Paul Pierce wills Boston Celtics to victory, ties series with Atlanta Hawks

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The Atlanta Hawks looked like a solid basketball team for about 35 minutes of Tuesday night’s game against the Boston Celtics, the team in danger of falling behind 2-0 in the seven-game series when they were forced to play without their starting backcourt. The Celtics looked like they’d return to Boston in a hole after trailing by 11 points late in the third quarter, too, but  like he’s done quite a few times since first donning Boston Green way back in 1998, Paul Pierce decided it was time to take over.

Pierce looked excellent in the first quarter as he scored 13 of the team’s 24 points, but even that performance wasn’t enough foreshadowing to lead everyone to believe he’d take the game’s final stanza over quite like he would. By the time things were done, in fact, it almost seemed as though Pierce said, “No Ray Allen? No Rajon Rondo? No problem!” as he hoisted the Celtics on his back on the way to 36 points, 14 rebounds and an 87-80 victory to tie the series at one game apiece for prior to Friday night’s Game 3 back in Boston.

The veteran wing sat idly by as the Celtics ran the offense through Garnett. Pierce took over midway through the fourth quarter when he smelled blood (thanks to the Hawks going into a terrible isolation offense) and ferociously attacked. The team’s fourth-quarter catalyst scored seven of nine Celtics points midway through the fourth quarter to move the game from a 60-60 tie to a 71-65 lead — capped off with an ode to Tim Tebow for good measure — and Boston would hold off the Hawks the rest of the way.

Pierce’s game will no doubt be talked about most as the reason Boston was able to steal a game in Atlanta despite missing both Allen (due to injury) and Rondo (due to suspension), but it could just as easily be attributed to Atlanta losing focus after playing pretty well through the first two and a half quarters of basketball. It certainly didn’t help that Josh Smith headed back to the locker room late in the fourth quarter with what was later diagnosed as a sprained knee, but even before that happened, the Hawks’ offense looked awful.

Atlanta shot worse than 35 percent from the field and, while it’d be great to be able to say that was due to a defensive battle, the Hawks simply quit trying to execute on the offensive end as the game progressed. Jeff Teague attacked the rim with reckless abandon instead of finding the open man off the drive like he did earlier in the game, Joe Johnson and Josh Smith were unable to create off the dribble and didn’t have any cutters to pass the ball too before they threw up errant shots (the two missed 23 combined field goal attempts) while the rest of the Hawks simply aren’t built to score in the isolation offense head coach Larry Drew drew(?) up.

As far as the rest of the game was concerned, it was great to be able to focus on some of the role players while the key guys were out — once getting past the fact that Sasha Pavlovic, Ivan Johnson, Keyon Dooling and Willie Green are all playing meaningful minutes in the playoffs, anyway. Kirk Hinrich didn’t have an impressive box score with just eight points, but his impact was much greater as he was by far the headiest guard in action Tuesday night; D-League stalwart Ivan Johnson and Jason Collins were able to basically bottle up Kevin Garnett before Drew left Collins in too long and he picked up his sixth foul up early in the fourth quarter; and Avery Bradley, another player that spent a significant amount of his rookie season in the NBA Development League, showed solid moxie as he played more than 41 minutes while picking up three steals, three blocks and just a single turnover as the team’s starting point guard.

It’s tough to say that the second game of the series mattered immensely as far as the big picture of the series is concerned since it’s possible Smith will be out due to the knee injury, Allen and Zaza Pachulia will return from injury and Rondo will be back from his one-game suspension. That said, though, it’s pretty difficult to imagine the Hawks will be able to overcome Pierce if he plays like a man possessed once again on Friday night.

Marcus Smart returns, helps Celtics win Game 5 over Bucks

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Marcus Smart returned to the Boston Celtics after suffering a thumb injury earlier in the year, and boy was it just in time.

The Celtics guard came off the bench, doing what he does best: attacking opposing guards, grabbing rebounds, and making hustle plays for his squad. Smart thoroughly annoyed the Milwaukee Bucks, and as Giannis Antetokounmpo failed to make a push in the second half (and as Khris Middleton‘s shooting slowly deteriorated) it was Boston who came out with a win in Game 5, 92-87.

Milwaukee’s offense failed to show up early. According to NBA TV, it was the second-lowest halftime total for the Bucks this season, and the away team scored just 37 points at the break. Milwaukee struggled mightily as a team, shooting just 21 percent from 3-point range. Despite the issues, both Antetokounmpo and Middleton had 11 points by half.

