In very even NBA Finals, these three things will decide if Celtics or Warriors take Game 5

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SAN FRANCISCO — Through four games, this has been an insanely even NBA Finals (even if the individual games have not been).

It’s more than the series being 2-2 — the Warriors are +1 through 192 minutes of game time.

Or, check out these stats:
eFG%: Warriors 54.2%, Celtics 53.7%
Turnover percentage: Warriors 13.5%, Celtics 13.3%
Offensive rebound percentage: Warriors 23.3%, Celtics 23.5%

In such an evenly-matched series, it’s the details, the execution, and the transcendence of Stephen Curry that separates these teams on any given night.

What will be the factors that separate them in a critical Game 5? Here are three things to watch.

1) Are the Warriors going against a set Celtics defense?

“If we are playing offense the right way, we’d be 3-1, at least, right now,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said.

He’s right. Boston’s elite defense is one of the great forces of this series, and Golden State has a 93.5 half-court offensive rating in the Finals (well below their season average and almost five points below Boston’s this series). However, in transition the Warriors have a 114.8 offensive rating (stats via Cleaning the Glass).

What Udoka is saying is when the Celtics play their game — take care of the ball, drive the paint and finish (or kick out to open shooters) — they get the chance to get back and set their defense. They slow the pace of the game down. When the turnovers mount up, or the Celtics settle and jack-up 3s (as happened in the fourth quarter of Game 4), the Warriors get out on the break and their offense thrives.

“Offense is going to determine, I feel like, the rest of the series for us in a sense,” the Celtics’ Grant Williams said. “If we control and do what we’re supposed to do, we have success. If we don’t… when you have so many turnovers, when you don’t necessarily execute and get less shots and allow offensive rebounds, extra possessions for them, it’s hard to win games that way.”

Which ties into No. 2 on our list.

2) Are Jayson Tatum and the Celtics getting to the rim and finishing?

Tatum has been good this series — 22.3 points, 7.8 assists and 7 rebounds a game, shooting 45.2% from 3 — but he has not been elite, and that’s because of his finishing at the rim. Tatum is shooting just 22.2% on twos this series, and is shooting just over 50% inside the restricted area. When Tatum drives and misses — or turns the ball over, as he did six times in Game 4 — it means the Warriors are off in transition.

Tatum has to be better for the Celtics to win.

“[Tatum is] looking for fouls,” Udoka said. “When he plays off two [feet] and draws the contact, he’s finished well. The other part is inside the three they are really crowding and trying to take that away… Some of the isolations, elbow, things we have done for him, they are really loading up. And even with that, he has to invite that and get guys other shots…

“Then just, quite frankly, he’s missed some easy ones that he usually makes around the basket, especially with their lack of rim protection at times.”

Tatum owns it.

“I know I’m impacting the game in other ways, but I got to be more efficient, shoot the ball better, finish at the rim better,” Tatum said. “I take accountability for that.”

There are stretches where Tatum and the Celtics offense as a whole follows the game plan, but it’s not consistent. They froze up in the fourth quarter of Game 4 and it cost them. The Celtics need more consistency.

Tatum has ascended to near the top of the NBA ladder, he is first-team All-NBA and sixth in MVP voting this season. However, to truly take his place at the game’s highest level, he has to be the best player on the court in the NBA Finals (or at least go toe-to-toe with Curry). The Celtics need that to start in Game 5.

3) Which team is more poised, more disciplined?

By Game 5 of a series like this, there are no more secrets between the teams.

“I think anytime you get to this point in the season, there’s not many huge adjustments you can make,” Draymond Green said. “Like I’ve said before, they know who you are, you know who they are. You’re not going back to reinvent the wheel. You’re not going back to change your playbook. You’re not going back to change your personnel. I think in understanding that, you have to do what you do to the best of your ability.”

Between two evenly matched teams, it’s about execution, poise, and getting the details right.

Stephen Curry has been the best at that. The Warriors as a team have been better.

“Last game a lot of time we had six-point leads and then we took a bad shot on offense or had a turnover or we had a lapse of judgment on the defensive end and gave up open threes. Things like that, just like the mental blips,” The Celtics’ Grant Williams said. “I feel like we haven’t been the most disciplined team this series between the two teams.”

“It’s about being poised, taking our time, executing our offense,” Otto Porter said. “I think if we take our time and not get sped up it will work better in our favor.”

Whichever team shows more poise, shows more discipline will win Game 5 and then will be one win away from an NBA crown.

Brianna Stewart heads to New York on first day of WNBA free agency

Las Vegas Aces v Seattle Storm - Game Four
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Former MVP Breanna Stewart is headed to New York.

