Tony Parker goes MIA in Game 5, but Spurs advance to Western Conference Finals

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Where’s Tony Parker?

That question dominated the first half as the San Antonio Spurs point guard left the court and bench without suffering an obvious injury. Turns out, his hamstring tightened, and the Spurs ruled him out at halftime – potentially a real concern going forward.

But there were no questions about Kawhi Leonard’s whereabouts.

He was everywhere.

Leonard (22 points on three 3-pointers and two dunks, seven rebounds and five steals) made plays all over the court to lead the San Antonio to a 104-82 series-closing win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday.

With their 4-1 series victory, the Spurs join the Heat as the only teams to make the conference finals each of the last three years. But whether San Antonio returns to the NBA Finals, let alone wins them, might hinge on Parker.

Parker’s backup, Patty Mills (18 points, three steals, zero turnovers in 26 minutes), filled in admirably. But winning with depth, as the Spurs have done to this point, gets much more difficult when the field narrows. Parker is a true star, someone who has repeatedly elevated his game as the playoffs go deeper. That’s whom San Antonio needs.

And there’s reason to believe the Spurs will get Parker back soon.

“I think it’s more precaution than anything,” said Tim Duncan, whose 16 points and eight rebounds helped ensure the Spurs could comfortably rest Parker on Wednesday. “Just don’t want to get him any more hurt.”

At least San Antonio will get extra rest before facing the Thunder or Clippers, and that can only help Parker heal.

In wins in Games 1-3, the Spurs led at halftime by 26, 19 and 20 at halftime. In their Game 4 loss, they trailed by two at the break.

Wednesday, they led by just seven at halftime – a comfortable position to be certain, but one indicative of a team no longer possessing an unbreakable lock on the series. The only other time the Trail Blazers got this close after two quarters, Game 4, they ran away with it in the third.

“We might have ran out of a little energy in the last game,” Duncan admitted.

San Antonio quickly ensured that wouldn’t be repeated in Game 5, opening the third quarter on an 8-0 run. Thanks to Danny Green making all five of his second-half shots on the way to 22 points, the Spurs led by double digits the rest of the way.

The Trail Blazers’ run ends here, and they were an exciting team that got in over their heads – way over their heads. But this season was a resounding success for Portland, which reached the playoffs for the first time in three years and won a postseason series for the first time in 14.

Portland’s stars – Damian Lillard (17 points and 10 assists) and LaMarcus Aldridge (21 points and 10 rebounds) – had double-doubles in the season ender, but neither really gave San Antonio much reason for concern. They’re not quite good enough to beat a great team like the Spurs, especially with so little bench help.

Next season, the Trail Blazers can get better. They’re young enough to expect significant internal growth, and using the mid-level exception wouldn’t take them into the luxury tax.

But the West is tough, and breaking into the upper echelon is a daunting task. Again and again this series, the Spurs proved that.

Aggressive, attacking Boston drives right into heart of Miami defense, wins Game 3

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On Boston’s first possession of the game, Marcus Smart drove right to the rim and got an and-1 on a reverse layup.

Next possession, Jaylen Brown got a bucket cutting for a layup, with the assist from Smart. Next possession, Brown drove the lane and banked in a floater. The next Boston bucket was a Jayson Tatum driving layup.

The first nine Boston points came with them attacking the heart of the Miami defense (going at Duncan Robinson in particular), and that continued all game with the Celtics getting 60 points in the paint.

“Boston came out with great force. You have to give them credit for that,” Heat coach Eric Spoelstra said after the game.

Throw in 31 quality minutes from Gordon Hayward in his return from a sprained ankle — providing more quality wing play and good decision making — and Boston raced out to a comfortable lead then hung on at the end for a 117-106 win in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Heat lead the series 2-1, with Game 4 not until Wednesday night (a little delay to allow the West to catch up).

After a sloppy Game 2 loss where the Celtics became passive in the face of Miami’s zone defense in the second half, followed by a postgame meltdown and meeting of the minds, the guys at the heart of the Celtics young core stepped up their game.

Particularly Brown, who had 26 points on 11-of-17 shooting and was getting to the rim all game. He also was playing smothering defense.

Smart — an All-Defensive Team player — had his best game of the series, blanketing Goran Dragic, who had been the Heat’s best scorer and shot creator through two games. Without Dragic breaking down the Celtics’ defense and getting points in the paint, Miami has to live by the three and the Celtics defenders did a better job staying home.

