The Boston Celtics did a lot of what they needed to do on Saturday night in Miami for Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. They shot the ball well, at 47 percent from the floor. They had balanced scoring from all five starters, and a triple-double from Rajon Rondo at 22 points/10 rebounds/14 assists. They had Miami in a jump-shooting contest for extended periods as the more athletic Heat inexplicably launched 26 treys (and they only made nine lest you think this was a team afire). And they had a one-point lead with eight minutes to go. When all that happens, and you still lose, there’s not much to do but acknowledge the best team in the Eastern Conference advanced, and that’s ultimately what happened as Miami pulled away with a 101-88 win.
Miami didn’t get a historic night from LeBron James like in Game 6, instead settling for merely a very good one, with 31 points/12 rebounds. In reality though, the Heat were better on Saturday than on Thursday, because Dwayne Wade found his offensive game down the stretch and ended with 23 points, most of them backbreakers as the Celtics were trying to stay in the game. And surely nothing was more stunning than Chris Bosh. That the power forward would hang a 19/8 would have been considered heartening for Heat fans given his injury, while not surprise. But he stepped out and hit 3 of 4 three-point shots from behind the arc—ironically the one Miami player who hit consistently from downtown.
While Boston shot well, Miami was even better, hitting 51 percent against a defense that’s normally much better. A big part of this is that the Heat also went through extended stretches where they really committed to driving the ball to the basket, the area where the Celtics had no chance to stop them, and where LeBron did the bulk of his damage. Watching the Miami offense was like watching two different games—you had the Heat that were lazy and in streetball mode and jacked up a three. And you had the Heat that operated like a professional basketball team playing a huge game that stayed focus on its strengths and worked on attacking. Once the latter began to surface starting late in the third quarter, there was no going back. For the Celtics, maybe the die was cast early in the day at the Belmont Stakes. Veteran jockey Mike Smith had the lead coming down the stretch, but the old vet was caught and passed in the end. It wasn’t a day for the old guys on Saturday.
The NBA Finals are set to start Tuesday night when Miami goes to Oklahoma City. TheSportsNotebook will have a historical piece on some of the great recent Finals set for tomorrow and then on Tuesday morning we’ll have the official Finals preview on the board.
The Boston Celtics continue to follow in the path of the Oklahoma City Thunder, as each underdog in the conference finals has moved to take control of the series. Boston did its part last night with a 94-90 win in Miami to put them within one game of the NBA Finals, a development nothing short of stunning to anyone who followed the Celtics for the first half of the regular season or even the first two rounds of the playoffs.
Kevin Garnett was superb last night with 26 points and 11 rebounds. And while Paul Pierce’s overall numbers were not efficient—6-of-19 shooting, he hit several big shots in the second half including a three-pointer in the face of LeBron James that gave the C’s a 90-86 lead.
But it’s really Miami’s offense that I look at as far as an overall key to the game. The Heat are not going to beat the Celtics shooting over the top, yet they launched 26 treys, making only seven. Some of this bad luck—Mario Challmes, a genuinely good three-point shooter went 1-for-5. But LeBron James went 2-for-6. To give you the perspective of a Boston fan, when I see LeBron or Wade take a three, I immediately think “good defensive possession.”
That’s not to say they can’t hit the shot—James buried a big one in Game 4 and Wade came within one bounce of doing the same with one that could have won that game. But at the end of the day, if the Heat win this series, I want them to do it going over the top. If they shoot the ball and win, more power to them. Because, as ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy is correctly harping on, Wade and James are at their most effective going to the basket. With Avery Bradley injured, the Celtics have no real defensive stopper on the perimeter and if nothing else, drives to the basket can create foul trouble with Garnett.
So with help from a cooperative Miami offense, the Celtics won because the held the Heat just under 40 percent shooting and can now clinch the East on Thursday night in Game 6.
Before we get to Boston, we have to go to Oklahoma City tonight. The Thunder being one home win from the Finals isn’t as surprising as the Celtics, but the Thunder had a more respected and hotter opponent to go through in San Antonio. Tonight’s game is about Tony Parker. If the Spur guard can get back into the flow of the offense, hitting his shot and creating looks for Manu Ginobli from downtown and Tim Duncan in the blocks, San Antonio can certainly win. Head coach Gregg Popovich was correct to point out that if his team can’t win one game on the road they don’t deserve to be champions anyway. By this level of the postseason, no team should count on sweeping four at home, so while San Antonio would surely have preferred to avoid this do-or-die spot, they are still in the same position a realistic person would have placed them at the start of the series—needing to win one on the road.
