Celtics forced Game 5, but can they really win it?

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J.R. Smith said that if he had played in Game 4, this series would have been a sweep. Argue that if you want — quantum physics tells us there are alternate universes where he plays and the Knicks both and lose.

We all care about this timeline, where Smith is back for Game 5 at Madison Square Garden Wednesday after serving a one-game suspension for throwing an elbow to Jason Terry’s jaw. And his return to play in a spot he’s comfortable is one of several reasons to expect the Knicks, already up 3-1 in the series, will win Game 5 handily and close it out, then get some rest waiting for the Pacers and Hawks to figure out who is better.

Boston had success in Game 4 because they forced the Knicks to become one dimensional — a whole lot of Carmelo Anthony and not much else, then Brandon Bass did a good job of making life difficult for ‘Melo (10-of-35 shooting). On the other end of the floor, Jeff Green and Jason Terry stepped up with good offensive games for Boston.

The blueprint remains the same for Boston, it’s just going to be a lot harder to pull off Wednesday.

With Smith back on the court, the Knicks will have other scoring options, for one. Also, expect a better game from Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler, playing the pick-and-roll and providing more challenges for the Celtics defense. The bottom line is role players tend to play better on their home court and the Knicks become harder to guard when those guys are comfortable.

Along the same lines, it’s harder to picture the inconsistent Green and Terry stepping up again on the road in Game 5. It can happen, it’s just less likely.

The Celtics are going to have to survive an early push from the Knicks — they will come out with some fire early, trying to put this thing away. Boston’s offense has been anemic most of this series and they are not going to be able to dig out of a big hole.

It’s not impossible; the Celtics could win this game. You know Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett will not go quietly, you know Boston can defend. They won Game 4 with a lot of pride and that isn’t going away.

But the Knicks are the better team in this series and I expect we’ll see that from the opening tip Wednesday night.

Donovan Mitchell tells Thunder fans, Jazz teammates Utah not returning to Oklahoma City this season

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The Jazz blew a 25-point second-half lead in Game 5 last night, extending their series with the Thunder. Up 3-2, the Jazz are still in control. They can close out in Game 6 tomorrow in Utah. Blow that, and they must return to Oklahoma City for Game 7 Sunday.

But Utah rookie Donovan Mitchell is making it abundantly clear he doesn’t plan to do that.

Gabe Ikard of The Franchise 107.7:

Jake Edmonds of KUTV:

A confident proclamation that rallies his team or youthful exuberance run amok?

The narrative will be decided after Game 6. That’s just how this is done.

Report: Grizzlies moving toward keeping J.B. Bickerstaff as coach

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From the moment Robert Pera opted to retain control of the Grizzlies and end a prolonged ownership saga, it seemed interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff would remain Memphis’ coach.

Lo and behold…

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

Bickerstaff did a decent job before the Grizzlies started tanking. But that was a small a sample, and his prior work as Rockets interim coach was uninspiring.

To be fair to Bickerstaff, those were both difficult situations. He’s an experienced assistant who might be ready for this challenge.

To be less fair to Bickerstaff, this looks like Memphis taking the cheap route. The Grizzlies didn’t appear to conduct much of a coaching search, if any. Nor has Bickerstaff been mentioned with other openings. It probably won’t cost as much to hire him as it would a more-established option.

Memphis seems to be operating under the belief that a healthy Mike Conley and Marc Gasol will right the ship next season. And they might. But given the age and injury history of those two, I wouldn’t assume they stay healthy and productive all season. Even if they do, they’d have to carry an underwhelming supporting cast – with limited room for upgrade this summer – in a deep Western Conference.

The Grizzlies want Bickerstaff, who’d be a first-time non-interim head coach, leading that team trying to win now? That doesn’t seem like the right risk-reward balance – at least until considering his salary, and even then.

Rumor: 76ers increasingly confident about signing LeBron James

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LeBron James-76ers rumors have been mainstream for the better part of the year.

And they’re not going anywhere.

