Cleveland barely survived at home in overtime, while Golden State put its foot on the gas and turned in a road blowout. Two different paths, but each team put itself on the brink of a conference finals sweep with Game 3 victories this weekend.
The Cavs’ 114-111 win over the Hawks was by far the most compelling game and if Atlanta’s Al Horford isn’t ejected for throwing an elbow, the Hawks almost certainly win the game. But the Horford ejection, combined with a big dose of LeBron James and a huge Tristan Thompson rebound, pushed Cleveland over the top.
LeBron started off ice cold and missed his first ten shots, but without Kyrie Irving in the lineup, LeBron kept firing and ended up making 14-of-37 shots—or a solid 14/27 after the awful start. He ended up with 37 points and more important, his 18 rebounds led another dominant Cleveland outing on the boards.
In spite of this, Atlanta had taken a 111-109 lead and forced a missed shot on the defensive end. TheSportsNotebook has been touting Thompson’s importance as a rebounder all postseason and this play was the exact reason why—he gets the offensive board and quickly moves it back outside.
The best time to shoot a three is off the offensive rebound, as the defense is scattered. LeBron gets a clean look from behind the arc and drills it. It was the biggest play in Cleveland’s ultimate win.
The Houston Rockets are putting up noble fights and coming up just short on the road to the best team in the NBA. The Atlanta Hawks are playing poorly, getting hurt and losing big at home to a team playing without its second-best player. But what they have in common is more notable than what separate them, and it’s that finding a reason that either will come back from their 0-2 deficits to make either NBA conference finals compelling is difficult indeed.
Let’s start with the Houston-Golden State series, which has at least produced good basketball games, even if it’s the Warriors who consistently make plays to win. Game 2 was another great battle between James Harden and Steph Curry. Harden drilled 38 points, while Curry poured in 33 and each shot 13-for-21 from the field. But Harden’s turnover on the game’s final possession is what’s remembered in the 99-98 Golden State win.
The focus is on the turnover itself, where Harden put the ball on the floor in literally the closing seconds and Curry got his hands in there and prevented a shot from ever getting off. But I think the bigger mistake Harden made came just seconds earlier when he briefly passed the pass to Dwight Howard at the top before receiving it back.
At the moment of the pass, Harden had space to hit a step-back jumper. I was fully expecting him to take the shot and shocked when he gave up the basketball. Just let it fly, it was a clean look.
If you’re just waiting for a Golden State-Cleveland matchup in the NBA Finals then the conference finals openers of the last two nights didn’t give you any reason for pause.
The Warriors got a stiff challenge from Houston, who played as well as you can expect on the road. The Cavs were tied at the half on the road in Atlanta. Both Golden State and Cleveland still won and their opponents suffered key injuries that could turn both of these series into very abbreviated versions.
Steph Curry and James Harden put on a tremendous show. Harden distributed the ball well early and then once his willingness to share was established, he put on a dazzling one-on-one display, from a beautiful running back to a step-back jumper that was a work of art. Harden was 11-for-20 from the floor and finished with 28 points.
But as was emphasized in this space prior to the series, Harden can get his numbers, do it efficiently and Houston can still lose. Curry more than answered Harden, dropping 34 points of his own and hitting 6-of-11 from behind the arc. He also hit a brilliant moving jumper to close the first half, and a second quarter where Golden State came from 16 down to take a three-point lead in the blink of an eye.
The NBA playoffs has never been known for its upsets and underdog magic and this year is no exception. The 1-2 seeds in both East & West have advanced to the conference finals. Here’s a look at the keys to both the Atlanta-Cleveland and Golden State-Houston matchups.
This is how well LeBron James is regarded by oddsmakers—in spite of the Cavs being the lower seed, missing Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving’s health being a question mark, Cleveland is still a hefty (-230) betting favorite to win the Eastern Conference finals. That’s respect.
And though it’s respect well-earned through his past performances and his current playoff averages of 27 points/10 rebounds/8 assists, LeBron is struggling shooting the ball. He’s 42 percent from the floor for the postseason and was hounded into a rough series against Chicago by Jimmy Butler. It won’t get easier with Atlanta’s DeMarre Carroll, the Hawks’ best player in the playoffs, chasing him around.
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 series between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers is finally over and the state of basketball is better for it. An ugly, albeit competitive series, had an appropriate ending last night with Game 7 in the Garden. The Celtics won the finale 85-75 in a game every bit as poorly played as the score makes it sound.
Philadelphia only shot 35% from the floor, and that includes a 10-for-34 bricklaying effort on the part of the guard trio of Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner and Lou Williams. But the Sixers covered for a lot with hustle to the offensive glass, getting 13 second-chance rebounds. But the bad shooting was too much to overcome and Boston had a balanced attack. Four starters—Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Brandon Bass had between 15-18 points apiece and Ray Allen was right behind at 11. Allen also hit two big three-pointers in the fourth quarter. Still, when Pierce fouled out with four minutes left, Philly was only down three with a chance to win.
In fact there was every reason to think Philly would win at that point. The Boston offense was anemic at its best points and downright sloppy and careless at its worst, and now the one player most able to create his own shot was gone. Furthermore, the fact Pierce was whistled for two very dubious calls (a foul on a fast break where replays clearly showed he never touched the offensive player and then a charge where the replay just as clearly showed the defender came nowhere close to establishing position)sent a clear message that the marquee team at home wasn’t going to get the usual benefit of the doubt on every call.
But while the big picture in this series is more about who lost it than who won it, there’s no doubt that the closing minutes belonged to one player. Rondo buried one long jumper and then nailed a three-pointer to give the C’s a working margin and send the crowd into a frenzy. That the point guard would win the game with his long-range shooting was about as unthinkable a prospect as there was coming into the game.