NBA finals, Lakers Celtics Game 3: It's all about the paint

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Rondo_drive.jpgRay Allen got all the love last game, well deserved love at that. The man with the pure jumper was shooting it as well as anyone ever has. It was beautiful basketball.

But he’s not why Boston won.

The Celtics won because they took back the paint. On offense the Celtics got 46 shots in the paint, 38 of them at the rim. They only shot 39 percent in the paint, but it was a sign that they were attacking again, particularly Rajon Rondo.

Getting the ball inside matters. The Lakers pick-and-rolled the Celtics in Game 1 and that got them buckets at the rim. But Boston adjusted — they are, after all, one of the best pick-and-roll defensive teams in the league. What did you expect? Well, apparently the Lakers weren’t expecting it because they seemed unprepared for better defense in the paint and their perimeter people went back to their default of shooting jumpers.

According to Hoopdata, the Lakers were 12 of 16 at the rim in Game 2, 17 for 55 (31 percent) everywhere else. Ron Artest was part of that going 1 for 10, but tried to make up for it by dribbling more.

Game 3 tonight will again be about the paint. For the Celtics it means continuing to get penetration and break down the Lakers defense that way. For the Lakers, it means the same thing it has meant all season when they struggled — they have to get the ball inside again to Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum.

There are two constant keys in this series: points in the paint and points in transition.

The team that can get the most transition baskets will probably win. These are two good defensive teams. The Celtics held the Lakers to 40.8 percent shooting in Game 2, but the Lakers length really bothers the Celtics big men, as Boston shot just 14 of 38 at the rim (layups, dunks and put backs) last game.

When points are that hard to come by, the easy buckets that can come in the open court running after a miss or turnover are key. Remember, of the eight Allen three pointers, four of them came when he ran to the arc and got the ball in transition. Bottom line, the Lakers were better at this in Game 1, the Celtics in Game 2, and whoever is in Game 3 gets a huge win.

One key stat that goes with the transition game — rebounds. You need them to run. When your point guard gets a dozen, as Rondo did, it jump starts the break.

Look for the Lakers to go back to getting the ball to Pau Gasol in the high post, that is when their offense functions best. The pick-and-roll is a treat for the Lakers offense, it cannot be the main course again. Boston is ready. But do expect to see Kobe Bryant try to attack more off the dribble, and hope his teammates follow his lead and not just settle for jumpers.

Look for Boston to continue to exploit the defense of Derek Fisher. He cannot guard Rondo or  Allen, and he has to cover one of them. Allen likely wil not be that hot again from three, but if he gets the looks he got with Fisher chasing him he’s still going to get a lot of points. Rondo would just be able to get into the paint at will on Fisher (at least Kobe is long enough to recover and guide him to help). Look for the Lakers to move Kobe around and keep him on the hot Boston hand.

If either team can get production out of their missing fours — Lamar Odom or Kevin Garnett — they will have a huge advantage.

You can also figure that the referees and foul trouble will play a key role tonight. Pray that it doesn’t, but expect it to.

Lots of story lines. Lots of possibilities. But in the end, the team that scores more points in the paint will have the lead in this series.

Cavaliers’ Kendrick Perkins not into “all that new stuff” like Chewbacca

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Chewbacca was at Game 3 in Cleveland Saturday. Sitting courtside.

Why? Because growing up on Kashyyyk he played a little hoop and admires LeBron James‘ skill? Because Drake gave him the tickets? Maybe. I mean, it’s not like that was just a clever little publicity stunt for a movie.

After the Cavaliers’ win, Kevin Love decided to make a little joke of it with noted humorist Kendrick Perkins, and it went over as well as expected (with Dave McMenamin of ESPN catching it).

That’s vintage Perkins.

Celtics’ Terry Rozier on Game 3: “We needed to get our butts whooped”

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Cleveland dominated Game 3 Saturday night. They played harder, to start. The Cavaliers’ defensive pressure on the ball was better, they were sharper rotating out to shooters and covering passing lanes. Cleveland’s role players stepped up and helped LeBron James.

Boston, meanwhile, wilted in the face of that pressure Saturday, something it has done a few times on the road these playoffs. The Celtics got away from the things that got them to the Eastern Conference Finals. Guard Terry Rozier put it more bluntly, via A. Sherrod Blakely of NBC Sports Boston:

“I feel like we needed this (loss) to get us back … to get us ready for Monday,” Rozier said.

Rozier later added, “We needed to get our butts whipped. Come back to reality and take care of business on Monday.”

Cleveland is a championship team — from LeBron James on down through the core guys, they all have rings. They have been down before, and heading home it was expected they would play with force. Cleveland’s back was against the wall and they responded.

From the Celtics’ perspective, they also got a little too fat and happy and were not ready for what the Cavaliers came with in Game 3.

Now the pressure is on Boston to push back, to get back to their level of execution and do it under pressure. Make the Cavaliers prove the improved defensive effort was not a one-off game. The Celtics must move the ball and play with some pace, then see if the Cavaliers can keep it together in the face of crisp play.

When this series heads back to Boston Wednesday, it will either see the Celtics in control up 3-1, or the series will be a best of three (with the Cavs still having to figure out if they can win on the road). At home, the Cavaliers are going to play with force again and have some depth. We’ll see if Game 3 was enough of a wakeup call for Boston.

PBT Extra: Can Rockets take Game 2 energy, execution on the road?

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Houston found its blueprint to beating Golden State in Game 2: Strong defensive pressure on the ball, quick switches and communication on defense, getting out in transition when possible, and starting sets earlier in the shot clock and attacking downhill with James Harden and Chris Paul.

Now can they do that on the road? Against a more focused and sharper Warriors’ team?

That will be the question in the next two games of the Western Conference Finals, and it’s what I discuss in this latest PBT Extra.

Cavaliers cruise past Celtics in Game 3, change complexion of Eastern Conference finals

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The Cavaliers were heavy favorites over the Celtics entering the Eastern Conference finals. LeBron James has dominated the East for years, and Cleveland appeared to hit its stride in a sweep of the Raptors last round. Boston was shorthanded and inexperienced.

Were the Celtics’ two wins to open the series, as impressive as they were, really enough to override everything else we knew about these teams?

The Cavs walloped Boston in Game 3, 116-86, Saturday. Cleveland now has four of the NBA’s last five 30-point playoff wins – two against the Celtics last year, one over Toronto last round and tonight. (The Cavaliers lost the league’s only other 30-point game between, to the Pacers in the first round.)

Boston still leads the series 2-1, and teams up 2-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 80% of the time.

But the team up 2-1 is usually the one seen as better entering the series. That isn’t the case here, not with LeBron on the other side. And the leading team usually isn’t so woeful on the road, which will remain a major storyline entering Game 4 Monday in Cleveland.

The Celtics bought themselves margin for error, but they blew a lot of it tonight.

It’d be an oversimplification to say the Cavs just played harder, but they did, and it went along way. They chased loose balls, tightened their defense and moved more off the ball offensively. Cleveland jumped to a 20-4 lead, led by double digits the rest of the way and spent most of the game up by at least 20.

LeBron (27 points, 12 assists, two blocks and two steals) dazzled as a passer and locked in as a defender. He received help from several players:

In a low-resistance effort, Boston didn’t goon up the game at all.

The Cavaliers still have plenty of work ahead to reach their fourth straight NBA Finals, but tonight, they showed a path to advancing. Climbing out of their early series deficit now looks far less intimidating.