Baseline-to-Baseline recaps: James Harden reminds Thunder he’s good

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Welcome to PBT’s roundup of yesterday’s NBA games. Or, what you missed while you were calling 9-1-1 then asking police to bring you some cigarettes….

Lakers 113, Celtics 99: Dwight Howard played maybe his best game as a Laker and was a force on defense, Steve Nash was carving up the defense and making passes and shots, Kobe Bryant was leading — for a night at least the Lakers would have made Jerry Buss proud. Our own Brett Pollakoff broke the game down in more detail.

Rockets 122, Thunder 119: James Harden scored a career-high 46 points against his former team, and it took him just 19 shots to get there. That’s because he knocked down 14 of those attempts, including going 7-8 from three-point distance and 11-12 from the free throw line.

The Thunder actually held a 14-point lead with seven minutes remaining in this one, before the Rockets battled back on the strength of their defense. Harden and Jeremy Lin hit big three-pointers late to take this one home, capping a 29-12 Rockets run to end the game.

Kevin Durant had a rare off night offensively, but finished with a triple-double line of 16 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists, despite his 4-13 shooting.
—Brett Pollakoff

Pacers 125, Knicks 91: This was simply a game where the Knicks didn’t show up, and the Pacers were ready to lay the wood to a team sitting ahead of them in the Eastern Conference standings.

New York managed just 18 first quarter points, and allowed the Pacers to shoot better than 61 percent in the opening period to take control from the very start. Indiana put up a ridiculous 74 points in the first half to lead by 30 at the break, and the game was never in doubt in the final two periods, where the Pacers built the lead as high as 39 points before it was all said and done.
—Brett Pollakoff

Nets 97, Bucks 94: Milwaukee led most of the way, then starting just before the start of the fourth quarter the Nets went on a 31-8 run and that propelled them to the win. The Bucks shot 2-of-18 during that stretch while Deron Williams was leading his team, on his way to 23 points.

It got interesting in the final 100 seconds — the Nets led by a dozen when a Larry Sanders dunk sparked a 9-0 run that brought the Bucks back. Monta Ellis was fouled taking a three with 2.4 seconds left and the Bucks down three. But he missed the first two free throws throw and the Bucks chances bounced off the rim with it. Brandon Jennings did have 31 points and 11 assists for Milwaukee, which falls below .500 now.

Heat 103, Hawks 90: It was a rough day for Josh Smith. After hearing his name in trade rumors all afternoon he got to go head-to-head with LeBron James at night. And LeBron torched him, scoring 19 points in the first half and keeping the Heat in the game while Chris Bosh played about as well as he did in the All-Star Game. At the other end Smith was 5-of-13 shooting and clanking his shots outside the pain but destroying the rim with dunks inside. Al Horford had 27 points (and looked far more All-Star worthy than Bosh).

Atlanta led by 10 entering the fourth quarter, but LeBron dished eight assists in the final 12 minutes and the Heat outscored the Hawks 40-17 in the final period to win. The Hawks finished the game with 21 turnovers and that is death against the Heat, who have won 8 in a row.

Grizzlies 88, Raptors 82: Rudy Gay returned to the Grindhouse and got a taste of what it’s like to be on the other side against the Memphis defense — Toronto shot just 25.7 percent in the first half, scoring just 32 points. But they were down just 11 because it was a brick house in Memphis. Early in the fourth quarter the Raptors went on a 17-7 run and we were tied up at 77-77 and we had a ballgame. But it wasn’t to be for the Raptors as Memphis’ Mike Conley sank the dagger with a three with less than two minutes to go to seal the win. Zach Randolph had 17 points and 17 boards because he’s really good.

Timberwolves 94, Sixers 87: This was a game the Sixers could have used Andrew Bynum, as the Timberwolves just owned the paint. Nikola Pekovic was the man for Minnesota with 27 points and 18 rebounds. Derrick Williams looked like the kind of guy you might want to trade for with 17 points. Philadelphia got the lead down to four a couple times in the final minutes, but Pekovic drew a foul once and got an offensive rebound the next to set up a Ricky Rubio three.

Pistons 105, Bobcats 99: Pistons fans got the win, but should be a little concerned about Brandon Knight, who tweaked his knee in the third quarter when Kemba Walker fell into him. He left the game of his own power, came back in, but eventually had to go to the locker room and there will be an MRI Thursday.

Charlotte was pesky in this one. Early in the fourth quarter Rodney Stuckey was attacking on the drive (he had 7 points in the fourth) and that helped he Pistons create a little space. Then Byron Mullens made consecutive threes and it was close again. Like 98-97 Pistons inside two minutes to go close.

