NBA Playoffs, Magic Celtics: Game 4 a good a reason as any of why Stan Van Gundy's job isn't in jeopardy

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SVanGundy.jpgThe Magic were on the brink of franchise embarrassment on Monday night, as the Celtics were in command of the series with a 3-0 lead and came back to force overtime despite fantastic outings by Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson. Orlando’s season could have drifted away had Paul Pierce found an open Ray Allen at the end of regulation, but Pierce uncharacteristically bobbled away a late-game possession and the Magic survived the overtime period to avoid elimination.

That possession though, and the overtime as well, were icing on the cake of a much-improved overall game for the Magic. The defense still has plenty of room for the improvement and some of the missed opportunities on offense were just painful, but Orlando looked to be a substantial step closer to the excellence they displayed in the first two rounds of the playoffs and the final months of the regular season.

As good as the Celtics have been, the Magic’s unraveling has been something of a wonder. It can’t all be chalked up to Boston’s top-notch defense, as some of Orlando’s underwhelming Conference Finals showing seems to stem from nowhere at all. The Magic played against quality defensive teams in the regular season, but none of those games have been quite as befuddling as the first three in this series, during which Orlando’s offense was shackled, weighted, and thrown into the ocean.

Even beyond that, the Magic were the second best defensive team in the regular season, but the Celtics have averaged a full +3.7 points per 100 possessions above the Magic’s regular season mark in defensive efficiency. Considering how ho-hum this Boston team can be on offense when Rajon Rondo isn’t inspiring epic poems of his exploits, that’s a troublesome and somewhat inexplicable number. Orlando has underperformed in this series, perhaps woefully so.

Reading through that narrative, it may sound shocking similar to that of the Cleveland Cavaliers. They were a superb team in the regular season and still looked awfully strong in their playoff debut. Yet the team crumbled, and the first head to roll was head coach Mike Brown. LeBron received plenty of criticism for his Game 5 anomaly, but it was Brown’s reluctance to adapt the rotation that made the series against the Celtics far more difficult than it had to be. The Cavs still may not have won even if Brown’s performance had been flawless, but he was as culpable as anyone for the way Cleveland left the playoffs.

Yet you won’t — and shouldn’t — see anything in the coaching of that series that even remotely parallels this one. It may seem like Stan Van Gundy’s system is under fire, but SVG’s offensive adjustments in Game 4 showed why he’s still one of the best in the business.

With an understanding that guard penetration would be the key to unlocking the offense and that limiting Rajon Rondo’s effectiveness on the other end would ease his team’s defensive burden, Van Gundy devised an approach that could tackle both problems simultaneously. Whenever Jameer Nelson had the ball on the perimeter, he had the option of using two staggered screens to brush off Rondo. Rajon’s length and quickness had bothered Jameer throughout the series, and having not one, but two big bodies running interference freed up Nelson enough to pull-up from behind the arc or get all the way to the rim.

Plus, no one should discount how much running through screens can take out of a defender. Just ask any player who’s had the displeasure of defending Reggie Miller, Ray Allen, or Rip Hamilton about how exhausting it can be to chase shooters through screens all night. It’s not exactly the way that any player wants to spend their time on the defensive end. With Rondo asked to fight through several screens on pretty much every possession down the floor (another essential component of the plan was putting the ball in Nelson’s hands more often, which worked beautifully) while also running the Celtics offense, the burden of those dual responsibilities undoubtedly took a physical toll on him.

Running Rondo ragged, playing J.J. Redick major minutes, sitting the ice-cold Vince Carter during crucial moments in the fourth quarter — these are the reasons why Stan Van Gundy would have a job even if the Eastern Conference Finals had ended in a sweep. Among the most logical reasons to fire a coach is a distrust in them to make the right adjustments. That has never and will never be the case with Van Gundy. He makes mistakes — with sets, with the rotation, with certain play calls — but he’s a perfectionist that works tirelessly to correct those mistakes. He’s always tinkering, and his willingness to adjust is what makes him so valuable as a head coach.

Stan Van Gundy is not Mike Brown. Brown may not deserve the ridiculous amount of criticism he’s received over the years, but his inability to compromise — which is a bit odd to say for so amicable a coach — put his team at a disadvantage at inopportune times. The same is just not true of Van Gundy, and wouldn’t have been made more true if the Magic’s playoff run ended in a sweep. 

Report: CJ McCollum has been playing through fractured lower back

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CJ McCollum hit two critical free throws late Tuesday to put Portland up three late on Dallas and secure the win.

But he had a rough night overall, shooting 2-of-14 overall. His shooting numbers are down across the board through this restart, not terrible but down from the level the world has seen from one of the games most feared scorers.

