NBA Finals, Lakers Celtics: Role Players turn game six into a blowout


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In games four and five, the main difference between the Lakers and the Celtics was that the Celtic role players played like they were ready to win an NBA Finals, and the Laker role players played like they were terrified to be playing in an NBA Finals. 
You can talk all you want about what type of role players survive in high-pressure situations and which ones don’t; shooters vs. slashers, veterans vs. young players, et cetera. You can talk about the coaching. You can talk about the culture of the team. In the end, it generally boils down to this: role players almost always play better at home, and they almost always play better when their team has a substantial lead than they do when their team is behind. When a team is ahead and the home crowd is behind them, everyone relaxes. Everyone is comfortable running the offense, nobody is afraid of making mistakes, and offensive balance and efficiency generally results. 
When a team gets behind, especially on the road, everyone gets tense, the ball slows down, jumpers get missed, and that’s when the best one or two players on a team have to go ISO or pick-and-roll to try and get their team back into the game. 
The Lakers are fairly comfortable playing from behind thanks to Kobe — the flip side of that coin is that they sometimes lean too heavily on Kobe, and can have trouble playing four quarters of efficient offense as a result. The (playoff incarnation) of the Celtics is a classic front-running team; their defense keeps the other team from making big comeback runs, and they have too much balance in their offense to allow it to go stagnant if a superstar goes cold. 
However, when forced to play from behind, there’s nobody who can jump-start the offense for the Celtics the way Kobe can for the Lakers. Because of that, things can sometimes get ugly when the Celtics fall behind early. In game six, that’s exactly what happened.
The first thing Los Angeles did to get their role players going was to take the pressure off of their role players early. They did that by more or less giving the ball to Kobe Bryant and getting out of his way. Since Kobe’s jumper was on, it was a prudent strategy. Kobe had 11 points and an assist in the first seven minutes of the game. Even better, the pick-and-rolls he ran with Pau Gasol forced the Celtic D to collapse and opened up Ron Artest in the corner for two early threes that got his confidence going. 
By the time Kobe and Ron’s mini-onslaught was over, the Lakers had a 26-16 lead with three minutes to play in the quarter. Kobe was on his game, the shots were falling, the crowd was going crazy. (Nothing gets the Los Angeles crowd going like a Ron Artest three — it’s the adrenaline dump.) It was all good news from there for the defending champions. The Lakers put the Celtics on the ropes early, and they didn’t give the Celtics one chance to recover in the final 42 minutes of play.
The final three quarters of game six were less a contest than an extended Laker victory march, and every Laker got in on the fun. Sasha Vujacic came off the bench to knock in some long jumpers. Shannon Brown got four points on two spectacular dunks. Jordan Farmar threw his body all over the court and finished with three steals. Pau Gasol came an assist shy of a triple-double. Josh Powell, Luke Walton, and D.J. Mbenga all actually got into the game. 
Meanwhile, the Celtics got a total of 13 points from players not named Garnett, Pierce, Rondo, or Ray Allen. Eight of those 13 points came in the final five minutes of play, and no non-“big four” player scored until the fourth quarter. The Celtic role players looked completely out of their element, and the Laker defense absolutely feasted on their lack of confidence and inability to run the offense. 
When they talk about this series 10 or 20 years from now, they probably won’t talk about Tony Allen or Ron Artest. (Well, Artest might get a mention.) They’ll talk about Paul Pierce, Garnett, Kobe, Phil Jackson, Doc Rivers, Rajon Rondo, maybe Pau Gasol. All the same, it was the bit players on both sides who put the Lakers in a 3-2 hole, and it was those same bit players’ fortunes changing that allowed the Lakers to tie the series with a rout. There’s a very good chance that they’ll be the ones making the extra passes, the quick doubles, the timely steals, or the open shots that will end up deciding game seven and the NBA Finals. 

In the East, it’s the Cavs and then everyone else – again

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The Cleveland Cavaliers know what it feels like to enter the season as Eastern Conference favorites.

They begin this one with an entirely unfamiliar label – defending champions.

