NBA Playoffs: Howard, Magic hold off Charlotte's comeback attempt

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I had the Bobcats pegged as a potential first-round spoiler because of the way they play defense and how good they are on their home floor, but the Magic represent some fairly significant matchup problems for them on both offense and defense.
When the Bobcats have the ball, they don’t have any way to consistently score on the league’s best defensive player. They don’t have anyone fast or powerful enough with his dribble-drives to beat Howard to the hoop or challenge him and get free throws. They don’t have a post threat consistent enough to initiate the offense from the block and limit Howard’s ability to roam. They don’t have enough outside shooting to put points on the board without having to go the paint at all. Other than that, though, they’re fine. 
What the Bobcats do have is as good a defense as exists in the league. Unfortunately for them, the Magic are so unorthodox offensively that they defend themselves as much as their opponent does. That can get the Magic into trouble at times, but against a team as offensively challenged as the Bobcats, it shouldn’t kill them. Here are my notes from Sunday night’s contest between the Bobcats and the Magic, in chronological order:
-Early in the game, Theo Ratliff tries to take it strong at Howard and gets rejected for his efforts. On the ensuing semi-transition possession, Jameer Nelson pulls up for a three and nails it. As Kevin McHale noted, that’s Magic basketball.
-Jameer Nelson is a dynamo early. When he decides to drive, he’s going all the way to the cup and making the Charlotte bigs pay for staying at home on Howard. When the Bobcats give Nelson space, he’s pulling up and hitting everything he looks at. Nelson was absolutely unstoppable in the first half. He scored 24 points, only missed two shots from the field, and hit a pull-up 35 footer as time expired in the half. A jaw-dropping performance.
-Brown goes to Diaw in the post twice early, and it works both times. Posting up Lewis is generally a good idea if you have the personnel to do so, because it prevents Howard from coming over to get the block. Diaw’s two hooks accounted for the Bobcats’ only points in the paint up to that time.
-The Magic get their third basket in the paint by feeding Ratliff in the post against Howard. Still no layups, dunks or free throws from a drive to the basket or cut up to this point for the Bobcats.
-The Bobcats are getting their points by using screens and lateral passing to free up their bigs for mid-range jumpers, and are doing a pretty good job of it. The Magic are getting the ball, making 0-2 passes, and going for the drive or the first good look they can find from the perimeter. The Bobcats’ offense may look more under control, but layups and threes will almost invariably be better than mid-range jumpers over the course of a game.
-The Bobcats finally complete their first successful drive to the basket when Stephen Jackson gets a layup with 44 seconds to play in the quarter. Before they were able to do that, Dwight Howard had recorded five blocks. It’s hard to overstate the degree to which Howard dominated the paint when he was in the game. 
-With Howard resting in the second quarter, the Bobcats quickly cut the lead to four. Then the Magic summon Mickael Pietrus, who hits three straight threes in the span of a minute and a half. In between two of the threes he made, Pietrus bricked a pair of free throws. I have given up trying to figure out Mickael Pietrus. Nelson and Redick drain threes of their own, and it’s back up to a 14-point Magic lead. When the Magic get hot, watch out. 
-With 1:50 left to play in the half, Larry Hughes tries to drive on Howard. In the most predictable outcome ever, Howard swats his shot away, giving him eight blocks. That put him one away from his playoff career high and two away from an NBA playoff record. (Remember, no recorded blocks when Russell and Chamberlain played.)
-Thanks in part to two ticky-tack fouls, Howard picks up his fourth infraction with eight minutes to play in the third quarter. At this point, the Magic were up 19. When he re-enters the game in the fourth, the Magic are up by 10 points. The Magic go completely cold with Howard on the bench; without him in the lane, Charlotte is free to rotate against the drive and contest shots on the perimeter instead of sagging back into the lane. Orlando can’t get anything going, and is settling for deep jumper after deep jumper. 
-Howard picks up his fifth foul just over a minute into the quarter. The Magic hold the fort this time, and don’t lose a point off their lead in the five minutes Howard sits. The Bobcats begin to creep back into the game by hitting threes and getting to the line, and cut the lead to five with 1:39 remaining. 
-That was when Pietrus came to the rescue again. Pietrus caught a pass in the corner and got his man in the air with an up-fake. Pietrus jumped to try and draw the foul, but didn’t get the contact. While falling over his defender, Pietrus threw up the three…and it went in. There were some free throws after that, but that was the shot that effectively ended Charlotte’s comeback hopes. 
General Notes:
-Howard was on the floor for 28 minutes of Sunday’s game. He was on the bench for the other 20 minutes of it. When Howard was off the floor, the Bobcats played the Magic dead even. When he played, the Magic were +9 over the Bobcats. Howard completely dominated the game while scoring five points. One of the most amazing defensive performances I’ve ever -seen.
-One more illustration that Orlando is tough to guard: they put up 98 points against one of the best defensive teams in the league with Howard and Carter combining to go 6-23 from the field. Scary.
-Rashard Lewis made just about everything he looked at, whether it was a catch-and-shoot three or a pull-up from midrange. Huge games for Lewis, Redick, Pietrus, and of course Nelson. 
-Stephen Jackson was one of the only Bobcats who wasn’t afraid to take it at Howard. This is strange, as he hyper-extended his knee in the first half. Jackson says he will play in game 2, but will reportedly undergo an MRI on his injured knee. 
-Great game for Gerald Wallace, who had a line 25/17 and had just about every aspect of his game going. If Charlotte got some shooters to give Wallace space to operate, he could be scary. 
That’s about the story for game one. Like they generally do when they’re on their game, the Magic survived their cold stretches and absolutely rained sulfur when their shots were falling. If they can keep Howard on the court, the Magic could have a relatively easy time putting Larry Brown’s squad away. 

