Three Stars of the Night: The Truth is Here

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The big scorers weren’t messing around tonight, folks. The clocks were turned back in Boston, an ABA type score was dropped in Houston, and the Highlight Factory was invaded (even more than usual!) by a force that even the great Kyle Korver could not stop. Robin Lopez was also on pace for 56 points after the first quarter, but that kind of fell through. To the Three Stars of the Night!

Third Star: Kevin Durant – (41 points, 13 rebounds, 14-for-23 shooting)

Kevin Durant isn’t just “getting the best” of his opponents or “outplaying” them…he’s absolutely eviscerating them. Ask the Atlanta Hawks after tonight — there’s no good way to defend Durant. Crowd him, and he has the burst and the length to put you on his hip and wish you goodbye as he glides to the hole. Play off of him and he’s simply popping the jumper. Bring a double, and he can see right over the top of it and fire a pass to two very good stand-still shooters (Kevin Martin and Serge Ibaka) or a player you don’t want penetrating a gap with a full head of steam (Russell Westbrook). If the goal of the offense is to make the defense pick their poison, the Thunder accomplish that virtually anytime they put the ball in Durant’s hands anywhere remotely close to the basket. Only two players have averaged over 27 points a game over a full season with a True Shooting Percentage over 67 percent: Charles Barkley and Adrian Dantley. That’s it. No Kobe. No LeBron. No Jordan. Durant is averaging that so far this year. He’s been that good.

Second Star: James Harden – (33 points, 17-for-18 from the line, 7 assists)

James Harden might do one thing better than anyone else in the NBA, and that’s draw fouls. Harden’s signature move of extending the ball way out in front of him on drives is too appetizing for opponents to resist. They hack and slash down at the ball, almost always raking Harden across the arms, sending him to the line for two easy points. Harden is dangerous in the open floor when the Rockets are playing fast, but he also found a viable roll partner (sorry, Omer Asik, not you) in the halfcourt in promising young big man Greg Smith. If the Rockets are building their future around Harden — and they are — a great defender and defensive rebounder to spark the break (cheer up, Omer, that’s you!) and a point guard who can push the pace seem necessary along with a solid roll man. The Rockets are trying out a few different pieces, but now that their star is in place, they finally have direction. In the meantime, if opponents allow the Rockets to play fast like the 76ers did tonight? Good luck stopping them.

First Star: Paul Pierce – (40 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 13-for-16 shooting)

Do not adjust your computer monitor, because the numbers you are seeing are indeed the truth. Paul Pierce was absolutely on fire against the Cavaliers, knocking in each and every momentum shot and heat check he could throw at the rim — stepbacks, spotup J’s — whatever it was, it went in. Pierce doesn’t do this nearly as often as he used to, as he’s slowed down and lost much of the explosiveness that made him deadly in the past. But where the body fails, the mind picks up, and Pierce is a great example of that. No one manipulates space with his footwork quite like Pierce, and his ability to trail on the break and make himself available for a Rondo kickout at just the right time is nuanced brilliance. That’s the kind of stuff you learn after 38,000 minutes of floor time in the league, and although Pierce’s body and jump shot will betray him on many nights, he still knows how to ride out the perfect storm, no matter how infrequently they seem to come around.

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

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.