NBA finals: How do the Celtics match up?

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piercegm6.jpgAnd lo, I saw green horse, and on them green riders, and their names were the Celtics. And hell followed with them.

The Boston Celtics are returning to the NBA finals with a defense of the fiercest machinations, led by veteran stars who are still quite capable of eviscerating a defense. After dispatching the Magic in Game 6, ending any discussion of a chokejob in Beantown (well, another one, eh Bruins?), the Celtics can turn their attention towards their final opponent, whoever that may be.

So how do the Celtics match up with the two Western contenders? Let’s begin with the less likely of the two options.

Phoenix Suns: I’d bother with telling you the Suns won both regular season matchups, but the Celtics have already shown that the regular season doesn’t mean anything to them and the results are meaningless. The Suns do represent the classic foil to the Celtics. Even with a tougher, more defensive approach, they’re still the unstoppable force to the Celtics’ immovable object.

The Phoenix offense isn’t exactly a cake walk for the Celtics. The same spread perimeter attack that enabled the Magic to crawl back into that series is there for the Suns. Steve Nash is one of the few point guards with the confidence and versatility to counter Rondo’s brilliance on the offensive end. The Suns rebound well and have considerable length. They have experience in Grant Hill and versatile wings in Jason Richardson and Goran Dragic. And they possess a bench unit with considerable advantages over Boston.

The run and gun style of the Suns would give the Celtics problems, as injuries and fatigue have become more and more  of a factor for the Celtics, though it’s a factor they’ve admirably overcome. Slowing down that transition attack by stopping the ball in Nash’s hands would fall to Rondo, whose length would likely give the Celtics a chance to do so. Coverage of the perimeter shooters in transition would be more difficult, but it’s also a shot the Celtics are willing to take.

All in all, you have to give the Celtics the advantage based on two factors. One, the Celtics’ toughness and physical nature would likely knock the Suns back on their heels. Amar’e Stoudemire would be pounded by tough, long defenders, and the Suns’ mob bench would be overwhelmed on the glass from Kendrick Perkins, Rasheed Wallace, and Glen Davis. Jason Richardson wouldn’t be able to counter Pierce, nor Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo would make Nash look like Derek Fisher on the defensive end. This has to be the result the Celtics are looking for if they want an easy route to the ring.

Los Angeles Lakers: Hello, darkness my old friend, I’ve come to welcome you again. The Lakers and Celtics know each other and an epic ratings-soaring finals matchup would satisfy both clubs’ requirement for destroying the other on their way to the championship. Any championship without beating the other would seem empty for these two.

There are plenty of reasons to suspect this matchup to follow the blueprint of two years ago.Paul Pierce is controlling the force of the game with his offense, as he did in 2008. Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins create a tough bullying counter to Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom is always likely to vanish for a game or three.

So what’s different? Ron Artest gives the Lakers a defensive attack dog to unleash on Paul Pierce, which they didn’t have in 08. Shannon Brown can at least deflect some of the damage from Nate Robinson, and Andrew Bynum’s appearance is significant in a possible series. It would open Pau Gasol in space. The Lakers can’t just depend on Kobe Bryant, but this time they have enough weapons to offset the Celtics’ defense.

The one huge red flag for the Lakers has to be the play of Rajon Rondo. Derek Fisher has done a phenomenal job in managing Steve Nash, but Rondo’s a whole other set of problems. With length, speed, and a sick amount of athleticism, Fisher would need considerable weakside help to slow down Rondo. At some point in that series, Kobe Bryant may be switched on to Rondo much like he was to Russell Westbrook in round one.

The Lakers overall talent probably puts them in a favorable position. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned this postseason, the Celtics don’t care how big of an underdog they are, how much more talented the other team is. They focus, execute, and deliver. If these two meet in the finals as it seems destined they will, it will be fire on the mountain.

LeBron James dunks way to 26, but Lakers have long way to go, drop opener in Portland

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The Portland Trail Blazers know who they are and what they want to do — they return mostly the same core players, led by All-Stars Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, still running Terry Stotts offense as they have for years.

The Lakers have LeBron James… and a lot of other new faces. Too many of whom are not a threat from three and all of whom are still getting to know each other.

