Sunday, May 27, 2018

J-Speaks: The Stakes of Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals

When the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics take the TD Garden floor in Boston, MA on Sunday night at 8:30 p.m. Eastern on ESPN. There will be a lot on the table besides a trip to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals of 2018. For the Cavs, there reign as three-time defending East champions is on the line, but the future of their four-time league MVP who has been the one constant for them this entire season. For the Celtics, they have an opportunity to reach The Finals for the first time in eight seasons, but they are trying to be the first team to deny the best player of this generation another chance at the Larry O’Brien trophy. 
The Cavaliers are in this position in large part due to four-time league MVP and perennial All-Star LeBron James, who authored another masterpiece in an elimination game with 46 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists in leading his squad to a 109-99 win in Game 6 versus the C’s on Friday night to tie the series 3-3. 
How good was the 33-year-old from Akron, OH in his 15th NBA season? He scored or assisted on 14 of the Cavs points during a 20-4 run in the first half that gave them control of the game and improved his career mark to 10-3 at home when his team is facing elimination at home. 
“He was huge and that’s what you expect out of the best player in the world,” Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue, who team improved to 8-1 at home this postseason said after the win during his postgame presser. “You expect games like this on elimination night.” 
After trailing 25-20 after the first period, James scored 17 of his 25 first half points in the second quarter, playing all 24 first half minutes. He nearly out scored the entire Celtics team in the period 18-17 as the Atlantic Division champions of 2017-18 were just 6 for 19 from the field in the quarter as the Cavs outscored them 34-18 to take a 54-43 lead into intermission. 
In the early stages of the fourth quarter when the Celtics were making their surge, forward Larry Nance, Jr. blocked a shot of Celtics’ rookie forward Jayson Tatum, but in the process of coming down collided with the right lower leg of James. He limped around for a little bit but stayed in the game. 
“I would’ve had to literally have a real, real, really bad injury to come off the floor with the opportunity that we had to be able to force a Game 7,” James, who was 17 for 33 from the floor and 7 for 11 from the charity stripe said during his postgame presser. 
When the dust settled and the Cavs punched their ticket to Game 7 at the C’s, James played all but 1:54 seconds of the elimination contest and authored the highest scoring game in a possible win or go home game, which was also his 7th game of the 2018 postseason of 40-points or more. Only the Hall of Famer and the NBA logo Jerry West has more games with 40 or more in a single postseason. 
James saved his best for last scoring or assisting on 16 of the Cavs final 18 points, which included hitting two straight three-pointers in the closing minutes of the game, at the tail end of the shot clock and an and-one bank shot on Tatum in the final minute to seal the game. 
“Our team is built on me being out on the floor. To be able to make plays not only for myself but [to] make plays for others and its just the way we’ve been playing and we’ve been successful with it. I was able to play 46 minutes today and I got my couple of minutes I guess,” James said about the small breather he got during the game.”
As great as James was, the reason he individually improved to 5-0 in games with the season on the line against an Eastern Conference opponent over the last eight postseasons is because he got some help from a couple of his teammates. 
Starting lead guard George Hill had 20 points on 7 for 12 shooting. Forward Jeff Green had 14 points off the bench, while Nance, Jr. had 10 points, seven boards and two steals, going 5 for 5 off the pine.  
Of all the players on the court of Quicken Loans Arena on Friday night that understands how James can rise up and deliver the kind of performance that he did with the Cavs season on the line is Hill, who when he was with the Pacers saw their season’s end at the hands of James while he was with the Miami Heat in 2012 and 2013. 
“I thought the best was when he always put us out, but to actually see it when he’s on your team and things like that, I mean I can’t put it into words,” Hill said. “Sometimes I just think, ‘How did he make that shot or how did he make that move, or when did he see that pass?’” 
“Just night in and night out, just making big plays and big shots, and people always listing him as not a shooter, but he’s making big shots down the stretch. If it’s three-pointers, layups, dunks, passes. He can do it all.” 
Seeing all those plays and shots being made by James, particularly on him was Tatum. James when being guarded by the rookie out of Duke went 6 for 8 shooting in Game 6, including 3 for 3 from distance with as mentioned two coming in the final moments including the and-one banker that sealed the win. 
“I mean it was just two great shots,” Tatum, who had 15 points on the evening said after the loss. 
Celtics head coach Brad Stevens called James after his performance the, “Best player in the game. So, special night tonight…I can’t say enough good things about him.” 
Speaking of the Celtics, the fact that they are in a position to be one win away from the NBA Finals is remarkable.
Think about, they have been without All-Star Gordon Hayward since minutes into the start of this season with a serious ankle injury. They lost All-Star lead guard Kyrie Irving, who the Celtics acquired back in the off-season from the Cavs because of knee surgery back in early March. 
They are in this position because the youngsters on the squad in Tatum, Marcus Smart Jaylen Brown, and Terry Rozier and veterans Al Horford, Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes have stepped during the postseason. 
While they have gone just 1-7 on the road this postseason, they are a perfect 10-0 at home this postseason and all-time in Game 7s the Celtics are 23-8 overall, which includes a 20-4 mark at home. They have won their last three home games in Game 7, which includes a 112-96 win in the Quarterfinals versus the Milwaukee Bucks on Apr. 28. 
If the Celtics plan to be victorious in Game 7 tonight, they will need to somehow contain James, whose has averaged 34.9 points, which is the highest all-time in Game 7s in NBA postseason history with a minimum of two games. That is higher than the 33.7 average of the great Michael Jordan, the 33.0 average of perennial All-Star forward of the Golden State Warriors Kevin Durant and the 32.5 average of Hall of Famer and 2001 league MVP Allen Iverson. 
On top of that, James has the highest points per game average in NBA postseason history when facing elimination with the minimum of five games at 34.1 in 22 games. That his higher than the 31.3 of Jordan; the 31.2 in five games by Irving and the 31.1 of the late great Wilt Chamberlin, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. 
“We know that he’s going to make tough shots. We know he’s going to be aggressive, but that’s no excuse for him to just let him score 40 and try to stop the other guys,” Rozier, who led the Celtics with 28 points in the Game 6 loss. “We’re trying to stop him too but you know just show length and make it tough for him as much as we can. We’re trying to make him exert as much energy. So, it’s going to be important.”
As much as James will need to be his out of this world self in Game 7 on the Celtics’ home floor, they will need the likes of JR Smith, Tristan Thompson, Kyle Korver, Jordan Clarkson, Green, Hill and Nance, Jr. to rise to the moment unlike their first three chances in Boston. 
There performance will be even more critical as All-Star forward Kevin Love will not play in Game 7 because of a concussion he sustained in the first quarter of Game 6. 
To illustrate the level of concern many Cavs fans have about their team entering Game 7, in their eight road games in the 2018 postseason, the Cavs have gone just 3-5, scoring 97.8 points and allowing 105.8 points to the opposition. Since losing their first home game in the opening round versus the Pacers 98-80 on Apr. 15, Cavs have won their last eight to improve to 8-1 at “The Q,” scoring 105.8 points and allowing just 97.1.  
Host of ESPN’s “NBA: The Jump,” which can be seen weekdays at 3 p.m. Rachel Nichols said on the Friday night’s edition of “Sportscenter” that why both teams in this series have struggled in the opposing team’s court is the fact that in the case of Celtics they have young players and role players that have not stepped into their own into this series, how the opposing crowd rattles them or how offensively they take shots early in the 24-second clock. 
“All those clichés are magnified when you have players in this series who kind of fit those descriptions,” Nichols said to John Anderson. “That being said, it’s going to be very interesting in Game 7 to see who jumps out with that first quarter lead.” 
“If the Celtics are the ones who do that, they are going to ride the crowd. They are going to be confident and they can ride that all the way to the NBA Finals.” 
“If the Cavs are the ones who are able to jump out early and that Garden crowd starts getting nervous and those young players start getting nervous you can see a much different result.” 
Which makes the LeBron James factor even more important on both sides. In his seven Game 7 appearances, James is 5-2 all-time, winning his last five in succession and in his last seven elimination games, James including his prior mentioned performance on Saturday night has either authored a triple-double or scored 40-plus points. 
In Game 5 of the 2016 Finals James had 41 points on 16 for 40 shooting with 16 rebounds and seven assists in leading the Cavs to a 115-101 win at the Warriors to close the series deficit to 3-2. In Game 6 back in Cleveland, James 41 points on 16 for 27 from the field with 11 assists and eight boards in the 115-101 win to tie the series at 3-3. In Game 7. James finished with 27 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists as the Cavs won the game and their first title in franchise history 93-89 at the Warriors. After the win, James expressed his emotions of delivering the city of Cleveland’s first pro sports title in nearly six decades by saying to ABC’s Doris Burke, “Cleveland, this is for you!” Besides authoring a triple-double James had a key block of a shot by 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala late in the fourth quarter that made a huge difference and Irving hit the game-clinching three-pointer that also made the difference. 
With their season on the line in the 2017 Finals, James had another triple-double of 31 points with 11 assists and 10 boards as the Cavs won 137-116 versus the Warriors to cut the series lead to 3-1. In the 129-120 loss versus the Warriors back at Oracle Arena in Game 5, James had 41 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists as the Warriors won their second Larry O’Brien trophy in the last three seasons. 
In Game 7 of the opening round of this year’s playoffs, James had 45 points, going 16 for 25 from the field with eight rebounds and seven assists in leading the Cavs to a 105-101 versus the Pacers to advance to the Semifinals, where they swept the No. 1 Seeded Toronto Raptors 4-0.

