Boston Celtics v New York Knicks

PBT NBA Playoff Preview: Boston Celtics vs. New York Knicks

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SEASON RECORDS
New York:54-28, second seed in East
Boston: 41-40, seven seed in East (the odd number of games is due to the cancelled one the day after the Boston Marathon tragedy, it did not impact the standings)

SEASON SERIES
The Knicks won the regular season 3-1, but both these teams went through seasons within a seasons — for example, the Knicks were great at the beginning and end of the season but pedestrian in the middle — so you can’t read too much into previous meetings. These are different teams now.

KEY INJURIES
Boston: The two big ones are the two we have known about for a while — Rajon Rondo (right knee) and Jared Sullinger (back) are both out following surgery this season. Paul Pierce has a sore left ankle but he will play.

New York: It might be easier to list guys not banged up. Amare Stoudemire has been out following right knee surgery but may be back for this series. Tyson Chandler is battling a bulging disc in his neck but will play. Carmelo Anthony has a sore shoulder but will play. Kenyon Martin has knee issues but is expected play. Pablo Prigioni is questionable for Game 1 with a sprained right ankle. Marcus Camby is coming off a foot injury. Basically all the older Knicks players have some pains but most will play.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)

Knicks: offense 108.6 (3rd best in NBA), defense 103.5 (17th in NBA)
Celtics: offense 101.1 (20th in NBA), defense 100.4 (6th in NBA)

Differential: Knicks +5.1 (6th in NBA), Celtics +0.7 (14th in NBA)

THREE KEYS FOR BOSTON:

Jeff Green: Since Rajon Rondo went down a lot more responsibility for shot creation and points has fallen on Green. And in a very Jeff Green way he has been aggressive, attacking and brilliant at points; then passive and fading into the background in others. That can’t happen in this series. While the Celtics will play strong defense the Knicks will put up points and the Celtics need to find a burst of offense. In addition, Green is going to spend a lot of time guarding Carmelo Anthony and he needs to make the Knicks prolific scorer work for his points. There is no bigger X-factor in this series — Green needs to have a big series for Boston to win.

Run Knicks’ shooters off three-point line: When Jason Kidd, Steve Novak, J.R. Smith and the rest of the Knicks are draining threes at a high percentage they are virtually unbeatable. They can just simply outscore you. Boston has to finish its rotations, run guys off the line and make them dribble in and take two pointers. One of Boston’s great defensive strengths is making you think you have space to shoot when you really don’t, they need to do that and contest every three they can in this series.

Be consistent: It has been the Celtics biggest issue (outside injuries) this season — just when they seem to get things going and are in position to make a big move they get sloppy. Missed defensive rotations, missed shots, missed opportunities. Against a more talented Knicks team, the Celtics have no margin for error. They cannot have these slips. Do and it costs them a game and a series very fast.

THREE KEYS FOR NEW YORK:

Carmelo Anthony: As he goes, the Knicks go. This season he is getting MVP votes not because he won the league’s scoring title (28.7 points per game) but because he did the other things he didn’t used to do as much — share the ball, defend, play team basketball. Remember early in the season when he missed games with a broken finger hurt diving into the stands for a loose ball? That is the Carmelo Anthony that can lead the Knicks deep in the playoffs, but if he reverts under pressure to isolation basketball it plays into the Celtics’ hands.

Tyson Chandler: He’s listed here as the anchor and representative for the Knicks defense. Without Rajon Rondo on the court, the Celtics offense becomes less creative, and far more hit and miss. But you know Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett can score, and you know if Jeff Green decides to be aggressive that day he’s a force. Chandler needs to control the paint, take away the easy buckets inside, force the Celtics into jump shots (which ideally are contested). Iman Shumpert has to play big on Green and control him, not let him get hot.

Ball movement on offense: During their recent winning streak the Knicks were moving the ball on offense as well as any team in the NBA. They must keep this up in the playoffs. The Knicks don’t use that ball movement for as much traditional catch-and-shoot as you would think — Zach Harper at CBS cleverly called it “selfish ball movement” — but they do create space with passing to give guys room to work. The Celtics defense is predicated on overloading a side and taking away dribble penetration with easy kick-outs. If the ball sticks — and when the Knicks struggle it sticks on a side — then the Celtics defense can get set and shut them down.

OUTLOOK

This series is right for the Knicks in an epic hero kind of way — the Celtics have long been the Knicks tormentors. In Carmelo’s first playoff series as a Knick it was the Celtics that swept them away. The Knicks are on the precipice of their greatest season in more than a decade, they have the potential to make a deep playoff run. So it is fitting that to advance the protagonist must first conquer his old demons. The Knicks must slay the Celtics to move on.

To do that the Knicks have to prove that the changes we saw this season were not cosmetic, that the more cohesive offense will not come apart under the pressure of the Celtics defense. Because Boston will pressure New York and both Carmelo and J.R. Smith have a habit under pressure of reverting to more isolation, taking on more themselves — which is exactly what the Celtics want you to do and what their defense is designed to shut down.