The most coveted free agent this offseason, who won the WNBA MVP award in 2018, announced on social media that she was going to New York with a photo of her in a Liberty shirt. Stewart had spent her entire career in Seattle since the Storm drafted her first in 2016. She won two championships with the team in 2018 and 2020.

The 28-year-old wing has averaged 20.3 points and 8.6 rebounds in her WNBA career. She missed the 2019 season with an Achilles injury.

By coming to New York it brings Stewart closer to home. She grew up in Syracuse which is an hour flight from New York. It also is an easier flight to Spain to see her wife Marta’s family.

New York representatives, including coach Sandy Brondello and owner Clara Wu Tsai met with Stewart in Turkey last week. Stewart had narrowed her choices down to Seattle and New York before choosing the Liberty.

The move turns the Liberty into an instant championship contender. New York is one of the WNBAs original franchises, but has never won a championship. The Liberty already added 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones and Kayla Thornton through a three-way deal to complement 2020 No. 1 draft pick Sabrina Ionescu.

The news was met with elation on social media by Jones, Ionescu and Nets star Kevin Durant, who said on a podcast that he had reached out to Stewart to get her to come to New York.

Stewart was the second big-name free agent to announce her intentions to play for another team this season. Candace Parker said last weekend that she was going to sign with the Las Vegas Aces and officially did.

“As I’ve gone through free agency this time around, of course I’m thinking of where I can compete for my third championship, but the words home and family are what I kept coming back to,” Parker said. “After evaluating the landscape together with my family, we’ve decided the Las Vegas Aces are the right organization for us at this point in our lives. To play for a championship close to home is the perfect situation for us. I’m looking forward to continuing the journey this summer in Las Vegas.”

Wednesday was the first day that free agents could sign with teams. Other moves announced included:

— Brittney Sykes with Washington

— Lexie Brown and Stephanie Talbot with Los Angeles

— Teaira McCowan with Dallas

— Alysha Clark with Las Vegas

Many free agents were waiting for Stewart to make her decision, including Courtney Vandersloot.

Vandersloot announced on social media that she wasn’t returning to Chicago, where she had spent her entire career. She has led the league in assists six times during her 12-year career and helped the Sky win the 2021 WNBA championship.

“To the Sky organization who drafted the little guard from a mid-major and believed in me from the jump, I couldn’t have asked for anything better,” Vandersloot wrote on Instagram. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I have realized my dreams because of you. Although I never planned for this day to come, I have decided it is time for me to pursue a new beginning.”

Stewart and Vandersloot are currently playing together in Turkey.

While Stewart and Vandersloot will be playing for different WNBA teams this season, Brittney Griner, who is also a free agent, announced in December when she returned home from her 10-month ordeal in Russia that she planned to remain with the Phoenix Mercury. Her long-time Mercury teammate Diana Taurasi is also a free agent, but she too is expected to go back to Phoenix.

Weather strands Pistons in Dallas, forces postponement of Wednesday game vs. Wizards

Winter storm, Minneapolis, December 2022
David Joles/Star Tribune via Getty Images
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The Detroit Pistons talked smack to Luka Dončić and paid the price, watching him drop 53 on them Monday night.

Then the Pistons have been stranded in Dallas ever since. In recent days, freezing temperatures have grounded more than 2,000 flights out of both the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport and Dallas Love Field, impacting thousands of passengers. The weather also has hit the Pistons, who were supposed to fly home to Detroit to take on the Wizards on Wednesday night. The league has officially postponed that game.

“Due to severe weather conditions in the Dallas area, the Pistons have been unable to fly back to Detroit after their game on Monday at American Airlines Center,” the league said in its official release. “The date for the rescheduled game will be announced at a later time.”

The Wizards have won six in a row and are 12-5 in their last 17, jumping them back into the play-in picture in the East.

This is not the only game that could be lost due to the weather in Dallas, the Pelicans — fresh off a loss to the Nuggets on Tuesday — may not be able to fly into the city for their Thursday game.

Freezing temperatures are expected to continue in Dallas through Wednesday, warming up slightly on Thursday, but by Friday getting up to a relatively balmy 50 degrees and sunny.

Watch Dennis Schroder hit the most casual half-court buzzer beater ever

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Act like you’ve done it before.

The Lakers’ Dennis Schroder drained a half-court buzzer-beater against the Knicks — turning his back on the shot and being completely non-pulsed when it happened.

The Lakers had been 2-of-16 from 3 before that shot, and they ended up needing those points. Despite a historic triple-double from LeBron James, the Lakers had to go into overtime to beat the Knicks, 129-123.

