Baseline to Baseline recaps: Miami’s little slump getting serious

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Welcome to PBT’s roundup of yesterday’s NBA games. Or, what you missed while getting sucked into the “Good Will Hunting” oral history

Thunder 102, Suns 90: Kevin Durant is really, really good. Not sure if you knew that. The Suns were given a first-hand reminder when KD dropped 41 on the Suns in their home building. Brett Pollakoff was there for PBT and broke it all down.

Jazz 104, Heat 97: Dwyane Wade was benched the entire fourth quarter. Chris Bosh was benched for most of it and finished the game with one rebound. And Miami lost. Again. This slump is starting to get serious (Miami has lost three of four) and clearly coach Erik Spoelstra is getting a little frustrated and sent a message.

Meanwhile LeBron James might have had Cleveland flashbacks — him against the world without enough help. Monday night the Heat faced a Jazz team with a strong front line that was already a tough matchup because it would force Miami to defend and rebound, two things they haven’t done consistently of late. They didn’t again, and it cost them.

Miami got off to a good start on offense but didn’t bother to defend and it got them in trouble as the first half wore on — Utah put up 30 points in the first quarter (on 10 points by Al Jefferson), another 29 in the second quarter. Utah shot 67.6 percent in the first half. In the third quarter Utah kept stretching out the lead, it got up to 21.

LeBron led a late charge — a 21-5 run that got the lead all the way down to two points in the fourth quarter. LeBron finished with 32 points but made that run surrounded by the Heat bench players (Ray Allen had 8 in the quarter). It wasn’t enough — with the lead at two LeBron goaltended a Gordon Hayward shot (Hayward had 22 points) then committed and offensive foul and the Jazz held on for a key win. The Heat end up with a lot more questions.

Clippers 99, Grizzlies 73: Not having your star point guard against one of the league’s most opportunistic defenses would be a problem for most teams, but most teams don’t have Eric Bledsoe. The Clippers’ young, hyper athletic backup point guard picked up right where he left off in last year’s playoff series against the Grizzlies, flustering Mike Conley into another terrible performance (2-for-11) while controlling the game with 28 minutes of turnover-free ball, all in a dominant win in Memphis.

Without Rudy Gay and the steady diet of turnovers their offense feasts on, the Grizzlies offense sputtered completely. Repeated efforts to attack the Clippers in the post were denied, and any attempts to swing the ball around the perimeter were chopped off quickly. The Grizzlies shot 30 percent from the field, which was better than the Atlanta Hawks, I suppose, but still not nearly enough to take down a team that didn’t skip a beat without CP3.
—D.J. Foster

Bulls 97, Hawks 58: You are reading that right, 58 points for Atlanta. That happens when you score 5 points in the second quarter. Again yes, just 5 points. Atlanta was 2-of-21 for the quarter and scored 20 points in the first half. For the game they shot 29.3 percent. That’s not just the Bulls good defense, which is anemic. Carlos Boozer had 12 first quarter points, 20 for the game and looked pretty good for the Bulls.

After the game Hawks coach Larry Drew — who has seen his team lose four of five — said this was an embarrassment and that there would be changes.

Celtics 100, Bobcats 89: This makes six straight wins for Boston and they can thank Rajon Rondo for this one — 17 points along with 12 assists and 10 rebounds. He looked every bit the part of the elite point guard, which is easier to do against the Bobcats defense but still, a triple-double is a triple-double. Give Charlotte credit for not rolling over — they went on a fourth quarter run and got the lead down to four. Boston responded with a 9-0 run, and that was the ballgame.

Wizards 120, Magic 91: Don’t tell anyone, but this is three straight wins for Washington.

The Wizards led this one wire to wire and were clearly the better side, led by Emeka Okafor with 19 points and 11 rebounds. Orlando tried to make it interesting in the final five minutes of the first half when Jameer Nelson started hitting shots (14 points in the second quarter) and led a 13-0 run to make it a six point game at the half. But that was pretty much it — Washington got in a groove again and ran away to be up 22 again in the third quarter. Bradley Beal was 7-of-10 shooting for 17 points and six Wizards were in double figures.

Mavericks 113, Timberwolves 98: Two teams going in opposite directions continued those trends Monday night in a wire-to-wire Dallas win. Dallas blitzed the Minnesota defense all night — they shot 59.7 percent as a team. Minnesota did make a run late in the second quarter, got the lead all the way down to two, but Elton Brand hit the last four shots of the half for Dallas, stretched the lead out to 10 at the half and that was it. The lead got up to 23 in the third and the game was never really in doubt. Darren Collison led the way with 23 points for Dallas, both Brand and O.J. Mayo had 20.

Kings 124, Cavaliers 118: Defense? We don’t need no stinkin’ defense.