"I don't think there's anything that they can show us on the floor as far as X's and O's that we haven't seen in six games," James, who is looking to advance to The Finals for the eighth straight season said on Sunday afternoon.  
There will be a couple of guarantees when the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics tip-off for Game 7 at TD Garden in Boston, MA at 8:30 on ESPN tonight. There will a full audience of Celtics fans on hand and many more watching on television at home or at many restaurants and bars across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. 
The team though has to play to the level they did in the first three games of the series where they beat the Cavs by an average of 17 points. The Celtics though expect a knockout drag out fight and as Marcus Smart said to ESPN Celtics’ reporter Chris Forsberg after the Game 6 loss, “You’ve got to be able to get down and get dirty.” 
“We’ve got to be ready to come out with out nose bloodied, our mouths bloodied. We’ve got to come out ready to fight.” 
Rozier echoed those same sentiments by saying to Forsberg, “We can’t just rely on being at home. It’s not going to be easy.” 
Coach Stevens said that his team is “resilient” and simply said, “We’ll be ready.” 

He added, "If you don't have fun with this, why are you doing it, right?"
The other guarantee is that LeBron James will show up and be ready to play. How well he plays, as well as his supporting cast as mentioned earlier will dictate if the Cavs will be in the game to the very end with a chance to win or as has occurred the prior three visits to Boston this series be blown right off the floor. 
“We know what this man is capable of. Boston, they are full aware. The city, the fans, the team, the organization, everybody. They’re full aware of what he can bring to the table,” host of ESPN’s “First Take” Stephen A. Smith said on the Friday night edition of “Sportscenter” about the Cavs chances in Game 7. 
“But because of how awful his supporting cast has displayed itself to be on the road on too many occasions in these playoffs and you couple that with the lower leg injury, the elements of fatigue that he’s [James] displayed you got to wonder about Game 7.” 
“It’s one thing to concede like Toronto does because we just have to bow at the alter of LeBron James. In Boston’s case they recognize what he’s going to do, but they make him work for everything and if he has to do that in a Game 7. As tired as he looked in Game 5, 15 years in the league, 33 years of age, all those minutes he logged. He logged 46 minutes in Game 6. Forgive me if I’m wondering how much he’s going to have in Game 7?” 
“He’s got the perfect excuse in the world to lay down and die in these playoffs. I’m not saying he will do it. I’m saying if he does there’s a whole bunch of LeBron lovers out there who will surely understand.” 
We will see what unfolds later tonight in Game 7 between the Cleveland Cavaliers at the Boston Celtics in Game 7 for the right to go to represent the East in the NBA Finals at 8:30 p.m. on ESPN. 

Information, statistics, and quotations are courtesy of 5/26/18 1 a.m. edition of ESPN’s “Sportscenter,” with John Buccigross and John Anderson; 5/26/18 6 p.m. edition of WABC 7 “Eyewitness News,” with Joe Torres Sandra Bookman, Jeff Smith with weather and Anthony Johnson with sports; 5/26/18 6 p.m. edition of WPIX 11 “News at 6,” with Ayana Harry, Andy Adler with sports and Craig Allen with weather;; and