The rest of the East has spent the last six years unsuccessfully trying to unseat LeBron James from the throne. Whether he has been in Cleveland or Miami, James has led his team to the NBA Finals every year since 2011. But his crowning achievement came last season, when his Cavaliers captured the city’s first pro sports championship in 52 years by defeating the record-breaking Golden State Warriors.

Now the Cavaliers are wearing an even bigger target on their backs.

“It’s the same mindset: Let’s win a championship,” James said. “We just want to be able to put ourselves in position to do that. We have the ability, we have the personnel, but we have to work now. We can’t expect for it to happen just like we didn’t expect for it to happen last year. We put the time into it.”

The Boston Celtics finally found a star in Al Horford to team with a lunch pail group that has overachieved under coach Brad Stevens. The Toronto Raptors are back for more after falling to the Cavs in the Eastern Conference finals and Chicago and New York brought in aging stars in a desperate attempt to change the balance of power in the league’s weaker conference.

James’ reply: Bring it on.

“We can’t be entitled to anything we’ve got to go out and get it and work for it,” he said. “We’re a team that’s very driven and we look forward to all the challenges the season holds.”

A look at the East:


1. Cleveland – Championship hangover? No one expects that with the Cavs. There is one certainty in the NBA: LeBron will make it to the finals.

2. Boston – Horford and Stevens appear to be the perfect match.

3. Toronto – Keep doubting the Raptors. Kyle Lowry wants you to. Should be nip and tuck with the Celtics all season.

4. Washington – Here’s where it starts to get dicey. Wiz are betting Scott Brooks will be able to push the buttons Randy Wittman couldn’t.

5. Atlanta – The Hawks took a step back last season, then swapped Horford for Dwight Howard. Things could go either way in Hotlanta this season.

6. Charlotte – Mostly stood pat this summer after a surprising sixth-place finish last year. A healthy Michael Kidd-Gilchrist sure could make a difference.

7. Detroit – Would have picked them higher, but Reggie Jackson‘s injury is a concern.

8. Indiana – Pacers swapped out the underrated George Hill for Jeff Teague, traded Frank Vogel for Nate McMillan and brought in Thaddeus Young and Al Jefferson to funk things up.


9. Chicago – Dwyane Wade‘s homecoming is a great story. But the severe lack of shooting figures to hold the Bulls back.

10. Miami – With Wade and Chris Bosh gone, it’s rebuilding time. Don’t expect Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra to be down long, though.

11. New York – Manhattan is all excited about the star power that Phil Jackson brought in. The reality is Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah have not been completely healthy for years.

12. Milwaukee – Khris Middleton‘s injury is a killer that prompted scrambling for wing help. The Greek Freak at point guard, thought? That will be appointment viewing.


13. Orlando – Vogel landed with the Magic and he has all kinds of defensive weapons at his disposal. That will be essential because scoring may be difficult to come by.

14. Philadelphia – You have to be kidding us with the Ben Simmons injury. Hey, at least Joel Embiid is healthy. Please keep it that way.

15. Brooklyn – Move over Philly, there’s a new basement dweller in the East! Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson are well thought of, but it’s going to take time to get this thing turned around.


LEBRON’S LEGACY: The last time James did not appear in the NBA Finals was 2010 when the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Celtics. James’ Cavaliers were eliminated in the East semifinals by the Celtics, and he signed with the Heat that summer.

WALL AND BEAL: Much has been made of the chemistry, or lack thereof, in Washington’s backcourt. If John Wall and Bradley Beal are on the same page, the Wizards are dangerous. If they can’t find a way to harmonize, Washington could plummet down the standings.

NEW FACES: Brooks in Washington, McMillan in Indiana, Vogel in Orlando, Atkinson in Brooklyn and Jeff Hornacek in New York start their first seasons as coaches after a summer of upheaval in the conference.

SCHRODER TIME: The Hawks traded Teague to Indiana to open the door for Schroder’s slashing game. He’s been waiting for this chance, and his ability to run the team, play defense and knock down the occasional jumper will be critical to Atlanta’s chances.

ROOKIE WATCH: Only three of the top nine picks in the draft went to teams in the East. Youngsters to keep an eye on include Jaylen Brown in Boston, Jakob Poeltl for Toronto, Thon Maker in Milwaukee and Denzel Valentine in Chicago.

AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report.

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Wade, Rondo bring intrigue if not title hopes to Bulls

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Associated Press

CHICAGO (AP) No matter how this season plays out, this much is clear about the Chicago Bulls: They’re worth watching.

They jettisoned one hometown superstar and welcomed another when they traded former MVP Derrick Rose and signed three-time NBA champion Dwyane Wade.

They also handed the keys to an All-Star guard in Jimmy Butler who called out his coach last season. And on top of that, they added mercurial point guard Rajon Rondo to the mix.

Coming off a flat season that ended with them missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008, the Bulls at least spiced things up in the offseason. Now, it’s time to see if interesting also means better.

“I love the vibe of this group,” Hoiberg said. “I love the competitiveness of this group.”

The Bulls clearly had to do something after a year that began with high expectations ended with a 42-40 record, a fractured locker room and all sorts of questions about team leadership.

Gone is Chicago native Rose – derailed by injuries after leading the Bulls to heights they hadn’t reached since the Michael Jordan Era – after being dealt to New York for center Robin Lopez and guard Jerian Grant. So is Joakim Noah, who signed with Knicks not long after the big trade. Pau Gasol went to San Antonio as a free agent.

Wade shocked Miami when he chose to come home to Chicago and accept a two-year deal worth about $47 million.

Here are some things to look for this season from the Bulls, who open at home against Boston on Oct. 27:


The Bulls thought Hoiberg’s fast-paced tempo and soft-spoken style were just what the team needed when he was hired. They just didn’t think the learning curve would be as steep as it was. Hoiberg got called out by Butler last season for not coaching the team hard enough. The system and the roster did not mesh.

So does Year 2 bring a better Hoiberg?

Executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson said he expects it. So does Hoiberg, who came to the Bulls after a successful five-year run at Iowa State.

But is this the right roster for him? After all, Wade and Rondo are both in their 30s. And if the Bulls struggle, who takes the fall?


Who knows what might have happened had Wade signed with the Bulls six years ago rather than form a superstar triumvirate with LeBron James and Chris Bosh in Miami? But he’s here now, coming off a strong season and being counted on at age 34 to set the tone for the Bulls’ younger players. The 12-time All-Star has been doing just that, speaking up in practice and meetings.


It’s been a steep climb for Butler from low first-round draft pick to bench warmer to two-time All-Star with an Olympic gold medal. But his success hasn’t translated to team success. Butler’s first All-Star season ended with Tom Thibodeau’s firing. Last year, the Bulls dropped into the lottery. And while Wade and Rondo have said the Bulls are Butler’s team, it’s not clear exactly how far he can lead them.

“I can learn from (Wade and Rondo), the winning culture they’ve built,” Butler said. “I’m excited because there’s so much growth I can handle in that aspect of the game. You look at what Wade has done for his career, a future Hall of Famer. I think that I can model the way I do things around him.’


While the Bulls added scoring punch and the reigning assists-per-game leader in Wade and Rondo, they still lack a starting guard who can consistently hit from long range. That was a problem last season with Rose and Butler, who moves to small forward.

Spacing could be a problem when Rondo, Wade and Butler are on the court together, though the Bulls do have solid shooters in Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott. Gasol’s departure also creates a scoring hole in the paint.


Rondo is coming off a resurgent season with Sacramento that saw him average 11.9 points and a league-leading 11.7 assists. It was the fourth time he averaged a double-double in a season and the first for him since the 2012-13 season. The four-time All-Star has clashed with coaches, most notably Dallas’ Rick Carlisle, and his relationship with Hoiberg could be one to watch.

Damian Lillard drops first rap album “The Letter O”

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Damian Lillard via Twitter
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Damian Lillard keeps hearing the calls from fans on social media to work harder in the gym instead of rapping. This summer, it looks like he did both.

Lillard announced on Thursday that he would be dropping his first album, titled “The Letter O”, with features from artists like Lil’ Wayne and Jamie Foxx.