Now we know why: A fractured lower back. Dwight Jaynes of NBC Sports Northwest broke the news.

Sources told NBC Sports Northwest prior to the game that McCollum has been playing with a L3 vertebral transverse process fracture (non-displaced) since last Thursday. In layman’s terms, he has a fracture in his lower back. He has played three games since the injury.

While this injury is not as bad as “a fractured back” sounds, it has slowed other players who had it, including Utah’s Mike Conley.

Portland has had success despite a slowed McCollum, in part because Gary Trent Jr. has stepped up and taken on a larger role on both ends of the court (including drawing a charge on Kristaps Porzingis that sealed the Blazers win over the Mavericks).

That win put Portland in as the eighth seed in the West, a spot they can hold with a win against Brooklyn on Thursday. That would put them in a play-in series — where if they won the reward would be LeBron James and the Lakers. To reach that point and threaten Los Angeles, Portland is going to need a lot out of McCollum. The question is how much does he have to give with this injury?

 

Giannis Antetokounmpo ejected after headbutting Moe Wagner

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The Milwaukee Bucks are lucky they have another seeding game remaining because there is a good chance Giannis Antetokounmpo gets suspended a game for this.

The reigning (and soon-to-be two time) MVP let Washington’s Moe Wagner get under his skin. After Wagner took a charge from Antetokounmpo the two had to be separated. They kept jawing, and when they came together again, Antetokounmpo headbutted Wagner.

Wagner may have sold that a little, but that is unquestionably a headbutt. Antetokounmpo deserved the Flagrant II and ejection that came with it.

The one-game suspension that is coming will not cost the Bucks anything, they have the No. 1 seed in the East locked up. However, that one game is aginst the Grizzlies and if Memphis wins it gets the nine seed in the West at worst (eighth of Portland were to lose Thursday).

Wagner has a gift for getting under an opponent’s skin. Antetokounmpo has to do better keeping his emotions in check, because come the playoffs they will get tested like never before.

 

Damian Lillard scores 61 points, win vaults Portland to eight seed

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The Portland Trail Blazers control their own postseason destiny — and they can thank Damian Lillard for that.

Lillard got all the respect he wanted when he tied his career-high of 61 points Tuesday, and the Portland Trail Blazers needed every one of them to beat the Dallas Mavericks 134-131.

Lillard was 9-of-17 from three, plus got to the line 18 times and hit every free throw.

Portland’s win combined with Memphis’ loss to Boston puts the Trail Blazers into the eighth seed in the West — win on Thursday against Brooklyn and Portland is the eighth seed. That is a massive advantage heading into the two-game play-in series, the eighth seed just needs to win one of those two games to advance to the playoffs (and a first-round date with LeBron James). The ninth-seeded team needs to sweep the two games to advance.

Memphis can maintain the nine seed with a win Thursday. Should the Grizzlies lose again (to the Bucks, who have nothing to play for) it opens the door for the Suns or the Spurs to get the nine seed. Or maybe higher.

Portland is not safe just because of the win Tuesday: If it loses to Brooklyn on Thursday and two of Memphis, Phoenix, and San Antonio win, the Trail Blazers will be watching the first round of the playoffs on television like the rest of us. The race in the West is that tight.

It’s hard to imagine Portland losing a critical game, however, with the way Lillard is playing. He said he wants some respect on his f ****** name – and he’s more than earned it.

Watch Devin Booker score 35, keep Phoenix perfect 7-0 and in play-in hunt

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Devin Booker scored 35 points and the Phoenix Suns protected their playoff hopes by beating the Philadelphia 76ers 130-117 on Tuesday to remain undefeated in the NBA restart.

Booker became the Suns’ career leader with his 91st 30-point game, breaking a tie with Walter Davis.

Mikal Bridges added 24 points and Ricky Rubio had 16 points with 10 assists for the Suns, who began the day only one game behind eighth-place Memphis in the Western Conference playoff race.

Phoenix is 7-0 as the only undefeated team in the restart and an unlikely factor in the tight race for a spot in this weekend’s play-in for the final playoff spot.

Phoenix pulled away late after leading only 105-102 following back-to-back baskets by Alec Burks, who led the 76ers with 23 points.

A dunk by Cameron Johnson capped a 10-3 run that stretched the lead to 115-105.

The Suns continued their high-scoring play in the bubble after averaging 120 points in the first six games.

Philadelphia, No. 6 in the East and already assured of a playoff spot, is attempting to prepare for the postseason after losing Ben Simmons to a knee injury.

Shake Milton was Philadelphia’s only healthy starter against the Suns. The 76ers also were without Joel Embiid (left ankle), Tobias Harris (sore right ankle) and Al Horford (sore left knee). Josh Richardson was rested.