Saturday, May 19, 2018

J-Speaks: Milwaukee Bucks Hire New Head Coach

Dating back to the start of the 1999-00 NBA campaign, the Milwaukee Bucks have been team that has had talent. However, that talent has not always equaled success as they have one Eastern Conference Finals appearance, which was in 2001 and they have had their season end in opening round of the playoffs their last eight appearances, with their latest one at the hands of the Boston Celtics in seven games. With their move to a new building in the 2018-19 season and boasting a Top 10 player in the league along with some solid players around him, the Bucks entering this off-season needed to find the man that was going to get them to reach their full potential. They made their choice is someone who has seen first hand what it takes to build a successful team that has multiple championships on its resume. 
On Friday, the Bucks named former Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer as their new head coach, their 16th in franchise history. 
The Bucks finished 44-38 this past regular season but lost in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the playoffs to the Boston Celtics in seven gamers. Management had fired Hall of Famer to be in head coach Jason Kidd in late January when the team was 23-22 and replaced him with assistant coach Joe Prunty, who led the Bucks to a 21-16 mark to close the season before hiring Budenholzer.
“We are thrilled to welcome Mike Budenholzer as the head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks,” Bucks’ General Manager Jon Hurst said on Friday. “Mike has played a key role in building successful teams throughout his career. He’s widely respected and has shown a special ability to teach and develop players. His leadership, basketball intellect, championship-level experience and communication skills make him the right fit to take our team to the next level.” 
According to ESPN, the Bucks coaching search came down to Budenholzer and current San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Ettore Messina, who the Bucks informed he was out of the running on Wednesday when a representative of the organization negotiated a four-year deal with Budenholzer hours before a breakfast meeting with Bucks’ two-time All-Star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo and his teammate in swingman Khris Middleton. 
Budenholzer, a native of Holbrook, AZ was also in the running to be the next head coach of the Toronto Raptors, who axed their then head coach Dwane Casey after a franchise record for wins of 59 this past regular season and earning the No 1 Seed in the East for the first time in franchise history. The Raptors for the second straight season though lost to the three-time defending Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers in the Semifinals in a four-game sweep.
“After a thorough coaching search, it was clear that Mike was the ideal choice as we enter into a new era of Bucks basketball,” team owners Wes Edens, Marc Lasry and Jamie Dinan said in a statement on Friday. “Mike has demonstrated the ability to lead and communicate and understands what it takes to build a winning culture.” 
If there is anyone who understands the grind it is to reaching the point in the National Basketball Association (NBA) to become a head coach for the second time is Budenholzer. 
The 1993 graduate of Pomona College in Claremont, CA where he received his bachelor’s degree in politics, philosophy and economics while playing basketball and golf. After college, Budenholzer played professionally for the Vejle Basketball Klub in Demark where he averaged 27.5 points during the 1993-94 season. He also got his start as a coach where he was the head man on the sidelines for two squads of the Vejle system.
He began his 17-year career with the Spurs in the 1994-95 season as their video coordinator for two seasons. He was elevated to assistant coach when former assistant Gregg Popovich became first the interim head coach and eventually the full-time head coach in the 1996-97 season. In his 17 seasons in the “Alamo City,” Budenholzer was part of a staff whose .675 winning percentage, a 908-438 mark was the best during the regular season, adding four   Larry O’Brien trophies as champions of the NBA (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007). Budenholzer also served as the Spurs’ summer league head coach on a number of occasions and was the advanced scout for Team USA for the 2004 Olympics when Popovich was the head coach. 
In the summer of 2013, the Atlanta Hawks hired Budenholzer to be their new head coach. 
In his first season, the Hawks 38-44, but made the playoffs as the No. 8 Seed and gave fits to the No. 1 Seeded Indiana Pacers before falling in seven games. 
The next season, the Hawks flipped the script winning a franchise record 60 games and claiming the No. 1 Seed in the East. Budenholzer was not only coached the Eastern Conference All-Stars in 2015 but was named NBA Coach of the Month twice that season as we led the Hawks to a 14-2 mark in December 2014 and in January 2015 after leading his squad to the first ever 17-0 record in a month in league history. He received the highest honor for a head coach on Apr. 21, 2015 as he received the Arnold Jacob “Red” Auerbach Trophy as the 2014-15 NBA Coach of the Year. 
In the playoffs that season, the Southeast Division champion Hawks got passed the No. 8 Seeded Brooklyn Nets and the No. 4 Seeded Washington Wizards in six games respectably, but their magical carpet ride concluded at the hands of the eventual NBA runners up the Cleveland Cavaliers and four-time league MVP LeBron James in a four-game sweep.  
The Hawks reached the playoffs again the next season as the No. 4 Seed winning 48 games but were swept again by the eventual NBA champion Cavaliers again in a four-game sweep in the Conference Semifinals. 
That off-season the Hawks took a major gamble and signed All-Star and three-time Defensive Player of the Year winner Dwight Howard to a three-year, $70.5 million deal to get the them over the hump in the East. 
It was not to be as the No. 5 Seeded Hawks, who made the postseason for the 10 straight time were eliminated in six games by the No. 4 Seeded by the Wizards in the opening round. 
That off-season, the Hawks front office felt that it was time to go in a different direction and rebuild the team with young players. The organization also shook things up with their then head coach removing Budenholzer’s position as president of basketball operations on May 5, 2017 with the arrival of new GM Travis Schlenk in the spring of 2017.
That resulted in a 24-58 record this past regular season, which was not only the first season Budenholzer had a losing record, but it was the Hawks worst record in 13 years, ending their streak of 10 straight playoff appearance, which was second to the 21 in a row ironically enough by the Spurs.   
On Apr. 25, Budenholzer and the Hawks mutually agreed to part ways after he and the front office could no longer see a path to be on the same page with the franchise’s plan to rebuild and the structure of the management. 
Before the mutual split, the Hawks granted Budenholzer permission to speak with the Phoenix Suns and the New York Knicks about their head coaching vacancies. Budenholzer pulled himself out of contention for the Suns’ opening after a few conversations with ownership and management. 
“I’m extremely grateful to the Bucks ownership group and Jon Hurst,” Budenholzer, who complied a 213-197 record in five seasons on the Hawks’ sidelines said. “We have a tremendous opportunity to take the Bucks to the next level. I look forward to working with out group of young and exciting players and helping us evolve in many ways to succeed on the court…The tremendously supportive fans in Milwaukee and throughout Wisconsin are waiting and ready. Now it’s up to us to put all the pieces together, and I can’t wait to get started.” 
Two very important pieces to what is hopefully a championship puzzle one day for the Bucks are Antetokounmpo, the so-called face of the franchise and Middleton, who as mentioned earlier met with Budenholzer earlier this week to gain a sense of the prospect of what’s to come for the Bucks. 
The organization also wanted the team’s two top offensive players to sit down with the preferred candidate for head coach. While that may seem unusual, it reflected how the important it was that the Bucks front office wanted to make Antetokounmpo and Middleton feel a part of this process. 
“I know he was a great coach,” Antetokounmpo said to ESPN at the NBA Draft Combine at the close of this week with Maria Taylor and Jay Bilas. “We had a great conversation. We talked about the game plan. How he viewed me as a player. How he can help this team? Had a lot of tough questions for him, but he was fun. I’m excited to play for him.” 
He added by saying about when the Bucks asked him and Middleton to meet with Budenholzer before his hire became official, “It meant a lot. Obviously, I’m not the guy that’s going to make the decision.” 
“You can reverse that, like the front office is not going to tell me how to shoot a jump shot. I do my job; they do their part. But it was great having the conversation with him.” 
The one thing that really sold the Bucks’ owners on Budenholzer was his ability as a teacher of the game and the respect he commands from his players. 
“He’s widely respected and has shown a special ability to teach and develop players,” Edens, Lasry and Dinan said. “His leadership, basketball intellect, championship-level experience and communication skills make him the right fit to take our team to the next level.” 
To bring the kind of team’s Budenholzer had with the Hawks into context, this past regular season despite their horrendous record the Hawks were No. 8 in assists per game; No. 15 in three-point percentage and finished No. 9 in three-pointers made, which was a franchise record of 917.
The Bucks in contrast were No. 14 in assists per game; 22nd in three-point percentage and No. 27 in three-pointers made. 
It is one thing for Antetokounmpo to be the Bucks top scorer and rebounder, which he was in the regular season at 26.9 (5th NBA) and 10.0 respectably and in their seven-game opening round setback to the Boston Celtics with averages of 25.7 points and 9.6 boards respectably with 6.3 assists, but in order for the Bucks to go further than they have, the team needs more consistency from the rest of the cast. 
Beyond the 24.7 points that Middleton averaged against the Celtics, only Eric Bledsoe and Jabari Parker averaged double-figures in points that series at 13.6 and 10.0 respectably. 
Budenholzer’s most important task right from the jump is to get this young, but talented group to bring a consistency level to the court night-in and night-out. 
When the Bucks acquired Bledsoe last season, they felt that they added another scorer and playmaker to go alongside Antetokounmpo and Middleton and there were nights that he brought that to the court and then there other nights that was not the case. A player of his caliber should for starters be averaging more than the 5.1 assists he had in the regular season and the 3.6 he averaged against the Celtics. 
Along with hiring a new head coach, another big decision the Bucks have to make this summer was to extend or not extend the contract of forward Jabari Parker. 
The No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 draft out of Duke University will be a restricted free agent on July 1 and while he has shown great promise in the early stages of his career, he has sustained two serious injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee that has caused him to miss 155 games. 
Going to back to the to do list for Budenholzer, if the Bucks have any plans to be a serious contender in the East, the 2017 Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon, Tony Snell, John Henson, Thon Maker, Matthew Dellavedova, and Sterling Brown have to become bigger factors on both sides of the ball. 
They were ranked No. 5 in block shots per game at 5.4; tied with the Pacers for No. 2 in steals per game at 8.8 and were No. 3 in forced turnovers at 14.7 during the regular season, but it just seemed like for a team that has collectively one of the best wingspans in the league did not bring an attitude that they could be a great defensive team on a nightly basis, especially this past regular season and against the C’s in the postseason. 
Two stat that really brings this out is the fact that the Bucks were ranked No. 28 in rebound differential at -2.9 back in the regular season. 
There is an old saying that offense wins games and defense wins championships, the Bucks have been very inconsistent on both sides in recent years, which is why they have not advanced in the playoffs despite having an elite talent in Antetokounmpo. 
When the Bucks hired Jason Kidd, they thought they had a head man on the sidelines who could bring the best out of his players because of his experience as a player who succeeded individually and was a big part of team success helping the Dallas Mavericks in his second stint win a title in 2011. That did not work out. 
The organization hopes that Budenholzer with all his knowledge, experience in being a part of the Spurs construction of being a multiple title winner and what he did with the Hawks can turn the Bucks into a consistent a championship contender. 
Their last appearance beyond the First-Round was as mentioned in the 2001 Conference Finals where they lost to Hall of Famer Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers in seven games. Their last appearance in the NBA Finals came in 1971 when then Lew Alcindor, now Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led them to the championship with a 4-0 sweep of the then Baltimore Bullets.  
“By all accounts this guy knows what he’s doing,” ESPN NBA analyst Tim Legler said on “Sportscenter” at the close of the week. “He’s obviously a Spur protégé, came from Gregg Popovich. Had great success in Atlanta. They went into ‘Trust the Process’ mode down there. He does not want any part of that. He’s got a star player to build around and a team that’s got some really nice young pieces around him. I think it’s a great fit. I don’t think you couldn’t have done much better than Mike Budenholzer.”

Information, statistics, and quotations are courtesy of 5/17/18 7 a.m. edition of NBATV’s “Gametime,” with Matt Winer, David Griffin and Sam Mitchell; story, “Mike Budenholzer Named Head Coach of the Milwaukee Bucks;” 5/17/18 story, “Bucks Announce Mike Budenholzer as Coach,” by Adrian Wojnarowski; 5/18/18 www.espn.comstory, “Bucks Giannis Antetokounmpo ‘excited’ to Play for Mike Budenholzer,” by Ian Begley and contribution form Adrian Wojnarowski; 

