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. 

John Wall has 29 points, 13 assists as Wizards top Knicks 113-110

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06: John Wall #2 of the Washington Wizards looks on against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Verizon Center on January 6, 2017 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 Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK (AP) John Wall scored the pivotal points and made the saving steal, though the Knicks thought the Wizards had another defender who impacted their final possession even before Wall ended it.

Carmelo Anthony and Courtney Lee said a Washington assistant coach standing on the court too close to Lee kept him from taking a tying 3-point attempt. He instead passed to Brandon Jennings, who had the ball stolen by Wall.

“He was on the court,” Anthony said. “They had six players on the court.”

Wall didn’t need extra help. He had 29 points and 13 assists and scored the surging Wizards’ final four points in the last 32 seconds of their 113-110 victory Thursday night.

Otto Porter Jr. made six 3-pointers for the second straight night and added 23 points, but the Wizards needed big plays from Wall to win their fourth in a row.

He made two free throws to put Washington back on top after New York had rallied to take a 110-109 lead, then rebounded Anthony’s miss and left all the Knicks in his dust as he raced down the floor for a dunk with 13.7 seconds to play.

“Just trying to make the big-time plays,” Wall said. “But, if it’s me scoring or me passing, I’m going to live with the results if it’s the right read and the right play, and tonight I came up with some big shots and we won.”

Anthony finished with 34 points but threw the ball to Lee near the Wizards’ bench on the last possession. Lee said he heard someone standing close to him and yelling as if he was a nearby defender, confusing him enough into thinking that if he took the shot, it could be blocked.

Replays showed Wizards assistant Sidney Lowe standing on the court near Lee, who dribbled left and passed the ball hurriedly to Jennings, who had it knocked away by Wall.

“I’m not sure if he had his hands up or not, but I mean, he fooled me,” Lee said, adding he thought the NBA should look into the play. “I still should’ve took the shot, I mean it’s at the end of the game, but I drove and tried to make a play. I seen Brandon standing there but it didn’t work out.”

Derrick Rose added 20 points and Kristaps Porzingis came off the bench for 15 in his return from a sore left Achilles tendon.

The Wizards trailed 67-66 at halftime after Anthony scored a Knicks-record 25 points in the second quarter, then outscored New York 34-19 to take a 100-86 lead into the fourth.

The Knicks came all the way back to take a 110-109 lead when Rose put back his own miss with 48 seconds to play. Wall handled things from there as the Wizards won for the seventh time in eight games. They are 20-10 following a 3-9 start.

“It’s good to get a road win. We’ve had so many last-second shots on the road that didn’t go our way,” coach Scott Brooks said. “It’s nice to get a close-out tonight.”

Porter, who matched the career high for 3-pointers he set Wednesday against Memphis, had 15 points in the third quarter. The Wizards are 12-2 when he makes three or more 3s.

TIP-INS

Wizards: Wall, the NBA leader in total steals, has one in a career-best 30 straight games. … The Wizards have won six straight at Madison Square Garden.

Knicks: Joakim Noah missed his second straight game with a sprained left ankle. The Knicks lost for the first time in six games this season without their starting center. … Hall of Famer Willis Reed and Allan Houston shared the previous franchise record, having both scored 24 points in a quarter. Reed also did it in the second period, while Houston’s outburst came in the fourth.

BACK-TO-BACK FACTS

Washington improved to 2-7 on the second night of back-to-back games – with both victories against the Knicks, who are even worse in that situation. New York is 1-9, including a loss at Washington on Nov. 17.

UP NEXT

Wizards: Visit the Pistons on Saturday. The Wizards won 122-108 at home against Detroit on Dec. 16 behind 29 points and 11 assists from Wall.

Knicks: Host the Suns on Saturday as coach Jeff Hornacek tries to beat his former team for the first time. Phoenix pulled out a 113-111 overtime victory against New York on Dec. 13.

Kawhi Leonard has 34, Spurs overcome Pau Gasol’s injury to top Nuggets

San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard runs up the court after scoring during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Indiana Pacers, Monday, Dec. 21, 2015, in San Antonio. San Antonio won 106-92. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)
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SAN ANTONIO (AP) Kawhi Leonard scored 34 points, rookie Dejounte Murray added a season-high 24 and the short-handed San Antonio Spurs overcame a pregame injury to Pau Gasol in beating the Denver Nuggets 118-104 on Thursday night.

Denver’s three-game winning streak was snapped despite a career-high 35 points from Nikola Jokic.

Leonard had his fifth straight 30-point performance, right after learning he will start for the Western Conference in the All-Star Game for the second consecutive season.

The Spurs were unexpectedly without Gasol, Tony Parker and then coach Gregg Popovich. Gasol and Parker were both late scratches due to injury, and Popovich was ejected for the first time this season.

