NBA Playoff Preview: Boston vs. New York

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SEASON RECORDS
Celtics: 56-26 (No. 3 seed)
Knicks: 42-40 (No. 6 seed)

SEASON SERIES
Celtics sweep 4-0, but know that two games were in December and one was a meaningless game played largely by substitutes on the last night of the season. So, three of the four have no real bearing on the playoff games about to start.

KEY INJURIES
Celtics: Shaquille O’Neal, expected to play and start but has played 6 minutes since Feb. 1 due to Achilles and a calf strain; Delonte West missed time with sprained ankle but should be available.
Knicks: no significant injuries

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKING (points per 100 possession)
Celtics: Off. 104.4 (16th in NBA); Def. 97.7 (2nd in NBA)
Knicks: Off. 108.2 (7th in NBA); Def. 107.1 (22nd in NBA)

THREE KEY CELTICS:

Rajon Rondo: He has just not been himself in recent weeks — Rondo has been shooting a little more, passing a little less and the result is a sticky Celtics offense. Part of that has been funky Celtics lineups as they rest their key players for the playoffs, but part of it is just Rondo being off. Expect him to get back to form — like the other Celtic veterans he knows what is required — but if he doesn’t there will be issues.

Shaquille O’Neal: This series is not where Shaq is really needed, it is the next one, and all the subsequent ones. But Shaq needs to use this series to get some conditioning and his flow back. The lineup of Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Shaq was the second best in basketball among five-man units that played more than 200 minutes. They will need that lineup to give them 20 minutes a night in the future, they need to get it back in a groove in this series.

Paul Pierce: The most entertaining matchup of this series is Garnett on Stoudemire, but that is not where the mismatch is. Pierce will have Carmelo Anthony on him and needs to exploit Anthony’s “defense” or at least make him work much harder on that end of the floor, taking away some energy from his offense. Pierce has been the one Celtic playing better than his season averages the last 10 games (21.4 points a game on 51.6 percent shooting and 42.5 percent from three). He could continue those kinds of numbers this series.

THREE KEY KNICKS

Carmelo Anthony: They are going to need him to provide a lot of offense — Amar’e Stoudemire will get some but Kevin Garnett does a good job traditionally of slowing him down. Lately Anthony has been providing plenty of scoring, averaging more than 30 points a game. The real challenge is that Anthony’s preferred mode of offense — isolation from the wing — plays right into the hands of the Celtics defense. He is going to have to get inside and draw some fouls, and he has to hit contested shots.

Ronny Turiaf: One thing the Knicks have not had this season is a consistent intimidating defensive and rebounding presence in the paint. Turiaf, who has battled through injuries (as he seems to every year) is the best option they have for that. And he is their best chance against Shaq. What we do know is that Turiaf will bring some serious heart and energy to the table.

Chauncey Billups: If there is one Knick who could steal a game, who could get hot and make some plays, it is Billups. He has to keep Rondo in his offensive funk, make Rondo really work on defense and find a way to get his teammates some easy buckets against the Celtics defense. The Knicks need to run some, not let the Celtics get set, and that is where Billups comes in.

OUTLOOK

This is the series where a lot of people see a potential upset. And the Knicks have a couple guys capable of just taking over and dominating a game and stealing one almost singlehandedly. But even with its recent struggles the Celtics defense is still formidable and what the Knicks do — pick-and-rolls, Anthony in isolation — plays to the strengths of that Celtics defense. The Knicks are going to have to play better defense than they have most of the season, because if Rondo starts dishing and Ray Allen starts hitting the Knicks are going to struggle to keep up.

 

PREDICTION

These are going to be some entertaining games, with the full force of two cities that can’t stand each other behind them. But in the end, in the final minutes, it will be the Celtics execution that outdoes the Knicks individual players.

Celtics in 6.

Check out Lakers’ stretch of hitting 15 straight shots to end third quarter (VIDEO)

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The Lakers lost to the Wizards because they are young, inconsistent, and defend like traffic cones at times.

