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Tom Thibodeau returns to Chicago with Wolves in a mess

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — At the end of November, Derrick Rose brought his New York Knicks to Target Center, the building Tom Thibodeau now calls home with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Adversaries that night, Thibodeau and Rose spent five years together in Chicago grinding out victories and trying to restore the Bulls as Eastern Conference powers. They had dinners together, talked basketball together and bonded through the ups and downs of Rose’s MVP award and his knee injuries.

So when Rose glanced at the standings and saw Thibodeau’s Timberwolves at a lowly 5-13, the point guard knew his former coach, one of the most intense personalities in the NBA, probably wasn’t taking it well.

“He’s probably driving himself crazy,” Rose said. “A lot of late nights. His staff is probably having a lot of late nights, too. But it all comes with just trying to win. He’s a winner at heart. He wants to win every game. That’s the crazy thing about him. Some games you’re going to lose, but he’s probably up late nights and driving himself crazy a little bit.”

It has only gotten worse for the Wolves (6-18) since then, with only the Dallas Mavericks having won fewer games. Heading into a game against the Bulls on Tuesday night, Thibodeau’s first game in Chicago since he was fired by the Bulls in an acrimonious split in 2015, he is searching for answers and a way to connect with his new team.

It’s been a stunning start to Thibodeau’s first season in Minnesota after leading the Bulls to the playoffs in all five of his seasons there. During those years, they were never under .500 after the first two weeks of the season, except for in 2013-14 when they started 9-16. They rebounded to finish 48-34 that season.

Rose is right. Thibodeau and his staff get to the office early in the morning and often don’t leave until well into the night. It’s not uncommon for staffers to sleep at the team’s practice facility so they can devote more time to film study and game planning.

“There’s no shortcut to this,” Thibodeau said earlier this season. “You have to go through it. It’s important to maintain high standards. It starts with practice and preparation.”

Owner Glen Taylor chose Thibodeau over a long line of suitors last summer in hopes that his demanding style would expedite the growth process for a promising young roster and end a 12-year playoff drought.

But the Wolves have been slow to catch on to his defensive teachings, ranking 29th out of 30 teams in the league in defensive efficiency.

After a 27-point home loss to Detroit on Friday, he said he was “very concerned” that his team was not responding to his message.

“I’m going to keep coming. I don’t go away,” he vowed. “I’m going to look at everything, re-examine. Something’s being missed. It’s got to change.”

Thibodeau has been noticeably less demonstrative on the sideline over the last two weeks than he was early in the season, but the Wolves still tighten up when things start to go wrong, as they did in a 25-4 fourth quarter run by the Warriors on Sunday night.

“I studied before I took the job so I knew what I was getting into,” Thibodeau said. “You’re looking at it and I knew we don’t have experience. Part of the learning part is the trial and error. We have to go through it. But I also have to make sure we’re making progress and moving forward. That’s part of my job.”

Offense hasn’t been the issue so far for the Wolves, who are 10th in the league in offensive efficiency. Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine are the first trio of 21-year-olds averaging at least 20 points a game on the same team in NBA history.

But Towns, the reigning rookie of the year, has looked disinterested on defense, often getting beaten back down the floor in transition for easy layups. Wiggins has been up and down on the perimeter defensively and sixth-year point guard Ricky Rubio, the team’s only real veteran getting significant playing time, has been unable to adapt to Thibodeau’s systems.

“It’s not about (Thibodeau). It’s about us,” LaVine said after the Pistons loss. “We’re the ones on the court. He puts in the effort. We’re not executing.”

The Bulls hired Fred Hoiberg to replace Thibodeau, a more “player-friendly” coach that has lightened the atmosphere in Chicago. But they missed the playoffs in his first season and former Bulls star Joakim Noah said in November that “You don’t realize what you have with (Thibodeau) until he’s not around.” They are 13-10 and in fifth place in the East this season.

“It doesn’t happen overnight,” Thibodeau said. “You have to work at it. There’s going to be some good days, some bad days. That’s all part of it. But everyone putting everything they have into each and every day, that’s the big thing, so you can make progress, so you can improve, so you can get better, so you can win.”

Bam Adebayo: “I played like s***… I’ll put that game on me.”

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The Miami Heat were one half of basketball away from the NBA Finals when a desperate Boston team cranked up its defensive intensity, started attacking the rim, and started playing at a level Miami didn’t match. The Celtics dominated the final 24 minutes of Game 5, forcing a Game 6 and keeping the Heat out of the Finals for now.

Bam Adebayo took the blame for the Heat loss. Via Manny Navarro of The Athletic.

“I played like s***. Bottom line: I can’t. I’ll put that game on me. It’s not my teammates’ fault. It’s not my coaches’ fault. It’s me. I missed too many shots I should have made… I wasn’t being the defensive anchor I should’ve been. I don’t think I was communicating fast enough. I feel like I was a step behind today. I wasn’t a difference-maker today. I didn’t get us into fast enough triggers. That’s on me.”

Game 5 was not Adebayo’s best outing: 13 points, eight rebounds, and Boston did a better job with its scheme pulling him away from the basket to defend smaller players on the perimeter, opening up the paint. Adebayo and the Heat as a whole struggled to slow the Celtics’ pick-and-roll actions, and Boston has figured out how to play against Miami’s zone (so the Heat have gone away from it).

“It’s not (Adebayo’s fault). It’s on everybody,” Jimmy Butler said after the game. “He does so much for us that it can feel like that at times but it’s definitely not on him. It’s on us as a whole. We all understand that because nobody was playing the way that we are supposed to play; the way that we have to play in order for us to win, nobody. And for him to say that, I respect it. I love him for it. But he can’t do it by himself. We’ve got to be there with him.”

