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. 

Three Things We Learned, Cavaliers/Warriors edition: What can we take away from Monday to NBA Finals?

OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 16:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers holds his face after being fouled by Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on January 16, 2017 in Oakland, California. 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 Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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The NBA goes big on Martin Luther King Jr. day — as they should — but if you missed the action because you were busy counting to 100,000 for no reason, we’ve got you covered with the key takeaways from the biggest game on the schedule.

And we’re doubling our usual three things we learned to six for a day.

Six things from Warriors’ thrashing of Cavaliers that could play out in NBA Finals.
 Nothing that happens in the regular season guarantees anything come the NBA playoffs, let alone the Finals. Last season’s 73-win Warriors were just the latest in a long line of teams to prove that. Which means we need to be careful reading much into Golden State’s thrashing of Cleveland on Martin Luther King Jr. day. The Finals are a little less than six months away — both of these teams will be different by then (the Cavaliers hope to have a healthy J.R. Smith and Kevin Love by then, for example).  Remember, in January one year ago the Warriors thrashed the Cavaliers on national television, and how did the following Finals turn out?

However, when these teams meet some strategies are tested, little things in the game that we could see — or teams will need to at least account for — come the Finals meeting we all expect. Here are six things from Monday’s game that could well play out in June in the NBA Finals.

1) In the four straight wins the Cavaliers had in this series prior to Monday, they were very aggressive in defending Stephen Curry — they trapped him off picks, were physical, tried to pressure him into decisions to give up the ball, then when Curry tried to make the playground passes that worked against other teams the Cavaliers help defenders made steals and were off in transition the other way. All of that made Curry passive — remember the guy floating on the perimeter taking just 11 shots on Christmas Day?

On Monday night Curry took that pressure in stride, attacked Kyrie Irving from the opening tip (remember Curry’s first possession he blew right by him), used his handles to create space, used his gravity to draw defenders to him, then he whipped smart passes around the floor. In the first half, Curry had 10 assists and zero turnovers. For the game Curry had 20 shots. If he can match that, or even come close, in the Finals, the Cavs are going to struggle to slow this offense down. Like every mortal team has.

2) In January 2016 the Warriors thrashed the Cavaliers on national television, and that was a critical step in the Cavaliers deciding they needed to let David Blatt go, hire Tyronn Lue, and make changes that put them on Golden State’s level. With Monday’s loss, one thing that was evident was the depth of playmaking options the Warriors have and how that can be difficult to guard. Cleveland has two playmakers right now, Kyrie Irving and LeBron James. Cavs’ GM David Griffin has talked about wanting to add playmakers, LeBron has called for a backup point guard, but it’s clear whatever position they could use to add another playmaker or two heading into the trade deadline.

3) Can Kevin Durant guard LeBron? Chris Haynes of ESPN with an interesting stat:

The Cavaliers were on the last night of a six-game, 12-day road trip — they were not at their best. LeBron clearly wasn’t. However, if KD can even do a reasonable job on LeBron — or can switch on to him without getting torched — the Warriors will be a lot more comfortable and have more options on defense.

4) How did Warriors handle Kyle Korver? They went right at him and made him play defense, which has never been a strong suit (to put it kindly). The Warriors have enough playmakers that whoever Korver was guarding just went at him, and it worked — particularly during the stretch that saw the Warriors first push their lead north of 20. Korver didn’t have a great shooting night, by June he likely is far more comfortable, but if the Warriors can expose him on the other end it will be hard to keep Korver on the court for extended periods.

5) When JaVale McGee checked in for the Warriors, Tyronn Lue countered with Channing Frye. JaVale is not a strong defender, doesn’t step out away from the basket if he can help it, and the Cavs saw an advantage. JaVale’s offense covered that in this game scoring inside, but it’s something to watch.

6) DeAndre Liggins is a good defender, but he’s more focused on-ball than off, and in the fourth quarter Klay Thompson torched him a few times making Liggins chase him off screens away from the ball. You can be sure Steve Kerr noticed and filed that away.

