NBA Finals, Lakers Celtics: How Boston blew the championship

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Bynum over Boston.jpgIt was the type of the game the Celtics wanted. It was an ugly game, dominated by defense and sloppy play. Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol combined to shoot 12-40 from the floor, and the Lakers shot 32.5%/20%/67.6% as a team. The Celtics had their game plan, and they executed it to a T. Kobe looked mortal, even downright bad. The crowd was dead. Boston was all set to grind its way to its 18th championship. And then the Lakers were the ones pouring champagne on each other as the Celtics were left to wonder where it all went wrong. 

So how did it all go wrong for the Celtics in game 7? First of all, the Celtics had an absolutely disastrous game on the glass. The Celtics got 32 defensive rebounds; the Lakers had 23 offensive rebounds. That means that when the Lakers missed a shot, the Celtics got the ball 58% of the time. That’s absolutely abysmal — Golden State had the worst defensive rebounding rate in the NBA this season, and they managed to snag 68% of their defensive rebound chances. Just so we’re clear here, the Warriors often used Corey Maggette at the four. 
Early in the game, Boston’s inability to cleanly grab any rebound or loose ball kept them from building a substantial 1st-quarter lead. They led by nine points after the first quarter, but the Lakers’ 5 second-chance points and 10-0 advantage on the offensive glass kept Boston from really breaking the game open early. 
Overall, the Lakers had 17 second-chance points, which accounted for a full 20% of their offensive production. The Celtics, meanwhile, only managed to get five second-chance points, and all five of them were scored by Rajon Rondo, the smallest Celtic starter. Whether it was Perkins being out, Bynum, Gasol, and Kobe wanting it more, or the ball just bouncing the Lakers’ way, the Celtics’ inability to secure the basketball consistently was a big reason they lost game 7 and the NBA championship.
Even though the Celtics were getting killed on the glass, they still had a chance to secure the game in the third quarter. Four minutes into the third, the Lakers’ only points in the quarter had come from a free throw and a Ron Artest tip-in, Boston was up by 12 points, and the Lakers’ season was on the brink. What the Lakers knew, and what Boston had failed to recognize up until that point, is that the Lakers had too much talent not to make a run at some point in the game. 
While Boston had the lead, they blew their opportunity to do what they did in the deciding game of the 2008 Finals and what the Lakers did to them in game six; demoralize their opponents so completely that they had no hopes of making any sort of legitimate comeback. 
The Lakers were down and playing as badly as they were capable of playing, but they still had Kobe, they still had Pau, they still had experience, and they still had a crowd behind them. 12 points was nowhere near enough, and the lead could have been a lot bigger. Kobe curled off a Pau Gasol screen, caught Rasheed Wallace standing at the free throw line, and drained his easiest look of the night. Pau Gasol posted up Rasheed Wallace and drained a nasty left-handed hook after spinning baseline. On the next Laker possession, Derek Fisher got a double-screen and drained a mid-range jumper off a curl. A possession later, Odom cleaned up an Artest miss. 
All it took was four players doing what they do best — Kobe on the perimeter, Gasol in the post, Fisher on a catch-and-shoot, Odom doing the dirty work — to cut the lead to six points, get the crowd involved, and put Boston their heels. Paul Pierce hit a big three to stop the bleeding, but that run was the beginning of the end for the Celtics, whose only chance of victory was to continue playing defense at an insanely high level. Before Kobe’s jumper, the Lakers had scored 37 points in 28 minutes — after it, the Lakers scored 44 points in the final 20 minutes of play. 
The Celtics had a chance to cling to the lead in the fourth, but a critical mistake by Ray Allen (getting caught with his hand in the cookie jar by Kobe, leading to three free throws), and an absolutely massive game-tying three gave the Lakers all the confidence they needed to take it at the Celtics, got the Celtics panicked and committing fouls left and right, and all but sealed the game and the championship for the Lakers. 
Boston briefly threatened the Los Angeles lead during the insane three-point fest that ended the game, but the majority of the quarter was devoted to the Lakers methodically marching to the free throw line and the championship while the Celtics melted down around them. 
The Celtics had plenty of chances to put the Lakers away, and they failed to capitalize. They got the stops they needed, then failed to get the rebounds. They held Kobe and Pau at bay, but failed to capitalize by making shots themselves. They played 36 minutes of great defense, then got desperate and foul-happy when the momentum began to turn. The Celtics came out and executed their game plan, but they didn’t go the extra mile and make sure the inevitable Laker run wasn’t going to cripple them. On the flip side of things, once the Lakers made their big push and got the lead, the Celtics were completely unprepared to try and make a comeback of their own. When mattered most, the prohibitive favorites coming into the series were the ones who had to dig deep and believe in themselves, and that’s exactly what they did. Now they get free ugly hats and champagne. 
The Celtics had the lead. They had the defense capable of holding it. They had a team of veterans with championship experience. None of that means anything now. When they had the chance to get the big prize, the Celtics played the scoreboard. What they needed to realize was that they were playing the defending, and now still reigning, NBA champions. 

