Kurt Helin

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Three Things to Watch in NBA Thursday: Can Boston Garden ghosts help force Game 7?

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Only one game on the docket tonight but it’s from probably the best series of the first round — can the Atlanta Hawks close out the Boston Celtics on the road? Atlanta is up 3-2, and here are three things to watch:

1) How well is Isaiah Thomas moving? Thomas tweaked his ankle during the ugliness that was Game 5 for Boston, and the Celtics need him for Game 6 if they are going to extend this series. He has always said he was going to play, the question is how well he can play — Boston needs near 100 percent Thomas.

He’s the one Celtic who can create his own shots and set up others. In Game 5 the Hawks did a good job trapping and swarming Thomas off every pick-and-roll, taking it out of his hands and daring anyone else to beat them. Nobody did. In Game 6 look for Brad Stevens to do something Terry Stotts started doing for Portland vs. a swarming L.A. Clippers defense on Damian Lillard — isolations. It’s a break from what the Celtics did during the season, but Thomas himself mentioned the idea after the last game. Why bring another defender up into the play? If Thomas’ ankle is healthy enough for him to blow by guys in isolation, the Celtics offense is more likely bounce back.

2) Can Atlanta knock down its jump shots? The Xs and Os of this series are more complex, but in a lot of ways it comes down to this: Boston is daring Atlanta players not named Kyle Korver to shoot jumpers and beat them. In their Game 5 blowout win, the Hawks shot nearly 50 percent and had 13 three pointers total from seven different players. When those shots fall, when there is offensive balance like that, they are going to win. Can they do that on the road under pressure?

3) Can these Celtics summon the Garden magic? Closeout games are hard. Closeout games on the road are harder. But there is something about the Garden — the crowds, the ghosts, whatever it is this will be a tough one for the Hawks to win. That said, they have the right tools — including the Mike Scott/Paul Millsap lineups up front that have been very successful this series. Expect Scott to be the first big off the bench, subbing out Al Horford, again in this game. But can Boston get a huge game from Marcus Smart and Evan Turner, can Amir Johnson own the paint for a night, can Jae Crowder get back to doing his thing.

Historically, a series where the home team wins the first five games (as has happened in this series) sees the road team win Game 6 57 percent of the time. Boston needs everything in its bag of tricks to force a Game 7.

Fiancée Iggy Azalea saves Nick Young from ‘Born Reble’ back tattoo. Sort of.

via @IGGYAZALEA
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Just a friendly reminder people: Tattoo artists are not copy editors.

Nick Young — still with the Lakers, for now — almost learned that the hard way, but his fiancée Iggy Azalea stepped in. She tweeted this out Wednesday:

But is this fixing it?

Young and Azalea were made for each other. That much is clear.

Damian Lillard gets hot in fourth, Trail Blazers pull away for win, 3-2 series lead vs. Clippers

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LOS ANGELES — For three quarters, the shorthanded Clippers did one of the things they had to do to have a chance in the final games of this series: Stop Damian Lillard. The Clippers trapped him, aggressively challenged him, never let him get comfortable, even switched DeAndre Jordan out on to him at points. It worked, Lillard was 1-of-10 shooting for six points.

Then on the first possession of the fourth quarter, Lillard crossed-over Pablo Prigioni in transition, created space and hit a three. Less than two minutes later, the exhausted Clippers — mentally and physically — forgot to get on Lillard in transition and he drained another good look bucket. Suddenly he was feeling it.

“We know he can hit tough shots and once he gets an open look and he gets to see that ball gown in, his eyes kind of light up, and we know he’s going to finish the game off,” C.J. McCollum said.

Lillard did finish it off with 16 fourth quarter points sparking a 37-point quarter, turning a tied game after three into a 108-98 Portland win.

The Trail Blazers now have a 3-2 series lead heading back to Portland Friday night, where they can close it out against the Clippers. Win that game and they will get the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the second round on Sunday.

Without Chris Paul (fractured hand) and Blake Griffin (quad injury), Doc Rivers went experimental all night. He started Austin Rivers, Paul Pierce (who struggled all game), and Jamal Crawford in effort to find some offense. But it was his defense that got the job done in the first half.

The Clippers defensive philosophy didn’t change, they kept trapping Lillard and McCollum and daring anyone else to beat them. Maurice Harkless tried (17 first half points) but the defense worked as Lillard was 0-of-5 shooting in the first half and McCollum was 3-of-9. The Clippers held the Trail Blazers to 35.9 percent shooting in the first 24 minutes, and Los Angeles led 50-45 thanks to 10 points each from J.J. Redick and DeAndre Jordan. The third quarter saw each team make a nice run (McCollum had 10 in the quarter), but it was tied 71-71 with 12 minutes to go.

The fourth quarter was like a different game for Los Angeles. And Portland.

“Fatigue had a lot to do with it,” said Austin Rivers. “A lot of our guys were tired. We fought hard. We just made some simple mental mistakes and with Blake and Chris out, we cannot really afford to make mistakes. We do not have to be perfect, but we have to have perfect intentions.”

Doc Rivers emphasized it was more mental fatigue than physical — his team was hyped up to win and played well, but these are guys in new roles with larger minutes and it caught up with them.

Once Lillard got going, everything seemed to go the Blazers way — including threes banking in. Also, the Blazers in the second half made an adjustment, going with more isolation sets for Lillard and McCollum so the Clippers could not trap him, as well as running other actions to get their guards going.