LeBron James one win away from history: 10th NBA Finals apperance

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — LeBron James can reach a 10th NBA Finals, done by only three greats of the game.

Anthony Davis is on the verge of his first.

The final step for the Los Angeles Lakers shapes up as the toughest.

They have to knock out the Denver Nuggets, who have been on the brink of dismissal from the bubble six times and every time refused to go.

“You can never be comfortable around this team,” Davis said. “They have been in this situation twice. We’ve been in the situation twice. But both teams are familiar with these situations, but this team is not going to go away.”

Game 5 is Saturday. The Lakers have ended both their series thus far in five games.

But the Nuggets were also down 3-1 against both Utah and the Los Angeles Clippers, fell far behind in Game 5, and then battled back to not only win the game but eventually the series.

No team had ever erased two 3-1 deficits in one postseason and now the Nuggets need to do it a third time. It’s a predicament they could have avoided, if they’d gotten one more defensive stop in Game 2 or given up a few less second-chance points in Game 4.

“These are all close games we’re playing,” guard Jamal Murray said. “Going to keep battling it out.”

Murray was sensational again in Game 4, though James slowed him enough down the stretch after taking on the defensive assignment to help the Lakers pull out a 114-108 victory.

One more win, and James ties NBA career scoring leader Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for third on the career list with 10 NBA Finals appearances. Only Hall of Famers Bill Russell (12) and Sam Jones (11) of the Boston Celtics have gone to more.

It would be James’ first with the Lakers after five appearances in Cleveland and four in Miami, and the Lakers’ first trip to the finals since winning the last of their 16 championships in 2010.

James and Davis have been the unquestioned catalysts of this run, and they’re good strong support from some playoff-tested veterans. Dwight Howard had 12 points and 11 rebounds Thursday in his first start of this postseason, helping send Los Angeles to its overwhelming 25-6 advantage in second-chance points.

Rajon Rondo contributed 11 points and moved into eighth place on the career list with seven more assists.

“In the postseason, every possession is so important,” James said. “When you can have guys that have been in the moments and can understand and also be able to make adjustments on the fly, and know that you can count on them down the stretch, it just makes the team and you individually feel so much more confident in the outcome.”

The younger Nuggets don’t have those type of veterans, but they have the experience of this historic postseason run that could have ended on Aug. 25, the night of Game 5 against Utah. A month later, they are still at Disney World, still trying to prove that hope is not lost until four games are.

“I think people out there probably think this is exactly where we want them. It’s not. We would much rather be up 3-1, but it is what it is. We put ourselves in this position,” Denver coach Michael Malone said.

“Our team has shown tremendous resiliency and grit in getting out of these before. I have no doubt that tomorrow night we’ll bring that same fight to the game and hopefully we can keep this series alive.”

If they do, Game 6 would be Monday night. If not, the Lakers will be preparing to face Miami, in its first appearance since James left in 2014, or the Celtics, their greatest rival they could tie with a 17th NBA title.

The Lakers won’t think about any of that until the Nuggets are finally gone.

“Like I said last game, we’ve got to put them away,” Davis said. “They are going to continue to fight, no matter what the score is, no matter what the situation is. We just have to make sure we counter everything they do.”

Report: Mutual interest in Cavaliers keeping Tristan Thompson

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Tristan Thompson has played every one of his nine NBA seasons in a Cleveland Cavaliers uniform.

There have been questions about where the free-agent big man will play his 10th season. The Cavaliers traded for Andre Drummond to become their starting five, limiting both Thompson’s role and the money Cleveland would spend for the backup center role.

There is still “mutual interest” in a return, Cavs GM Koby Altman told Chris Fedor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

“I think it’s fair to say there’s mutual interest for sure,” general manager Koby Altman said about the possibility of re-signing Thompson. “He’s been with this franchise his entire career since we drafted him. He’s won a championship here. Obviously, he means a lot to the players on the team right now, but it has to make sense. There are some events coming up — the draft, free agency — where we have to see if it makes sense for him. He’s earned the right to be an unrestricted free agent and explore opportunities at this point in his career. So, we’ll see.”

Tristan Thompson, 30, has battled nagging injuries in recent seasons but started most of the Cavaliers’ games before the shut down of the league last season, stayed healthy, and averaged 12 points and 10.1 rebounds a game playing 30 minutes a night.

How much of a market there will be for Thompson remains to be seen, especially in uncertain financial times around the league, but it will not be anywhere near the $18.5 million he made this season. He brings rebounding, defense, and a veteran presence to a team, but in general teams are not spending on the center spot right now, seeing that as a mercenary position where they can get a solid player at a cheap price. Thompson may have other suitors offering a larger role than Cleveland can, but the money is not likely to be much different.

Thompson’s camp asked for a trade at the deadline this past season (Cleveland couldn’t find a deal it liked), but when it comes time to decide this offseason he may want to stay with the organization he knows not a new one, if the money is the same. It’s going to be an interesting offseason for Thompson and the Cavaliers.

 

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.”