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Three things we learned on Thursday: Boston improving, not at Cleveland’s level yet

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It’s the last “three things we learned” of 2016, we tried to make it a good one.

1) Boston is improving, finding its groove, but there is still a gap to Cleveland. Boston players may have tried to deny this was a measuring stick game in the run up to it, but this was a measuring stick game. After stumbling to start the season, the Celtics had won six of seven and looked more like the team we expected before the season — one on par with Toronto in the East’s second tier.

It didn’t look like that early on Thursday night. For three quarters, this was a blowout, with the Cavaliers offense carving up what has been lately a solid Celtics defense. Kyrie Irving was the head of the snake and finished with 32.

Cleveland was up 15 early in the fourth and seemed to be cruising in for the win before Boston started a comeback that eventually cut the lead all the way to one. Boston’s fourth quarter run was sparked by Marcus Smart/Tyler Zeller pick-and-rolls, which the Cleveland bench — specifically Channing Frye — struggled to stop when he had to switch. This was also an efficient night from Isaiah Thomas, who finished with 31 points on 8-of-13 shooting (he got to the free throw line 13 times).

Boston is showing signs of life, but they are not at Toronto’s level yet — and they are certainly not at Cleveland’s. Maybe the Celtics can get to a spot where they are a threat to the Raptors in the second round of the playoffs, the fourth quarter comeback shows that kind of spark, but the first three quarters reminds us of the real pecking order in the East.

2) Russell Westbrook gets ejected, and with it dreams of a Thunder comeback died. Oklahoma City Thunder was already down by 16 points to Memphis when Russell Westbrook lost it midway through the third quarter and got sent to the showers early. Meaning OKC was well on its way to racking up a loss. The ejection just killed the idea of a comeback, and the Thunder ended up getting beat by 34, 114-80.

The Oklahoma City Thunder star was ejected with 6:41 remaining in the third quarter after complaining during a trip to the free-throw line for the Memphis Grizzlies.

The first technical came after Andre Roberson fouled Memphis’ JaMychal Green — officials said after the game Westbrook was arguing about whether the ball had touched the rim before the foul, and he was hit with his first technical by Brian Forte for not relenting when the official said the discussion was over. That continued through the ensuing free throws, and finally, the officials had enough and gave Westbrook a second.

You can be sure a fine is coming for Westbrook, not for the ejection but his postgame comments.

As noted above, that was the end of any comeback, the Thunder have no offense to speak of without Westbrook on the court. He finished with 21 points, 5 rebounds, and no assists, but he is still averaging a triple double.

3) Another ugly second half shows how teams have adjusted to Lakers, and they have not progressed. That fast 10-10 start for the Lakers seems so very long ago. They have gone 2-14 since, a slide that began with some injuries but has morphed into much more than that — and there is a lot of frustration in the locker room. The Lakers have played slightly better of late as they have gotten healthy, but it’s hard to see a path to a lot of victories — they don’t have the defense, and they don’t have easy answers to how the league has adapted to them.

The latest evidence of that was Dallas — with no Dirk Nowitzki all game and no Andrew Bogut most of the second half — blowing out the Lakers after the break and winning 101-89 in Los Angeles.

On defense, the Lakers just do not have answers for teams that can attack with a good pick-and-roll and have athletes who can space the floor. Coach Luke Walton was frustrated with his team’s focus and effort after the game, and it’s hard to argue with him.

That said, the Lakers problems on defense or more than effort and focus — I’m not sure they have enough plus defenders out there to make a difference consistently anyway. They certainly could be better with more effort, but do they have the players to get the job done?

On offense, you don’t see the ball movement — or movement off the ball — needed to handle the pressure and ball denial tactics they are seeing. Try to pressure a good offense like defenses now pressure the Lakers and that offense responds with strong weak-side action, counters that open things up, and the ball moves to get good shots away from the pressure. The Lakers aren’t doing that, and they are not a team loaded with guys whose instinct is to pass like that anyway.

There is real frustration in Los Angeles with this team’s progress — from the players, the coaching staff, and the fans. But welcome to rebuilding — it’s a frustrating process. One that is long, has setbacks, and is just difficult all around. It takes time and patience. I think Charles Barkley may be right that despite all that talent the Lakers do not have a Top 10 player on that roster, something they will eventually need to get to contend for another banner. However, this core of potentially good to very good players — D'Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram in particular — have a ways to go before that kind of elite free agent thinks “I want to play with them.”

