NBA Playoffs: The Heat outlast the Celtics

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The first half of Miami’s 98-90 overtime win in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals consisted of two very good teams executing very well. The second half of the game was a battle of wills — the kind of game the Miami Heat weren’t supposed to be able to win against the Celtics. They came out on top anyways, and the Celtics will now have to win three games in a row to avoid an early summer vacation.

Boston held the lead for most of the first half thanks to some crisp ball movement, timely shooting, and an absolutely brilliant performance from Paul Pierce, who put the Celtics on his back with a wide variety of gritty drives to the baskets and jumpers from nearly every spot on the floor. The injured Rajon Rondo wasn’t his usual self, but he was still able to keep the Heat honest by attacking the basket with his one good hand and finding shooters. More importantly, the bench was able to pick up the slack for Rondo, outscoring Miami’s reserves 21-7 on the night. Delonte West in particular continued to play tough defense and hit timely shots — his play has been a hugely pleasant surprise for Boston in this series.

The Heat kept the Celtics from opening up a big lead by staying in attack mode throughout the first half. LeBron James set the tone early by making a layup while absorbing a flagrant foul from Jermaine O’Neal, and the Heat never stopped attacking after that. James and Wade used each other’s aggressiveness to find their own lanes to the basket, and combined to shoot 23 free throws on the night. And after a slow start, Chris Bosh finally got involved by being active in the paint, fighting for every loose ball, and out-toughing Kevin Garnett, who finished the game with 0 offensive rebounds and a 1-10 shooting performance.

The second half was an all-out war. Neither team was able to get much offense going, or get any sort of comfortable lead, although Boston had a few chances to do so. The defenses swarmed, and the offenses got stagnant. There were no fast-break opportunities to speak of, and the teams didn’t seem interested in starting their sets until there were 12 seconds left on the shot clock.

Late in the game, Boston looked to have Miami in a hole with a pair of three-pointers that put the Celtics up three with just over two minutes remaining, but LeBron James was too much for Boston down the stretch. James, whose failures in the clutch made him a constant subject of criticism throughout the season and likely cost him his third consecutive MVP award, was superlative when it mattered most.

James scored 11 of the Heat’s final 13 points in regulation, and scored or assisted on the first two baskets of overtime, which put the Heat up for good. LeBron gave the Celtics a chance to win when he turned the ball over just before the end of regulation, and Bosh and Wade were the ones who put the final nails in the coffin in overtime, but the two-time MVP was the difference between success and failure for the Heat on Monday night.

What does this mean for the Heat? All it tells us is something we should have known long ago: there is not some curse on or inherent flaw in this team that makes it unable to win close games. The Heat can play tough, the Heat can win ugly, and the Heat can win close games against experienced teams. Past performance does not guarantee future results, and the NBA world was reminded of that in Game 4. That goes both ways — the Heat could easily lose the next close game they find themselves in, and that game could be the one that costs them a championship. Heck, they could still collapse, lose Game 5, and have to win another game in Boston to prevent a Game 7.

We don’t know if the Heat will win the next close game they play in. We don’t know if they’ve fixed whatever seemed to ail them late in regular-season close games. All we know is that (unless home-court advantage plays a major role in the Chicago series), the Heat have played in exactly one close game that truly mattered to their season, and they won it. Going forward, that has to give them confidence. Or maybe it won’t. All we can do is wait and see what this insane collection of talent does while they try and get the nine more wins they need to achieve their ultimate goal.

Report: Making 2020 NBA Finals could swing whether Giannis Antetokounmpo signs super-max extension with Bucks

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The honeymoon between Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks is over.

Milwaukee’s superb season ended tonight with a Game 6 loss to the Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals. Already, attention is turning to the 2020 offseason, when Antetokounmpo can sign a five-year super-max extension that projects to be worth $250 million. If he doesn’t, the pressure will turn way up as he approaches unrestricted free agency in 2021.

Antetokounmpo is already applying some.

Malika Andrews of ESPN:

a source close to Antetokounmpo said that getting to the NBA Finals is not just an ambition, it could tip the scales as he weighs his contractual future.

And if they can reach the NBA Finals next season, the Bucks can improve their chances of signing Antetokounmpo to the supermax in the summer of 2020.

Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and Malcolm Brogdon will be free agents this summer. It’s unclear how much luxury tax Milwaukee is willing to pay.

This leak could be Antetokounmpo trying to convince the Bucks to pay to keep this team intact.

Would he actually leave Milwaukee? At every turn, he has praised the city and organization. But the Bucks have also been on an upward trajectory for years. As they get closer to the top, it becomes more difficult to maintain that positive momentum. They’re now entering a crucial season with the clear goal of a conference title. That doesn’t leave much room for error.

The Lakers are rumored to be plotting to get Antetokounmpo. If there are signs he’ll actually become available, many other teams will line up just for a chance to sign him. Antetokounmpo is a special player, a superstar at age 24.

He also needed this loss. Having never advanced past the first round before this year, he didn’t fully grasp the high level of play and intensity this deep into playoffs. He hadn’t felt the heartache of coming so close and falling short, a highly effective motivator. Raptors like Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol had already faced these tests, and that had a lot to do with Toronto winning.

I have no doubt this experience will make Antetokounmpo even better.

Antetokounmpo wants to ensure the Bucks match his desire to win. If they do, he and Milwaukee will remain committed to each other. The honeymoon isn’t the end.

But this is when it gets real.

Raptors’ summer gamble pays off with trip to Finals after Game 6 win over Bucks

Associated Press
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Toronto’s big gambles paid off.