Bam Adebayo was wearing a sleeve over his left arm, where he aggravated a wrist injury at the end of Game 4. Both Adebayo and coach Erik Spoelstra said that was nothing and not what led to his off night.

Miami needs a lot of things to go differently in Game 6: It needs to start hitting its threes again (19.4% from beyond the arc in Game 5, and below 30% from deep in each of the last three games). Miami has to take care of the ball and it has to get back in transition defense — Boston ran right past the Heat in the second half and got a lot of easy transition buckets. Mostly, however, it comes back to Miami shooters hitting more of their threes — the Heat halfcourt offense needs that.

The Game 5 loss was not on Adebayo. But he can be part of the solution.

Backs against the wall, Celtics play dominant half to beat Heat, force Game 6

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For Boston, it was the worst of halves, it was the best of halves. It was a half of foolishness, it was a half of wisdom. It was a half of tight play, it was a half of free-flowing offense. It was a half of despair, it was a half of renewed hope.

With its season on the line down 3-1, Boston came out tight in the first half of Game 5, with guys trying to do everything themselves, showing no patience, no ball movement, players gunning from three, and nobody in green was defending well. Boston shot 5-of-20 in the first quarter, and while things settled down Boston was lucky to be only down seven at the half.

Then a different Boston team came out in the second half — a team that was defending with intent, pushing the pace, and watching their best player, Jayson Tatum, attack to the tune of 17 third quarter points. At the end of the third, Brad Stevens told his team, “with all sincerity, that’s the first time I’ve seen Celtics basketball in the past few games” (via the ESPN mic’d up segment of the broadcast).

The Celtics pulled away in the fourth to win 121-108. The Heat still lead the series 3-2, with Game 6 coming on Sunday.

“We did not compete hard enough defensively and we paid the price for that,” Erik Spoelstra said of his Heat team.

“I thought we played with great tenacity defensively, and I think our offense followed suit,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said of the second-half turnaround.

That defense included much more ball pressure out high on Miami and it worked. The Heat shot 19.4% from three, that’s the third straight game under 30% from three for the Heat, but Tyler Herro wasn’t able to bail them out this time around.

For Boston, Tatum finished with 31 points and 10 rebounds, and his third quarter helped save the Boston season.

Boston needs that Tatum from the opening tip on Sunday, not after 24 minutes (as we have seen the last couple of games). Boston is a good team but it needs Tatum to play at an All-NBA level to look like a contender.

Jaylen Brown added 28 points for the Celtics, while Daniel Theis proved an important role with 15 points and 13 rebounds plus some critical defensive plays down the stretch.

Miami may have led at the half, but when Boston started playing better out of desperation the Heat had no answers.

“No one was playing the way we’re supposed to play, the way we have to play for us to win,” Butler said.

Miami got 23 points from Goran Dragic and 20 from Duncan Robinson, who was a big part of Miami’s strong first half.

Miami was up 3-1, and they have seen how little that lead has meant in the bubble.

“I don’t think those series have anything to do with this. Our guys are well aware,” Spoelstra said. “We have great respect for Boston. We’re not expecting it to be easy. You have to earn it.”

Kings keeping Luke Walton, plan to play faster next season

Kings coach Luke Walton
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Kings coach Luke Walton works for a general manager who didn’t hire him and an owner who has shown frustration with him.

But Walton will keep his job.

New Sacramento general Monte McNair, via James Ham of NBC Sports California:

“Luke is going to be our coach next year, I’m really excited to work with him and I think we’re aligned in our vision and we’re going to start implementing it,” McNair said.

“This team showed some flashes last year,” McNair said. “I think De’Aaron is certainly a great young talent and I think his speed ability offensively to create really is going to be a huge catalyst for how coach Walton and I envision this team being up-tempo, creating the space to shoot threes and attack the rim.”

Walton has had four losing seasons in four years as a head coach between the Lakers and Kings. But this is how it works out for him.

A distressing aspect of Walton’s first season in Sacramento: The Kings played far slower than they did the previous season under Dave Joerger, who successfully implemented a fastbreak-heavy attack that particularly suited De'Aaron Fox.

Walton can coach that way. His Lakers teams typically played quickly. But Sacramento too often stagnated last season.

The Kings are still building around Fox. It’s on Walton to figure out how to maximize the point guard. For now.

Anthony Davis listed as questionable for Game 5 with sprained ankle

Anthony Davis
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When Anthony Davis has been on the court in the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers have outscored the Nuggets by 9.4 points per 100 possessions. When he sits, the Lakers are -21.3 (stats via NBA.com).

Why that stat matters: Anthony Davis is officially questionable for Game 5 after spraining his ankle in the fourth quarter of Game 4.

“[My] Ankle feels fine. Got tonight, tomorrow before the game to get it back to, I don’t want to say back to where it was, but good enough to play,” Davis said postgame Thursday. “Rolled it pretty bad but not too bad. I’ll be fine.”

Players also are the worst judges of their returns from injuries. This is the playoffs, the Lakers need him on the court, and Davis wants to play. However, ankles are very easy to re-injure once the ligament is stretched, and the issue can become chronic. If Davis missing one game helps the ankle heal to the point it doesn’t linger into the NBA Finals the Lakers have to consider that option.

That said, expect Davis to play.

Davis has been the best Laker throughout the Western Conference Finals. He is averaging 32.3 points a game while shooting 55.3% from the floor, and as noted above the Lakers are dramatically better with him on the court.

The Los Angeles Lakers are up 3-1 on the Denver Nuggets and can advance to the NBA Finals with a win Saturday night in Game 5.