The losing team in this game had an offensive rating of 122.7 (points per 100 possessions) as both teams seemed to score at will (which made for a pretty entertaining game but a coach’s nightmare fuel). Sacramento led from the second quarter on fueled by DeMarcus Cousins (26 points, 14 rebounds and six assists) and amazing bench play (54 points on 60-percent shooting, led by Marcus Thornton with 20 points). Cleveland had six players in double digits but the steady diet of Kyrie Irving isolations down the stretch could not get it done.

This was the best game I’ve seen Dion Waiters play (admittedly I have not seen them all) — 33 points on 12-of-18 shooting. He had 16 points in the fourth quarter and while some of those were bad shots he was hitting them this night. I would have loved to see Irving give him a couple more shots late.

Celtics hope return home can slow LeBron, Cavs in Game 5

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BOSTON (AP) — The Celtics expected to see a different LeBron James in Cleveland after the Cavaliers fell into a 2-0 hole to open the Eastern Conference finals

Two games and back-to-back wins later, James has reminded everyone exactly why he’s been to seven straight NBA finals.

Boston will be back in the embrace of its raucous fans at TD Garden for Game 5 on Wednesday. But a team that has thrived on youth this postseason suddenly looks disoriented without a go-to player and opposite a more veteran squad that has found a new attitude thanks to the fuel being provided by its biggest star.

“My teammates are putting me in position and wanting me to be in attack mode and trusting me to put our guys in position to be successful,” James said. “It’s not about me. It’s about the collective group, and I’m one of the byproducts of that.”

While the Cavs are certainly feeling rejuvenated, coach Tyronn Lue said it hasn’t changed their sense of urgency.

“We still gotta play,” Lue said. “We have veteran guys who have been there and know what it takes, but this is a young team, a good team that’s playing at home so experience is not going to be a factor. We have to come in there and have the same mentality that we had in Game 3 and 4.”

Two games ago, the numbers seemed all on the Celtics’ side.

They had moved to 9-0 at home during these playoffs and taken 2-0 series lead, which has been a magic number for a franchise yet to surrender such an advantage during its storied history (37-0). Over the last 96 minutes, Boston has been outscored by 39 points, has dropped to 1-6 on the road and is suddenly facing a must-win game to maintain home-court advantage.

Coach Brad Stevens said at the start of the playoffs that he believed there was value in the greenness of a young group that had several players getting their first taste of postseason basketball. He was proven right with Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum all thriving as first-time postseason starters.

Their success had the cumulative effect of masking the absences of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Now, the lack of an alpha like Irving capable of creating his own shot is sticking out with every 40-point game James produces.

Al Horford, Boston’s only healthy All-Star, was never a dominant scorer, but more of a facilitator who worked well in a finely tuned system.

Horford started off the series strong but his scoring and assist numbers have declined over the last two games.

Lue’s move to reinsert Tristan Thompson back into the starting lineup in Game 2 is a huge reason.

Thompson has not only helped things move better on the offensive end for Cleveland, he’s combined with Larry Nance to make things difficult on Horford. Horford had just four shots and seven points in 30 minutes in Game 3. He scored 15 points in Game 4 but was just 5-of-13 from the field with one assist.

If the Celtics are going to get back to the by-committee style that got them here, it must begin with his leadership. To that end, Horford said they’ll focus on correcting their issues, but also won’t dwell on them.

“As a group, we’re excited to be back, going back home,” he said. “Obviously we understand the challenge of it. We can’t think about the past. We just have to worry about this opportunity. We have a Game 5 at home, and we have to make the most of it.”

Cleveland is hoping James’ once quiet supporting cast continues its surge in Boston.

Kevin Love just missed his third straight double-double in Game 4 and sharpshooters JR Smith and Kyle Korver were 12 of 19 from the 3-point line in Games 3 and 4.

Korver’s efforts have stood out.

At 37 years old he was all over the court scoring in Game 4, diving for loose balls and collecting three blocks. While he anticipated being sore from all the activity, Korver said playing “fun basketball” is still propelling a guy looking for his first ring after appearing in 124 playoff games for five different teams during his 15-year career.

“There’s not many of us `03 class guys still around,” James said of Korver. “I feel like we’re just cut from a different cloth because we’ve been around for so long. We have this work ethic and you see him every day putting in the work, putting his mind, his body into it. It’s not about his age.”

 

Report: Timberwolves would dump Thibodeau before trading Karl-Anthony Towns

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In the NBA, when it comes down to a struggle between an elite player and the coach/GM, who wins? The player. A top 10 NBA player is much harder to get than a coach. If you don’t believe it’s the player go ask David Fizdale or Kevin McHale or Paul Westhead or.. I could fill up the entire NBC server with instances, you get the point.

