No. 1: Celtics come up flat in showdown -- In losing last night's game 114-91 to the visiting Cleveland Cavaliers, the Boston Celtics ceded control of No. 1 in the Eastern Conference. Yet, the way in which they lost -- a sound defeat in which Boston offered little resistance -- may say a lot about the reality of the Celtics' Finals dreams, write Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald:
The Celts were recently the sole legal occupants of first place until the Cavaliers moved in with them on Tuesday and evicted them last night.
Evicted them with force.
Evicted them with contempt.
The Celtics are now a game behind the Cavs numerically. But in RHD (real hoop distance), they are not even visible in Cleveland’s rearview mirror. The word “exposed” was actually uttered within the Celt sanctuary. The Cavs were playing on a back-to-back and for the third time in four nights. The Celtics were playing to prove they are worthy challengers to the Cleveland throne.
They did not succeed in this effort.
And as hard as it may be to grasp after watching that 114-91 debacle, it may have been the best thing for the Celts in this moment. They have been doing a great job of repeating Brad Stevens’ mantra that it’s all about getting better, that if they do so the positive results will follow.
But nothing brings that lesson to life like a cold slap in the face.
Avery Bradley insisted afterward that the fall to second did not shake his club’s confidence.
“Of course not,” he said. “If anything, it brings us together as a team a little bit more, because we got exposed tonight, I guess you can say. We know that we need to do a better job, and the best thing about this league is we get a chance to do it (tonight in Atlanta).”
Despite LeBron James’ too cool for school routine, he was very much into this one. And it is silly for him to say otherwise when it is abundantly clear that, even with his natural gifts, he could never have risen to the position of Best Player on the Planet if he did not possess a combative nature.
Bradley was thinking of James when he explained how he thought the Celts were exposed.
“I think just not talking on the defensive end,” he said. “We weren’t doing a great job helping each other out as a team. LeBron picked us apart. They ran the same play at least 10 times in a row, and he either scored or made a play for a teammate. We have to do a better job of containing him, trying to force him to take contested 2’s.
“He saw something that we couldn’t figure out. I mean, that’s why he’s LeBron James. He saw that he wanted to get Isaiah (Thomas) in pick and roll. He knew what guy he wanted to get in pick and roll so he could expose our defense, and as a team you have to cover each other. You have to talk. You have to have each other’s back, and we didn’t do that tonight.”
Hear from the Celtics players postgame about what broke down for them during their matchup with the Cavaliers. pic.twitter.com/bNTeXVj9bF— Boston Celtics (@celtics) April 6, 2017
* * *
No. 2: Triple-double mark stands ... for now -- One measly rebound. After a 45-point, 10-assist night in the Oklahoma City Thunder's crucial 103-100 win against the Memphis Grizzlies, that one board was all that stood between Russell Westbrook and triple-double history. The run for a 42nd triple-double this season must wait until Friday's game in Phoenix (10:30 ET, NBA TV), writes Tim MacMahon of ESPN.com:
In a critical road game with significant playoff-seeding implications, Russell Westbrook put up 45 points on a sizzling shooting night, capping it with yet another clutch scoring flurry to carry the Oklahoma City Thunder to a 103-100 victory Wednesday night over the Memphis Grizzlies. He dished out 10 assists, including one for a Doug McDermott 3-pointer that accounted for the only Thunder points that weren't by Westbrook in the heart-pounding final five minutes at FedEx Forum. He even had a season-high five steals.
But he finished with only nine rebounds on a night when he could have broken the Big O's 55-year-old record for triple-doubles in a season? C'mon, man!
"It'd be nice if he'd grab the ball!" Thunder coach Billy Donovan cracked, referring to a rebound that Grizzlies veteran Vince Carter stole from Westbrook with 1.2 seconds remaining, tipping it to Andrew Harrison for a 3 that pulled Memphis to within a point. "It bounced off his hand. It was right there in his lap, right?"
Even Westbrook, a man not exactly known for yukking it up with the media, found humor in the focus being on a rebound he didn't get immediately after such a phenomenal individual performance that guaranteed that the Thunder would finish ahead of the Grizzlies, no worse than sixth in the Western Conference. He chuckled when asked about the rebound that got away, costing him what would have been his 42nd triple-double of the season, one more than Oscar Robertson recorded in 1961-62.
"I mean, I think that people obviously come to see that," said Westbrook, who is now only six assists shy of guaranteeing that he'll join Robertson as the only players to average a triple-double for a season. "It was a lot of people here to see that as well, but it happens like that. We've got a lot of games left. I'm happy we got the win. That was the most important part to me."
If Westbrook had his way, he would have had one more shot at rebound No. 10 before the buzzer sounded. After being fouled with eight-tenths of a tick left, he tried to miss his second free throw -- not to pad his numbers, but to minimize Memphis' odds of getting a final shot. But as Westbrook started to dart toward the basket, hoping to tip the ball away, his high-arcing shot went through the net.
"See, that’s what type of night it is! I make that one," Westbrook said, laughing at his luck.
Westbrook has been at his best during winning time all season long, which ranks right below the whole triple-double deal among the reasons that he has one heck of a case to be named MVP.
