What Heat-Celtics means to the Celtics

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“How dare they?

I mean, really, how dare they?”

That’s the attitude the Boston Celtics have had about the Miami Heat since the introduction of LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade with the smoke and the dancing and the pomp and the circumstance last July at AmericanAirlines Arena. Many neutral observers have taken up the Celtics as the hero in this little tale because they had a similar response.

How dare the Heat act so brazenly arrogant. How could they act with an air of victory without context, without results, without any semblance of humility? People want to identify with the Celtics as the counter to that kind of superiority complex. What they don’t really acknowledge is the reality of what the Celtics are actually saying:

“How dare they?! That’s our thing!”

There is no more arrogant team in the NBA than the Boston Celtics. Do not confuse this for criticism. The Celtics have converted an outright, ominipresent self-belief into the motor that propels them. They get to the defensive position before their opponent because they’re better at defense than anyone else. They get the loose ball because they want it more than their opponent. They hit the big shot because they know, with abject certainty, that they are the best damn basketball team on the planet.

Regular-season losses? Who cares? This team plays for June.

Lost the Finals? Yeah, but that was without Kendrick Perkins (guess we’ll never know how that one would have worked out). When not handcuffed, they can still claim superiority. And that drives them.

The Heat? The Heat are impostors to the greatness the Celtics feel they have earned with a championship in 2008 and, well … that’s it.

That’s all they’ve got. Which is way more than the Heat have done, but it’s also three years ago. This series? This is the first real step in the Celtics reclaiming their sense that the title is their destiny. The past two years have been foiled by injury, first Kevin Garnett’s, then Perkins. Whether those injuries simply revealed a greater weakness at the systemic or mental level will never be known, and it’s not really relevant. All that matters is that the Celtics believe that they were the victims of misfortune and not the work of greater teams. That confidence breeds what drives them in this series against the Heat. Indignation.

This series should not be “the biggest series, ever” or “the real Finals.” This Celtics core has played in 13 NBA Finals games. This Heat team has played in five NBA playoff games. The Celtics want to, need to make the point that the Heat are not in their league. They’re a fine team to watch on the highlights, but they don’t understand the sacrifice and dedication the Celtics have shown to be champions.

It goes further than that, though. It goes further than LeBron’s laughing and dancing, further than Wade’s commercials and fashion (though Wade has the most cred of any individual on the Heat, borne out of the ring he earned in 2006), further than Bosh’s ridiculous position as a legitimate superstar power forward in the NBA. The Celtics may be arrogant, but a thread of that cloth is connected to the hair shirt that comes with playing for the team with the most history in the league.

The Celtics have a keen awareness of what greatness is. They see it in the halls of the building, in the organization they play for. Red Auerbach’s victory cigar. Bill Russell, the original NBA legend. Larry Bird, and John Havlicek and Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish.

The Heat have no such connection. They have Michael Jordan’s jersey hanging in the rafters, for crying out loud. So for them to want to reach up and touch the gates of heaven? The Celtics take umbrage. You have to earn it. And if you haven’t, you had best not hold yourself up as worthy.

This series is about the Celtics proving they’re not too old. That they’re not crippled by the same chemistry that made them special in 2008, that Perkins was a brother, but he is not the family. It’s about protecting the legacy and vision of Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers, who brought them together and convinced them of a plan that was more than just “let’s all get together and throw a neat introduction and sell some T-shirts and win a title.”

It’s about defending the principles they believe to be self-evident, that defense wins championships, not highlight reels, and that the Boston Celtics defend better than anyone else. They want it more. They will do what it takes. They are great because of their play, not because of their brands.

This Celtics team is arrogant. But they are arrogant because they are good, and they are good because they are arrogant. That relationship is what makes them great.

The Lakers? That’s a series about rivalry and history, about respect, and about competing at the highest level. This series?

For the Boston Celtics, this series is about anger. The Miami Heat have dared to step on their floor.

The Celtics want to show them what that means.

Game 1 is Sunday.

(For what this means to the Heat, click here.)

