Victor Oladipo

AP Photo

Celtics complete rare sweep by beating Pacers

7 Comments

INDIANAPOLIS — Gordon Hayward scored 20 points and Marcus Morris started a decisive 3-point flurry late in the fourth quarter Sunday to give the Boston Celtics a series-clinching 110-106 victory at Indiana.

It’s the first four-game sweep for the Celtics since 2011 and their second since 1986-87, becoming the first team to reach the second round of the playoffs.

Bojan Bogdanovic finished with 22 points and Tyreke Evans finished with a playoff career-high of 21 to lead the Pacers. It still wasn’t enough to prevent Indiana from enduring its second first-round sweep in three years – the only two best-of-seven sweeps in franchise history.

This game, unlike the previous three, did not turn on Boston’s suffocating second-half defense. Instead, it was a flagrant foul called on Indiana’s Cory Joseph with 6:45 to play.

Jayson Tatum took advantage by making both free throws to give the Celtics an 83-82 lead. Al Horford sank 1 of 2 on Boston’s next possession and then Morris started the decisive flurry with a 3-pointer with 5:08 to play. Hayward’s three-point play with 4:24 left made it 90-83 and Boston made three more 3s over the next three minutes to take an insurmountable 102-90 lead.

Twice in the first half, it looked like Boston might run away with the victory.

But the Pacers charged back to take a 49-47 halftime lead and extended it to 56-49 in the third quarter.

That’s when Boston rallied, closing a methodical comeback with the final four points of the third to take a 73-72 lead and then put it away behind the shooting of Hayward and Morris, who had 18 points and eight rebounds.

Kyrie Irving had 14 points and seven assists for Boston.

TIP-INS

Celtics: Closed out the series with their seventh straight win against Indiana this season. … Tatum also had 18 points and rebounds while Al Horford finished with 14 points, 12 rebounds and five assists. … Jaylen Brown added 13 points and Terry Rozier had 11 off the bench. … Boston was 10 of 28 on 3s, 5 of 7 in the fourth.

Pacers: Darren Collison had 16 points, six rebounds and five assists while Thaddeus Young added nine points and nine rebounds. … Domantas Sabonis scored 14 points and grabbed eight rebounds while Myles Turner had 13 points and seven rebounds…. The Pacers shot 40.9 percent in the game. … Victor Oladipo made his first public appearance at Bankers Life Fieldhouse since suffering a season-ending right knee injury in January.

UP NEXT

Celtics: Will wait to find out who they play in the second round.

Pacers: Head into the offseason contemplating how they can improve next season.

Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: Westbrook vs. Lillard is best show in playoffs

Getty Images
Leave a comment

The NBA playoffs are underway 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) Russell Westbrook vs. Damian Lillard is the best show in playoffs; Round 3 goes to Westbrook and Thunder. Oklahoma City vs. Portland has become must-watch TV. This third-quarter sequence shows exactly why Russell Westbrook vs. Damian Lillard is the best drama going right now. Well, second after Game of Thrones, but best in the NBA playoffs and one you need to be watching.

Less than two minutes into the third quarter, Westbrook anticipated a Lillard layup attempt, got up, and swatted the shot back. When he landed, Westbrook looked at the crowd along the baseline and yelled something. Lillard, in turn, said something right back to Westbrook, and then the two started jawing. As they have at points throughout the series. Westbrook was making it personal, he demanded the ball on the next Thunder possession, posted up Lillard and knocked down a little turnaround jumper right over the Blazers’ guard. Westbrook then celebrated with his rock-the-baby move (the way he did this one was more shook-the-baby). After the game, Lillard said he didn’t even see it, although in the videos Lillard seems to smirk at it.

Lillard then went off scoring 23 of his 25 points in a historic, franchise-best third quarter to make it a game.

In the end, Oklahoma City got the needed win 120-108 behind 33 points ( on an efficient 11-of-22 shooting ) and 11 assists from Westbrook. Westbrook even hit the dagger three over Lillard.

The Thunder still trail in the series 2-1 and need another win on Sunday in Game 4 or they may fall too far behind to catch up.

Two keys in Game 3 led to the Thunder win.

