Monthly Archives: April 2017

Isaiah Thomas and the Celtics know how to rebound

BOSTON — The Boston Celtics were clinging to a five-point lead midway through the fourth quarter when Chicago Bulls forward Bobby Portis launched a wide-open 3-pointer from the corner. The ball clanged hard off the rim, and Celtics big man Al Horford, while sandwiched between Robin Lopez and Jimmy Butler, leaped to snare the rebound.

None of the three players could come up with the ball, but Butler had his fingertips on it as a mad scramble began when it fell to the floor. Lingering near the scrum, 5-foot-9 Isaiah Thomas raced into the pile and, despite being the shortest player by roughly 10 inches, came up with the ball. Thomas swung his arms wildly in trying to prevent it from being stripped away before he was fouled.

Thomas flexed a bit as the Celtics’ bench applauded his effort. The sequence was Game 5 of this series in a nutshell: an ugly tug-of-war in which Thomas and the Celtics seemed to want it more in the fourth quarter.

The rebound was one of the five that Thomas came up with on this night, and he did everything he could to help his team despite an uncharacteristically poor shooting performance. The Celtics pulled away late in the fourth quarter for a 108-97 triumph at TD Garden.

The Celtics lead the best-of-seven series 3-2. Game 6 is Friday night in Chicago.

“One thing about playoff basketball, when [your] shot’s not falling, you gotta figure out a way to win,” Thomas said. “Tonight we did that.”

Thomas struggled to get himself going in Game 5. He missed his first five shots and didn’t register his first field goal until there were 42.6 seconds remaining in the first half.

At halftime, Thomas changed both his headband and his shoes. That he changed his shoes was not particularly unusual. Last season, after a big road win over the Golden State Warriors, Thomas noted in his postgame interview that “them other shoes didn’t have any buckets in them.”

Thomas’ new kicks had enough buckets in key moments of the fourth quarter to help the Celtics separate from the Bulls. He finished with 24 points on 6-of-17 shooting with those five rebounds, four assists and a steal over 36 minutes.

And he was not called for any discontinued dribbles, much to the chagrin of Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg, who stomped off from his postgame news conference when asked if Thomas had committed any of the infractions that Hoiberg decried after Boston’s Game 4 win in Chicago.

Unlike in Game 4, when Thomas carried Boston in the second half, the Celtics got balanced contributions. Avery Bradley scored 17 of his career postseason high 24 points in the first half, all while chasing Butler for much of the night. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Butler finished with just two points on 1-of-5 shooting with one turnover when defended by Bradley (Bradley, meanwhile, scored 11 points on 5-of-10 shooting with Butler defending).

Butler even admitted after Game 5 that Bradley had won the head-to-head battle.

“I’m trying to make it hard on him,” Bradley said. “Like I said, Butler’s a very good player. And my job for our team is to go out there and defend, try not to foul and make the player work for every shot, make him work on both ends of the floor. And that’s what I tried to do tonight.”

Horford quietly did all his usual Horford things. He finished with 21 points on 7-of-11 shooting, nine assists and seven rebounds. He came up with a series of big buckets in the fourth quarter while rolling hard at the rim.

“That’s what we need him to do. He’s a hell of a player,” Thomas said. “Even the stat sheet doesn’t explain how good of a player he is sometimes. When he’s not scoring or rebounding, he’s doing a lot of things to help out everybody else on this team, whether that be help-side defense, whether that be making the right play on offense. He’s a complete basketball player. And when he plays like he did tonight, especially in the second half, nine times out of 10, we usually win those games.”

Once down 0-2 in this series, the Celtics head to Chicago with a chance to close out the Bulls. The momentum of the series began shifting when Rajon Rondo was ruled out before Game 3, and Boston has played far more inspired ball since Thomas returned home to be with his family in Tacoma, Washington, following the death of his younger sister.

The Celtics always believed they could rally from their early series deficit.

“I mean, it’s kinda been the story of our team, being able to fight through adversity. No matter what we go through, we would overcome it,” Bradley said. “And I think it’s a group of guys, our coaching staff, we believe. We believe in one another.

