NBA finals, Lakers Celtics Game 2: The Celtics will play like themselves, but is that enough?

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Garnett_jumper.jpgAll that time spent in Boston practices working on the triangle sets, and the Lakers destroyed the Celtics vaunted defense with the old-fashioned pick-and-roll in Game 1.

What people forget is that this happened some in 2008 — the Lakers had maybe their best offensive success with the pick-and-roll. But as Darius of Forum Blue& Gold reminded me in an email the Celtics had a counter move: James Posey. The differences in personnel will force much different adjustments this time around, and it may not be enough.

The Celtics will make adjustments — starting with their energy level and physicality in Game 2. They have to. Everything for the Celtics flows out of their defense, and against the Lakers in particular they need to get stops, rebounds and get Rajon Rondo out and running for some easy transition baskets.

To do that, they have to stop the pick and roll.

The Lakers had Andrew Bynum come out and set the high pick and Kobe Bryant as the ball handler. All too often Kobe was allowed to turn the corner with little or no resistance and he went driving into the paint, which broke down the Celtics defense. Kevin Garnett would step out to help on Bryant and that left Pau Gasol free to get rebounds.

So the Celtics started try and trap Kobe coming off the pick with Kendrick Perkins and Ray Allen, to get the ball out of Kobe’s hands. Then Gasol would flash to the high post area and Kobe would get him the ball. Then Garnett was screwed. He had two responsibilities: Stop Gasol’s 17-foot jumper (which he can and did hit) and cover Bynum rolling to the hoop. Garnett is a great defender, but he cannot be in two places at once. That is where you saw that nifty Lakers interior passing tearing up the Celtics.

Again, this happened some in 2008, but things were different. Gasol was setting the picks for the Lakers, not the injured Bynum, and Odom was the guy flashing to the high post. Back then the Celtics could counter with James Posey, who could body Odom and give him trouble. The Celtics also put Paul Pierce on Kobe because they were not afraid of the Lakers small forward. Pierce did a good job in the Kobe-stopper role. The Celtics could go with a small lineup — KG at the center spot — and had a lot of success with that.

This time around, it’s not that easy. No James Posey, for one. Second, the Celtics run a real risk going small because Phil Jackson will not adjust — he will try to pound the Celtics with his front line. Ask Phoenix and Utah about that. Also, putting Pierce on Kobe now means Ray Allen trying to guard Ron Artest, and Ron-Ron is too big and strong for Allen, the Lakers could post that up all day.

Look for Boston to use some of the Phoenix defensive strategy. Not the zone, but the idea of packing the paint a little more and making the Lakers jump shooters. Even if that means giving up a little of the aggression out on the wings the Celtics like to use to throw teams off. The Celtics cannot let the Lakers once again get into the heart of their defense off the dribble or pass. Nobody is stopping the Lakers front line if they get to shoot 8 footers all night.

Expect to see the physical Celtics, expect to see the Celtics front line that pushes and believes the paint is its home to protect. The Lakers will counter and they still have weapons — Lamar Odom was almost non-existent in Game 1, but he could explode at any time. And these Lakers will push back — as a reminder Jackson has been splicing scenes from “Inglorious Bastards” into the Lakers game film. A movie about guys who took no prisoners.

The style and pace of this game will be more to the Celtics liking. The question is, will that be enough? With this Lakers roster, it may not be.

Suns promote GM James Jones to to President of Basketball Operations

Phoenix Suns Open Practice
Barry Gossage / NBAE via Getty Images
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James Jones put together the roster that took the Suns to the Finals two seasons ago and had the best record in the NBA last season (64 wins). At 13-6, the Suns sit atop the Western Conference this season.

The Suns have rewarded Jones, giving him the title of President of Basketball Operations on top of GM.

“In the nearly 15 years I have known James, he has excelled in every role he performed, from player to NBPA Treasurer to his roles in our front office, most recently as general manager,” Suns interim Governor Sam Garvin said. “James has the unique ability to create and lead high-performing teams in basketball operations and his commitment to collaborating with our business side, including at the C-level with partners like PayPal and Verizon, is second to none. We are fortunate for his contributions across the organization and this promotion recognizes his commitment to excellence.”

Jones moved into the Suns’ front office in 2017 at the end of a 14-year playing career, then became GM in 2019. The move gives Jones a little more stability during the sale of the franchise. Not that the new owner would come in and fire a successful GM.

“I am grateful for the privilege to work with and support the players, staff and employees of the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury,” Jones said in a statement. “The collective efforts of our business and basketball operations have allowed us to provide an amazing atmosphere and best-in-class experience for our fans and community. I remain excited about and dedicated to driving success for our Teams on and off the court.”

Jones has made several moves that set the culture in Phoenix, including hiring Monty Williams as coach then, after an undefeated run in the bubble (that left Phoenix just out of the playoffs), he brought in Chris Paul to take charge at the point.