“Marcus’ ball pressure on Dragic was important,” Celtics’ coach Brad Stevens said postgame. “It’s something we need to continue to look at. Marcus did a great job on a guy who is playing better than I’ve ever seen him.”

Boston also got more minutes from Gordon Hayward than expected, minutes Stevens called a “stabilizing force” for the team.

“I’m extremely tired right now. My ankle is pretty sore,” Hayward said postgame, adding with the extra days off he should be good to go for Game 4.

Hayward’s presence also allowed Boston to play small ball without Daniel Theis or any true center on the floor, the Celtics switched everything defensively, and Miami didn’t take advantage. Look for Eric Spoelstra to turn to more Bam Adebayo against that small lineup next game.

“They got us on our heels. They were out there hooping and having fun. I guess that was the difference in the game,” Bam Adebayo said postgame.

Miami didn’t shoot the ball well Saturday night, hitting just 27.3% from three. Jae Crowder, who had been hot, was 2-of-8 from deep, while Tyler Herro was 4-of-12. Adebayo had 27 points and 16 boards to lead the Heat.

Boston had four players with more than 20 points: Brown (26), Tatum (25), Kemba Walker (21), and Smart (20).

Boston will need another game like that — and they will need to close better, Miami made it interesting late — to even the series on Wednesday.

Miami said postgame they saw what happened in this game as a challenge to them. Game 4 is going to be intense.

Ja Morant points out one person who didn’t vote him Rookie of the Year

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Ja Morant was not the unanimous Rookie of the Year — 99 out of 100 media members voted for him, one voted for Zion Williamson.

When the media votes became public Saturday, Morant got to see who the one voter who voted for someone else was: Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Crowley stood up for his vote, and everything was good between them (at least on social media).

While the votes come from media members, the NBA goes out of its way to put together voters who see things differently, something ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne talked about is an excellent thread on Twitter, although she was speaking about the case for LeBron James over Giannis Antetokounmpo for MVP.

To be clear, I was one of the Morant voters, and I will readily admit that Zion is the better player (at least right now). I consider the impact on winning heavily when voting, which led me to Morant because he played 59 games before the bubble and had his team in a playoff position, while Zion played only 19 and did not (only games before the NBA restart in Orlando were to be considered, per NBA rules). I also expect and respect the fact that not everyone will see it that way, or even define what matters most in winning the award the same way. Diversity of thought and views is a good thing, it leads to better outcomes. Crowley should vote what he sees and believes, and that should be respected.

Unanimous or not, Morant will go down as the 2019-20 Rookie of the Year. The voting will be a footnote at most.

Boston’s Gordon Hayward warming up, available to play in Game 3

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The Celtics are getting their X-factor back — Gordon Hayward is available for the must-win Game 3 for Boston.

This had been expected, but he was out warming up pregame as reports he would be available started to bounce around the web.

Even 20 minutes of Hayward would be a big boost for the Celtics. Hayward suffered a grade III ankle sprain in the first game of the playoffs against Philadelphia. He’s been out ever since, even leaving the bubble for a while to get treatment.

Hayward’s return gives the Celtics another versatile player who can create his own shot and knock down the open looks others create for him. Hayward can run pick-and-rolls with the second unit while Tatum and Walker get rest. He’s the Celtics’ fourth-best scoring option right now, but he’s more dangerous than any other team’s fourth scorer.

Miami leads the series 0-2. If Boston doesn’t find a way to break down Miami’s zone defense and defend the rim better themselves this series is going to be short. Maybe Hayward can help with that on Saturday night.

Ty Lawson dropped by team, reportedly banned from Chinese league after social media posts

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Ty Lawson’s off the court challenges were among the reasons he was playing in China and not the NBA this season. He signed for good money in China instead.

That era of his career after some social media posts, apparently of him at a strip club in China, has him dropped by his team and rumored to be banned from the league.

Lawson’s team, the Fujian Sturgeons, apparently gave this statement to Chinese news agency Xinhua:

“His inappropriate words are inconsistent with the social responsibilities and values abided by our club and have brought serious adverse social impacts to the club and the league. We will not sign him for the new season.”

Emiliano Carchia, the CEO of Sportando, reports that Lawson is out of the Chinese Basketball Association for good.

Lawson’s quickness and ability to create space and score could help some NBA teams, but incidents like this make it less likely an NBA team would roll the dice on the 32-year-old point guard. Lawson spent eight seasons in the NBA then the last two in China.