“I said it earlier: We went to Chicago knowing that we were going to win those games, not hoping. We knew that we were going to take two games, then come here and take care of home. Now it’s our job to continue to play the same way and finish the series in Chicago.”

Erik Karlsson reveals that he’s been receiving shots for heel fractures

BOSTON — Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson told ESPN.com that he played the first-round series against the Boston Bruins with two hairline fractures in his left heel.

Karlsson suffered the injury when he blocked a shot during a game against the Philadelphia Flyers on March 28; he missed three of the last five games of the regular season.

He aggravated the injury when he played back-to-back games against the Detroit Red Wings on April 3 and 4. He has been receiving injections in his heel.

“I’ve been playing on shots here,” said Karlsson, who admitted he was having trouble moving to his left. “It’s frustrating because you’ve worked so hard all year, but it’s better now and by Thursday it should be pretty much back to normal,” he said.

Karlsson led the Senators to a first-round victory while averaging 30 minutes per game in the playoffs, including 41:51 of ice time in a double-overtime loss to the Bruins in Game 5.

The Senators play Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the New York Rangers on Thursday night in Ottawa.

“He’s a machine,” said Senators coach Guy Boucher. Karlsson wanted to play the final few games of the season for a chance to catch San Jose Sharks defenseman Brent Burns, who led all defensemen with 76 points in 82 games. Karlsson finished with 71 points in 77 games, but felt it was best to rest his heel before the postseason began.

Karlsson is a Norris Trophy finalist, joining Burns and Tampa Bay Lightning’s Victor Hedman.

Leon Draisaitl fined, not suspended for spearing Chris Tierney

Edmonton Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl will not be suspended for spearing San Jose’s Chris Tierney, the NHL’s Department of Player Safety announced Wednesday.

Draisaitl instead was fined $2,569.44, the maximum allowed under the collective bargaining agreement. The money goes to the players’ emergency assistance fund.

Draisaitl received a major penalty and game misconduct when he hit Tierney in the groin with his stick in the second period of Edmonton’s 7-0 loss Tuesday night. He had a hearing Wednesday.

The playoff series is tied at two games apiece, with Game 5 on Thursday in Edmonton.

Draisaitl was eighth in the league in scoring with 77 points in the regular season but has none in the playoffs. He was moved from the top-line wing to a third-line center role in Game 3.

Draisaitl had just 20 penalty minutes in the regular season.

Dwyane Wade compares game of Jimmy Butler to LeBron James’

BOSTON — Chicago Bulls guard Dwyane Wade played with LeBron James long enough to know how overwhelming James can be on both ends of the floor. After watching Bulls All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler’s monster performance against the Celtics on Sunday, he was ready to compare his current teammate to his old running mate on the Miami Heat.

Butler scored 30 points, grabbed nine rebounds, and also spent time guarding Celtics All-Star Isaiah Thomas in a Game 1 win.

“I had the luxury of playing with a guy named LeBron,” Wade said before Monday’s practice. “And we did the same thing when we played — to Derrick Rose. You have a point guard who guards him but when you need a guy who’s longer, who’s just as fast, and all those things, it helps. It gives them a different look, it kind of throws off things. You’re not going to slow down Isaiah Thomas from getting the looks and getting opportunities. The guy can score as good as anybody in this game. But just to give them a different look, if you get their offense out a little further, if it takes a little bit more time off the clock, all those things help. It’s good to be able to have a guy like that to say, ‘Get us 30, and then go guard the guy that’s got 30.’”

Thomas finished the game with 33 points, but Butler was able to help keep him in check down the stretch, while also carrying the Bulls at times offensively. Wade knows that there are only a handful of players in the NBA who have that kind of ability.

“As I sit here, obviously Jimmy, Paul [George], Kawhi [Leonard], Draymond [Green], Bron,” Wade said. “I’m sure I’m leaving somebody out. Avery Bradley’s a great defender. He’s not as tall as those guys, but he’s a great defender. Patrick Beverley’s a great defender. Obviously he’s not guarding 4-men … there’s some guys that really get after it. We have the luxury of having one.”

For his part, Butler tried to take the attention in stride. His goal against Thomas is to set the tone early in the matchup, while keeping a body on the diminutive guard.