First, Oklahoma City finally decided to be aggressive in trapping and pressuring Damian Lillard, taking the ball out of his hands early in the shot clock. At least OKC did in the first half. This has been the book on how to beat Portland in the playoffs for a couple of seasons now — make anyone other than Lillard or C.J. McCollum beat you — but OKC used it sparingly in the first couple of games. During the regular season Jusuf Nurkic became an excellent outlet for Lillard when those traps came, but he is out and now Enes Kanter has to be that man. He was not as good. Portland got away from it when Lillard got hot but the Thunder need to go back to it as often as they can.

Second, the Thunder hit their threes. Oklahoma City shot 10-of-61 from three (16.4 percent) from three in the first two games in Portland, but at home they felt comfortable and the shots fell — 15-of-29. This was the biggest difference in the game, Portland’s defense but the Thunder could not beat them from three and on Friday night OKC won that bet.

Can the Thunder sustain that at home?

Tune in for Game 4 Sunday to find out. Lillard vs. Westbrook is the best show going right now.

2) Pascal Siakam goes off for 30 points, 11 rebounds in leading Raptors to win on the road over Magic. During his pregame media availability, Raptors coach Nick Nurse was asked if Pascal Siakam was formally the Raptors third offensive option now.

“If he has he’s dropped down from being the 2nd option,” Nurse responded.

Siakam was option No. 1 on Friday night, scoring 30 points, pulling down 11 rebounds, and leading the way for Toronto to get a 98-93 win on the road. Siakam did it impressively, with everything from threes to postups, and plenty of attacking off the bounce, much of it against a good defender in Jonathan Isaac.

Toronto now leads the series 2-1 and if Orlando is going to have a real chance in this series it needs to win game 4 Sunday.

The Raptors needed the breakout game from Siakam because Kawhi Leonard looked human, scoring 16 points but needing 19 shots to get there (he also had 10 rebounds). Orlando geared its game to stop Leonard (who was under the weather), but the Raptors had other options in this one.

The Raptors also defended well — Evan Fournier was 1-of-12 shooting on a night the Magic as a team shot 36.2 percent and scored less than a point per possession (98.9 offensive net rating). Terrence Ross had 24 off the bench — and hit a halfcourt shot right before halftime — to keep Orlando close. The Magic better find their shooting touch before Sunday or this series will end quickly.

3) Boston has Kyrie Irving (and Jaylen Brown), Indiana can’t score consistently, and Boston is in command of series. We’ve seen this movie before. Boston went into Indiana Friday night and took control of the series going up 3-0 after a 104-96 win that followed the same formula that has worked for the first two games.

First, Kyrie Irving can get buckets whenever he wants. He had 19 points in this game, although it was Jaylen Brown’s 23 points on 8-of-9 shooting that was the dominant force. Jayson Tatum pitched in 18 points.

Second, Indiana just can’t score consistently The Pacers had 61 points in the first half, finding some offense in playing uptempo, even if that is not their style (the Pacers were 25th in the NBA in pace during the regular season, then this had been the second slowest paced playoff series so far this season). But the scoring would not last. Indiana started the third 1-of-8 from the floor and finished the quarter 5-of-21 shooting. Then down the stretch, Indiana was 1-of-7 from the floor. Without Victor Oladipo the Pacers are prone to these offensive droughts, especially against a good Celtics’ defense, and it is simply too much to overcome.

Game 4 is Sunday and maybe the Pacers extend the series to a fifth game, but we know how this movie is going to end.

Loaded with expiring contracts, Pacers still scraping and clawing together

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
2 Comments

Thaddeus Young faced a tough decision last summer.

Coming off the best season of his career, he held a $13,764,045 player option with the Pacers. Opting in probably, though not definitely, maximized his salary this year. But opting out would have allowed him to sign a long-term deal with more total compensation.

Young opted in.

“Obviously, I had a few teams that wanted to pay me some money and stuff like that,” Young said. “But I figured that playing another season and going into it with these guys is better for me.

“We’re a family. We built something. We have some unfinished business.”

That decision, several others and Victor Oladipo‘s season-ending knee injury sent Indiana toward its identity – a tough, balanced team full of players incentivized to look out for themselves.

Several key Pacers – Young, Bojan Bogdanovic, Wesley Matthews, Darren Collison, Cory Joseph and Tyreke Evans – are on expiring contracts. But they don’t play like it. Indiana has remained cohesive amid obstacles, including the contract situations.