Report: Leaders in Lakers’ locker room think team ‘only a couple of players away’ from contending

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There’s a sense of optimism around the Lakers: They have won 5-of-6 and are expected to have both Anthony Davis and LeBron James healthy Monday night, plus Russell Westbrook has found a role and comfort level off the bench and other players are settling into roles. They may be 7-11, but it’s early enough there is a sense this could be turned around.

That is echoed by “locker room leaders” who think the team is just a couple of players away from being a contender in the West (where no team has pulled away), reports Dave McMenamin at ESPN.

There is belief shared by leaders in the Lakers’ locker room, sources said, that the team is only a couple of players away from turning this group into a legitimate contender. But acquiring the right players could take multiple trades.

Let’s unpack all of this.

• “Leaders in the Lakers’ locker room” means LeBron and Davis (both repped by Rich Paul). Let’s not pretend it’s anything else.

• If the Lakers don’t make a move to significantly upgrade the roster, how unhappy will those leaders become? How disruptive would that be?

• It is no coincidence that McMenamin’s report comes the day the Lakers face the Pacers, a team they went deep into conversations with this summer on a Myles Turner/Buddy Hield trade, but Los Angeles GM Rob Pelinka ultimately would not put both available Lakers’ first-round picks (2027 and 2029) in the deal and it fell apart. Turner said the Lakers should “take a hard look” at trading for him. The thing is, the Pacers are now 11-8, not tanking for Victor Wembanyama but instead thinking playoffs, so are they going to trade their elite rim protector and sharpshooter away? Not likely. At least not without an overwhelming offer, and the Lakers’ two picks may not get there anymore.

• While Westbrook has found a comfort level coming off the bench (and not sharing the court as much with LeBron), he is still a $47.1 million contract that no team is trading for without sweeteners. To use NBA parlance, he is still a negative value contract, even if it feels less negative than a month ago.

• Are the Lakers really a couple of players away from contending? While they have won 5-of-6, three of those five wins came against the tanking Spurs, the others were against the so-injured-they-might-as-well-be-tanking Pistons, and the Nets before Kyrie Irving returned. The Lakers did what they needed to do and thrived in a soft part of the schedule, but that schedule is about to turn and give the Lakers a reality check on where they really stand. After the Pacers, it’s the Trail Blazers (likely still without Damian Lillard), then an East Coast road trip that includes the Bucks, Cavaliers, Raptors and 76ers. The next couple of weeks will be a better marker for where the Lakers stand, and if they can build off of the past couple of weeks.

Dallas Mavericks near agreement to sign Kemba Walker

Oklahoma City Thunder v New York Knicks
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Looking for help spacing the floor and with secondary shot creation behind Luka Doncic, the Dallas Mavericks are turning to Kemba Walker.

Marc Stein was first with the news the sides were close to a deal, but since then multiple reports — plus comments from team owner Mark Cuban — confirmed it is happening.

This will be a veteran minimum contract (all the over-the-cap Mavericks can offer). To create the roster spot, the Mavericks will waive Facundo Campazzo, who was signed a few weeks ago and has barely touched the court for the team.

Walker averaged 11.6 points and 3.5 assists a game playing solidly in stretches for the Knicks last season, but the concern was his staying on the court — he appeared in just 37 games due to ongoing knee problems. Walker spent the offseason working on getting past those, but the Knicks traded him to Detroit for picks, but the Pistons were stacked at the point guard spot (at least before the season and injuries hit Cade Cunningham), so they bought out his $9.2 million for this season.

Walker worked to convince teams he still had plenty in the tank, but it was always going to take a situation where a team reached a certain level of desperation. Enter the Mavericks.

Doncic calls Antetokounmpo ‘the best player in the NBA right now’

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It was a matchup of two of the NBA’s top five players and two guys high in the way-too-early mix for MVP this season: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic.

Doncic carried the Mavericks again with 27 points on 10-of-20 shooting plus 12 assists.

Antetokounmpo was a force of nature with 30 points on 11-of-19 shooting plus 11 rebounds, plus he had more help around him leading the Bucks to a 124-115 win.

There is a mutual admiration society between these two players, and after the game Doncic called Antetokounmpo the best player in the NBA. Via Jack Maloney at CBS Sports.

“Enjoy [competing against him] is hard because I want to win, so it’s hard to go against a guy like that,” Doncic said after the Mavericks’ fourth consecutive defeat. “He’s the best player in the NBA right now. He’s almost impossible to stop. It’s really fun to see him play, but it’s not that fun to go against him.”

Antetokounmpo had praise for Doncic as well.

“That’s a great compliment and I appreciate that,” Antetokounmpo said. “When you play against the best players in the league, being able to say something like that feels good. No matter wins or losses, just being respected by your peers, it’s always a good feeling.”

We have many years of these two players testing each other, and someday it may be Antetokounmpo calling Doncic the best in the NBA.