Three things to Know: Is Nikola Jokić going to win third straight MVP?

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Three Things To Know is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Is Nikola Jokić going to win third straight MVP?

That’s a weird headline to write just days after Joel Embiid outplayed Nikola Jokić head-to-head. Embiid absolutely is in the MVP mix again this season — 33.6 points and 10 rebounds per game with strong defense will do that — and that 47-point game is the kind of thing that sticks in voters’ minds. Jayson Tatum, Luka Dončić and Giannis Antetokounmpo are in there, too (not sure Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry will play enough games to win the award).

But Jokić is averaging a triple-double this season — 25.1 points, 11.1 rebounds and 10 assists — and his team is in first place in the West. It’s a season worthy of a third straight MVP. If someone is going to dethrone him, well, you come at the king, you best not miss.

Jokić had 28 points, 16 rebounds and 15 assists on 10-of-14 shooting in the Nuggets’ win over the Pelicans on Tuesday night — Denver is now 16-0 this season when Jokić has a triple-double.

Heading into the season there was a sense MVP voters would be hesitant to make it a historic three straight MVPs for Jokić — putting him in Larry Bird and Bill Russell territory — when the Nuggets haven’t been to the Finals yet. However, Denver sits atop the West and looks like a contender with Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. healthy.

Plus, Jokić’s numbers are undeniable — the Nuggets are 20.2 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court this season. They win because of him, Denver gets outscored by 8.5 points per 100 when he is off the court. And we’re not going to dive into EPM, VORP and the rest of the advanced stats, just know they love Jokić like no other, too.

Jokić may not win his third MVP, there are other deserving guys in the mix and we have 30+ games to go this season. Just don’t be shocked if he does, he has been that good.

2) LeBron has historic night as he chases big his historic night

LeBron James is now just 89 points short of passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. He probably passes KAJ next week, Abdul-Jabbar has 38,387 career points, LeBron is now at 38,299.

First he made some history on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden. LeBron had a triple-double of 28 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds, making him the first player in NBA history to have a triple-double in his 20th season.

More impressively, with those 11 assists he moved past both Mark Jackson and Steve Nash into fourth on the NBA’s career assists list. Think about that for a second, the league’s all-time leading scorer is fourth in assists, too.

The Lakers couldn’t hold on to a late lead in regulation — LeBron missed a couple of long jumpers that could have sealed the win — and Los Angeles needed overtime to get the 129-123 victory. They needed it after dropping two games to start this road trip. Anthony Davis moved back into the starting lineup and the Lakers need to string together a few weeks of wins to climb back into the play-off — or even the play-in mix — or all this history by LeBron will be squandered by the franchise.

3) Banchero, Henderson lead group that will make Rising Stars worth watching

The Rising Stars challenge is often the forgotten child of All-Star weekend. It takes place on Friday night and isn’t all that interesting.

This year may be different — a deep cast of talent will play in the new format that was a hit last season. The 28 players will be divided into four teams of seven, with those four teams going into a tournament bracket. The games were not timed, but players competed to a target score of 40 — something that last season led to the young stars defending and playing hard. It was entertaining.

Here’s the list of who will be playing:

Rookies

Paolo Banchero (Orlando Magic), Jalen Duren (Detroit Pistons), AJ Griffin (Atlanta Hawks), Jaden Ivey (Detroit Pistons), Walker Kessler (Utah Jazz), Bennedict Mathurin (Indiana Pacers), Keegan Murray (Sacramento Kings), Andrew Nembhard (Indiana Pacers), Jabari Smith Jr. (Houston Rockets), Jeremy Sochan (San Antonio Spurs), Jalen Williams (Oklahoma City Thunder)

Sophomores

Jose Alvarado (New Orleans Pelicans), Scottie Barnes (Toronto Raptors), Josh Giddey (Oklahoma City Thunder), Jalen Green (Houston Rockets), Quentin Grimes (New York Knicks), Bones Hyland (Denver Nuggets), Evan Mobley (Cleveland Cavaliers), Trey Murphy III (New Orleans Pelicans), Alperen Sengun (Houston Rockets), Franz Wagner (Orlando Magic)

The G-League team will consist of:

Sidy Cissoko (G League Ignite), Scoot Henderson (G League Ignite), Mojave King (G League Ignite), Kenneth Lofton Jr. (Memphis Hustle), Mac McClung (Deleware Blue Coats), Leonard Miller (G League Ignite), Scotty Pippen Jr. (South Bay Lakers)

It’s a group worth watching on Friday night (Feb. 17) of All-Star weekend.