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.

Tom Thibodeau on Timberwolves not getting first-rounder in Jimmy Butler trade: ‘Getting good players was a priority’

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The Heat offered Josh Richardson and a first-round pick. The Rockets offered four first-round picks or Eric Gordon, Nene and two first-round picks. The Pelicans reportedly offered Nikola Mirotic and an unprotected first-round pick.

But the Timberwolves traded Jimmy Butler to the 76ers for Robert Covington and Dario Saric in a deal that included no first-round picks and Minnesota getting only one second-rounder.

Timberwolves president-coach Tom Thibodeau:

We wanted quality players. I think that that was important for us.

When you look at, to get two starters off a team that won 52 games, and they’re both young, and they’re going to get better, and they’re both very good defensively. They both shoot the 3, so we think they fit well with the guys that we do have.

And so once we once got to that point where felt we were getting multiple rotational players, then we felt it would be time to execute the deal.

It was what was best for the organization. Obviously, getting good players was a priority. But the pick part is important, and we felt we got a good pick from Philly.

It was what does it mean for the team? If you get two rotational players, that’s good. And then if you can get a pick, that allows you to do more things. And so I think that’s all part of it. You always try to think about what the possibilities could be.

Thibodeau might have taken the best offer for the the Timberwolves by the time he actually accepted a deal. Miami pulled the Richardson offer after his strong start to the season. Getting four first-rounders from Houston required taking Brandon Knight‘s negative-value contract, and it’s unclear exactly how the picks were protected. New Orleans has the best record of those three teams, so an unprotected pick carries less value.

But it’s also impossible to overlook Thibodeau’s present-minded attitude. That’s how he already approached everything. Now, he appears to be coaching for his job this season. Nobody ever expected him to prioritize long-term assets.

Covington and Saric are good players, but Minnesota was also 4-9 at the time of the trade. Are Covington and Saric good enough to lift the Timberwolves out of this hole and into the playoffs? It’s a tough ask. In 2020-21, Saric will be up for a big raise, and the Timberwolves already have a lot of money committed. They might have to downgrade the rest of the roster to keep Saric and avoid the luxury tax. This is a narrow window for Minnesota to get value from this trade.

That said, blame Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor for creating this situation. By allowing Thibodeau to remain in charge without much job security, Taylor is practically demanding Thibodeau emphasize the present. If Taylor wanted draft picks, he should have fired Thibodeau earlier.

Caris LeVert suffers injury so horrific, it brings teammates to tears and opponents to prayer (video)

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Caris LeVert has been one of the Nets’ biggest bright spots. The hard-working 24-year-old was a Most Improved Player candidate, and he seems well-liked throughout the organization. He’s even already hit a couple gamewinners this season.

But LeVert’s breakout campaign hit a devastating snag tonight, as he injured his leg.

The reactions of both his Brooklyn teammates and the Timberwolves say everything. This is a tough one.

Markelle Fultz takes ugly pump-fake free throw

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A key question after the 76ers traded for Jimmy Butler: How would the demanding star affect Markelle Fultz‘s confidence?

Butler isn’t even playing for Philadelphia yet, but this isn’t an encouraging sign.

Maybe the ball just slipped out of Fultz’s hands on the way up, and he had to continue pushing it toward the rim to avoid a violation. That could happen to anybody.

But given everything we know about Fultz’s shooting woes, it’s impossible to take this as anything other than a ghastly low point in an ongoing problem.

LeBron James: ‘I almost cracked’ with Lakers’ slow start

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LeBron James has played in eight straight NBA Finals.

How’s he handling reduced expectations with the Lakers, who started 2-5 before rising to 7-6?

LeBron, via Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

‪“I haven’t changed anything outwardly, but you know me. You know how I am. I almost cracked [last week]. I had to sit back and remind myself, ‘[Expletive], you knew what you were getting yourself into,’” James told Yahoo Sports while laughing after Saturday’s win in Sacramento. “This process has been good for me. I just have to continue being patient.”‬

LeBron warned everyone to stay clear when he loses his patience, but he has never sounded close to losing it this season. He signed a four-year deal with the Lakers, said he doesn’t feel urgency to win quickly before his prime ends and seems content to wait for a co-star.

If anything, it seemed LeBron might be too relaxed, enjoying the Los Angeles lifestyle and focusing on showbusiness.

So, this is a welcome sign of his competitiveness.

Also kudos to LeBron for harnessing it unlike others in the organization. These Lakers need time to determine how these oddly shaped pieces fit together – unless a star becomes available. Then, all bets are off.