Last summer, after five years of winning at least 48 games and looking impressive in the regular season only to stumble in the playoffs, Toronto’s team president Masai Ujiri went all in. He fired the NBA’s coach of the year in Dwane Casey to hire his assistant Nick Nurse, with the hope of installing a more creative offense.

Then they traded fan favorite and (at least to that point) the greatest Toronto Raptor in franchise history to get Kawhi Leonard, a guy coming off an injury that essentially sidelined him for a season. A guy who would be a free agent after one season. Leonard could bolt — like other stars had done north of the border — and leave the Raptors high and dry.

It was all a massive roll of the dice.

Toronto hit their number with that roll — the Raptors are headed to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.

Toronto stormed from 15 points down in the third behind another monster game from Kawhi Leonard — 27 points, 17 rebounds, 7 assists — and held on to win Game 6 in front of a raucous home crowd, 100-94.

Toronto will host Game 1 of the NBA Finals Thursday night against the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors.

The Raptors may not be familiar with that stage, but Leonard knows both the Finals stage and that opponent (recall that the last time he faced them Zaza Pachulia slid under his foot on a jumper, spraining Leonard’s ankle and ending San Antonio’s playoff hopes that season). Thoughts about July 1 are banished for now in Toronto, the party is on.

“It means a lot,” long-time Raptor Kyle Lowry said about making the Finals. “It’s taken a long time to get here in my career, 13 years, seven years here [in Toronto]….

“But I’m not satisfied.”

This series changed in Game 3 when Nurse changed things up and had Leonard as the primary defender on Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak still got his, but everything became harder, and as the Raptors slowed the pace their halfcourt defense locked in. On the offensive end, Leonard just made plays.

“He’s a great player, he made some very special plays, give him a ton of credit,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said of Leonard.

For the Bucks, who had the best record in the NBA this season and a likely MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo, this was a learning experience about their shortcomings — both his and the Milwaukee roster. He had 21 points and 11 rebounds, but he was not able to dominate the game like Leonard did in crucial moments. That comes with being just 24 and making a deep playoff run.

“In our minds, we feel he’s going to get a lot better,” Budenholzer said of the Greek Freak. “At 24 some guys are… I don’t want to say they are who they are, but at 24 some of the great ones were the same at 30 and 32 and so forth. Giannis we feel has a lot of room to grow.”

So does the roster around the Greek Freak. Antetokounmpo sat just 7:28 in this game, and that proved to be too much — the Bucks were -9 in those minutes. They lost by six.

Eric Bledsoe struggled again, with 8 points on 9 shots. Khris Middleton — who is a free agent this summer — had 14 points on 5-of-13 shooting.

Still, this is a good team on a learning curve. One with some tough decisions ahead for the front office, but a team on the rise.

They showed that early.

Milwaukee came out playing with a sense of desperation – it showed in their energy and second efforts on defense — but they raced out to a 15-point lead early in the second quarter mostly because they just hit shots. In the first half the Bucks did not get the ball inside (only seven shots at the rim) but were 9-of-18 from three and hit 50 percent of their shots from the midrange. Antetokounmpo had 10 points and seven rebounds and Ersan Ilyasova surprised with nine points in the first 24.

That had the Bucks up 50-43 at the half, but it felt precarious. Then in the third, Milwaukee had an 8-0 run and the lead was pushed to 15 at one point. The Raptors were stumbling. Pascal Siakam hesitated on shots, not trusting himself. Danny Green trusted himself but couldn’t hit anything.

The tide turned thanks to Leonard. The Raptors finished third on 10-0 run — with Leonard scoring or assisting on every bucket — and the lead was down to 5 after three.

Early in the fourth was when Antetokounmpo sat again, and the Raptors went on a 7-2 run to tie the game at 78-78. That lead kept growing and then Leonard did this.

Milwaukee would not go away down the stretch, but Leonard kept making plays while Antetokounmpo and company got tight. Milwaukee could never get back in front.

For the Bucks, it’s a lesson.

For the Raptors, it’s the trip to the Finals they bet big on.

Watch Kawhi Leonard dunk all over Giannis Antetokounmpo, highlight of 26-3 Toronto run

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For most of the first three quarters of Game 6, the Milwaukee Bucks were in control of the game and looked to be on the way to forcing a Game 7.

But Kawhi Leonard sparked a 10-0 run for Toronto to end the third, scoring eight and assisting on a Serge Ibaka bucket.

That run carried over into the fourth and became a 26-3 run that was highlighted by this insane dunk by Leonard over Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Insane.

I’d say that’s Leonard’s best shot as a Raptor if not for the series winner against Philadelphia.

The Bucks responded with a 7-0 run and this game is going to go down to the wire.

Bucks play with desperation, lead by as many as 15 in first half

Associated Press
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If you think a 15-point lead is safe, go talk to a Portland Trail Blazers fan and get back to me.

The Bucks will still take it. Milwaukee has come out with a sense of desperation, but more importantly got to play with some pace and couldn’t miss early from three — they started 4-of-6 and were 7-of-13 from three as of this writing — and what we saw were play after play from the Bucks, the kinds of things we haven’t seen the last three games. They led by 13 after one, and the lead got as high as 15.

Can the Bucks sustain this, or will they cool down as the Raptors heat up? It’s going to be a wild rest of the game in Toronto.

The Raptors are up 3-2 in the series and playing for their first ever franchise trip to the Finals. The Bucks are playing to force a Game 7 Monday back in Milwaukee.