In LeBron’s Lakers’ debut, continuity and shooting won out.

Throughout much of the night, and especially when things tightened up late, Portland knew what it wanted to do and executed — it was Lillard time, he finished the game with a team-high 28 points. In contrast, too often the Lakers looked disorganized, particularly on defense. Their offense felt clumsy in the half court, with LeBron working to get guys involved more than just take over.

The Trail Blazers won the fourth quarter 35-28 and with it the game, 128-119, much to the delight of a raucous Portland crowd.

The Lakers are now 0-1 in the LeBron era. It’s just one game, but it showed that the Lakers have a long way to go to get to be the team they want to be this season — and it also showed the potential of what they can be.

“We had some good, we had some bad, which is to be expected in game one,” LeBron said after the loss. “I liked our fight to get back into the game when we were down double digits, I liked the way we competed at times, I liked the way we shared the ball at times as well.”

These new-look Lakers did what Luke Walton had promised — they ran, they attacked the rim scoring a ridiculous 70 points in the paint, and they moved the ball. The Lakers had 17 fast break points in the first half, this is a team that averaged 17.5 fast break points a game last season (LA finished with 34).

And Los Angeles dunked. LeBron got in on the fun and was throwing it down.

That, alone, does not win games.

The Lakers shot just 7-of-30 from three, missing a long of quality looks from the corner. Maybe in other games those start to fall, but concerns about the lack of shooting with the Lakers go back to this summer.

LeBron also struggled to connect passes to teammates, he finished with six assists but turned the ball over on 18.8 percent of his possessions on the night. In the halfcourt, he let Rajon Rondo run the shot often (he had  13 points and 11 assists and was a +11 in 32 minutes, it was a good night for him).

“We had some turnovers, which I expected, just trying to get a feel for one another,” LeBron said. “We can do a better job.”

Portland, on the other hand, knocked down the kind of shots they struggled to hit against the Pelicans in the playoffs last April — they were 13-of-37 from three (35.1 percent). The surprise came from Nik Stauskas, who was 5-of-8 from three on his way to 24 points on the night.

Los Angles moved well off the ball and when LeBron got the rock at the elbow he found a lot of cutters. However, when Rajon Rondo or Lance Stephenson was initiating the offense, the Blazers laid back and took away passing lanes, daring the Lakers to shoot.

Some of the Laker youth showed promise — Josh Hart had 20 points and was 3-of-5 from three, Brandon Ingram had 16 points and Kyle Kuzma 15. However, they are still adapting to playing with LeBron, like the entire team they were up and down on the night.

There were flashes when the Lakers were running when you saw how dangerous this Lakers team can be with a roster full of unselfish playmakers. These Lakers are fun. They are entertaining.

But they are not yet the team they need to be — and on the road, against a Portland team that knows exactly who it is, that is not enough. Welcome to the Western Conference, LeBron, there are a lot of teams like Portland out there.

Ben Simmons triple-double, Joel Embiid’s 30 leads 76ers past Bulls 127-108

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Markelle Fultz heard 20,000 Philadelphia 76ers fans exhort him to shoot each time he touched the ball, a roaring confidence boost for a No. 1 pick closer to a bust than brilliance.

Fultz had the look he wanted in the second quarter. He dribbled to the foul line without a defender in his path, pulled up and uncorked a jumper. The ball rattled around the rim before it fluttered through the net.

Sixers fans rose to their feet, erupted in cheers and chanted “Fultz! Fultz! Fultz!”

Yes, a simple jumpshot from the top pick of the 2017 draft in the second game of the season was enough to get a rise out of the fans – and a sigh of relief from Fultz.

“It makes me feel better for the whole crowd to feel as good as I want to,” Fultz said.

The curious case of Fultz’s missing jumper continued against the Bulls when one of the more scrutinized players in the NBA managed to steal the spotlight from his more accomplished teammates with routine – yet highlight-reel worthy – baskets.

Until he gets his shot right, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid will continue to lead the Sixers.

Simmons had a triple-double with 13 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists and Embiid had 30 points and 12 rebounds to lead the Philadelphia 76ers past the Chicago Bulls 127-108 on Thursday night.

Fultz scored 12 points on 5 of 15 shooting, the most shots taken by a Sixer.

