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Three Things to Know: Celtics thrash Cavaliers, but it’s not a statement game

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LOS ANGELES — Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Celtics easily handle Cavaliers at home… just don’t read too much into it. A team can have an impressive win in early January. Certainly a confidence-boosting one.

However, there are no statement games in early January. Certainly not against a team stacked with guys who have rings and have been to multiple Finals, who know the roller coaster of the NBA season. In the same way that Cleveland’s opening night win against Boston was no statement, neither was Boston’s easy handling of the Cavaliers on Wednesday night, 102-88.

Give Boston credit — they made plays. Terry Rozier had 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting off the bench, and Marcus Smart was draining threes on his way to 15 points. Jayson Tatum added 15. Boston’s defense did well to hold the Cavaliers to less than a point per possession in the game, although that was aided by some poor shooting from the Cavs (8-of-32 from three, due to tired legs on the second night of a back-to-back).

The best part of this game was Celtics fans giving Isaiah Thomas a standing ovation upon his return (he did not play as the Cavaliers try to ease him back into the rotation).

This was a game where Cleveland felt vulnerable. Again. The Cavs looked formidable (and played good defense) when they won 18-of-19 at one point, but outside that stretch they have been 7-12 and played poor defense. It’s why teams — not just Boston, but also Toronto, Washington, Milwaukee — think these Cavaliers could be beaten. The warning is that Cleveland has had these mid-season slumps every year, and has gone on to win the East every year since LeBron returned. Still, the Cavaliers don’t have that same sense of inevitability, of invincibility, that they’ve had in seasons past.

That’s what will make the trade deadline interesting — will Washington or Milwaukee make a big play to get better and put themselves in the conversation? Will Toronto? Or, will Cleveland do something to solidify their spot at the top of the East and give them a better shot against Golden State (or whoever comes out of the West)? The next month or so until the NBA trade deadline is going to have a lot of twists and turns.

2) Steph gonna Steph: Curry drains game-winner. In his first game back from missing time with a sprained ankle, Stephen Curry dropped 10 threes (and 38 points). In his second game back from that sprained ankle, he had 32 points and did this:

Curry was playing at the level of garnering end-of-the-ballot MVP votes before his injury, and he has come back without missing a beat. Golden State was 27th in the NBA in three-point shooting percentage in the 11 games Curry was out, not having him there messed with the team’s spacing and style, but with him back the Warriors look like themselves again.

Dallas had won four in a row before this loss and has played fantastically of late… but I still have to ask: Why was Dirk Nowitzki so far back on Curry’s game-winning pick-and-roll? This play was not some never-before-seen bit of wizardry, the Warriors run picks 35 feet from the basket all the time because Curry is such a shooting threat, but once Curry came off the Draymond Green screen Nowitzki was back near the top of the key and Curry got a perfectly clean look moving toward the basket.

Curry’s brilliance overshadowed a game-winner from Spencer Dinwiddie to lift the Nets past the Timberwolves.

3) Wednesday will be known as the Terrance Ferguson game. “It looked like an ocean. Like throwing a pebble in the ocean.”

That’s how rookie Terrance Ferguson — who five days before was down in the G-League so he could get a little run, then got the start Wednesday with Andre Roberson out — described his second half against the Lakers where he had 24 points. Ferguson was 2-of-16 from three all season entering this game, then was 6-of-8 from three in the second half Wednesday. He shot 9-of-11 overall in the half.

Oh, and he had these dunks.

“You’re in Staples Center, world-famous place. You’ve gotta do something amazing,” Ferguson said.

If you don’t remember Ferguson from college coming into the NBA, that’s because despite offers from Kansas, North Carolina, and Arizona (among others), he decided to get paid to play overseas in Australia. That’s not for everyone, but it worked for Ferguson — he played for a year against men, learned how to be a professional, and while he probably slid down the draft board because of it (the Thunder got him at No. 21) it helped prepare him for life in the NBA.

As much fun as Ferguson going off was to watch, his teammates — especially Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, and Russell Westbrook — going wild on the bench during his run was almost as entertaining.

“There’s nothing like that,” Anthony said. “There’s no better feeling than that. Knowing how much hard work those guys put in, knowing how hard it is to get minutes in this league.”

George said he and Anthony may have been more excited than Ferguson at the end of the game. It was PG13 who paid the rookie the best compliment of the night.

“The kid is really good, and he reminds me of myself a lot early on in the league, just a sponge trying to take everything in,” George said. “He’s special. He’s a special weapon and a special talent.”

 

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.

Stephen Curry back in full practice mode for Warriors

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) Stephen Curry resumed full practice with contact and could play for the defending champion Golden State Warriors as soon as Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals Saturday night against New Orleans.

Curry looked strong as he practiced Thursday wearing a protective brace over his sprained left knee, which has sidelined him since the injury March 23 – the same day he returned from a six-game absence because of a hurt right ankle.

Coach Steve Kerr is calling Curry questionable for Saturday. That could change if the two-time NBA MVP still feels fine Friday and is fine after one more day of full practice before the Pelicans visit Oracle Arena to begin the best-of-seven series.

“Steph practiced at 100 percent, he did everything, he looked good,” Kerr said. “What we have to do is see how his body responds the rest of the day, put him through another practice tomorrow. I think he needs to string together two good days but it was very positive today. … I think it’s been coming along pretty well. When we were in San Antonio and I was asked a question about how he was doing, I think I was able to give an answer, `He’s doing great but we haven’t ramped him up yet.’ I think today was an important day because it’s the first time he’s actually gone live action and he was allowed to go through practice. And he appears fine.”

Curry went through his usual shooting work with Kevin Durant from various spots after practice, cutting and exhibiting his fancy footwork and dribbling skills. The Warriors have played well without their floor leader, eliminating the San Antonio Spurs in Game 5 of the first-round series with a 99-91 win Tuesday night.

The Pelicans will present a different, faster pace for the Warriors, so getting Curry back to push the ball and direct the offense would be important. Andre Iguodala, the 2015 NBA Finals MVP, started in the first round in his place while Quinn Cook handled point guard duties late in the regular season with Curry out.

“We’re excited. I know he’s very eager to play,” said Klay Thompson. “He’s a competitor, so sitting out I know kills him. We can’t wait for him to get back whenever that is.”

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