Orlando chokes, breathes new life into Boston’s season

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Boston was having serious trouble finding itself this season — they looked old and the talk was about what was the best way to rebuild — but now there is hope.

Hope because twice this week the pressure of Boston’s defense turned the Orlando Magic into jelly. The first was a Boston 31-point blowout Monday where Orlando set a franchise record for fewest points scored.

Then Thursday night the Magic took charge of the game in the first quarter, led by as many as 27, were cruising along in the third quarter…

And then fell apart. Boston went on a 44-15 run to end the game, Orlando scored 8 points on 12 percent shooting in the fourth quarter in the face of that Celtics defense, and the Celtics roared back to an improbable 91-83 win.

The final 18 minutes of this game were stunning. Vintage Kevin Garnett showed up and played Dwight Howard to a standstill, allowing the focal point of the Magic offense to score just three points in the final frame. Paul Pierce played like he was 10 years younger as well on his way to 24 points. Orlando’s Ryan Anderson, who had 12 points in the first quarter as the Magic took control never scored again. E’Twaun Moore came off the bench and could not miss. Paul Pierce, with 24 points (10 in the final quarter) looked reborn.

For 18 minutes Boston dominated Orlando about as thoroughly as one team can dominate another and in the process staged an amazing comeback. Celtics fans reveled in it (and enjoyed watching Glen Davis take and miss bad shots).

This stat from My Synergy Sport sums up the kind of night Boston started to have — Moore was 0-14 in spot-up situations this season before Thursday, but he knocked down four spot-up threes in this game. Moore had 10 points in the fourth quarter.

Boston has won three in a row, and they did it without Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen. They did it by playing defense. You can sense their confidence and swagger. Boston also has a long way to go — they are 8-9 on the season and just the 7 seed in the East as you read this (still behind Orlando). If the measure is championship or bust in Boston, then Chicago and Miami still loom like Mount Everest and K2 in the way. But the Celtics look the last few games like a team that does not want to be blown up, one that thinks it can compete in the East.

Orlando? Good in the regular season. Above average in offense and defense. A system built around the best center in the game but without the players to really compete with the elite of the NBA. It is games like these two losses to Boston that weakens Orlando’s hold on Howard as the trade deadline and then a potential summer of free agency start to loom larger. Here is what Howard said after the game.

“We thought it was going to be easy after the first two quarters,” Howard said. “We can’t allow that to happen. We’ve got to change. We have to change what we do, and guys have to know their roles and do it. That’s just the bottom line.”

Choose to read into that what you wish.

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

Associated Press
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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

AP Photo/Tony Dejak
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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.

Luka Doncic named EuroLeague MVP at age 19

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Luka Doncic, the likely top two pick in the upcoming NBA draft, has led his Real Madrid team to the EuroLeague finals at age 19.

Now he has been named the youngest player ever win the EuroLeague MVP.

For those unfamiliar, EuroLeague is the equivalent of the Champions League in soccer — the very best club teams from around the continent face off against each other. On this biggest of European stages, Doncic has been a force. He is a gifted passer with great court vision. He can take his man off the dribble. He can hit threes. And he knows how to be a floor general and run a game. Did we mention he’s just 19?

Doncic said before the start of EuroLeague that he hasn’t decided what he is going to do about coming to the NBA or going back to Real Madrid. Don’t buy it. This is like asking a major college basketball star right before the NCAA Tournament if he is coming back to “State U” next year, they don’t want to say “no” right before the tourney so they give a non-committal answer. Same here. He’s not leaving millions on the table, he’ll be in the NBA next season.

And he’ll bee good.