Marc Stein of The New York Times in his newsletter:

I now fully understand why whispers about the Philadelphia 76ers and their growing behind-the-scenes confidence that they can woo LeBron to Philly this summer are getting louder.

Why shouldn’t they be increasingly confident? Led by Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, the 76ers have already won a playoff series. The Cavaliers are mired in a tight first-round series with the Pacers, and LeBron’s supporting cast has mostly stunk.

This has the makings of LeBron’s previous free agencies – when he left barren Cleveland for Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh with the Heat in 2010, when he left aging Miami for Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love with the Cavaliers in 2014. Whatever motivations and narratives attached to LeBron’s decisions, he has left sinking teams for better-positioned ones.

The 76ers are good enough to fit that. They also have the cap flexibility to acquire him without sacrificing roster strength.

That LeBron has positioned himself as a mentor to Simmons – who shares an agent, Rich Paul, with LeBron – would only make signing with Philadelphia easier. LeBron could sell the narrative of teaching and grooming Simmons. LeBron, who cares about his legacy, must explain why he’s again leaving his hometown team in a way that won’t alienate everyone – not easy considering his homecoming message upon his return. Working first-hand with his protégé would look understandable, maybe even commendable.

All that said, growing confidence could be going from a 1% chance to a 10% chance. That’d be a 10-fold increase while leaving Philadelphia a big underdog.

LeBron’s free agency is still a huge unknown – including, at least in part, to LeBron himself. But I believe he has already started to consider options, even if he hasn’t made up his mind. And when that happens, signs could emerge behind the scenes. Perhaps, the 76ers have a read on those.

Or maybe they’re seeing what we’re all seeing: The 76ers are rising while the Cavs are just trying to keep their heads above water. Which situation would LeBron choose?

Victor Oladipo on his final shot: “It was a goaltend”

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Ultimately, the NBA’s Last Two Minute Report will back up Victor Oladipo — it was a goaltend.

With the score tied 95-95 and just six seconds left in the game Wednesday night, Oladipo attacked LeBron James in isolation, and like so many before him thought he was past LeBron only to have a chase down block from behind end his bid — except video replays shows Oladipo laid the ball off the backboard a fraction of a second before LeBron blocked it. That makes it a goaltend, a defender cannot block a shot that has already touched the backboard. Check out the slow-mo video.

The officials didn’t call it that way on the court, and the play is only eligible for video review if a goaltend is called (to be fair to the officials, that was an incredibly close play that is very difficult to call in real time). From there, LeBron went on to hit the dramatic game-winning three that gave Cleveland the win and a 3-2 series lead.

After the game, Oladipo and his teammates were pissed about the no-call.

“I got a step on him,” Oladipo said via the Associated Press. “I felt like I even got grabbed on the way to the rim, tried to shoot a layup, it hit the backboard, then he blocked it. It was a goaltend. It’s hard to even speak on it. It just sucks, honestly. It really sucks. Even though we fought our way back, we tied the game up, that layup was huge.

“Give him credit where credit is due. The three was big-time. Definitely huge. But who’s to say they even run that play? We don’t know what happens. It’s unfortunate. It really sucks that they missed that.”

LeBron didn’t see it that way.

“Of course I didn’t think it was a goaltend. I try to make plays like that all the time and I mean he made a heck of a move, got me leaning right and he went left and I just tried to use my recovery speed and get back up there and make a play on the ball. And I was able to make a play.”

We’ll see what the Last Two Minute Report says, but to my eyes that was a goaltend, it clearly comes off the backboard.

That call is also not why Indiana lost. If Pacers’ fans want to place blame, Oladipo going 2-of-15 on the night was a bigger issue. Or Darren Collison having an off night and going 1-of-5 from the floor. Or maybe it’s just the fact that LeBron James is the best player in the game and can drop 44 on the Pacers — including the three that may well have made the goaltend moot anyway — and Indiana can’t stop it. One call late does not by itself decide a 48-minute game.

But it was a goaltend.