PBT NBA Playoff Preview: Boston Celtics vs. New York Knicks

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SEASON RECORDS
New York:54-28, second seed in East
Boston: 41-40, seven seed in East (the odd number of games is due to the cancelled one the day after the Boston Marathon tragedy, it did not impact the standings)

SEASON SERIES
The Knicks won the regular season 3-1, but both these teams went through seasons within a seasons — for example, the Knicks were great at the beginning and end of the season but pedestrian in the middle — so you can’t read too much into previous meetings. These are different teams now.

KEY INJURIES
Boston: The two big ones are the two we have known about for a while — Rajon Rondo (right knee) and Jared Sullinger (back) are both out following surgery this season. Paul Pierce has a sore left ankle but he will play.

New York: It might be easier to list guys not banged up. Amare Stoudemire has been out following right knee surgery but may be back for this series. Tyson Chandler is battling a bulging disc in his neck but will play. Carmelo Anthony has a sore shoulder but will play. Kenyon Martin has knee issues but is expected play. Pablo Prigioni is questionable for Game 1 with a sprained right ankle. Marcus Camby is coming off a foot injury. Basically all the older Knicks players have some pains but most will play.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)

Knicks: offense 108.6 (3rd best in NBA), defense 103.5 (17th in NBA)
Celtics: offense 101.1 (20th in NBA), defense 100.4 (6th in NBA)

Differential: Knicks +5.1 (6th in NBA), Celtics +0.7 (14th in NBA)

THREE KEYS FOR BOSTON:

Jeff Green: Since Rajon Rondo went down a lot more responsibility for shot creation and points has fallen on Green. And in a very Jeff Green way he has been aggressive, attacking and brilliant at points; then passive and fading into the background in others. That can’t happen in this series. While the Celtics will play strong defense the Knicks will put up points and the Celtics need to find a burst of offense. In addition, Green is going to spend a lot of time guarding Carmelo Anthony and he needs to make the Knicks prolific scorer work for his points. There is no bigger X-factor in this series — Green needs to have a big series for Boston to win.

Run Knicks’ shooters off three-point line: When Jason Kidd, Steve Novak, J.R. Smith and the rest of the Knicks are draining threes at a high percentage they are virtually unbeatable. They can just simply outscore you. Boston has to finish its rotations, run guys off the line and make them dribble in and take two pointers. One of Boston’s great defensive strengths is making you think you have space to shoot when you really don’t, they need to do that and contest every three they can in this series.

Be consistent: It has been the Celtics biggest issue (outside injuries) this season — just when they seem to get things going and are in position to make a big move they get sloppy. Missed defensive rotations, missed shots, missed opportunities. Against a more talented Knicks team, the Celtics have no margin for error. They cannot have these slips. Do and it costs them a game and a series very fast.

THREE KEYS FOR NEW YORK:

Carmelo Anthony: As he goes, the Knicks go. This season he is getting MVP votes not because he won the league’s scoring title (28.7 points per game) but because he did the other things he didn’t used to do as much — share the ball, defend, play team basketball. Remember early in the season when he missed games with a broken finger hurt diving into the stands for a loose ball? That is the Carmelo Anthony that can lead the Knicks deep in the playoffs, but if he reverts under pressure to isolation basketball it plays into the Celtics’ hands.

Tyson Chandler: He’s listed here as the anchor and representative for the Knicks defense. Without Rajon Rondo on the court, the Celtics offense becomes less creative, and far more hit and miss. But you know Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett can score, and you know if Jeff Green decides to be aggressive that day he’s a force. Chandler needs to control the paint, take away the easy buckets inside, force the Celtics into jump shots (which ideally are contested). Iman Shumpert has to play big on Green and control him, not let him get hot.

Ball movement on offense: During their recent winning streak the Knicks were moving the ball on offense as well as any team in the NBA. They must keep this up in the playoffs. The Knicks don’t use that ball movement for as much traditional catch-and-shoot as you would think — Zach Harper at CBS cleverly called it “selfish ball movement” — but they do create space with passing to give guys room to work. The Celtics defense is predicated on overloading a side and taking away dribble penetration with easy kick-outs. If the ball sticks — and when the Knicks struggle it sticks on a side — then the Celtics defense can get set and shut them down.

