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Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: Hit the panic button in Boston

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The NBA playoffs are deep into the second round, and with all that is on the line there can be a lot to unpack in these intense games, to help out we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Go ahead and hit the “now what happens” panic button in Boston after ugly Game 4 loss. It was maybe the biggest question heading into this round two series: Had the Boston Celtics finally found themselves in their first-round sweep of the Pacers, or would the ugly habits of the regular season return when faced with a good Milwaukee Bucks team?

Monday night, with their season essentially on the line, Boston played inconsistent defense with missed rotation after missed rotation. The offense devolved into a series of isolation, hero ball plays. Then Kyrie Irving headed back to the locker room with 10 seconds left to play, leading to all kinds of easy-to-draw parallels to what could happen in July.

Turns out, bad habits die hard.

Behind another strong outing from Giannis Antetokounmpo with 39 points on 15-of-22 shooting, and him getting help from the Bucks bench, Milwaukee has taken a commanding 3-1 lead in this series, heading home for Game 4.

This loss felt like someone threw a gas can into the “where will Irving play next season” fire. Boston fans can reach for the panic button now because a second-round exit is not helping Kyrie Irving want to stay.

The Celtics season isn’t over yet, but Knicks fans are already on Zillow hunting out places for Irving to live if he comes to Manhattan. That speculation is only going to grow, and his decision could impact Kevin Durant‘s decision, the Anthony Davis trade and more.

The decisive stretch of Game 4 Monday came in the final 6:20 of the third quarter, when Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton went to the Milwaukee bench with four fouls apiece, plus Boston was in the bonus. This is when the Celtics should have stomped on the gas pedal, run the Bucks off the court, and taken control of the game. Instead, the Bucks went on a 19-9 run, with George Hill leading the way (he had 9 of his 15 points in that stretch). When the quarter ended, the Bucks were in control.

That leads to the other big question heading into this series: Where the Bucks a regular-season phenomenon? They had the best record in the NBA, but would their style of play hold up when the game slowed down and defenses focused in to take away strengths during the postseason.

Turns out the Bucks are just fine in the playoffs.

Both of these teams are talented, but right now only one is playing like a team, only one has its star setting up teammates and getting them involved when the defense focuses on him. Milwaukee is getting big games from not only its stars but also Hill is getting key buckets, Pat Connaughton is playing quality minutes and throwing down big dunks, and Eric Bledsoe is a pest.

The Bucks are for real and about to head into the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Celtics are about to head into the summer where, whatever they look like on the other end of it, they will not be the same.

2) Now we have the series we expected, Houston beats Golden State to even series 2-2. For the past couple of seasons, Warriors’ coach Steve Kerr has used his “Hamptons’ five” lineup — Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green — almost as a “break glass in case of emergency” lineup. He’d bring it in when the game was on the line and no team had an answer for it.

Until Houston this series. In a sign of how much respect he had for the Rockets, Kerr opened the series starting the Hamptons’ Five, leaning on them for heavy minutes. In Game 4 they played just shy of 22 minutes — and were -11. For the series, this lineup is just +5, it is not dominating or intimidating the Rockets.

Mike D’Antoni has gone small to counter that lineup at the end of games, leaning on a lineup of Harden, Chris Paul, Eric Gordon, Austin Rivers, and P.J. Tucker at center. All 6’6″ of him.. D’Antoni tried to call it the “South Beach” five, which doesn’t at all fit them. But the lineup is a thing in this series.

James Harden is dominating. The beard shot 7-of-11 in the paint and 6-of-17 from three on his way to 38 points.

Houston won 112-108 and after an ugly start in the first two games has bounced back and turned this into the intense, emotional, knock-down drag-out series we expected. It is 2-2 after both teams held home court, with Game 5 Wednesday back in Golden State.

The Rockets are making Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson work hard on defense, and it seems to impact their offense — the Warriors were 8-of-33 from three in Game 4. That is why they lost. It was summed up in this final play, when Golden State had a chance to tie it.

Kevin Durant has been otherworldly and had 34 in this game, he just needs some help. In the Steve Kerr era, this Warriors team has always responded with a big defensive effort when their backs are against the wall. That’s where they are in Game 5, but can they really solve the Harden riddle? Because nobody else has this season.

3) Lakers apparently closing in on a deal to make Tyronn Lue their next head coach. With Monty Williams off the board and ensconced in Phoenix, Tyronn Lue became the clear and lone frontrunner to get the Lakers coaching job. The latest update is that the side are working toward a deal, one that brings Frank Vogel in as a lead assistant (which would be a good hire, Vogel is a strong defensive coach).

