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Five Takeaways from NBA Sunday: With Bledsoe out, coaching Suns gets harder

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We’re all just coming out of our Christmas food coma, and after a busy weekend the NBA took it easy with just four games. Here is what you need to know out of a Sunday around the Association.

1) It’s not the coaches, it’s the players. So the Suns fired some coaches. Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN had an apt description of the coaching moves in Phoenix Sunday, this is the old “let’s fire the hitting coach” strategy.

The Suns have lost 15 of their last 20 games because their roster has holes and chemistry issues, plus now their leading scorer and playmaker — Eric Bledsoe — is out until after the All-Star break following surgery on a torn meniscus. So how did the Suns’ management respond? On Sunday, the Suns fired assistant coaches Mike Longabardi (defensive coordinator) and Jerry Sichting (offense) and promoted the popular-with-the-players Earl Watson, as well as Nate Bjorkgren to the bench to shake up a Suns team that is out of the playoffs right now even in a down West. Head coach Jeff Hornacek kept his job, although there is a dead man walking feel to that. His contract is up after this season, he’s fought with players, and it’s difficult to imagine he will be back in the big chair in Phoenix.

This move was made by a management team that believes this is still a playoff team. I don’t see it. Suns’ owner Robert Sarver could resurrect John Wooden and make him coach and wouldn’t matter. This roster doesn’t have a clear strength and almost certainly will miss the playoffs for a sixth straight season. Without Bledsoe and his 20 points a night, the Suns are not the same. Brandon Knight will have a lot more on his shoulders, Rodney Hood will have to step up, and the Suns will count on its depth that has been a disappointment so far this season. The fact is management spent big on Tyson Chandler this summer and he has been bothered by nagging injuries and has not looked like near his vintage self. This team is a little below average on offense and a little below average on defense, and the players look lackadaisical at times. Coaching may be part of the issue, but talent and fit are the bigger ones.

The question I have is: what is the plan in Phoenix? What kind of team are they trying to build? There are no clear answers. A couple of years back the Suns were thought to be a rebuilding team that wasn’t going to go full Sixers but was going to take a few years to rebuild through the draft and free agency — then Hornacek led that team to 48 wins (which was still  not good enough for a playoff spot that season). It put the franchise in more of a “we can make the playoffs now” mindset rather than rebuilding the core, and the results have been less than impressive since. It may be time to rethink how they rebuilt this roster, and not just shuffle the coaching chairs around.

2) C.J. McCollum goes off as Portland gets win. No Damian Lillard on the second night of a road back-to-back taking on a rested Kings team — this looked like a scheduled loss for the Trail Blazers. But C.J. McCollum had other ideas — he went off from the midrange, hitting 10-of-17 from three feet out to the arc, and he picked apart a matador (just waving the cape as he drove past) defensive effort from the Kings. McCollum had 35 points, and combine that with the Kings turning the ball over on nearly 22 percent of their possessions, and you have a 98-94 Trail Blazers win.

Usually, it’s the rested team that plays better in the fourth quarter of these games, but the Kings were 3-of-22 shooting in the quarter, and DeMarcus Cousins was 2-of-9. Still, Cousins had 36 points on the night and provided a counter to McCollum.

3) Russell Westbrook, Thunder were dunking all over Nuggets. Russell Westbrook was within one rebound of a triple-double (30-11-9), and he did it while attacking the Nuggets and throwing down dunks at the rim. Heck, even Dion Waiters got in on the act during the Thunder’s 122-112 win.

4) RIP Meadowlark Lemon. For many, he was THE Harlem Globetrotter of the 1960s and ’70s (when that team was as popular as almost any NBA squad). He could consistently hit a half-court hook shot, was a fantastic trick passer, and was exactly the kind of showman and ambassador the sport and the Globetrotters needed. The Hall of Famer passed away this weekend at the age of 83. Our thoughts are with his family and friends.

5) Isaiah Thomas and Carmelo Anthony put on a show. Boston seemed in control of this game throughout second half (although the Knicks made some mini-runs to try to make it more interesting), and the Celtics won 100-91. Through it all Thomas and Anthony were the ones putting up the points and entertaining the fans.

Gordon Hayward reportedly feels good, hopes to return for Game 3

Gordon Hayward return
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After a frustrating come-from-ahead loss to Miami to go down 0-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Boston Celtics need a boost.

Like the return of Gordon Hayward.

That is on track to happen in Game 3, although nothing is official, reports Jared Weiss of The Athletic.

Hayward has been sidelined since he suffered a grade III ankle sprain in the first game of the playoffs against Philadelphia. He left the bubble for a time to get treatment, but has been back with the team, working out and going through a practice.

Gordon Hayward could be Boston’s X-factor in the conference finals — and his return may be the lift it needs. He gives the Celtics another versatile wing player — along with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum — who can create his own shot and knock down open looks. Throw in Kemba Walker, and Hayward would be the fourth scoring option for Boston, making the Celtics deep and difficult to defend. Hayward also spent time guarding Butler during the regular-season matchups.

 

Celtics try to play down postgame yelling, things thrown in locker room

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“You’re not supposed to be happy when you’re down 0-2. Nothing out of the ordinary, just talking about the game.”

Jayson Tatum is right in his postgame comments, to a point. The Boston Celtics should be frustrated after blowing a 17-point lead and losing to the Miami Heat Thursday night, putting the Celtics in an 0-2 hole.

