Spencer Hawes, Thaddeus Young, Kevin Garnett

NBA Playoffs Preview: Boston Celtics vs. Philadelphia 76ers

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SEASON RECORDS

Boston: 39-27 (No. 5 seed)
Philadelphia: 35-31 (8 seed)

SEASON SERIES

Philadelphia took it 2-1, with the home team winning easily in each game.

KEY INJURIES
Celtics: Paul Pierce has a sprained knee that will not be right until this summer, Ray Allen is battling through ankle pain that may need surgery, and Avery Bradley has a bum shoulder. They will all play but the Sixers are banged up.

Sixers: Nothing that will cause players to miss a game.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)

Celtics: Off. 101.0 (27th in NBA); Def. 98.2 (1st in NBA)
Sixers: Off. 103.9 (20th in NBA); Def. 99.2 (3rd in NBA)

THREE KEY CELTICS:

Paul Pierce: He was at the best we have seen him in a while during the first round, averaging 21.2 points and 6.3 rebounds a game while Ray Allen was slowed with an ankle injury. The Celtics are going to need the same out of him in this round — but he’s going to have to do it with Andre Iguodala draped all over him. That’s a much tougher task.

Rajon Rondo: He also was dynamic in the first round and picked up his shooting pace, averaging 16.8 points and 11.8 assists per game. He has a matchup he can exploit with Jrue Holiday but he also may be called upon to play some defense on Lou Williams, the Sixers potent bench scorer.

Kevin Garnett: Boston is better when he is playing the five spot, and he stepped up and scored 28 points in Game 6 to help close out the Hawks. They are going to need offense from him in this series, and they are going to need him to play good defense on Spencer Hawes — laugh if you want Celtics fans but Hawes ability to step out and hit shots and his ball movement is key to making the Sixers halfcourt offense work.

Note to Philadelphia ownership — don’t insult him through the media. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry.

THREE KEY SIXERS:

Andre Iguodala: In a series where points will be hard to come by the Sixers need him to excel at both ends of the floor. He needs to slow down Paul Pierce on defense, then get some transition and opportunistic points on offense. And maybe getting a few jump shots to fall as well. He is the guy who has to step up big if the Sixers are going to win this series.

Lou Williams: He comes off the bench but he is the one Sixer who can just light up the scoreboard, and he is the guy with the ball in his hands on crucial plays at the end of games. He averaged 12.8 points per game in the first round, but his three point shooting was off, he needs to knock down the looks he gets in this series.

Spencer Hawes: People are just starting to realize how key he is for Philly. He averaged 15.5 points and 10.3 rebounds in the final four games of the Bulls series, but he didn’t have to do that against Joakim Noah… or now Kevin Garnett. If KG shuts him down the 76ers halfcourt offense stagnates — he is the guy that gets the ball moving side to side and gets them open looks. Philly needs him to be on.

OUTLOOK

Bet the under. Look at the statistical ranking above — two top-three defenses and two bottom-10 offenses. These are going to be low scoring, ugly affairs.

What it really comes down to — whichever team can get some consistent offensive spark is going to win. One way to do that is creating turnovers with their defense — something Boston was much better at during the season. Boston forced the other team to turn the ball over on 14.9 percent of their possessions (4th best in NBA), the Sixers on just 13.5 percent (19th). The problem for Boston is Philly was the best team in the NBA at taking care of the ball last season (10.9 percent of possessions ended in a turnover). If either side coughs the ball up and those become easy transition points the other way, it is a huge advantage.

It just seems to me Boston has more consistent weapons when it comes to getting those points — Rondo, Garnett, Pierce can all step up on a given night with a huge game. And Ray Allen is still lurking out there and could catch fire. Philly has Iguodala and Williams, and Jrue Holiday has had good games (and needs to have a monster series if Philly is to win) but it’s just not as many weapons.

The games will be low scoring and close, it will be the little things that decide it in the end. Like having home court advantage so your role players may give you a boost in more games. Or just having savvy veterans who have been through the wars and seem to make plays at key times. All things Boston has.