Westbrook's 241 points in the clutch -- the final five minutes of a game when the score is within five points -- is by far the most in the NBA this season. In fact, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, he's only 10 points shy of 2007-08 LeBron James for the most clutch points scored by any player in a season over the past 20 years. And the 45-33 Thunder are plus-80 with Westbrook on the floor in those situations.
In other words, the Thunder are sitting in the No. 6-seed position, almost certainly headed for a first-round meeting with the fellow MVP candidate James Harden and the Houston Rockets, in large part because Westbrook keeps willing them to wins.
* * *
No. 3: Real season begins for Warriors -- By virtue of their win against the Phoenix Suns coupled with the San Antonio Spurs' home loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, the Golden State Warriors have the No. 1 seed in the playoffs once again. For the third straight postseason, Golden State will have home-court advantage in every series it plays. Monte Poole of CSNBayArea.com writes that as nice of a feat as that is, there's bigger fish to fry in the Bay Area:
The real season begins Thursday morning, after the Warriors spent Wednesday night subduing the Suns in Phoenix. Three games remain in the regular season, and Durant is expected to receive medical clearance Thursday, participate in a full practice Friday and take the court Saturday night against the New Orleans Pelicans.
Here’s what the Warriors are looking at: Nine days of vital preparation, including a three-game dress rehearsal, before taking the postseason stage on April 15 or 16.
“Hopefully we can just finish the regular season well and healthy and get rolling in the playoffs,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr told reporters in Phoenix.
“With three games left we still can’t have any slip ups,” Stephen Curry said. “We need to continue to build momentum and do it smartly so we can go into the playoffs fresh and ready to go.”
Rather than thinking about winning regular-season games for the sake of posterity, the Warriors are paying attention to the details, particularly on defense. When Durant went down with a knee injury on Feb. 28, they struggled to make the adjustment while in the midst of their toughest travel stretch of the season.
The Warriors may have sharpened their focus regardless, but losing Durant for six weeks made it a requirement for getting on track while chasing the No. 1 seed. It’s how they’ve won 13 consecutive games.
And now they can march forward, toward the second season.
It’s conceivable the Warriors could close the season on a 16-game win streak. More likely, they will do some self-regulating. They’ll be more occupied with monitoring minutes while also determining rotations, with executing game plans while also keeping the swagger they’ve gained the past three weeks.
There is no pursuit of 73. There is no MVP award for Curry to lock up. There is no satisfaction to be gained in victory, unless it is there is contentment with the process.
From the moment Durant agreed on July 4 to join the Warriors, this was, first and last and unquestionably about winning the NBA Championship. Anything short of that would be failure of a magnitude felt last June against LeBron James and Cavaliers.
As much as the Warriors crave a rematch with Cleveland, they’ve also made it clear this season has not been spent in pursuit of a specific opponent.
So whether it’s Cleveland or Boston or Washington or Toronto or any other team that comes out of the Eastern Conference, all that matters is bringing the trophy back to Oakland.
* * *
No. 4: Lowry shows little rust in return -- Two days ago, Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry made it clear he would decide when he would return to the lineup following wrist surgery in February. Yesterday, Lowry apparently decided it was time to get to playing -- and he came back with a vengeance, powering Toronto's comeback win in Detroit. Afterward, he was worn out but happy to be back in the mix, writes Frank Zicarelli of the Toronto Sun:
No one could see Lowry playing close to 42 minutes, an excessive total head coach Dwane Casey would take the blame, but Lowry was sublime, scoring a game-high 27 points, dishing off a game-high 10 assists and turning the ball over only twice.
He was asked post-game for a self-assessment.
“I can’t, I’m too tired,’’ he said. “I’m dead. But we won and that’s all that mattered.”
Lowry said he had no fear and it showed.
In all seriousness, absolutely no one other than Lowry and players such as DeMar DeRozan could have imagined this kind of night, which began with Lowry getting his feet mainly as a passer before he began to impose his will.
“He’s the team, he runs us and he showed it (Wednesday night) because he got us back in the game,’’ said DeRozan, who struggled with his jumper but delivered when the game was on the line, feeding Valanciunas who ended the sequence with a hook shot.
“He’s (Lowry) is one of a kind. No words can put in context to explain it. With three games to go, I’m happy to have him back and now we have to try to get a rhythm.
“It’s not unfamiliar. It was nothing unexpected of him. He worked extremely hard and we’re happy to see him back.”
One of the beneficiaries of Lowry’s return was Cory Joseph, who got to play more off the ball.
Lowry’s three-point play made it a two-point game with 3:30 remaining, a strong and decisive move to the rim that would see Lowry initiate contact with Andre Drummond.
Lowry, who wasn’t very strong defensively in the opening half, was dominant, taking charge, drawing offensive fouls when he took charges, sacrificing his body and playing like vintage Lowry, even though he entered the night having played zero games since the all-star break.
* * *
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: How one NBA team scouts the NCAA Tournament ... Houston Rockets forward Ryan Anderson is set to practice today and may play Friday ... Don't sleep on the vital role Jason Smith is playing for the Washington Wizards ... Russell Westbrook has a pretty impressive double-double run going this season ...