Riding the L-Train in Game 6 between the Cavs and Celts

Riding the L-Train in Game 6 between the Cavs and Celts

There are two kinds of people in the world: the results oriented and those who are all about the journey. The results-oriented crowd will tell you only the last minutes of a basketball game are worth watching. All that matters is who won. The backpackers will counter that landing a helicopter on a mountaintop doesn’t provide the same breathtaking view as when you climbed to the top through the wind and the cold under your own power. Then they’ll dare you to snatch a bottlecap from their hand and call you ‘Grasshopper’.

In Game 6 of the NBA Eastern Conference final between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics, LeBron James kept both groups happy.

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The Vince Lombardi acolytes tuned in just in time to see LeBron set up on the left, then feint towards the hoop against Jayson Tatum before sidestepping and burying a long three with 2:22 on the clock.

Forty-two seconds later, the King provided his own instant replay. Tatum bit on the fake again. James stepped to his left and let fly before an enraged and embarrassed Tatum leapt at him. James slithered further to his left. Tatum stumbled past. The Quicken Loans Arena erupted when the ball went in. James, chest puffed out, did his best Kimbo Slice impersonation for the crowd, including an ‘accidental’ bump and a very intentional game-over stare for Tatum as he cavorted back on defense.

And that was that. Even though there was another minute-forty remaining, the score read 107-96 Cleveland. The results-oriented crowd’s viewing experience was complete. None of them felt any need to have their blood pressure checked.

On the other hand, those of us who watched the game in full did our part in helping to pay off a few med school loans.

Cleveland started out on the front foot, jumping out to an early first-quarter lead. Then James took over on the way to a 46-point night. Boston’s five-point lead after 12 minutes became an 11-point deficit at the half. When the Cavs opened the lead to 16 halfway through the third, that third group of people I forgot to mention assumed there was nothing more to see and moved along.

It was understandable. James couldn’t miss; Boston couldn’t hit. When the Celtics tried to sneak a fast break after one James layup, the King came storming back to swat away Terry Rozier’s response.

When Boston inbounded, Tristan Thompson blocked another. But the Celtics weren’t as done as they looked. A minute before the block, Tatum had made his first field goal of the game. JR Smith had shut him down for 2-plus quarters. Early in the third, he’d passed the ball to Cleveland’s George Hill, then was called for traveling. But, as is often the case when one basket finally goes in, more followed.

Tatum ended the quarter with nine points and an assist. At the other end, LeBron began to look human. He missed a shot and made a bad pass. JR Smith began pleading with referees as he was blown for two fouls. He was back to being the Cav’s drama queen. LeBron would later remind everyone it was the drama king who sat on the throne.

But to begin the fourth quarter, Cleveland continued to struggle and the Celtics began to carry the play. Smith drew another foul. Kyle Korver drew a couple. James continued to miss. It was obvious the Cavs were holding on in an elimination game. If you were rooting for them, a gnawing feeling grew in the pit of your stomach. If you were backing Boston, hope grew.

Especially when James tripped over a teammate three-and-a-half minutes into the final frame. He rocked on his back like an armadillo, clutching his right shin. The suspense in that moment–would he continue or, [OMG!] was Cleveland’s season over?–demanded full emotional commitment from everyone watching. Sorry, you last-two-minute guys, but you f***ed up. James pushed himself to his feet, hobbled gingerly for a possession, then attacked the basket. Another miss came, followed by a driving layup after letting the shot-clock drop to critical mass.

Larry Nance Jr had come on for Tristan Thompson with a minute to go in the third. He was the one who, off balance, had crashed into LeBron.¬†The second-generation baller wasn’t about to be the guy who broke LeBron, however.¬† Whenever James drove the lane from that moment, Nance cleaned up so much garbage he could star in a Men at Work reboot. After Marcus Smart rejected no.23, Nance picked up an offensive rebound and put it back. He slammed the next one home.

Not one to be ungrateful, LeBron would set him up for another dunk with a little less than three minutes remaining.

