Rondo gets some help, LeBron doesn’t so Celtics win Game 3

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Rajon Rondo didn’t put up 44 points in Game 3 because he didn’t have to — he had help this time.

But if the Heat were going to win Friday night LeBron James would have needed to put up huge numbers because his teammates didn’t bother to show up until the fourth quarter.

The result was Boston playing like the Big Three we have come to expect, a vintage virtuoso performance controlling the game most of the way with their defense, leading by 24 at one point and holding off a Miami fourth-quarter run to win its first game of the series 101-91.

Miami still maintains a 2-1 series lead and Sunday’s game in Boston now looms large.

Boston had pretty much everything go its way Friday night, even the calls from the referees (LeBron and Dwyane Wade combined to take just five free throws). The only questions are can the Celtics replicate it and how will they deal with the Heat bringing much more energy and aggressiveness next game?

Miami let Rondo control the tempo from the second quarter on and could not stop Kevin Garnett in the paint, which is what turned the game. Well, really, what turned the game was the 15-0 run that spanned more than six minutes from late in the first quarter through the start of the second. That is when the game and momentum turned.

But during that stretch Rondo made some fantastic post passes to Garnett — some over the top of the defense that allowed Garnett to score at the rim. Boston had 58 points in the paint on the night.

Boston also scored in transition, with Rondo pushing the ball into the paint and kicking out for open 3-pointers.

“The difference was our defensive energy, which allowed us to run,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “We ran into space; I thought we had fantastic ball movement for three quarters.”

Boston got balance this time — Rondo had 21 points and 10 assists, Garnett had 24 points and Paul Pierce added 23. The Celtics also finally got some help from the bench, with Marquis Daniels pitching in nine points and Keyon Dooling adding seven.

Miami looked flat offensively and were getting outworked all night long — they didn’t get back in transition and had Rondo running down behind them and nobody trying to find Pierce or Ray Allen spotting up at the arc.

Everyone on Miami looked flat — except for LeBron. Midway through the third quarter he had half the team’s points (28 of 56). LeBron finished with 34 points and had a game that reminded you of his Cleveland days. Wade had 18 but needed 20 shots to get them.

Still, you knew there would be a Heat run and it came in the fourth, with Miami attacking again (although still doing it too much out of isolation). The Heat started closing off the lane to the Celtics again. They made it interesting at the end, and the loud Garden got awfully quiet. Mario Chalmers had a great game with 14 points.

But it was too little, too late.

Miami will be a different team Sunday, more aggressive and looking to attack off the pick-and-roll. They are going to try to set the tone.

If they can’t, we will have an even series. And you know this veteran Celtics team is not going to just roll over; the Heat are going to have to earn it.

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.