Monday, May 14, 2018

J-Speaks: The New Head Coach of the Atlanta Hawks

Only the San Antonio Spurs have a longer streak of making the playoffs the past two-plus decades than the 10 in succession of the Atlanta Hawks coming into this past regular season. The Spurs during this stretch though have five Larry O’Brien trophies to show for that while the Hawks have just one Southeast Division title and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals three years ago to show for their stretch. After a disappointing six-game setback in the First-Round of the 2017 postseason to the Washington Wizards, Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk and principal owner Tony Reesler felt it was time to rebuild the team from scratch into one that can be a playoff perennial and eventually an NBA champion. The first leg of that journey resulted in their worst season in 13 years at 24-58 and felt that it was time for the team to hear the voice of someone with experience of building a team from the ground up. 
Last Friday, the Hawks announced that they reached an agreement with longtime assistant coach Lloyd Pierce to become their new head coach. He was officially introduced at a news conference on Monday afternoon, following a third interview with Ressler in Atlanta on Friday. 
For the past five seasons, Pierce had been an assistant coach with the Philadelphia 76ers fresh off a season where they finished No. 3 in the Eastern Conference at 52-30, making the playoffs for the first time since 2012 and earned their most wins in the regular season since 2001, where league MVP of that season and Hall of Famer Allen Iverson led them to The Finals, where they lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in five games. 
Pierce’s five-year run with the Sixers came after stints as an assistant with the Cleveland Cavaliers (2007-2010), Golden State Warriors (2010-2011), and Memphis Grizzlies (2011-2013). Prior to that he was an assistant for the University of Santa Clara Broncos men’s basketball team from 2003-07. 
“I think his experience having been in player development. Obviously the last five years in Philadelphia,” Hall of Famer to be and NBATV analyst Grant Hill, who is part of the Hawks ownership group said on Sunday’s edition of “Gametime.” 
“The Hawks obviously going young right now, going through a rebuild. Trying to prepare for the future. Six No. 1 picks over the course of the next two years. So, the emphasis on player development. Obviously building a culture and being able to connect and resonate with young players.”
Over the course of his career, Pierce has worked with LeBron James, who is now considered not just one of the best in the game but will go down as one of the greatest of all-time. He was also instrumental in the development of the “Splash Brothers” in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson of the Warriors to where one became a two-time MVP and the other one of the best two-way players in the NBA. Then the work he did in the city of “Brotherly Love” where Joel Embiid developed into an All-Star and Ben Simmons into the leading candidate for Rookie of the Year.
The most recent experience Pierce’s brings to the Hawks align with their plans to rebuild their team as mentioned from the bottom-up. A reclamation project that will begin for the team with three first-round draft picks in this June’s draft. 
Pierce played a major role in the Sixers draft driven turnaround which saw the Sixers went from the cellar of the Eastern Conference where they won 34, 19, 18, 10 and 28 games the past five seasons to a five-game First-Round victory over the Miami Heat, but lost in the Semifinals against the Boston Celtics in five-games. 
Schlenk said that Pierce’s “experiences in Philadelphia, keeping that positive vibe, that winning environment with what they went through” is why the Hawks hired him to be their new head coach. 
Besides his intelligence when it comes to the X’s and O’s, Pierce brings to the table according to Hill has a dynamic personality, a tremendous presence, and the ability to connect with young men in terms of being a leader.
Pierce said at the presser on Monday that his first priority was to assemble a coaching staff who shares his passion for playing defense and his proven ability to connect with young players. 
“If I weren’t doing this press conference right now, I’d probably have these guys doing some defensive drills,” he said. “That’s who I am.”
The hiring of Pierce comes only weeks after the Hawks and former head coach Mike Budenholzer, who was the head man on their sidelines the past five seasons and led them to a franchise 60 wins and the No. 1 Seed in the East for the first time since the 1993-94 season back in the 2014-15 season mutually parted ways. 
The Southeast Division champs that season lost to the three-time defending Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers in a four-game sweep in the Conference Finals, their first appearance since they moved from St. Louis, MO in 1968.
Schenk reiterated on Monday during the press conference that he and Budenholzer, who most recently interviewed for the coaching vacancies with the Toronto Raptors and the Milwaukee Bucks remain on good terms. 
“I talked to him a couple of days ago,” he said. “No hard feelings at all.” 
In the years that have followed that Conference Finals appearance, the core of the Hawks team that consisted of All-Stars Al Horford, Kyle Korver, Jeff Teague, and Paul Millsap was slowly dismantled via trade and free agency. 
Pierce will have a few players to build with in lead guard Dennis Schroder; forward Taurean Prince, guard Kent Bazemore; rookie forward John Collins; and guard Malcolm Delaney. The question is can any of those players can become what Embiid and Simmons have become this past season? 
One sign that the players were excited about the hiring of Pierce, DeAndre’ Bembry, Mike Muscala, Bazemore and Isaiah Taylor sat together during the news conference to introduce their new head coach. 
To bring the kind of respect Pierce has from other players around “The Association,” Bazemore received text messages “saying we got a good one.” 
“I’m excited,” Bazemore said. “…Bringing in a defensive-minded guy is important because that’s where championships are won. If we start there, I believe everything else will fall into place.”
Bembry echoed those same thoughts saying, “You instantly have to respect what he’s done. He’s damn sure earned his first head-coaching job.”
One of Pierce’s former players was also in attendance in Sixers sharp shooter Robert Covington who was in town visiting a family member and wanted to show his support for someone who was instrumental in him getting a four-year, $62 million contract extension earlier this year. 
“He helped me so much in my career. It’s only right that I be there as well,” Covington, who averaged 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.7 steals on 36.9 percent from three-point range during the regular season said. 
Last season was a tough one for the Atlanta Hawks winning just 24 games a season ago and seeing their streak of 10 straight postseason appearances end. Saying goodbye to head coach Mike Budenholzer was also a tough call to make as well. The Hawks organization now, led by Schlenk and Reesler are hopeful the combination of Pierce and an injection of talent via the draft and hopefully in free agency, along with the aforementioned player that will make the foundation going forward can jump start a new era of sustainable playoff appearances and hopefully multiple chances to compete for championships.  
Information, statistics, and quotations are courtesy of 5/11/18 article, “Atlanta Hawks Announce Lloyd Pierce as New Head Coach;” 5/13/18 2 a.m. edition of NBATV's "Gametime," presented by State Farm with Matt Winer, Grant Hill and Greg Anthony; 5/14/18 article via “The Associated Press” “New Hawks Coach Lloyd Pierce: Defense is ‘Who I am;’”;;;

