The Inbounds: Indiana and defense of second

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Welcome to the Inbounds, touching on one big idea, story, or discussion point of the day. 

It’s fine to think the Celtics were the second best team in the East in last year’s playoffs (factoring the Bulls post-Rose injury). I mean, they finished second, right? They pushed the eventual NBA champions to seven games, and were up 3-2 with a chance to close at home. They had to be the second best team in the East.

But they weren’t. Not really.

The most infuriating thing about the current NBA playoff structure, even more so than the fact they continue to hold the conferences as an intelligent means of dividing the field, is the lack of re-seeding every round. Surely in this modern, information superseries of tubes world we have going on, we can get around the travel issues inherent in re-seeding the field after every round. Because what happens can have drastic consequences. Like the Celtics making the Eastern Conference Finals. The Celtics landed the Hawks in their bracket, and no problem there. They established a mental advantage on the Hawks in Game 2 and the series was over from that point on.

But when Derrick Rose went down and the Sixers managed to Omer-Asik their way to an escape, the field should have been redistributed. The Sixers should have headed to face Miami, while the Pacers and Celtics battled it out. And a little hidden secret? The Pacers were a much better team, even in the playoffs, than Boston.

Celtics fan! Please! Hold your molotov cocktails and pitchforks. The Celtics’ run last season was incredible precisely because it was against such odds. They had so many things going against the, their chances were so unlikely, that it makes it all the more impressive they nearly ran the gamut.

But the Pacers were the better team. Had Boston and Indiana met in the second round as they should have, we could have settled this question. I don’t have any issue with thinking Boston was the better team. That seems pretty obvious. My source of disagreement comes from what we saw from both teams and the unpredictability of the playoffs. The Pacers were in a better position to knock off Miami than Boston was, despite them going down in six, not seven. It’s about the structural makeup of the team. Indiana’s size advantage was first and foremost. They had a legit center in Roy Hibbert, and they have no discernible weak spot in their starting lineup. They had depth and versatility, and the roster makeup to match up with different lineups.

They lost because LeBron James is the best player on the planet. As did Boston.

But regardless of what you think about last year’s playoffs, when we look to the future, the East behind Miami is even more uncertain. There’s Miami, certainly, and a gap, certainly (Jason Terry does not a gap close make, when considering another year on them old bones). But after that it gets nuts. Remember, New York very much looked like the second best team in the East to start last year. They suffered more injury issues than anyone outside of Chicago, and their defense was playoff-good. Who knows how good the Nets can be if everything falls into place for them? Chicago is a question mark, but that defense will hold them together.

But Boston in the prohibitive favorite to be second in the East. They added Jason Terry, get Jeff Green back, throw in Courtney Lee, retain Chris Wilcox. I’ve written about how good they can be next year.

But age can still take its toll. Age is like Jaws, it doesn’t give you warning, it just takes your legs. And though the supporting cast of the Celtics has gotten younger, what drove that team last year was the play of Kevin Garnett, with Paul Pierce in spurts. Rajon Rondo is the chef, without him, there’s no meal. But the younger players are the appetizers, the garnish, the desert. The meal is still KG and the Truth. And there’s no way of telling when those players will start playing their age. Maybe they never will. Maybe they’ll defy all odds. Garnett certainly takes offense to any assessment that he’s old. But you have to watch it, carefully.

Indiana continues to slip beneath the radar. You can throw out the Darren Collison trade as a reason they’ll fall to the side, but George Hill played well for most of the season, and they added more size in Ian Mahinmi. Again, in an East where Dwight Howard is the only other legitimate center in the playoff picture, the Pacers have the second best center and a quality legit center. They have an armada of versatile forwards. And they get another full season to play together.

Indiana could take a step backwards. Like Philadelphia, it’s possible they simply benefited from the shortened season’s hammering of teams like Boston and throwing the season into chaos. Boston can very well take that step forward. But when you look at Danny Granger’s comments, you recognize their awareness of how close they were. Indiana went at Miami with everything they had. They weren’t intimidated or just happy to be there. They truly believed they could win that series. And they almost pulled it off.

Boston hung with Miami because they’re specifically well-tailored to combat James and the Heat. Indiana hung because they’re really that good of a team.

This all seems irrelevant, though, when you look at Miami and what they bring to the table next year. A full actualized LeBron James, a healthier Dwyane Wade, a resurgent Chris Bosh who understands how he fits, a core with more confidence, and Ray Allen. The gap is not narrow between Miami and the rest of the East. But the rest of the teams are just waiting for one of those seasons when something happens to move Miami off the top block. Then it would be a mad scramble. Most would have confidence in Boston. But to ignore what Indiana brings to the table is dangerous.

Had reseeding occurred last season, we might view Indiana as the kind of powerhouse we view Boston as. But as it stands, they seem ready to fill into a familiar slot, as a great team full of likable players who are lost in the shine of the championship team right above them.

No. 2, though? That’s a fight they’re prepared for.

The most interesting question between the two may be who has the most they can figure out to unlock potential. Indiana was in their first year together with David West and George Hill. Boston of course has the remaining Big 3 which know each other but have a number of new elements. You could say there’s a lot to unlock for this new Celtics team, but there’s still a ton of room for Indiana to unearth in its identity.

Under the context of a normal season with normal rest and normal practice, that may be the deciding factor in who winds up closest to the throne.

LeBron James is a force nature, scores 46, wills Cavaliers to win forcing Game 7

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What more can be said about the brilliance of LeBron James?

We can point to his 46 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists Friday night in a win-or-go-fishing elimination game. We can point to how he lifted the team up when Kevin Love went down after a blow to the head (more on that later). We could talk about how this is his seventh 40+ point game of the playoffs, the last guy to do that since Michael Jordan in 1989 (when Jordan was 25 and had yet to win a title).