PREDICTION

Celtics in 7 games.

Isaiah Thomas’ big fourth quarter carries Celtics past Hornets 108-98

Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) raises his arms as he celebrates after hitting a 3-pointer against the Charlotte Hornets during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Boston, Monday, Jan. 16, 2017. Thomas had 35 points as the Celtics defeated the Hornets 108-98. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Associated Press
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BOSTON (AP) — Isaiah Thomas scored 17 of his 35 points in the fourth quarter, and the surging Boston Celtics beat the Charlotte Hornets 108-98 on Monday night for their ninth victory in 11games.

It was Thomas’ 25th straight game with 20 or more points. He’s been putting up big final quarters of late – scoring 20 or more three times this season. No other NBA player had done it more than once entering Monday.

Al Horford had 22 points, while Kelly Olynyk and Jae Crowder added 15 apiece for Boston, which has won all three meetings with Charlotte this season.

Kemba Walker scored 24 points and Marvin Williams had 21 for the Hornets, who lost their fifth straight – all on the road.

Thomas scored 13 straight points, pushing Boston ahead 93-83 with his 3-pointer from the left wing with 7 1/2 minutes left.

Boston led 80-71 entering the final period.

TIP-INS

Hornets: Entered averaging the second-fewest turnovers in the league at 12.1 per game. They had 11.

Celtics: G Avery Bradley returned after missing four straight games because of a strained right Achilles. He scored five points on 2-of -9 shooting. … Thomas scored a team-record 29 points in the final quarter of a victory against Miami on Dec. 30 to finish with 52.

INSPIRING WORDS

Celtics rookie Jaylen Brown addressed the crowd before the game on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Without notes, he quoted King in saying: “The day our lives begin to end, the day we become silent about things that matter.”

NICE CATCH

New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount sat courtside behind a basket and made a two-handed grab of a ball flying out of bounds.

SPORTS TRANSITION

It was the nightcap of a hockey/basketball doubleheader, and 6-foot-4 Celtics guard Marcus Smart entered TD Garden wearing a winter jacket and hat. He paused and stood seemingly unnoticed as a group of youngsters and parents – most wearing Boston Bruins colors – walked down a hall to meet some of the hockey players.

Smart smiled when a media member said, “I don’t think anyone noticed you.”

Later, 6-foot-9 Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara headed past folks walking in for the basketball game.

 

Clippers guard Chris Paul leaves game with sprained thumb, more tests coming

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The Clippers have now won seven games in a row, but if they don’t have Chris Paul in the lineup that streak is going to turn around very quickly (remember just a couple of weeks ago when he missed seven games with a hamstring strain?).

Which is why Paul leaving the game with what the team has called a sprained thumb is potentially troubling news. Paul was trying to get over the top of a Joffrey Lauvergne screen when he ran into Russell Westbrook who had pulled up to take a three, Paul’s hand hitting Westbrook’s hip and seemingly getting caught up in his shorts. Paul walked off the court and went straight to the locker room, making it seem worse than the team said it is so far.

From the press release from the Clippers:

X-rays during the game were negative, but further tests still need to be done to determine the extent of the injury, which occurred in the second quarter after Paul jammed his left hand on Russell Westbrook’s right leg.

The Clippers held on without Paul for the comfortable win over the Thunder, 120-98.

The Clippers are the four seed in the West but could fall down that ladder if Paul is out for any stretch of time. Starting Saturday The Clippers have 10-of-11 games on the road — and the one home game is the Warriors. That’s going to be a tough run of games even with Paul.

Kevin Durant scores 21, Stephen Curry 20 to help Warriors cruise past Cavs (VIDEOS)

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Pretty much everything the Warriors did Monday against the Cavaliers worked — transition buckets, pull-up threes, drive-and-dish plays, curls off screens, you name it and the Warriors got enough space to get a shot they wanted. Then they knocked them down. Which is why the Warriors won going away.

