Paul Pierce, LeBron James

Game of the Night: Boston holds off Miami’s late surge

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Well, the Miami Heat won’t be going 82-0 this season. The experienced Celtics were able to handle the Heat on Tuesday night, winning by a final score of 88-80 and making the Heat look terrible at times, holding Miami to nine points in the first quarter and just 30 points in the first half. The Heat were able to threaten the Celtics late, but the 2008 champions were firmly in control for much of the game. Here are some thoughts from the season opener and Wade and James’ first official NBA game together:

1. LeBron reminded us what he is and isn’t.

LeBron James more or less picked up where he left off last season. After a very slow start, James was able to show the skills that won him the last two MVP awards, as well as some of the issues that have kept him from winning a championship. With Wade and Bosh both having horrible nights, Miami’s offense was the LeBron show.

James was unable to establish any kind of offensive rhythm against the brutally effective Boston defense that knocked him out of the playoffs last season. He couldn’t find any space on pick-and-rolls, wasn’t able to get any easy opportunities by moving without the ball, and couldn’t create a quality passing lane to save his life. LeBron finished with only three assists and eight turnovers, and it was clear that Boston’s defense wasn’t allowing him to play the way he wanted to, especially in the half-court. Some of LeBron’s turnovers occurred because his teammates weren’t ready for passes, others occurred because he tried to complete a pass that wasn’t there, and some turnovers were the product of pure carelessness. But all of them illustrated just how uncomfortable LeBron was with unfamiliar teammates and an all-too-familiar Boston defense shadowing his every move.

Even with all of that going on, James was the best player on the court for much of the game. He scored a game-high 31 points by shooting over the defense (James scored 15 points on 13 shots taken outside of the paint, and most of them were contested), simply running over his defender, or converting an open-court opportunity. It was impressive to behold, but it wasn’t enough to beat Boston in 2008, it wasn’t enough to beat Boston in last year’s playoffs, and it wasn’t enough to beat Boston on Tuesday night.

James’ three major offensive weaknesses all hurt Miami on Tuesday night. His free-throw shooting was shaky, and Miami could have used the four points LeBron left at the line late in the game. LeBron only posted up twice, and failed to get a basket both times. His shot selection remains bizarre, and he took a few of his ill-advised but predictable “heat-check” threes when he would have been better served setting up the offense.

More importantly, James’ new running mates weren’t able to take any pressure off of him. Bosh and Wade both played terribly, and LeBron never established chemistry with either of them. When that happened, James was forced to try and do everything himself, and was ultimately put in a position to be betrayed by his weaknesses. When James was off the floor, disaster struck — the Heat were outscored by nine points during the five minutes James sat. Simply put, this was not the kind of game LeBron had in mind when he decided to come to Miami.

2. Boston is in midseason form.

It’s stating the obvious, but I’ll say it anyways: Boston looked like a team that has been playing together for a lot longer than the Heat have been. Boston picked apart the Heat’s swarming defense by moving the ball from side to side, having Rajon Rondo attack the open space to open up drive and kick opportunities (Rondo had 17 assists; the Heat had 15), dumping the ball down low to exploit Joel Anthony’s lack of size, and knocking down their open threes, especially when they mattered most. Almost every shot the Celtics took was a high-percentage look; 78 of the team’s 88 points came from inside the paint, the free-throw line, or beyond the arc. That’s what an offense rolling on all cylinders looks like.

Defensively, the Celtics didn’t seem to miss either Kendrick Perkins or assistant coach and defensive wizard Tom Thibodeau; they shut down the paint, rotated on shooters, and forced 17 Heat turnovers. On Tuesday night, the Celtics looked like a team rather than a collection of talents.

3. The Heat might be a bit deeper than we think.

The less said about Wade and Bosh’s performances (a combined 7-for-27 from the floor, with seven turnovers), the better. Wade looked rusty, and Bosh just looked overwhelmed — this is the first time Wade has played more than three minutes of organized NBA basketball since April 27th, and Bosh isn’t going take over against a defense like Boston’s without James and Wade opening things up for him a bit.