OUTLOOK

This series is right for the Knicks in an epic hero kind of way — the Celtics have long been the Knicks tormentors. In Carmelo’s first playoff series as a Knick it was the Celtics that swept them away. The Knicks are on the precipice of their greatest season in more than a decade, they have the potential to make a deep playoff run. So it is fitting that to advance the protagonist must first conquer his old demons. The Knicks must slay the Celtics to move on.

To do that the Knicks have to prove that the changes we saw this season were not cosmetic, that the more cohesive offense will not come apart under the pressure of the Celtics defense. Because Boston will pressure New York and both Carmelo and J.R. Smith have a habit under pressure of reverting to more isolation, taking on more themselves — which is exactly what the Celtics want you to do and what their defense is designed to shut down.

Boston is going to grind. Paul Pierce is going to make big shots, Kevin Garnett is going to scowl, Avery Bradley is going to be tenacious and Doc Rivers is going to pull the right strings. This is going to be a physical, war of a series. The Knicks are going to have to play at both ends. Maybe most importantly, they have to take care of the ball and not give the Celtics easy buckets — conversely if the Celtics can get some turnovers they give themselves a real chance.

New York doesn’t get to coast, they are going to have to earn this series win.

PREDICTION:

Knicks in the full seven games.

Australian NBL pumps breaks on report LaMelo Ball has bought a team

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It was a stunning headline, especially considering LaMelo Ball is just 18:

He bought a team in the Australian National Basketball League, specifically the Illawarra Hawks, the team he played for some last season. It’s an insane story.

And it’s not quite true. At least not yet. The NBL released a statement that pumped the breaks on the idea of a sale to Ball and his manager, Jermaine Jackson. Part of the statement reads:

“The league can confirm LaMelo Ball and his management had discussions about being involved with the club while he was playing in the NBL last season. At this point we are continuing to work with current licence holder Simon Stratford on a number of options for what we hope will be a fruitful outcome for Illawarra and the NBL.

The NBL has final approval on any transfer of licence and no application has been made to date. The NBL has no further comment at this stage.

Did LaMelo and his manager jump the gun? Or, is this a negotiating ploy by the NBL and Stratford to get more money by jacking up the price on a sale?

Those two follow a host of other questions, including what percentage of the team would Ball and his manager own? What would their involvement be?

Ineligible for college stateside, Ball chose to play in Australia under the NBL’s Next Stars program. It worked, he’s projected to be a top-five, maybe top-three pick. He left the NBL after suffering a season-ending foot injury, although that came under a cloud of criticism from Hawks owner Stratford.

The ultimate revenge would be to buy the team, if that is actually happening.

Doc Rivers’ reaction when Clippers traded for Lou Williams, “I was not having Lou”

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Lou Williams is integral to the Clippers’ title dreams.

Since coming to the Clippers, he has averaged 20.6 points a game off the bench, twice winning Sixth Man of the Year, and his pick-and-roll with Montrezl Harrell is as smooth and dangerous a combo as there is in the league. Come the playoffs, while teams are trying to deal with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, Lou Williams will be a change of pace scorer with a second unit that can quickly tilt the game towards Los Angeles.

But when Williams first got to the Clippers, Doc Rivers was not thrilled.

Rivers talked about Williams on The Bob Ryan and Jeff Goodman Podcast (hat tip SI).

“When we traded for Lou, I was not having Lou,” Rivers said. “I saw a guy that kept getting traded. And I appreciated his offense, but not nearly, never thought it was this good… When he finally showed up three days before training camp, I was not having him. I was like, ‘We’re not gonna work’, you know?..

“I brought him up in the office and I told him my feelings,” Rivers said. “I said, ‘Lou, you’re one of these guys that wanna do whatever you wanna do, and you don’t want to buy-in. We asked everybody to come in. Everyone did except for you… I don’t know how this is gonna work.’ And he said, ‘I’ve been traded five years in a row. Why would I buy-in to you?’, and I didn’t have an answer.”

Both Williams and Rivers have bought into each other now. Williams has control of the offense when he is in and Rivers said he just wants Williams to “be in the right place” on defense. That defense leads to issues playing Williams at the end of big games, but used as a scorer Williams is tough to deal with.

He can still get buckets with the best of them.

