NBA Playoffs Blazers-Mavericks: This one’s going to be rough

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The Pacers nearly knocked off the Bulls, but that one feels certain.

The Sixers hung with the Triad. But again, you get the feeling Philly’s overwhelmed.

The Hawks took one from the Magic, but you kind of knew that one was going to be back and forth.

Blazers-Mavericks? That’s the one that showed it’s going to be the most brutal, even after the Mavericks’ 89-81 win.

It was a back and forth affair, with the Mavericks leading, then going ice cold in the third through the fourth, not scoring for ten minutes. Ten! Then they recovered and pulled ahead as Dirk Nowitzki went hero mode in a good way.

You’re going to read about Nowitzki’s 18 in the fourth, and Jason Kidd’s crack shooting (?!) leading to 24 points. And those were certainly memorable moments. But if you want to look at what spun this game, it was a matter of matchups. And those same matchups are what’s going to make this a long, painful series.

And in part, you have to turn a confused eye towards Rick Carlisle. With 3:15 left in the third, the Mavericks were starting to unravel. Starters had played most of the third quarter, and so he decided to give them a rest. But instead of rotating them out in a process, Carlisle ran a PG-SG-SF-PF that featured the following players: Jose Juan Barea, Jason Terry, Peja Stojakovic, and Shawn Marion with either Tyson Chandler or Brendan Haywood. Look at that lineup again. That’s a wackadoodle lineup.

During the eight minute stretch where Carlisle ran that lineup, the Mavericks were a -9. Once Barea exited and Carlisle went back to Kidd-Terry-Matrix-Dirk-Chandler, the ship righted itself and the Mavericks finished off 11-2 and 5-0 runs to put the game away. Had he held on to that bizarre lineup which I can find no evidence has existed this entire season for the Mavericks any longer, the game could have been lost. That’s not exactly the time to get frisky with your lineups. Carlisle flirted with the devil in the pale moonlight and lived to tell the tale.

(Lineup data courtesy of PopcornMachine.net.)

We saw some things we’d expect out of this game. Gerald Wallace showed that he’s likely going to be a factor in this series provided his shot starts to drop. He shot just 4-13 but was huge in the third quarter, making hustle plays and creating opportunities. LaMarcus Aldridge is going to have the lob apparently whenever he wants. Miller, Camby, Fernandez, everyone was tossing them up to Mr. Nifty who had 27 points. If possible, the Mavericks actually missed Caron Butler more than you’d think, with Nicolas Batum also having a big impact on the game.

There were some quirks. Jason Kidd nailing 6-10… no, wait, Jason Kidd taking 10 threes in a game is crazy enough, let alone him hitting six of them, including a dagger pull-up off the dribble. It was bizarre. This was minutes after Kidd missed a wide-open finger roll in the lane that reminded you the man is 38 years old.

But really when it gets down to it, Dirk Nowitzki played quiet basketball for three quarters, then got aggressive and got to the line 13 times in the final frame. The Blazers have matchup advantages all over in this series. The Mavericks have the best player. You have to wonder if players like Ian Mahinmi and Corey Brewer who got zero minutes in this game will be used as the series goes along.

This is going to be a tough series, it’s going to be a physical series, it’s going to be an emotional series. And after the first game, we don’t really have a clear idea of who has the advantage overall. Buckle up, kiddos.

Celtics GM Danny Ainge: “Who doesn’t want Isaiah Thomas on their team?”

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Isaiah Thomas is the best and most popular Celtics player, leading his team to the No. 1 seed in the East and the Eastern Conference Finals — both significant steps forward for an up-and-coming team.

Yet, from the moment the Warriors landed the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, the talk about Thomas has been about his future with the Celtics: If/when they draft Markelle Fultz, will the Celtics want to pay Thomas max or near max money next summer? Do they want to be locked into four or five years with an undersized guard who will start that contract at age 29? Do they extend him this summer at a likely better price? Trade him?

Celtics GM Danny Ainge doesn’t understand all the talk. He certainly didn’t sound like someone looking to trade Thomas this summer speaking to Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald.

“All I’m saying is those are things I have to worry about that even I don’t like to think about. And I know that those are going to be difficult decisions at some point. But we want to keep Isaiah.

“All I know is that he’s had an amazing year, and who doesn’t want Isaiah Thomas on their team? Like, you’ve got to be kidding me…

“Why do the fans need to worry about how much money he makes?” he said. “I can understand if Isaiah and his wife and his agent are worried about that, but I don’t understand why that’s a conversation that needs to be had in the media.”

Two things I want to unpack from all that. First, that’s a “get off my lawn” take from Ainge that completely misses the mark with where sports fandom online has shifted. It’s not that he’s wrong at the core of his argument — we all should appreciate the season Thomas just had, Celtics’ fans in particular. Thomas is a joy to watch play and one of the good guys in the league on top of it. Name anyone in the NBA who has gotten more out of his natural abilities than Thomas — the man has put in the work to rise way past expectations. He needs to be appreciated and lauded for that.

But here’s the thing: Fans more than ever like to play GM, and they now have the tools to understand the tough financial decisions that fall on Ainge and others in his shoes. Let me explain it this way: The NBA Finals start June 1, but as a website, the NBC NBA page will draw way more traffic around the NBA Draft at the end of the month, then free agency in July will blow that away. Always does. Player movement — including both rumors of trades and talk of free agents and moves teams should make — is a much bigger draw than the games themselves. That’s not just the NBA, it’s true of the NFL and MLB and NHL and the Barclays’ English Premiere League and on down the line.

