Five Takeaways from NBA Sunday: Celtics are locking teams down

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The NBA season is starting to develop a rhythm, and while it’s too early to try to draw much out of the statistics (we need to get to 20 games before we draw any serious conclusions) some patterns are emerging, such as the Boston defense. We’ll talk about a couple of those in our five things you need to know from around the NBA on Sunday:

1) Boston is locking teams down. Last season, Boston was an okay defensive team, 12th in the league, and that was enough to get them into the postseason. This season coach Brad Stevens has the Celtics locking teams down early — they are fourth in the NBA in defense, allowing just 94.4 points per 100 possessions (that’s 7.4 per 100 better than last season). Two key areas are driving this. The first is turnovers — Boston is forcing turnovers on 19.4 percent of opponent possessions, the highest rate in the NBA. Sunday against Oklahoma City, Boston forced 18 turnovers and that was one of the keys to a quality win for the Celtics. Jae Crowder leads the NBA in steals (which is stunning). I’m not sold Boston can maintain this pace of turnovers, but they likely remain near the top of the league. The other area is simply forcing other teams to miss shots — opponents have an eFG% of 46.5 percent against the Celtics, fifth in the NBA. Maybe the best illustration of that Sunday was Marcus Smart going up against the powerhouse that is Russell Westbrook — while Westbrook had 27 points, he was 5-of-20 shooting (Smart had 26 points on 9-of-14 shooting). Maybe the highest compliment to Smart’s play was how Westbrook played it down postgame.

Holding Westbrook in relative check was not all Smart, it was a team effort, but that is what Boston has been doing all season and why they again look like a team headed toward the playoffs in the East.

 

2) Karl-Anthony Towns went head-to-head with Marc Gasol and held his own. The crazy thing — Towns turned 20 on Sunday. Even at that age Towns went head-to-head with one of the best centers in the game in the younger of the Gasol brothers and completely held his own — Towns had 14 points and nine rebounds. Sure, Gasol put up numbers (16 points, seven rebounds) and his wet midrange jumper in the second half was key to the Grizzlies win, but if you’re a Timberwolves fan you have to be excited with what you see. Towns has been the best rookie in the NBA so far this young season (he’s averaging 15.5 points and 10.2 boards a game).

3) Don’t sleep on Charlotte. The Hornets handled the Trail Blazers fairly easily at home on Sunday, and while it’s certainly early it looks like this is a team that will be in the mix to return to the playoffs this season. What they are doing is not beating themselves — they don’t turn the ball over, and they are focused on grabbing defensive boards (best rate in the NBA so far) so the opponent doesn’t get a second chance. Charlotte has the seventh best offense in the NBA this young season, Jeremy Lamb has played well of late (he’s looking like a guy who deserved that extension), Jeremy Lin has fit well as a sixth man (11.5 points a game, a PER of 18.3) and this is a team that is difficult to beat. If you are looking ahead on your team’s schedule and think “Charlotte, that’s an easy win” you will be in for a rude awakening. 

4) DeMarcus Cousins is beasting. Over his last three games, Cousins is averaging 36.3 points and 10.7 rebounds a game, while shooting 51.4 percent. He dropped 36 and 10 on Toronto and they had no answer — Cousins was central to a win the Kings needed before a five-game road trip opens.

5) Anthony vs. Anthony: Carmelo Anthony and Anthony Davis put on a show at MSG. It was a noon tip at Madison Square Garden Sunday — an early start in a city with great nightlife means a sloppy game (call it the J.R. Smith memorial issue). Despite that, Carmelo Anthony and Anthony Davis put on a show for the fans (and those fans left happy after seeing a Knicks win).

Lakers go on 75-30 run, blow out Heat in Game 1 of NBA Finals

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All-season long, one of the first things opposing coaches would say after facing the Lakers was, “it was so hard to adjust to their length and physicality.”

The Miami Heat learned that lesson the hard way Wednesday.

The Heat raced out to a 13-point lead early in Game 1 of the NBA Finals as they forced the Lakers to become jump shooters. Then those shots started falling, Miami started missing, the Lakers started running, and everything came apart for the Heat. The Lakers closed the first quarter on a 19-3 run.

That run became 75-30.

“It’s been that way all year long, whenever we start to miss a couple shots, we don’t do what we’re supposed to do on the other end,” Jimmy Butler said.

That was the ballgame.

The Lakers were physically dominant, shot 15-of-38 from three (39.5%), and blew the Heat out of the building in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, 116-98. LeBron James finished with 25 points, 13 rebounds, and nine assists. Anthony Davis added 34 points and added three blocked shots — Miami had no answer for him inside.

The Lakers led by as many as 32 before some good garbage time play from Miami — 18 points from Kendrick Nunn — made the final score look more respectable than the game itself was.

Game 2 of the Lakers vs. Heat Finals is Friday night.

“You know, from that moment when it was 23-10, we started to play to our capabilities,” LeBron said. “We started flying around. We started getting defensive stops. We started sharing the ball a lot better offensively and just got into a really good groove.”

“The Lakers set the tenor, the tone, the force, the physicality for the majority of the game,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said afterward.

More disturbing for the Heat are the potential injuries to critical players.

Goran Dragic did not come out of the locker room for the second half and had X-rays on his foot. While there is nothing official, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reports he tore his plantar fascia. He is officially TBD, but it will be a difficult injury to play through. It’s devastating blow for Miami.

With Dragic out Tyler Herro got the second-half start, and in Game 1 he tied an NBA Finals record being -35 for the game (Kobe Bryant, Game 6 of 2008 Finals against Boston).

