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. 

Report: Knicks would like to trade for pick in 2016 draft

New York Knicks president Phil Jackson speaks to reporters during a news conference in Greenburgh, N.Y., Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. Derek Fisher was fired as New York Knicks coach Monday, with his team having lost five straight and nine of 10 to fall well back in the Eastern Conference playoff race. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
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The rebuilding New York Knicks are without one of the key pieces needed to rebuild in today’s NBA — a draft pick. The Knicks have zero in this year’s draft. None. Nada. Zip. You get the idea. This sis not the fault of current team president Phil Jackson, he inherited a situation where this year’s picks were in the wind (the first rounder gone as part of the Andrea Bargnani trade).

Jackson would like to find a way back into this draft, reports Ian Begley at ESPN.

The Knicks plan to acquire a pick in June’s draft. The best-case scenario would probably be a late first-round pick but second-round is more likely. The club has shown interest in several players in recent weeks, including Indiana guard Yogi Ferrell, who has a workout scheduled with the club next month. New York also interviewed Kansas guard Wayne Selden at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago and has expressed interest in him as the draft approaches, according to league sources. Selden, a 6-6 guard, would fit the mold of the big guards Phil Jackson used in his Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Laker teams.

Of course he would like to trade into the draft. He’s also like to lure Kevin Durant to the Knicks. Snagging a draft pick is far, far more likely, but the question remains who does he have on the roster to trade that teams would be willing to give up a pick for? Jose Calderon? Getting into the draft requires assets and — as has been the challenge for Jackson since he agreed to the job — the previous regime stripped this team of assets.

Still, expect Jackson to come up with something. But it’s not going to be a game changer; he’s going to have to win in free agency to get that.

Report: Sixers to explore trades for Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 30: Jahlil Okafor #8 and Nerlens Noel #4 of the Philadelphia 76ers play in the game against the Utah Jazz on October 30, 2015 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 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 Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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The Sixers are on schedule to have 7-foot Joel Embiid suited up for them next season at center. They may have 6’10” Dario Saric in from overseas (if not next season, the one after). They are about to draft 6’10 forward Ben Simmons with the No. 1 overall pick.

Where does that leave the two guys who were the core of the Sixers’ front line last season, Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel?

Possibly on the trade block, according to Chad Ford and Marc Stein of ESPN.

The Philadelphia 76ers will explore trading Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel in the buildup to the NBA draft on June 23, according to league sources.

Sources told ESPN that the Sixers are determined to gauge the trade market for both Okafor and Noel and are increasingly likely to move at least one of them in conjunction with the draft, in which Philadelphia holds the No. 1 overall selection for the first time since selecting Allen Iverson in 1996.

Ford said more on a 97.3 ESPN Philadephia radio interview, via the 700 Club at CSNPhilly.com.

“I think that they’ll gauge the interest of both players. I think that there might be a slight preference for Noel, to keep him around with the Sixers, and I think you might be right, there might be a slight, better value for Okafor out on the market, but I think everyone agrees that that combination of those two players doesn’t necessarily work. The Sixers needs to pick up assets, especially if they’re gonna go ahead and do a Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram with the first pick in the draft. Then they’re gonna need those assets to start to fill out their backcourt, because the 24th pick and [the 26th pick], you’re not finding starters.”

I doubt they would move either for another pick. Remember that “the process” is dead in Philly — the Sixers want to start winning more now under the Colangelos. How far they are willing to go down that road — and what pieces they may be willing to sacrifice — remains to be seen, but here is what GM Bryant Colangelo told NBC Sports after finding out his team got the No. 1 pick.

“I’ve been quoted as saying you can only have so many developing players in your fold,” Colangelo said. “There’s a lot to consider to finding a balance… I think there needs to be a blend of young talent and veterans on your roster, there needs to be a balance.”

Okafor is what he is — he can score in the paint, he can rebound, he will get you some buckets, but he’s not much of a defender and he’s not an explosive athlete. He has a real place, a real value in the NBA, particularly while still on his rookie contract. The question is will the Sixers get good enough offers to make a swap.

Kevin Love sparked by Channing Frye phone call

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 25: J.R. Smith #5, Matthew Dellavedova #8, Kevin Love #0, Channing Frye #9, LeBron James #23 and Tristan Thompson #13 of the Cleveland Cavaliers look on from the bench late in the game against the Toronto Raptors in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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 Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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CLEVELAND (AP) As the shots dropped, the score widened and the head-banging Cleveland crowd screamed louder, threatening to rip off the arena’s roof, Kevin Love raised his arms and gestured for fans to do more.

Usually, it’s the other way around.

Shaking off two miserable games in Toronto, Love, whose two seasons with the Cavaliers have ebbed and flowed like Lake Erie’s tides, scored 25 points in just three quarters of Game 5. Cleveland pummeled the Raptors 116-78 on Wednesday night to take a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference finals.

