NBA Finals, Lakers Celtics: Role Players turn game six into a blowout

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In games four and five, the main difference between the Lakers and the Celtics was that the Celtic role players played like they were ready to win an NBA Finals, and the Laker role players played like they were terrified to be playing in an NBA Finals. 
You can talk all you want about what type of role players survive in high-pressure situations and which ones don’t; shooters vs. slashers, veterans vs. young players, et cetera. You can talk about the coaching. You can talk about the culture of the team. In the end, it generally boils down to this: role players almost always play better at home, and they almost always play better when their team has a substantial lead than they do when their team is behind. When a team is ahead and the home crowd is behind them, everyone relaxes. Everyone is comfortable running the offense, nobody is afraid of making mistakes, and offensive balance and efficiency generally results. 
When a team gets behind, especially on the road, everyone gets tense, the ball slows down, jumpers get missed, and that’s when the best one or two players on a team have to go ISO or pick-and-roll to try and get their team back into the game. 
The Lakers are fairly comfortable playing from behind thanks to Kobe — the flip side of that coin is that they sometimes lean too heavily on Kobe, and can have trouble playing four quarters of efficient offense as a result. The (playoff incarnation) of the Celtics is a classic front-running team; their defense keeps the other team from making big comeback runs, and they have too much balance in their offense to allow it to go stagnant if a superstar goes cold. 
However, when forced to play from behind, there’s nobody who can jump-start the offense for the Celtics the way Kobe can for the Lakers. Because of that, things can sometimes get ugly when the Celtics fall behind early. In game six, that’s exactly what happened.
The first thing Los Angeles did to get their role players going was to take the pressure off of their role players early. They did that by more or less giving the ball to Kobe Bryant and getting out of his way. Since Kobe’s jumper was on, it was a prudent strategy. Kobe had 11 points and an assist in the first seven minutes of the game. Even better, the pick-and-rolls he ran with Pau Gasol forced the Celtic D to collapse and opened up Ron Artest in the corner for two early threes that got his confidence going. 
By the time Kobe and Ron’s mini-onslaught was over, the Lakers had a 26-16 lead with three minutes to play in the quarter. Kobe was on his game, the shots were falling, the crowd was going crazy. (Nothing gets the Los Angeles crowd going like a Ron Artest three — it’s the adrenaline dump.) It was all good news from there for the defending champions. The Lakers put the Celtics on the ropes early, and they didn’t give the Celtics one chance to recover in the final 42 minutes of play.
The final three quarters of game six were less a contest than an extended Laker victory march, and every Laker got in on the fun. Sasha Vujacic came off the bench to knock in some long jumpers. Shannon Brown got four points on two spectacular dunks. Jordan Farmar threw his body all over the court and finished with three steals. Pau Gasol came an assist shy of a triple-double. Josh Powell, Luke Walton, and D.J. Mbenga all actually got into the game. 
Meanwhile, the Celtics got a total of 13 points from players not named Garnett, Pierce, Rondo, or Ray Allen. Eight of those 13 points came in the final five minutes of play, and no non-“big four” player scored until the fourth quarter. The Celtic role players looked completely out of their element, and the Laker defense absolutely feasted on their lack of confidence and inability to run the offense. 
When they talk about this series 10 or 20 years from now, they probably won’t talk about Tony Allen or Ron Artest. (Well, Artest might get a mention.) They’ll talk about Paul Pierce, Garnett, Kobe, Phil Jackson, Doc Rivers, Rajon Rondo, maybe Pau Gasol. All the same, it was the bit players on both sides who put the Lakers in a 3-2 hole, and it was those same bit players’ fortunes changing that allowed the Lakers to tie the series with a rout. There’s a very good chance that they’ll be the ones making the extra passes, the quick doubles, the timely steals, or the open shots that will end up deciding game seven and the NBA Finals. 

Devin Booker calls out Enes Kanter’s defense after Suns beat Knicks

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In a Knicks’ win over the Suns last January, Enes Kanter irritated Devin Booker into pushing him. The Phoenix guard got ejected then had to deal with Kanter’s online trash-talking afterward.

So, this retweet – following the Suns’ win over New York last night – was nearly a year in the making.

Booker:

There are two possible responses here. I’m not sure which is correct.

1. Booker shouldn’t criticize anyone else’s defense before looking in the mirror.

2. Kanter’s defense is so bad, even Booker is mocking it.

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.