San Antonio’s the opposite of Miami. We know the Heat can bring it and win because of their defensive ability, but they fade in and out and there’s questions about the intangibles. There’s no question marks about the effort and mental intensity the Spurs will bring tonight, but we’ve seen nothing in these playoffs and nothing in this series that suggest San Antonio can deliver a lockdown defensive effort—i.e., holding OkC to sub-40 percent shooting from the floor. That’s why Parker is going to have to play the game of his life tonight.
The Boston Celtics followed the same path in the Eastern Conference Finals that the Oklahoma City Thunder blazed through in the West, and it’s to announce “Game On” to sports fans, as the Celtics won their second consecutive home game. The 93-91 overtime thriller evened up the series 2-2.
Boston dominated the first period and Miami owned the third quarter, while the Celtics had a narrow edge in the second quarter, and the Heat did the same in the fourth. For the simple storyline its how Miami fell behind by 18, had it a game by the start of the final period and ultimately pushed it into overtime. Neither team shot well from three-point range, but the Celtics 9-of-27 gave them a critical edge over the Heat’s 6-of-19. It wasn’t huge, but in a game like this it’s all that was needed, which means that even though Ray Allen’s 16 points didn’t mark him one the game’s top scorers, his re-emergence as a threat from downtown has changed this series.
It’s also important to note the Celtics basically held even on the boards, with Miami only leading this category 40-39. Nor was this the result of Rajon Rondo chasing down long rebounds, as the little point guard had only five. When Boston holds even in an area that’s a huge weakness, it’s going to spell trouble for the Heat and even with Chris Bosh out, there’s no reason Miami’s underachieving tandem of Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony can’t get the job done in this matchup.
Finally, we come to the stars. Paul Pierce and LeBron James were both efficient, scoring 23 and 29 respectively and each just narrowly under 50 percent from the floor. James bagged a wide-open three-pointer to tie the game at the end of regulation. This is the second straight season he’s nailed a monumental trey in Game 4 of the Boston series with the Celtics trying to pull even. Last year James’ team won and this year his team lost, but can we please include these shots in the evaluation of whether King James is a clutch player? But both Pierce and LeBron fouled out down the stretch, the latter on a dubious call down low. As a Celtics fan, let’s just say it was the officiating break I’d been counting on getting at some point during the middle games in the Garden.
The last shot was taken by Dwayne Wade, a three-pointer that bounced off the rim and backboard before missing. Wade had 20 points, but at 7-of-22 shooting did not play well, and he was not effective in either game in Boston. Whether its defensive adjustments or being on the road, he’ll clearly have to step it up in Game 5.
Both East & West have their Games 5s the next two nights and in each case the winner here likely wins the series. Oklahoma City goes to San Antonio tonight. I had initially predicted this series to be won by the Spurs, but for things to be tied 2-2 (although I didn’t think home teams would be perfect). Therefore I’m not going to change my pick in spite of OkC’s recent form. But let’s say this—when Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins are playing well, rebounding the ball and chipping in even a little offense, the Thunder are the best team in the NBA. As much as San Antonio needs Tony Parker—who went into a Wade-like funk on the road—to get back on his game, the Spurs need their depth on the frontcourt to neutralize Ibaka and Perkins. If they do that, they can survive the scoring from the Durant/Westbrook/Harden trio, particularly given Westbrook’s poor play in the conference finals for the second straight year.
The Boston Celtics aren’t going to go quietly in the NBA’s Eastern Conference Finals. Following in the mold of Oklahoma City out West, the Celtics responded to the home crowd by delivering a strong effort in a must-win spot over Miami and took Game 3 101-91 and cut the Heat’s series lead to 2-1.
Boston’s not been known for it’s rebounding, but they beat Miami to the glass consistently on Friday night, with a 44-32 advantage. Kevin Garnett owned the paint with 24 points/11 rebounds, while Paul Pierce stepped up with 23 of this own. As far as the Heat were concerned, LeBron James might has well have made the trip himself. LeBron dropped 34 and grabbed eight rebounds, but Dwayne Wade had a pedestrian (for him) 18 points and Shane Battier, Rony Turiaf and Joel Anthony managed to get through the game without anyone noticing them. This game was, in essence, Miami’s give-back of Game 1, when a tired Celtics team played flat for every quarter but one and the Heat won easily. This is no small thing—if you believe that close games will mostly balance themselves out, to give back a blowout is a big concession in a short series.