Sunday, May 13, 2018

J-Speaks: The Raptors Lose to Cavs Again and Axe Coach Casey

Entering the 2018 NBA Playoffs, the Toronto Raptors put themselves in the best position to make a run for the NBA Finals for the first time in their franchise history. They won a franchise record 59 games, earning the No. 1 Seed in the East for the first time in franchise history. They changed their offensive style to fit the current NBA where they rely on ball movement and take a lot more three-pointers. The supporting cast raise their level of play offensively to where the Raptors were not relying on their All-Star backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Unfortunately, all those dreams of making the Finals were dashed as the Raptors for the third straight postseason were sent home by the three-time defending Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers, which resulted in one major change to their team. 
The Raptors season was concluded last Monday night 128-93 in Game 4 of the Semifinals as the Cavs for the second straight season swept the team whose mantra is “We the North” 4-0, who lost their 10th straight postseason defeat to the four-time Central Division champions. 
Unexpectedly four days later the Raptors fired head coach Dwane Casey after seven season, where he compiled a 320-238 mark during the regular season. 
The news was first broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and confirmed in a statement by the Raptors and their general manager Masai Ujiri. 
“After careful consideration, I have decided this is very difficult but necessary step the franchise must take. As a team, we are constantly trying to grow and improve in order to get to the next level,” he said in that statement on Thursday. “We celebrate everything Dwane has done for the organization, we thank him, and wish him nothing but the best in the future. He was instrumental in creating the identity and culture of who we are as a team, and we are so proud of that.”
Casey had been seeking a contract extension from the Raptors in an effort to maintain job security, according to a tweet from USA Today’s Jeff Zillgitt. Zillgitt also said in that tweet that Casey seeking an extension tied the Raptors hands and forced Ujiri into the decision he made. 
Ujiri meet with the media on Friday to address the firing of Casey telling reporters that he and Casey had been meeting every day since the Cavs swept the Raptors and that said he called DeRozan and Lowry to let them know of what the team was going to do. 
The team per Ujiri plan to keep the remainder of the coaching staff of assistants Nick Nurse, who the organization is strongly considering as their next head coach, Rex Kalamian, Jama Mahalela, Jamaal Magloire, Alex McKechnie, Jerry Stackhouse, the head coach of the Raptors’ G-League affiliate Raptors 905 and trainer Scott McCullough. 
Casey, who was named the eighth head coach in team history on June 21, 2011, posting as previously mentioned winning a 320, the most regular season wins in Raptors history, equating to a .573 winning percentage in those seven seasons, which included the only 50-win seasons in Raptors history. Casey, the longest tenured head coach in Raptors history guided the team to won four Atlantic Division titles, and made five consecutive postseason appearances, also a franchise record.  
The Raptors as mentioned earlier had their best regular season ever winning a franchise record 59 games and earning the No. 1 Seed in the Eastern Conference for the first time in team history. 
But after getting past the No. 8 Seeded Washington Wizards in the Quarterfinals, they had an earlier than expected exit in the Semis as the Cavs for the second straight season swept them out of the playoffs aforementioned 4-0. 
“It hurts. It hurts, just because the season of the season we had,” Casey, whose 21-30 in the postseason with the Raptors said after the Game 4 loss. “A franchise record [59 wins]. Top 5 offense, Top 5 in defense and you know almost like we flipped the switch. So, that’s what’s disappointing as much as anything else. From out coaching staff. Everything we tried to do just didn’t click. That’s the disappointing part.”
Casey postgame statements were on the heels of his candid words a couple of days later about how confident he was that he would be back with the Raptors. 
“Nobody has told me different,” he told reporters. “Until then I’m here still fighting. I’m still here.” 
“I don’t expect a vote of confidence [from Ujiri] … I’ve read all the articles, texts, all this stuff. I understand what’s been said. I’m not in the dark, but I’m not looking for a vote of confidence because I haven’t heard anything different.” 
Casey did state that he recognized how the criticism falls on him after seeing his team completely collapse in the Semis against the Cavs again. 
“It’s part of the business,” he said about getting the axe. “I’m a big boy. I’ve been through it. I know what we’ve accomplished and how the basketball world respects what we’re doing. It’s part of the territory. I accept it. I’m not running from it…I’m an easy target…I don’t feel sorry for myself, let’s put it that way.”
With the Raptors having to now look for a new head coach, the other task on GM Ujiri’s to do list is to look at the roster and see what changes if any need to be made. In essence, the Raptors are in the stage of looking very closely at the team as a whole to see what changes can be made. 
While Casey got the axe in the wake of another failure to get past the Cavs, the Raptors All-Star backcourt in Lowry and DeRozan had another poor showing against the Cavs particularly in Game 4. 
After scoring just eight points on 3/12 shooting and sitting out the final 14 minutes of the Raptors comeback in Game 3, DeRozan had just 13 points with five boards before being ejected for hitting Cavs’ guard Jordan Clarkson in the face as the attempted an open court layup. DeRozan was assessed a Flagrant Two foul and was ejected. 
“Last three years been rough for us competing against this team,” DeRozan, whose team became the first No. 1 Seed since the 2013 Oklahoma City Thunder to not reach the Conference Finals. “Maybe they just got our number. Things just go right for us. Whatever it is, it can be a lot of things. All I know is [the] last three years they [Cavs] have been the reason why we haven’t advanced.” 
He added by saying last Tuesday, “This is probably the toughest, most frustrating, difficult, lowest feeling I’ve had.” “You get to that point where you’re standing firm through everything and you feel like you can’t get knocked down again, and you realize you do get knocked back down again. It’s kind of the worst feeling.”
DeRozan’s backcourt mate in Lowry, who had risen his point level in the first three games of the series from 18 points and 10 assists in Game 1, 21 points and eight assists in Game 2 to 27 points with seven assists in Game 3, was abysmal with just five points on 2 for 7 shooting in the Game 4 loss with 10 assists.  
“It feels a lot different because we felt like we could possibly make the NBA Finals and that was our goal,” a very upset and disappointed Lowry said to reporters on Tuesday. “So, it always been a real goal for us, but this year was like ‘that’s the only thing that matters.’” 
Lowry added that this year was a “wasted” one. “We said it before, for me it was championship or bust and that’s what I really feel. So, waisted year for me.” 
When asked about will it be tough to start the journey again next season Lowry said, “No, because I love the game. I love basketball. I love doing my job and I still want to get that ultimate goal of holding that trophy. So, for me it’s a waisted year, but it’s just a motivation to continue to get better.” 
That Raptors hopes of slaying their arch nemesis in the three-time defending East champion Cavs slipped away from them in Game 1 of the Semis when they blew a 10-point fourth quarter lead, missed what seemed like 100 chippies at the rim in the closing seconds of regulation and lost in overtime 113-112. 
The Raptors nearly rallied from a double-digit deficit in Game 3 two Saturday nights ago, but the game-winning running, tie-breaking runner off the glass from the left at the horn gave the Cavs a 105-103 win and a commanding 3-0 series lead. 
Even though neither Lowry or DeRozan gave a glowing endorsement of coach Casey last Tuesday, they both spoke highly of their now former head coach. 
“All of my success, I have to credit Casey,” DeRozan who led the Raptors with a 22.7 point per game average in the 2017 playoffs said. “No matter what, I’m always going to have the utmost respect when it comes to coach Casey. 
While Lowry and Casey had their moments of indifference over the years, the Philadelphia, PA native said that his former head coach, “always believed in him.” 
“He’s one of the best coaches out there,” Lowry added. 
There is one thing that the Toronto Raptors have in common with a lot of teams, aside from the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors, the five-time NBA champion San Antonio Spurs and the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks. They have been on the losing end against LeBron James the past eight seasons whether he has played for the Cavs or the Miami Heat. 
Just ask the Chicago Bulls whose lost to James and the Cavs 4-1 in the First-Round in 2010 and 4-2 in the Semis in 2015. Sandwiched in between those defeats was a five-game setback when he was with the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2011 as well as a five-game defeat in the Semis. Those failures led to the ouster of now Minnesota Timberwolves head coach and President of Basketball Operations Tom Thibodeau and eventually either by trade or free agency 2011 league MVP Derrick Rose, All-Star center Joakim Noah, forward Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler. The Bulls have not been back to the Playoffs since as they are now rebuilding. 
The Detroit Pistons, who were the first victim of James and his assent to greatness where he and the Cavs beat them in the 2007 Conference Finals. That dominance began in Game 5 where he scored 25 straight points and 29 of the final 30 points to lead the Cavs to a 109-107 win in double-overtime. Since that Game 5 win, the Pistons have lost 12 straight games in the postseason to James and the Cavs, sweeping them in the opening round of 2009 4-0 and in 2016. 
Another team that has been victimized by James has been the Atlanta Hawks, who too have lost 12 straight postseason games to the Cavs dating back to their 4-0 sweep in the 2009 Semis. The one series that Hawks fans and the team that sticks with them is the 4-0 sweep in the 2015 Conference Finals where the Hawks won 60 games; earned the No. 1 Seed in the East for the first time since the 1993-94 season. They won the Southeast Division for the first time since they were a part of the Central Division, which they won also back in 1994. The Hawks like the Bulls are in the process of rebuilding their team and they have a new head coach in Lloyd Pierce, who replaced the recently fired Mike Budenholzer, who won Coach of the Year four years ago. 
In his first go-around with the Cavs in making the postseason back in 2006, their first appearance since 1998, the Cavs defeated the Washington Wizards in the opening round 4-2. That was the first of three consecutive postseason tilts between the boys from “The Land” and the boys from our nation’s capital. From May 3, 2006 to Apr. 21, 2008, the Cavs beat the Wizards eight straight times in the postseason.
The one team though that got a close-up view of the ascension and then the out of this world greatness of James was the Boston Celtics. The 2011-12 squad led by future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett, now an analyst for TNT, Paul Pierce, who now works for ESPN, Hall of Famer to be Ray Allen, and All-Star guard Rajon Rondo, now with the New Orleans Pelicans and current Los Angeles Clippers head coach Glenn “Doc” Rivers lost to James and the eventual NBA champion Heat in the Conference Finals in seven games. In the Game 6 win 98-79 that got them to Game 7 on June 7, 2012, James had one of those so-called breakthrough games with 45 points, 15 rebounds and five assists to help his team tie the series 3-3. 
Dating back to the 2015 opening round tilt between James’ Cavs and the C’s to their meeting in the 2017 Conference Finals, they garnered six straight wins from Apr. 19, 2015 to May 19, 2017. 
The two teams are meeting again in the 2018 Conference Finals and while the Celtics won Game 1 impressively 108-83 on Sunday afternoon, there are many who predict that James’ and the Cavs will eventually win this one and advance to The Finals for the fourth straight season and the eighth straight for James. 
Getting back to the Raptors, the reality for them is that they can replace their head coach, they can even tweak their roster somehow, more on that in a moment, if they keep running into LBJ, the same issue will always be there in the fact that the players on the roster are intimidated, scared, perhaps terrified. 
One of the names that was floated out there to be the next head coach of the Raptors was Budenholzer, he was a part of two sweeps at the hands of James and the Cavaliers. 
If with a new head coach, that will not be enough to solve the Raptors problem in beating the Cavs in the playoffs. In terms of their roster flexibility, DeRozan, Lowry and starting forward Serge Ibaka are under team control through the 2019-20 season. Starting center Jonas Valanciunas is under team control through next season. The Raptors have no money under the cap to improve their roster through free agency and a key player that will command a lot of money is Lowry’s understudy Fred VanVleet, who is a restricted free agent. 
This past season was the best in Raptors history as mentioned going 59-23, earning the No. 1 Seed in the East. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan were named to the All-Star team again. Their bench was ranked No. 3 in “The Association” in scoring; No. 2 in assists and minutes played and No. 3 in three-pointers made. However, they failed to get past LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the postseason getting swept in the Semifinals for the second straight season. 
For them with no salary cap space and no draft picks, improvement for the Raptors will have to come from within, particularly from DeRozan and Lowry, who say they will never shy away from the challenge of facing James in the postseason. 
“To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best. We’ve continuously failed against the team that made The Finals the last three years,” Lowry said. “We weren’t ready to be as physical as we needed to be. We did a great job in the regular season, but [the] playoffs are just different.” 
DeRozan echoed those same thoughts by saying about getting another chance to dethrone James and the Cavs as the top dogs in the Eastern Conference, “As a competitor, we want to go up against that because the story is sweeter once you dethrone a great.” 
Information, statistics, and quotations are courtesy of 5/7/18 8:30 p.m. Game 4 of Eastern Conference Semifinals Toronto Raptors versus Cleveland Cavaliers on TNT, presented by Hulu with Ian Eagle, Brent Barry, and Allie LaForce; 5/8/18 2 a.m. edition of NBATV's "Gametime" with Chris Miles, Steve Smith and Isiah Thomas; 5/9/18 article, “Kyle Lowry: Raptors’ No. 1 Seed, 59-win Season ‘Wasted’ with Early Playoff Exit;” 5/11/18 article via twitter and media reports, “Toronto Raptors Part Ways with Coach Dwane Casey;” 5/11/18 3 p.m. "NBA: The Jump," fueled by Marathon with Rachel Nichols, Richard Jefferson and Tracy McGrady;; and  

Saturday, May 12, 2018

J-Speaks: 2018 Eastern and Western Conference Finals Preview

The 2017-18 NBA campaign began with the defending NBA champions from the “Bay Area” and the three-time defending Eastern Conference Champions from “The Land” taking on their biggest challengers in their respective conferences in the boys from “Clutch City” and the boys from “Beantown” on Oct. 17, 2017. Those same four squadrons for the second postseason in a row will meet for the right to represent their respective conferences in The NBA Finals near the close of this month. Here is the J-Speaks 2018 Eastern and Western Conference Finals Preview.