“A lot of times it ended in (Allen Crabbe) having the ball and me coming off a flair, C.J. coming off a pin-down, or visa versa,” Lillard said postgame. “There was a guy on the weak side so they couldn’t have a guy over-helping, and we executed really well down the stretch.”

After the game, the Clippers said all the right things about cleaning up their execution and getting a win on the road in Portland Friday night to extend the series. But this game didn’t have that feel at all — at home where more shots are likely to fall for the Blazers, it’s hard to imagine the Clippers getting the win.

But the play of neither of these teams Wednesday night is going to put any fear in the hearts of Golden State, with or without Curry. Neither team was impressive, save for Portland for a stretch in the fourth quarter.

 

Kerr: Lakers get permission to talk to Warriors’ assistant coach Luke Walton

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Wednesday night, Luke Walton was standing at center court at Oracle Arena, getting credit from Steve Kerr as the latter accepted his Coach of the Year award.

In the next couple days, Walton could be sitting down with Lakers’ brass talking about their coaching opening.

Kerr said Golden State has given Los Angeles permission to speak with Walton, reports Michael Lee of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

The Los Angeles Lakers have requested and received permission to speak with Golden State assistant Luke Walton about their head-coaching position, Warriors Coach Steve Kerr said Wednesday. Kerr added that Walton will speak with the Lakers once the team completes its first-round series with the Houston Rockets.

Walton is the guy at the top of the Lakers’ wish list. That list looks something like Walton, Spurs assistant Ettore Messina, Walton, UConn coach Kevin Ollie, Jeff Van Gundy, Walton, David Blatt, and Walton.

The Lakers want a guy who can both recruit free agents, plus form a strong relationship with and develop the tea’s young stars. Walton is liked around the league and at age 36 is younger and can relate to younger players better than old-school Byron Scott.

The question is does he want the job? Put another way, are the Lakers going to give him the money and years it will take to pry him away from Stephen Curry and the small ball revolution? He’s going to want to get PAID and have some security before he makes any move.

Cavaliers making most of long break between playoff rounds

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — Kyrie Irving‘s freakish knee injury in the NBA Finals last year taught him a valuable lesson about what it takes to get through a postseason.

“A lot of luck,” he said.

One year after medical misfortune sabotaged their title hopes, the Cavaliers, unlike the Golden State Warriors, are relatively healthy as they wait to find out if they’ll play Boston or Atlanta in the second round. Cleveland came out of its first-round sweep of Detroit in good shape, and the Cavs should be close to 100 percent when they open their series against either the Celtics of Hawks next week.

On Wednesday, the Cavs practiced for the first time since purging the youthful Pistons, who lacked the muscle and mettle to beat the defending Eastern Conference champions. Following their workout, LeBron James and the Cavs stretched as a group and Irving stayed on the floor afterward to get in some extra outside shooting and free throws.

Guard J.R. Smith, who made 17 3-pointers against the Pistons, did not practice after hurting his groin during the first half of Sunday’s Game 4 win but Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said the injury is not serious.

All of the Cavs should benefit from the eight-day break between games, but Lue said it’s vital to manage the time wisely.

“We played very well and now just having to try to gauge between the two of not doing too much but making sure we do enough,” said Lue, who made some sound decisions in his first playoff series.

And while they wait for the Hawks or Celtics, the Cavs, who had breaks of eight and nine days during the postseason last year, are keeping an eye on all the series still going on while counting their blessings for emerging from a physical, four-game series intact.

They weren’t so fortunate a year ago in the first round, when Kevin Love dislocated his left shoulder, an injury that became more devastating when Irving shattered his kneecap in Game 2 of the Finals.

Because he and the Cavs have experienced that postseason pain, Irving has empathy for the injuries sustained by Warriors superstar Stephen Curry and Los Angeles All-Star guard Chris Paul. Curry is expected to miss at least two weeks with a sprained right knee while Paul broke his right hand and could miss the rest of the postseason along with Clippers forward Blake Griffin, who is done because of a leg injury.

“I’m watching TV and I’m seeing CP come out and you could tell he’s really frustrated, and Steph goes down on a freakish play that could have happened to anyone,” Irving said. “Definitely you’ve got to empathize with those guys. But at the end of the day they still have other guys in that locker room that have to pick up the pieces and they have to figure it out. It’s just part of the playoffs.”

It’s the part that can’t be planned for, but the Cavs aren’t viewing those injuries as giving them any clearer path to a championship.

They know too much can happen.

But following a sometimes worrying and inconsistent regular season, the Cavs are meshing better than they have in months. Lue has been encouraged by the play of Cleveland’s Big 3 – James, Irving and Kevin Love – who combined to average 69.1 points against the Pistons, and how his team is communicating and bonding. The Cavs are connected.

“We’re coming together at the right time,” Lue said. “It’s great to feel that way. We mentioned it in a couple of the press conferences: we never hung our head. We fought through adversity. We were down three or four times in those games and guys just kept playing. We never wavered. We just stuck with it.

“That’s what you like to see. Everyone’s enjoying it in the moment. We’re in a great place right now.”

Lue also knows a rolled ankle or slip on a wet spot can change everything.

“The most important thing in the playoffs is staying healthy,” he said. “The level of intensity picks up. Guys are playing harder, competing harder. Guys are playing more minutes now. Injuries are always very important. If you can get through that first series, which was a tough and physical series for us, with no one being injured, it’s good for us.”