Three Stars of the Night: Two big names and a role player

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On any given night, anyone can step up to be the difference maker that leads his team to a victory. Typically, it’s the team’s best player or one of their key starters that does it. That’s why they’re paid the big bucks, after all. Sometimes, though, it’s a role player that comes out hitting shots from nowhere and he’s the guy that, for one night at least, is the hero. In tonight’s contests, we had a mix of both and they make up our three stars:

Third Star: Russell Westbrook (27 points, 10 assists, 6 rebounds, 4 steals)

There are nights where Russell Westbrook looks like the best player on the floor. And considering he plays with Kevin Durant, that’s saying something.

Against the Cavaliers, Westbrook had one of those nights where he was the best player on the court, doing everything that he does best and helping his team to get a win in the process. Westbrook was in attack mode all night, getting to the basket with his typical force but also hitting his jumper (he finished 4-6 from three point range) with great consistency. Beyond getting his own shots to fall, he also played great defense and set up his teammates for easy baskets. Just a great overall night for Russ, with plays just like this one typical of his performance:

Second Star: Dwight Howard (23 points, 18 rebounds, 3 blocks)

Dwight Howard isn’t yet 100% physically. There are times where he’s still not as explosive or quick to react to plays as he has been in the past. Against the Kings, though, that really didn’t matter.

Without DeMarcus Cousins to put up resistance in the paint, Howard controlled the area around the basket on both ends of the floor and simply man handled the Kings en route to a great night. He finished inside with relative ease, controlled the back boards, and contested shots in the paint so nothing came easy to the Kings inside. And yes, he even had one of his typical alley oops:

First Star: Wayne Ellington (25 points, 7 made three pointers)

If you happened to miss the game and only saw the final score, you’d probably think the Grizzlies dominated the Heat by beasting them inside with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. And that would be the wrong assumption.

The Grizzlies took down the Heat by hitting a whopping 14 of their 24 three point shots, pouring it on from the outside in a way they haven’t done all year (in several years, actually). In the middle of all that was Wayne Ellington who hit bomb after bomb from behind the arc to loosen up the Heat’s defense. Ellington’s 7-11 from behind the arc fueled the Grizz in this one and gave them a statement win over the defending champs. Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph also had very good nights, but without Ellington’s sharp shooting, the Grizz likely don’t win this one. Watch for yourself:

Cavaliers’ Kendrick Perkins not into “all that new stuff” like Chewbacca

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Chewbacca was at Game 3 in Cleveland Saturday. Sitting courtside.

Why? Because growing up on Kashyyyk he played a little hoop and admires LeBron James‘ skill? Because Drake gave him the tickets? Maybe. I mean, it’s not like that was just a clever little publicity stunt for a movie.

After the Cavaliers’ win, Kevin Love decided to make a little joke of it with noted humorist Kendrick Perkins, and it went over as well as expected (with Dave McMenamin of ESPN catching it).

That’s vintage Perkins.

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

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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

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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.