Isaiah Thomas’ big fourth quarter carries Celtics past Hornets 108-98

Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) raises his arms as he celebrates after hitting a 3-pointer against the Charlotte Hornets during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Boston, Monday, Jan. 16, 2017. Thomas had 35 points as the Celtics defeated the Hornets 108-98. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
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BOSTON (AP) — Isaiah Thomas scored 17 of his 35 points in the fourth quarter, and the surging Boston Celtics beat the Charlotte Hornets 108-98 on Monday night for their ninth victory in 11games.

It was Thomas’ 25th straight game with 20 or more points. He’s been putting up big final quarters of late – scoring 20 or more three times this season. No other NBA player had done it more than once entering Monday.

Al Horford had 22 points, while Kelly Olynyk and Jae Crowder added 15 apiece for Boston, which has won all three meetings with Charlotte this season.

Kemba Walker scored 24 points and Marvin Williams had 21 for the Hornets, who lost their fifth straight – all on the road.

Thomas scored 13 straight points, pushing Boston ahead 93-83 with his 3-pointer from the left wing with 7 1/2 minutes left.

Boston led 80-71 entering the final period.

TIP-INS

Hornets: Entered averaging the second-fewest turnovers in the league at 12.1 per game. They had 11.

Celtics: G Avery Bradley returned after missing four straight games because of a strained right Achilles. He scored five points on 2-of -9 shooting. … Thomas scored a team-record 29 points in the final quarter of a victory against Miami on Dec. 30 to finish with 52.

INSPIRING WORDS

Celtics rookie Jaylen Brown addressed the crowd before the game on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Without notes, he quoted King in saying: “The day our lives begin to end, the day we become silent about things that matter.”

NICE CATCH

New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount sat courtside behind a basket and made a two-handed grab of a ball flying out of bounds.

SPORTS TRANSITION

It was the nightcap of a hockey/basketball doubleheader, and 6-foot-4 Celtics guard Marcus Smart entered TD Garden wearing a winter jacket and hat. He paused and stood seemingly unnoticed as a group of youngsters and parents – most wearing Boston Bruins colors – walked down a hall to meet some of the hockey players.

Smart smiled when a media member said, “I don’t think anyone noticed you.”

Later, 6-foot-9 Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara headed past folks walking in for the basketball game.

 

Clippers guard Chris Paul leaves game with sprained thumb, more tests coming

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The Clippers have now won seven games in a row, but if they don’t have Chris Paul in the lineup that streak is going to turn around very quickly (remember just a couple of weeks ago when he missed seven games with a hamstring strain?).

Which is why Paul leaving the game with what the team has called a sprained thumb is potentially troubling news. Paul was trying to get over the top of a Joffrey Lauvergne screen when he ran into Russell Westbrook who had pulled up to take a three, Paul’s hand hitting Westbrook’s hip and seemingly getting caught up in his shorts. Paul walked off the court and went straight to the locker room, making it seem worse than the team said it is so far.

From the press release from the Clippers:

X-rays during the game were negative, but further tests still need to be done to determine the extent of the injury, which occurred in the second quarter after Paul jammed his left hand on Russell Westbrook’s right leg.

The Clippers held on without Paul for the comfortable win over the Thunder, 120-98.

The Clippers are the four seed in the West but could fall down that ladder if Paul is out for any stretch of time. Starting Saturday The Clippers have 10-of-11 games on the road — and the one home game is the Warriors. That’s going to be a tough run of games even with Paul.

Kevin Durant scores 21, Stephen Curry 20 to help Warriors cruise past Cavs (VIDEOS)

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Pretty much everything the Warriors did Monday against the Cavaliers worked — transition buckets, pull-up threes, drive-and-dish plays, curls off screens, you name it and the Warriors got enough space to get a shot they wanted. Then they knocked them down. Which is why the Warriors won going away.

Stephen Curry had a big night with 20 points and 11 assists, which you can see highlights of above. It was a big night for Curry’s confidence: In the Cavaliers four-straight wins against the Warriors, Cleveland trapped Curry off picks, were physical, and when Curry tried to make the playground passes that worked against other teams Cavaliers’ help defenders made steals and were off in transition the other way. Monday night Curry took the pressure in stride, used his handles to create space, used his gravity to draw defenders to him, then he whipped smart passes around the floor. Curry had 10 assists and zero turnovers in the first half.

Kevin Durant benefitted from some of those passes and had 21 points on the night, and he chipped in three blocks.