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Rajon Rondo out for Game 5, Isaiah Canaan to start… but is that Bulls’ best option late?

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Jerian Grant, and then Michael Carter-Williams, have been unmitigated disasters for the Chicago Bulls in the two games they just lost at home to the Boston Celtics, evening up the series 2-2. That’s not the only reasons for the Celtics’ surge — Boston has gang rebounded well, they’ve done a great job slowing down the tempo and taking away easy Chicago buckets, and going small has worked because Al Horford has played fantastic at the five — but if Chicago is going to still win this series, they need better play at the point.

Despite some rumors, that is not going to come from Rajon Rondo in Game 5

That means Isaiah Canaan, who played the best of any of the reserve points in Game 4, will get the start.

Canaan with the other four Bulls starters — Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade, Nikola Mirotic, and Robin Lopez — were +12 in 11 minutes together in Game 4, and played fantastic on both ends of the court. At least until Canaan, who had seen limited minutes most of the season, started to show signs of being tired.

That said, Canaan was on the bench for a reason at the beginning of this series — he shot 36.4 percent on the season, 26.6 percent from three, and he’s not a great defender. Expect the Celtics to try and exploit him on that end with favorable matchups in Game 5.

Which is why Fred Hoiberg needs to lean on a no point guard lineup when it matters most. Maybe not to start (you don’t want to overtax Butler and have him tired late), but in the fourth and other key moments the Bulls should break with tradition.

The Bulls were +2 in Game 3 when Rondo and Wade were the de facto point guards, and -29 when Grant or Carter-Williams was in the role. In Game 4, because Canaan played well, there was almost always a point guard on the court.

I would play Wade and Butler with rookie Denzel Valentine also on the wing — he can space the floor (35.1 percent from three this season), and the ball tends to move when he is out there. Hoiberg clearly has little trust in Valentine, and he’s not a great defender, but neither is Canaan.

The Celtics have found a stride this series, and I’m not sure the Bulls can come back and win, but if they are going to Hoiberg has to prove he’ll take risks and make big adjustments when needed in this series. Brad Stevens already made his bold move starting Gerald Green, and it worked. Can the Bulls match it?

Inspired Celtics down Rajon Rondo-less Bulls

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Rajon Rondo knew, as the Bulls season threatened to unravel, a veteran like Kevin Garnett would have effectively handled the adversity. Rondo never apologized for pointing that out on Instagram. He has little patience for feelings when it comes to conveying the truth as he sees it.

And Rondo was right. The retired Garnett would know just what to say amid crisis.

Unfortunately for Rondo, Garnett delivered his message to their former team.

Sparked by a pregame message from Garnett and Isaiah Thomas‘ return from his sister’s funeral, the Celtics beat Chicago 104-87 in Game 3 Friday. After being stunned twice at home to begin the first-round series, No. 1 seed Boston faces a much more manageable 2-1 deficit.

“Isaiah played a clip from KG before the game, and it kind of got us going a little bit,” Celtics guard Avery Bradley said. “KG said some inspirational words for us, and he reminded us, Celtics, we’re always supposed to be the hardest-playing team every single night. And we’re supposed to use Isaiah’s family, use that as inspiration and come out and play hard for him and his family.

He said, You can either play two ways. You can either make excuses and say it’s emotional. ‘Oh, let’s give up this year and worry about next year.’ Or you can fight and fight for his family, and that’s what we did.”

Meanwhile, Rondo sat and watched in a garish red short-sleeved suit, sidelined with a broken thumb.

Chicago sure missed him.

The Bulls lost their offensive flow, and Jimmy Butler (14 points on 7-of-21 shooting) and Dwyane Wade (18 points on 6-of-18 shooting) settled for tough shots. Credit Boston’s perimeter defenders, especially Avery Bradley, but they don’t fully explain how out of sync Chicago looked.

Point guards Jerian Grant and Michael Carter-Williams combined to score eight points on 3-of-10 shooting with three assists and seven turnovers in 39 minutes. Grant, who started, especially looked in over his head.

Without Rondo’s throwback defense disrupting at the point of attack, Brad Steven’s offense hummed.

The Bulls again dominated the glass, but the Celtics cede rebounds to play highly skilled offensive players rather than a bunch of brutes. That trade-off finally worked in Boston’s favor tonight.

Thomas (16 points and nine assists) and Al Horford (18 points, eight rebounds, six assists and four steals) clicked in the pick-and-roll, and Bradley (15 points, seven rebounds and seven assists), Jae Crowder (16 points, six rebounds and three assists), Terry Rozier (11 points on 4-of-6 shooting) and Marcus Smart (seven points, six rebounds and five assists) all had their moments.

