Miami’s athletic defense is biggest hurdle for Boston to clear

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It wasn’t the technical fouls. It wasn’t the officiating period (Miami shot 23 free throws, Boston 21). It’s not about fatigue. It’s not something being more physical can solve. It is not something zone defense is going to solve. The core problem the Boston Celtics have to overcome against the Miami Heat is something very basic.

Miami is by far the more athletic team.

That’s a problem when Boston tries to defend LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, however Game 1 showed it is the other end of the floor that is the bigger issue — Boston scored just 33 points in the second half and that’s why Miami won handily 93-79.

Boston has to find a way to score against the Heat. Consistently. This is not Philadelphia — 79 points won’t have you in the game. But this is like playing a better version of the Sixers defense, something the Celtics couldn’t solve effectively last round.

And the Celtics need to solve it fast. They need ball movement to negate the wing shot blocking LeBron and Wade bring, they need to knock down threes. Because if Boston loses Game 2 Wednesday night and has to win four out of the following five against the Heat, they are in serious trouble.

Boston scored less than 20 points in three of the four quarters of Game 1. Boston shot 25 percent in the first quarter, 27 percent in the third quarter. The problems were inside and out — they had eight shots blocked within three feet of the rim, but they also were 4-14 from three (and you want to say that’s an off night from deep remember Boston shot just 27.8 percent from three in the playoffs coming into this game).

Boston did have the second quarter, where they put up 35 points and shot 59 percent. Boston’s offense found its groove as Rajon Rondo started to drive the lane, kicking out to open guys who knocked down the open look, including a Paul Pierce corner three, a kickout to Kevin Garnett for a 19 footer and even Rondo himself knocking down a midrange jumper. The second quarter even saw Ray Allen hitting a three.

“In the second quarter I thought (Rondo) was attacking, attacking,” Rivers said in his televised press conference. “(The rest of the game) I thought he was reading a lot instead of just playing by instinct. I think sometimes his IQ hurts him, he’s trying to read the defense. And you can’t read and play at speed.”

In the third quarter Miami ratcheted up the pressure on Rondo — who Wade called “the head of the snake” with the Celtics — going with long defenders. That included Wade and LeBron at points trying to cut him off and take away his looks. The end result was Boston scoring at a 77 points per 100 possessions performance in the second half (for some comparison, the Bobcats had the worst offense in the league and averaged

Rondo finished with 16 points but on 20 shots and seven assists. Most of his shots came in the paint (16 of the 20) but he hit just seven of those because of the athletic and aggressive defense challenging everything.

“It’s going to be tough, because he’s probably the number one unpredictable guy we have in our league, in terms of how he forces his action,” LeBron said of Rondo. “A lot of his points come in transition where you want to load him and he sprays out for threes.”

Boston did some things they wanted to do in this game — they slowed the pace way down and made the Heat grind it out for the most part. They also got to the line and certainly can pick up some easy points by shooting beter than 11-21 from the stripe.

But the bottom line is this is the Heat, not Philadelphia — 79 points is not going to have you close to winning. Boston needs Ray Allen to find his groove and knock down open looks. It’s going to be tough with LeBron James on him but Paul Pierce can’t go 5-18 shooting. As a team the Celtics can’t shoot just 39.5 percent.

Boston did establish Garnett (23 points on 16 shots) but they have to get Rondo going setting up other guys – he had 2 assists in the second half. Part of that is him, part of that is guys need to move better off the ball to create good looks, then they need to knock down the shots when they get the looks.

Boston is going to come out in Game 2 more physical. They may play some zone. But all of that will be moot if they don’t put the ball in the basket a whole lot more.

And if not, this series will be over very quickly.

Report: Dennis Smith Jr. planned to have J. Cole dunk in dunk-contest routine

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Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr. seemed pretty steamed about getting eliminated in the first round of the dunk contest:

The dunk-contest scoring system – five judges ranking dunks on a scale of 6-10 – is plenty flawed. There should have been a larger difference between the Smith and Victor Oladipo dunks the Dallas point guard mentioned. But Oladipo didn’t advance, either. Personally, I thought the right two players – eventual-winner Donovan Mitchell and runner-up Larry Nance Jr. – advanced.

Maybe Smith was more upset about the missed opportunity – dunks (plural!) involving rapper J. Cole.

Amin El-Hassan of ESPN on Black Opinions Matter:

If Dennis had made it to the finals, Cole was going to throw him the alley-oop. But then the plan was, he was going to throw him the oop, Dennis would dunk it, and then Cole would catch the ball, and then he’d dunk it too. That was going to be the ill, craziest dunk-contest use of a prop or a person ever. But we never got to saw it, because they were holding out until the final round. They didn’t want to bring it out in the first round.