Stephen Curry had a big night with 20 points and 11 assists, which you can see highlights of above. It was a big night for Curry’s confidence: In the Cavaliers four-straight wins against the Warriors, Cleveland trapped Curry off picks, were physical, and when Curry tried to make the playground passes that worked against other teams Cavaliers’ help defenders made steals and were off in transition the other way. Monday night Curry took the pressure in stride, used his handles to create space, used his gravity to draw defenders to him, then he whipped smart passes around the floor. Curry had 10 assists and zero turnovers in the first half.

Kevin Durant benefitted from some of those passes and had 21 points on the night, and he chipped in three blocks.

 

Get out of my head: Golden State routs Cleveland in last regular season meeting before Finals

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No regular season game is going to erase the memory of blowing a 3-1 NBA Finals lead.

No January game is an accurate crystal ball into an NBA Finals matchup.

But the Warriors can put to rest the “Cleveland is in their heads” rhetoric and take a little confidence away from an absolute drubbing of the NBA Champions on national television Monday night.

Golden State caught fire midway through the first quarter and led by 15 after one, put up 78 points in the first half to lead by 29 at the break, and it all happened so fast it left Tyronn Lue’s face as the meme of the night.

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From there, the Warriors cruised in (sloppily at times, but cruised) for the 126-91 win.

“It was very important to come out and get off to a good start, but more importantly to hold on to that, to continue to keep our foot on the gas,” Draymond Green, speaking to the blown leads issue in his postgame TNT interview. “We did that the entire night, they had one little stretch there, I think it was the end of the third quarter, but other than that we kept our foot on the gas the entire time.”

Everyone in a Warriors uniform looked sharp. Klay Thompson had 26 points and hit 5-of-11 from three. Kevin Durant had 21 points on 9-of-16 shooting. Stephen Curry had 20 points and 11 assists. Green had a triple-double with 11 points, 13 rebounds, and 11 assists.

Conversely, for the Cavaliers LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love were a combined 13-of-43 (30.2 percent shooting), with just five assists to 13 turnovers between them. As a team, the Cavaliers shot 35.2 percent overall and 9-of-34 from three (26.5 percent). Love didn’t play in the second half due to lower back soreness.

The Cavaliers looked like the team on the last night of a six-game road trip counting the minutes until they got back home, which is exactly what they were.

Neither side thinks this game portends anything going forward.

“It wasn’t about sending a message,” Green said in his interview. “At the end of the day, that’s the defending champs, we played them guys in two straight Finals, you’re not sending a message with a regular season win.”

That doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel good for the Warriors (and is cathartic for their fans).

The only real moment of drama in the game was when Green shouldered LeBron to the ground in the second quarter and picked up a Flagrant 1 for his efforts.

Golden State started the game slow, getting good looks but shooting just 1-of-7 from three. Still, it felt like with the looks they were getting the shots would fall at some point, and they did as the Warriors hit six of their next eight from deep. Cleveland tried to match that but found no rhythm, shooting 2-of-12 from three early. With the hot shooting continuing for them, the Warriors stretched the lead up as high as 22, but the Cavaliers had Richard Jefferson come in and muck the game up, LeBron started attacking off the drive, and the Cavaliers cut the lead down to 14.

Then the Warriors got a couple of live-ball turnovers — including Curry stripping LeBron — and converted those to fast-break buckets the other way, then all that was left was Lue looking dazed. The Warriors were moving the ball and not getting sucked into isolation, racking up 26 first half assists. The Warriors also were out and running and had 34 fast break points in the first half — credit Golden State for pushing the tempo, but the Cavaliers transition defense was a horror show. And not in a cool, “Let the Right One In” kind of way, but in the “Cavs fans never want to see that again” kind of way. Dazed Lue is right there with them.

No more meetings between these teams until the Finals we all expect to see. It’s six months of these teams getting better, trying to stay healthy, and gaining confidence going into that series. Cleveland has plenty of confidence. Golden State just got a little more.