“Be physical,” Butler said. “If I foul, I foul. Don’t foul too many times. Challenge every shot. Contest everything at the rim. We all know what he does for that team and what he’s done this year putting the ball in the basket. I think I can guard anybody. Especially if that’s what my team needs me to do. However long it is, however many minutes, I’m out there to do that. This is what playoff basketball is about and you got to be ready.”

Wade, who scored 11 points in Game 1, has been open about the fact he has to take a backseat to Butler’s game. He’s just hoping to help Butler out when he needs a boost from his teammates.

“When I came here, in my [introductory] press conference, I said it was Jimmy Butler’s team,” Wade said. “And we’ll ride Jimmy until we can’t ride him no more. And then when they’re ready to ride me, I’m ready. At this point in the year it’s all about doing whatever it takes to win, and each game is different. You don’t know what kind of defensive coverage they’re going to throw at him [Tuesday]. So we all got to be prepared but, whatever it takes.”

Stein’s Most Improved Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Narrowing down to one name for Most Valuable Player is widely billed as the primary source of agony ‎for NBA year-end awards voters this spring.

Not so at Stein Line HQ.

For all of our collective MVP angst this season, I found myself wrestling with the Most Improved Player ballot just as strenuously. Trying to choose between Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic is a struggle akin to spelling or pronouncing Antetokounmpo, which remains problematic for just about everyone in the league, even in our fourth year of trying.

The Greek Freak ultimately snagged our vote. We simply couldn’t resist rewarding him for hiking his player efficiency rating from 19.0 to a ridiculous 26.2; for emerging as the first player in league history to rank in the top 20 in total points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks; and for literally getting better at everything.

No matter which category you laser in on, Giannis did it better than he did last season, powering the Bucks to his first winning season in the NBA despite the fact that Antetokounmpo and his top two sidekicks — Jabari Parker and Khris Middleton — played in exactly one game together. (Less than one game, actually, as Parker got injured during Middleton’s comeback game.)

The transformation from League Pass curiosity with tons of obvious promise to All-Star starter is also one of the most impressive leaps we can remember.

However …

Jokic made this increasingly tricky as the season wore on, sneaking up on his own team like pretty much no one we can remember. Entering December, Jokic sported a solid but modest PER of 16.3, ranking him 88th among players averaging at least 10 minutes per game at the time. Since then? Jokic has a PER of 28.8 from December on, ranking second in the whole league behind only top MVP contender Russell Westbrook (31.1).

You can thus make the argument that Jokic, as this season unfolded, morphed from a mere top-100 player into a legitimate franchise player. Which naturally makes you wonder — on top of Denver’s issues in one-possession games and on the defense that we detailed in the season’s final Power Rankings, as well as the ill-fated Jusuf Nurkic trade — how differently the Nuggets might have turned out had Jokic been made a full-time starter sooner.

Just settling on a third name for this ballot is a problem, thanks to the rise of Harrison Barnes in Dallas, Atlanta’s blossoming backcourt duo of Dennis Schroeder and Tim Hardaway Jr. and one of our favorite stories in the league: Miami’s James Johnson. (It’s reached the point that the mere mention of Johnson’s name, as a worthy candidate in both the Sixth Man Award and MIP races, has us wanting to call the Heat to see whether we can talk them into launching a program for making over sports writers’ bodies.)

This was also an unusual season in that several established players, who normally wouldn’t be candidates in this category, forced us to rethink those norms because they made such impressive jumps. (Just to name five: Isaiah Thomas, Gordon Hayward, Kemba Walker, Bradley Beal and our 2016 MIP selection CJ McCollum.)

Yet we ultimately couldn’t resist Rudy Gobert in our No. 3 slot. Not after the considerable improvement Gobert made on offense (averaging career-bests in points, rebounds and field goal percentage) while also leading the league in blocked shots. He has established himself as one of the league’s consensus top-three defenders alongside Draymond Green and Kawhi Leonard.

Jokic or even Gobert, frankly, would be a worthy MIP winner. But Giannis, in the end, has to trump them all. With as much room for growth as he still has, should he find a way to sharpen that outside shooting, Antetokounmpo exceeded even the most favorable projections for his development in Year 4. He probably should be a bigger factor in this season’s MVP discussion and presumably will be next season and beyond.

