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. 

James Harden on double-stepback uncalled travel: ‘What do you want me to say? Tell on myself?’ (video)

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James Harden is difficult enough to defend when officiated correctly.

When he can get away with this? There’s nearly no stopping him. That was a big uncalled travel in the Rockets’ win over the Jazz last night.

Harden, via Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

“What do you want me to say? Tell on myself?” Harden said.

Fair.

Unlike that call.

Three Things to Know: Rockets beat Jazz behind Harden’s 47, has Houston turned it around?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Rockets beat Jazz behind James Harden’s 47, is Houston turning it around? It was a “battle” of the two most disappointing teams in the Western Conference — just about every pundit (myself included) projected the Rockets and Jazz to finish second and third in the West in some order. They came into the night 10th and 13th in the West — both out of the playoffs if they started today.

And both needed a win — in the tight Western Conference any game between playoff contenders counts double (and there seems to be a game or three like this every night now).

Houston got the win, 102-97, because MVP James Harden showed up and took over: 47 points, six rebounds, five assists, and five steals.

That’s the second time in four days Harden has been in vintage form, he dropped 50 on the Lakers and frustrated them just days before. Harden is the master and showing the ball and drawing fouls, and he has the best step-back in the game — although this one was more than a gather and step. Harden got away with one.

The Rockets have now won four in a row, are over .500 at 15-14 for the first time since Nov. 23rd. They are just half a game back of the final playoff slot in the West.

Have the Rockets turned it around?

Depends on how you define “turned it around.”

The Rockets offense has been elite and their defense average — which is a big step up, they are still fifth worst in the league on the season — in these four games. Harden has taken over two of them. That recipe, if it continues, should get Houston into the playoffs in the West. In that sense, they have turned it around, they are performing at the level of a playoff team, which is a step up.

But just making the playoffs was never the goal in Houston — this was a team that was ahead of Golden State at halftime of games 6 and 7 of the Western Conference Finals last season and within a step of reaching the Finals (and winning a ring). This season they wanted to take that next step.

The Rockets aren’t at that level yet, and this roster — as currently constructed — cannot get there. Houston was a top-10 defense last season and this roster has not shown it can get near, let alone sustain, that level. Houston’s defensive switching isn’t as smooth as a season ago, and teams are attacking it differently (not just trying to post up Harden or Chris Paul). Houston doesn’t have the personnel on this roster to adapt and thrive against the way the NBA is adjusting, they are thin at the wings, and come the playoffs they are farther away from Golden State, not closer.

Which is why everyone expected them to go harder for a Trevor Ariza trade, not only do they miss him the Rockets need wing help and he’s the best one available. They didn’t. And here we are:

Houston is playing a lot better, but not at the level they had hoped. If you want to call that turning it around, go ahead.

2) Milestones night in Bay Area: Stephen Curry reaches 15,000 points, Kevin Durant passes Larry Bird on the all-time scoring list. For Stephen Curry, it appropriately happened on a deep pull-up three — he passed the 15,000 point mark in his career.

Curry is the fifth Warrior to score 15K all in a Warriors’ uniform, and the other names are all legends and Hall of Famers: Wilt Chamberlain, Rick Barry, Paul Arizin and Chris Mullin. Chamberlain scored the most as a Warrior at 17,783, a number Curry likely passes next season.

With all the attention paid to Curry — still the golden child for Bay Area fans — nobody seemed to notice Kevin Durant passed Hall of Famer Larry Bird for 33rd on the all-time scoring list during the same game. (Durant is 38th if you count ABA scoring in the mix, just for the record.) KD is going to finish way up that list by the time his career ends.

By the way, the Warriors cruised past the Grizzlies 110-93 in the kind of easy win Golden State hasn’t seen enough of this season.

3) Taj Gibson doesn’t need two shoes to play good defense. Credit Tom Thibodeau for coming up with a new way to play defense.

Taj Gibson had the ball in his hands and had gone at the Kings’ Nemanja Bjelica in the post, eventually scoring but losing his shoe. Gibson picked up his shoe and ran back down the court with it in his hands, but Sacramento pushed the ball back up the floor and decided to have Bjelica attack the one shoe/one sock Gibson.

Gibson was up to the challenge and got a little help from Karl-Anthony Towns.

Pretty sure that’s coming up in a Kings’ film session.

Report: Suns to waive Austin Rivers, who becomes unrestricted free agent

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The Phoenix Suns need a ball handling guard to go next to Devin Booker, so when they picked up Austin Rivers as part of the Trevor Ariza trade with Washington it made some sense. Rivers is a below replacement level NBA player (who has been serviceable the past couple of seasons), but that’s an upgrade over what the Suns had.

Except Rivers didn’t want to be part of the rebuild in Phoenix. In an unusual and unexpected move, the Suns have agreed to waive him, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

It’s an odd move on a few levels. Why didn’t Rivers want to stay in a place the ball would be in his hands more, giving himself a chance to build up his value before free agency next summer? Why didn’t the Suns first try to shop him around and offer to take on another team’s bad/dead contract if they got a pick or other asset? (Rivers can’t be packaged with another player in a trade but he can be moved straight up.)

Finally, how much demand is there among good teams for Rivers, even on a minimum contract?

Rivers, the son of Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers, is in his seventh NBA season. Rivers is averaging 7.2 points per game on 39.2 percent shooting this season.

It’s an odd move. Without Rivers Suns will keep leaning on rookie De'Anthony Melton as a potential future backcourt mate with Booker and hope he develops into something.

Bulls’ Kris Dunn shoves Russell Westbrook, scuffle breaks out (VIDEO)

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Russell Westbrook has a way of getting under an opponent’s skin.

Monday night it was the Bulls’ Kris Dunn‘s turn.

While moving over in position on the strong side, Westbrook and Dunn made contact, and after the whistle blew for a foul (with the ball handler), Westbrook made a grand gesture of pushing Dunn off him. Dunn responded with an outsized shove. And then it was on.

There’s more stuff to break down here than the Zapruder film.

• Jeremi Grant of the Thunder came in and tried to go at Dunn a little, in front of Westbrook (protect the star).

Bobby Portis tried to slide Grant out of the way, but…

Robin Lopez came in and went at Grant getting in his face, so Grant basically throws Lopez into the first row.

• Which just made Lopez even madder, leading to a meme-worthy angry face.

• Bulls’ coach Jim Boylen gets Grant in a headlock and pulls him out of the situation.

Steven Adams calmly makes sure Portis is out of the picture, then walks back over to Lopez and then Adams and Lopez get separated.

• In the end, the officials handed out for technicals: Westbrook, Dunn, Grant, and Lopez.

A few minutes later, Lopez blocked a Grant shot, decided to taunt him, and that got Lopez a second technical and he was tossed (Lopez is a veteran, he has to know the officials are going to call everything tight at that point). Watch Adams pat Lopez on the back as the Bulls’ big man makes the walk to the locker room.