Nance’s six points and two offensive boards kept the pushing the gap to nine rather than allowing it to drop below seven. Had Boston managed a three-point play to cut it to four at any time, you had the feeling Cleveland wouldn’t hang on. That was the knife’s edge on which we all balanced. James had the same feeling. The difference was he did something about it. With the pain subsiding, LeBron switched tactics. Following the pass to Nance, he set up against Tatum on the left and dropped the two bombs.

There is a Game 7 to come tomorrow night. In Boston. Neither team has won on the road in this series. Cleveland hasn’t even come close at the TD Garden. After watching LeBron James exert his will in Game 6, you get the feeling the script could undergo a last-minute rewrite. And it’s your choice. You can tune in around 10:45 or so to catch the last few minutes, and come away with mild satisfaction or disappointment. Or you can put your heart through a wringer for two-and-a-half hours so that your cardiologist can make his next BMW payment. I think you’ll find the latter was worth it.

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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.

 

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Can LeBron and the Cavs respond or will the Celtics roll?

Can LeBron and the Cavs respond or will the Celtics roll?

Yes or no. Black and white. Over/under. We live in a binary world where it’s most comfortable to think there are two sides to every story. If there are more, it’s easier just to say “it’s complicated.” So, let’s keep it simple by saying there are two narratives for Game 2 between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics.

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The overriding train of thought after Boston’s blowout win in Game 1 is that Celtics’ coach Brad Stevens is just too smart for Tyronn Lue and the Cavaliers. Beat writers are comparing him to an NHL coach. He has no stars but has brought his team together as a unit too formidable for LeBron James to take down on his own.

Game 1 suggests there is some truth to that. The Celtics stormed to a 26-point halftime lead. The Cavs nearly cut it in half during the third quarter, the only frame in which they surpassed 20 points and Boston did not. Then Stevens made another adjustment and his squad ran away with the game in the fourth quarter.

Marcus Moore stopped LeBron James in Game 1 of the Cavs/Boston series. Can he do it again?

Marcus Moore held LeBron James to 15 points on 5/16 shooting, 0/5 from three-point land. In fact, almost the entire Cleveland team was colder than Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ stare. Only Tristan Thompson, George Hill, and Jose Calderon shot 50% or better. Calderon only played three minutes. Rodney Hood contributed a passable 42%. The rest were in the low 30s or worse.

It was not pretty but poor shooting offers a different explanation. The Cavs had an off night. It happens. You’re free to believe that Stevens is the next coming of Steve Kerr or¬†if you want to double down on that hockey analogy, Gerard Gallant, but having a good plan is only half the job. You must go out and execute it.

Ask yourself a question. Is Marcus Morris better than Draymond Green? Can he shut LeBron down for an entire series? The Warriors defensive specialist battled James in three consecutive NBA Finals. He won some battles but never completely derailed the L-Train.

Will Morris? Please. The 28-year-old is in his seventh season out of Kansas. One season was spent with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in the former NBDL. If he can dominate the game’s best player for a full series, you’d have to wonder what took him so long to become an elite player.

No, LeBron is going to get his. He’s averaging 28.6 ppg in these playoffs. Even if he doesn’t go off, 23 points is both a bad night and an eight-point improvement for the King. Then, the question is whether his teammates can raise their games, as well?

Is Tristan Thompson the key to the Cavs/Boston series?

Pundits buying into the Brad Stevens narrative are calling for Tyronn Lue to bring Tristan Thompson in for Kevin Love. In small doses, Thompson was effective against Indianapolis. The matchup issues for Cleveland are similar. So, that’s an option.

If it works, the ball will be in Stevens’ court. He’ll make an adjustment to which the Cavs will have to respond. And that’s my point. A best-of-seven series isn’t decided in the first game. If it was, what would be the point of playing more? It’s about adjustments. Don’t toll the bell for Cleveland’s doom just yet. But don’t ring it for Boston’s demise either.

Expect a much closer game tonight.