Boston is going to grind. Paul Pierce is going to make big shots, Kevin Garnett is going to scowl, Avery Bradley is going to be tenacious and Doc Rivers is going to pull the right strings. This is going to be a physical, war of a series. The Knicks are going to have to play at both ends. Maybe most importantly, they have to take care of the ball and not give the Celtics easy buckets — conversely if the Celtics can get some turnovers they give themselves a real chance.

New York doesn’t get to coast, they are going to have to earn this series win.

PREDICTION:

Knicks in the full seven games.

Report: Stephen Curry still at 70 percent due to knee injury

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The Oklahoma City Thunder have overwhelmed the Golden State Warriors with their athleticism, their improved defense, and the shot making of stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The Thunder are doing a lot of things right and have lifted themselves up to an elite status.

But the Warriors have not pushed back against this. Not like we expected the defending champions and a 73-win team would. Draymond Green is a shell of himself, a -72 the last couple games the Thunder have gotten in his head and have him second guessing his every decision.

Then there is Stephen Curry, who is 13-of-37 shooting the past two games, 5-of-21 from three, and a -58. He hasn’t carried the Warriors as he did for stretches this season, and it is lingering issues from his knee injury that are partially holding him back, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

Curry has been a shell of himself – missing shots, throwing away passes, losing his dribble, and completely unable to prove that there’s Curry-esque agility in that knee. “He’s playing at 70 percent, at best,” a source close to Curry told The Vertical. Curry refuses to make excuses, but privately the Thunder see something – no explosion, no ability to make the bigs switching onto him pay a price. Twenty points on 19 shots Tuesday night bore no resemblance to the two-time NBA Most Valuable Player.

Curry missed a couple of weeks of play with a sprained MCL, but returned last round.

There have been flashes of that old Curry since his return — the monster fourth quarter and overtime against Portland in Game 4, or the third quarter of Game 2 against the Thunder — but what made Curry a back-to-back MVP was a sustained level of excellence, and that has gone away. He just can’t flip the switch and change a game right now the way he could for most of the past couple seasons.

You can tell the Thunder sense it — they are going right at him, attacking Curry’s defense knowing he can’t move well enough to handle their athletes. There is no mercy in the NBA and if teams sense a weakness they will exploit it — the Thunder sense that with Curry.

The way the Thunder are playing, a healthy Curry may not have made a difference, but you can bet the last couple games would not have been the same blowouts.

 

Report: David Fizdale to get second interview in Memphis, meet with owner

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David Fizdale has sat next to Erik Spoelstra in Miami for the past few seasons knowing he’s one of those top assistant coaches who was eventually going to get a shot in the big chair. The only question was where and when.

The answer may be Memphis right now.

Fizdale has a second interview coming with the Grizzlies, reports Marc Stein of ESPN.

This would be a good hire for Memphis (although whether he is better than Dave Joerger — the coach the Grizzlies fired when he asked if he could talk to Sacramento about their job — is certainly up for debate).

In Miami, Fizdale had won the trust and respect of a team full of players that had won rings. He was a guy they leaned on and went to. As an example, Fizdale worked hard with LeBron James on developing a post game; he was the guy LeBron trusted.

Fizdale deserves a shot, it sounds like Memphis may be that place.

Five things Thunder did to go from good to brink of reaching NBA Finals

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 16:  Billy Donovan of the Oklahoma City Thunder high fives Serge Ibaka #9 and Kevin Durant #35 during game one of the NBA Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on May 16, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Oklahoma City won 55 games this season — most years that win total would have it entering the playoffs considered a contender. Plus, the Thunder have Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, two top five players in the league. However, with the 73-win Warriors and 67-win Spurs ahead of them, the Thunder felt more like a good but flawed team doomed to an early exit and a summer of speculation.

Now the Thunder are one win away from knocking off both the Spurs and Warriors back-to-back.

What changed? What did we miss? Here are five things the Thunder are doing better now than they did all season, the things that have propelled them within one game of the NBA Finals.

1) Defense. The Thunder were an okay defensive team this season, allowing 103 points per 100 possessions they ranked 12th in the league. That got worse after the All-Star break when the Thunder allowed 105.7 points per 100 possessions, ranked 16th. Over the final month, they would show flashes of how they could play lock down defense, but they could not sustain it.

Now, this is a team that has held the feared Warriors’ offense to 88.9 points per 100 possessions Tuesday, and 98.1 in Game 3. It’s a change thanks to a focused energy and attitude, but also some technical steps as well. For one, they have become fluid at switching on picks — both on and off the ball — and they are communicating when they do. More importantly, they are smart in doing it, knowing when to go under or when to ignore the pick whatsoever. That combined with their athleticism lets them make up ground if they get a step behind, and their length allows them to get into passing lanes to create turnovers, and to challenge shots — the blocks and deflections have gotten in the heads of the Warriors, who have become tentative, second guessing themselves. Mostly the Thunder are playing with a sustained focus and energy on that end of the floor we haven’t seen ever. It has flummoxed the Warriors, who are rushing shots or trying to do things in isolation more than moving the ball.

