NBA Finals, Lakers Celtics: Rondo shut down in game one

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With 8:45 remaining in the very first quarter of game one, the Celtics looked to set up their half-court offense after Ron Artest made a jumper. The Celtics brought the ball up and gave it to Kevin Garnett on the wing, who swung a two-hand pass to Rajon Rondo on the other side of the perimeter. 
It was a simple pass early in the shot clock, the type of thing an offense does before they actually get down to the business of trying to put the ball in the basket. 99% of the time, that pass gets to Rondo without incident. That wasn’t the case with this pass. Before the ball got to Rondo, Kobe Bryant jumped into the passing lane and deflected the ball, forcing Rondo to jump in order to attempt to make the catch. 
Rondo failed to get a handle on the ball, tried desperately to save it, and ended up putting the ball directly into the hands of Ron Artest. Artest started a sloppy three-on-two break that ended in nothing but a missed layup, an offensive rebound, and a foul on the floor. In fact, the Lakers didn’t even get a basket on the ensuing possession. 
Nonetheless, a message had been sent. The Lakers were not going to give the Celtics anything free, even a pass out on the perimeter early in the shot clock. They were going to beat them to every loose ball, run at every opportunity, and keep the pressure on Rondo and the Celtics at all times. In short, they did to the Celtics in game one what Rondo did to the Cavaliers and Magic in the previous two rounds of the playoffs. 
As a player, Rajon Rondo gets his individual numbers by preying on the mistakes of his opponents. Every time one of his opponents fails to locate a loose ball or rebound, Rondo is there to grab it. Every time the other team doesn’t have enough players back on defense, Rondo is going to push the ball. Every time the Lakers help off of Rondo too much, he’s going to cut into the open space. When there’s a lazy pass, Rondo is going to snatch it and start streaking towards the hoop. 
As a team, the Celtics pulled off two consecutive playoff upsets because they were the ones controlling the chaos. They pushed the pace, they forced turnovers, they got the early leads, they made teams too nervous to trust their role players and loaded up on their superstars. They didn’t just beat teams; they made them miserable while they were doing it. 
On Thursday night, the Celtics got a taste of their own medicine. The Lakers played a high-energy, low-risk, mistake-free game, and they forced Rondo and the rest of the Celtics out of their comfort zone. Without a supply of mistakes to feed off of, Rondo was thrown to the Lakers’ half-court defense and left to starve. Rondo loves to grab long rebounds and start the break; the Lakers only missed six three-pointers all game, and 72 of their 102 points came on points in the paint or free throws. When the Celtics did get the ball in a possible transition situation, the Laker bigs sprinted back to seal off the paint. Thanks to all of those factors, the Celtics only managed five fast-break points in game one. 
With the Lakers failing to give Rondo any opportunities to run, he was forced to try and score points against the Lakers’ half-court defense. Things did not work out well for him. Rondo went 6-14 from the field, which isn’t good news for Celtics fans. The worse news is that Rondo went 6-14 while making three of his five shots from outside the paint. 
When Rondo tried to drive, the Lakers were waiting for him. His behind-the-back fakes drew no reaction. His reverses didn’t stop his layups from getting turned away. When he looked to drive and dish, the Lakers anticipated the pass. When he looked to go all the way to the basket, a Laker defender was there to draw the charge. Everyone knows Rondo has some very significant weaknesses; the Lakers were finally able to exploit them. 
For game two, the Celtics need to do a better job of stopping the Lakers from living in the paint and start forcing them into making some mistakes so Rondo can get the team running. In the half-court, Rondo has to find a way to get some points, whether it means getting more creative with his floaters in the paint or taking a deep breath and trying to draw contact. Rondo and the Celtics have a lot of adjustments to make before game two; if they have another performance like this, they’re going to need three straight wins in Boston to stay competitive in this series. 

Celtics hope return home can slow LeBron, Cavs in Game 5

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BOSTON (AP) — The Celtics expected to see a different LeBron James in Cleveland after the Cavaliers fell into a 2-0 hole to open the Eastern Conference finals

Two games and back-to-back wins later, James has reminded everyone exactly why he’s been to seven straight NBA finals.