Oklahoma City looks to go from “back on the radar” to “firmly in the hunt to win the series” when they host San Antonio in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals tonight. If the Spurs are going to bounce back they absolutely must get Tim Duncan back in the flow of the offense and Duncan must get himself back to controlling the glass. In an ideal world, San Antonio would also tighten up defensively, but that’s been a spotty area throughout the playoffs. For their part, OkC shouldn’t count on forcing 21 turnovers like they did in Game 3. The Thunder need a big game from Kevin Durant, who hasn’t gone off in this series the way he did at key points against Dallas and the LA Lakers in earlier rounds. And to continue the ideal world theme, they could use a big game offensively from Russell Westbrook, but what’s more important is they need Westbrook to focus on distribution and defense if his shot is not falling.
No one questioned the Boston Celtics’ heart coming into the Eastern Conference Finals against Miami, but plenty of people, TheSportsNotebook included, questioned their ability to even extend this series as far as six games. Both points of view were vindicated in an epic 115-111 overtime game won by the Heat to take a 2-0 series lead. Boston turned in an extraordinary effort, one that leads you to wonder if they couldn’t win playing like this, can they possibly make this series anything more interesting than whether they can cover pointspreads?
Rajon Rondo delivered a stunning 44-point night, even more unreal by the fact most his points came on perimeter jump-shooting. The Celtics, normally a poor rebounding team, were even with the Heat on the glass. Defensively, they forced Miami to settle for jump shots and Ray Allen showed some signs of life for the first time in this postseason. But if Miami is going to play like it did in Game 2, then we have to start thinking—again—that maybe can win the NBA title that they were suddenly written off from achieving (yes, including by me) after Chris Bosh got hurt and their wins seemed more about lackluster competition than real championship play.
LeBron James posted a 34 points/10 rebounds/7 assists line. He also missed the last shot of regulation, while it was Dwayne Wade who delivered the biggest Miami basket of overtime, something that will no doubt be endlessly rehashed. But the biggest Heat bucket down the stretch in the fourth quarter, when they trailed 94-91 was an open three-pointer by Shane Battier, a shot set up by good recognition from James when he was double-teamed and quickly reversed the ball. Sure, if LeBron was the next Jordan, he’d have hit the shot at the end of regulation. But he also compares favorably to Kobe, who would surely have forced up a bad shot rather than reverse it to a teammate. And trust in the teammates was what made Miami ultimately unbeatable last night. If Mario Challmes is going to knock down 22 points, if Udonis Haslem is going to hit 13, including several key baseline jumpers in the fourth quarter, if the Heat as a team are going to bag 10 three-pointers a night, then they aren’t going to lose this series, or even be extended past a Game 5 at home. And San Antonio should take notice.
Well, before San Antonio takes notice of anything going on the East, they do have some business to take care of in the West, as that series starts its middle two games in Oklahoma City, with the Thunder looking to show Games 1 & 2 were just about homecourt and not about a clear Spurs’ advantage. I would like to see some tighter defense from San Antonio tonight, even if they don’t win. Teams have shot for good field goal percentages against them, and while you won’t stop Durant from getting his points, you can force Russell Westbrook into a bad shooting night and there’s no reason James Harden should go off for 30, like he did in Game 2. If San Antonio loses playing tough defense, it’s still a good sign for their hopes of closing the series out in five. If they lose playing bad defense, then we could be in for a back-and-forth homecourt series that goes the distance.
If the San Antonio Spurs are going to play like they did last night, we might as well just call off the rest of the NBA playoffs right now. Even without a big offensive night from Tim Duncan, San Antonio shot 55 percent, buried 11 treys, built up a 16-point lead after three quarters and then turned back an Oklahoma City push to capture Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals by a 120-111 count.
Tony Parker was the star of the night with 34 points on a sizzling 16-for-21 shooting, but what’s really turning the Spurs up a notch is that Manu Ginobli is hitting his shot. With 26 points last night, the veteran shooting guard has gone 20-plus in each of the first two games of this series and he’s doing it with efficiency, hitting a little better than 50 percent from the floor.
And then we come to San Antonio’s depth—not necessarily bench players per se, but the fact someone outside the core players always seems to step up. Last night that would be Kawhi Leonard, who scored 18 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.