Second, Ainge may not like the speculation, but the questions are valid — he and the Celtics have some hard decisions coming up. At the core of them is the question of patience: Push their assets into the middle of the table now, get a couple of players ready to win next season, and make a run at LeBron James and the Cavaliers, or be patient and build to be better than Cleveland in three years (then sustain that for five or more years beyond that)? Ainge has been on the patient side of that equation from the start, and likely will be again — don’t expect him to trade that No. 1 pick or do anything but bring Thomas back. He can be a decision for the summer of 2018.

Then again, he has shopped Thomas before. Ainge is as good or better than any GM in the league of keeping his cards close to his vest, he’s impossible to read.

That said, the smart money is on him being patient. There’s no need to trade Thomas now, that’s the kind of rash overreaction that got the Knicks where they are over the last decade plus. Ainge can wait things out.

 

Adding Durant and thinking dynasty, it’s championship or bust for Warriors’ legacy

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The Golden State Warriors have been the best team in the NBA for three seasons now. That’s not my opinion, that’s LeBron James‘ — here is what he said after advancing to his seventh straight NBA Finals.

“That’s been the best team in our league the last three years, and they added an unbelievable player in Kevin Durant this year, so that makes it even more difficult.”

Adding Durant did make them more difficult to beat, but it also added to the Warriors’ burden — after a 67-win season and a historic 12-0 sweep into the Finals, the series that their season will be judged on is the one still to be played. They may as well be 0-0 because the second they added Durant it was championship or bust in terms of how they want to be seen.

Win and a pattern of dominance over years starts to come into focus, they will have a couple rings and beaten LeBron — who will go down as one of the all-time greats in his own right — to get them. Lose and this season will be viewed as another failure.

The Warriors want us to look back on them in 10-15 years and see a dynasty. They talked quietly about it last season during their chase for 73 wins — they saw that as a part of their resume as one of the greatest teams of all time. That’s part of the reason for the push last year. They, like LeBron, are chasing the ghosts of greatness at this point, and the Warriors had a Jordan record in their sights.

Regular season marks are nice, but in the NBA the great teams’ legacies are built around championships. Plural. If you’re going to go down as one of the dominant teams of an era — like the Shaq/Kobe Lakers, or Jordan’s Bulls, or the Celtics and Lakers of the ’80s, etc. — there needs to multiple rings on fingers. The Warriors have one, but their historic season unraveled last year when a combination of LeBron’s utter dominance, Draymond Green‘s suspension, Andrew Bogut’s injury (that one was underrated as an issue) all came together to snatch victory from their hands (and help cement LeBron’sa legacy).

The Warriors need the 2017 title for their legacy.

Not just the team, but the legacies of Warriors players will be impacted by this series. Injured or worn down or just in a shooting slump (or, most likely, a combination of the three), Stephen Curry struggled defensively and was outplayed by LeBron last Finals when the Warriors needed him. Curry has been fantastic through these playoffs, but like the team he will be judged as much or more for the games to come than the ones already played. Fair or not.  Can Green keep his head about him when LeBron pushes his buttons? Durant is back on the Finals stage, will he rise to that moment?

The championship or bust mentality is too often the prism through which fans — and media — view sports. It’s unfortunate because it clouds the joy of the game itself, the growth of players, of guys doing the unexpected and rising to heights we did not expect from them. Isaiah Thomas‘ brilliant season in Boston is not diminished because it didn’t end in a ring, to use one easy example. But there are hundreds more like that around the league. Championship or bust blinds people to the little things that can make the game joyous.

However, the Warriors have put themselves in a different place. They are chasing legends. They have the wins and the statistics to make a case, more importantly, they also have a style of play being copied (even by college teams) and is changing how the game is played. That is a hallmark greatness.

Now they need the rings to go with it. They need more than one, but it starts with this year’s title — it is championship or bust for them. Fair or not. If the Warriors want to be mentioned in the pantheon of all-time greats, it will take the 2017 title to be part of it.

Underdog Cavs insist they have plenty of bite for Finals

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — They are defending champions and decided underdogs.

The Cleveland Cavaliers, however, say they aren’t using any snubs to get ready for the NBA Finals.

Set for a third straight championship matchup against Golden State, the Cavs are ignoring the Las Vegas odds makers and others who don’t think they have a shot at beating Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant & Co.

Cavs coach Tyronn Lue doesn’t feel his team needs the underdog label for inspiration, saying being in the NBA Finals is “enough motivation alone.”

Kevin Love was reminded that Warriors forward Draymond Green said earlier this season that he wants to “destroy and annihilate” the Cavs in the Finals. Says Love said: “He wanted us, and he has us starting next Thursday.”

 

Check out Kawhi Leonard’s highlights from this past season (VIDEO)

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Russell Westbrook and James Harden were putting up the bigger numbers, they were drawing more attention. And while MVP is a regular season award, nobody has boosted their MVP credentials more in the postseason than Kawhi Leonard.

He had a really impressive regular season, too. Since we’re on a long break between games, enjoy the highlights of Leonard’s season. He may enter next season as the MVP favorite.