Boston will be back in the embrace of its raucous fans at TD Garden for Game 5 on Wednesday. But a team that has thrived on youth this postseason suddenly looks disoriented without a go-to player and opposite a more veteran squad that has found a new attitude thanks to the fuel being provided by its biggest star.

“My teammates are putting me in position and wanting me to be in attack mode and trusting me to put our guys in position to be successful,” James said. “It’s not about me. It’s about the collective group, and I’m one of the byproducts of that.”

While the Cavs are certainly feeling rejuvenated, coach Tyronn Lue said it hasn’t changed their sense of urgency.

“We still gotta play,” Lue said. “We have veteran guys who have been there and know what it takes, but this is a young team, a good team that’s playing at home so experience is not going to be a factor. We have to come in there and have the same mentality that we had in Game 3 and 4.”

Two games ago, the numbers seemed all on the Celtics’ side.

They had moved to 9-0 at home during these playoffs and taken 2-0 series lead, which has been a magic number for a franchise yet to surrender such an advantage during its storied history (37-0). Over the last 96 minutes, Boston has been outscored by 39 points, has dropped to 1-6 on the road and is suddenly facing a must-win game to maintain home-court advantage.

Coach Brad Stevens said at the start of the playoffs that he believed there was value in the greenness of a young group that had several players getting their first taste of postseason basketball. He was proven right with Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum all thriving as first-time postseason starters.

Their success had the cumulative effect of masking the absences of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Now, the lack of an alpha like Irving capable of creating his own shot is sticking out with every 40-point game James produces.

Al Horford, Boston’s only healthy All-Star, was never a dominant scorer, but more of a facilitator who worked well in a finely tuned system.

Horford started off the series strong but his scoring and assist numbers have declined over the last two games.

Lue’s move to reinsert Tristan Thompson back into the starting lineup in Game 2 is a huge reason.

Thompson has not only helped things move better on the offensive end for Cleveland, he’s combined with Larry Nance to make things difficult on Horford. Horford had just four shots and seven points in 30 minutes in Game 3. He scored 15 points in Game 4 but was just 5-of-13 from the field with one assist.

If the Celtics are going to get back to the by-committee style that got them here, it must begin with his leadership. To that end, Horford said they’ll focus on correcting their issues, but also won’t dwell on them.

“As a group, we’re excited to be back, going back home,” he said. “Obviously we understand the challenge of it. We can’t think about the past. We just have to worry about this opportunity. We have a Game 5 at home, and we have to make the most of it.”

Cleveland is hoping James’ once quiet supporting cast continues its surge in Boston.

Kevin Love just missed his third straight double-double in Game 4 and sharpshooters JR Smith and Kyle Korver were 12 of 19 from the 3-point line in Games 3 and 4.

Korver’s efforts have stood out.

At 37 years old he was all over the court scoring in Game 4, diving for loose balls and collecting three blocks. While he anticipated being sore from all the activity, Korver said playing “fun basketball” is still propelling a guy looking for his first ring after appearing in 124 playoff games for five different teams during his 15-year career.

“There’s not many of us `03 class guys still around,” James said of Korver. “I feel like we’re just cut from a different cloth because we’ve been around for so long. We have this work ethic and you see him every day putting in the work, putting his mind, his body into it. It’s not about his age.”

 

Report: Timberwolves would dump Thibodeau before trading Karl-Anthony Towns

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In the NBA, when it comes down to a struggle between an elite player and the coach/GM, who wins? The player. A top 10 NBA player is much harder to get than a coach. If you don’t believe it’s the player go ask David Fizdale or Kevin McHale or Paul Westhead or.. I could fill up the entire NBC server with instances, you get the point.

As the tension between Karl-Anthony Towns and coach/GM Tom Thibodeau has bubbled to the surface in Minnesota, some teams have called up Thibodeau and the Timberwolves to check on KAT’s availability in a trade.

But would the Timberwolves really trade Towns? If one side is going to lose this battle, it’s Thibodeau, as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said on The Russillo Show (hat tip Uproxx).