Eastern Conference 
(1)   Boston Celtics versus (4) Cleveland Cavaliers
Season Series: Cavs won 2-1

For two of the past three postseasons, the Boston Celtics have been on the losing end to the Cavs, falling in a four-game sweep in the First-Round in 2015 and then losing in the so-called gentleman’s sweep 4-1 in the Conference Finals a season ago. The third entanglement was supposed to bring some poetic justice to conclude the East portion of the 2018 postseason with a former Cavs All-Star guard being dealt to the biggest rival to the Cavs and specifically the four-time MVP that he no longer wanted to play alongside. This would have also been the opportunity for the All-Star lead guard the Cavs acquired in exchange for said former Cavs lead guard for payback to the team that traded him the moment they could land a 25-year-old All-Star guard. A lot has changed, and those principles players will not be involved, but that four-time MVP will, and he and his team after a rough seven-game tilt in the opening round to the 2018 playoffs are poised to make the postseason for the fourth consecutive season. 
For the Celtics, who finished as the No. 2 Seed in the East with a 55-27 marked entered the postseason without lead guard Kyrie Irving, whose season ended in March with his third surgery on his left knee. The C’s other big off-season acquisition in fellow All-Star Gordon Hayward was lost minutes in the team’s season-opener ironically enough at the Cavs with a gruesome ankle injury. 
Many predicted with those key losses the Celtics would struggle to just get out of the opening round versus the No. 7 Seeded Milwaukee Bucks. They not only got pasted the Bucks in seven games, but they defeated the star heavy and upcoming No. 3 Seeded Philadelphia 76ers in five games in the Conference Semifinals. 
How did head coach Brad Stevens’ squad do it? The young quartet of rookie Jayson Tatum, second-year guard Jaylen Brown and third-year guard Terry Rozier and fourth-year guard Marcus Smart rose their games to very high levels, while getting solid play and veteran leadership from Al Horford and Marcus Morris.
For seven straight games going back to Game 6 of the First-Round versus the Bucks, Tatum has scored 20 points or more for seven straight games, which was tied with Utah Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell for second-most by a rookie all-time. 
Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was Lew Alcindor with the Bucks as a rookie back in 1970 registered 10 straight games in the postseason of 20-plus points, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Hall of Fame center of the San Antonio Spurs David Robinson was third on this list with six games of 20-plus points as a rookie in the 1990 postseason.
In the Game 5 clinching, that the Celtics won versus the Sixers 114-112 on Wednesday night, Tatum had 25 points on 8 for 15 shooting and 9 for 11 from the free throw line. 
“So many people after Gordon got hurt, and Kyrie, Smart went down and [Daniel] Theis nobody expected us to go to the Eastern Conference Finals,” Tatum said during his postgame presser after the win. “So, it just continue to prove people wrong and have fun while were doing it.”
Rozier, who had started the season as Irving’s understudy and became the starting lead guard when the prior mentioned third knee surgery cut the All-Star’s season short has really stepped in the playoffs to where he rose his numbers from 5.6 points, 2.6 rebounds and 1.9 assists in last year to 18.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.8 assists, on 39.6 percent from three-point range. 
To bring Rozier’s stellar play into full context, he has registered 69 assists and just 16 turnovers through the first two rounds of the 2018 postseason.  
Last season, Brown the No. 3 overall pick in 2016 draft had a limited role in the Celtics run to the Eastern Conference Finals averaging just 5.0 points and 2.1 boards on 21.7 percent from three-point range. This postseason, the 22-year-old has averaged 16.9 points and 4.8 rebounds on 41.5 percent from three-point range. 
He was shelved for the first game of the Semis because of an injured hamstring he sustained in Game 7 versus the Bucks on Apr. 30. After playing okay in Games 2, 3 and 4 where he scored 13, 16 and eight points respectably, Brown finished the series strong with 24 points, on 10 for 13 shooting including hitting three triples. 
As good as the core of the Celtics future has been, they are not one step closer to The Finals without the steady grit, toughness, leadership, and steadiness of Horford, Smart and starting center Aron Baynes. 
His averages of 17.0 points, a team-leading 8.7 rebounds on 57.8 percent from the field and 36.0 from three-point range do not tell the whole story of how big the 11-year veteran Horford has been for the C’s in these playoffs. He has recorded five double-doubles so far this postseason and in Game 3 at the Sixers, Horford may three huge plays in the win that gave them a commanding 3-0 series lead last Saturday afternoon. 
He made the go-ahead basket late in overtime that gave the Celtics a 99-98 lead, and he sealed the 101-98 win with two free throws that came after he stole an inbound pass from Sixers’ rookie guard Ben Simmons and was fouled by All-Star center Joel Embiid. 
After missing the start of the playoffs recovering from a thumb injury he sustained back in the regular season, Smart has played big with his timely shot making on offense and his solid play on the defensive end in guarding some of the best perimeter players of the Bucks and Sixers. 
The Celtics will need even more high-level effort, energy and execution against a Cavs team led by a determined, focused, and energized LeBron James, who is looking to advance the No. 4 Seeded Cavs as mentioned to their fourth straight Finals trip and his eighth consecutive ticket overall going back to his time with the Miami Heat starting in 2011. 
The four-time league MVP has carried head coach Tyronn Lue’s squad, who went 50-32 during the regular season and won the Central Division for the fourth straight season along a very steep learning curve where they got passed the gritty No. 5 Seeded Indiana Pacers in the opening round in seven games and eventually put it all together sweeping the No. 1 overall Seeded Toronto Raptors for a second straight season 4-0 and beating them for the third straight postseason overall. 
To put into context how the Cavs have owned the Raptors in the postseason, going back to the 2016 Conference Finals, the Cavs have beaten the Raptors 10 straight times in the postseason, including five straight in the Raptors gym. Their 12-game postseason winning streaks against the Detroit Pistons, which started back in the 2007 Conference Finals and the Atlanta Hawks dating back to the 2009 Semis are tied for the Los Angeles Lakes dominance over the then Seattle Supersonics from 1980-89. 
How dominant has James been? Well the 15-year vet has averaged 34.3 points, 9.4 boards, nine assists, and 1.6 steals during the 2018 playoffs on 55.3 percent from the field. He has registered four games of 40 points or more; two of his 21 career postseason triple-doubles have come during this postseason and has hit two game winners, with the latest being an off-balance runner off the glass from the left in Game 3 last Saturday night that downed the Raptors for a 105-103 win to put them up a commanding 3-0 in the series.

That capped a 38-point night on 14 for 26 shooting and 9 for 11 from the charity stripe. In the Cavs 128-93 clinching win in Game 4 on Monday night, James had 29 points with 11 assists, eight boards and two steals, on 12 for 19 from the field.

On top of that, dating back to last postseason, James has registered 17 consecutive games with at least 20 points with five boards and five assists. That beat his previous mark of 11 straight, which is tied with the great Michael Jordan and is one short of the ten registered by future Hall of Famer and five-time NBA champion with the Los Angeles Lakers Kobe Bryant.  
As good as James has been, the Cavs like the Celtics are not back in the Conference Finals without the stellar play of his teammates.
The supporting cast, who many have called the weakest James has had in his second stint with the Cavs got off to a rough start in these playoffs, but All-Star Kevin Love, sharp shooters Kyle Korver and JR Smith, Tristan Thompson, Jeff Green, and the Feb. 8 trade deadline acquisitions George Hill, Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood, and Larry Nance, Jr. have really come on as this postseason has progressed. 
After barely playing the first six games of the opening round against the Pacers totaling just three points and six boards, Thompson was magnificent in the 105-101 win in Game 7 with a double-double of 15 points and 10 rebounds. Hill after missing 3 ½ games of the series with back spasms had 11 points and six boards off the bench, going 9 for 11 from the foul line, playing 19 for the 24 minutes in the second half. 
James in that winner take all contest back on Apr. 29 had a game-high 45 points with eight boards, seven assists and four steals on 16 for 25 shooting and 11 for 15 from the free throw line. 
In the four-game sweep in the Semis against the Raptors, it was Love, Korver and Smith who took centerstage alongside James. 
In stealing Game 1 back on May 1 113-112 in overtime, James had a triple-double with 26 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds with two block shots, but went just 12 for 30 from the field, including 1 for 8 from three-point range and he called his performance after the win, “probably one of my worst performances of the season.” 
His teammates picked up the slack for a tired James as Korver who had 19 points and hit the go-ahead three-pointer in overtime after the Cavs never led in regulation. Smith had 20 points going 5 for 6 from three-point range. Thompson had his second straight postseason double-double with 14 points and 12 rebounds off the bench while Green had 16 points. 
In the Cavs resounding 128-110 win in Game 2 where James dominated with 43 points, 14 assists and eight rebounds on 19 for 28 shooting, Love was magnificent with 31 points and 11 rebounds on 11 for 21 shooting. Smith had 15 points, while Green contributed 14 points off the bench, going 4 for 6 from three-point range. Hill added 13 points. 
To bring into context the kind of offensive production the Cavs got in the Semis versus the Raptors, Korver and Smith shot a combined 24 for 38, 63.2 percent from three-point range. 
Over the final three games of the series, Love averaged 24.7 points and 11 rebounds on 54.2 percent shooting.
In a series that had many possible plot and subtexts, the narrative going into the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals is King James versus the likely up-and-comers to his throne. 
In last season’s series James averaged 29.6 points, 6.4 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 2.2 steals in five games. In their three matchups during the regular season, James averaged 24.0 points, 10.3 boards and 8.3 assists. 
“I think there one of the most well coached team[s] in our league,” James said about the C’s late this past week. “How great they are out of timeouts, late clock situations as well, no matter who’s on the floor, and no matter whose played for them. He [Brad Stevens] can put guys in position to succeed and get the most out of whose ever been in their lineup for the past few years.”
The Raptors used the length of rookie forward OG Anunoby and forward Pascal Siakam on James, but that did not work, and they were especially off the mark when James beat both on his full court runner at the horn that clinched Game 3. 
Brown and Tatum will get their shots to guard James at the start, and Morris and Smart will get their chance as well. That said, they will also have to keep an eye on the likes of Smith, Korver, Hill, and possibly Clarkson and Hood on the perimeter. 
“He’s been doing this for a long time,” Smart said after the Game 5 clincher versus the Sixers on Wednesday. “He’s, if not the greatest, one of the greatest to do it. What better way than to go up and compete against a guy that’s [going to have] statues and things like that.”
Rozier echoed those same thoughts by saying about the Celtics being underdogs against the Cavs, “We’d rather [everyone] count us out. We don’t want anybody on our side now. We’re doing good and we play better when our back is against the wall.” 
The other thing that the Celtics will have to do if they have any chance to pull the upset is to win the first two games at home, where they are a perfect 7-0 at TD Garden so far in the 2018 NBA Playoffs. In the six prior wins, the C’s averaged 110.3 points on 47 percent from the floor, 41 percent from three-point range on 24 assists. They have done a complete 180 on the road where they lost four of their first five tries, scoring an average of 94.6 points on 41 percent from the field, 31 percent from three-point range and registering only 18.4 assists. 
The C's also have to shoot the ball better from distance to have a chance against the Cavs. In their three-game set against the Cavs during the regular season, the C’s shot just 30 for 106, 28.3 percent from three-point range. 
Considering how the Celtics began this season, the fact that they are even in position to make it to The NBA Finals is a victory in of itself. This run has more than made a statement to the rest of the NBA that they will be a force to be reckoned with, starting next season when Irving and Hayward get back. Even if they bring their best effort in this series, which they will, their chances of beating the Cavs and a determined LeBron James, who is looking to win his 24th East playoff series in succession and punch his ticket to his eighth straight Finals is a very tall order. Even with home court advantage.
Series prediction: Cavaliers in six games.

