Getty Images

After rough fourth quarters during season, Thunder find late-game swagger in playoffs

2 Comments

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — The team that struggled to protect a fourth-quarter lead all season long suddenly has figured out how to stage late comebacks in the postseason – against the toughest teams and in the most hostile environments, no less.

Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder will look to build on their 1-0 lead in the Western Conference finals after rallying down the stretch to hand the defending champion Golden State Warriors their first home loss these playoffs and just their third all season at Oracle Arena.

“Just being able to go in and lock in,” Russell Westbrook said Tuesday. “You’ve got to give credit to our guys just coming in and focusing on the task at hand. We couldn’t have done a better job of that, especially in the playoffs.”

The Thunder won three straight road games against teams that had lost only three times combined at home all season. On Monday night, they did it with a fourth-quarter comeback against the defending NBA champion Warriors, who had won their first six playoff games at Oracle Arena. Game 2 is Wednesday.

Oklahoma City lost 14 games during the regular season when it led going into the fourth. But with Monday night’s 108-102 victory to open the best-of-seven series, the Thunder won their second straight road game when trailing after three quarters. They also came back in the crucial Game 5 in the last round at San Antonio.

“We just find a way to finish the game,” Thunder guard Dion Waiters said. “Early in the season when we had a lead into the fourth quarter, we let a lot of games slip away. And I think just coming down in the postseason we’ve just been finding ways just to finish it out. We get up big, just try to keep the lead just to get the win.”

Now, Golden State is embracing the chance to rally from down 1-0.

“Every team that I was on that won a title lost at least a home game during the playoffs, so it happens,” Coach of the Year Steve Kerr said. “There’s a reason we pour champagne on each other when we win. It’s hard, it’s a grind, and this is a great reminder of that.”

This is the first time the Warriors have lost a series opener under Kerr, but last year they had to rally from 2-1 down in both the second round against the Memphis and the NBA Finals facing Cleveland on the way to the franchise’s first title in 40 years – an experience they believe could help them this time.

“I was telling the guys when we look at our championship run, anytime we talk about it, we talk about being down 2-1 to Memphis. Being down 2-1 to Cleveland. We never talk about beating the Pelicans 4-0. We never talk about beating the Rockets 4-1,” Draymond Green said. “You talk about the trying times. So right now is one of those times. We’ve never been down 0-1, so this is foreign territory for us. But at the same time we’ve been in positions where we’ve had to battle back before.”

After leading 60-47 at halftime, the Warriors allowed 38 points in the third quarter and scored only 14 in the fourth. They got outrebounded 52-44, with MVP Stephen Curry‘s playoff career-high 10 boards leading the way along with his 26 points and six 3-pointers.

“Long series, we’ll be able to bounce back and get back to who we are,” said Curry, who last week was named the first unanimous MVP in NBA history.

Kerr begged for a traveling call against Westbrook with 17.2 seconds left and the Thunder ahead 105-102, but a timeout was given. NBA senior vice president for replay and referee operations Joe Borgia went on NBA TV after the game and said Westbrook did drag his pivot foot.

Going forward, the Warriors want to handle what they can control down the stretch.

First-year Thunder coach Billy Donovan appreciates how his team has responded in crunch time when adjustments are needed. Oklahoma City lost Game 1 to San Antonio in the last round before beating the Spurs 4-2.

“I’ve always said this about these guys, I think as a coach, when you bring things to their attention of areas that we’ve got to get better at, concentrate and try to improve on, they really give a good, concentrated effort to do that,” Donovan said. “We just kept playing, and that’s what you’ve got to do.”

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

Boston Miami
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

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

Ja Morant thumb
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Leave a comment

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

Gordon Hayward return
Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

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

Ty Lawson China
Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images
Leave a comment

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.