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.

Thunder star Russell Westbrook scores 45, leads 25-point comeback against Jazz

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The Thunder lost three straight games, fell behind by 25 in the second half at home and looked as if they had no interest in returning to Utah.

Then, Russell Westbrook reminded everyone why he’s a superstar.

Westbrook is a singular force who can take over a game and rally his teammates – not a liability who makes everyone around him worse. His confidence and determination in the face of calamity were invaluable tonight. He kept attacking, and as shots started to fall, he and his teammates massively increased their defensive intensity.

The result: A 107-99 Game 5 win over the Jazz that looked highly improbable 21 game minutes before it ended. But Westbrook (who finished with 45 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists) singlehandedly outscored Utah in that final stretch.

The Thunder are hardly out of the woods yet. They still trail 3-2 in the series with Game 6 Friday in Utah. Teams with home-court advantage in a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6 win it just 37% of the time. Those teams win the series just 26% of the time.

But thanks to Westbrook, Paul George (34 points) and plain all-around defensive effort, Oklahoma City still has a shot. At minimum, the Thunder won’t send George into unrestricted free agency with four straight losses.

Not that Oklahoma City erased all concerns.

Rudy Gobert devoured the Thunder’s offense in the paint – at least while he could avoid the foul trouble. Utah was +7 in Gobert’s 30 minutes and -8 in the 18 minutes he sat.

The Thunder made most of their comeback with Carmelo Anthony on the bench. They continued to play well once he returned in the fourth quarter, but by then, the Jazz had lost all rhythm.

Utah – led by Jae Crowder‘s 27 points – looks deeper. Anthony was still Oklahoma City’s third-leading scorer with just seven points.

And the Thunder haven’t won in Salt Lake City this series.

But they’ll make another trip there. Considering where this game and series looked midway through the third quarter tonight, that’s a heck of an accomplishment.

Another massive third quarter lifts Rockets past Timberwolves into second round

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We saw this movie just a couple of nights before, but Rockets fans love the ending and would gladly pay to see it 12 more times this postseason.

Much like Game 4, the Rockets were down at the half in Game 5 Wednesday after having played disinterested defense and with cold shooting from their stars (James Harden and Chris Paul combined to go 3-of-16 from the floor). Minnesota was up 59-55 and had hope.

Then the third quarter the Rockets flipped the switch. Again.

Harden had 15 points in the third — matching the Timberwolves as a team. Minnesota started to double Harden and take the ball out of his hands (especially late in the shot clock), but he often moved the rock and it led to open threes — the Rockets were 6-of-10 from three in the quarter. Houston won the third 30-15, not as overwhelming as the 50-point quarter the game before but once again enough to comfortably pull away from Minnesota and cruise in for a 122-104 win.

With that, the Rockets win the series 4-1 and now await the winner of the Utah vs. Oklahoma City series.

In that series, the Rockets will need to play with more consistent focus than they brought against the Timberwolves — they can’t just play a couple of good halves in the next series and expect that to be enough. Unlike Minnesota, those teams in the next round will make Houston pay a steep price for a lack of focus.

Houston got a massive night from Clint Capela, who led the Rockets with 26 points and 15 rebounds, running the rim hard in transition and making plays inside while the rest of the Rockets launched threes over the top.

Harden finished with 24 points and 12 assists, and Eric Gordon had 19 off the bench in the win.

Minnesota had 23 points from Karl-Anthony Towns and 17 from an energized Jeff Teague.

For the Timberwolves, a team with elite young talent, this was a glimpse of what it will take to reach the heights they envision. This was a good step — the franchise’s first trip to the playoffs since 2004 is not to be diminished. It matters. But there are higher levels this team can attain. Defensively they have to be better, offensively they need to feed Towns more and play to their strengths better. It’s a work in progress.

Houston just showed them where they want to be.

Hawks, coach Mike Budenholzer agree to part ways

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This was expected.

It was pretty obvious Mike Budenholzer didn’t want to stick around and lose a lot of games with the Atlanta Hawks as they rebuild the next few years, especially after he had been stripped of his GM powers. Budenholzer went well down the road with the Phoenix Suns about their open coaching position before thinking better of it. Since then he has set up a meeting with the Knicks about their coaching vacancy, a job he reportedly wants badly.

At this point there was no need for the Hawks and Budenholzer to continue their sham marriage, so they have agreed to amicably separate, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and since confirmed by the Hawks.

Budenholzer said this to Wojnarowski of ESPN:

“I am grateful for the five years that I spent as coach of the Atlanta Hawks, and will always cherish the incredible contributions, commitment and accomplishments of the players that I was fortunate enough to work with here,” Budenholzer told ESPN on Wednesday night. “From ownership to management, support staff to the community, I’ll look back with great pride on what we were able to achieve together with the Hawks.”

For Budenholzer, the long-time Spurs assistant and a strong Xs and Os coach, look for him to both push for the Knicks job and be in the running if/when the Milwaukee Bucks job opens up whenever their season ends. In both cases he’s a fit — those are teams that need a culture and system reset, and Budenholzer proved he can bring that to Atlanta (that was a good team before they let Al Horford and Paul Millsap walk for nothing).

With Atlanta, they likely will turn to a top assistant coach who will get a chance to develop young players on that team (and not cost Atlanta as much as an established coach). Stephen Silas of the Hornets is a rumored name, but there are others.

LeBron James overrules controversial finish with game-winning 3-pointer (video)

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LeBron James‘ turnover with the game tied late looked like a bad call. LeBron’s block of Victor Oladipo on the ensuing possession looked like a goaltend.

Did the Cavaliers get robbed of a crucial possession? Did the Pacers get robbed of two go-ahead points?

LeBron nullified those questions with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give Cleveland a 98-95 win and a 3-2 series lead. The game-winner capped a great game by LeBron (44 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists) and moves the Cavs to the verge of advancing.

When a team with home-court advantage can close out a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6, it has 52% of the time. It has won the series 92% of the time.

The odds are even better with LeBron. LeBron has won 11 straight closeout games, nine of them on the road. He’ll have another opportunity Friday with Game 6 in Indiana.