Western Conference

(1)   Houston Rockets versus (2) Golden State Warriors

      Season series: Rockets won 2-1

In the Golden State Warriors rise to where they have won two championships in the past three seasons, one team that they have gone through on that journey has been the Houston Rockets who they defeated 4-1 in the 2015 Western Conference Finals and then 4-1 in the First-Round one postseason later. After the moves the Rockets made this off-season acquiring a nine-time All-Star at the lead guard spot to join the presumptive MVP and the addition of some defensive minded players who can also shoot the ball well from distance, the Rockets are ready to take on the four-time defending Western Conference and two-time NBA champion Warriors and knock them of the West throne. 
The Rockets rise to a franchise record 65 wins and the No. 1 Seed in the regular season began with the acquisition back in the summer of Chris Paul to join James Harden and that combination has worked very well both in the regular season and in the first two rounds of the playoffs where they have taken down the No. 8 Seeded Minnesota Timberwolves and the No. 5 Seeded Utah Jazz. 
Last season, the Rockets season ended with a thud as they were taken down in the Semis by the San Antonio Spurs in six games and in that series clinching win in Game 6 Harden had just 10 points on 2 for 11 from the field. 
It was days after that loss Harden got in contact with Paul and talked with him about joining the Rockets. 
That began the start of a solid working relationship that has manifested itself on the hardwood in the regular season and in the postseason where both are the top scorers at 28.5 by Harden and 21.8 by Paul respectably. 
As good as those two have been, the emergence of starting center Clint Capela, who has averaged 14.4 points, 12.2 rebounds and 2.8 blocks during playoffs, on 63.4 percent from the field. 