Stephen Curry says talk of lack of competitive balance “disrespectful” to Warriors, Cavaliers

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This year’s NBA playoffs have been horribly lopsided and they lacked drama because we all knew where it was headed: Golden State vs. Cleveland. They were so dominant that between them they lost one playoff game so far. This has brought up discussions of competitive balance — we have seen the same Finals three years in a row, and we will almost certainly head into next season expecting a fourth. Then maybe a fifth.

Not surprisingly, Stephen Curry isn’t a fan of the lack of competition argument, saying it disrespects the Warriors and the Cavaliers.

“That almost is kind of disrespectful, because it’s not like it’s easy for us to get here. It wasn’t that at all. Us and Cleveland worked our butts off all year to put ourselves in a position to be playing for a championship. The league is as strong talent-wise across the board as it’s ever been. Every night we get challenged. Obviously, we had that one stat I guess, point differential, all year. We had a pretty solid showing in that respect. But, every night was hard. Every night was challenging. You can’t just sleepwalk through a season and sleep walk through the playoffs and expect to be here. You got to do something. You got to come out every night and prove yourself. Granted, anybody who was betting on who was gonna be in the Finals probably picked those two. It’s easy for them to say that and just wake up in June and see it happen. We had to put that work in all year long to make it happen.”

Curry is right in that nobody should question the work the Warriors and Cavaliers put in to get to this point, and that the other teams did not just roll over for them. Also, both teams did get a little lucky with injuries.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that right now there is a dominant team in each conference, and that sucks the drama out of the postseason. (Maybe a healthy San Antonio team could have pushed the Warriors, we didn’t get to find out.) Golden State has four of the top 15-20 players in the NBA, and that makes them a juggernaut — again, regardless of the work put in. Other teams don’t have much of a chance if the Warriors are healthy and focused, not in a seven game series. The fact that it was flukey circumstances that put a dominant team in each conference — there isn’t another LeBron James returning home, and out West it took a one-time salary cap spike to add Kevin Durant to a 73-win team — doesn’t change the fact this season has felt like a foregone conclusion from the start.

Right now we’ve got what we wanted and expected, the trilogy between the Warriors and Cavaliers. But if we head into next season expecting (and maybe getting) round four of this matchup in the Finals, is that good for the league? Why watch the movie if you know how it ends before it starts?

Bill Laimbeer on LeBron vs. Jordan comparisons: “I’ll take LeBron James, absolutely”

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LeBron James is headed to his seventh straight NBA Finals. He just passed Michael Jordan to take over the top spot on the NBA’s all-time playoff scoring list. Fourteen years into his NBA career, he has put together a resume that few in the game’s history can match — and he’s not done.

You don’t have to think that LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan, however, if you don’t think it’s a valid discussion, you’re blinded by bias.

Former NBA All-Star, champion, and WNBA coach Bill Laimbeer of the “bad boy” Detroit Pistons was asked about the LeBron/Jordan comparison on “The Rematch” podcast, and he said we’ve never seen anyone like LeBron (hat tip the USA Today).

“I’ll take Lebron James, absolutely,” Laimbeer said to host Etan Thomas… “He’s 6-8, 285 (James is listed at 250 pounds). Runs like the wind, jumps out of the gym. Phenomenal leader since he’s been 12 years old. Understood when he came into the league how to involve his teammates from the start. And you can’t guard him. You can’t double-team, he’s too big, he powers through everything. Michael was a guard. Yeah, he was 6-6, but he wasn’t a real thick and strong guard. It took him a lot of years to learn how to involve his teammates in order to win championships. Don’t fault him for that, it’s a learning experience. But we’ve never seen anybody like LeBron James physically. He just bullies you.