PBT Extra: If Portland is going to turn series around it starts with Damian Lillard

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This was the year the Trail Blazers were going to break through. They were defending better as a team. There was some depth on offense. And Damian Lillard was playing at a level that will get him on many voters’ MVP ballots.

Instead, they are down 0-2 to Anthony Davis and New Orleans, having dropped both games at home to open the series. Portland is on the verge of being bounced in the first round for the third time in four years.

If Portland is going to turn this series around, it starts with Lillard, something I discuss in this latest PBT Extra. C.J. McCollum needs to get more buckets, Jusuf Nurkic needs to contribute more on both ends, but for Portland it all begins and ends with Lillard and it’s on him to start the turnaround.

Rockets easily overcome James Harden’s horrid shooting night, win Game 2 over Timberwolves

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James Harden shot 2-for-18 – the worst field-goal percentage (11%) on so many attempts in a playoff game in nearly a decade and the worst ever in a first-round game.

The Rockets still won by 20 because of their stout defense, a strong supporting star in Chris Paul and Harden’s foul-drawing ability.

Houston’s took a 2-0 series lead with a 102-82 win over the Timberwolves on Wednesday. Game 3 will be Saturday in Minnesota, but the top-seeded Rockets have seized firm control.

Every No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 seed to take a 2-0 lead in a best-of-seven first-round series have won it. There’s little reason to believe Houston will become the exception.

The Rockets are no longer as reliant on Harden, the likely MVP who seemed to wear down last postseason.

They buckled down defensively before letting up in a fourth quarter that was entirely garbage time. Houston forced more turnovers (16) than allowed assists (15) and contested shot after shot.

It’s becoming increasingly clear the Timberwolves have no quick solution to the Karl-Anthony Towns problem, and it’s not simply a matter of deciding to feed him more. Yes, he can get favorable post matchups against the Rockets’ switching scheme. But Minnesota lacks quality entry passers. The Timberwolves are also short on shooters and need him to spread the floor – even if that skill is less-helpful after a switch. Towns scored just five points in 24 minutes tonight.

His teammates were barely, if at all, better. The focus has turned to Towns, but this was a far-wider letdown.

On the other hand, Paul (27 points and eight assists) led Houston’s offense. Gerald Green (21 points and 12 rebounds) got hot. Even Harden (7-of-8 on free throws) chipped in thanks to his elite foul-drawing ability.

The Rockets aren’t always the most enjoyable team to watch, and that was the case tonight. Mostly, because they put this game out of reach long before it actually ended.

Donovan Mitchell outplays Thunder Big 3 in fourth, Jazz win to even series

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Utah rookie Donovan Mitchell had 13 points in the fourth quarter.

Oklahoma City’s big three — Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony — were 0-of-15 shooting in the fourth.

That, in a nutshell, is how the Jazz bounced back from a 19-0 Thunder run in the third quarter that had OKC in charge of the game. It’s how Utah got the win Game 2 win, 102-95, to even the series as it heads to Salt Lake City.

“There was a time out (after the OKC run) where there was a just a determination, and we felt like we would rely on our defense, and that’s what we did,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said after the game. “Donovan, obviously, his aggressiveness on the offensive end fueled us there.”

It was what fueled them all night. In Game 2, the Jazz defense was more settled and like itself than the opener, and that forced more isolation ball out of Oklahoma City — they had eight assists and nine turnovers in the first half. The Thunder were still getting buckets because Playoff P and Westbrook are just great scorers, but it wasn’t nearly as efficient as it had been.

For the Thunder, it was often the Russell Westbrook show, and he was scoreless in the second quarter and had just a couple of free throws in the fourth.

All of that made this a game it felt like the Jazz needed to win — there are few chances to steal a game on the road against a good team, and this was one. The game was defensive and played in Utah’s style.

Which is why it was devastating when the Thunder had their 19-0 third quarter run, turning a deficit into a 10-point lead. In that stretch, the Jazz missed shots, took a few bad ones, and turned the ball over in that run. Mitchell even missed an uncontested dunk in there.