Once announced, it’s a highering that will get ripped in some quarters because it looks like LeBron James got his man. Which he did. LeBron trusts Lue. The perception is that Lue is LeBron’s patsy, but the reality is Lue is one of the few guys with a relationship that allows him to really challenge LeBron, to call him out. The Lakers will need that.

Lue is not the terrible coach some want to paint him as, but he’s also not an elite NBA coach. Lue got his team to defend and ran some creative stuff near the end of his run in Cleveland. Lue is not brilliant, he is somewhere near the middle of the bell curve of NBA coaches. Go ahead and say “that’s not good enough for the Lakers” but in reality who were they going to get that’s better?

Lue can do the job if he has enough talent on the roster. The question is can the Lakers land the talent they and Lue need? Rob Pelinka is going to have a wild summer.

Red-hot James Harden, ice cold Warriors shooting means Rockets even series 2-2

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Nothing summed up Game 4 better than the final meaningful Warriors’ possession of the night.

With :11.1 seconds left in the game, Golden State inbounded the ball and thanks to a James Harden missed free throw was down three, 111-108. The play ended up with first Kevin Durant then, after an offensive rebound, Stephen Curry getting clean looks to tie the game. Both missed.

It’s a make or miss league and the Warriors were missing all night.

The Warriors shot 8-of-33 from three and that — combined with another unstoppable night from Harden where he had 38 points — led to a 112-108 Houston win.

This is the tight, intense series we thought we’d get going in, and it is now 2-2 with both teams having held serve on their home court. Game 5 is Wednesday night back in Oakland.

For the past four years, when the Warriors have had a playoff loss they have almost always bounced back with an improved defensive effort. James Harden has blown that trend up, especially as the Rockets try to force switches to target Curry and wear him down (which has worked). Harden was 7-of-11 in the paint and 6-of-17 from three on his way to 38 points and nine assists in Game 4.

The Rockets played with urgency and played their game — pushing the pace when they could, shooting threes (56.2 percent of their shot attempts were from three), and pressuring on defense. It worked, in part because Harden got help. Eric Gordon had 20 points and continued his trend of outplaying Klay Thompson in this series (Thompson had 11 points on 15 shots). P.J. Tucker had 17 points hit three from beyond the arc, and did as well as anyone is going to on Kevin Durant defensively. Austin Rivers had 10 points. It all came together for Houston.

That despite another monster night from Kevin Durant who had 34 points on 12-of-22 shooting. Curry finished the night with 30 points and attacked the rim more, but was 4-of-14 from three.

After two wins at home, the Warriors thought they were in control of this series, but much like they did in the regular season the Rockets have bounced back from a slow start to put themselves very much in the mix. This is now the series we thought we would get — the Rockets have the formula to beat the Warriors and are catching the breaks they need.

This series between these two teams was tied 2-2 a year ago in the Conference Finals and the home team — that time Houston — won Game 5. Then the Warriors won the next two. Golden State has always been able to find another gear when it matters, but we have seen less of that this season. They need to find that gear Wednesday night, or they will be on the brink of elimination

James Harden’s 41 bests Kevin Durant’s 46 because he had help, Rockets win Game 3

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Kevin Durant once again reminded us he is the best player on the face of the earth.

In a hostile environment, Durant had 46 points, hit 6-of-10 from three, dished out six assists, and also played impressive defense all night. It was a virtuoso performance.

However, KD didn’t get much help. Stephen Curry was 0-of-6 in the fourth quarter and overtime, with four fouls. And he had this embarrassing play in a clutch moment, capping off a night Curry was 2-of-9 at the rim.

Meanwhile, James Harden got to 41 points in the game by sticking the dagger in the Warriors.

“That’s James, that’s what he does…” Rockets’ coach Mike D’Antoni said, but then listed contributions of bench players like Nene and Austin Rivers. “Everybody kinda gave us something and we won the game.”

That was the difference — Harden got help. Eric Gordon had 30, Nene and Clint Capela made plays, Chris Paul was not at his best but still finished with 14 points and seven assists. The Rockets as a team grabbed 17 offensive rebounds, giving themselves second chances.

It was enough. Barely. The Rockets hung on to win 126-121 in overtime, getting their first win in the series to make it 2-1. Game 4 is Monday night in Houston.

Durant has been otherworldly all players — this was his third 40-point game of these playoffs. In this series, Durant has 110 points, and Curry and Thompson have combined for just 105. Worse yet, the Rockets targeted Curry late in the game, having his man attack him off the dribble.

This Rockets win did not feel like a series changer — there was not some critical adjustment, some great change that elevated their game or gave them a massive advantage. The Rockets were just grittier, and their stars stepped up in the moment.

