’t the case with this pass. Before the ball got to Rondo, Kobe Bryant jumped into the passing lane and deflected the ball, forcing Rondo to jump in order to attempt to make the catch. 
Rondo failed to get a handle on the ball, tried desperately to save it, and ended up putting the ball directly into the hands of Ron Artest. Artest started a sloppy three-on-two break that ended in nothing but a missed layup, an offensive rebound, and a foul on the floor. In fact, the Lakers didn’t even get a basket on the ensuing possession. 
Nonetheless, a message had been sent. The Lakers were not going to give the Celtics anything free, even a pass out on the perimeter early in the shot clock. They were going to beat them to every loose ball, run at every opportunity, and keep the pressure on Rondo and the Celtics at all times. In short, they did to the Celtics in game one what Rondo did to the Cavaliers and Magic in the previous two rounds of the playoffs. 
As a player, Rajon Rondo gets his individual numbers by preying on the mistakes of his opponents. Every time one of his opponents fails to locate a loose ball or rebound, Rondo is there to grab it. Every time the other team doesn’t have enough players back on defense, Rondo is going to push the ball. Every time the Lakers help off of Rondo too much, he’s going to cut into the open space. When there’s a lazy pass, Rondo is going to snatch it and start streaking towards the hoop. 
As a team, the Celtics pulled off two consecutive playoff upsets because they were the ones controlling the chaos. They pushed the pace, they forced turnovers, they got the early leads, they made teams too nervous to trust their role players and loaded up on their superstars. They didn’t just beat teams; they made them miserable while they were doing it. 
On Thursday night, the Celtics got a taste of their own medicine. The Lakers played a high-energy, low-risk, mistake-free game, and they forced Rondo and the rest of the Celtics out of their comfort zone. Without a supply of mistakes to feed off of, Rondo was thrown to the Lakers’ half-court defense and left to starve. Rondo loves to grab long rebounds and start the break; the Lakers only missed six three-pointers all game, and 72 of their 102 points came on points in the paint or free throws. When the Celtics did get the ball in a possible transition situation, the Laker bigs sprinted back to seal off the paint. Thanks to all of those factors, the Celtics only managed five fast-break points in game one. 
With the Lakers failing to give Rondo any opportunities to run, he was forced to try and score points against the Lakers’ half-court defense. Things did not work out well for him. Rondo went 6-14 from the field, which isn’t good news for Celtics fans. The worse news is that Rondo went 6-14 while making three of his five shots from outside the paint. 
When Rondo tried to drive, the Lakers were waiting for him. His behind-the-back fakes drew no reaction. His reverses didn’t stop his layups from getting turned away. When he looked to drive and dish, the Lakers anticipated the pass. When he looked to go all the way to the basket, a Laker defender was there to draw the charge. Everyone knows Rondo has some very significant weaknesses; the Lakers were finally able to exploit them. 
For game two, the Celtics need to do a better job of stopping the Lakers from living in the paint and start forcing them into making some mistakes so Rondo can get the team running. In the half-court, Rondo has to find a way to get some points, whether it means getting more creative with his floaters in the paint or taking a deep breath and trying to draw contact. Rondo and the Celtics have a lot of adjustments to make before game two; if they have another performance like this, they’re going to need three straight wins in Boston to stay competitive in this series. 

John Stockton working with Bucks point guards at training camp

SACRAMENTO, CA - APRIL 30:  John Stockton #12 of the Utah Jazz dribbles in Game five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Sacramento Kings during the 2003 NBA Playoffs at Arco Arena on April 30, 2003 in Sacramento, California.  The Kings won 111-91.  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: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
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The Bucks are coached by one of the greatest point guards in NBA history, Jason Kidd. But Kidd invited another legend of the position to camp to work with his point guards. John Stockton, the NBA’s all-time leader in assists and steals, was at Bucks practice on Thursday working with Michael Carter-Williams, Matthew Dellavedova and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Not a bad person to learn from, especially since the Bucks have one of the weakest point-guard positions in the league.

Blake Griffin says he’s working on improving his three-point shot

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 21:  Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers shoots a jumper over Serge Ibaka #9 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during a 100-99 loss to the Thunder at Staples Center on December 21, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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2016-17 is going to be a big year for Blake Griffin. He missed much of last season with a quad injury and a broken hand stemming from a punching incident, and he has the ability to opt out of his contract next summer. When Griffin was healthy, he was his usual All-Star self for the Clippers, but he played just 35 games. He’s healthy now, at the start of training camp, and he says he wants to improve his three-point shot.

