Three things we learned Thursday: No Blake Griffin, no problem for Clippers. Yet.

1 Comment

We know you were out finishing — okay, who are we kidding, you were starting — your holiday shopping, so you may not have been watching the NBA. Here are the big takeaways from Thursday night around the league.

1) Clippers beat Spurs without Blake Griffin, but if Chris Paul is out a while things will change. It’s an annual tradition with the Clippers — no, not Blake Griffin getting injured, but the “how much trouble are the Clippers in without him” discussion. There’s a sense the Clippers will slide, but they adjust their game to run a lot more DeAndre Jordan/Chris Paul pick-and-roll — a dangerous combination — and it works. (Which leads to the stupid “are the Clippers better off without Griffin?” columns, but we’re a few weeks away from that.)

It worked against the Spurs Thursday night — 54.3 percent of Los Angeles’ possessions involved the pick-and-roll, and the Clippers used their athletic advantages to roll the Spurs early then hold on for a 106-101 win. By athletic advantages, I mean plays like this.

Los Angeles also got a monster night from the bench. Their all-bench lineup of Raymond Felton, Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers, Wesley Johnson, and Marreese Speights were on the court for 18 minutes together, including much of the fourth quarter, they moved the ball brilliantly, hit their shots, scored 41 points and were a +4. Considering how devastating the Clippers starting five is (when healthy) if the Clippers get this kind of bench play they become difficult to beat.

It’s games like this, snapping a five-game Spurs winning streak, that make you think the Clippers could use that athleticism to beat the Spurs in a seven-game, second-round playoff series this year.

If healthy. Which became an issue in the fourth quarter Thursday when Chris Paul was chasing Tony Parker around a pick and pulled up with a tweaked hamstring, but it doesn’t appear too serious.

The Clippers can hold their ground for 4-6 weeks without Griffin, but without Paul that dynamic would change quickly. Raymond Felton had his best game as a Clipper Friday and they held off the Spurs, but that is not a sustainable trend. I’d be shocked if CP3 played Friday night against Dallas (that’s a game the Clippers can still win without him). After that it’s the Lakers on Christmas Day. Hamstrings can be tricky, they linger sometimes (and if guys come back to fast they re-aggravate them), no doubt the Clippers need to be cautious. But if Paul misses more than a couple of games, well, no Paul or Griffin would lead to a rough stretch in Los Angeles.

2) Celtics win fourth straight (three on road), may be coming together. In the latest PBT Podcast (previewing the Christmas Day games), Dan Feldman and I had the same reaction to the Boston season: They haven’t been bad, but I thought they’d be a little better than this.

Maybe they are, maybe it’s just coming together a little slower than we expected. The Celtics beat the Pacers 109-102 on the road Thursday night, giving Boston a sweep on a three-game road trip, and Boston has now won four in a row. They have done it with defense — in those four games, they have allowed just 94.7 points per 100 possessions, second best in the NBA in that stretch (for the season Boston has allowed 103.7 per 100, which is middle of the pack).

Boston has shown versatility in lineups (which we thought would be a strength entering the season), and Brad Stevens seems to be finding some combinations he likes. Ones that defend, ones that can be scrappy, just not score. Who plays well with Isaiah Thomas (28 points the win over Indiana)? Who can play well with Al Horford? How do all the puzzle pieces fit together? Stevens is still playing mad scientist, trying different combinations rather than just locking into a set nine-man rotation. It may have meant fewer wins in November and December, but the Celtics want the wins to come in late April and May, and Stevens is learning who he can trust there.

Boston is, to me, the clear third best team in the East, and one that could make things very interesting in the second round against Toronto in the postseason. If we get that far. Still a lot of basketball between now and then. But the Celtics seem to be thinking big picture, and that picture starting to come into focus.

3) Shaq got his jersey retired by the Heat, and it was a very Shaq event. Miami gave the man a diesel truck. It was a larger than life event for a larger than life man and personality. Who cares if Shaq only spent a couple of years in South Beach, he was key to that 2006 NBA title, he remains loved in South Beach, and if they want to honor the man they should do it. And they did, in the most Shaq of ways.

How do you like “The Process” now? Sixers eliminate Heat, advance to second round

4 Comments

It felt inevitable.

Not “The Process” from the start. There were some severe downs before the ups.

Not this first playoff series against Miami from the start, because it felt even… until Game 3 when Joel Embiid returned in his mask and tipped the scales.

No, it was Game 5’s result felt inevitable as it unfolded. Not because Philadelphia won the previous game in Miami and could close it out at home. Not because the Sixers have the two biggest talents in the series in Ben Simmons and Embiid.

Rather, Game 5 felt inevitable because the Sixers got better looks all night long. They got them with ball movement, with player movement that created mismatches or clean jumpers. It was tied 46-46 at the half because Philadelphia just missing its good looks while the Heat were struggling with hands in their face all night. Philadelphia shot 38.1 percent in the first half overall and were 2-of-12 from three.

In the third quarter, it all changed.

Philadelphia went on an early 9-0 run, shot 50 percent as a team for the quarter, all while continuing to play defense and get stops. The Sixers won the third 34-20 and held on through Miami rallies in the fourth to take the game comfortably, 104-91.

With the win, Philadelphia wins the series 4-1 and advances to the second round, where they will face either Boston or Milwaukee (Boston leads the series 3-2).