The Rockets came out with an appropriate sense of desperation to start Game 3 and the Warriors shooting struggles came early, which led to a 58-49 halftime lead for Houston. Golden State’s big three — Curry, Durant, and Thompson — combined to shoot 11-of-32 in the first half, and as a team the Warriors were just 3-of-16 from three. Kerr tried to change the momentum in the final five minutes by going to his Hamptons’ Five lineup, and that didn’t change the lead (it was nine when they entered and at half).

Meanwhile, the Rockets got 20 points from Eric Gordon in the first half, he was 4-of-9 from three before the break.

Whenever the Warriors would go on a run in the third, the Rockets answered (and often the Warriors shot themselves in the foot). At one point Golden State cut the lead to 7, but then Curry missed a layup and Harden answered on the other end with a three. Next possession, Thompson missed a layup and CP3 responded with a three. At the end of three, it was still Rockets by 7.

Then the Warriors made an early fourth quarter run, fueled by Durant, that made it close down the stretch. At the end of the fourth, nobody could buy a bucket — the Rockets and Warriors combined to go 1-of-10 in the final minutes of regulation — which led to overtime. That’s where the lid stayed on the Warriors basket — for three straight possessions Durant did not touch the ball for reasons nobody can explain — and the Rockets got just enough for the win.

Now Houston needs to do it again Monday, but it got the win, got back in the series and gave itself a chance.

Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: Down 0-2, it’s hard to see Houston’s path past Warriors

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The NBA playoffs are in full swing and there can be a lot to unpack in a series of intense games, to help out we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Down 0-2, it’s hard to see Houston’s path past Warriors. And that’s not because of Harden’s eye. At some point, the Houston Rockets need to win a game in Oracle Arena to take the series from Golden State.

However, it feels like they had their chances and missed. The Warriors came into Game 1 on short rest, with bad ankles, turned the ball over 20 times, and still won. Game 2 is where the Rockets started to find their flow from distance, hitting 17 threes and shooting 42.5 percent from deep. On the season, the Rockets were 26-7 when making at least 17 threes (and 2-0 when they made exactly 17 threes). Houston racked up a 114.7 offensive rating in Game 2 that was right at their elite regular-season average.

Yet the Rockets head home for Game 3 down 0-2. The Warriors won Game 2 115-109 and seemed in control most of the way.

Houston has to win 4-of-5 in this series and the Warriors have yet to have that monster, can’t-miss-a-shot breakout game we all know is coming at some point.

Well, Warriors not named Kevin Durant have not had those games. KD has been the best player on the floor in this series — through two games he has matched James Harden’s 64 point total, plus KD has provided key defense and rebounds.

Steve Kerr was not messing around this series, he went all in from the opening tip — he started the Hamptons’ five lineup — Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Durant, and Draymond Green — in both games. And leaned on that group. In Game 2 that lineup played just shy of half the game (23.7 minutes) and was a +12.

Iguodala has had a bounce in his step at age 35 and played well, with 16 points, five rebounds, four assists, and some good defense in Game 2. The Warriors also were dominant on the offensive glass in Game 2, with 18 offensive rebounds, creating second chances on 37 percent of missed shots. Houston cannot allow that many extra shots and chances for Golden State.

Despite that, the Rockets hung around in this one, and there are things that can improve at home. Chris Paul has been good — 18 points, seven rebounds, six assists, and some good defense in Game 2 — and has matched Curry’s output. However, the Rockets need last season’s CP3. Austin Rivers had an impressive night off the bench. Eric Gordon has been knocking down shots and can get hot.

If those guys can take a step forward alongside a healthy Harden — more on that in item No. 2 — and the Rockets can win Game 3 at home. They need to win Game 3 at home. Or this series is really over.

One other note on Game 2: Notice we have not mentioned the officiating. Both teams were on their best behavior, there was very little chirping at the officiating crew about calls. Clearly, that came as a directive from both coaches and through team leaders — focus on the game — plus the quick-trigger, no-nonsense crew of Scott Foster being there had teams thinking twice about complaining. It was a nice change of pace from Game 1.

2) James Harden gets hit in the eye and bled from it. It bothered him in Game 2, and he doesn’t know what comes next. The Rockets need the full James Harden experience in Game 3 to keep their season hopes alive.

But he needs to be able to see the basket clearly for that to happen. Will he be able to? After the game he was squinting and bothered by the camera lights in the interview room.

“It hurt,” Harden said of the inadvertent swipe by Draymond Green that injured his left eye. “I could barely see. Just try to go out there and do what I can to help my teammates. It’s pretty blurry right now.

“Can’t see nothing. Barely can see.”

Will that be better by Game 3 on Saturday? Hopefully. Time off should help. But nobody really knows.