Don’t expect that to change with the Pacers trailing the Celtics 2-0 in their first round series entering Game 3 tonight.

Indiana proved its mettle last season. Largely written off after the Paul George trade, the Pacers became the NBA’s surprise team by winning 48 games. Victor Oladipo broke out as a star.

This season brought a new complication – players on the verge of getting compensated for their success. It could have happened more gradually, but circumstance created a rush.

Young opted in. Indiana exercised a $10.5 million team option on Bogdanovic and a $10 million team option on Collison, locking this in as the final year of their contracts. Matthews got bought out by the Knicks and signed for the rest of the season with a Pacers team that presented major opportunity with Oladipo sidelined. Evans, finding an underwhelming market in free agency last summer, prioritized a one-year deal. Joseph was the only one who was clearly entering the final season of his contract in Indiana.

The Pacers have given 68% of their minutes this postseason to players on expiring contracts. That’s a close second to the 76ers (only because I counted a few players with sure-to-be-declined player options – Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving and Khris Middleton – as having expiring contracts).

Here’s the percentage of minutes given to players on expiring contracts this postseason:

image

In the regular season, Indiana trailed only the Wizards.

Pacers coach Nate McMillan said he addressed the contract situation before the season. His message, as summarized by Joseph: “We’re better when we play together, and if we do, then everybody will get rewarded.”

Players clearly bought in. Indiana surged to a 32-15 start. But Oladipo’s injury tested the Pacers’ cohesiveness.

They clearly wouldn’t be as good without their star, and they went just 16-19 since his last game. It would have been a logical time for players to go their own ways and start playing for themselves in what looked like it’d be a lost season.

Instead, they tightened their bond. This team has been quite competitive without Oladipo. The schedule got tough in March, but the Pacers stuck together.

“We don’t have big names, big stars on our team,” Bogdanovic said. “But we are fighting every single night.”

The delicate balance of Indiana’s offense – especially considering contract-year motivations – is quite stunning.

The Pacers averaged 5.4 double-digit scorers per game this season – the most in nearly two decades. Not bad for a team that finished 22nd in the NBA in points per game. Though scoring is up this season, 69 other teams averaged more points per game since another team had so many double-digit scorers per game.

“There’s a lot of players on the other teams that play for their own stats,” Bogdanovic said. “…We have this season, eight or nine players with expiring contracts, and we are still playing the right way, sharing the ball. We don’t care who’s going to score. That’s why we are successful.”

Unconcerned about their scoring numbers, Indiana players exert their energy on other things – defending, rebounding, screening. The Pacers impose a hard-nosed style, just as they did last year.

Indiana’s professionalism and focus on winning is a tribute to its players and organizational culture. This is a veteran team with the right priorities.

As much as he believed in this group, as well as he has guided it, McMillan wasn’t quite certain how the contract situations would affect his squad.

“That can go either way,” McMillan said. “It can be good or bad. It’s been good for us. Our guys have committed to playing together.”

Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: Are these Rockets as good as last year’s version?

Associated Press
Leave a comment

The NBA playoffs are underway 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) Houston looks as good as last year’s team in shutting down Jazz. Again. First impressions tend to stick with us. It’s human nature. And our first impressions of this season’s Houston Rockets were not good — a 10-11 team that could not defend, Chris Paul looked like he lost a step, Clint Capela looked like he really enjoyed the offseason, and the result of a few off-season moves meant the Rockets didn’t have the same depth and versatility.

Get those Rockets out of your mind.

The Rockets playing right now — the ones that have gone 20-5 since the All-Star break and are now up 2-0 in the playoffs — are as good as last year’s team. They think better. Either way, this team is a genuine threat to the Golden State Warriors.

Just ask the Utah Jazz. They were 18-7 after the All-Star break with a +9.5 net rating, yet through two games the Rockets have dismantled the Jazz with ease. On Wednesday it was a 118-98 Rockets’ win in a game that stopped being seriously competitive midway through the third quarter.

Through the first three quarters Wednesday, the Jazz shot 35.5 percent overall and 16.7 percent from three, with an offensive rating of just 89.3. Well below a shot per possession. Utah’s offense has one real shot creator in Donovan Mitchell and when a good defense can focus on one guy, it can make his life difficult: Mitchell had 11 points on 4-of-11 shooting overall, 1-of-8 from three, with, 6 assists but 4 turnovers.

