Orlando is hot, and will serve its revenge that way

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Thumbnail image for nelson_game.jpgRevenge is a dish best served in a loud arena in front of 18,000 angry, screaming fans.

At least that’s the plan in Orlando Sunday. The fans there want a piece of the Lakers. The team that beat them in the Finals last June. And the Magic that take the court Sunday with a roster they wish they had last June.

It is a Magic fan’s lament — if we just had Jameer Nelson last year…

Twice during the last regular season, Nelson torched the Lakers and led the Magic to win. He was the best player on the floor both games. But in the Finals, Nelson was rushed back off an injury and was a mere shadow of himself. And the Lakers rolled the Magic in five.

This time Orlando has a healthy Nelson — one that in the last 10 games has averaged 16 points and 7 assists per game. He is slashing and getting into the paint, something the Lakers have struggled to stop this season. He is both finishing at the rim and stepping out and hitting threes — 37% in his last 10 games. He is playing like an All-Star again.

This time the Lakers get the full force of Orlando — one that has an improved Dwight Howard, Vince Carter finally fitting in and letting the game come to him, and energy out of Matt Barnes.

These are not the Magic the Lakers beat last year.

These are not the Lakers that beat the Magic last year, either. And we’re not just talking about Ron Artest’s hair

And they are not playing well. (Well for them, they are 6-4 in their last 10, which the Nets would even consider staying at the IZOD Center for.) They have lost two in a row, and their last three on the road.

Lakers fans have largely thrown the blame at Pau Gasol. We as a species like simple answers, but we live in a world of complex problems. So it is with the Lakers offensive slump. And that offense being out of balance has hurt their defense (turnovers and slow rotations because guys don’t get back in good position.).

It starts because the Laker guards are doing a poor job of getting the ball into the post to start the triangle offense. Fisher is decent but has lost a step, Jordan Farmar overdribbles then tries to force the pass in, Shannon Brown barely even runs the offense. When the ball does go in to Gasol or Bynum, teams are throwing delayed double teams at them and those two — both good passers — have been slow to recognize the double and bad at making the pass out to their release point cleanly. Then, even if all that happens, the Lakers outside shooting is off. Teams can sag off the Lakers, crowd the bigs in the paint and block Kobe Bryant’s penetration, because they don’t pay a consistent price from the outside jumper.

The Lakers players on Saturday met but didn’t talk about that. They talked about how to better defend the pick-and-roll — which they should see a lot of Sunday. Kobe talked about the need for determination.

The Lakers have shown flashes of that determination, of the good offense and a very good defense this season. They did it for about 18 minutes last Sunday and that was good enough to beat Denver.

But 18 minutes will not cut it against the Magic. Orlando is playing better, has a weapon with Nelson that attacks right at a Laker weakness (defending point guards) and has the defense to shut down the Lakers offense.

The Magic are good enough to get their fans the revenge they want. But until they beat the Lakers in a convincing fashion, it’s hard to bet against the Lakers and Kobe when they are challenged.

And that dish of revenge might not taste as good as everyone thought.

Here are LeBron’s best shots from his seven 40-point playoff games (VIDEO)

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LeBron James has had an incredible playoff run. He has nearly single-handedly kept the Cleveland Cavaliers alive in the postseason against the Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers, and the Boston Celtics.

James has largely been dominant, scoring 40 points or more in seven playoff games just this postseason alone. That is more than many NBA legends had in their entire playing career. According to Basketball Reference, LeBron’s seven games of 40 points or more is a higher mark than than Charles Barkley, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, Karl Malone, or Magic Johnson had during their entire careers.

LeBron and the Cavaliers are set to take on the Celtics for Sunday’s Game 7 matchup, and it’s possible we see yet another 40+ point performance from The King.

Meanwhile, the NBA has put together a highlight video to show some of the best plays from LeBron’s 40+ point games this season.

Watch the full video above. Game 7 is at 5:30 PM PST.