From Dan Woike of the Orange County Register:

“I want to be someone who shoots from there confidently, for sure,” Griffin said after Thursday’s practice at UC Irvine’s Bren Events Center. “A lot of us power forwards, our strength is inside or our versatility. You look at the best power forwards, Anthony Davis, LaMarcus (Aldridge), Draymond (Green) … they can all shoot but they can all put the ball on the floor and they can all score inside. I don’t necessarily think falling in love with the 3-point shot is a good idea, but shooting it confidently from there is great.”

Not only has Griffin not hit his threes in his career (his overall mark from beyond the arc is an awful 27.1 percent) but he doesn’t take very many of them. The most threes he’s ever shot in a season is 44 in 2013-14, and he hit 12 of them. Griffin is only 27, so he’s theoretically not done improving as a player, but it’s hard to imagine a dramatic jump this far along when that hasn’t been a part of his game at all to this point.

 

Steve Kerr endorses shorter preseason to limit back-to-backs

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 19:  Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors speaks to members of the media after being defeated by the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 19, 2016 in Oakland, California. 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 Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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There are too many preseason games. The NBA has its reasons for playing them — namely, to allow for games in non-NBA markets — and sometimes they can be valuable for teams to experiment with rotations. But most teams play seven or eight preseason games, which is unnecessary. Warriors coach Steve Kerr agrees, according to the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Connor Letourneau:

“I kind of like the idea that’s been tossed around the last couple summers to start the regular season a little earlier, maybe a week early,” Kerr said Thursday afternoon after Warriors practice. “Play five exhibition games instead of eight. I kind of like that, just so you have fewer back-to-backs in the regular season.”

The NBA has floated the idea in the past of cutting the number of preseason games in order to stretch out the regular season, thereby lessening the burden of travel and back-to-backs. The NBA has made an effort this season to cut down on back-to-backs, and this would be a logical way to do that.

Hornets’ Batum won’t let big contract affect how he plays

MIAMI, FL - APRIL 20: Nicolas Batum #5 of the Charlotte Hornets drives on Joe Johnson #2 of the Miami Heat  during game two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2016 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena on April 20, 2016 in Miami, Florida. 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 Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Nicolas Batum said he isn’t planning to alter how he plays the game after signing a five-year, $120 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets.

And that’s just fine with coach Steve Clifford.

Clifford said Batum doesn’t need to put additional pressure on himself to score just because he’s now the highest-paid player in Hornets history. He told him to play how he plays.

“You don’t change the nature of how you play. I think guys get messed up with that,” Clifford said. “… I don’t think you try to reinvent yourself because the money changed. We gave him the money because he played so well. In my opinion he was an All-Star-caliber player last season when healthy.”

Batum was acquired in a trade with Portland before last season and turned out to be a gem for Charlotte, which won 48 games and tied for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. Batum averaged a career-high 14.9 points and 5.6 assists while becoming one of the team’s top three go-to options.

Batum said he’s learned from experience that it’s not worth putting pressure on himself just because he signed a big contract.

He did in that 2012 after inking a four-year, $46 million deal to remain with the Portland Trail Blazers. While he still played well, he said it was pointless.

“I was a young guy at the time and I didn’t know what to expect,” Batum said. “Now I know. I know what I have to go through right now. I know what the views of the media and the public will be. I know that, and I’m good with it.”

For Batum, pressure no longer enters the equation because the Hornets trust him and believe in him.

“It’s more relief than pressure,” Batum said.

The Hornets made re-signing him their No. 1 priority, offering the Frenchman a huge deal about an hour into the free-agency signing period. Batum also received several offers from other teams shortly after the deadline, which he called flattering.

The 6-foot-8, 200-pound Batum enters the season as Charlotte’s best all-around player and a favorite among teammates.

“Guys are so much more comfortable when he’s out there on the floor because he makes it so much easier at both ends,” forward Marvin Williams said.

Williams said there’s a naturalness to Batum’s game, and he’s incredibly unselfish – he’s always looking for the better shot option.

“He likes to make the assist, and he likes to get everyone involved,” Williams said. “I think that is why so many people like playing with him. It’s why I love playing with him.”

And why Clifford views him as irreplaceable.

When Batum went down in the second half of last season with an ankle injury, the Hornets struggled to find their rhythm.

“He’s not a numbers guy to me,” Clifford said. “People can say, `Well, he’s making this or he’s making that (much money),’ but if he plays at the level he played at last year when he was healthy, we have a chance to be a really good team.”

The Hornets continue to work on 5-on-5 scrimmages extensively during practice as Clifford gets a feel for his team.

But there were several key players missing on Thursday.

Point guard Kemba Walker (knee) and center Cody Zeller (knee) remained out of practice while rehabbing from injuries. Guard Jeremy Lamb did not practice after stepping on a basketball and twisting his ankle, while Brian Roberts was held out after injuring his hamstring when he slipped on some water on the court. Clifford said he hopes to have Lamb and Roberts back in a few days.