Love’s performance, which began with him knocking down a turnaround hook in the lane and finished with him going 8 of 10 from the field, restored his confidence, quieted detractors and showed his teammates he can deliver when needed. It also prevented the Cavs from facing a win-or-else situation in Game 6 on Friday night in Toronto, where they are 0-4 this season.

“Just a bounce-back for him,” said LeBron James. “He knew he didn’t play his style of basketball or how he wanted to play to help us win in Toronto. He wanted to make a different outcome of it, and he did that. He’s a true professional.”

This was Love in peak form, an inside-outside threat and completely opposite from the player who made just 5 of 23 shots and was benched in the fourth quarter of Game 4 for Channing Frye. This is the Love the Cavs will need to finish off the Raptors and make a second straight appearance in the NBA Finals.

This is also the Love who along with James and Kyrie Irving completes Cleveland’s Big 3, a trio dependent on each third doing its part.

Love returned from Canada in a shooting slump and personal funk. He felt as if he had let his teammates down in Games 3 and 4. Love’s body language, the subject of constant speculation since he arrived from Minnesota in 2014, appeared that of a bruised, if not beaten, man.

His spirits were dragging. His teammates picked them up.

Love spoke to coach Tyronn Lue and then received a phone call Tuesday night from Frye, the savvy, 11-year veteran who has provided both points and perspective for his younger teammates.

“He basically just told me that no one’s immune to the NBA playoffs,” Love said of his pep talk from Frye. “These types of things happen and you have to keep fighting through it in order for us to win. He said I needed to be aggressive, and I give him a lot of credit for staying on me and staying vocal.”

Love was in attack mode from the outset in Game 5. He demanded the ball, taking advantage of a mismatch against Raptors forward Luis Scola. Love scored Cleveland’s first basket and nine of the first 17 points. And after knocking down a 3-pointer – he made his first six shots – to give Cleveland a 27-16 lead, he summoned Cavs fans to bring the noise.

The game plan was to get Love some early touches near the basket and let his game expand.

“We always run plays to start the game for Kevin, hope he draws fouls or makes an easy shot down low in the paint,” Lue said. “That kind of frees it up for him. When he starts inside-out, he’s able to do more on the floor.”

Lue said the support – OK, the love – that Love felt from his teammates since Game 4 made a difference. They know what he means to their title hopes, and weren’t going to abandon him.

Love, too, didn’t want to lose his teammates’ trust. So he pushed himself.

“He works hard every day, sometimes too hard,” Lue said. “But he’s constantly in the weight room. He’s constantly doing conditioning, constantly working and shooting. That’s why when he misses a couple shots, it doesn’t bother me because he puts the time and puts the work in. Some nights he’s just not going to make shots.”

Love didn’t want to make too much of his Game 5 turnaround. But considering the stakes, it was colossal for the Cavs.

“More than anything, I just wanted to respond,” he said, “just wanted to help us win in any way that I could. I don’t care if I went 0 for 30 and we got a win. Any way that we can win and I can help, I’m going to do it.”

Report: Pat Riley ‘quietly detests’ Dwyane Wade-LeBron James friendship

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 14:  U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with National Basketball Association 2012-2013 champion Miami Heat player LeBron James after welcoming the team -- including President Pat Riley, Dwyane Wade and others -- during an event at the White House January 14, 2014 in Washington, DC. This is the second year in a row the team won the championship and made a trip to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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LeBron James and Dwyane Wade share a very close friendship.

LeBron and Pat Riley – who signed LeBron and Wade to the Heat in 2010 – have a much more complicated relationship.

Riley seemingly challenged LeBron entering the 2014 offseason, and LeBron left Miami to return to the Cavs. Then, Riley couldn’t stop telling everyone how surprised he was LeBron left. After LeBron departed, Riley noted how the Heat had “no more smiling faces with hidden agendas.”

So, about the intersection of the LeBron-Wade friendship and Riley-LeBron relationship…

Pablo Torre of ESPN:

On-court effort, after all, isn’t really why Heat president Pat Riley quietly detests the Wade-James friendship.

as coach of the Heat, Riley kept the spirit of the ’80s alive by reportedly instituting a $1,500 fine for any player who helped an opponent up off the floor.

Riley wasn’t complaining when LeBron’s friendship with Wade helped lure the star forward to Miami. Riley wasn’t complaining when LeBron led the Heat to two championships, either.

But I at least understand where Riley is coming from. His old-school sensibilities don’t allow for friendships across teams, and there are legitimate reasons to draw a line.

Wade addressed this well with Torre in a feature on the LeBron-Wade friendship that’s well worth reading in full. Wade:

“You’re talking about two guys who went to the Finals together, four years in a row,” Wade says. “My job and his job was to get as close as possible, to know everything about each other and get on the same page as two leaders on the team. And then he goes elsewhere and you ask us to hate each other! It’s ridiculous.”