The good news for Heat fans is that Miami got some solid contributions from players who weren’t expected to contribute much this season. Eddie House looked like a man possessed; he made some great defensive plays (I’m serious), was all over the court, did a decent job of handling the ball, and nailed some open threes. James Jones had two big threes that kept the Heat in the game in the fourth quarter. Zydrunas Ilgauskas did a great job on the boards, and Miami’s offense actually looked really good when they gave the ball to Ilgauskas in the high post and actually started to move without the ball. It’s obviously an absurdly small sample size, but the fact that the Heat were +17 in Ilgauskas’ 11 minutes of play may be worth noting.

James, Wade, and Bosh are going to do the heavy lifting for this team, and Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller (when he returns), are going to play major roles. However, the other seven players on the Heat roster are going to have to produce at times, and it’s going to be a major advantage for the Heat if they can trust players like House and Ilgauskas to play significant minutes.

That’s all from me on this game. Great win for the Celtics. The Heat should take some comfort in keeping the game close when they were so completely outclassed for most of the game, but this is not the way they wanted to start their season.

Are Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant on speaking terms after apparent conversation? Westbrook: ‘Nah’ (video)

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Russell Westbrook deleted Kevin Durant‘s goodbye text and, months later, told the whole world they still hadn’t talked.

That apparently changed during the Warriors’ win over the Thunder yesterday – though not if you ask Westbrook.

Westbrook dunked in the third quarter, and according to ESPN commentator Mark Jackson, Westbrook told Durant, “Don’t jump.” Anthony Slater of The Mercury News also wrote of the same quote.

ESPN’s telecast caught Durant clearly speaking to Westbrook shortly after. It appears Westbrook is talking back, but his back is to the camera.

After the game, Westbrook denied the exchange:

 

  • Reporter: “Are you and KD on speaking terms?”
  • Westbrook: “Nah.”
  • Reporter: “You guys had a little exchange in the third quarter.”
  • Westbrook: “What exchange?”
  • Reporter: “You and KD said something to each other.”
  • Westbrook: “Oh. You gotta maybe sit closer to the game. You maybe didn’t see clearly.”

This is so Westbrook – stubborn to the point of denying reality.

That approach worked for him when everyone rightly told him he was a significantly lesser player than Durant. Westbrook ignored that fact until it became false.

I suspect he wants to forget this exchange so he can maintain a cold animosity toward someone he prefers to resent.

Russell Westbrook on Zaza Pachulia: ‘I’m going to get his ass back’

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Russell Westbrook has spent a lot of time bagging on Kevin Durant since Durant left the Thunder for the Warriors.

In a move that can’t help but be seen as a response, Golden State center Zaza Pachulia laid out and stood over Westbrook last night.

Of course, the Oklahoma City guard didn’t see that as rightful comeuppance.

Westbrook:

I don’t know. He me kind of hard. But it’s alright. I’m going to get his ass back. Straight up.

I didn’t see that [Pachulia standing over him] until just now, but I don’t play that game. I’m going to get his ass back. Whenever that is, I don’t know when it’s going to be, but I don’t play that game.

Pachulia:

I can’t worry about those kind of comments. I’m part of the amazing team, amazing group. We have a great goal of winning a championship. So, I’m all in with my energy. One hundred percent, I’m all in. So we’re thinking about this team and staying healthy, moving forward, getting better, getting to the playoffs and we’re ending up playing for the championship.

That’s what I’m thinking about. I’m not thinking about those kind of comments.

That team is not there. So, they might be thinking about other stuff like getting me back. OK, you can get me back. But again, it’s my 14th year. We all know what my game is, to play hard and not dirty, but to play hard. If it was a hard foul, it was a hard foul. It wasn’t dirty at all. So, I’m not worried about this.

Pachulia continued, via Tim Bontemps of The Washington Post:

“Bring it on,” he said. “Bring it on.

“I’ll be there. I’ll be in OKC, too, so whenever he wants, my pleasure. My pleasure.”

