Miami’s athletic defense is biggest hurdle for Boston to clear

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It wasn’t the technical fouls. It wasn’t the officiating period (Miami shot 23 free throws, Boston 21). It’s not about fatigue. It’s not something being more physical can solve. It is not something zone defense is going to solve. The core problem the Boston Celtics have to overcome against the Miami Heat is something very basic.

Miami is by far the more athletic team.

That’s a problem when Boston tries to defend LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, however Game 1 showed it is the other end of the floor that is the bigger issue — Boston scored just 33 points in the second half and that’s why Miami won handily 93-79.

Boston has to find a way to score against the Heat. Consistently. This is not Philadelphia — 79 points won’t have you in the game. But this is like playing a better version of the Sixers defense, something the Celtics couldn’t solve effectively last round.

And the Celtics need to solve it fast. They need ball movement to negate the wing shot blocking LeBron and Wade bring, they need to knock down threes. Because if Boston loses Game 2 Wednesday night and has to win four out of the following five against the Heat, they are in serious trouble.

Boston scored less than 20 points in three of the four quarters of Game 1. Boston shot 25 percent in the first quarter, 27 percent in the third quarter. The problems were inside and out — they had eight shots blocked within three feet of the rim, but they also were 4-14 from three (and you want to say that’s an off night from deep remember Boston shot just 27.8 percent from three in the playoffs coming into this game).

Boston did have the second quarter, where they put up 35 points and shot 59 percent. Boston’s offense found its groove as Rajon Rondo started to drive the lane, kicking out to open guys who knocked down the open look, including a Paul Pierce corner three, a kickout to Kevin Garnett for a 19 footer and even Rondo himself knocking down a midrange jumper. The second quarter even saw Ray Allen hitting a three.

“In the second quarter I thought (Rondo) was attacking, attacking,” Rivers said in his televised press conference. “(The rest of the game) I thought he was reading a lot instead of just playing by instinct. I think sometimes his IQ hurts him, he’s trying to read the defense. And you can’t read and play at speed.”

In the third quarter Miami ratcheted up the pressure on Rondo — who Wade called “the head of the snake” with the Celtics — going with long defenders. That included Wade and LeBron at points trying to cut him off and take away his looks. The end result was Boston scoring at a 77 points per 100 possessions performance in the second half (for some comparison, the Bobcats had the worst offense in the league and averaged

Rondo finished with 16 points but on 20 shots and seven assists. Most of his shots came in the paint (16 of the 20) but he hit just seven of those because of the athletic and aggressive defense challenging everything.

“It’s going to be tough, because he’s probably the number one unpredictable guy we have in our league, in terms of how he forces his action,” LeBron said of Rondo. “A lot of his points come in transition where you want to load him and he sprays out for threes.”

Boston did some things they wanted to do in this game — they slowed the pace way down and made the Heat grind it out for the most part. They also got to the line and certainly can pick up some easy points by shooting beter than 11-21 from the stripe.

But the bottom line is this is the Heat, not Philadelphia — 79 points is not going to have you close to winning. Boston needs Ray Allen to find his groove and knock down open looks. It’s going to be tough with LeBron James on him but Paul Pierce can’t go 5-18 shooting. As a team the Celtics can’t shoot just 39.5 percent.

Boston did establish Garnett (23 points on 16 shots) but they have to get Rondo going setting up other guys – he had 2 assists in the second half. Part of that is him, part of that is guys need to move better off the ball to create good looks, then they need to knock down the shots when they get the looks.

Boston is going to come out in Game 2 more physical. They may play some zone. But all of that will be moot if they don’t put the ball in the basket a whole lot more.

And if not, this series will be over very quickly.

Russell Westbrook outduels Damian Lillard, Thunder pick up win to get back in series

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Russell Westbrook called his play in Game 2 “unacceptable.”

It was more than acceptable in Game 3. He had 33 points and 11 assists and the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Portland Trail Blazers 120-108 on Friday night to cut their series deficit to 2-1.

Paul George added 22 points, Jerami Grant had 18 and Dennis Schroder 17 for the Thunder. They will host Game 4 on Sunday night.

Damian Lillard scored 32 points, but he had just three in the fourth quarter after scoring 25 in the third.

C.J. McCollum had 21 and Enes Kanter added 19.

Oklahoma City closed the second quarter on a 10-1 run to take a 49-39 lead. Lillard was held to four points on 2 -or-6 shooting and the Trail Blazers shot 37.5% in the half.

George hit a 3-pointer, was fouled and made the free throw in the opening minutes of the second half to push Oklahoma City’s lead to 55-43. Westbrook backed down Lillard, hit a bank shot and was fouled. Westbrook brought out his “rock the baby” celebration, then made the free throw to put Oklahoma City up by 15.

Lillard scored 23 points the rest of the quarter to help cut Oklahoma City’s lead to 86-82 at the end of the period. McCollum hit a 3-pointer to tie the game at 89 early in the fourth.

Oklahoma City regained control, then kept it. Westbrook’s jumper with just over two minutes remaining put the Thunder up 10.