As we said after the First Trimester: Make it easy on yourself for the rest of the season while you can and just tell yourself that Antetokounmpo is pronounced M-I-P.

Official ballot: 1. Antetokounmpo; 2. Jokic; 3. Gobert.

October prediction: Aaron Gordon.

Raptors handle Knicks to clinch top-3 seed in East

NEW YORK — The Toronto Raptors know they are headed for another wake-up call, no matter how much they would like to sleep in.

They’ve had the noon start on the opening day of the NBA playoffs the last few years and expect it again. So while playing some no-name Knicks on Sunday might not get them ready for the caliber of competition, at least it provided a glimpse of the timing.

DeMar DeRozan scored 35 points and the Raptors overcame a slow start to wrap up at least the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference with a 110-97 victory over New York.

“We’ve got to get our bodies and minds ready and I told the guys remember how this felt, (who) had a tough time getting going because that’s probably going to be the game we have,” coach Dwane Casey said.

The Raptors pulled away in the fourth quarter to reach 50 victories for the second straight season. They can still finish second if they beat Cleveland in their regular-season finale and Boston loses its final two.

Kyle Lowry had 17 points and 11 assists for the Raptors, who swept the Knicks for the first time since 2009-10 in a strong follow-up to their franchise-record 56-win finish last season.

“A lot of teams don’t get the opportunity just to win 50 games,” DeRozan said. “For us to do it back-to-back years just shows the process and the progress that we made over the years.”

Rookie Willy Hernangomez tied his career high with 24 points and grabbed 11 rebounds for the Knicks, who despite playing without most of their top players trailed only 76-75 after three. But Toronto broke it open behind the 3-point line and won its third straight.

“I think they picked it up defensively and they put more pressure on us. They are a great team, a playoff team and that’s how we learned today,” Hernangomez said. “When the other team puts more pressure we have to learn how we have to improve our defense and offense at that point of the game.”

The three victories have come since Lowry returned after right wrist surgery sidelined him for 18 games. He played 38 minutes, and then begged the NBA not to give the Raptors the sleepy-start schedule again next Saturday.

“It’s a difference for us, but at the end of the day we’re still professionals, we’ve got to out there and do our job,” he said. “Tonight it seemed like it took a little longer to get going but we got going, we got a win and whatever comes at that time we’ll be ready to play.”

Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis sat out again for the Knicks, who had already lost Derrick Rose to knee surgery and Joakim Noah to an NBA suspension.

TIP-INS

Raptors: Toronto finished 14-2 against the Atlantic Division for the second straight season. The Raptors are 61-14 against their divisional foes over the last four seasons.

Knicks: Coach Jeff Hornacek seemed to think Porzingis (sore lower back) would play Wednesday in the season finale and wasn’t sure about Anthony (sore left knee). … Courtney Lee, the only player from the Knicks’ expected starting five still playing, scored 14 points.

DEMAR 2K

DeRozan shot 11 for 15 from the field and became the second player in franchise history with a 2,000-point season. He now has 2,020 points.

Vince Carter scored 2,107 in 1999-00 and 2,070 in 2000-01.

GOOD GUARDS

Markelle Fultz from the University of Washington, expected to be one of the top picks in the draft, was at the game. So was Stephon Marbury, the New York native who played for the Knicks during a turbulent stretch from 2003-08 and has gone on to a successful career in China.

UP NEXT

Raptors: Visit Cleveland on Wednesday. The Cavaliers have won all three meetings after beating the Raptors in six games in last year’s conference finals.

Knicks: Host Philadelphia on Wednesday in their season finale.

Check out the team sites for the Toronto Raptors and the New York Knicks for more game coverage.

Alex Ovechkin says he’s going to Olympics, despite what NHL says

“Yeah, I hope so,” he said. “Again, right now, it’s still time to make a decision; you can say whatever, but next year’s schedule is not out yet. So if the schedule is not going to the Olympic Games, then you can see they don’t bluff. But again, still long time, still everything can change. But in my mind, like I said already, I’m going. It doesn’t matter what.”