Boston’s attack was balanced, with nine players scoring in the first half but none reaching double figures. Smart was effective off the bench, playing 12 minutes in the first half. Smart’s presence was felt elsewhere on the floor as well; in those minutes he racked up two blocks, two rebounds, and two assists.

The Celtics stalled to start the third quarter, at times going several minutes between baskets. The intensity level was still high, particularly during one tussle with 9:33 left in the third. Eric Bledsoe and Terry Rozier got into a bumping match on the baseline away from the ball, resulting in one player getting pushed into an official. Bledsoe earned a Flagrant 1 for his efforts, and Rozier was assessed a technical.

Milwaukee began to battle back on surprising baskets by Shabazz Muhammad. The former Minnesota Timberwolves wing dropped two 3-pointers to help the Bucks make a run at the Celtics all the way into the fourth quarter.

The critical play of the game came with 80 seconds left. With the shot clock winding down, Al Horford was allowed by officials to shoot a long jumper. The refereeing crew didn’t blow the whistle, and Boston took a second possession after a backtip.

Then, with 28 seconds left as the Bucks were trying to steal or foul the Celtics, came the play Boston fans had been waiting for from Smart. At first it appeared Milwaukee had shot at a turnover as they hustled Smart to the floor on a trap. Thinking quickly, Smart leapt on the lost ball, flipped over, and sent a pass to a wide open Horford for the basket, all but sealing the game.

Milwaukee tried to play the foul game in the final minute or so, but weren’t able to come up with a win. Antetokounmpo finished with just 16 points and Middleton with 23. Horford led the Celtics with 22 points, 14 rebounds, and three assists.

Boston now leads the series, 3-2, as they head back to Milwaukee for Game 6 on Thursday.

Meek Mill gets out of jail, takes helicopter to 76ers-Heat, rings bell pregame

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Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid had been one of the most notable NBA players leading the charge for the #FreeMeekMill movement. The rapper Meek Mill, a Philadelphia native and Sixers fan, has been incarcerated for violating the terms of his probation multiple times.

At the heart of the movement to free Meek Mill is the idea of comparative justice, that he has been unfairly targeted because of his race as an absorber of punishment from the penal system despite it being a decade since he committed his crime. People from Embiid to New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft have made their voices heard on the subject.

Today, Meek Mill was released from prison and was sent a special gift: the opportunity to fly via helicopter, provided by 76ers minority owner Michael Rubin, to Game 5 between the Sixers and Miami Heat.

When he arrived at the game, the rapper rung the ceremonial bell before tip-off.

Not a couple of hours fresh out of the joint.

Russell Westbrook fined $10,000 for confrontation with Gobert, no suspension

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The rule in the NBA is clear and strictly enforced (just ask Amar’e Stoudemire and the Suns): Leave the bench during an altercation and you get suspended for a game.

Monday night, in the fourth quarter of the chippy game Monday where the Jazz beat the Thunder, Russell Westbrook was set to check into the game when there was a little dust-up between Rudy Gobert in Raymond Felton, and Westbrook came in and escalated it. Did he leave the bench, or was he coming into the game and that’s different.

The NBA decided he was coming into the game already — Westbrook got a $10,000 fine and an after-the-fact technical, but no suspension.

OKC needs Westbrook — and an aggressive Westbrook who is knocking down his midrange shot — to have a chance to avoid elimination in Game 5 Wednesday. The Thunder have had their strengths turned against them, and have not shown the versatility to adjust in this series, and if Westbrook and company cannot change that Wednesday their season will end.

Nets hire Pablo Prigioni as assistant coach, Tiago Splitter as scout

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NEW YORK (AP) — The Brooklyn Nets have hired former NBA player and Argentine guard Pablo Prigioni as an assistant coach.

The Nets also announced Tuesday that former Spurs center Tiago Splitter was hired as a pro scout.

Prigioni spent most of his professional career in Spain and won a bronze medal with Argentina in the 2008 Olympics before coming to the New York Knicks in 2012 as a 35-year-old rookie. He spent four years in the NBA with the Knicks, Rockets and Clippers.

Splitter helped San Antonio win the 2014 NBA championship before spending the final two seasons of his seven-year career with Atlanta and Philadelphia. The Nets said Splitter, who also played for Brazil’s national team, will have added duties related to player on-court development.