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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.

 

Does Celtics coach Brad Stevens have an answer for LeBron James?

Does Celtics coach Brad Stevens have an answer for LeBron James?

There are significant differences between college hoops and the pros. The game and shot clocks are not the same. Nor are the number of fouls that take you over the limit. Other rules vary, as well, but I said ‘significant’.¬† Topping that list is the fact that NBA players are paid much more than NCAA athletes, and not under the table.

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Making the NBA is also a rite of passage into manhood. Pro coaches may occasionally refer to a rookie as a ‘good kid’ but the player will work hard to shed that image. All but the most impressive NCAA players are kids. The elite are ‘young men’. The NBA is all about being a man.

Talk is building that the T-Wolves might hire Becky Hammon as coach.

Yes, I see you there, Becky Hammon. You know I don’t mean it that way. What I’m saying is that NBA stars are more independent and therefore resistant to coaching than student-athletes. In the college ranks, players don’t stick around too long. Coaches are the stars. In the pros, it’s the opposite. Virtually every franchise is associated with a player.

People will refer to Golden State as Steph Curry’s team, not Steve Kerr’s. The Cavs are LeBron James’ squad. Many fans need a second before identifying Tyronn Lue as the coach. Even the greatest coach in the game’s history [Sorry, Mr Auerbach] took a back seat in Chicago and Los Angeles. The Bulls were Michael Jordan’s team. People argued over whether the Lakers belonged to Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O’Neal before the Big Aristotle settled the debate by leaving for Miami. No one questioned Phil Jackson’s genius in either city but he wasn’t the face of the franchise like John Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski are at Kentucky¬†and Duke respectively.

If we’re honest, the alpha male mentality among NBA stars is why even the best college coaches struggle in the league. Yes, I’m looking at you, Calipari.

John Calipari will tell you it's tough for NCAA coaches to make the transition to the NBA

There are some coaches who can adapt. Billy Donovan is doing an excellent job in Oklahoma City. A coach without NCAA credentials might have blinked when Kevin¬†Durant ditched the Thunder for the Warriors. Not the former Florida Gators boss. He’s used to players leaving after one or two years.

The other coach proving it’s not a question of either/or enjoyed more lasting relationships with his players. Brad Stevens didn’t have a procession filled with NBA sure-things like Joakim Noah, Al Horford, David Lee, Corey Brewer, Chandler Parsons, and Mike Miller, among others, parading in and out of the Butler locker room, collecting huge signing bonuses rather than diplomas. There was Gordon Hayward, Shelvin Mack, and that’s it. Two men don’t a parade make. Nevertheless, Stevens coached his mid-major side to a pair of NCAA Finals.

Now he’s in charge of the most storied team in NBA history, the Boston Celtics. He has them in the playoffs, one game from an Eastern Conference matchup with the Cavaliers. He’s led them this far without his most talented player, the point guard who forced a trade away from the Quicken Loans Arena to escape LeBron’s immense shadow. Kyrie Irving broke his kneecap in 2015. Three years later, on April 8th, the Celtics were forced to shelve Irving for the season after an infection developed around the tiny screws still in his patella, requiring surgery. Without his primary star, Stevens has had to pull his team together.

To add injury to injury, the coach has lost the player who might best help him unite the squad. Former Butler small forward Gordon Hayward dislocated his ankle and fractured his tibia six minutes into the season opener against the Cavaliers. He has been gone the entire season. If the Celtics put the Philadelphia 76ers away tonight, they’ll come up against the Cavs again, but it won’t be full circle. Stevens can still call on Billy Donovan’s former UF big man, Al Horford, however, to keep the six degrees of separation in play.

When Brad Stevens draws up a play during a Celtics timeout, it tends to work.

What separates Stevens from many NBA coaches is his tactical acumen and man-management skills.

He has shaped the Celtics into a balanced team in which there is no alpha male. The detail-minded coach spent equal time with reserves at the end of the bench as he did with Irving, Hayward, and Horford when all three were healthy. When two of them went down, players such as Terry Rozier stepped right in and thrived, knowing exactly what Stevens desired because trust and understanding had already been established.