However, that part about “nothing out of the ordinary” and “just talking” in the locker room postgame? That’s not what went down, according to multiple reporters on the scene in the bubble.

After the game, the Celtics tried to play it all down. That started with coach Brad Stevens.

“Guys were emotional after a hard game, hard loss.”

Kemba Walker wouldn’t even discuss it.

“It was nothing. It was nothing. I’m not speaking about it.”

Enes Kanter took to Twitter to echo the comments of several Celtics, that they are still a family.

Boston may have just been venting postgame, but if they don’t bring the fire from the locker room out onto the court Saturday for Game 3, or this may be a very short series.

NBA playoffs schedule 2020: Dates, times, matchups for all games

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And there were four.

The NBA is down to the conference finals — and the bubble has provided us with upsets galore. There are some unexpected teams in the NBA’s Final Four, but of course LeBron James is still there. The Lakers are the heavy favorites now.

Here are a few notes on the NBA playoffs schedule 2020:

• The NBA is continuing to push the pace with games every other day — except in the East, when ESPN wants a break not to clash with the NFL. The fast pace of games will return with the NBA Finals.
Families for the players, and with the final four now the coaches, are in the bubble.
• The NBA has released an NBA Finals schedule to teams and their target is still a Sept. 30 Game 1. If either conference finals goes seven games that date will need to be pushed back.

Here is the NBA playoffs schedule 2020 (all times are Eastern):

EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS

No. 3 Boston Celtics vs. No. 5 Miami Heat

Game 1: Heat 117, Celtics 114, OT
Game 2: Heat 106, Celtics 101 (Miami leads series 2-0)
Game 3: Sept. 19, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 4: Sept. 23, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 5: Sept. 25, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)*
Game 6: Sept. 27, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)*
Game 7: TBD (ESPN)*
*If necessary

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS

No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 3 Denver Nuggets

Game 1: Sept. 18, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2: Sept. 20, 7:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 3: Sept. 22, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Sept. 24, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Sept. 26, 9 p.m. (TNT)*
Game 6: Sept. 28, TBD (TNT)*
Game 7: Sept. 30, TBD (TNT)*
*If necessary

NBA playoffs schedule 2020: Second Round results

Eastern Conference

No. 3 Boston beat No. 2 Toronto 4-3

No. 5 Miami beat No. 1 Milwaukee 4-1

Western Conference

No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers beat Houston 4-1

No. 3 Denver beat No. 2 Los Angeles Clippers 4-3

NBA playoffs schedule 2020: First Round results

Western Conference

No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers beat No. 8 Portland 4-1

No. 2 L.A. Clippers beat No. 7 Dallas 4-2

No. 3 Denver beat No. 6 Utah 4-3

No. 4 Houston beat No. 5 Oklahoma City 4-3

Eastern Conference

No. 1 Milwaukee beat No. 8 Orlando 4-1

No. 2 Toronto beat No. 7 Brooklyn 4-0

No. 3 Boston beat No. 6 Philadelphia 4-0

No. 5 Miami beat No. 4 Indiana 4-0

Boston zoned out in second half, Miami comes back to take 2-0 series lead

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The Miami Heat love bubble playoff games — the Heat are 10-1 in the NBA’s self-created, concentrated basketball environment (and the one loss was by three in overtime to Milwaukee).

Miami also loves its zone defense, something it broke out regularly during the regular season but sat on and didn’t show in the first two rounds of the playoffs (literally zero zone defensive possessions against the Pacers and Bucks, according to Synergy Sports). In Game 2, they went to it for 36 possessions, most in the second half.

The Boston Celtics were thrown off by the zone, scoring 17 points in the third quarter, shooting 4-of-14 from three in the second half, and watching Jimmy Butler make plays like this.

And this, reading a Brad Stevens pet out of bounds lob play to seal the win.

Miami came from 17 down to beat Boston 106-101, giving the Heat a 2-0 series lead. Game 3 is Saturday.

After the game, there was reported yelling by Marcus Smart and throwing of things in the Boston locker room.

“Guys were emotional… after a hard loss,” Boston coach Brad Stevens delicately put it.

The Boston coach also wasn’t buying into talk of the Miami zone defense being the story of the night.

“This isn’t about zones and defenses or offenses. We just need to be better,” Stevens said.

Boston did do better in the first half. After getting outscored by 22 in the paint in Game 1, the Celtics came out in Game 2 and attacked the rim, brought Enes Kanter and his inside scoring off the bench early, shot 10-of-13 at the rim, and won the points in the paint battle 32-18 in the first half.

Then in the second half, with the Heat often in a zone, the Celtics just tried to shoot over the top of it rather than get into the middle of it.

Miami just kept making shots and making plays. Goran Dragic led all Heat players with 25, Bam Adebayo had 21 points and 10 rebounds, and Duncan Robinson had 18 going 6-of-12 from three (and keeping Miami close in the first quarter).

Boston had 23 from Kemba Walker, who bounced back with a strong offensive game after a rough first game of this series. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown each had 21.

The Celtics are by no means out of this series, but right now they are not executing their game plan with the grit and intensity the Heat bring.

Boston needs to bring the fire they showed in the locker room postgame to the court in Game 3, or the Celtics will find themselves in a hole they cannot get out of.