Bonus thing we learned Thursday: Dan D’Antoni gets it. Dan D’Antoni is the brother of Mike, a former NBA assistant coach who now coaches college ball at Marshall. But he gets it. And he shot down an old-school, pound-it-inside reporter beautifully.

Close-knit Pacers’ bond gets tested with season on the line

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) The Indiana Pacers have been winning together, losing together and fighting together all season.

Now they need to demonstrate their resilience once more as they try to save their season by rebounding from an emotional loss to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“Nobody thought we’d be in this situation,” Victor Oladipo said, referring to the playoffs. “It’s important for us to stick together now because we’ve seen where it can go, where it can take us and it’s great.”

The immediate problem is recent history doesn’t bode well for the underdog Pacers, who trail 3-2 with Game 5 set for Friday in Indianapolis.

Cleveland swept Indiana in the first round last year, winning four games by a record low 16 total points. James has won 10 straight close-out games and has never lost a first-round series. Indiana, meanwhile, is trying to reach the conference semifinals for the first time since 2014.

But the Pacers don’t care about stats, projections or conventional wisdom – as they’ve proven repeatedly this season.

Following last summer’s Paul George trade, Indiana seemed bound for the draft lottery. Instead, general manager Kevin Pritchard cobbled together a rare combination of proven, often overlooked veterans, emerging stars, good shooters and willing defenders.

It turned out to be a perfect fit.

Indiana won 48 games, six more than it did with George last season, and is a win away from forcing the three-time defending Eastern Conference champs into a decisive seventh game.

Cleveland has learned one lesson the hard way: The fifth-seeded Pacers won’t go away. They won 12 times after facing double-digit deficits and eight times after trailing by 15 or more during the regular season.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise Indiana has erased double-digit deficits in four straight game and wound up taking the lead or having a chance to win late in all four in this series.

“That team does not quit,” James said, moments after his buzzer-beating 3-pointer gave Cleveland a 98-95 win to salvage a win Wednesday after Pacers wiped out a 12-point second half to deficit to tie the score in the final minute.

Playing hard until the final buzzer has become the norm for these Pacers.

And they’re savoring every precious second, too.

Nate McMillan recently called this one of the most enjoyable seasons he’s had as a head coach because he knows what he’ll get every day – energy from Oladipo and Lance Stephenson, steadiness from Darren Collison and Corey Joseph, leadership from Thaddeus Young and Bojan Bogdanovic and an eagerness to develop from Myles Turner and other young players.

With each player embracing their role, the Pacers have formed a cohesive bond.

Six players actually approached Pritchard before the trade deadline and pleaded with the GM not to make any moves because they wanted to close out this season together. Pritchard said it a first for him, and kept the team intact.

“It kind of is like a college team bond,” said Young, one of the six players who approached Pritchard. “Typically you have a lot of NBA teams that don’t bond as well as you do in college when you’re living with each other and you’re around each other all the time. You know in the NBA, you spend time with your family, things like that.

“This team we all hang out together, we go to dinner together on the road. We do everything together.”

The difference has shown.

After enduring an early and sometimes uneven learning curve early this season, the Pacers finally got in sync in early January and played better than anyone, perhaps even McMillan or Pritchard could have anticipated.

From Jan. 6 through the end of the regular season, they went 29-15 and allowed 101.3 points per game and didn’t lose more than two in a row.

They moved up three spots in the Eastern Conference postseason pecking order and headed into their latest round against James having won three of the four regular-season matchups. The Pacers even routed the Cavs on their home court in Game 1.

Since then, though, the series has been all-out slugfest and James has gotten the knockout blow in three times.

Now, with their season on the line, the Pacers need to provide a unified front one more time Friday night just to keep this season alive.

They’re ready.

“Sure, we’ve still got something to prove. No one believes we can beat Cleveland,” Bogdanovic said. “It’s about trust in what we’ve got in each other.”

More AP NBA coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Report: J.B. Bickerstaff agrees to three-year deal to coach Memphis Grizzlies

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We heard rumblings that the Memphis Grizzlies were looking to remove the interim distinction from J.B. Bickerstaff’s title and make him acting head coach. Now, the team has made their move.

According to a report from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Memphis agreed to a three-year deal with Bickerstaff on Thursday, making him the new head coach of the team.

Bickerstaff, 39, was previously the associate head coach of the Grizzlies under David Fizdale. Fizdale was fired in November, and Bickerstaff took over as interim head coach.

