Baseline to Baseline, your game recaps

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Here’s what happened Saturday, while you were Wikipedia’ing Curling

Thunder 121 Knicks 118: We’ve already told you about T-Mac, and we’ll touch on Durant for you shortly (and often), but Russell Westbrook was the story you won’t be reading about.

There may be no single point guard in the league I want taking a finger roll straight-on to the basket in transition more than Russell Westbrook. Some guards float them, others flip them, but Westbrook’s athleticism enables him to drop the ball in like he’s dropping his change in a tollbooth. Westbrook was simply astounding at the rim, as most of the Thunder were. They relentlessly attack and if they miss, surprising rookie Serge Ibaka is there.

Impressive defense from the Knicks tonight, and that’s no joke. The effort was there, the focus was there, they had their head on their shoulder and not up their trade deadlines, and it just wasn’t enough. Because Westbrook and Durant, at this point in their careers, this young, are just too good.

Raptors 109 Wizards 104: Typically, crushing defeats that result from blowing a nine point lead with five to go feel worse than this. But this one? Well…

Let me put it this way. There were wins the Wizards would peel off this season that still felt like losses. The pointless gimme game from a distracted opponent. But this was just the opposite. Jarret Jack goes off for 23 points, including seven straight down the stretch? Josh Howard goes frozen in the second half? Andrea Bargnani gets four blocks?

You can live with that, on the road, on the second game of a back to back (SEGABABA). The Wizards were there. Right there. That effort is what’s vital. The fact that that effort is translating to long stretches of cohesion and production, that’s vital. They needed someone to step up and hit a big one late, and they couldn’t. But they’ll find that guy (Josh Howard) and he’ll step up if they keep this up. It was a loss, but it didn’t feel like a loss. Small consolation to Wizards’ fans, probably.

For the Raps? If the beginning of their season was marked by superb talent not translating to production, their mid-season has been marked by the words “just getting it done.” They are not a good defensive team. But they make good defensive plays, like the double on Josh Howard with less than four minutes to go that absolutely froze the possession. Just getting it done is better than style points.

Chicago 122 Philadelphia 90: Here’s a fun trivia fact. In four games since the All-Star break, the Bulls, the offensively horrendous Bulls have averaged 113.75 points per game.

Let that one sink in. Now, they’ve played New York twice, the Wolves, and the Sixers. But the fact remains that for whatever reason, the Bulls are clicking offensively.

A lot of it is Kirk Hinrich, who became the record-holder for most threes in Bulls’ history, simply returning to form. There was a lot of talk that Hinrich had simply ‘lost it.’ But with his age, that was simply unlikely. It was a long cold spell but it looks as if Hinrich is finally coming out of it, and when you combine that wish his defense, he becomes a vital part of the team.

Then there’s Taj Gibson, 20 points and 13 rebounds with 2 blocks. Bulls fans HATED this kid to start the season. But he’s kept his head down and just worked, and worked, and worked his way to being one of the more impressive rookie bigs of his class, even if he’s not DeJuan Blair.

The Sixers had no intention of defending tonight, and couldn’t tell the locker room from the concession stand. Eddie Jordan’s club is just lost at this point.

Hakim Warrick had one of those sick, in-traffic, went up late so you have to curl the ball over the rim dunks late in the third quarter. It was nasty.

Pacers 125 Rockets 115: Let this serve as a warning game.

The Rockets’ problem as of late was not offense. So the addition of Kevin Martin is not going to cure all ills. And losing to Indiana, at home, after a two-day layoff? That’s a bad loss. The Rockets’ constant over-effort is going to take its toll, and you have to wonder if they’re going to have enough left in the tank to push for the playoffs.

The Pacers? They created free throws and kept their turnovers to a reasonable degree in a fast paced game (estimated 103 possessions). You have to love Danny Granger’s silk when it’s going. Good on the Pacers, making sure they don’t get a meaningful draft pick.

Wait.

Milwaukee 93 Charlotte 88: How do the Cats beat the Cavs one night and lose to the Bucks the next? Simple. Too much of the Cavs’ offense is “Give to LeBron, watch.”  The Bucks? They made a concerted effort to find that extra pass. In transition for trailer layups, on the perimeter to find open threes, probing, testing the defense. If you put Charlotte back on its mental heels, you limit their ability to interrupt you. Come straight at them, and they brace the lances and impale you.

