NBA Finals, Lakers Celtics: Boston manages to slow down Kobe

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Kobe swarmed.jpgComing into Sunday night’s game, Kobe Bryant had scored 30 or more points in 11 of his last 12 games. He had not shot 40 percent or lower from the field since April 22nd. He didn’t just defeat the Jazz and the Suns; he completely demoralized them with tough shot after tough shot. In the twelve games between his thirteen-point performance against the Thunder and the start of the NBA finals, Kobe looked nothing short of unstoppable.

The Celtics were hoping that their vaunted defense would be able to take Kobe out of his comfort zone in a way that Utah and Phoenix couldn’t, but Kobe sliced through their rotations with ease en route to a 30-point game one performance. After game one, it looked like Kobe’s campaign of destruction was going to keep right on rolling until he was holding the Bill Russell trophy for the second time in as many years.
But something changed in game two. It wasn’t that Kobe stopped looking like Kobe; he still knocked down the shot almost every time he got a decent look at one, made some beautiful passes when the Celtics threw multiple defenders at him, managed to bother Ray Allen when he switched onto him late in the second quarter, and made one of the best plays of the playoffs when he stole the inbounds pass and hit a contested three at the end of the first half. Kobe missed a few shots he’s more than capable of making, but for the most part Kobe looked like Kobe. The only thing that changed in game two was that the Celtics defense looked like the Celtics defense. 
In game one, Ray Allen found himself on the wrong side of the line that separates physical play from rampant fouling. In game two, he made the necessary adjustment, and managed to bother Kobe all night long while only being whistled for three fouls. Instead, it was Kobe who found himself on the wrong side of the rulebook; Bryant committed five fouls in game two, and was limited to 34 minutes of play because of foul trouble. 
When Kobe caught the ball, Allen was right there to contest him. When Kobe tried to make a move, Allen was there to bump him just enough to throw him off his balance. When Kobe rose up to shoot, Allen made sure that Kobe’s momentum was carrying him away from the hoop, and that there was a hand in his face. Like Shane Battier in last year’s playoffs, Allen seems to be able to occasionally make Kobe uncomfortable on the perimeter without having to take crazy gambles or trying to be overly physical. 
Of course, it wasn’t just Allen who kept Kobe from going off in game two. When Kobe caught the ball in the mid-to-high post area, there were at least three or four pairs of Celtic eyes trained on him. When he tried to post up on the wings, the Celtics frustrated him by bringing fast, aggressive double-teams from the top. When he turned into the paint, there was a Celtic in position and waiting for him. By keeping Bryant in front of them at all times and cutting off Kobe’s passing lanes, the Celtics were able to turn the Laker offense into Kobe vs. The World.
After the game, Phil Jackson had this to say about how Boston limited Kobe’s ability to get where he wanted to go with the ball:  “Well, they got on him and made him go left all the time. There were not letting him come back to his right hand, shoving him to the left then going to help when he started to push the ball. That changed things up for him. He still figured it out pretty well toward the end but couldn’t complete it.” Bryant is as good as any player in basketball at driving to his off-hand, but even Kobe can’t take apart a defense like Boston’s without being able to drive to his strong side. 
When Tony Allen guarded Kobe, he used his athleticism and length to keep Bryant from catching it where he wanted to catch it, then played wildly aggressive defense on him to force him to drive into the help. When Rondo guarded Kobe, he used his superhuman length and quickness to go straight at the ball, and was able to make a couple of key defensive plays by doing so. It takes an entire team to (try) and defend Kobe Bryant effectively; on Sunday night, every Celtic was up to the challenge.
When the Celtics played LeBron James and the Cavaliers, their strategy was to wall off the paint, cut off LeBron’s drive-and-kick opportunities, and force James to beat them by shooting from the perimeter or playing off the ball. When the Celtics faced the Magic, they chose not to over-help on Dwight Howard, instead staying at home on Orlando’s shooters and making them run the offense through Howard. Both strategies worked perfectly, and that’s just another reason why Tom Thibodeau now has an NBA head coaching job
Against Bryant, the most complete offensive player in the game, Boston’s strategy seems to be this: if you want to defend Kobe Bryant effectively, you have to be the aggressor. It doesn’t matter how fundamentally solid your defense is, or how well you contest Bryant’s looks — if you let Kobe operate on his own terms, he will find a way to absolutely destroy you. It can be from three, from midrange, in the paint. Left hand, right hand, busted right hand. In the post, off the dribble, catch-and-shoot. If you let Kobe pick the game, he wins. Boston made Kobe react instead of giving him that luxury, and it helped them get the series split in Los Angeles. 
The battle between Bryant and the Celtic defense is very, very far from over. Kobe will come out guns blazing in game three, and could easily hang 30 or 40 on the same defense that gave him trouble in game two. There’s no way to stop a player like Bryant; the best you can do his hope to slow him down. On Sunday night, that’s exactly what Boston was able to do. 