And via Royce Young of ESPN:

Both Westbrook’s and Pachulia’s competitiveness and toughness are beyond reproach. These are not the type of players to back down.

What does Westbrook have in mind? I believe him when he says he doesn’t know. But I’m intrigued to find out.

As if the Warriors visit to Oklahoma City next month didn’t already have enough storylines.

Should he be an All-Star? Kemba Walker: ‘Not really, if you ask me’

Charlotte Hornets' Kemba Walker (15) shoots over Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard (0) during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Charlotte, N.C., Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Kemba Walker is focused on Charlotte’s record. He isn’t very interested in the All-Star game right now.

Walker scored 23 points, and the Hornets stopped a five-game slide with a 107-85 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday night.

Walker went 4 for 8 from behind the arc against Portland and 8 for 14 from the field overall. But he said he doesn’t think he has done enough this year to make the All-Star game for the first time, citing the team’s 21-21 record.

“Not really, if you ask me,” Walker said. “Especially because of where my team is. But like I said, I really don’t care honestly.”

“We haven’t been doing a great job of winning consistently (so) the All-Star game is the last thing I’m going to think about right now.”

While Walker is brushing off talk about next month’s game in New Orleans, he is making a strong case for a spot on the Eastern Conference team. He is averaging 23 points and shooting 41.3 percent from 3-point range this season.

 

Coach Steve Clifford said Walker is playing at an All-Star level, but doesn’t know if he will be selected.

“It’s not a question of whether or not he’s playing like an All-Star – he’s an All-Star-caliber guard, no question about it,” Clifford said. “The factors will be looking at the other point guards in the East. The East is loaded. Point guard is the best position in our league right now and also, a lot of other guys are playing on teams with better records than ours. It’s about winning.”

The Hornets snapped an eight-game streak of allowing at least 100 points.

Charlotte led 79-72 after three quarters but blew the game open in the fourth behind eight quick points from Frank Kaminsky. The reserve had all 11 of his points in the final quarter, including three 3-pointers.

Walker had a big first half, hitting 6 of 9 shots and three 3-pointers to help the Hornets build a 54-46 lead.

TIP-INS

Trail Blazers: Made all 11 free throws, but shot 8 of 31 from beyond the 3-point arc.

Hornets: Bench outscored Portland’s reserves 44-22.

HIBBERT’S BIG NIGHT

Charlotte center Roy Hibbert played what Clifford called the best game of his season.

The 7-foot-2 Hibbert, who came in averaging 5.2 points per game, had a season-high 16 points on 7-of-8 shooting and provided two of the game’s biggest highlights.

He brought the crowd to its feet on a drop-step drive through the lane and an unexpected one-handed dunk over Meyers Leonard. A few minutes later, Hibbert threw a backdoor alley-oop pass intended for Kaminsky that inadvertently went in. Hibbert didn’t even crack a smile as he jogged back down court.

“That was a helluva pass, shot – I don’t know what it was,” Walker said with a laugh. “I’m just glad it went in.”

Hibbert, who has battled through knee issues this season, said he wasn’t trying to score, but glad it went in.

“That was a bad pass and a bad shot, that’s all I can say,” Hibbert said.

LOSING WAYS

Damian Lillard scored 21 points and C.J. McCollum had 18 for Portland, which has lost three straight and 16 of 22 since Dec. 5.

“As a group we have to let last year go,” Portland center Mason Plumlee said. “If it was the first 10 games of the season we could talk about building on last year. This is a new team, this is a new group and we aren’t playing how we did last year so it’s a new season, new challenges. We have to make the most of this group and this team, and the situation we are in.”

TURNOVERS

Charlotte turned 16 Portland turnovers into 21 points.

“We had some turnovers and they took advantage of every little thing,” Lillard said. “It seemed like they were getting what they wanted. They played a comfortable game and we didn’t make them very uncomfortable.”

UP NEXT

Trail Blazers: Travel to face the improving Philadelphia 76ers on Friday night.

Hornets: Back home on Friday night to host another high-scoring team in the Toronto Raptors.