Both conference finals reach Game 7 for first time in 39 years

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Jimmy Carter was in the White House. Magic Johnson’s Michigan State team had just defeated Larry Bird’s Indiana State team to win the NCAA Tournament. “Apocalypse Now” and “Alien” had just been released into the theaters. Van Halen II had just hit your local record store, in both vinyl and cassette tape form. “Three’s Company” was the hottest show on television and “The Dukes of Hazzard” had just made its debut.

It was May 1979, and that was the last time that both the Eastern and Western Conference Finals went to a Game 7.

Until this year, that is. Sunday night LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers will head to Boston for a Game 7 to try and return to the NBA Finals (it would be LeBron’s eighth straight trip to the Finals). Monday night, Houston will try to hold on at home in a Game 7 without Chris Paul and advance past the offensive onslaught of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors.

In 1979, it was a very different NBA — there was no three-point line (that started next season, and even then few players took the shot, it was not something they grew up practicing). The shorts were a lot shorter. The Jazz were in New Orleans, the Kings in Kansas City, the Clippers in San Diego, and there was a Seattle SuperSonics team.

A very good Seattle team — they beat the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference Finals. The Sonics were led by the backcourt of Gus Williams and Dennis Johnson, with Jack Sikma as the big man inside providing balance. Seattle won the first two games of the series at home, then the Suns — led by Paul Westphal and Walter Davis — tied the series holding home court in games three and four. Phoenix stole Game 5 in Seattle, but the Sonics returned the favor with a dramatic 106-105 Game 6 win in Phoenix. Game 7 went to Seattle 114-110.

In the Eastern Conference, it was the Washington Bullets and the San Antonio Spurs (yes, the Spurs used to be in the East). Those Spurs, led by George “Ice Man” Gervin (who averaged 31 points a game in the WCF), went into Washington and stole Game 1. After the Spurs held home court in Games 3 and 4, they had a commanding 3-1 series lead. That’s when Washington — led by Bob Dandridge and Elvin Hayes — got on a roll and won the final three games, and it was Dandridge who hit the game-winner with eight seconds left to seal Game 7.

The Finals didn’t live up to quite the same hype, with the Sonics downing the Bullets in five games. It was the Sonics’ lone NBA title.

Three things to watch in Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers Game 7

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One game. Winner moves on to the NBA Finals, loser can book early tee times starting Monday.

It’s a dramatic Game 7 between Boston and Cleveland for the Eastern Conference crown. In a series that has swung wildly in favor of whoever was the home team that night, the season comes down to one game for these two team. At this point, there are no more real adjustments — both teams, both coaches know what to expect from the other side. It’s about poise. It’s about keeping your head. It’s about what role player will step up big (as one always seems to do in quirky Game 7s).

Here are three things to keep an eye on in this game.

1) LeBron James. He’s the best player on the court, the best of his generation, and with the Cavs it all starts with him — he can’t be just merely good for the Cavaliers to win, he has to be superhuman. Which is what we’ve come to expect — he had 46 points in 46 minutes of play in Game 6 and that’s going to be needed again.

It’s worth watching early on to see if the tweak to his knee suffered in Game 6 has any impact — he scored 12 points after it in that game, but it’s possible it tightened up after his body cooled down. Does LeBron have the same lift and explosiveness? Either way, he’s going to make plays. From the Celtics’ perspective, they just need to make him work hard for them.

There are a lot of players who get tight and shrink from Game 7s. Not LeBron — for his career he has averaged 34.9 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 5.1 assists in Game 7s. The last five times he’s been in a Game 7, LeBron’s teams have won (his last Game 7 loss was to the Celtics in 2008). Bottom line, if there’s one thing we know will happen in this game, it’s LeBron will be great. That, alone, is not enough to get the Cavaliers a win, which leads us too….

2) With Kevin Love out, will any other role players step up for the Cavaliers? Love has been the second best offensive player for the Cavaliers in the postseason, but they can survive his loss — this is a better defensive team without him (3.1 points per 100 possessions better when he is off the court in this series) and the offense often sees better ball movement and flow.