 

Celtics beat Pacers 104-96 to take 3-0 series lead

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Jaylen Brown scored 23 points and Kyrie Irving added 19 to help the Boston Celtics beat the Indiana Pacers 104-96 on Friday night for a 3-0 lead in the first-round series.

The Celtics can close out the Eastern Conference series Sunday in Indianapolis.

Irving also had 10 assists and five rebounds.

Tyreke Evans matched his career playoff high with 19 points for the Pacers. Bojan Bogdanovic had 15, not enough to prevent Indiana from losing its sixth straight to Boston in the regular season and playoff.

Indiana desperately needed a win to avoid facing its second sweep in three years, but Boston started fast and closed it with a 10-4 spurt late in the fourth quarter.

And once again, Boston’s defense turned the game by allowing just 12 points in the third quarter.

It’s been that kind of series for Indiana, which erased a 15-point first half deficit to take a 61-59 halftime lead. Myles Turner opened the third with a 3-pointer to make it a five-point game.

But Boston charged back with eight straight points to retake the lead, closed the quarter on a 9-2 run to make it 80-73 and pulled away late.

The Celtics took control quickly by going 8 of 10 on 3s in the first quarter to build a 37-22 lead.

Evans finally got the Pacers righted with 12 second-quarter points including bookend 3s to start and finish the 17-3 spurt that allowed Indiana to tie it at 52. The Pacers closed the half on a 9-2 run to take the lead.

 

Pascal Siakam scores 30, leads Raptors past Magic for 2-1 series lead

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — The Toronto Raptors think Pascal Siakam should be selected the NBA’s Most Improved Player.

He was their MVP on Friday night.

And the East’s No. 2 seed has the home-court edge back again.

Siakam had 30 points and 11 rebounds, hitting a floater with 1:33 left to help snuff out a big Orlando rally and the Raptors held off the Magic 98-93 to take a 2-1 lead in the Eastern Conference first-round series.

“He’s unbelievable,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said. “He’s the most improved basketball player in the NBA this year and he’s only going to get better.”

Siakam was 13 for 20 from the floor and the Raptors held Orlando to 36% shooting.

“It’s just taking what a defense gives us and going with it,” Siakam said.

Kawhi Leonard — battling illness this week — had 16 points and 10 rebounds. Danny Green had 13 points and Lowry finished with 12 points and 10 assists, plus ran down a huge offensive rebound with about 15 seconds left to extend a critical possession and spoil Orlando’s first home playoff game since 2012.

“It was really what I thought it was going to be tonight,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “I really thought this was going to be a tough atmosphere to play in.”

Terrence Ross led Orlando with 24 points, and Nikola Vucevic shook off a slow start to finish with 22 points and 14 rebounds.

Game 4 is Sunday night in Orlando.

“Our turnovers hurt us again,” Vucevic said, lamenting Orlando’s 16 giveaways. “We had too many of those. Empty possessions for us and against a team like that you can’t have that.”

The Raptors trailed 61-60 midway through the third after a brief Orlando spurt, then went on a 16-0 run over the next four minutes to take the lead for good. Siakam and Green were both 3 for 3 during the run, the Magic missed 10 consecutive shots over a span of 6 1/2 minutes and had to play uphill the rest of the way.

That being said, they went down swinging.

Lowry’s 3-pointer with 7:48 left gave Toronto its biggest lead at 86-69. The Magic came flying back, and Ross’ 3-pointer with 41 seconds left got Orlando to 96-93.

Leonard was short with a jumper on the next possession — but the Magic couldn’t control the rebound, Lowry ran it down and Leonard made a pair of free throws with 12.9 seconds remaining to clinch the win.

“Critical,” Magic coach Steve Clifford said.

Orlando, which finished the regular season by winning 13 of its final 14 home games, was 13 of 44 from 3-point range.

Toronto scored the first 10 points — the last five by Siakam, who was a problem from the outset for the Magic — and led by as many as 11 in the first half. The Magic got within 48-45 at the break after Ross beat the clock from midcourt at the buzzer.

The Magic got the lead twice in the second half, once by one point, the other by two points. And both leads lasted exactly 15 seconds, getting taken away on 3-pointers by Siakam and Green.

And now it’s up to Orlando to regroup, the same way Toronto did after dropping Game 1.

“It’s 2-1,” Clifford said. “It’s not like it’s 3-0. It’s 2-1…. Handling disappointment is a huge part of NBA basketball and it’s a bigger part of playoff basketball.”

Watch Orlando’s Terrence Ross drain halfcourt buzzer beater just before half

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Back on their home court, the Orlando Magic are hanging right with the Toronto Raptors in Game 3 of the 1-1 series.

This helped.

It looked like the Magic would go into halftime down by at least six, and then Terrence Ross did this.

Ross’ name came up a lot just before the trade deadline when other teams thought the Magic would decide to tank and move on from their players who could bring back assets to help the rebuild. The Magic were 10 games below .500 and four games out of the eight seed. Orlando decided instead to push for the postseason, and they made their first playoffs since the Dwight Howard era, climbing all the way to the seven seed. That would not have happened without Ross.

Now they are making the most of their opportunity.