Three Things We Learned Wednesday: Kevin Durant saves his best games for Thunder

OAKLAND, CA - JANUARY 18:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors dribbles past Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder at ORACLE Arena on January 18, 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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Here are the big takeaways from a busy night around the NBA:

1) Kevin Durant saves his best games for Russell Westbrook, Thunder. Prior to Wednesday night, Kevin Durant’s highest-scoring game this season was 39 points, something he broke out the first time his new Warriors team faced his old Thunder squad. Then Wednesday Durant an incredibly efficient 40 points on 16 shots — again against the Thunder. Just in case there wasn’t enough salt rubbed in that OKC wound (Golden State won the game 121-100).

Whatever you think of his choice, Durant’s team is way better than Westbrook’s, which is both expected and why KD made the move — he is closer to a ring now. (If you say that winning rings is the ultimate defining factor in a player’s legacy then rip his moves to make it easier to get said ring, you’re a hypocrite.) Part of the gap between the sides is obviously what Durant brings to the Golden State offense — and how efficiently he’s been doing it this season, with a true shooting percentage of 65.9, his career best (for some perspective, the league average is around 52). But also he’s been bringing it on the defensive end this season, particularly of late, having a strong game against LeBron James Monday then doing well when switched onto Westbrook a couple of times in this game. Durant would be having an MVP-level season most years, but Westbrook and James Harden change the equation this time around.

Westbrook himself had a triple-double (that’s 21 this season) in the loss… actually, it was a quadruple-double when you throw in the 10 turnovers. Westbrook wasn’t efficient, hitting 8-of-23 from the field, and when he isn’t this team struggles to win, they rely on him that much. Of course, that’s not the play everyone is talking about — rather, it’s Zaza Pachulia with the hard foul, and then taunting Westbrook by standing over him.

When Westbrook saw that, he promised to “get his ass back.” These teams meet again Feb. 11 — when Durant returns to Oklahoma City for the first time in a Warriors’ uniform.

Bonus thing we saw: Russell Westbrook had the travel of the year.
Even in the NBA, this is a travel — and a funny one.



2) The Sixers beat the Raptors and have now won 7-of-9.
When this run of wins from the Sixers started, it was easy to say “they are just beating other weak teams.” Then they beat the Bucks. Wednesday night they beat the Raptors. Brett Brown has settled on a 10-man rotation, found lineups he likes with Joel Embiid starting (surrounded by shooters) and Nerlens Noel relieving him off the bench. Plus, the Sixers are finding their defensive identity. It’s coming together.

Still, this is all about Embiid — the Sixers are outscoring teams by 3.5 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court this season. He had 26 points — including 12-of-14 from the free throw line — plus nine rebounds against Toronto. The man is a force. The only question the next couple of weeks is will he be an All-Star?


3) Rudy Gay is out for the season, which changes West playoff chase and trade picture.
This is bad news for the Kings, and it is worse news for Rudy Gay himself — trying to drive out of the right corner Wednesday night, Gay tore his left Achilles tendon (something the team announced, although it needs to be confirmed by an MRI Thursday).

Gay is done for this season and likely the start of the next one.

In the short term, that is a blow to the Kings’ playoff chances. Technically they are just 1.5 games out of the eight seed after Wednesday’s loss to the Pacers, but the Kings have been outscored by 10 points per 100 possessions this season when Gay is off the court. This isn’t the same team without him. Gay has scored 18.7 points per game, which was second-best on the team, and now that role falls to Matt Barnes and Omri Casspi (once Casspi returns from his calf injury in a couple of weeks). Those two are a drop off from what Gay brought to the Kings, meaning don’t be surprised if Sacramento tries to add a scorer at the trade deadline.

It also changes the trade deadline. Gay was clear he wanted out of Sacramento and said he planned to opt out of the $14.3 million final year of his contract to be a free agent next summer, which made him someone on the trade block. Teams were calling about him, including the Thunder (although the Kings being in the playoff hunt impacted what the team might do). Now obviously that is off the table, and the question becomes will Gay even opt out?