In-game, Stevens is renowned across the league for running diverse and varied plays following timeouts. The Celts can come at you and defend you in different sets and situations.

A Cleveland/Boston series offers a unique matchup: Stevens v LeBron, Mind v Matter. Can the game’s most cunning strategist find a way to stop its most determined will? James has adapted to adversity himself. The Cavs failed to provide another running mate to replace the traded Irving. Isaiah Thomas didn’t fit. Dwyane Wade’s knees weren’t up to the task. Nearly half the roster turned over at the trade line. The man on a mission to reach his eighth straight NBA Finals had no choice but to go all Thanos on the Eastern Conference.

LeBron has carried the Cavs through the Eastern Conference’s first two rounds. The Clevelanders needed seven games to sneak past the Pacers in the first round but the L-Train wasn’t going to run out of steam before reaching the Finals. He raised his game and the rest of the team’s with it to sweep the number-one-seeded Toronto Raptors, allowing for a few days’ rest. Maybe more if the Sixers make a series of their clash with Boston.

We’ve seen the Cavs and Warriors go at it for three seasons running now. We know what to expect. That isn’t the case with a potential Cleveland/Boston matchup. Can Stevens keep LeBron off-balance for an entire best-of-seven series? The fact he came up short in his two NCAA title games suggests maybe not, but there will be tremendous entertainment value in watching him try.

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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.

 

Winning NBA Playoff Expert Point Spread Predictions, News, and Odds for Thursday, May 3, 2018: Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Celtics.

Winning NBA Playoff Expert Point Spread Predictions, News, and Odds for Thursday, May 3, 2018: Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Celtics.

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The (56-32) Philadelphia 76ers are in the Bay State for Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals to face Atlantic Division rivals, the 60-30 Boston Celtics. Tip-off is at the TD Garden in balmy downtown Boston at 8:05 PM EST Thursday on TNT.

The 76ers are 20-2 their last 22 games dating back to the regular season’s conclusion. Philly took care of Miami in five games but the long layoff showed their rust in game-one of this series.

Boston has the best basketball mind as their coach. Brad Stevens has the Celtics believing they can compete with any team, despite their two best players on the sidelines with injuries.

The opening betting line has the Boston Celtics as a four-point home underdog against the spread. The Betting Odds Total is 206 points for Thursday’s contest.

Philadelphia couldn’t make three-point shots in the series opener which ultimately cost them.

Head Coach Brett Brown took the blame for the game-one defeat and will make adjustments Thursday. Philadelphia got exposed for their lack of athleticism at the two guard and Forward positions.

Veteran Guard J.J Redick who averages over seventeen points per contest during the regular season had twenty but his inability to guard on the perimeter hurt on defense.

Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid combined for forty-nine points in defeat. The key for Philadelphia to even the series is to play better defense and Brown must insert more athletes in the lineup, reserve guard Jerryd Bayless comes to mind.

Bovada.Lv lists the 2017-18 Philadelphia 76ers at 2/1 to win the NBA Eastern Conference Championship.

The Boston Celtics got spectacular performances from point guard Terry Rozier and rookie standout Jayson Tatum in their game-one victory in front of the home crowd.

Head Coach Brad Stevens did a masterful job on the bench exposing the 76ers youth and inexperience.

The former Butler University coach who made history taking the Mid Major Bulldogs to back to back Final Fours appearances is making believers out of the faithful in Beantown

Losing Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving will eventually come back to haunt the two seen in the East, but Stevens has the team staying in the moment.

Forward Jaylen Brown also missed the first game with a hamstring injury but expects to play Thursday night.

Boston must continue to expose Philadelphia’s slower players and close out on their three-point shooters. Simmons and Embiid will get their number, but the rest must be contained.

Bovada.Lv has the Boston Celtics at 60/1 to win 2018 NBA Championship.

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