Celtics-Heat Game 7: A fade from green to black


It’s possible, however remotely, that Miami’s 101-88 win in Game 7 wasn’t the end of the Big 3 era in Boston. It’s not inconceivable that Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers could elect for one more ride. But it doesn’t feel like it. It doesn’t feel like it because of how close this team came to being blown up before the season, during the season, at the deadline. It doesn’t feel like it because of the economic realities and the difficulty in retaining said players at market rates while not squandering their window of opportunity to rebuild around legitimate, motivated talent. But mostly, it doesn’t feel that way because of the look on the Celtics’ faces in the fourth quarter of Games 6 and 7. Last year they could throw out Rondo’s injury, or the way the roster was constructed. But this year is different. This year is a  team they liked, a team they trusted, a team they believed in. And in the fourth quarter of Games 6 and 7, the truth was etched on their faces. Not The Truth, but he truth.

The Heat are just better than they are.

The belief was there, even for three quarters in Game 7. That effort and execution would trump talent. That heart and grit would trump ability. That sheer force of will was more important than strength, speed, and athleticism. But then, as these things do, the reality set in. Santa Claus is not real, there is no gold at the end of the rainbow, and the Miami Heat are a better team than the Celtics.

As much as a Game 7 can prove such things.

So now there’s a whole other world waiting for them, a summer that will deal with free agency for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, with Allen already having speculated about moving on. The Celtics wouldn’t get into the discussion of whether they will finally pull the trigger on the detonation Saturday night, it wasn’t the time. But if this is it, it’s important to note what they leave with.

An NBA championship for Boston, first and foremost, having carried the title back to Beantown when it had been absent for twenty year. Two Finals appearances, a year cut down by an injury to Kevin Garnett, and then, the Big 3 era in Miami. (The Heat have never lost a playoff series in the Big 3 era to Boston. There’s a fun small-sample stat). They brought us Ubuntu, they validated the careers of Allen, Garnett, Pierce. They made Doc Rivers into arguably the best coach in the NBA, certainly the coach most want to play for. They gave us dedication, sacrifice, intensity, and a whole lot of fouls. They resurrected the Lakers rivalry and may have been primarily responsible for “The Decision” and the formation of the Big 3. They were the superteam before there were superteams (apologies to the Spurs).

It was an amazing run.

But the truth is that it’s over.

It’s time to look to the future, to get Rondo some running mates his age (or younger). It’s time to move forward and look for the next great Celtic. It’s time to let go of the past. Because this team gave everything anyone could have asked of them, and it wasn’t enough. The time has come, and Ainge and Rivers know it. They’ve known it for a while, but they chose to believe in miracles. And for a while, this team of over-the-hill veterans made them believe. But at the end of the rope there’s an anchor. It’s time to let go.

There will be a great many questions about this Celtics team going forward and looking back. Were they truly one of the great teams of their time, or is their lone title not enough to justify the hype about them? Were they victims of fate (Garnett’s knee in 2009, Perkins’ knee in 2010) or simply flawed in trying to win with older players in an athletic age? Is Rondo the lone reason they were able to compete for so many years, or are teams unable to win a title with him as the best player? Should the Celtics have made a move sooner? What about the failed deal for David West? The questions will haunt the city and sports talk radio and are worth asking.

But beyond that is a team that deserves to be remembered not as three superstars that came together to win titles. But a team of great players who all bought in to something greater than themselves and came out with a bond greater than that of just teammates. They won together, they lost together, but they fought through everything the league, the world and fate threw at them. They fought to the bitter end. There’s no shame that the Heat were better. There’s only a pride in being another in a long line of great Celtics teams.

And for the city with the most NBA championships, a grateful hand is extended, even as the question is on their lips.

“Where do we go from here to win Banner 18?”

Three Things to Know: Nothing but takeaways from Cavaliers beating Raptors

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA. Today we’re doing things a little differently, despite some other interesting games — Dwight Howard dropping 30-and-30, the genuine concern about Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s ankle, and the Pelicans beating the Pacers because Anthony Davis is ridiculous — we are going to focus on the likely Eastern Conference Finals matchup of Toronto at Cleveland, which the Cavaliers won 132-129.