This has been a long time coming for Bickerstaff, who was a longtime assistant coach in Charlotte, Minnesota, and Houston. Bickerstaff took over the Rockets job in 2015 when the team fired head coach Kevin McHale.

The task ahead of Bickerstaff will not be easy. Next season he will get Mike Conley back from injury, but the roster is still in the process of being rebuilt and Marc Gasol, 33, seems like constant trade bait. The Western Conference is tough, but finally Bickerstaff gets his shot at the big job on a permanent basis.

Enes Kanter helps pardon Thunder fans who left playoff game early (VIDEO)

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Enes Kanter may be leaning toward opting in to his $18 million player option with the New York Knicks this summer (I would) but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t still have love for fans in Oklahoma City.

In a video posted to social media on Thursday, Oklahoma City mayor David Holt and Kanter appeared together to give pardons to the Thunder fans who left early during the team’s Game 5 win over the Utah Jazz on Wednesday.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony staved off elimination with their win against Utah, giving the Jazz a 3-2 series lead as they head back to Salt Lake City on Friday night.

Kanter, who played for the Thunder from 2015-2017, says he is still friendly with many of the players on the Oklahoma City roster. Kanter also played for the Jazz for the first three-and-a-half years of his career.

Via Twitter:

I personally don’t understand leaving a game early. Your car is trapped underground or is parked six miles away on some back alley, you’re not leaving any game quickly. The train is going to be jam packed and will sit at the stadium station for like 28 more minutes after you board, no matter when you board.

Don’t leave games early, folks. Try to haggle with the people working the concession stands to give you another soft pretzel for free. Get your money’s worth.

Giannis Antetokounmpo slashes Celtics, forces Game 7 in Boston

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The Milwaukee Bucks needed a big game from Giannis Antetokounmpo on Thursday night. Boy, did they get it.

After a disappointing in Game 5 in Boston, Antetokounmpo was fearsome in his return to the Bradley Center for Game 6. The Bucks were able to keep their defensive intensity up, and we got the game most of us expected from Antetokounmpo in a return to his home court: complete domination on the biggest stage.

The game started out much the way we’ve seen in this series — sort of kooky. It was another low-scoring affair as the first half closed with Milwaukee leading, 49-38. The Celtics couldn’t get things rolling offensively, and were saved by baskets in the paint in the first quarter. Boston scored just 15 points in the second period, saving themselves with makes from beyond the 3-point line.

The real story of the game came in the second half. Antetokounmpo would not let up from the gas, scoring both as the Bucks center and on the break. Milwaukee’s franchise player matched up against Al Horford all night long, and the battle between the two was intense. Both seemed to want to muscle each other, and for different stretches they both got the better of each other.

Boston battled back, eventually tying the game at 61-61 with 4:21 to go in the third. The Celtics’ charge was led by Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Horford, all three of whom allowed Boston to make up a 14-point deficit. Boston played carefully, allowing their young wings to do the work. Despite not having a fastbreak point until late in the third, they also didn’t have their first turnover of the second half until there was little more than three minutes to go in the same quarter. Antetokounmpo, who couldn’t let Boston’s run continue after the tie, turned on the jets to close the quarter and Milwaukee entered the fourth period with a 9-point lead they would never cede.

The fourth quarter was much of the same, with the matchup between Antetokounmpo, Horford, and Horford’s backup in Aron Baynes. Several times, Antetokounmpo ran full speed after starting with the ball on the opposite free-throw line, going right at either Horford or Baynes. But the Bucks star wasn’t completely selfish. He managed to stave off tunnel vision, at times finding teammates on his spins to the bucket.

A lot of talk was made about Antetokounmpo’s poor performance in Game 5, a career playoff-low of 16 points on just 10 field goal attempts. The Greek Freak made sure that didn’t happen again, finishing the game with 31 points on 13-of-23 shooting, adding 14 rebounds, four assists, and two steals.

Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton were amped up as well. Both finished with 16 points, and as a team the Bucks scored 25 points on the break, with 50 points coming from the painted area, topping Boston in both regards.

For the Celtics, Tatum led the way with 22 points on six-of-14 shooting, adding three rebounds and three assists. Terry Rozier continued his playoff emergence, scoring 18 points while nabbing seven rebounds and dishing out five assists. Boston shot just 27.8 percent from the 3-point line.

Game 7 now heads back to Massachusetts, where we will see if Antetokounmpo can keep his foot to the floor and drive the Bucks past the second-seeded Celtics on Saturday.