The Portland Trail Blazers point guard has come out with a few songs here and there, but this is the first full-featured album of his career. The album comes after Lillard performed at the Crystal Ballroom in July, a premiere concert hall in downtown Portland.

Oh, and about that whole “stay in the gym” thing? Lillard answered that too.


“I recorded the entire album in L.A. and it took me one week,” said Lillard. “So I was there for five days and from 12 noon to 12 midnight I was in the studio. I’d workout at 8 am and then I’d go lift and then I’d go to the studio, 12 to 12, five days straight.”

The Letter O is a tribute to Lillard’s heritage — Oakland, Ogden, and Oregon — the three places that are the mileposts of his basketball career. During lineups, Lillard is announced as “Wearing the letter O” before every Blazers game.

You can The Letter O on Spotify, Apple Music, and iTunes.

Horford’s addition gives Celtics high hopes for new year

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BOSTON (AP) From afar, Al Horford has always had respect for the history of the Boston Celtics.

He made his first visit to the Garden as a rookie in 2007 and found himself drawn to the championship banners that hung above the court.

That was the same season that Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joined Paul Pierce to form the Big 3 and went on to win Boston’s 17th NBA championship.

As the Celtics biggest free agent signing since then, Horford – with his four-year, $113 million contract – is now the centerpiece of the franchise as it chases banner No. 18.

He enters the 2016-17 campaign no longer the wide-eyed rookie that arrived in Atlanta nine years ago. He’s now a veteran four-time All-Star that team president Danny Ainge believes can provide leadership to a young core led by Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder. The immediate goal is to help Boston advance past the first round of the playoffs for first time since 2012.

“I know that I’m gonna help our team be better,” Horford said. “I’m gonna try to come in and try to gel as fast as I can and just make sure that we’re playing at a high level, and that we’re working every day. And we’ll see what happens.”

There’s no denying that Horford joins a team that has been on the upswing under coach Brad Stevens. Boston won just 25 games his first season in 2013-14 but have improved to 40 and 48 wins the past two, which have included back-to-back playoff berths.

But each of those postseason appearances ended in first-round exits, including a 4-2 loss to Horford’s Hawks last season.

That loss was marred by a hamstring injury to Bradley in Game 1, as well as nagging injuries which dogged Crowder and center Kelly Olynyk.

With all of that behind them, Thomas is anxious to see what this group can accomplish when healthy and with some extra star power.

Aside from providing some help defending the rim and rebounding, Horford’s shooting ability also should open up the floor more for a scoring point guard like Thomas, and improved shooter like Bradley.

The expectation is that Crowder will also be freer to operate with Horford drawing attention in the paint.

There is also No. 3 overall draft pick Jaylen Brown, whose athleticism should fit right in with a group that loves to run the floor.

“We have a pretty good team, a team that could make some noise – some legitimate noise,” Thomas said. “If we put it together and play the right way, we can make a lot happen this season. You don’t ever want to put a ceiling on it, but we have a really good team I know that.”


Probably the Celtics’ biggest loss this offseason was the departure of swingman Evan Turner to Portland in free agency. Aside from being a productive sixth man, he also at times triggered their half-court sets when he was in the game. “That’s a big loss,” Stevens said. “A big loss because of the way he handled the ball, the big shots that he made late in the game, his positional versatility defensively, his everyday workman-like attitude in the gym.”


The Celtics were dealt a small blow to their second unit when Marcus Smart suffered a left ankle sprain in their preseason finale. The silver lining is that while he’s out, it will almost certainly mean increased playing time for second-year point guard Terry Rozier. Rozier had his best moments as a rookie on the defensive end, but showed a lot of improvement in his shooting during the preseason. “He works hard at the game and it’s no surprise that he’s having success,” Stevens said. “We’re going to rely on him.”


Olynyk sat out the entire preseason recovering from arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder in May. After not being cleared for contact in time to appear in any preseason games, it’s possible he could miss a good chunk of games early in the season. It will mean one less body to relieve Horford, but will give the Celtics opportunities to play smaller at times.


The Celtics have a fairly balanced schedule over the first full month of the season, but will play 10 of their first 18 games on the road. Horford will play his former Hawks team three times this season, beginning Jan. 13 in Atlanta.

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