In addition, Bam Adebayo went back to the locker room in the third quarter, appearing to have aggravated the shoulder issue he had against Boston. The team said X-rays were negative, but he did not return to the game.

This game turned on Adebayo. On media day Tuesday he said, “You got to be smart about ticky-tacky fouls.” He knew he couldn’t get in foul trouble, and yet he did, picking up a second foul in the first quarter, sending him to the bench. Up to that point the Heat were up three, but when he went to the bench the Laker run started.

“Our guys are just hustling their tails off, flying around on the defensive end, and then playing effort offense, as well,” Laker coach Frank Vogel said of the Lakers’ run through the second and third quarters. “Really pushing the tempo on the break, attacking the paint, and crashing the boards. Just the pace of the game really picked up in those two quarters, and obviously, they were the difference makers.”

The Lakers got 13 points from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and 11 from Danny Green (who hit three from beyond the arc).

Miami’s defensive game plan was to double LeBron when he drove, make him pass out, and dare the other Lakers shooters to beat them. The Lakers role players did and that was a key difference.

Miami got 23 points on 13 shots from Jimmy Butler, but he also tweaked his ankle during the game. Herro had 14 points but on 6-of-18 shooting, and as a team the usually sharp-shooting Heat shot 31.4% from three.

Because of the rapid pace of games in the bubble, the Heat have just two days to regroup and try to make this look more like a series — Game 1 looked like the varsity vs. the JV.

“We talk about how damn near perfect that we have to play, and that was nowhere near it,” Butler said. “There’s nothing to be said. We can watch all the film in the world, we understand, we know what we did not do, what we talked about we were going to do, we didn’t do. We didn’t rebound, we didn’t make them miss any shots, we didn’t get back, all of those things led to the deficit that we put ourselves in.”

Miami guard Goran Dragic doubtful to return to game with foot injury

Goran Dragic injury
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Goran Dragic, like seemingly every member of the Miami Heat, couldn’t find his rhythm in the first half — 3-of-8 shooting, three assists, but some missed defensive assignments as the Heat started to fall behind.

Part of that may have been a foot injury — Dragic did not come out for the second half and his return is doubtful with a left foot injury, the Heat announced.

There are no other details on the injury as of yet.

Tyler Herro started the second half for Miami in his place.

The Heat has struggled with the Lakers length — and Los Angeles can’t miss from three — with that has the Heat down 26 early in the third quarter.

L.A. Lakers will stay big, start Dwight Howard at center

Dwight Howard start
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images
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While it is easy to say the Lakers’ best lineups have Anthony Davis at center, the numbers say the Lakers are best playing big with another player at center and Davis at the four.

That’s how the Lakers will start the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat on Wednesday — and Dwight Howard gets the call, the team announced.

This start was expected, especially after how well Dwight Howard played in the Denver series against Nikola Jokic.

It creates an interesting defensive choice for Erik Spoelstra and the Heat: Do they start Bam Adebayo on Davis and have Jae Crowder on Howard, or reverse that. Adebayo is an All-Defensive Team player who may be the best one-on-one matchup in the league for Davis,  but does Spoelstra want to risk early foul trouble for his star center, and would it wear Adebayo down to have to work so hard on both ends. Expect Crowder to start on Davis and Adebayo to get the key minutes later in the game.

The challenge for the Lakers: Howard fouls a lot.

“Probably fouling,” Laker coach Frank Vogel said when asked what was at the top of the team scouting report for the Heat. “I think they are great at getting to the free throw line. If we can play with discipline, not give them opportunities to shoot free throws, set their defense, that will help us win games, because they are great at getting to the free throw line.”

Howard can’t mess that plan up for Los Angeles. But he’s going to get the chance.

 

Two men charged with taking over NBA player’s social media accounts, selling info

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — A Louisiana man and a Florida man allegedly gained access to professional athletes’ social media accounts and either sold the information or used it to extort payments, according to federal criminal complaints released Wednesday.

Trevontae Washington and Ronnie Magrehbi each face wire fraud conspiracy and computer fraud conspiracy counts filed by the U.S. attorney’s office in New Jersey.

The 21-year-old Washington, of Thibodaux, Louisiana, allegedly obtained usernames and passwords for multiple NFL and NBA players and sold access to the information.

Magrehbi, 20, of Orlando, Florida, allegedly obtained an NFL player’s email and Instagram account information and extorted money by publishing explicit photos of the player and threatening to publish more.

Washington and Magrehbi were scheduled to make initial court appearances Wednesday in their respective states. They were not alleged to have worked together on the scams.

Their alleged victims included two NFL players and one NBA player, all of whom lived in New Jersey at the time of the alleged crimes.

According to the complaint, Washington used a “phishing” scam — requesting login information purportedly for a legitimate purpose — to gain access to the accounts of one NFL player in 2018 and locked the player out of the accounts.

Washington also took over the accounts of at least two other players, and acknowledged to investigators after his arrest last year that he had sold access to players’ accounts for between $500 and $1,000 each, the complaint alleged.

Magrehbi also used phishing to take over the social media accounts of an NFL player living in New Jersey in 2018 who eventually paid him $500, according to the complaint.

A few days later, explicit images of the player were posted to his Twitter and Instagram accounts and he was asked for an additional $2,500 to prevent the publishing of additional photos, the complaint alleged. The request came from a prepaid cellphone linked to Magrehbi, according to the complaint.

Court personnel for the Eastern District of Louisiana didn’t provide information on an attorney representing Washington. A message was left Wednesday at the Middle District of Florida seeking attorney information for Magrehbi.

Wire fraud conspiracy is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Computer fraud conspiracy has a five-year maximum sentence.