76ers: Joel Embiid doubtful for Game 3 against Heat

AP Photo/Chris Szagola
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MIAMI (AP) — Joel Embiid remains listed as doubtful by Philadelphia for Game 3 of the 76ers’ Eastern Conference playoff series at Miami on Thursday night.

Embiid was on the floor with the 76ers for their morning shootaround practice, but coach Brett Brown says there’s no change in the All-Star center’s status.

Embiid has missed Philadelphia’s last 10 games while recovering from a concussion and surgery that repaired a fractural orbital bone around his left eye. He’s no longer in the NBA’s concussion protocol.

He took to social media after the 76ers lost Game 2 of this series to the Heat, saying he’s tired of being “babied.”

Embiid has averaged 22.9 points and 11 rebounds in 63 games for the 76ers during the regular season.

Rumor: Lakers, Kawhi Leonard share mutual interest

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The Spurs seem like they won’t trade Kawhi Leonard.

That won’t stop teams from trying.

There’s a clear disconnect between Leonard and San Antonio. Even the potential of a player as good as Leonard becoming available has teams salivating.

The Clippers are reportedly assembling a trade offer for the L.A. native. Los Angeles’ other team – the Lakers – are also apparently expected to factor prominently.

Sean Deveney of Sporting News:

“I think they go in hard for Leonard once the season is over and once the dust settles in San Antonio,” one executive told Sporting News. “(Leonard) wants to go to LA. There probably won’t be public demands on that, but he has leverage. He is going to be a free agent (in 2019). He’s an LA guy and he can just let teams know he won’t re-sign next year with anyone but the Lakers.”

But make no mistake, the Lakers are the favorite here.

“I would say that’s the most likely thing,” another general manager told Sporting News. “He’s going to be their target any way you look at it, this summer or next summer. There’s not many other ways to explain what’s been going on with that situation other than him trying to get out of San Antonio.”

Of course, every team wants Leonard. He’s an elite two-way player when healthy. But teams will go to differing lengths to pursue him. If the Lakers will “go hard for Leonard,” that means something beyond just desiring him.

Under Magic Johnson, the Lakers have made no secret of their plan to acquire stars. That has largely been centered on 2018 free agents, but with that well drying up, talk has turned to 2019 free agents. If the Lakers can get a top 2019 free agent – Leonard – sooner, why wouldn’t they?

One reason is the cost. Trading with San Antonio would require dealing at least some combination of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma. Signing Leonard outright in 2019 would be simpler.

But a trade is the only surefire way of getting Leonard. If the Lakers don’t trade for him, another team could. With promising young players and cap space, the Lakers have the tools to make an intriguing offer for Leonard.

Or, more likely, the Spurs could keep him. Their relationship isn’t necessarily beyond repair, and they can offer him a super-max contract extension this summer.

They might not offer it. Even if they do, he might not take it. If he doesn’t, he could pledge to re-sign with only certain teams – like the Lakers – and steer trade talks that way. You can see how the thinking develops:

Leonard might be unhappy in San Antonio. He grew up in Southern California. Therefore, he’ll engineer his way to the Lakers?

Maybe, and maybe these anonymous executives know something to that effect. But this mostly sounds lazily speculative.

PBT Extra: Disciplined Celtics highlight bad habits of Milwaukee Bucks

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Giannis Antetokounmpo has been every bit the top five NBA player in the postseason — 32.5 points per game on 63.2 percent shooting, plus with 11 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game.

Yet the Bucks are down 0-2 to Boston.

The Celtics have had a strong series from Al Horford and Terry Rozier, but the real difference is in the discipline this team has shown all season — Boston knows who it is. Clearly, Milwaukee does not. They turn the ball over too much and make too many mistakes.

I get into all of that in this PBT Extra, and I wonder if that’s something the Bucks can really turn around mid-playoffs.

Ettore Messina to coach Spurs in Game 3 following death of Gregg Popovich’s wife

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Spurs coach Gregg Popovich’s wife, Erin, died yesterday.

That sad news was felt throughout the NBA, and it obviously affects San Antonio most closely. That includes for tonight’s Game 3 against the Warriors.

Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News:

Ettore Messina was a longtime head coach in Europe. The Spurs lead assistant also took over for a few regular-season games Popovich missed. So, making – rather than advising – coaching decisions won’t be a brand new challenge to Messina.

But down 2-0 to defending-champion Golden State is a tough place to make an NBA playoff debut.

On the bright side, there will be no pressure. Not only has San Antonio been outclassed the first two games of the series, focus is rightly on the Popovich family. A win would be a pleasant surprise and help Messina – who’s up for the Hornets job – in his pursuit of a head-coaching position. A loss would be quickly forgotten with more important matters at hand.

To that end, hopefully the time away allows Popovich the space he needs to grieve. That matters far more than a basketball game.