The Piston passing was impressive much of those final two minutes. Greg Monroe found a cutting Jose Calderon who was fouled and hit is free throws. Later Monroe got the ball back on a pretty pick-and-roll with Will Bynum and Monroe scored two of his 10 fourth quarter points on the play (19 points, 7 boards for the game). Kemba Walker kept it close with some free throws (he finished with 24 points), but Calderon hit his free throws them made a steal after pressure was put on Walker and he turned it over late. He and Monroe were key at the end.

Warriors 108, Suns 98: Nothing helps stop a six game losing streak like playing Phoenix. Just ask he Warriors. Golden State had an early 7-0 run and pretty much led the entire way, although never really by that much (12 was the max). Golden State got big games from its stars — Klay Thompson had 28 points, Stephen Curry 20 points and 11 assists, and David Lee had 19 points and 11 rebounds. The Suns made runs late, led by Goran Dragic who had 20 points and 10 assists, but it was Curry who took control of the offense late and led a 10-2 Warriors run with a couple threes to seal the win.

Cavaliers 105, Hornets 100: This was a tight game throughout, until Kyrie Irving decided it was time to put it in the win column for his Cavaliers.

Irving finished with 35 points, but scored 20 of those in the fourth quarter while playing just over seven minutes. We’ve seen him do it a few times this season, and it’s getting to the point where as long as Cleveland keeps it tight heading into the final period, the team can expect some late-game heroics from Irving to make sure they come away with the victory.
—Brett Pollakoff

Mavericks 111, Magic 96: This was a close game through the second half until a 17-0 run in the fourth quarter sealed it up for Dallas. Brandan Wright scored six points in that run, It was a really balanced Dallas attack all night with six guys in double figures, but Shawn Marion and Elton Brand led the way with 17 a piece. It didn’t feel like it would be close at all after Dallas put up 42 points in the first quarter on 64 percent shooting, but they returned to earth with 17 points on 23.8 percent shooting in the second quarter. And we had a ballgame. Until the fourth. Arron Afflalo led the Magic with 21.

Celtics GM Danny Ainge: “Who doesn’t want Isaiah Thomas on their team?”

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Isaiah Thomas is the best and most popular Celtics player, leading his team to the No. 1 seed in the East and the Eastern Conference Finals — both significant steps forward for an up-and-coming team.

Yet, from the moment the Warriors landed the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, the talk about Thomas has been about his future with the Celtics: If/when they draft Markelle Fultz, will the Celtics want to pay Thomas max or near max money next summer? Do they want to be locked into four or five years with an undersized guard who will start that contract at age 29? Do they extend him this summer at a likely better price? Trade him?

Celtics GM Danny Ainge doesn’t understand all the talk. He certainly didn’t sound like someone looking to trade Thomas this summer speaking to Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald.

“All I’m saying is those are things I have to worry about that even I don’t like to think about. And I know that those are going to be difficult decisions at some point. But we want to keep Isaiah.

“All I know is that he’s had an amazing year, and who doesn’t want Isaiah Thomas on their team? Like, you’ve got to be kidding me…

“Why do the fans need to worry about how much money he makes?” he said. “I can understand if Isaiah and his wife and his agent are worried about that, but I don’t understand why that’s a conversation that needs to be had in the media.”

Two things I want to unpack from all that. First, that’s a “get off my lawn” take from Ainge that completely misses the mark with where sports fandom online has shifted. It’s not that he’s wrong at the core of his argument — we all should appreciate the season Thomas just had, Celtics’ fans in particular. Thomas is a joy to watch play and one of the good guys in the league on top of it. Name anyone in the NBA who has gotten more out of his natural abilities than Thomas — the man has put in the work to rise way past expectations. He needs to be appreciated and lauded for that.

But here’s the thing: Fans more than ever like to play GM, and they now have the tools to understand the tough financial decisions that fall on Ainge and others in his shoes. Let me explain it this way: The NBA Finals start June 1, but as a website, the NBC NBA page will draw way more traffic around the NBA Draft at the end of the month, then free agency in July will blow that away. Always does. Player movement — including both rumors of trades and talk of free agents and moves teams should make — is a much bigger draw than the games themselves. That’s not just the NBA, it’s true of the NFL and MLB and NHL and the Barclays’ English Premiere League and on down the line.

Second, Ainge may not like the speculation, but the questions are valid — he and the Celtics have some hard decisions coming up. At the core of them is the question of patience: Push their assets into the middle of the table now, get a couple of players ready to win next season, and make a run at LeBron James and the Cavaliers, or be patient and build to be better than Cleveland in three years (then sustain that for five or more years beyond that)? Ainge has been on the patient side of that equation from the start, and likely will be again — don’t expect him to trade that No. 1 pick or do anything but bring Thomas back. He can be a decision for the summer of 2018.