Cleveland’s veterans need to step up in this pressure situation, and that starts with George Hill — he is the bellwether for this team, the second ball handler and shot creator they need. When he plays well, when he is playing downhill and attacking off picks as he did in Game 6, they win. Hill was aggressive, got into the paint, and from there is both a scorer and a distributor in the last game in Cleveland. He has not been the same guy on the road, what does he have to do to be that guy again?

“I have to focus and try to do the same things that I prepared today to take into Sunday,” Hill said after Game 6. “It sounds funny, but I had to go find my Chipotle barbacoa. That’s my pregame meal, so I’m up two games — well, the three games here, that’s what I ate before the game. I’m for sure going to find a Chipotle in Boston, I’ll tell you that.”

Beyond Hill and his barbacoa, Jeff Green is getting the start with Hill out — he is a streaky player, but the good Green would go a long way to helping the Cavs in this one. Kyle Korver needs to find space and knock down threes, the good J.R. Smith needs to show up (that version of him missed a lot of time this series, he’s been dreadful for several games), and Tristan Thompson needs to get some offensive rebounds. LeBron is going to do his thing, but the man can only do so much, he needs help.

3) Are the Celtics’ young stars ready for this pressure and this moment? Boston is at home, where they are a different team and an undefeated 10-0 this season. Boston is also the younger team that bounces back faster, something that matters because this is the third game in five days for these teams (great scheduling, NBA… ugh). The Celtics deserve to be the favorite, but the question that has hung over them all playoffs still looms for this game:

Is Boston ready for this stage and this level of pressure?

“I’ve tried my best all year to try and not talk about their age,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said after Game 6. “It’s not about that. They’re really good basketball players. They’re really committed to each other. We all have a job to do and that’s go out and try to play the best we can. That’s regardless, Game 7, Game 1, a game in November, whatever the case may be… We need to be ready to play. We will be ready to play.”

The Celtics have already played a Game 7 in this postseason, handily beating Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round. That, however, is a much smaller stage. They need to do Sunday what they did in that first Game 7 — the win starts on the defensive end, making LeBron work for his buckets and not letting the supporting cast get rolling. Then, with the stops and turnovers, use those young legs to get out in transition and get a few easy buckets, force cross-matches and take advantage.

Boston gets their points by committee, they get the ball to the open man and he has to knock the shot down, whether it’s Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown or Terry Rozier or Al Horford or anyone else. In Game 6, they were not hitting those shots, and defensively they let Hill and other supporting Cavaliers get rolling. That has to change in Game 7 — make LeBron work for his buckets and don’t let the role players get hot.

Boston needs another aggressive first quarter from Brown (he’s done that most of the series). They need to force switches and run sets that get Horford space from Thompson. The Celtics need to defend, then run — they need to force the pace and try to wear down the older Cavaliers.

All season, all playoffs, despite being down men, the Celtics have just found a way to win. They need to do that one more time to reach the Finals.

Will Chris Paul play in Game 7?

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The way Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry were shooting it probably wouldn’t have changed the outcome of Game 6, but the Houston Rockets missed Chris Paul. They missed his steadying influence on offense, and maybe more importantly they missed his defense — Curry was directing the offense, creating space with his handles then finding people cutting off the ball and draining threes. Paul may have been able to help keep Curry in relative check.

Which all leads to this big question: Will Paul suit up and play in Game 7?

Doesn’t sound like it.

I would describe the mood of sources I spoke to on this issues as pessimistic on CP3’s chances of play.

If Paul can at all go, he will. Three years ago Paul played through a hamstring injury to lead the Clippers past the Spurs, he’ll want to do it again.

This is different. For one thing, Paul is older now, his body will not bounce back the same way. Also, there are risks in playing him — if he is at all limited with his movement the Warriors will target him with Curry and Klay Thompson, try to get CP3 moving laterally and exploiting him. If he’s not right, Mike D’Antoni needs to have him on a short leash.

But if he can go, D’Antoni will let him try.