When Mitchell struggled, other guys stepped up.

Derrick Favors had a huge game for Utah, finishing with 20 points and 16 rebounds, eight of them offensive. He was particularly impressive in the first half, when Mitchell struggled (with George draped all over him). Utah had nine offensive rebounds in the first half, six of those by Favors. Utah’s dominance on the glass was big for them, Utah got a second chance on 37.5 percent of their missed shots in the first half, which is far too high a percentage. Steven Adams battling foul trouble had a lot to do with that.

“The biggest thing for us, Derrick Favors played his ass off,” Mitchell said after the game. “When we were missing shots he was getting rebounds, I think he had a double-double almost at the half [note: he had 10 points, 8 rebounds at the half]. Without Fav we wouldn’t even be at this point.”

The other key was Ricky Rubio. He was being more judicious about when to shoot and was looking to set up teammates. However, when left open and able to shoot in rhythm, Rubio was hitting, he was 5-of-8 from three on his way to 22 points and nine assists. Rubio struggled with his shot inside the arc (1-of-8) but he hit the big buckets and kept the floor spaced when asked. he had seven fourth-quarter points.

But the fourth belonged to Mitchell, who showed exactly what he meant to this team all season — they are not in the postseason without him. Mitchell finished with 28 points to lead the Jazz.

For the Thunder, the shots that fell in Game 1 did not in Game 2, much as it has been night to night for this team all season. George had 18 points on 21 shots, Anthony had 17 points on 18 shots, and Westbrook had 19 points on 19 shots. Combine that with Adams being in foul trouble most of the night and it was not the Thunder’s game.

Now the onus is on them to steal one in Utah, starting Friday night.

LeBron James starts hot, scores 46 in Cavaliers’ Game 2 win over Pacers

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LeBron James attempted no shots in the first 10 minutes of Game 1.

Less than half that long into Game 2, he scored all of the Cavaliers’ points as they built a 16-1 lead over the Pacers.

LeBron dominated early, and Cleveland held on for a 100-97 Game 2 win Wednesday. The first-round series is now tied 1-1 with Game 3 Friday in Indiana.

LeBron finished with 46 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and two steals. It was his highest-scoring playoff game in his second Cavs tenure.

More than any point since he left Cleveland for the Heat, LeBron’s team is built for him to carry it singlehandedly. He was obviously always the leader and best player, but at times, he could let Dwyane Wade or Kyrie Irving cook. Now, LeBron has no teammates worth deferring to – only teammates who can flourish when LeBron positions them to succeed.

LeBron showed a willingness to accept that challenge tonight in a way he didn’t even in Game 1, when he had a triple-double. That bodes well for the Cavaliers as they undertake what they hope will be a long playoff run – and maybe even as they approach LeBron’s free agency.

But as well as LeBron played tonight, the Pacers battled back. Victor Oladipo missed a game-tying 3-pointer with 27 seconds left after Cleveland blew its coverage and left him open.

“We got lucky,” LeBron said. “We gave up a wide-open 3 to Oladipo, and he missed it. I’d rather be on time and on target than being lucky.”

Cleveland was also fortunate with Pacers coach Nate McMillan’s handling of Victor Oladipo’s early foul trouble.

McMillan sat Oladipo just more than a minute into the game. Oladipo picked up two quick fouls, but both were offensive – more fluky than indicative of a problem. During the regular season, Oladipo committed four fouls (necessary at that point to foul out tonight) every 58 minutes he played. Oladipo returned in the second quarter but got pulled again midway through the period with a third foul, a questionable call as Kevin Love jumped sideways into him on a shot. Oladipo committed three fouls (necessary at that point to foul out) every 44 minutes during the regular season.

Oladipo finished with three fouls. Indiana was +11 points in his 28 minutes and -14 points in the 20 minutes he sat.

That could bode well for the Pacers going forward. Many of the Cavs’ advantages tonight might not continue throughout the series. In particular, Kevin Love left the game late with a thumb injury.

But Cleveland’s biggest advantage remains: LeBron James. He showed tonight just how much that still matters.