Then again, he has shopped Thomas before. Ainge is as good or better than any GM in the league of keeping his cards close to his vest, he’s impossible to read.

That said, the smart money is on him being patient. There’s no need to trade Thomas now, that’s the kind of rash overreaction that got the Knicks where they are over the last decade plus. Ainge can wait things out.

 

Adding Durant and thinking dynasty, it’s championship or bust for Warriors’ legacy

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The Golden State Warriors have been the best team in the NBA for three seasons now. That’s not my opinion, that’s LeBron James‘ — here is what he said after advancing to his seventh straight NBA Finals.

“That’s been the best team in our league the last three years, and they added an unbelievable player in Kevin Durant this year, so that makes it even more difficult.”

Adding Durant did make them more difficult to beat, but it also added to the Warriors’ burden — after a 67-win season and a historic 12-0 sweep into the Finals, the series that their season will be judged on is the one still to be played. They may as well be 0-0 because the second they added Durant it was championship or bust in terms of how they want to be seen.

Win and a pattern of dominance over years starts to come into focus, they will have a couple rings and beaten LeBron — who will go down as one of the all-time greats in his own right — to get them. Lose and this season will be viewed as another failure.

The Warriors want us to look back on them in 10-15 years and see a dynasty. They talked quietly about it last season during their chase for 73 wins — they saw that as a part of their resume as one of the greatest teams of all time. That’s part of the reason for the push last year. They, like LeBron, are chasing the ghosts of greatness at this point, and the Warriors had a Jordan record in their sights.

Regular season marks are nice, but in the NBA the great teams’ legacies are built around championships. Plural. If you’re going to go down as one of the dominant teams of an era — like the Shaq/Kobe Lakers, or Jordan’s Bulls, or the Celtics and Lakers of the ’80s, etc. — there needs to multiple rings on fingers. The Warriors have one, but their historic season unraveled last year when a combination of LeBron’s utter dominance, Draymond Green‘s suspension, Andrew Bogut’s injury (that one was underrated as an issue) all came together to snatch victory from their hands (and help cement LeBron’sa legacy).

The Warriors need the 2017 title for their legacy.

Not just the team, but the legacies of Warriors players will be impacted by this series. Injured or worn down or just in a shooting slump (or, most likely, a combination of the three), Stephen Curry struggled defensively and was outplayed by LeBron last Finals when the Warriors needed him. Curry has been fantastic through these playoffs, but like the team he will be judged as much or more for the games to come than the ones already played. Fair or not.  Can Green keep his head about him when LeBron pushes his buttons? Durant is back on the Finals stage, will he rise to that moment?

The championship or bust mentality is too often the prism through which fans — and media — view sports. It’s unfortunate because it clouds the joy of the game itself, the growth of players, of guys doing the unexpected and rising to heights we did not expect from them. Isaiah Thomas‘ brilliant season in Boston is not diminished because it didn’t end in a ring, to use one easy example. But there are hundreds more like that around the league. Championship or bust blinds people to the little things that can make the game joyous.

However, the Warriors have put themselves in a different place. They are chasing legends. They have the wins and the statistics to make a case, more importantly, they also have a style of play being copied (even by college teams) and is changing how the game is played. That is a hallmark greatness.

Now they need the rings to go with it. They need more than one, but it starts with this year’s title — it is championship or bust for them. Fair or not. If the Warriors want to be mentioned in the pantheon of all-time greats, it will take the 2017 title to be part of it.

Underdog Cavs insist they have plenty of bite for Finals

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — They are defending champions and decided underdogs.

The Cleveland Cavaliers, however, say they aren’t using any snubs to get ready for the NBA Finals.

Set for a third straight championship matchup against Golden State, the Cavs are ignoring the Las Vegas odds makers and others who don’t think they have a shot at beating Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant & Co.

Cavs coach Tyronn Lue doesn’t feel his team needs the underdog label for inspiration, saying being in the NBA Finals is “enough motivation alone.”

Kevin Love was reminded that Warriors forward Draymond Green said earlier this season that he wants to “destroy and annihilate” the Cavs in the Finals. Says Love said: “He wanted us, and he has us starting next Thursday.”

 

Check out Kawhi Leonard’s highlights from this past season (VIDEO)

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Russell Westbrook and James Harden were putting up the bigger numbers, they were drawing more attention. And while MVP is a regular season award, nobody has boosted their MVP credentials more in the postseason than Kawhi Leonard.

He had a really impressive regular season, too. Since we’re on a long break between games, enjoy the highlights of Leonard’s season. He may enter next season as the MVP favorite.