Chicago had few. The Bulls shot 39% from the field, including 29% on 3-pointers. Their offensive rebounding helped, but that’s too many initial misses.

The Celtics assisted more shots (34, a 2017 postseason high for any team) than Chicago made (33).

The Bulls can win ugly games, but Boston kept this one too pretty.

Chicago’s answer could be to muck it up further and remove point guards entirely, at least more so. In 11 minutes with Wade and and Butler in the backcourt without a traditional point guard, the Bulls outscored the Celtics by two.

Unfortunately for Chicago, its best answer is stuck on the bench with a broken thumb while his revered former teammate motivates the other team.

Five out: NBA entering era of 3-point-shooting centers

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In 2014, the Atlanta Hawks snuck into the playoffs with a 38-44 record. Their reward? A matchup with the top-seeded Indiana Pacers, who boasted the NBA’s best defense.

Roy Hibbert, a mountain of a center, anchored Indiana’s defense by using his 7-foot-2, 270-pound frame to wall off the paint.

On the other hand, Atlanta’s starting center, Al Horford, suffered a season-ending injury in December. The Hawks rotated three replacements: Pero Antic, Elton Brand and Gustavo Ayon. Ayon suffered his own season-ending injury in February, leaving Atlanta to choose between a past-his-prime, but veteran, Brand and Antic, a 31-year-old rookie who liked to shoot 3-pointers but converted them at a below-average clip.

The Hawks started Antic – and told him to bomb away.

"Even though Pero wasn’t a great 3-point shooter, we told him to shoot it, because we needed Hibbert out of there," said Kenny Atkinson, who was then a Hawks assistant coach. "That was the only way we were going to score.

"We had to take some risk."

Antic hoisted 42 3s in 170 minutes – the highest rate ever in a postseason by someone who started all his team’s games at center. But he made just 7-of-42, a dreary 17%.

Yet, the scheme worked anyway.

Antic pulled Hibbert from the paint, scrambling the Pacers. Hibbert was lost on the perimeter, and his teammates didn’t know how to play without an elite rim protector behind them. Indiana was on tilt, and its offense collapsed as everyone bore the weight of new defensive challenges.

Atlanta outscored the Pacers by 30 with Antic on the court and got outscored by 37 otherwise. Though the Hawks lost the series in seven games, they pushed the Pacers far more than anyone anticipated.

"That was kind of a little bit of an epiphany," Atkinson said. "This can help. This can help draw a great rim protector away from the rim."

The stretch-five revolution was underway.

Atkinson and the Hawks, coached by Mike Budenholzer, had become full believers. The next year, Horford shot and made more 3-pointers than he did in his first seven years combined. The following year, he again trumped his growing career totals – and he wasn’t alone. The shift spread beyond Atlanta by then.

Anthony Davis also shot and made more 3-pointers last season than he had in the rest of his career combined. So did DeMarcus Cousins, who topped his new career totals again this year. Marc Gasol and Nikola Vucevic did it this year, too.

But perhaps the biggest domino to fall was Brook Lopez.

Atkinson became the Nets’ head coach this season and inherited Lopez, an archetypical center who made just 3-of-31 3-pointers in his first eight seasons. In his first year under Atkinson, Lopez has made 134-of-386 3-pointers (35%).

If Lopez can shoot 3s, what is the limit?

We’re progressing toward finding out.

Centers made 1,479 3-pointers this season – more than double any other year, more than the last four years combined, more than the first 17 years of the 3-point arc combined.

Here are number the of 3-pointers made (orange) and attempted (blue) per game by centers, as classified by Basketball-Reference:

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Season 3P 3PA 3P/G 3PA/G 3P%
2017 1479 4183 1.20 3.40 35%
2016 544 1662 0.44 1.35 33%
2015 331 1020 0.27 0.83 32%
2014 429 1310 0.35 1.07 33%
2013 118 485 0.10 0.39 24%
2012 115 443 0.12 0.45 26%
2011 176 588 0.14 0.48 30%
2010 481 1463 0.39 1.19 33%
2009 368 1080 0.30 0.88 34%
2008 500 1519 0.41 1.23 33%
2007 305 945 0.25 0.77 32%
2006 64 301 0.05 0.24 21%
2005 253 785 0.21 0.64 32%
2004 150 559 0.13 0.47 27%
2003 150 497 0.13 0.42 30%
2002 317 896 0.27 0.75 35%
2001 86 364 0.07 0.31 24%
2000 100 382 0.08 0.32 26%
1999 44 199 0.06 0.27 22%
1998 128 535 0.11 0.45 24%
1997 219 686 0.18 0.58 32%
1996 148 528 0.12 0.44 28%
1995 247 799 0.22 0.72 31%
1994 74 339 0.07 0.31 22%
1993 91 353 0.08 0.32 26%
1992 101 396 0.09 0.36 26%
1991 117 504 0.11 0.46 23%
1990 197 677 0.18 0.61 29%
1989 170 607 0.17 0.59 28%
1988 34 191 0.04 0.20 18%
1987 12 101 0.01 0.11 12%
1986 16 129 0.02 0.14 12%
1985 11 129 0.01 0.14 9%
1984 21 147 0.02 0.16 14%
1983 18 139 0.02 0.15 13%
1982 22 112 0.02 0.12 20%
1981 14 88 0.01 0.09 16%
1980 10 95 0.01 0.11 11%