As the tension between Karl-Anthony Towns and coach/GM Tom Thibodeau has bubbled to the surface in Minnesota, some teams have called up Thibodeau and the Timberwolves to check on KAT’s availability in a trade.

But would the Timberwolves really trade Towns? If one side is going to lose this battle, it’s Thibodeau, as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said on The Russillo Show (hat tip Uproxx).

“I think their owner would trade management/the coach before he would trade Karl-Anthony Towns. I don’t think they would allow that. I just don’t believe they’d allow that kind of decision. And I don’t know that they’d want to trade him… he’s Karl-Anthony Towns, they’re not moving him, Towns is eligible for his extension this summer. You know Jimmy Butler… it’s more of a question of Andrew Wiggins. That to me would be, if someone was going to get moved — and I’m not saying anyone’s going to get moved — I think Andrew Wiggins is the one you’re going to look at first. Because you don’t have to make a decision on Towns and Jimmy Butler and one of those guys having to take less on an extension, because you can’t have three [max] guys.”

To be clear, Thibodeau isn’t going anywhere this summer (unless he makes some kind of a power play move, like trying to trade Towns). The Timberwolves improved by 16 games last season and made the playoffs for the first time since 2004 — that was a step forward. Maybe not as big of one as some wanted/expected, but it wasn’t the kind of season that gets a coach/GM fired.

There’s also an odd dynamic in this with Jimmy Butler — he is Thibodeau’s guy. Butler has his back, and he can be a free agent in a couple of years, so if Minnesota wants to keep him then keeping the coach matters.

As for trading Wiggins, that is something to keep an eye on. Even if it’s not likely. After a disappointing 2017-18 season, there has been buzz around the league about the Timberwolves testing the market for Wiggins. The problem is Wiggins’ five-year, $148 million fully guaranteed contract kicks in next season — few teams want to take that on. To move Wiggins, Minnesota will have to take back bad contracts and/or send out sweeteners with him. Demand will not be high, despite Wiggins’ potential.

As Wojnarowski noted, both Butler and Towns have new contract coming up in the next couple of seasons, and both are clear max players. It puts Minnesota in a tight spot with the cap. They will be looking for some relief.

Just remember, if it comes down to Thibodeau or Towns, the player always wins. Especially a young, on-the-rise player.

Boston vs. Houston Finals? In 2-2 series, team with home court wins 80% of time

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Game 1 of the NBA Finals will see the Boston Celtics at the Houston Rockets starting May 31.

Or, at least that’s what the historic odds favor.

Most fans (and media/analysts) expect the Finals will still be Cleveland vs. Golden State, those are the two proven teams. However, as our own Dan Feldman noted, historically in a 2-2 series the team with two home games wins four out of five times.

Tuesday night, Houston looked every bit the kind of team that can stand up to the defending champion Warriors. Down 10 entering the fourth quarter, Houston’s improved ball-pressure defense wore down a Golden State team and took Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson (and in the fourth Stephen Curry) out of their rhythm. The Warriors couldn’t get the shots they wanted, didn’t get to the rim, went 0-of-6 from three and 3-of-18 overall in the fourth quarter. They looked like they were replaying the final games of the 2016 NBA Finals again (just with Durant). Meanwhile, Chris Paul was efficient and James Harden made plays that got Houston the comeback win. It was the kind of victory that can define a championship run.

Still, they need two more wins against a Warriors team that is loaded with All-Stars and has been to three straight Finals for a reason. Golden State believes it has another gear, now it needs to find it.

Out East, Boston heads home for Wednesday night’s game — the Celtics are 9-0 in the postseason and 22.4 points per 100 possessions better than on the road. Boston’s young role players have just been vastly superior on the parquet on both ends of the court. Plus, while the Cavaliers won Game 4, the Celtics won the last three quarters and seemed to find some defensive setups and plays that work for them.

Cleveland, however, has LeBron James.

Finally, we’ve got the kind of playoff drama we have wanted out of these conference finals.

Dikembe Mutombo to receive Sager Strong Award

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NEW YORK (AP) — Hall of Fame basketball player Dikembe Mutombo will receive the Sager Strong Award at this year’s NBA Awards show.

The award is named for longtime Turner Sports sideline reporter Craig Sager and presented annually to an individual who has been a trailblazer while exemplifying courage, faith, compassion and grace.

Mutombo’s honor was announced Tuesday by the NBA and Turner.

The four-time Defensive Player of the Year created the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation to improve conditions for people in his native Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital has treated nearly a quarter of a million people since opening in 2007.

He will receive a colorful suit jacket, the kind Sager fashioned during his years on air before dying of leukemia. The award will be presented on June 25 in Santa Monica, California.

Former New Orleans coach Monty Williams was last year’s inaugural recipient.