Celtics dominate Sixers in Game 2 with their most important trait: consistency

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The Boston Celtics don’t have Kyrie Irving. They don’t have Gordon Hayward. What they do have is perhaps the best coach of these young NBA playoffs in Brad Stevens, and a consistency that their opponents in the Philadelphia 76ers sorely lack. While you can trust the process all you want, the Celtics are trusting their bench players and young rotation guys for even contributions.

To that end, Boston beat Philadelphia, 108-103, to take a 2-0 lead in the semifinal matchup between the two teams on Thursday.

Philadelphia was far more assertive offensively in the first half of Game 2 than they were in Game 1. The Sixers moved the ball, getting double-digit performances in the first two quarters from three starters. Philadelphia shot much better from the 3-point line, amassing more made triples in the first half (7) than they did during the entirety of Game 1 (5).

Meanwhile the Celtics struggled offensively out of the gate, only finally finding a solution to the Sixers’ redoubled efforts on defense late in the second quarter. Down by 21 with five minutes to play in the second, an offensive surge led by Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier saw the Sixers stall defensively, and helped Boston push it to just 56-51 in favor of Philadelphia to end the half.

The Sixers continued their uneven play to start the third quarter. Philadelphia’s offense seemed to slow, particularly after going through first and second reads on set plays. The Sixers stood around, with only the strong side of the floor moving as weak side shooters stood. Boston used Philadelphia’s stagnation to create turnovers, scoring 16 points off changes of possession alone and beating up the Sixers in the transition game, 19-16.

Philadelphia’s poor play apparently didn’t sit with coach Brett Brown, either. Upset with Ben Simmons‘ decision-making, the Sixers coach sat his star point guard for a huge stretch between the third and fourth quarters, more than 12 minutes of game clock. Simmons finished with seven assists and six rebounds, but just one point.

Boston used the stagnant Philly attack to dominate, and the momentum was clearly in favor of the Celtics toward the end of the game. Although the score wasn’t out of reach for the 76ers, the game appeared to be emotionally capped off after Rozier sent an alley-oop to the sky for Jayson Tatum with 2:23 left.

The final chance at a stop for the Sixers was emblematic of Philadelphia’s defensive issues, too. After forcing the Celtics to rotate the ball on offense with less than 15 seconds to go in the game, Al Horford wound up with the ball at the top of the 3-point arc. Embiid jumped out to cover him, giving Horford the open lane for the drive and the easy score with 8.3 seconds left, giving Boston a five-point lead.

Horford could be seen talking to Tatum immediately after the bucket, apparently surprised he was so wide open. The Sixers had happy feet on defense all night, and despite having less active talent, Boston again played a better team game on both sides of the ball as they ground out the win.

For Philly, JJ Redick led the way with 23 points along with three rebounds and two assists. Robert Covington had 22 points, nine rebounds, two assists, and two steals. Embiid contributed 20 points — albeit on 36 percent shooting — with 14 rebounds and five assists.

The Celtics saw a strong performance from Tatum, leading Boston’s scorers with 21 points, two rebounds, and two assists. Rozier continued his playoff hot streak, adding 20 points, nine assists, and seven rebounds. Marcus Smart, wounded thumb and all, scored 19 points with five rebounds, three assists, and two steals.

Game 3 is back in Philadelphia on Saturday. The Sixers will need to play more evenly if they expect to make a series out of this thing.

Ja Morant fined $35,000 for using ‘ inappropriate language’ toward referee

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A frustrated Dillon Brooks and Ja Morant must have used some special language near the end of the Grizzlies’ loss to the Timberwolves, because both were ejected within a matter of minutes near the end of the game Wednesday night.

The league fined Morant $35,000 for “confronting and directing inappropriate language toward a game official and failing to leave the court in a timely manner following his ejection.”

Morant was not demonstrative at the time and was clearly surprised by the ejection. Before leaving the court he dapped up Anthony Edwards (who was shooting free throws) and a couple of other players before heading back to the locker room. Afterward Morant took to social media.

If the official said that to Morant, he should also be punished. The league can’t come down on players for not showing the referees respect if it’s not a two-way street.

It was an ugly loss for the Grizzlies, who fell to a Timberwolves team without Karl-Anthony Towns.

Teams reportedly watching to see if Bulls make stars available; Lakers had internal discussions on it

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It was a talking point going into the season: What teams we thought would be good will struggle, and then pivot to chase Victor Wembanyama in the lottery.