Luc Richard Mbah a Moute deserves defensive player of the year attention. He doesn’t deserve the award, but he deserves some attention for it.

Dallas 97 Miami 91: Take out Jason Terry’s 0-fer-10 night. The Mavericks shot 33 of 63. And when you get efficient scoring like 97 points on 73 shots? You’re going to win quite a few games.

Here’s what’s important. You can see the Mavericks adjusting to their new teammates, and how interested those new teammates are in playing. Butler is slashing, catching, dishing, shooting. And Haywood is just relentless. Haywood isn’t going to land a knockout blow. He’s not going to dominate the game. But he’s part of the war of attrition the Mavs wage, and it’s working.

Daequan Cook lead all Heat scorers. That pretty much sums it up, no?

Clippers 99 Kings 89: It’s hare to say that the Clippers are really better than the Kings, but I will posit that they are playing better this season. The Clips can do some damage if they get a chance, and the Kings gave them that chance.  Evans is a monster, the rest of the team was a no-show, Landry had 10 points on eleven shots.

The Kings did win one battle, though. They have a future. The Clips do not.

Bam Adebayo: “I played like s***… I’ll put that game on me.”

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The Miami Heat were one half of basketball away from the NBA Finals when a desperate Boston team cranked up its defensive intensity, started attacking the rim, and started playing at a level Miami didn’t match. The Celtics dominated the final 24 minutes of Game 5, forcing a Game 6 and keeping the Heat out of the Finals for now.

Bam Adebayo took the blame for the Heat loss. Via Manny Navarro of The Athletic.

“I played like s***. Bottom line: I can’t. I’ll put that game on me. It’s not my teammates’ fault. It’s not my coaches’ fault. It’s me. I missed too many shots I should have made… I wasn’t being the defensive anchor I should’ve been. I don’t think I was communicating fast enough. I feel like I was a step behind today. I wasn’t a difference-maker today. I didn’t get us into fast enough triggers. That’s on me.”

Game 5 was not Adebayo’s best outing: 13 points, eight rebounds, and Boston did a better job with its scheme pulling him away from the basket to defend smaller players on the perimeter, opening up the paint. Adebayo and the Heat as a whole struggled to slow the Celtics’ pick-and-roll actions, and Boston has figured out how to play against Miami’s zone (so the Heat have gone away from it).

“It’s not (Adebayo’s fault). It’s on everybody,” Jimmy Butler said after the game. “He does so much for us that it can feel like that at times but it’s definitely not on him. It’s on us as a whole. We all understand that because nobody was playing the way that we are supposed to play; the way that we have to play in order for us to win, nobody. And for him to say that, I respect it. I love him for it. But he can’t do it by himself. We’ve got to be there with him.”

Bam Adebayo was wearing a sleeve over his left arm, where he aggravated a wrist injury at the end of Game 4. Both Adebayo and coach Erik Spoelstra said that was nothing and not what led to his off night.

Miami needs a lot of things to go differently in Game 6: It needs to start hitting its threes again (19.4% from beyond the arc in Game 5, and below 30% from deep in each of the last three games). Miami has to take care of the ball and it has to get back in transition defense — Boston ran right past the Heat in the second half and got a lot of easy transition buckets. Mostly, however, it comes back to Miami shooters hitting more of their threes — the Heat halfcourt offense needs that.

The Game 5 loss was not on Adebayo. But he can be part of the solution.

Backs against the wall, Celtics play dominant half to beat Heat, force Game 6

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For Boston, it was the worst of halves, it was the best of halves. It was a half of foolishness, it was a half of wisdom. It was a half of tight play, it was a half of free-flowing offense. It was a half of despair, it was a half of renewed hope.

With its season on the line down 3-1, Boston came out tight in the first half of Game 5, with guys trying to do everything themselves, showing no patience, no ball movement, players gunning from three, and nobody in green was defending well. Boston shot 5-of-20 in the first quarter, and while things settled down Boston was lucky to be only down seven at the half.