It was Laimbeer and the Pistons who taught Jordan to win — they beat the Bulls year after year in the playoffs, until Jordan broadened his game (and got better teammates) and the Pistons started to fade. People point to MJ’s unblemished Finals record, but he was seen for years as a guy who couldn’t get a team to the Finals because of those Pistons (LeBron learned his lessons on a different stage, taking some early Cavs teams that had no business in the Finals to that stage anyway, only to get crushed).

LeBron has a more versatile game than Jordan, which better suits this era: When Jordan was a force in the ’80s and ’90s there was no zone defense, which led to a lot of clear-out sets where eight guys watched a one-on-one battle from the other side of the key, and if the double-team came it was obvious from where. Jordan’s skill as a guy who could get his shot, kill it from the midrange or get to the rim, his ability to physically play through contact, and the legendary killer instinct made him great. But he was aided by timing — the booming popularity of the sport in the 1990s, the rise of Nike as a marketing giant, and the fact he didn’t have a true rival, a Bird to his Magic, that could best him.

LeBron has reached the point in his career that the legacy talk and where he ranks all-time is the only real discussion left — and Jordan sits as the bar to clear. Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Bill Russell, and a few others should be on that tier as well, part of the discussion, but the point is LeBron has moved on to that level of discussion. He’s earned it. The fact some people on Twitter/sports talk radio feel the need to rip him for everything doesn’t change that — if Jordan played the social media era he would have heard the same things from the same people.

Report: Celtics focused on adding All-Star-caliber frontcourt player

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Isaiah Thomas said he he’d happily forgo a renegotiation-and-extension if the Celtics use their cap space to upgrade their roster.

Where are they looking?

A. Sherrod Blakey of CSN New England:

Multiple league sources have told CSNNE.com in recent weeks that the Celtics are focused on landing an All-Star caliber talent in the frontcourt.

In the last three years, 22 frontcourt players have been All-Stars. Boston already has one: Al Horford. Could the Celtics land any of the other 22?

Almost certainly unavailable

Free agency

Trade

Free agency or trade

  • Pau Gasol (Though Gasol said he’d opt in, San Antonio might try pushing him out to pursue Paul. If Gasol opts in, the Spurs could also trade him to clear space for Paul.)
  • Dirk Nowitzki (The Mavericks have a $25 million team option on Nowitzki for next season. Nowitzki going to Boston, via trade or free agency, would probably require a mutual agreement between Dallas and him that pursuing a title elsewhere is the right way for him to end his career.)

Report: Spurs exploring Chris Paul pursuit

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The Clippers are taking the Chris Paul-to-Spurs rumors seriously.

And apparently so are the Spurs.

Marc Stein of ESPN:

The San Antonio Spurs are exploring the feasibility of making a free-agent run at All-Star point guard Chris Paul, league sources told ESPN.

San Antonio must complete three difficult objectives to land Paul:

  • Clear cap space. Even if they trim their roster to Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Danny Green and Tony Parker, the Spurs would still have to dump two of them to clear max room. Can they convince Gasol to reverse course and opt out, maybe re-signing at a major discount? Would they trade Parker, who has meant so much to the franchise? Would they deal Aldridge or Green, players who would make major contributions to a Leonard/Paul-led team?
  • Convince Paul to accept a projected max of $152 million over four years rather than the projected $205 million he could get over five years from the Clippers. Although the annual difference is just $3 million and Paul could sign another deal in four years, it’s unlikely he recoups that at age 36.
  • Convince Paul to leave big-market L.A. for small-market San Antonio. Remember, Paul forced his way from small-market New Orleans then ascended into one of the NBA’s biggest endorsement stars.

The Spurs boast a fantastic basketball culture, and Leonard and Popovich make great partners in a championship chase. There are reasons San Antonio is gaining traction with Paul.

But there’s still a lot for the Spurs to overcome. Will they? At least they’re trying rather than just dismissing the plot as unfeasible.