Russian and Capitals teammate Evgeni Kuznetsov echoed Ovechkin, saying he, too, plans to go either way, though he said his thoughts at the moment were elsewhere: on Monday’s bomb attacks in St. Petersburg, Russia.

“I didn’t really pay attention yesterday about that [Olympic announcement] because there were some tough things in St. Petersburg,” Kuznetsov said. “But it is what it is. I still hope [the NHL] will let us play. But nothing is going to change from my point of view.”

Which is to say, he still intends to go.

“Of course, if Russia needs us, of course,” Kuznetsov said. “It’s from the heart for Russian people. We’ll see though. Maybe they’ll let us go.”

New Capitals defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who played for the U.S. in 2014, also isn’t happy with the NHL’s decision.

“It really seemed like kind of a knee-jerk decision by the NHL to just kibosh it,” he said. “I know we really want to go, and I think we deserve to go and the world deserves to see hockey at that level. It’s the highest level of hockey that I’ve ever played at. And it’s great for our game. If we can get over there and the next two Olympics are in that part of the world and grow our game even more, I don’t see why we wouldn’t do it.

“Now it just seems like they want to use it as a bargaining chip. That’s wrong. That’s not what the Olympics is for. The reason we started going was so we could grow the game and show the world how great it is when you get the best players in the world playing against each other. That’s what we’re trying to achieve with the World Cup, but that’s going to take time and this is right in the prime of it. The last Olympics was fantastic, and to just dismiss it, really, without much conversation, is tough.”

Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid, the leading scored in the NHL, said Tuesday: “It’s disappointing. I think that’s easy to say. Just the opportunity to chase down a spot on Team Canada and be able to represent my country.

“Obviously, the Olympics is the greatest sporting event in the world. Not to be able to do that is disappointing but there’s a lot of people higher up making those decisions.”

The NHL has not said if it has a game plan on how to handle players who try to leave teams on their own to play in the Olympics, but is expected to announce a league-wide rule in the coming months. In the interim, commissioner Gary Bettman has instructed teams not to comment on the subject.

Mike Babcock, two-time Olympic champion coach for Team Canada, made it clear two weeks ago that he felt the NHL should stay in the Games and reiterated that sentiment Tuesday after the morning skate in Toronto.

“You’ve asked me this a million times, and you know the answers to all this. I made it clear a couple of weeks ago what I thought,” the Maple Leafs coach said. “I told you already that I’m disappointed. I’ve been twice. Greatest event you’ll ever go to in your life.”

Capitals goalie Braden Holtby, a shoo-in for Team Canada if the NHL was going, respects what Ovechkin said but doesn’t believe he would be willing to go to South Korea if there were no official deal.

“I have no idea if guys will or not — that’s a personal decision — [but] I wouldn’t be able to go away from my team here,” Holtby said. “I couldn’t do it. That’s just personal. But everyone’s priorities are kind of different. He plays a big role on Team Russia. But as me, I’ve always liked the group that I’ve been with through the year. That’s my No. 1 focus.”

Shattenkirk didn’t commit to either staying or going, but he doesn’t have a problem with a teammate playing.

“I’d tip my caps to those guys for doing it, and I think that’s something that I’m sure will cause trouble with your team, but if that’s your sentiment and that’s how you feel, then absolutely, you should honor that and be proud that you did it,” he said. “I definitely wouldn’t hold anything against you.”

American superstar Auston Matthews of the Maple Leafs declined to get into the Olympic debate, saying Tuesday morning that his only focus was on that night’s game versus Washington. Caps winger T.J. Oshie, a star at the Winter Games in 2014 for his shootout heroics against Russia, remains hopeful that a deal can be struck.

“You know what? For me, right now, because it’s so fresh, even though we knew this can be a reality, I just for some reason feel we’re going to find a way to resolve it,” Oshie said. “I just can’t imagine us not going. When it comes down to it, I’ll make a decision about that, but as of right now, I’m staying positive, hoping we can figure something out.”

Swedish star Nicklas Backstrom said he was disappointed but was noncommittal when asked whether he’d be willing to go no matter what.

“I don’t know. We’ll see what happens,” the Caps center said.