Then a different Boston team came out in the second half — a team that was defending with intent, pushing the pace, and watching their best player, Jayson Tatum, attack to the tune of 17 third quarter points. At the end of the third, Brad Stevens told his team, “with all sincerity, that’s the first time I’ve seen Celtics basketball in the past few games” (via the ESPN mic’d up segment of the broadcast).

The Celtics pulled away in the fourth to win 121-108. The Heat still lead the series 3-2, with Game 6 coming on Sunday.

“We did not compete hard enough defensively and we paid the price for that,” Erik Spoelstra said of his Heat team.

“I thought we played with great tenacity defensively, and I think our offense followed suit,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said of the second-half turnaround.

That defense included much more ball pressure out high on Miami and it worked. The Heat shot 19.4% from three, that’s the third straight game under 30% from three for the Heat, but Tyler Herro wasn’t able to bail them out this time around.

For Boston, Tatum finished with 31 points and 10 rebounds, and his third quarter helped save the Boston season.

Boston needs that Tatum from the opening tip on Sunday, not after 24 minutes (as we have seen the last couple of games). Boston is a good team but it needs Tatum to play at an All-NBA level to look like a contender.

Jaylen Brown added 28 points for the Celtics, while Daniel Theis proved an important role with 15 points and 13 rebounds plus some critical defensive plays down the stretch.

Miami may have led at the half, but when Boston started playing better out of desperation the Heat had no answers.

“No one was playing the way we’re supposed to play, the way we have to play for us to win,” Butler said.

Miami got 23 points from Goran Dragic and 20 from Duncan Robinson, who was a big part of Miami’s strong first half.

Miami was up 3-1, and they have seen how little that lead has meant in the bubble.

“I don’t think those series have anything to do with this. Our guys are well aware,” Spoelstra said. “We have great respect for Boston. We’re not expecting it to be easy. You have to earn it.”

Kings keeping Luke Walton, plan to play faster next season

Kings coach Luke Walton
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Kings coach Luke Walton works for a general manager who didn’t hire him and an owner who has shown frustration with him.

But Walton will keep his job.

New Sacramento general Monte McNair, via James Ham of NBC Sports California:

“Luke is going to be our coach next year, I’m really excited to work with him and I think we’re aligned in our vision and we’re going to start implementing it,” McNair said.

“This team showed some flashes last year,” McNair said. “I think De’Aaron is certainly a great young talent and I think his speed ability offensively to create really is going to be a huge catalyst for how coach Walton and I envision this team being up-tempo, creating the space to shoot threes and attack the rim.”

Walton has had four losing seasons in four years as a head coach between the Lakers and Kings. But this is how it works out for him.

A distressing aspect of Walton’s first season in Sacramento: The Kings played far slower than they did the previous season under Dave Joerger, who successfully implemented a fastbreak-heavy attack that particularly suited De'Aaron Fox.

Walton can coach that way. His Lakers teams typically played quickly. But Sacramento too often stagnated last season.

The Kings are still building around Fox. It’s on Walton to figure out how to maximize the point guard. For now.

Anthony Davis listed as questionable for Game 5 with sprained ankle

Anthony Davis
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When Anthony Davis has been on the court in the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers have outscored the Nuggets by 9.4 points per 100 possessions. When he sits, the Lakers are -21.3 (stats via NBA.com).

Why that stat matters: Anthony Davis is officially questionable for Game 5 after spraining his ankle in the fourth quarter of Game 4.

“[My] Ankle feels fine. Got tonight, tomorrow before the game to get it back to, I don’t want to say back to where it was, but good enough to play,” Davis said postgame Thursday. “Rolled it pretty bad but not too bad. I’ll be fine.”

Players also are the worst judges of their returns from injuries. This is the playoffs, the Lakers need him on the court, and Davis wants to play. However, ankles are very easy to re-injure once the ligament is stretched, and the issue can become chronic. If Davis missing one game helps the ankle heal to the point it doesn’t linger into the NBA Finals the Lakers have to consider that option.

That said, expect Davis to play.

Davis has been the best Laker throughout the Western Conference Finals. He is averaging 32.3 points a game while shooting 55.3% from the floor, and as noted above the Lakers are dramatically better with him on the court.

The Los Angeles Lakers are up 3-1 on the Denver Nuggets and can advance to the NBA Finals with a win Saturday night in Game 5.