Gasol broke the ring finger on his left (non-shooting) hand by jamming it against Kyle Anderson‘s shoulder during pregame warmups while attempting a running hook. The 16-year veteran center immediately clutched his hand and left the court.

X-rays revealed the break, and the Spurs said there is no timeline for Gasol’s return.

Murray started in place of Parker, who sat out with a sprained left foot. The rookie responded by shooting 7 for 11, including 3 of 5 on 3-pointers.

Popovich did not get to see the Spurs improve to 15-2 at home since Nov. 11 after picking up his fifth and sixth technical fouls. Zach Zarba ejected Popovich with 1:36 remaining in the first half after he became incensed over a foul called on Davis Bertans against Jokic.

Minutes earlier, Popovich was upset over a non-call for Bertans.

TIP-INS

Nuggets: Jokic has led the team in scoring or shared the high mark in 10 of Denver’s past 18 games after doing so just once in the previous 22 games. . Jokic was the only Denver player who did not have a losing record as a starter until Thursday’s defeat. He is 11-12 as a starter. . C Jusuf Nurkic had five points, leaving him one shy of 1,000 for his career. . F Juancho Hernangomez made his second career start. . During Popovich’s ejection, Nuggets G Emmanuel Mudiay shadowed Zarba and mimicked the official calling a technical foul and ejecting the Spurs’ coach. . Denver has had two three-game winning streaks this season. The previous streak was snapped 119-102 by the Los Angeles Clippers on Dec. 20.

Spurs: Gasol missed his first game due to injury this season. He sat out two games for rest. He is averaging 11.7 points and 7.9 rebounds in 39 games. . Parker has missed eight games this season, including two for rest. The point guard missed three games with a sore right knee, one due to a bruised left quadriceps and another because of a bruised left knee. . At least one Spurs player has appeared in the All-Star Game in all but two of the franchise’s 40 years in the NBA – 1989 and 1997. … Leonard has scored in double figures in 74 straight games, the longest streak by a Spurs player since Duncan had 75 in 2004-05.

UP NEXT

Nuggets: At the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday night.

Spurs: At the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday night.

Goran Dragic scores 32 as Heat top Mavericks 99-95

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 22:  Goran Dragic #7 of the Miami Heat drives to the basket during a game against the Los Angeles Lakers at American Airlines Arena on December 22, 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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MIAMI (AP) Just like in 2006 and 2011, the Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks are essentially in the same place.

Different spot in the standings, though.

Goran Dragic had 32 points, Tyler Johnson scored 10 of his 23 in the fourth quarter and the Heat beat the Mavericks 99-95 on Thursday night, snapping Dallas’ season-high three-game winning streak.

“Like an old-school Miami-Dallas game,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.

He said it with a smile, not entirely serious, of course. The stakes in Heat-Mavs games are far different now, with both teams languishing in the bottom half of their respective conferences and not going back and forth in the NBA Finals. But both franchises have been a bit better of late, providing hope for the second half.

“We worked hard for this, the whole team,” Dragic said. “We lost a lot of close games, but we’re getting better in those close games and we feel like tonight we defended well, the ball was moving and we made the right plays.”

Hassan Whiteside scored 13 and Dion Waiters added 12 for the Heat.

Dirk Nowitzki had 19 points for Dallas, which went 1 for 8 from the field during a late stretch of the fourth quarter and never got the lead again.

“It was a really tough stretch for us,” Nowitzki said. “We went from being up a couple to down seven or eight and then we put the starters back in or the other unit, so that was a bad stretch … and after that we had to play catch-up.”

Wesley Matthews scored 18 for the Mavericks, who got 15 apiece from Harrison Barnes and Seth Curry.

“It’s not exactly 2011,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “It’s two franchises that are competitive, and that are playing a little better in recent games. It’s a competitive game. We’ve had health issues. They’ve obviously had health issues.”

Nowitzki made two of three free throws with 18.5 seconds left to get the Mavs within 95-92. The Heat needed to burn two timeouts before even getting the ball inbounded on the ensuing possession, and Johnson hit two from the line five seconds later to help seal the win.

TIP-INS

Mavericks: J.J. Barea scored 13 points and has reached double figures in 11 of his 17 games this season. At 32, he’s on pace to average more than 12 points a game for the first time. … Dallas took only 11 free throws to Miami’s 29.

Heat: Miami improved to 3-21 when trailing at halftime. Dallas led 53-44 at the break. … Okaro White made his NBA debut. He was signed to a 10-day deal earlier this week. … Wayne Ellington got his 1,000th career rebound and is one 3-pointer shy of 500.