“He shot it to mean it,” coach Brett Brown said. “He didn’t look afraid of anything. He missed the shots but they looked good.”

Fultz is coming off a miserable rookie season that was shortened because of a right shoulder injury, a broken shot and busted confidence. Even his personal shooting coach said Fultz suffered from the “yips,” an assertion shot down on media day by the second-year guard. Fultz simply blamed his lost season on the injury. Brown tried to give Fultz a confidence boost by putting him in the starting lineup – yet has benched him for the start of the second half.

Fultz was 1 of 6 in 15 minutes in the first half and didn’t play again until late in the third and the Sixers leading by 88-68.

“The challenge is to grow him and help us win the game,” Brown said. “There’s no book that tells you how to do that, so you’re going to have to figure some stuff out. There will be some pain along the way and some positives.”

With or without Fultz, the 76ers had plenty of positives after an opening-night disaster in Boston.

Simmons reached a triple-double with 2:34 left in the third, the 13th of his career and the first Sixer to ever get one in the home opener. Sixers fans chanted “Trust the Process!” when Embiid ended the third with free throws.

Fultz proved a long-range ace again in the fourth – this time with a 3! He drained his first career 3-pointer for a 108-88 lead and the Philly fans that are firmly perched in his corner went wild and again chanted his name.

The Sixers know that if they want to become legitimate Eastern Conference contenders, Fultz will have to become the star they envisioned when they drafted him.

“I’m never afraid,” Fultz said. “I worked hard this summer. Tonight, I didn’t make a lot of them, but I’m going to keep shooting them. If I see an open shot, I’m going to go shoot it.”

He didn’t even mind when Chicago’s defense sagged off him, daring him to take shots. The Bulls, not expected to win much in the East, scored a combined 35 points in the second and third quarters. Zach LaVine led the Bulls with 30 points in their season opener.

“When we started missing shots, we stopped guarding and rebounding,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/tag/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Ben Simmons racked up his first triple-double of season in three quarters

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The first triple-double of the season went to the Pelicans Elfrid Payton with the “just made it” version of 10, 10, and 10.

Ben Simmons racked up the first of what will be many triple-doubles this season in his second game, Thursday night against the Bulls. He finished the night with 13 points, 13 rebounds, and 11 assists. Here is the assist that put him over the top, along with a few other highlights.

Philadelphia started the second half on a 19-2 run and controlled the game the rest of the way, going on to win by 19. There was even a Markelle Fultz pull up three that fell.

Kobe Bryant: “The Lakers are going to surprise a lot of people,” make playoffs

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Lakers fans are not known for their reasonable expectations or patience, and LeBron James coming to the team has only enabled those tendencies. However, around the team a lot of people are tamping down expectations, with some even suggesting the Lakers will miss the playoffs.

Kobe Bryant is a Laker fan, and he is tamping down nothing.

In a wide-ranging Q&A with The Undefeated, Kobe addressed his expectations for the Lakers this season.

“The Lakers are going to surprise a lot of people. Rob [Pelinka, the Lakers’ general manager] has smartly built a team of physical players. Big, versatile, fast, physical players. He understands that if you want to challenge Golden State, you can’t challenge them with shooting. That’s what they do. You’ve got to beat them somewhere else. You have to beat them with size. Chippiness. Feistiness. Strength and speed. And he has a team that has that. He has a mixture of vets that are still in their primes and young kids that are hungry and open-minded and willing to learn. A team that can compete and challenge. That is a dangerous mix.”

So, Kobe, we’re talking about a playoff team?

“Oh, God, yes. C’mon.”

I predicted the Lakers as a playoff team, somewhere around 47 wins. They are going to be good, I like the young core with Brandon Ingram (who will have to be the No. 2 option this season), Lonzo Ball and the rest. The young players are going to have to step up, and the veterans — particularly Rajon Rondo and JaVale McGee — can help.

But the margin for error is slim, as it is with every team in the West playoff hunt not in Houston or the Bay Area. A slow start and it’s fair to ask questions about the Lakers. Injuries will play a role in the West no doubt. The Lakers should be a playoff team but they are no lock.

If they do fall short, Kobe will not be the only disappointed fan asking questions.