What we are not taking away from this is a prediction of a playoff matchup between these two teams. Forget the fact that regular season meetings are crappy predictors of playoff series in general, here are three other issues: 1) Toronto was on the second night of a back-to-back and it was their fifth game in seven days, which factored into their poor defense and late fade; 2) Cleveland is going to be healthier and have different guys in the rotation come the playoffs; 3) If Dwane Casey or Larry Drew/Tyronn Lue have a tactic they think could be a great weapon against the other side, no chance they break it out for long in a late-season game — they will save it for the playoffs. Sort of like to NFL teams playing each other in week 16 when they know they could meet in the playoffs. We didn’t see the best of either side.

That said, let’s get on to the real three things.

1) The biggest factor in the Eastern Conference remains LeBron James and his level of play. There are questions about how well the new-look Raptors will carry over to the playoffs. There are more questions (at least in my mind) about how well this Cavaliers roster can defend, even when healthy. All that said, this game was a reminder of one simple fact:

LeBron James can lift a team to the NBA Finals almost by himself — he’s been to seven straight Finals for a reason. He is the force of nature, he’s still playing at an MVP-level (at age 33 in his 15th season), and he took over this game with 35 points, 17 assists, and zero turnovers.

LeBron shot 62 percent from three on the night, had 14 points and 5 assists in the fourth quarter alone, and was the difference in this game. OG Anunoby is the guy the Raptors will likely lean on in the playoffs to make LeBron work for his buckets, but he looked like a guys still working his way back from injury (and like a rookie with tired legs late in the season), it was Pascal Siakam who did the best of any Raptor (LeBron was 4-of-10 with Siakam guarding him on the night). That’s something we would see in the postseason, but nobody really had an impact, and the Raptors need to figure out how to make LeBron work harder for his buckets.

Put simply, the Eastern Conference is all about LeBron James. Still. And it will remain so until further notice.

2) Which one of these teams will defend better come the playoffs? The Cleveland Cavaliers gave up 79 first half points and allowed the Raptors a 135.8 offensive rating on the night (points per 100 possessions). Kyle Lowry put it this way after the game, “Disgraceful display of defense by us. We’ve got to be better than that.” The Cavaliers had an offensive rating of 140.4 (stats via Cleaning the Glass).

Neither team defended well. If this was an Eastern Conference playoff preview, the team that improves their defense the most between now and then will come out on top.

Toronto has defended better all season — they are fifth in the NBA in defensive rating — but it didn’t show Wednesday. Maybe it was the back-to-back, fifth-game-in-seven-days that took their legs out from under them, particularly for the older Serge Ibaka who had an off night on both ends. (Tired legs also would explain the lack of transition points by the Raptors on the night, they needed those easy buckets). Maybe it’s the fact nobody has a good answer for LeBron. Maybe a lot of things, but the Raptors need to do better defensively in a playoff series or the outcome will be the same.

The Cavaliers lack cohesion on defense, and while they will get better defenders back from injury — Tristan Thompson, Larry Nance Jr. — that is not going to speed up the team getting used to each other on that end. Cleveland has to have better energy, they need to close out on shooters better (the Raptors got open looks late on kickouts, they missed injured C.J. Miles), and they just need more efforts like veteran Jose Calderon gave (it was a good night for him). Cleveland has time to get its defenders on the same page, but not a lot of it.

3) Is Toronto’s bench going to matter as much in the playoffs? Toronto’s bench unit has been key to their success all season — the Raptors took a double-digit lead in the second quarter thanks to their bench (who has done that to teams all season long). The Raptors lineup of Jakab Poeltl, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and Delon Wright was +6 in 10 minutes Wednesday. The Lowry plus bench unit has killed teams all season long.

Will it matter in the playoffs?

Right now coaches are going nine or 10 deep in their rotations, and the Raptors depth matters in that situation — their bench can beat your bench. It happened against the Cavaliers. However, come the playoffs the minutes that went to guys nine and 10 in the rotation go to guys one and two — the bench tightens way up and the best players get more minutes. A deep bench doesn’t have the same impact.

