Three things we learned on Thursday: Boston improving, not at Cleveland’s level yet

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It’s the last “three things we learned” of 2016, we tried to make it a good one.

1) Boston is improving, finding its groove, but there is still a gap to Cleveland. Boston players may have tried to deny this was a measuring stick game in the run up to it, but this was a measuring stick game. After stumbling to start the season, the Celtics had won six of seven and looked more like the team we expected before the season — one on par with Toronto in the East’s second tier.

It didn’t look like that early on Thursday night. For three quarters, this was a blowout, with the Cavaliers offense carving up what has been lately a solid Celtics defense. Kyrie Irving was the head of the snake and finished with 32.

Cleveland was up 15 early in the fourth and seemed to be cruising in for the win before Boston started a comeback that eventually cut the lead all the way to one. Boston’s fourth quarter run was sparked by Marcus Smart/Tyler Zeller pick-and-rolls, which the Cleveland bench — specifically Channing Frye — struggled to stop when he had to switch. This was also an efficient night from Isaiah Thomas, who finished with 31 points on 8-of-13 shooting (he got to the free throw line 13 times).

Boston is showing signs of life, but they are not at Toronto’s level yet — and they are certainly not at Cleveland’s. Maybe the Celtics can get to a spot where they are a threat to the Raptors in the second round of the playoffs, the fourth quarter comeback shows that kind of spark, but the first three quarters reminds us of the real pecking order in the East.

2) Russell Westbrook gets ejected, and with it dreams of a Thunder comeback died. Oklahoma City Thunder was already down by 16 points to Memphis when Russell Westbrook lost it midway through the third quarter and got sent to the showers early. Meaning OKC was well on its way to racking up a loss. The ejection just killed the idea of a comeback, and the Thunder ended up getting beat by 34, 114-80.

The Oklahoma City Thunder star was ejected with 6:41 remaining in the third quarter after complaining during a trip to the free-throw line for the Memphis Grizzlies.

The first technical came after Andre Roberson fouled Memphis’ JaMychal Green — officials said after the game Westbrook was arguing about whether the ball had touched the rim before the foul, and he was hit with his first technical by Brian Forte for not relenting when the official said the discussion was over. That continued through the ensuing free throws, and finally, the officials had enough and gave Westbrook a second.

You can be sure a fine is coming for Westbrook, not for the ejection but his postgame comments.

As noted above, that was the end of any comeback, the Thunder have no offense to speak of without Westbrook on the court. He finished with 21 points, 5 rebounds, and no assists, but he is still averaging a triple double.

3) Another ugly second half shows how teams have adjusted to Lakers, and they have not progressed. That fast 10-10 start for the Lakers seems so very long ago. They have gone 2-14 since, a slide that began with some injuries but has morphed into much more than that — and there is a lot of frustration in the locker room. The Lakers have played slightly better of late as they have gotten healthy, but it’s hard to see a path to a lot of victories — they don’t have the defense, and they don’t have easy answers to how the league has adapted to them.

The latest evidence of that was Dallas — with no Dirk Nowitzki all game and no Andrew Bogut most of the second half — blowing out the Lakers after the break and winning 101-89 in Los Angeles.

On defense, the Lakers just do not have answers for teams that can attack with a good pick-and-roll and have athletes who can space the floor. Coach Luke Walton was frustrated with his team’s focus and effort after the game, and it’s hard to argue with him.

That said, the Lakers problems on defense or more than effort and focus — I’m not sure they have enough plus defenders out there to make a difference consistently anyway. They certainly could be better with more effort, but do they have the players to get the job done?

On offense, you don’t see the ball movement — or movement off the ball — needed to handle the pressure and ball denial tactics they are seeing. Try to pressure a good offense like defenses now pressure the Lakers and that offense responds with strong weak-side action, counters that open things up, and the ball moves to get good shots away from the pressure. The Lakers aren’t doing that, and they are not a team loaded with guys whose instinct is to pass like that anyway.

There is real frustration in Los Angeles with this team’s progress — from the players, the coaching staff, and the fans. But welcome to rebuilding — it’s a frustrating process. One that is long, has setbacks, and is just difficult all around. It takes time and patience. I think Charles Barkley may be right that despite all that talent the Lakers do not have a Top 10 player on that roster, something they will eventually need to get to contend for another banner. However, this core of potentially good to very good players — D'Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram in particular — have a ways to go before that kind of elite free agent thinks “I want to play with them.”

Bonus thing we learned Thursday: Dan D’Antoni gets it. Dan D’Antoni is the brother of Mike, a former NBA assistant coach who now coaches college ball at Marshall. But he gets it. And he shot down an old-school, pound-it-inside reporter beautifully.

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