From Oklahoma City’s perspective, the obvious corollary to all this would be the night to tighten up on the defensive end when they return home for Game 3 on Thursday. Their own lack of offensive depth showed again last night. Even in a game where they scored 111 points, they still needed Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden to produce 88 of them. There’s not a lot they’re going to do to fix that at this point in the season, but they do need to rebound the ball better. I have to pick on Kendrick Perkins for his lack of rebounding. I’m one of the Celtics fans who loved Perk when he was in the Garden and was devastated to see him go last year, so my focus in him is anything but personal. I am just completely mystified as his lack of rebounding. It’s not as though OkC is getting beaten on the boards—last night was basically a wash, but this is an area where they can get an edge if Perkins starts grabbing 10-12 a game.
The West was supposed to be the series that was exciting and it may still get there. We’ll see if Oklahoma City answers with their own coming two home games. The East finals resume tonight with Miami-Boston, as we look for reasons to think the Celtics can make a series of this. I do think Boston’s going to make a game of it tonight, with better defense. Whether they win it depends on if they can get any shooting from Ray Allen and/or Paul Pierce. And whether they win this game will tell us if we’ll get an interesting series.
The Miami Heat’s strength all year has been lockdown defense. The Boston Celtics’ bugaboo all year has been rebounding. A combination of the two delivered Miami a decisive 93-79 win Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals last night in South Beach.
LeBron James was outstanding with 32 points, but his 13 rebounds also led the Heat and helped key the win. Shane Battier was an unlikely stalwart on the boards, with 10, while Kevin Garnett was the only one able to do anything on the glass for the Celtics. And Miami was forcing plenty of misses to rebound, holding the Celts to 39.5% shooting from the floor. Paul Pierce was a non-factor at 12 points on 5-for-18 and Ray Allen might as well not even be on the floor right now.
Boston didn’t have its own tough defense in effect. Miami shot 50 percent, a figure that stayed stable through much of the game and the defensive breakdowns by the Celtics were uncharacteristic. It’s not as though the Heat were hitting tough shots, or even just open long jumpers. In fact, Miami’s offense jacked up way too many threes. For some reason Battier decided he was J.J. Redick and launched nine from behind the arc, only making two. As a team Miami shot 5-for-25 from trey range.
On the positive side for the Heat, this means they really didn’t play their best game on offense and still won by 14. On the negative side? It’s unlikely the Celtics are going to hand them as many breakdown layups in future games and Miami cannot settle for three-point shots when they’re so much better driving to the basket and using their superior athletic ability.
As to the Celtics, the fact they were tied at halftime may end up working against them. There’s no doubt this was a tired team after the seven-game series with Philadelphia that ended on Saturday. The C’s might have been better off getting smoked early, waving the white flag and started resting up the vets for Game 2 tomorrow.
The Western Conference Finals resume tonight when Oklahoma City tries to even up the series with Game 2 in San Antonio. In the recap of the Spurs’ 101-98 win on Sunday, TheSportsNotebook noted that Thunder center Kendrick Perkins has got to be more of a presence—or any kind of presence at all—on the glass. And whether Russell Westbrook shoots better or not is anyone’s guess, but if Westbrook is cold, he can’t keep firing. He instead needs to create shots for Kevin Durant and James Harden. In the big picture I think San Antonio’s going to win this game and ultimately the championship, but I like OkC to come out strong and win a good one tonight.
When the NBA playoffs started the prospect of a Boston-Miami battle in the Eastern Conference Finals seemed appealing, and when Chicago’s Derrick Rose got hurt one day in, it became the matchup fans began waiting for. When each team was three games into their second-round series, the Celts had just demolished Philly on the road and the Heat were in a 1-2 hole against Indiana. The talk was that the veteran C’s had one more run left in them. Now that the anticipated Boston-Miami matchup is set to tip Monday, the thinking has changed. If you want to bet the Heat to win, you’re giving up odds of 1-5. You can take the Celts at 4-1. Is this really that big a mismatch? TheSportsNotebook previews the Eastern Conference Finals…
Both teams will play a pace that’s a relative grind-it-out style. With Boston the emphasis on halfcourt play will be in the extreme, while it’s more moderate with Miami. But if this is your first time really settling into watching NBA hoops this year, know something that’s been documented very well by Jeff Fogle over at Stat Intelligence—in spite of what you hear from the media, the Heat stopped being a run-and-gun team eons ago and all the highlight reels of LeBron filling the lanes on the break don’t change that fundamental fact. Now they may choose to push it more in this series and exploit the older, slower Celtics, but it’s not Miami’s game.
In addition to an emphasis on half-court basketball, both teams play very good defense and even with the Celtics injury and age problems that’s been the case in the playoffs. They held Atlanta in the low 40s percentage wise in five of six games and consistently shut down Philadelphia. The Heat had some shaky moments defensively against the Knicks, but really clamped down against Indiana, and the only game the Pacers shot well was their must-win home game in the series finale.