To put how important Capela's contributions on both ends of the floor, when he, Harden and Paul have been in the lineup, the Rockets combined in the regular season and postseason have gone 50-5.
When you talk about the Rockets the past few seasons, the way they score offensively always comes to mind, especially from three-point range. While Harden and Paul are big parts of the head coach Mike DAntoni team’s ability to make shots from distance, top reserve Eric Gordon, starting forwards Trevor Ariza and PJ Tucker, Gerald Green and Luc Mbah a Moute are big parts of that as well. 
During the regular season, the Rockets were No. 1 in three-pointers made at 15.3 and in attempts at 42.3. While they have kept that up during the postseason ranking No. 1 makes from distance at 14.1 and in attempts at 39.9, there have been times where the Rockets ability to make shots from distance has been rough. 
It is that reason the Rockets became a more defensive minded team during the regular season and during the postseason, which is the other reason the Rockets brought in Tucker, Paul and Mbah a Moute. 
In the Rockets Game 3 win at the T’Wolves 119-100, the Rockets scored 50 points in the third quarter, one shy of tying a playoff record for points in a quarter. Harden and Paul had 22 and Paul had 15 of those 50 points respectably in the period. Harden finished with 36 points on the night, while Paul had 25. 
As a team the Rockets made 16 of their 43 tries from three-point range, with Harden making five triples and Gordon, who had 18 points off the bench had four makes from distance.
In that same period the Rockets scored 50, they held the T’Wolves to 20 points in the third after giving up 49 in the opening half. 
In Games 3 and 4 of the Semis in Utah’s own building, they held the Jazz to 92 and 87 points respectably. 
In the Game 3 triumph, the Rockets took control of by holding the Jazz to 22 and 18 points respectably in the first and second quarters. The Jazz were held to 41.7 percent shooing in the 113-92 loss, committing 16 turnovers for 19 Rockets points. 
In Game 4, the Rockets taking a 3-1 lead via a 100-87 win held the Jazz to 38.6 percent shooting on the night and forced 17 turnovers for 17 points. 
Paul had 27 points on the night with 12 rebounds and six assists, while Harden had 24 points and Capela had 12 points, 15 rebounds, six block shots and two steals. 
In the Game 5 clinching 112-102 win on Tuesday night, Paul who was playing in his 86th career playoff game scored 20 of his playoff career-high 41 points in the fourth quarter, including 12 of the Rockets final 15 points. He also had 10 assists and seven rebounds, on 13 for 22 from the field, including 8 for 10 from three-point range.
While Harden struggled scoring just 18 points on 7 for 22 shooting and Capela struggled with foul trouble to score just five points with four boards in 31 minutes, while contributing five blocks, Tucker had 19 points on 5 for 7 from three-point range with six rebounds and three blocks.
Everything the Rockets have done during the season was to be in the best position to take down the Warriors who they beat in two of their three meetings during the regular season. 
After a January victory over their hated West rivals Capela said that the Rockets were superior to the defending champs and that he was very for this tilt where the Rockets will hold home court advantage.
“I’m real excited,” Capela said after the Rockets 116-108 win versus the Warriors on Jan. 20. “This (Warriors) team is going to be hard, it’s going to be a fight. There’s going to be a lot of adjustments after every game. It’s going to be a chess game. Of course, we’re going to be ready. They’ve been to The Finals three straight years. So, we’re excited. Everybody’s excited about it. I’m sure all the NBA fans are excited about it, too.”
After 10 losses their final 17 games to close the season, the Warriors, who finished 58-24 during the regular season, seven games behind the Rockets in the West standings entered the 2018 Playoffs with questions for the first time in their four-year run as a truly great team under head coach Steve Kerr. 
They were entering the postseason for the first time without home court advantage throughout the West Playoffs. If that were not enough, two-time league MVP Stephen Curry was on the shelf to start the postseason with a Grade 2 MCL sprain in his left knee. 
Even without Curry, the Warriors still had three All-Stars leading the way in Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and last season’s Finals MVP in 2014 league MVP Kevin Durant. 
The Warriors also had in toe a proven supporting cast in David West, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Quin Cook, JaVale McGee, Kevon Looney, ZaZa Pachulia and Nick Young. 
In the opening round, they took down the five-time NBA champion San Antonio Spurs, the No. 7 minus All-Star Kawhi Leonard and head coach Gregg Popovich the final three games of the series due to the sudden passing of his wife. 
After winning Game 1 of the Semis 123-101 versus the hot No. 6 Seeded New Orleans Pelicans, who swept the No. 3 Seeded Portland Trail Blazers 4-0 in the opening round, Curry returned to the lineup after a five-week absence scoring 28 points in 27 minutes off the bench. 
He entered the game at the 4:20 mark of the first quarter to a rousing ovation from the Oracle Arena crowd and just 11 seconds into the game made a three-pointer from the left wing and helped the Warriors win Game 2 121-116. 
After dropping Game 3 at the Pelicans 119-100 to see their series lead cut to 2-1, the Warriors got back on track in Game 4 118-92 back on Sunday afternoon to take a commanding 3-1 series lead. 
The Warriors so-called “Hamptons Five” lineup of Green, Iguodala, Durant, Curry and Thompson scored 88 of the team’s points and defensively held the Pelicans on their home floor to 36.4 percent shooting as well as to 4 for 26 from three-point range. 
In the Game 5 clinching 113-104 win, four of the “Hamptons Five” scored in double figures with Curry leading the way with 28 points with eight assists and seven rebounds. Durant had 24 points with seven assists, six rebounds and two steals, while Thompson had 23 points on 10 for 22 shooting. Green nearly had a triple-double with 19 points, 14 boards, nine assists, with three steals and two block shots. 
The contest turned in the Warriors favor in the third quarter when they outscored the Pelicans 36-19 after halftime as they equaled the Chicago Bulls 15-game home postseason winning streak of 15 games that dates back from Apr. 27, 1990-May 21, 1991. 
This has been the most anticipated postseason matchup for a Conference Finals in a long time. Not only do we have the No. 1 scoring team during the regular season in the Rockets against the No. 2 scoring team in the Warriors, who also can knock down three-pointers at an alarming rate. 
We have two teams that totally respect one another in terms of the fact that one can dominate the other at a moments notice. 
In their three games during the regular season, the Rockets averaged 116.3 points per game on 50 percent from the field and 43 percent from distance. They held the high scoring defending champs in those three games to 98.8 points on 44 percent from the floor and 33 percent from three-point range. 
We have a proven champion in the Warriors, against a Rocket team that wants what the Warriors have, a Larry O’Brien Trophy. 
“Obviously we know what’s ahead of us,” Mbah a Moute said earlier this week about the tilt with the Warriors. “That’s the champs. It’s going to be a tough task. You better be ready. But we have what we need. We’ve been that way all season. We’re ready. They have to be ready for us as well. I think we showed all season we match up well with them. 
For the defending champion Warriors, a matchup like this is something they live for and are as confident as you can be. To them losing in the regular season to the Rockets and not having the No. 1 Seed in the West for the first time in four seasons does not phase them and Green said as much after the Game 5 clinching win versus the Pelicans to TNT’s David Aldridge. 
“At the end of the, everyone can say what they want to say the games got to be played. So, it’s going to be an exciting series, very good ball club. We’re looking forward to it.” 
Green put some major emphasis on what he said to Aldridge during his postgame presser when ESPN’s Chris Haynes asked about the tilt with the Rockets who talked throughout this season wanting them in the postseason at some point saying, “We’d won two championships in three years. We not about to talk about to run off talking about how bad we want to play somebody. We want to win another championship, and it don’t matter who’s in the way of that. If you in the way of that, then you happen to be in the way.” 
“It don’t matter to us who we play. However, we got them. Alright, let’s get it. Let’s do it now. We got a goal, and who’s ever in the way of that goal, then we got to see you. You got to see us.” 
Green attitude is the reflection of the kind of approach a championship team like the Warriors has against an opponent that wants what they have. That they are the team to beat, but they are very wary of the Rockets and what they are capable of. 
“I like where we are. Our guys have rings. That’s a good position to be in,” Coach Kerr said to reporters on Wednesday. 
“We’re going to go in here knowing we’re the defending champs, knowing we got a couple of championships here the last few years. Let’s go get another one. It’s a nice feeling to have and to go into a series with.” 
The other thing the Warriors have going into this series is knowing who they are, and that they can adjust very quickly to their opponent. As good as the Warriors are offensively, they understand that playing defense is just as important as is playing as a cohesive unit on both ends of the court. 
To bring those points into context, they are 4-0 when they have hold their opponent under 100 points in this postseason. During the regular season, the Warriors were No. 1 in assists per game at 29.3 and counting the regular season, the defending champion Warriors are 39-5 when they register 30-plus assists in a game. 
If one of the Warriors All-Star main offensive trio of Curry, Thompson and Durant has an off night at the offensive end, they have other places to turn and as mentioned can manufacture offense from their defense. 
On the Rockets side for them to win this series, they will need their dynamic backcourt of Paul and Harden to play well, not only to keep the Warriors’ backcourt of Curry and Thompson on their toes defensively, but the Rockets aside from maybe Gordon really do not have a third consistent scoring option that can strike a match and score 30 points or more if needed. The scoring averages of 24.5 and 21.7 points by Harden and Paul respectably against the Warriors during the regular season will have to be higher, especially by Harden. 
Even with two of the finest passers in the game in Harden and Paul, the Rockets during the regular season averaged just 21.5 assists per game, which was tied for 26th in the league. If the Rockets do not incorporate some consistent ball movement in the Conference Finals, that will make it easier for the Warriors to control them to some extent defensively.
The Rockets this season have taken more pride in playing consistent defense. Being able to bring consistent focus and execution to that end of the floor will determine if they can take down the defending champions. 
Being able to hold Curry and Durant, who led the Warriors in scoring against the Rockets with 23.3 and 23.0 points respectably to those numbers will be no easy task for the Rockets. 
One thing is for sure, the Rockets are excited for this chance and no one is more excited than Coach D’Antoni, who will be coaching in his first Western Conference Finals since 2006 when he was the head man on the Phoenix Suns sideline, where his lead guard was two-time league MVP Steve Nash.
“It’s not easy to get to the ‘Final Four,’ the last four teams and its exciting,” D’Antoni, whose team lost in the 2006 Conference Finals versus the Dallas Mavericks and future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki in seven games. “I’m just as excited today as I was in Phoenix.” 
D’Antoni added that this time around as compared to 12 years ago that he will go into this Conference Finals tilt with Harden, who he said is the best offensive player he’s ever coached and a team that as mentioned earlier has made playing defense an emphasis. 
When it comes to what is at stake for him personally about reaching the NBA Finals for the first time in his coaching career, D’Antoni said this past week it’s about just getting to The Finals. 
“That’s what’s at stake. It’s great competition. We’d love to beat the defending champions. We know that they’ve done it the last four years or whatever how long their reign is. It’s going to be very difficult, but this is fun.”  
As excited as Coach D’Antoni is to be back in the Conference Finals, his lead guard in Paul had played in 85 career playoff games prior to Game 5 of the Semis against the Jazz, the most by a player in NBA postseason history before his first appearance in the round prior to The NBA Finals. His 10 assists on the night snapped a 12-game streak in the postseason where he did not record 10 assists or more, the longest streak of his career. He joined Michael Jordan as the only players in postseason history to have a 40-plus point, 10-assist game in a playoff clincher. 
“It’s just fun,” Paul, whose 20 points in the final period on Tuesday night was a career-high for any quarter regular season or the postseason said after the win. “It’s not about the points or anything like that. It’s about the process and I think for us its about how we built it too. Starting with this summer and all the conversations, and the talks and all of us know there’s never any malicious feeling towards each other. It’s all to try to win and that’s what’s been fun about this is just trying to build it.” 
They have the home court advantage. Their star backcourt as mentioned has played very well together. Their a talented offensive team that has played just as consistently at the defensive end thanks to the off-season additions. The question now is can the No. 1 Seeded Rockets with home court advantage take that confidence and swagger and knock the defending champion Warriors, who have taken a measured approach to the 2017-18 regular season and have flipped that proverbial postseason switch to make a run at a second straight NBA crown. 
Series prediction: Warriors in seven games.
These four teams, the Celtics, Cavaliers, Warriors and Rockets got the 2017-18 NBA campaign started and now will compete for a chance to be in the NBA Finals. It all gets underway with Game 1 the Eastern Conference Finals on Sunday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. in Boston, MA on ABC. The first game of the Western Conference Finals begins on Monday night from Houston, TX at 9 p.m. on TNT. 
Information, statistics, and quotations are courtesy of 5/7/18 8:30 p.m. Game 4 Eastern Conference Semifinals Toronto Raptors versus Cleveland Cavaliers on TNT, presented by Hulu with Ian Eagle, Brent Barry, and Allie LaForce; 5/8/18 8 p.m. Game 5 Western Conference Semifinals Utah Jazz versus Houston Rockets on TNT, presented by Hulu with Kevin Harlan, Reggie Miller and Kristen Ledlow; 5/8/18 10:30 p.m. Game 5 Western Conference Semifinals New Orleans Pelicans versus Golden State Warriors on TNT, presented by Hulu with Marv Albert, Chris Webber and David Aldridge; 5/9/18 article, “Series Preview: Long-awaited Matchup Arrives For Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors,” by Sekou Smith; 5/9/18 8 p.m. TNT’s “NBA Tip-Off,” presented by Autotrader with Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley, and Shaquille O’Neal; 5/9/18 1 a.m. edition of “Inside the NBA,” presented by Kia on TNT with Casey Stern, Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley, and Shaquille O’Neal; 5/10/18 article, “Series Preview: Young Boston Celtics Look to Stop LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers,” by Steve Aschburner; 5/10/18 7 a.m. edition of NBATV’s “Gametime,” with Casey Stern, Steve Smith and Derek Fisher; 5/10/18 10:30 p.m. edition of “Inside the NBA,” presented by Kia on TNT with Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley, and Shaquille O’Neal; 5/11/18 article, “Kerr: Golden State Warriors ‘definitely threatened’ by Houston Rockets,” from Twitter and media reports;;;;;;;;;;;; and