PROMOTION ISSUE

A fan avoided injury when a door – depicting a hotel room door – on a wheeled frame fell over during a promotion after the first quarter. The promotion had several fans slide hotel “keys” into the door, and the one that worked won a hotel stay. The floor was slightly damaged near midcourt.

BOGUT CLOSER

Dallas center Andrew Bogut missed his fourth straight game with a right hamstring strain. He worked out on the court before the game and is improving, though he isn’t expected to play Friday against Utah.

UP NEXT

Mavericks: Host the Utah Jazz on Friday. Dallas is 0-7 on the second night of back-to-backs this season.

Heat: Host the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday. Miami is 1-1 against the Bucks, with both teams winning at home.

LeBron James, Kyrie Irving lead Cavaliers to 118-103 win over Suns

PHOENIX, AZ - JANUARY 08:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers handles the ball against TJ Warren #12 of the Phoenix Suns during the second half of the NBA game at Talking Stick Resort Arena on January 8, 2017 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Cavaliers defeated the Suns 120-116. 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 Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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CLEVELAND (AP) Before their first home game following a long trip that ended with a miserable thud at Golden State, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue showed his team video clips to remind them who they are.

The message?

“Do that,” LeBron James said.

Kyrie Irving scored 26 points, James, his All-Star teammate, had 21 points and 15 assists, and Cleveland looked more like an NBA champion in a 118-103 win over the Phoenix Suns on Thursday night.

The Cavs were back in Quicken Loans Arena following a six-game road swing (their longest of the season) that concluded with an embarrassing 35-point loss to the Warriors. But on their home floor, they had better offensive balance, ball movement and defense while improving to 30-11 – the same record Cleveland had at the halfway point of its 2016 NBA title season.

Channing Frye scored 18, Iman Shumpert 17 and James Jones 14 while filling in for star forward Kevin Love, still bothered by back spasms.

“Coming off our road trip we just weren’t playing Cavalier basketball,” said James, “and getting the ball popping from one side to the other. It was good to get back to the way we’ve been playing for most of the season.”

Tyson Chandler had 22 points and 16 rebounds, but the Suns lost for the fourth time in five games.

Phoenix closed within 12 in the fourth, but was unable to get any closer.

“They always make the right play offensively and defensively,” said Suns guard Devin Booker, who finished with 21 points on 4-of-12 shooting. “They’re always on a string together on both ends of the floor. You can hear them talking out there. You can hear them communicating. I guess that’s one thing you can learn from them, how comfortable they are with themselves and the way they talk to each other.”

Already thin on their front line with Love out, the Cavs lost forward Tristan Thompson in the second quarter with a dislocated left index finger. However, Thompson returned after halftime.

And Cleveland’s offense was in a much better rhythm from the start after a trip that wasn’t always pleasing to the eye.

Irving and James shined as always, but it was the contributions of Cleveland’s supporting cast that made the difference.

“We definitely needed it,” James said. “We needed guys to step up and you know, we had that tonight out of everybody, especially Channing.”

While trying to integrate newly acquired Kyle Korver into their rotation on the road, the Cavs got into some bad habits as they forced passes to one of the league’s best shooters. A couple of practices seem to have helped as Korver made a pair of 3-pointers in the second quarter of his home debut to help Cleveland open a 21-point lead.

The Suns made a brief run in the third and got within 12 before Shumpert hit a pair of 3s and Jones hit one from long range.

IRON MAN

Thompson injured his finger when he got it caught on Chandler’s jersey. For a moment, he was worried it might affect his consecutive games streak that now stands at 411 – the longest current run in the league.

“Once they told me it was only dislocated, I knew the streak was still alive,” he said.

TIP-INS

Suns: G Brandon Knight returned after missing two games with a sprained right wrist, but had a short night after committing four fouls in four minutes in the first half. … Chandler has at least 15 rebounds in six straight games, matching the club record set by Jim Fox in 1969. … Booker had averaged 30 points in his past six games.

Cavaliers: Korver finished with nine points. … James, who missed his 46th career triple-double by one rebound, will be making his 13th consecutive All-Star Game appearance next month. He said the honor never gets old. “Just means I’ve been doing something right in this league,” he said. “Means I’m consistent and taking pride in my individual ability to go out and produce for the team every night, and whatever team I’ve been on in my career. It’s always great to see my name up there with the best guys in the league, so it’s a pretty cool thing.” … G J.R. Smith has had the hard cast removed from his surgically repaired thumb. He’s expected back in late March. … Jones made his first start since April 2, 2015.

UP NEXT

Suns: At the New York Knicks on Saturday. Phoenix won the first meeting this season in overtime.

Cavaliers: Host the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday in a matchup between two of the NBA’s best teams.