What about the 9-13 Chicago Bulls? They barely look like a playoff team, they miss Lonzo Ball, and even at their best where do they fall in the East? Would they blow it up? With DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic and Zach LaVine, they have players that would interest other teams and could bring quality picks (or young players) back to Chicago. Other teams are watching, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

One of those teams: The Los Angeles Lakers.

That is according to ESPN’s Zach Lowe on the Lowe Post Podcast. He was discussing a potential trade floated by The Ringer’s Bill Simmons where the Lakers send Russell Westbrook and two future first-round picks (2027 and 2029) to the Bulls for DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic.

“The trade I saw on Twitter was Russ and both picks, one with light protections I think for DeRozan and Vucevic. I can tell you 100% for sure that the Lakers have had internal discussions about that very possibility, if it would ever come up. Not that they would do that. Let me be clear.”

None of this matters if the Bulls don’t decide to pivot, and they are not there yet. They may never get to that point. But the Lakers and other teams are surveying what teams might make game-changers available at the deadline, and the way the Bulls are stumbling has other teams keeping an eye on them. Expect the rumors to keep coming.

But for now, that’s all they are, rumors and speculation.

On the bright side for Bucks, Khris Middleton looks good in return

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton initially said that making his 2022-23 debut in his return from offseason wrist surgery felt great.

Then he quickly corrected himself.

“I should actually say good,” Middleton said Friday night after the Bucks’ 133-129 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. “If we got the win, I think I would have been (feeling) great. It felt really good to be back out there with the guys competing and playing,”

Middleton, 31, had 17 points and seven assists while playing 26 1/2 minutes in his first game since spraining the medial collateral ligament in his left knee April 20 in Game 2 of the Bucks’ first-round playoff series with the Chicago Bulls. That injury caused him to miss the entirety of the Bucks’ Eastern Conference semifinal with the Boston Celtics, a series Milwaukee lost in seven games.

The 6-foot-7 forward then had surgery on his left wrist in the summer, having played through the injury late last season.

“Pretty impressive how kind of seamlessly he got back into the game on both ends of the court,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said.

Middleton said Friday at a post-shootaround availability that he might need some time to readjust, but the three-time All-Star didn’t show any signs of rust in his first game back. He shot 6 of 11 and went 3 of 4 from 3-point range.

“Just relying on my experience,” Middleton said. “Just (trying) not to rush and let the game come to me. Don’t try to do too much the first game back and try to fit in and play off my teammates.”

The most important thing is that Middleton felt just fine physically.

“Hopefully tomorrow when I wake up, I feel the same also and I won’t feel too sore or whatever,” he said.

The Bucks had gone 15-5 in Middleton’s absence. Milwaukee is second in the Eastern Conference, behind only the Boston Celtics.

Middleton’s teammates believe his return should make them even better.

“It takes us to a whole different level,” Bucks forward and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “We scored 129 points and we had a bad first half. That says a lot.”

Lakers coach Darvin Ham knows how much Middleton means to the Bucks’ title hopes. Ham was an assistant coach on Budenholzer’s Bucks staff from 2018-22, including their 2021 championship season.

“Giannis is the heart and soul and the engine, and Khris is like the steering wheel,” Ham said before Friday’s game. “He’s the GPS in terms of understanding what to do. Giannis is the focal point but Khris is the master of putting guys where they need to be. He’s like that quarterback.”

The Bucks aren’t going to overexert Middleton as he returns to the floor for the first time in about 7 1/2 months. Budenholzer said Middleton probably won’t play Saturday at Charlotte.

“We’ll talk about it on the plane, but my guess is he will not play a back-to-back,” Budenholzer said.

Middleton’s just happy he’s back on the floor at all.

“Just a range of emotions,” Middleton said. “(I’ve) been through a lot these last couple months. Happy, sad, anxious, nervous. To finally get out there and play and get a lot of those nerves past me felt pretty good.

LeBron James passes Magic Johnson for sixth all-time in assists

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
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Magic Johnson is one of the greatest, most creative passers the game has ever seen.

Friday night, LeBron James passed Magic for sixth all-time in assists in the NBA. For LeBron, doing that in a Lakers’ jersey like Magic wore was special.

It happened with 8:41 remaining left in the game, LeBron found Anthony Davis for a 3-pointer on the right wing.

LeBron finished the night with 11 assists and 28 points, which along with a monster 44-point night from Anthony Davis led the Lakers to an impressive win over the Bucks in Milwaukee.