But that young Lakers core also has its moments.

Los Angeles strung together 15 straight made buckets to end the third quarter Tuesday night. Some of it was flukey, like Corey Brewer driving and finishing contested layups like he’s Kyrie Irving, but there were things Lakers fans should want to see such as D'Angelo Russell draining threes, Jordan Clarkson working hard off the ball and his teammates finding him, and Julius Randle just attacking.

After this run the Lakers led by 13 going into the fourth, but lost the game.

It’s official: Joakim Noah cleared to play, 20-game suspension starts tonight

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What this ultimately means is next season the Knicks should have Joakim Noah available just before Thanksgiving.

Noah has been suspended 20 games for testing positive for a banned substance, but because he was out due to knee surgery the suspension did not start until he was “physically able to play.” Noah said on Tuesday that he had been cleared, but that was just by the team doctors. He also had to be cleared by the NBA’s doctors (because if teams could cheat they would).

That happened Wednesday, according to Ian Begley of ESPN.

Noah’s first season in New York after signing a four-year, $72 million deal has been a disappointment. To put it kindly. He’s not been completely healthy, and any observer of him the past few years had to wonder if he would ever be fully healthy again. He had lost a step from the 2014 Defensive Player of the Year before the Knicks signed him. The Knicks don’t need him to necessarily be that dominant a force again (although it would be nice), but they need to get more out of him and see if he is a fit next to Kristaps Porzingis for now as the Knicks try to build a roster for next season that can play a little defense. And the triangle.

Report: Pacers bring back Lance Stephenson in time for playoffs; deal for three-years, $12 million

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The Indiana Pacers need healthy bodies for their playoff run, and they had three rotation guys injured between Al Jefferson, Glenn Robinson III, and Rodney Stuckey. Wednesday, the Pacers waived Stuckey to create an open roster spot to bring in some help (they were not going to pick up his option for next season anyway).

Who are they bringing in? The prodigal son Lance Stephenson returns, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports.

The surprising part of the deal was the security Stephenson got, as first reported by Adam Zagoria at his blog — three years, $12 million, with a player option for the final year. (This has since been confirmed by other sources.) Other teams were looking at giving Stephenson a 10-day contract, the length of the Pacers’ offer is a surprise.

Stephenson played in six games for Minnesota recently, averaging 3.5 points per game off the bench, but an ankle sprain kept the Timberwolves from really having to decide whether to keep him for the season. Stephenson knows how to create shots for himself and can be a good defender when focused, something we saw with the Pelicans at the start of this season — he became a key part of their rotation averaging 9.7 points and 4.8 assists per game until he tore his groin.

It’s a little strange to see him back in Pacers colors. It will be particularly strange if the Pacers stay in the seven seed and the Cavaliers remain the two-seed setting up a first-round playoff series. Because I don’t think any of us need to see this again.

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Tuesday’s win gives Wizards first division crown since 1979

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Divisions are almost forgotten in the NBA. They exist still as quaint reminders of days gone by, but they don’t matter other than as a potential tie breaker with a non-division-winning team. Winning your division doesn’t even guarantee a team a playoff spot anymore.

Yet, the last time Washington had won a division title they were in the Atlantic division and when you turned on the radio you were likely to hear that new hit Heart Of Glass by Blondie. It was 1979.

That was until Tuesday when John Wall led a 13-point comeback in the fourth quarter against the Lakers to get the Wizards the win and the SouthEast division title.

According to CBSSports.com, that 38-year division title drought was longer than any team in any major U.S. professional sports — NHL, NFL, and MLB.

Congrats to the Wizards. They also have locked up home court in the first round, and they are currently the No. 3 seed in the playoffs (who they face in the first round is up in the air still as only three games separate seeds five through nine).

With Scott Brooks at the helm this feels like a far more dangerous — and healthy — team heading into the postseason. Wizards fans have waited a lot time for a team like this.