NBA Playoffs: Celtics bounce back, shut down the Heat

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It looks like the Miami-Boston series might just live up to the hype after all. After looking sluggish and over-matched in the first two games of the series, the Celtics were able to get a convincing 97-81 win over the Heat by doing what they do best: spreading the ball around on offense and playing lock-down defense.

The Celtics were able to get out to an early lead against the Heat’s Bibby/Wade/James/Bosh/Ilgauskas starting lineup, which has been an unmitigated disaster throughout the playoffs; the Heat were outscored by 15 points during Ilgauskas’ eight minutes of floor time. The Heat were able to get back into the game thanks to the spark provided off the bench by Joel Anthony, and actually went into the half with a two-point lead.

At the beginning of the third quarter, the Celtics were once again able to abuse the Heat’s starting lineup, and this time the Heat weren’t unable to dig themselves out of the hole their starters put them in.

Boston’s defense was absolutely stifling. LeBron James had a performance that evoked memories of his abysmal performances against the Celtics in the final games of the 2010 conference semifinals. He shot 6-16 from the floor, and spent most of his time dribbling in no-mans land, either trying to force drives through lanes that weren’t there or tossing up floaters that had little hope of going in. For his part, Chris Bosh was completely invisible, and Bibby and Ilgauskas combined to score a grand total of two points.

Mario Chalmers and Dwyane Wade were able to hit some shots, and Joel Anthony had one of his best offensive games of the season, but that wasn’t nearly enough to make up for the Heat’s big three going a combined 13-38 from the field against a dialed-in Boston defense.

Offensively, Boston was able to move the ball and shoot from the outside with accuracy, but everything ran through Kevin Garnett. Garnett is often the fourth option on offense for the Celtics, but it wasn’t that long ago that he was the league MVP, and Garnett had a throwback performance on Saturday night. The Celtics tossed the ball to Garnett in the post time and time again, and he was able to score over whoever was guarding him with ease.

Rajon Rondo’s performance was another huge key for the Celtics — his final line was pedestrian, but he gave his team a huge energy boost when he played all-out on one arm after dislocating his left elbow early in the third quarter.

But as good as Garnett and Rondo were, the story of the night was the Celtics’ defense. They completely broke down one of the best offensive teams in the league, and held the “Big Three” to their lowest point total of the season. This is the relentless, swarming, physical brand of defense that the Celtics have been built on ever since they traded for Kevin Garnett and became title contenders, and it’s the type of defense they will need to continue to play if they want to even up this series and send LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to an early vacation for the second year in a row.

As for the Heat, they may need to change up their starting lineup, and they will need to get back to containing Garnett and moving the ball they way they did in Games 1 and 2 — Miami may still have a 1-game lead and home-court advantage, but Boston is too experienced, too talented, too hungry, and too dangerous to be given chances to get back in the series.

Pelicans reportedly pick up option year on coach Alvin Gentry

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David Griffin, the guy with the hammer in New Orleans, likes Alvin Gentry. They have a relationship that goes back to Phoenix, where Gentry was the coach and Griffin was in the front office (and was eventually GM).

Gentry also has a style of play — he wants to run and be up-tempo. That should fit very well with soon-to-be No. 1 draft pick Zion Williamson.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise the Griffin and the Pelicans want to keep Gentry around, as reported by Malika Andrews of ESPN.

This is another smart, stabilizing move by Griffin. The Pelicans want to build an athletic, fast-paced team and Gentry is the right coach for that style.  Maybe it doesn’t pan out, maybe the Pelicans ultimately need to go another direction with their coach, but right now this seems a good fit.

Report: Utah “frontrunner” to land Mike Conley Jr. if Memphis trades him this week

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Utah feels like it is close — a 50-win team two seasons in a row, an elite defense, an All-NBA center in Rudy Gobert and an elite shot creator in Donovan Michell. They look at the West next season, with a depleted Warriors team, and see an opening.

Yet when Utah fell to Houston 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs this year, it was reminded of what is keeping the team from being truly elite, and another shot creator and shooter is at the top of that list.