For the first time in history, the average NBA game featured a center making a 3-pointer. But the opening weekend of the playoffs sent the trend into overdrive.

In eight Game 1s, centers combined to shoot 12-for-16 on 3-pointers (75%).

That doesn’t even count all the time teams used players listed at forward, like Serge Ibaka and Draymond Green, at center – a strategy that becomes much more popular this time of year. Teams have embraced small ball more quickly than positional designations can keep up.

"A stretch five," said Grizzlies coach David Fizdale, who implored Marc Gasol to become one, "is a serious luxury."

Enjoy it while it lasts.

It wasn’t long ago that stretch fours were a novelty. Teams had to create special game plans to defend them, because they popped up on the schedule so irregularly. Now, it’s a change of pace when a team starts two traditional interior bigs.

Stretch fives are the new frontier.

Coaches are quick to point out how much trouble opposing 3-point-shooting centers cause, but not every team has developed its own. As long as the former remains true, the latter will change.

The current crop of high-volume stretch fives all have their own origin stories. Davis started shooting 3s under Alvin Gentry, who saw the value of a playmaking center while coaching Draymond Green with the Warriors. Cousins didn’t like being labeled a center and wanted to expand his game. Gasol listened to Fizdale, who was a Heat assistant when Miami – due to injury – learned the value of small ball and then turned Chris Bosh into a center. Vucevic played for Frank Vogel, who coached that Pacers team torched by Antic.

Eventually, there won’t be anything special about a center who shoots 3-pointers. It’ll be the norm.

To be fair, it was hardly unpresented pre-Antic. Mehmet Okur, who retired in 2012 is the all-time leader in 3-pointers by a center (460). Channing Frye set the single-season record for 3-pointers per game by a center (2.1) in 2010, when he played for Gentry’s Suns. That broke the record by Al Harrington for the 2008 Warriors (1.9).*

*Counting only seasons players were listed as centers by Basketball-Reference

That 2010 Phoenix team, coached by Gentry, was still running Mike D’Antoni’s spread scheme. Harrington was primarily a forward during his career, but then-Golden State coach Don Nelson frequently used him at center.

D’Antoni and Nelson were seen as mad scientists, bending basketball into an unholy style. But they were actually visionaries not appreciated in their time.

Stretch fives have not become conventional, but they’re no longer such a rarity. Nine centers made more than one 3-pointer per game this season. No more than three had done that in any other year.

Here’s every center ever to average more than one 3-pointer per game:

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Other players could join their ranks next season.

Big forwards who already shoot plenty of 3s, like Ibaka and Kristaps Porzingis, could soon be primarily centers. Young stretch fives like Myles Turner could take more 3s in bigger roles. Centers with established mid-range games – like Robin Lopez, Brook’s twin brother – could venture beyond the arc.

There’s so much incentive to experiment.

It’s not just the added value of a more efficient shot than a long two. It’s not even just the value of generally spacing the floor.

It’s that centers are often the best rim protectors, so there’s exponentially more value in a stretch five pulling an opposing center from the paint than a stretch four pulling an opposing power forward from the paint.

Stretching the floor has enhanced existing skills for these centers, too. Getting the ball on the perimeter with the threat of shooting has made Brook Lopez an even more effective driver. Gasol can survey the floor from beyond the arc, with a defender pressed closed to him rather than disrupting the passing lanes, and zip dimes from even more angles.

Lopez has embraced his new skill dutifully, though he didn’t want to talk much about himself late in Brooklyn’s awful season. Gasol has unleashed his 3-point shooting with joyous flair – at least once he got going.

"He laughed at first because I told him I want him shooting four a game, and he thought I was joking," Fizdale said. "But as you can see it’s not a joke."