This certainly would have been unprecedented and cool. But unless Smith had something amazing planned for the alley-oop, the best element would have been Cole dunking. That would have upstaged Smith, who’s presumably the one being judged.

For what it’s worth, Cole can dunk. We’ve seen it in the celebrity game:

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich says he’d be surprised if Kawhi Leonard returns this season

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When announcing last month Kawhi Leonard was out indefinitely due to a lingering quad injury, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich dismissed the idea his star forward would miss the rest of the season:

Apparently, Popovich’s expectation has changed.

Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

The Spurs (35-24) are third in the West despite Leonard playing just nine games. Popovich has done a great job (maybe Coach of the Year-worthy). LaMarcus Aldridge is having a bounce-back season in a leading role. Pau Gasol leads a supporting cast of players good in their roles.

But San Antonio’s ceiling is so much lower without Leonard.

He’s an elite defender who shuts down opposing scorers on the perimeter and can comfortably switch inside. He can isolate offensively to score efficiently, and he spaces the floor off the ball with strong 3-point shooting. Those are all skills that translate to the playoffs.

Without him, the Spurs rely too heavily on older, slower defenders. That’s ripe to be exploited in the postseason.

Teams might even jockey to match up with San Antonio – the most vulnerable-appearing Western Conference team in line to get home-court advantage in the first round.

Of course, this doesn’t eliminate the possibility of Leonard returning. Popovich could just be trying to shut down speculation. He clearly doesn’t like discussing this issue.

But the Spurs are the most cautious team on injuries. If Leonard risks further injury, they’ll keep him sidelined.

This injury has already caused tension. This won’t help.

Mark Cuban’s fine third-largest known fine in NBA history

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While explaining how he told his players the team was better off losing this season, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said “I’m probably not supposed to say this” and “Adam would hate hearing that.”

Cuban was right.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver fined Cuban $600,000 for “public statements detrimental to the NBA.” The league doesn’t announce all its fines, but that’s the third-largest known fine in NBA history.

The leaderboard:

1. Timberwolves, $3.5 million in 2000 (signing under-the-table agreement with Joe Smith)

2. Clippers owner Donald Sterling, $2.5 million in 2014 (making racist comments)

3. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, $600,000 in 2018 (saying he told his players the team is better off losing)

4. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, $500,000 in 2002 (criticizing officiating)

4. Knicks, $500,000 in 2006 (fighting Nuggets)

4. Nuggets, $500,000 2006 (fighting Knicks)

4. Vladimir Radmanovic, $500,000 in 2007 (injuring his shoulder while snowboarding)

4. Pistons general manager Joe Dumars, $500,000 in 2010 (leaking confidential league memos)

4. Heat owner Micky Arison, $500,000 in 2011 (tweets during the lockout breaking rank with other owners)

I’d be on Cuban (and/or the Mavericks) getting yet another spot on this list following the investigation of the franchise for a culture tolerant of sexual harassment and domestic abuse. That one will probably be deserved – not just the league trying to preserve the illusion of pure competition amid a system that incentivizes losing.

Mark Cuban fined $600,000 for telling team “losing is our best option”

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Of all the hot water Mark Cuban is in right now with the Mavericks and the NBA league office, this is probably the smallest tub. And the least expensive fine.

Cuban recently went on Julius Erving’s podcast, House Call with Dr. J, and said:

“I’m probably not supposed to say this, but I just had dinner with a bunch of our guys the other night. And here we are, we weren’t competing for the playoffs. I was like, “Look, losing is our best option.” Adam would hate hearing that, but at least I sat down, and I explained it to them. And I explained what our plans were going to be this summer, that we’re not going to tank again.”

You were not supposed to say that — the NBA Wednesday fined Cuban $600,000 for “for public statements detrimental to the NBA.”

Cuban’s not wrong, it’s just a matter of perception. The NBA has worked very hard to lessen the image that teams are tanking for draft position (why do you think there was pressure on the Sixers to replace Sam Hinkie?), they don’t need an owner saying it’s the smart thing to do. Even though it is. Teams tank — it is still the only way for a small or medium market team to get a superstar, get high in the draft and hopefully pick one (it’s not that simple, ask the Magic) — but the league wants at least the facade that all of its teams are competitive. All the way through the end of the season.

As you read this, the bottom eight teams in the NBA are within three games of each other for the worst record — and a higher lottery slot. Does anyone think any of them are not going to roll out young, less-talented rosters in the name of development when the real goal is to lose as many games as they can the rest of the way? Most scouts think there is some real talent at the top of this draft, and teams are going to try to get up there and get it.

Just nobody can talk about it.