Enter Mike Conley Jr. He averaged 21.1 points and 6.4 assists per game last season, shot 36.4 percent from three, and plays strong defense. Conley would be an upgrade over Ricky Rubio at the spot.

The almost All-Star point guard out of Memphis is available via trade. He’s the kind of veteran floor general, shooter, and shot creator Utah could use. The Jazz and Grizzlies talked but couldn’t come to an agreement at the trade deadline, but the sides are talking again and conversations are “intensifying” in the run-up to the NBA Draft Thursday, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Grizzlies are intensifying talks to potentially move franchise cornerstone Mike Conley Jr., league sources told The Athletic. Memphis has been in conversations with the Jazz and Utah is a frontrunner to acquire Conley should the Grizzlies trade the point guard during draft week, league sources said.

What would be in a trade package? Certainly the No. 23 pick in this draft, plus some young players the Grizzlies like (maybe Grayson Allen, Royce O’Neal, and even someone like Jae Crowder. Reports say Derick Favors is not part of the discussion.

While anything can happen the week of the draft — and things change quickly — don’t be surprised if some version of this trade gets done.

Kawhi Leonard wins day with last laugh — his viral laugh — at end of speech

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Kawhi Leonard just won again.

He won his second NBA title leading the Toronto Raptors to the franchise’s first crown. He earned his second Finals MVP in the process.

Then on Monday he had the last laugh and won the Raptors’ championship parade in Toronto by ending his speech with his laugh, the same one that went viral at the start of the season.

Of course, what Leonard will do on July 1 was a cloud hanging over the parade, Leonard is a free agent this summer. Kyle Lowry at one point started a “five more years” chant during the parade, which is the maximum number of years Toronto can re-sign Leonard for.

Leonard, exactly as we all should have expected, dodged the question, while praising his time in Toronto.

Unfortunately, this was a parade marred by more serious concerns.

How corrosive is tension between James Harden and Chris Paul in Houston?

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Golden State is not going to be contending for a title next season. Sorry Stephen, but you’re just not.

That throws open the doors to the West crown and, eventually, the NBA title, and teams will be lining up to take their shots. The Lakers just added Anthony Davis to go with LeBron James. Denver should improve and is looking for wing help. Utah feels just one playmaker away. The Clippers are big game hunting, and if they land one they become a threat.

Houston, however, should be at the front of that line… if they don’t shoot themselves in the foot. Contract extension talks with coach Mike D’Antoni are stalled, and at ESPN Tim MacMahon put together a fascinating inside look at the tension between at his isolation-heavy and at his peak James Harden and the intense but declining Chris Paul.

But Paul noticeably lost a step last season, as evidenced by analytics and the eye test. Paul pushed for more plays and sets in the Houston offense, more screening and deception, despite Harden being in the process of putting together a historically dominant individual offensive season.

“Chris wants to coach James,” says a source familiar with the stars’ dynamic. “James looks at him like, ‘You can’t even beat your man. Just shut up and watch me.'”…

It has reached a point, team sources say, where Paul cherishes the chance to play without Harden on the floor. On several occasions, according to team sources, Paul barked at D’Antoni to keep Harden on the bench while he was running the second unit. Harden simultaneously would lobby — or demand — to check back into the game.

There’s tension there, but is it corrosive to the point of the team unraveling? Or, as GM Daryl Morey and everyone else with the Rockets says, is this just blown out of proportion? Time will tell.

Two things to point out.

First, tension between two stars and alpha personalities is far from new in the NBA (or any other professional sport), and it does not mean a team is in trouble. These things can be worked out, they just flared up more in the wake of the round two loss to the Warriors.

Second, these guys are stuck with each other. Obviously, the Rockets aren’t trading Harden. They would be open to trading CP3, but at age 34 and owed $124 million over three more seasons, there are no takers (unless the Rockets want to throw in a sweetener, which they don’t). The players around them may change, the coach could change, but Harden and Paul have years left together.

This team is so close to a title, it’s hard to envision them really coming apart at the seams next season. These guys are too professional for that… although in wild NBA crazier things have happened.