Gasol came close, finishing with 3.6 3-point attempts per game. But there’s always next year.

The stretch-five revolution has just begun.

Celtics lock up division title with 114-105 win over Nets

Associated Press
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BOSTON (AP) — Isaiah Thomas scored 27 points to help the Boston Celtics beat back a fourth-quarter charge and defeat the Brooklyn Nets 114-105 on Monday night to keep alive their hopes of securing the Eastern Conference’s top seed.

The Celtics clinched the Atlantic Division title and can finish with no worse than the No. 2 seed.

With Cleveland’s overtime loss at Miami on Monday night, a Boston win in its regular-season finale against Milwaukee on Wednesday would give the Celtics the No. 1 seed. But if Boston loses to the Bucks and Cleveland wins its finale against Toronto, the Cavs would own the tiebreaker by virtue of their 3-1 head-to-head record with Boston.

Al Horford added 19 points and eight rebounds.

Brooklyn trailed by 27 in the third quarter before an 18-5 run got it back into the game.

The Nets got as close as six in the fourth, but Thomas and Horford combined for 15 points in the period to help secure the victory.

Jeremy Lin led the Nets with 26 points and 12 rebounds. Brook Lopez finished with 25 points, and passed Buck Williams to become the franchise’s career leading scorer with a jumper late in the fourth quarter.

Playing on a day’s rest following its win at Charlotte on Saturday, Boston led by as many as 21 in the first half.

Brooklyn also had a day off coming off Saturday’s one-point victory over Chicago, but couldn’t find the basket early on. The Nets missed 17 of their first 20 shots and shot just 27 percent in the opening 24 minutes.

TIP-INS

Nets: Sean Kilpatrick (left hamstring) and Quincy Acy (sore left ankle) both sat out and each will also miss Wednesday’s regular-season finale. … Shot just 14 percent (3 for 21) from the field and 12 percent (1 for 8) from the 3-point line in the first quarter.

Celtics: Thomas extended his franchise record to 56 straight games with a 3-pointer. … Improved to 21-5 at home since Jan. 1.

 

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

Paul Millsap, Tim Hardaway Jr. boost Hawks past Celtics

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ATLANTA (AP) —  Paul Millsap scored 26 points, Tim Hardaway Jr. added 23 and the Atlanta Hawks snapped a two-game skid with a 123-116 victory over the Boston Celtics on Thursday night.

Isaiah Thomas scored 35 points, Jae Crowder had 24 and Marcus Smart 18 for the Celtics. They have dropped two in a row after winning five of seven.

Rookie Taurean Prince finished with a career-high 20 points, and Dennis Schroder added 18 for Atlanta. The Hawks had lost nine of 11.

Schroder hit a straightaway 3 to make it 116-107 with 2:07 remaining before Thomas’ corner 3 with 55.3 seconds to go cut the lead to five. The Celtics didn’t get any closer the rest of the way.

Boston fell 1 1/2 games behind Cleveland for the East lead, but is still two games ahead of third-place Toronto. Fifth-place Atlanta, which led by 20 in the third, moved one game ahead of Milwaukee. The regular season ends next week.

One night after losing by 23 at home to the defending champion Cavaliers, Boston allowed 71 points in the first half and trailed by 16 at halftime.

The Celtics were sluggish defensively and looked tired during much of the night on Atlanta’s end, getting outrebounded 52-38 and getting called for too many fouls underneath.

The Hawks used a 12-0 run to take a 14-point lead in the final minute of the first. After Boston pulled within one early in the second, Atlanta pushed the lead to 16 on putback jams by Prince and Millsap in the closing seconds of the second.

Boston cut the lead to 10 on Smart’s 3 at the third-quarter buzzer.

The Hawks improved to 32-7 overall, 17-2 at home, when entering the fourth with a lead.

ON THE MEND, ON THE FLOOR

Millsap didn’t start for the second straight game as Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer works him back from a sore left knee. The four-time All-Star won’t play Friday at Cleveland, missing his ninth game in the last 11.

NOT WELCOME HOME

Al Horford, in his second game back in Atlanta after spending his first nine seasons with the Hawks, was whistled five times by the middle of the third and went to bench with just two points, two rebounds and three assists. He finished with four points on 1-for-7 shooting. Horford was a classy citizen and tireless worker on the court, but fans, still upset that he left as a free agent, again booed him every time he touched the ball.

STREAK SNAPPED

Dwight Howard‘s streak of double-doubles ended at 10 games, his longest since last season with Houston and the longest Hawks streak since Kevin Willis had 21 straight in 1991-92.