 

For NBA coaches, the new game is a waiting game

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MIAMI (AP) — Orlando’s Steve Clifford figures he’s like every other NBA coach right now: Wake up, go to whatever now serves as the office, study his own team, maybe think about possible opponents, and resume planning.

Of course, nobody knows what they’re planning for — or when these plans will get used.

A stoppage in play doesn’t mean vacation time has arrived for NBA coaches, especially those like Clifford in position to take their teams to the postseason — assuming this pandemic-interrupted season is able to resume. They’re all spending more time at home, not able to run practices, but none seem to be sitting idly either.

“Not knowing the restart date is the toughest challenge professionally,” Clifford said. “Obviously, we’re all limited in what we can do, and basketball takes a back seat right now to family and health. But I will say this: When I talk to our guys, the one common question that comes up is ‘When do you think we can start again?’”

And that’s a question with no answer. The waiting game is the only game in town right now.

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra was coaching the fourth quarter against Charlotte on March 11 when the NBA announced it was suspending the season, a move made once it became known that Utah center Rudy Gobert was the league’s first player to test positive for COVID-19. Spoelstra found out right after the final buzzer, as he walked to the Heat locker room.

He instantly realized that losing to the Hornets that night didn’t ultimately matter much. Spoelstra and his staff are holding Zoom meetings every other day, but he’s also enjoying the benefits of time away — getting more time with his two young sons, his wife and grilling for the family most nights — and is emphasizing to his coaches and players that this is a time to help those less fortunate.

He’s checking the news as well, on a limited basis.

“My routine is checking after dinner, and I usually get on my computer, watch a little bit of what’s going on,” said Spoelstra, who often wears a T-shirt emblazoned with “Stay Positive” and like many coaches he taped a video telling fans the importance of hand-washing and other precautions. “So, I’m staying abreast of the current status of things, but I definitely do not try to start my day that way and I do not obsess about it during the day.”

Dallas coach Rick Carlisle also went the video-message route, doing one for the going-stir-crazy crowd to demonstrate his “Balance, Balance, Shot Drill” that allows players to work on their shooting form even when they don’t have access to a court or a rim.

Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan took advantage of downtime to appear on a virtual coaches clinic, and had a safety message for those who attended — online, of course — before spending about an hour breaking down his philosophy.

This is the first in-season stoppage of its kind in NBA history, but Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer is equating the unknown — in terms of when the next game will be — to what the league went through with lockout-shortened seasons in 1998-99 and 2011-12.

His message to his staff: Things may be slow now, but when the suspension ends the pace of everything will be frantic. So while some projects like things in the video room and breakdowns of his roster are being tackled, Budenholzer is also having staff get ready for potential playoff opponents with a first-round series against either Brooklyn or Orlando likely for the NBA-leading Bucks.

“Things happen really fast, whether it’s three games in three nights, or playoff series are shorter or the time between the end of the regular season to the first playoff game, everything can be shorter or can happen quicker,” Budenholzer said. “We can put a little bit of money in the bank now with preparation for first round but also if you go a little bit deeper, the East.”

For 30 teams, 30 coaches, there’s many ways to spend the down time.

And they all know that they’re in the same boat — waiting and wondering.

“It’s hard for all of us,” Clifford said. “It’s hard to set a plan for yourself that will have you ready. But that’s the parallel, not just for us, but for everyone around the world no matter what profession that you’re in.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci was a high school point guard

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You know Dr. Anthony Fauci as the guy trying to inject facts and reason-based decisions into the federal government’s response to the coronavirus epidemic. You’ve seen him, the guy with the Sisyphean task of standing behind President Donald Trump at press conferences and not reacting with shock or disgust.

It turns out he was a high school baller.

In a profile of Fauci, the Wall Street Journal’s Ben Cohen wrote about Fauci the high school point guard, who led his 1-16 team to a win against Fordham Prep, led by future Knicks executive Donnie Walsh.

Classic point guard, excellent ballhandler, pesky defender. Six of his classmates and teammates described him as a tenacious competitor in short shorts and striped socks whose feistiness on the court defied some parts of his personality and reflected others.

That sounds like a young version of the person he is now.

Dr. Fauci is one of the people the NBA is listening to as it tries to figure out if or when the league can re-start and what its next steps might be. Right now, all of that is beyond the NBA’s control and more in the hands of the rest of us and whether we as a society follow Dr. Fauci’s suggestions.