“I think their owner would trade management/the coach before he would trade Karl-Anthony Towns. I don’t think they would allow that. I just don’t believe they’d allow that kind of decision. And I don’t know that they’d want to trade him… he’s Karl-Anthony Towns, they’re not moving him, Towns is eligible for his extension this summer. You know Jimmy Butler… it’s more of a question of Andrew Wiggins. That to me would be, if someone was going to get moved — and I’m not saying anyone’s going to get moved — I think Andrew Wiggins is the one you’re going to look at first. Because you don’t have to make a decision on Towns and Jimmy Butler and one of those guys having to take less on an extension, because you can’t have three [max] guys.”

To be clear, Thibodeau isn’t going anywhere this summer (unless he makes some kind of a power play move, like trying to trade Towns). The Timberwolves improved by 16 games last season and made the playoffs for the first time since 2004 — that was a step forward. Maybe not as big of one as some wanted/expected, but it wasn’t the kind of season that gets a coach/GM fired.

There’s also an odd dynamic in this with Jimmy Butler — he is Thibodeau’s guy. Butler has his back, and he can be a free agent in a couple of years, so if Minnesota wants to keep him then keeping the coach matters.

As for trading Wiggins, that is something to keep an eye on. Even if it’s not likely. After a disappointing 2017-18 season, there has been buzz around the league about the Timberwolves testing the market for Wiggins. The problem is Wiggins’ five-year, $148 million fully guaranteed contract kicks in next season — few teams want to take that on. To move Wiggins, Minnesota will have to take back bad contracts and/or send out sweeteners with him. Demand will not be high, despite Wiggins’ potential.

As Wojnarowski noted, both Butler and Towns have new contract coming up in the next couple of seasons, and both are clear max players. It puts Minnesota in a tight spot with the cap. They will be looking for some relief.

Just remember, if it comes down to Thibodeau or Towns, the player always wins. Especially a young, on-the-rise player.

Boston vs. Houston Finals? In 2-2 series, team with home court wins 80% of time

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Game 1 of the NBA Finals will see the Boston Celtics at the Houston Rockets starting May 31.

Or, at least that’s what the historic odds favor.

Most fans (and media/analysts) expect the Finals will still be Cleveland vs. Golden State, those are the two proven teams. However, as our own Dan Feldman noted, historically in a 2-2 series the team with two home games wins four out of five times.

Tuesday night, Houston looked every bit the kind of team that can stand up to the defending champion Warriors. Down 10 entering the fourth quarter, Houston’s improved ball-pressure defense wore down a Golden State team and took Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson (and in the fourth Stephen Curry) out of their rhythm. The Warriors couldn’t get the shots they wanted, didn’t get to the rim, went 0-of-6 from three and 3-of-18 overall in the fourth quarter. They looked like they were replaying the final games of the 2016 NBA Finals again (just with Durant). Meanwhile, Chris Paul was efficient and James Harden made plays that got Houston the comeback win. It was the kind of victory that can define a championship run.

Still, they need two more wins against a Warriors team that is loaded with All-Stars and has been to three straight Finals for a reason. Golden State believes it has another gear, now it needs to find it.

Out East, Boston heads home for Wednesday night’s game — the Celtics are 9-0 in the postseason and 22.4 points per 100 possessions better than on the road. Boston’s young role players have just been vastly superior on the parquet on both ends of the court. Plus, while the Cavaliers won Game 4, the Celtics won the last three quarters and seemed to find some defensive setups and plays that work for them.

Cleveland, however, has LeBron James.

Finally, we’ve got the kind of playoff drama we have wanted out of these conference finals.

Dikembe Mutombo to receive Sager Strong Award

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NEW YORK (AP) — Hall of Fame basketball player Dikembe Mutombo will receive the Sager Strong Award at this year’s NBA Awards show.

The award is named for longtime Turner Sports sideline reporter Craig Sager and presented annually to an individual who has been a trailblazer while exemplifying courage, faith, compassion and grace.

Mutombo’s honor was announced Tuesday by the NBA and Turner.

The four-time Defensive Player of the Year created the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation to improve conditions for people in his native Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital has treated nearly a quarter of a million people since opening in 2007.

He will receive a colorful suit jacket, the kind Sager fashioned during his years on air before dying of leukemia. The award will be presented on June 25 in Santa Monica, California.

Former New Orleans coach Monty Williams was last year’s inaugural recipient.