What that bench will provide Casey in the playoffs is options — if Anunoby is struggling against LeBron bring in Siakam — but it’s not the same as the regular season. I love that in big games recently against the Thunder and Cavaliers Casey is still playing around with his lineups for stretches — now is the time to experiment. Now is the time to get guys used to playing with each other. That way, come the playoffs, Casey can throw the combination out there that he thinks works and there will be familiarity.

But the Raptors will need more from their starters in the playoffs, because the bench will not have the same impact.

Dwight Howard posts just second 30-30 game in last 36 years

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Dwight Howard never played for the Nets. He almost got traded to Brooklyn by the Magic, but the deal never happened.

Which puts a dent in Dennis Schroder‘s theory Howard gets up for games against only his former teams.

Howard dominated Brooklyn for 32 points and 30 rebounds in the Hornets’ 111-105 win tonight. That’s just the second 30-30 game in the last 36 years, Kevin Love notching the other in 2010.

All 30-30 games since Wilt Chamberlain, who had a ton:

  • Dwight Howard (Charlotte Hornets, 3/21/2018): 32 points, 30 rebounds
  • Kevin Love (Minnesota Timberwolves, 11/12/2010): 31 points, 31 rebounds
  • Moses Malone (Houston Rockets, 2/11/1982): 38 points, 32 rebounds
  • Swen Nater (Milwaukee Bucks, 12/19/1976): 30 points, 33 rebounds
  • Elvin Hayes (Capital Bullets, 11/17/1973): 43 points, 32 rebounds

Howard helped Charlotte erase a 23-point second-half deficit and a 10-point deficit with four minutes left. The Hornets are playing out a lost season, and Brooklyn has looked overmatched most of the year, particularly at center. But no matter the situation, Howard says he still feels super-sized expectations.

Tonight, he exceeded them by leaps and bounds.

Giannis Antetokounmpo leaves Bucks’ loss to Clippers with ankle injury (video)

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The Bucks lost, 127-120, to the Clippers tonight.

More importantly, Milwaukee lost Antetokounmpo to an ankle injury.

He limped off in the second quarter and didn’t return. The Bucks called it a sprain.

Any more time Antetokounmpo misses would be a huge loss. Hopefully, he recovers quickly.

No matter how many other good players – Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe – Milwaukee has put on the floor, the team has struggled without its star. Antetokounmpo is a commanding force offensively who just does so much, and his defense impresses.

The Bucks (37-34) are eighth in the East. They’re safely in playoff position, five games ahead of the ninth-place Pistons. But this hurts Milwaukee’s chances of avoiding a first-round matchup with the excellent Raptors – though the way Toronto has regressed in the playoffs in previous years, that might not be so bad. Still, the Bucks should probably chase the seventh-place Heat, who are up 1.5 games on Milwaukee, and a likely first-round matchup with the injury-ravaged Celtics.

Obviously, a healthy Antetokounmpo would be central to that pursuit.

Cavaliers beat Raptors, become first team in 27 years to surrender 79 first-half points and win


The Cavaliers haven’t been good enough throughout the season, especially defensively. The Raptors have – offensively, defensively, starters, bench. Hope has grown in Toronto of winning the Eastern Conference after getting eliminated by Cleveland the last two years.

But LeBron James and Cavs showed why it’s hard to pick any other team – even the first-place Raptors – to win the East in a 132-129 win over Toronto tonight.

Cleveland allowed 79 first-half points and fell behind by 15. But a LeBron-led offense was just too potent. This was the first time since 1990 (Nuggets over Spurs after trailing 90-83) a team surrendered so many first-half points then still won.

LeBron finished with 35 points, 17 assists and no turnovers. No forward has ever dished so many assists without a turnover in Basketball-Reference’s database, which dates back to 1963-64.

And LeBron led the Cavaliers to this win despite Tristan Thompson, Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr., Kyle Korver and Cedi Osman being out.

It’s only one game, and it was in Cleveland. But even with home-court advantage in a potential playoff series, the Raptors must grapple with even more lingering doubt now about their ability to beat the Cavs.