They did it behind 27 from J.J. Redick, who knocked down five threes. Embiid had 19 points and 12 rebounds, Simmons had 14 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists. However, it was the defense that held the Miami to 38.6 percent shooting overall and 16-of-31 from three within eight feet of the basket that won the game for Philly.

This young Sixers team learned lessons in this first round, and maybe the biggest was how to adapt the physicality of the playoffs, and keeping your cool while things don’t go your way.

“I thought we withstood the physicality of the Heat,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “They’re a great organization. They came to mean it, we knew they wouldn’t go away easily, and we had to have that physical element to match.”

They matched that physicality, but what they had was talent that could step up.

They also savored the moment. Midway through the fourth, up comfortably and still knocking down shots, the young Sixers were reveling in the deafening crowd in the Wells Fargo Center. Philadelphia was reveling in success after years of struggling through the process — the players and fans wanted to start that party midway through the fourth.

However, Heat have no chill and no quit in them, they went on a 10-0 in the fourth quarter, not-so-coincidentally after Sixers fans started chanting, “We want Boston!”

But when it mattered the Heat couldn’t get stops — the Sixers talent showed through. Redick hit threes. Embiid owned the paint. Simmons did a little bit of everything.

It was a moment of revelry in Philadelphia. One years in the making — and maybe the first in many years of future celebrations on that court.

Sixers players douse Brett Brown, present him with bell after closing Heat (VIDEO)

2 Comments

The Philadelphia 76ers are moving on. Let’s just try to process that for a moment.

After beating the Miami Heat on Tuesday night, 104-91, this iteration of the Sixers experienced their first playoff series win together. It was also the first series win for coach Brett Brown as the man in charge of an NBA team.

As such, players gathered in the locker room after the win to hear Brown speak about the win, and about how the team had more to give and to learn as they moved forward together in the playoffs.

When Brown concluded his speech, he tried to hand off the victory bell to JJ Redick. As soon as Redick received it, he bestowed the honor of the bell right back upon Brown.

That’s when teammates showered Brown with whatever they had nearby, and Brown rung the bell.

Man, what a moment.

Marcus Smart returns, helps Celtics win Game 5 over Bucks

1 Comment

Marcus Smart returned to the Boston Celtics after suffering a thumb injury earlier in the year, and boy was it just in time.

The Celtics guard came off the bench, doing what he does best: attacking opposing guards, grabbing rebounds, and making hustle plays for his squad. Smart thoroughly annoyed the Milwaukee Bucks, and as Giannis Antetokounmpo failed to make a push in the second half (and as Khris Middleton‘s shooting slowly deteriorated) it was Boston who came out with a win in Game 5, 92-87.

Milwaukee’s offense failed to show up early. According to NBA TV, it was the second-lowest halftime total for the Bucks this season, and the away team scored just 37 points at the break. Milwaukee struggled mightily as a team, shooting just 21 percent from 3-point range. Despite the issues, both Antetokounmpo and Middleton had 11 points by half.

Boston’s attack was balanced, with nine players scoring in the first half but none reaching double figures. Smart was effective off the bench, playing 12 minutes in the first half. Smart’s presence was felt elsewhere on the floor as well; in those minutes he racked up two blocks, two rebounds, and two assists.

The Celtics stalled to start the third quarter, at times going several minutes between baskets. The intensity level was still high, particularly during one tussle with 9:33 left in the third. Eric Bledsoe and Terry Rozier got into a bumping match on the baseline away from the ball, resulting in one player getting pushed into an official. Bledsoe earned a Flagrant 1 for his efforts, and Rozier was assessed a technical.

Milwaukee began to battle back on surprising baskets by Shabazz Muhammad. The former Minnesota Timberwolves wing dropped two 3-pointers to help the Bucks make a run at the Celtics all the way into the fourth quarter.

The critical play of the game came with 80 seconds left. With the shot clock winding down, Al Horford was allowed by officials to shoot a long jumper. The refereeing crew didn’t blow the whistle, and Boston took a second possession after a backtip.

Then, with 28 seconds left as the Bucks were trying to steal or foul the Celtics, came the play Boston fans had been waiting for from Smart. At first it appeared Milwaukee had shot at a turnover as they hustled Smart to the floor on a trap. Thinking quickly, Smart leapt on the lost ball, flipped over, and sent a pass to a wide open Horford for the basket, all but sealing the game.

Milwaukee tried to play the foul game in the final minute or so, but weren’t able to come up with a win. Antetokounmpo finished with just 16 points and Middleton with 23. Horford led the Celtics with 22 points, 14 rebounds, and three assists.

Boston now leads the series, 3-2, as they head back to Milwaukee for Game 6 on Thursday.

Meek Mill gets out of jail, takes helicopter to 76ers-Heat, rings bell pregame

6 Comments

Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid had been one of the most notable NBA players leading the charge for the #FreeMeekMill movement. The rapper Meek Mill, a Philadelphia native and Sixers fan, has been incarcerated for violating the terms of his probation multiple times.

At the heart of the movement to free Meek Mill is the idea of comparative justice, that he has been unfairly targeted because of his race as an absorber of punishment from the penal system despite it being a decade since he committed his crime. People from Embiid to New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft have made their voices heard on the subject.

Today, Meek Mill was released from prison and was sent a special gift: the opportunity to fly via helicopter, provided by 76ers minority owner Michael Rubin, to Game 5 between the Sixers and Miami Heat.

When he arrived at the game, the rapper rung the ceremonial bell before tip-off.

Not a couple of hours fresh out of the joint.