Or, we can just show you his back-to-back dagger threes in the fourth quarter over Jayson Tatum.

That is art on a basketball court.

LeBron got a little help Friday night at home, and with that the Cavaliers won Game 6 109-99, forcing a Game 7 back in Boston on Sunday night.

“It feels good just to play for another game, and like I’ve always said ‘Game 7’ is the best two words in sports,” LeBron said. “And for us to be on the road in a hostile environment where we have had no success up to this point, we should relish the opportunity and have fun with it.”

LeBron was nothing short of brilliant (remember 10-12 years ago people were trying to say he was afraid of the big moment, damn that sounds silly now). He is historically brilliant in Game 7s, but he can’t do it alone.

George Hill, the second best shot creator on the team, had 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting. Jeff Green had 14 off the bench, and Larry Nance Jr. had a timely 10 points and 7 rebounds.

Nance’s play was crucial because Kevin Love went down 5 minutes into the game after banging heads with Jayson Tatum while setting a screen.

Love’s was being checked for a concussion and his status for Game 7 is not known. (If he does have a concussion, it’s unlikely he clears the league protocol in time to play in two days.)

Despite LeBron and all of it, the Celtics had their chances in this one.

Boston got off to a fast start because Jaylen Brown had 15 first-quarter points and the Celtics shot 61 percent as a team, none of which seemed sustainable but it got them out to a 25-20 lead after one. Then the Cavaliers came on in the second with a 20-4 run behind LeBron, and once they had the lead the Cavaliers never let it go.

Boston will look back on not grabbing rebounds — Cleveland grabbed the offensive rebound on 36.6 percent of their missed shots, a very high percentage — and the fact the Celtics missed nine free throws and think things could have been different.

Boston is going home, where they are 10-0 these playoffs and for some reason inexplicable even to Brad Stevens, they play much better. The Celtics have a great defense, smart players, and a real chance.

The Cleveland Cavaliers have LeBron James. That may be enough.

“We have one more game to be able to compete for a championship, what more can you ask for?” LeBron said.

Kevin Love being evaluated for concussion, out for second half

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It happened just five minutes into the game — Cleveland’s Kevin Love and Boston’s Jayson Tatum banged heads.

Love was in the midpost and part of his job was to set a screen for George Hill, who was racing out to the arc. In doing so, Love and Tatum banged heads and it wasn’t pretty.

Love spent a few minutes on the ground, went straight to the locker room, and has not returned to the game.

Tatum did not leave the game.

There still is no official word on if Love has a concussion. If he does, he will go into the league’s mandated concussion protocol — which means to be cleared he has to be symptom free through a series of physical tests — and it would be a challenge for him to be back for a Game 7, if there is one.

And their likely will be one. After struggling in the rest of the first quarter without Love, the Cavaliers have gotten solid performances out of Hill, Jeff Green, and of course, LeBron James has been brilliant. The Cavaliers have a comfortable 15-point lead late in the third quarter.

NBA Finals schedule drops, Game 1 Thursday, May 31

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We don’t know where the NBA Finals will be played, but we know when.

Next Thursday the eyes of the NBA world could be focused on Oakland or Houston, and the following Wednesday that may shift to Boston or Cleveland. All four of those teams still have a chance to make the NBA Finals.

What we know is the dates for the games. Here is the schedule:

Game 1, Thursday, May 31, at 9 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 2, Sunday, June 3, at 8 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 3, Wednesday, June 6, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 4, Friday, June 8, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 5, Monday, June 11, at 9 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 6, Thursday, June 14, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 7, Sunday, June 17, at 8 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Games 5, 6, and 7 are if necessary. All games will be broadcast on ABC.

There were no surprises here. The date of the start of the NBA Finals has been set since before the season started (it always is, to help broadcast partners and international media plan). The game pattern follows the same as last year, when the NBA changed it to make sure there was at least one day off in addition to travel days when the venue switches cities.

James Harden on shooting struggles: ‘Who cares?’

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A couple of years ago, could anyone have imagined James Harden not only saying he’s willing to give up scoring to do the little things to win but then actually doing it?

That’s exactly what Harden has done through five games against Golden State, and it’s why his Houston team is up 3-2.

Harden has struggled with his shot the past two games: He has shot 16-of-47 overall the past two games (34 percent) but also 3-of-23 from three. Yet he has done a good job setting up others. In Game 5, in particular, he did a better job getting into the middle of the paint, opening up passing lanes when the defense collapsed on him. He’s also worked hard on the defensive end, played Stephen Curry reasonably well, and been a solid team defender.

With his team one game from the Finals, he’s not concerned about his shot.

“Who cares?” Harden said to reporters after the game. “I’m just missing shots. But we’re winning, and I’m trying to compete on the defensive end and do other things to help my team win. But if we’ve got a guy like Eric Gordon making shots and being aggressive, who cares?”

A lot of players give that idea lip service, but in recent games Harden has backed it up.

“It’s just the shots [are] not falling, and a lot of it has to do with how hard everybody is playing,” Rockets’ coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Probably his legs aren’t the freshest things in the world. But he’s invaluable to the defense and offense.”

The Rockets are going to need more scoring from Harden to close this series out — Chris Paul is out for Game 6 with a strained hamstring, and it’s unlikely he plays if there is a Game 7. Eric Gordon will get the start and has lit it up the past couple of games (he led the Rockets with 24 points in Game 5), but more scoring and shot creation will fall on the Harden’s shoulders.

If the Rockets are going to close this series out, Harden is going to have to look every bit the presumptive MVP. The little things are great, but Houston needs him to get buckets now.