Also, the Rockets have James Harden.

He is unstoppable right now (and the exception to the lone shot creator note above). Utah switched up its defensive strategy to try to put more pressure on Harden at the point of attack, he almost seemed to prefer that and made his moves, created space, and had his way. Harden had 32 points on 24 shots, was 6-of-13 from three, had 13 rebounds and 10 assists, and none of those numbers do justice to how he dominated the game when he was on the court.

Through two games, Houston has dominated and gotten in Utah’s heads, and the Jazz can’t shoot their way out of it (15-of-65 from three through two games). Utah’s roster limitations are being exploited by Houston and it’s hard to see a path for the Jazz to bounce back, even as they head home for Game 3.

Houston’s real test is next round — they are the only team in the West that can be a threat to Golden State. Last season Houston believed it was the better team (but for one Chris Paul hamstring…), this season nobody thought that about them that way because of that slow start.

It’s time to start thinking of the Rockets that way. This team is legit. They can beat anyone.

2) Playoff Kyrie Irving dominates, Indiana’s offense still just goes flat, and Celtics win 99-91 to go up 2-0. There are two competing storylines in this game. Both are true, but one is more fun while the other has a larger say in how this series is going to end.

The fun part — playoff Kyrie Irving showed up on Wednesday night in Boston. Celtics fans didn’t get to see him last season, but he showed up in Game 2: 37 points, 6 rebounds, 7 assists. Most importantly, when the Pacers were ahead in the third quarter and threatening to blow the game open, it was Irving’s offense that kept the Celtics around.

In the fourth, playoff Jayson Tatum — the guy from last playoffs everyone has been waiting to show up all of this season — made an appearance. Tatum finished with 26 points and made some key plays late in the fourth quarter. Irving wasn’t scoring in the fourth, but his presence and the way he dominated the game early had opened up everything for the other Celtics.

The second storyline is that Indiana’s offense without Victor Oladipo is prone to ugly, extended dry spells that will doom them. Indiana led by a dozen points early in the fourth but shot 4-of-17 in the final quarter, and while the Celtics play good defense this is more about Indiana. Bojan Bogdanovic led the way with 23 points and 8 rebounds for the Pacers, but Indy relies on a team approach, with a lot of guys getting some buckets to make the whole thing work. However, for stretches, they struggle with that against good teams, and they don’t have the one guy to turn to stop the bleeding right now.

That will ultimately be Indiana’s downfall in this series.

3) Bucks overwhelm Pistons. Again. I just feel bad for the Pistons — they are better than this. However, without Blake Griffin this is not near the same team, and they were going to struggle with the athleticism and length of the Bucks in the first place. Wednesday it was a 120-99 Milwaukee win to go up 2-0 in the series.

Eric Bledsoe had 27 points, Giannis Antetokounmpo added 26 points and 12 assists and then there was Khris Middleton with 24 for the Bucks.

The Bucks are gaining a little confidence, which is good because they will need it against the Celtics in the next round.

NBA Playoff Predictions: Plenty of Warriors love…and Bucks, too

Getty Images
Leave a comment

It’s prediction time… and of course we’re talking Golden State Warriors a lot.

How could we not? They are the most talented team, they’ve won the last two titles, and they are the clear favorites for good reason. However, we’ve got love for the Bucks (and Raptors) and see a few upsets along the way.

Here are our predictions:

Do you predict an upset in the first round (lower seed beating a higher seed)?

Eastern Conference:

Kurt Helin: While I think Indiana can push Boston — especially with Marcus Smart out injured — there will be no first-round upsets in the East. There is too big a gap between the top four and bottom four (if Indiana had a healthy Victor Oladipo, this could be a different conversation.

Dan Feldman: No. The top four of the East is loaded. The bottom three is… not. Though I do predict with Marcus Smart out, the fifth-seeded Pacers will push the Celtics to seven — the home team winning every game.

Dane Delgado: I could certainly see the Indiana Pacers beating the Boston Celtics in the first round. Boston will be without Marcus Smart for at least the first two playoff series, and the Celtics are a mess internally. Rotationally, they still haven’t fully recovered from Gordon Hayward‘s injury, and they have not shown the flashes of brilliance that they did last year. We still don’t know if Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown will step up the way they have in the past, and this team only won one more game than the Pacers. Indiana is spunky and is playing without their best player. I wouldn’t count on it, but the Celtics are weirdos and the Pacers are a capital “T” Team.