So we can reasonably assume that we’ll see a slower tempo series with very physical defense. Rebounding, even without Chris Bosh, promises to be a solid edge for the Heat. They were virtually even with both the Knicks and Pacers on the glass, even though both of their teams have strong frontcourts, much more so than Boston. While Bosh was part of that for the New York series, he was missing for 5 ½ of the 6 Indiana games, and the Pacer rebounding duo of Roy Hibbert and David West vastly stands above Kevin Garnett—who prefers to roam the perimeter and Brandon Bass. Unless either the Celtics or Heat changes their M.O., Boston’s looking at a lot of one-and-dones, and while Miami might not look pretty, they’ll get their share of second-chance points. If the Celtics lost the rebounding battle to a Sixer team that was not good on the glass all year, what’s going to happen in this series?
Let’s move to the three-point line. If we have a grind-it-out series, the bombs from long range can open things up and obviously in a lower-scoring game, the impact is much higher. Miami has won both ways, beating New York decisively from the perimeter, while losing the trey battle to Indiana. The Celtics lost the long-range war to Atlanta, while it was a non-factor either way against Philly. Ultimately this comes down to the health of Ray Allen. He’s playing on ankles that have drastically restricted movement and even if he just looks to spot up and shoot off a screen—the tactic the Celts have tried—well, if you’ve got really sore ankles go out in the backyard and try and push off and shoot from more than 23 feet away. Then report how difficult it is. Allen’s three-point percentage has dropped from 45 in the regular season, an outstanding number to 26 percent in the playoffs. Virtually all players see their percentages drop in the postseason—the defenses are playing with more intensity and there’s no nights against Charlotte or New Jersey to fatten your average—but the 19-point drop by Allen is much sharper than the norm. Boston has to hope the two big bombs he hit in the fourth quarter of Game 7 are a sign of things to come. Although Miami’s got hope too, and it’s that Mario Challmes awakens and realizes he’s in the playoffs and that his team could use him to open up the lane a little bit.
Now let’s come to star power. Miami just finished playing a team that was probably better on paper—there was no reason Indiana couldn’t have overwhelmed Miami inside all series—but the Pacers lacked the go-to players to take over a game when necessary and in general lacked the intangible of knowing how to win. Now the Heat play a team precisely the opposite. No one doubts that Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett know how to win. But can their bodies still respond. Pierce’s postseason has been mostly built on an extraordinary night in Game 2 of the Atlanta series when he virtually willed his team to a must-win game without Allen and Rajon Rondo in the lineup. Otherwise, the knee problems are obviously slowing him. Garnett has looked like he’s ten years younger and is playing at a championship level, and coupled with Rondo at the point, at least gives the C’s a puncher’s chance.
But if Boston’s only got two players at an elite level, would you really take them over LeBron and Dwayne Wade? James has dropped a 29-point average through the playoffs, while Wade is averaging 24, including a monster 41-point game in the road clincher at Indiana. Furthermore, let’s emphasize that phrase road clincher. Miami had the mental toughness to close out a good team on the road. Boston lacked the capacity—most likely physical rather than mental to do the same to a mediocre team in Philadelphia. Unless Allen and Pierce can suddenly get healthy, all of Boston’s intangibles have found their ceiling in winning two playoff rounds—an occurrence, we should be reminded, that would have been considered unthinkable in January, even if someone told you then that Rose would be out.
As we bring this to a conclusion, I’m reminded of a scene in the 1989 John Candy and Steve Martin film Planes, Trains & Automobiles, as they look to get out of a snowbound Wichita airport. Candy approaches Martin and says simply “There’s no way on earth we’re getting out of Wichita tonight…we’d have a better chance playing pickup sticks with our butt cheeks…” That’s about the same odds the Celtics have on winning this series based on what we’ve seen lately. I’m emphasizing that point, because we need to be reminded it was only ten days ago that everyone felt like Miami was beatable and Boston was on the rise. Things can change and as the ABC/ESPN crew in the studio last night (Michael Wilbon, Jon Barry, Magic Johnson) noted the Celtics do have an M.O. of playing to the level of their competition. As a Celts fan, that’s the thin reed I’m holding onto, but it’s about as thin as thin gets. The reality—the Heat win the series in five games, with Boston winning a Game 3 at home—the one David Stern does everything in his power to make sure they win and keep the series competitive a little longer.