Harden still had 29 points on 9-of-16 shooting after the injury, he got to the rim and made threes, but his eye was clearly bothering him. To win in this series the Rockets need Harden to be the best player on the floor, to dominate, and his eye injury is not going to help with that.

Green, to his credit, checked in on Harden both on the court at the time of the injury and after the game.

There is one other injury to track — Stephen Curry dislocated the middle finger on his left (non-shooting) hand in the first quarter.

The training staff popped it back in, taped up his finger and Curry was back out there. Still, it’s worth watching to see if that impacts Curry’s ball handling or flow in Game 3.

3) Milwaukee makes its adjustments, dominates third quarter, evens series at 1-1. Brad Stevens, the ball is in your court.

That’s because Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer made his adjustments for Game 2. For one, he started Nikola Mirotic in place of Sterling Brown. However, the bigger change was going to a switching-heavy defense, something Milwaukee did little of in Game 1 (and not a bunch during the season).

“I mean they’ve got the guys who can do that,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said from the podium after the game. “They did it last year a lot and so that’s an easy thing for them to adjust to. And I thought they did a really good job of it. Basically, Giannis and smaller were doing that.”

It worked. The game was close until Milwaukee went on a 24-2 run in the third quarter. Boston scored just two points in the final seven minutes of the third, and those misses (and a few turnovers) fueled chances for the Bucks to get out and run, and we all know Giannis Antetokounmpo is unstoppable in transition.

The Bucks won 123-102, dominating the second half and tying the series at 1-1 heading back to Boston.

Antetokounmpo looked like an MVP to be with 29 points and 10 rebounds, but he got help. Khris Middleton was 7-of-10 from three. Eric Bledsoe was a force on both ends of the court.

Meanwhile, Kyrie Irving struggled going 4-of-18 shooting and not getting generating a call that sent him to the free throw line. He wasn’t alone in struggling, Jayson Tatum and Terry Rozier were each 2-of-10, Jaylen Brown 5-of-12, Gordon Hayward 1-of-5.

At home for Game 3, expect the Celtics to shoot better. Stevens will make some counter adjustments, and we are going to have a long and intense series on our hands.

James Harden battles through eye injury, Warriors win Game 2 with awesome defense

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James Harden squinted and scratched his head as he walked off the court.

How did that just happen?

The Rockets shot way better than the Warriors from beyond the arc. Houston went on a 7-1 run with the shot clock off in the fourth quarter. The Rockets even drew more fouls and attempted more free throws than Golden State in a game Scott Foster refereed.

Yet, the Warriors took a 2-0 lead in the second-round series with a 115-109 Game 2 win Tuesday. Teams that won the first two games of a best-of-seven series at home have won the series 94% of the time.

Houston will have plenty of time to regroup before Game 3 Saturday. Nobody could use it more than Harden.

Draymond Green swiped Harden in the eyes in the first quarter, and Harden left the game for a while. Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said Harden was bleeding from his eyes. Harden (29 points) returned, but he was playing throughout bloodshot and watery eyes that were still clearly bothering him after the game.

Still, Golden State’s inspired defense deserves credit. All five starters – especially Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and Kevin Durant – were swarming.

The Warriors also crashed the offensive glass hard, particularly players coming from the weakside.

That’s why Golden State won despite shooting just 31% on 3-pointers to Houston’s 43%.

Curry also missed time in the first half with a finger injury. Though he shot just 3-of-13 on 3-pointers, including 2-for-7 while playing with the Warriors’ other starters, Curry proved helpful with his gravity. Golden State’s starting lineup posted a 143 offensive rating. The connection between Green (15 points and seven assists) and Iguodala (16 points and four assists) proved particularly fruitful as Curry drew attention.

Durant (29 points) cooked. Thompson (21 points) got hot.

The Rockets just couldn’t match that offensive output during the game’s competitive time. The Warriors got up big early and never trailed, even though Houston – sparked by Austin Rivers (14 points, +11) – cut into the margin with Harden out in the first half.

A wonky final couple minutes, featuring odd turnovers and fouls, made the final scpre misleadingly close.

Thankfully, in a game with the leadup focused on refereeing, both teams mostly focused on just playing basketball. There were a few noteworthy moments related to officials. Golden State griped a little in the third quarter. Harden drew a three-shot foul on a Durant closeout, and Chris Paul laid it on thick by pumping his fist while helping up Harden. Green and Nene got a double technical foul – which could rescinded, but is for now Green’s fourth technical foul of the playoffs (toward a limit of six before suspension). Green’s swipe of Harden’s eyes went un-whistled.

But this was mostly the clean, competitive game everyone wanted – just one controlled by the Warriors from start to finish.