Western Conference:

Kurt Helin: Denver’s gambit to get the Trail Blazers the three seed (and put the Rockets on the Warriors side of the bracket) helps out Oklahoma City. The Thunder have stumbled and struggled since the All-Star break, with Paul George‘s shoulder issue a big part of that, but OKC is a team better built for playoff basketball. Combine that with Portland being without Jusuf Nurkic and the Blazers will fall again in the first round. Also, while I think Houston will be Utah, that series will go deep and be close.

Dan Feldman: Thunder over Trail Blazers. It’d be different if Jusuf Nurkic were healthy, but Portland is not the same on either end of the court without him. It’s not that I especially like Oklahoma City. I don’t. But the Thunder swept the Trail Blazers in the regular season, and Portland tried to avoid this matchup. It’s as if the Trail Blazers know what’s likely coming.

Dane Delgado: The West is almost the opposite of the East. Three out of the four first-round playoff series could end with the “lower” seed beating the “higher” seed. Utah could strangle the life out of Houston’s offense. The Oklahoma City Thunder have swept the season series with the Trail Blazers, who are also missing Jusuf Nurkic. The Denver Nuggets are a fast-paced team with no playoff experience going up against the stalwarts of the playoffs in the Spurs. If I had to pick a series to go south, I would go with the Spurs beating the Nuggets in a major upset. Or the Thunder. Hmm… can I get back you?

Who will win the conference finals?

Eastern Conference:

Kurt Helin: Toronto over Boston. These are not the Raptors that fall short in the playoffs, new coach Nick Nurse has worked all season to find different lineups that make this team more versatile, plus they have a closer now in Kawhi Leonard. I’m predicting Boston to beat Milwaukee in the second round, but if Malcolm Brogdon is back healthy and Marcus Smart is not, the Bucks will win that series. Either way, I’ll take the Raptors to represent the East.

Dan Feldman: Bucks. I really like these Raptors. The 76ers and Celtics have the requisite talent to have a chance. But Milwaukee has been the NBA’s best team throughout the season. We ought to take that more seriously.

Dane Delgado: The Milwaukee Bucks. Many times it’s reasonable to expect that teams with no playoff experience won’t be able to plow through the postseason the way a more veteran team might be able to do. But the East is riddled with flawed teams top to bottom, particularly at the top. Milwaukee is the most complete team in the conference with the best player.

Western Conference:

Kurt Helin: Golden State over Denver. The only things that will beat the Warriors are injuries or boredom, and I don’t think they will get that bored. It’s trendy to pick Denver to get upset in the first round, but I believe in this team and they set themselves up with an easier path to the conference finals (I would have picked Houston over Denver, but that’s not how the seedings shook out).

Dan Feldman: Warriors. Houston could test them in the second round, but there’s no way to pick anyone else. The Warriors have all the talent and experience anyone could want.

Dane Delgado: Who would pick against the Golden State Warriors at this juncture? Unless something affects this team’s health, they should make their way to the Conference Finals and beyond. However, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be the cakewalk it’s been in the past. The Warriors still need to flick the proverbial switch into playoff mode, so there is some doubt cast about their readiness for this moment. It might take them few games to ramp up, and the second round could actually be their biggest test, but I expect to see them in June once again.

Who will win the NBA Finals?

Kurt Helin: Golden State over Toronto, but this is going to go six or seven games. For the first time in a couple of years, the Warriors biggest test will be on the biggest stage in the NBA Finals, but in the end they just have too much and they know they are trying to win one more before this team breaks up this summer.

Dan Feldman: Warriors. Whether to pick Golden State or the field is a tough question this year. There are teams that can beat the Warriors. But if asked to pick a single team, there’s no way I’m choosing anyone else.

Dane Delgado: There’s no reason to bet against the Golden State Warriors… until there is a reason. This team still has the most talent, the most experience, and the best track record. Health is the biggest thing with the Warriors, and when Stephen Curry rolled his ankle the last week of the season Golden State fans collectively gasped for their playoff lives. Still, Kevin Durant seems ready, Draymond Green is rested up from not doing anything all season long, and Andre Iguodala still is able to contribute. My heart wants the Milwaukee Bucks to win this whole thing, but my head says they will have to wait.