Celtics could cripple Hawks with another win to end the weekend

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The Boston Celtics haven’t played exceptional basketball during their NBA Playoffs series against the Atlanta Hawks, but they’ve got the job done well enough to take a 2-1 lead heading into Sunday evening’s game at the Garden. Atlanta’s going to have to come up with some road magic of their own to end the weekend, however, if they’re going to keep the series competitive.

Since the Hawks posted their opening game victory, they’ve struggled running any sort of offense in the second half — and it didn’t help that Josh Smith missed Friday’s game with a leg injury, either, taking away the team’s best offensive threat from the series’ first two games. On the other end of the spectrum, the Celtics have watched Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo both put together big games to help Boston squeak out wins to take the lead in the series.

It’s difficult to try and predict anything based on what has happened in the first few games between these two teams, however, considering the key players will be changed once again for Sunday’s Game 4. First it was Ray Allen being absent from the lineup, then Rondo was suspended for Game 2, Smith missed Game 3 due to injury and now — on Sunday — it appears nearly all of the main contributors expected to play in this series (Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia are still absent) will play on Sunday … unless, of course, Avery Bradley’s “game-time decision” due to a shoulder injury is turned into a DNP or the sprained ankle Tracy McGrady suffered on Friday night has flared up.

All of that said, the Hawks’ backs will be against the for Sunday’s game. A 3-1 deficit isn’t impossible to come back from, of course, but the momentum the Celtics have already built without playing their best basketball certainly won’t be dampered if they’re able to pick up another win at home.

For the Hawks to win, they’ll need to figure out how to stop Rondo from penetrating — Kirk Hinrich’s seemed to play the best defense on him this series, for what it’s worth — while hoping Pierce doesn’t go into hero-mode and the tandem of Jason Collins and Ivan Johnson are able to keep Kevin Garnett from breaking out a retro scoring performance. Atlanta will need to rely on Joe Johnson and “Smoove” Smith, provided he’s healthy, on the offensive end while making sure the stagnant offense that has appeared in the second halves of Game 2 and 3 don’t appear again in Game 4.

Boston doesn’t have as many problems to worry about considering they’ve pulled out wins playing less than stellar basketball their past two games anyway. The Hawks will likely have some answers for Rondo and Pierce after being beat by them the past two games, but there’s a reason they’ve been referred to as the Big Four in the past — and Garnett or Allen likely wouldn’t mind reminding the national viewing audience, either, if anyone’s forgotten.

The onus is on the Hawks to show that they belong and, if it doesn’t happen on Sunday night, anything else will likely be too little, too late.

Report: CJ McCollum has been playing through fractured lower back

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CJ McCollum hit two critical free throws late Tuesday to put Portland up three late on Dallas and secure the win.

But he had a rough night overall, shooting 2-of-14 overall. His shooting numbers are down across the board through this restart, not terrible but down from the level the world has seen from one of the games most feared scorers.

Now we know why: A fractured lower back. Dwight Jaynes of NBC Sports Northwest broke the news.

Sources told NBC Sports Northwest prior to the game that McCollum has been playing with a L3 vertebral transverse process fracture (non-displaced) since last Thursday. In layman’s terms, he has a fracture in his lower back. He has played three games since the injury.

While this injury is not as bad as “a fractured back” sounds, it has slowed other players who had it, including Utah’s Mike Conley.

Portland has had success despite a slowed McCollum, in part because Gary Trent Jr. has stepped up and taken on a larger role on both ends of the court (including drawing a charge on Kristaps Porzingis that sealed the Blazers win over the Mavericks).

That win put Portland in as the eighth seed in the West, a spot they can hold with a win against Brooklyn on Thursday. That would put them in a play-in series — where if they won the reward would be LeBron James and the Lakers. To reach that point and threaten Los Angeles, Portland is going to need a lot out of McCollum. The question is how much does he have to give with this injury?

 

Giannis Antetokounmpo ejected after headbutting Moe Wagner

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The Milwaukee Bucks are lucky they have another seeding game remaining because there is a good chance Giannis Antetokounmpo gets suspended a game for this.

The reigning (and soon-to-be two time) MVP let Washington’s Moe Wagner get under his skin. After Wagner took a charge from Antetokounmpo the two had to be separated. They kept jawing, and when they came together again, Antetokounmpo headbutted Wagner.

Wagner may have sold that a little, but that is unquestionably a headbutt. Antetokounmpo deserved the Flagrant II and ejection that came with it.

The one-game suspension that is coming will not cost the Bucks anything, they have the No. 1 seed in the East locked up. However, that one game is aginst the Grizzlies and if Memphis wins it gets the nine seed in the West at worst (eighth of Portland were to lose Thursday).

Wagner has a gift for getting under an opponent’s skin. Antetokounmpo has to do better keeping his emotions in check, because come the playoffs they will get tested like never before.

 

Damian Lillard scores 61 points, win vaults Portland to eight seed

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The Portland Trail Blazers control their own postseason destiny — and they can thank Damian Lillard for that.

Lillard got all the respect he wanted when he tied his career-high of 61 points Tuesday, and the Portland Trail Blazers needed every one of them to beat the Dallas Mavericks 134-131.

Lillard was 9-of-17 from three, plus got to the line 18 times and hit every free throw.

Portland’s win combined with Memphis’ loss to Boston puts the Trail Blazers into the eighth seed in the West — win on Thursday against Brooklyn and Portland is the eighth seed. That is a massive advantage heading into the two-game play-in series, the eighth seed just needs to win one of those two games to advance to the playoffs (and a first-round date with LeBron James). The ninth-seeded team needs to sweep the two games to advance.

Memphis can maintain the nine seed with a win Thursday. Should the Grizzlies lose again (to the Bucks, who have nothing to play for) it opens the door for the Suns or the Spurs to get the nine seed. Or maybe higher.

Portland is not safe just because of the win Tuesday: If it loses to Brooklyn on Thursday and two of Memphis, Phoenix, and San Antonio win, the Trail Blazers will be watching the first round of the playoffs on television like the rest of us. The race in the West is that tight.

It’s hard to imagine Portland losing a critical game, however, with the way Lillard is playing. He said he wants some respect on his f ****** name – and he’s more than earned it.

Watch Devin Booker score 35, keep Phoenix perfect 7-0 and in play-in hunt

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Devin Booker scored 35 points and the Phoenix Suns protected their playoff hopes by beating the Philadelphia 76ers 130-117 on Tuesday to remain undefeated in the NBA restart.

Booker became the Suns’ career leader with his 91st 30-point game, breaking a tie with Walter Davis.

Mikal Bridges added 24 points and Ricky Rubio had 16 points with 10 assists for the Suns, who began the day only one game behind eighth-place Memphis in the Western Conference playoff race.

Phoenix is 7-0 as the only undefeated team in the restart and an unlikely factor in the tight race for a spot in this weekend’s play-in for the final playoff spot.

Phoenix pulled away late after leading only 105-102 following back-to-back baskets by Alec Burks, who led the 76ers with 23 points.

A dunk by Cameron Johnson capped a 10-3 run that stretched the lead to 115-105.

The Suns continued their high-scoring play in the bubble after averaging 120 points in the first six games.

Philadelphia, No. 6 in the East and already assured of a playoff spot, is attempting to prepare for the postseason after losing Ben Simmons to a knee injury.

Shake Milton was Philadelphia’s only healthy starter against the Suns. The 76ers also were without Joel Embiid (left ankle), Tobias Harris (sore right ankle) and Al Horford (sore left knee). Josh Richardson was rested.