Mostly the Thunder are playing with a sustained focus and energy on that end of the floor we haven’t seen from them before. It has flummoxed the Warriors, who are rushing shots or trying to do things in isolation more than moving the ball.

“I think you have to build up stamina for that,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said of the improved defensive energy and attention. “I think you have to have stamina to concentrate and focus and do what these guys do.”

2) Dion Waiters. Throughout his four NBA seasons, Waiters has never come close to playing as well, as consistently  as he has the past couple weeks. He’s like a different player. Waiters had a PER of 9.4 this season, the kind of number associated with being sent to the D-League. Credit to Donovan and the Thunder coaching staff, something has clicked with Waiters. Too often before he wanted to shoot like he was Russell Westbrook, now he has accepted the third (or fourth) man role on this team. His shot selection has improved, and with that he is knocking down his jumpers. Like the entire team (as noted above), his usually unfocused defense has suddenly become good almost every time down. He has become the third perimeter player the Thunder have needed for years.  With Waiters making plays, and more importantly accepting his role, the Thunder become that much harder to stop. The Warriors have not been able to.

3) Solving the Andre Roberson problem. The Golden State Warriors decided to treat Andre Roberson like they did Tony Allen from Memphis last playoffs — put a big on him (Andrew Bogut or Draymond Green), then have said big ignore him to stay near the basket to protect the rim. If Roberson wanted to shoot from the outside, the Warriors would let the notoriously poor shooter (31.1 percent from three this past season) have all the wide open shots he wanted. Memphis could never figure out how to deal with that and lost three straight to Golden State once this strategy was employed.

Billy Donovan made a great adjustment — he turned Roberson into a power forward/center, then surrounded him with shooters. This allows the active Roberson to set the pick for Westbrook (or whomever), then roll right down the lane to the basket for a dunk.  That and some backdoor cuts had Roberson scoring a career-high 17 points and giving the Thunder the support they need around their big stars in Game 4.

“It’s funny because after Game 2 people were saying to me ‘is this guy even going to play anymore?’” Donovan said. “Andre’s a good basketball player, and I think one of the things that go missing with him is he makes winning plays and he’s a winning player. There are a lot of things he can do, offensive rebounds and slashing to the basket, I have confidence in him shooting the basketball.”

4) They are one team that could play small and run with Golden State. The Warriors small-ball lineup was so feared around the league it earned the nickname The Death Lineup. It killed teams. Nobody could keep up the scoring machine that was the Warriors going small.

Until the Thunder went small in Game 3 and ran right past the death lineup (which was -22 for the game). The Thunder are the one team with the depth of athleticism to go small with the Warriors and hang, but this lineup had been destroyed by the Spurs so it was a risk to roll it out again. It worked this time around — the Thunder become so much faster and guys like Westbrook and Durant are impossible to stop in transition. The real key is despite going small the Thunder defense didn’t suffer —  Serge Ibaka (or Steven Adams), plus guys like Durant have done a fantastic job protecting the rim.

“It’s not about what is or is not going to work, sometimes you just got to put stuff out there based on teams. You’ve got to be willing to take some risks and do that…” Donovan said postgame

“Sometimes you’ve got to evaluate things within the series you’re playing against. So, why were the numbers bad? And was there any way with adjustments could we make those numbers better.”

Turns out, yes there was.

5) Billy Donovan has been fantastic. Donovan went toe-to-toe with Gregg Popovich, and now Steve Kerr, and it is the NBA rookie who is making the right adjustments. Like the small ball lineup, or using Roberson like a center.

More than that, Donovan has gotten buy-in from his players. They trust and are playing the system. The Thunder were never this focused and willing to sacrifice — Durant and Westbrook both fought staggering their minutes in the past, the defense was unfocused, and Waiters did whatever it is Waiters wanted to do. Donovan has solved all those problems, and it all starts with the players buying what Donovan is selling. After a season where he had to learn on the job the hard way — because Monte Williams (the tragic death of this wife) and Maurice Cheeks (injury) were taken off his bench for long stretches — Donovan has figured things out. He’s getting the kind of buy in Scott Brooks never seemed to have.

And with that, Donovan and the Thunder are within a game of the NBA Finals.

Watch Russell Westbrook drop 36 on Golden State in Oklahoma City win

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Once again, Russell Westbrook was the force of nature the Warriors could not solve.

The athletic point guard forced turnovers, threw it down in transition, and drove right past Stephen Curry or  was guarding him. The result was 36 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists — Westbrook’s first triple double of these playoffs.

“He’s got such great force and great will,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said after the Thunder’s Game 4 win. “And he’s really a high IQ basketball player, he sees a lot of things going on out there… As a coach, you have great respect and admiration for a guy who plays the game that hard and gives to our team what he gives.”

He helped give them a win that has the Thunder on the verge of a return to the NBA Finals.