Nets Steal Draft Spotlight

A Draft that was supposed to be about the stars of tomorrow became about the stars of today. In a stunning blockbuster move, the Nets stole the spotlight by acquiring Kevin GarnettPaul Pierce and Jason Terry from the Celtics for three first round picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018. Rebuilding Boston also get Gerald WallaceKris HumphriesKeith BogansReggie Evans and Kris Joseph.

It’s the kind of trade that is hard to comprehend. Especially when it comes within the Atlantic between supposed rivals. While the Nets don’t have the appeal of the Knicks, they compete against the Celtics in the division. I’m not a proponent of trading future Hall Of Famers so close. Brooklyn gets proven All-Stars in KG and Pierce, who can bring a winning attitude and tons of experience to a Nets roster that underachieved. Their first round loss to an injury riddled Bulls was humiliating. Now they add championship caliber players who know what it takes. Terry also was a key part of the Mavericks’ NBA title. Even at their advanced age, those pieces alongside Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez should allow the Nets to compete with the Heat, Pacers and Knicks. The latter being their crosstown rival, which will make for compelling games at Barclays Center and Madison Square Garden.

On paper, it looks good. The Nets won’t have to rely on one or two guys. As long as everyone can push their ego aside under first-year coach Jason Kidd, it makes them better than the Knicks, who are too reliant on Carmelo Anthony. The Nets also still have MarShan Brooks and Tyshawn TaylorC.J. Watson also has another year left on his deal and can be an outside threat. Andray Blatche is interested in re-signing for less, which probably increased following the big trade. Vets could also be interested in coming to Brooklyn for a bargain.

If there is a question, it’s whether there will be enough basketballs for Williams, Lopez, Pierce, Johnson and Garnett. They all need the rock. It has the potential to blow up. Especially with Kidd going straight from the court to the sidelines. One edge is he knows everyone well and should be able to communicate his message. For guys on the way out like KG and Pierce, it’s one last chance at glory. It’s going to be weird seeing these guys donning Nets jerseys. It’s almost sacrilege.

Blame Boston. They preferred to move them in the same conference rather than get it done with the Clippers where former coach Doc Rivers takes over for Vinny Del Negro. They did recoup a 2015 first round pick for him. Understandably, the Celts felt it was time to move on after one championship and consecutive Finals appearances. They were that close to beating LeBron James and the Heat last year. It was obvious that was their last hurrah. The injury to Rajon Rondo made them easy pickings for the Knicks. Rondo will be back and finally be looked upon as the Celtics leader. How will a guy with questionable character respond? Will he play like the best overall point guard in the league or pout? He’ll still have good pieces to set up in Jeff Green and Wallace. Green’s emergence bares watching. With the game’s best set up man, he could evolve into an All-Star. Wallace is a solid teammate who can help lead a rebuilding club that features Avery Bradley, Jared Sullinger and first round pick Kelly Olynyk, who they traded up to get from Dallas.

The Celtics seem to be going about it the right way. All the No.1′s Danny Ainge acquired sets them up well for the future. Though it doesn’t look like they’ll be in the mix for potential franchise player Andrew Wiggins, who’ll play for Kansas this Fall. If he is one and done as many experts believe, Wiggins is projected to be the top overall pick next year. A dramatic change from the Cavs surprising by selecting Anthony Bennett over Nerlens Noel, who fell to the Pelicans at six before being dealt to the 76ers for Jrue Holliday and a second round pick. Bennett became the first Canadian to be drafted No.1 overall. Wiggins is also from Canada. So, it could be two straight years they go first.

One thing is sure. The NBA season can’t come soon enough. It should be a wild ride.

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CP3 Wins It For Clippers

Chris Paul Beats Memphis

 

There aren’t many better players than Chris Paul. Especially in crunch time. CP3 has the uncanny ability to make difficult shots when his team needs it most. Chalk up the Clippers 93-91 Game Two win over the Grizzlies to Paul’s game clincher with 0.1 seconds left. His clutch shot gave the Clippers a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven first round rematch.

It’s by far the best series of an otherwise dull first round. Though the Knicks look to make it two straight against the Celtics later tonight at MSG. Meanwhile, the Bulls bounced back with a 90-82 win over the Nets at Barclay Center gaining a split in Brooklyn. Joakim Noah’s gritty 11 point, 10 rebound, three assist effort typified the Game Two win for Chicago after the Nets blew the doors off them Saturday. Deron Williams was held to eight after getting 22 in Brooklyn’s 106-89 Game One victory. He still dropped 10 dimes but wasn’t as effective.

Joe Johnson netted 17 including a pair of treys that helped the Nets cut a 14-point deficit to 80-76. But the Bulls clamped down. Brook Lopez paced Brooklyn with 21. Chicago placed five different scorers in double digits including Luol Deng, who led them with 15 and 10 rebounds. Kirk Hinrich had 13 and five assists while playing strong D on Williams. Carlos Boozer posted a double/double (13 & 12) and Nate Robinson added 11 off the bench. Gerald Wallace was limited to two after scoring 14 for the Nets in the first game.

Tuesday’s playoff slate features three games. Defending champ Miami hosts Milwaukee. They had no trouble winning Game One and should sweep. It’s on NBA TV at 7:30 PM. The Knicks will continue to ride Carmelo Anthony when they host Boston at 8 PM. The NBA’s leading scorer posted 36 and four steals in New York’s come from behind 85-78 win. They actually trailed by eight before storming back. The Knicks outscored the Celtics 18-8 in the fourth quarter, holding them to 25 points in the second half.

Ray Felton had 13 and six assists. Of the Knicks five starters, only three scored with Iman Shumpert adding three. Tyson Chandler was shutout in his return and Chris Copeland took the collar. The play of their bench was a big difference with them outscoring Boston 33-4. Sixth Man Of The Year J.R. Smith had 15 on 7-of-19 shooting. Not exactly his best. He clanged six of seven three’s. He must be better the rest of the series. Jason Kidd was impressive netting eight, five boards, three assists and three steals in 35 minutes. Remarkable. Speaking of which, Kidd’s former Nets teammate Kenyon Martin chipped in with 10 points, nine rebounds (five offensive) and two blocks. The vet still provides energy and has been a great addition with recently retired Rasheed Wallace unable to return.

For the Celtics, Jeff Green scored 20 of his 26 in the first half. He’s become their go to guy when old reliable Paul Pierce is off. Pierce had 21 with five boards and seven assists but was off from downtown missing six of seven. Kevin Garnett was held to eight. The ultimate warrior should respond tonight. Avery Bradley was the other Celtic in double figures with 15. If Jason Terry doesn’t shoot it from the outside, Doc Rivers has little reinforcements. That’s the Knicks’ biggest edge along with the best player in the series Anthony. Unless Boston can steal one, it could be a short series. My original pick was Knicks in six out of respect for the Celts.

The late game is Denver against Golden State. The Nuggets took Game One 97-95 thanks to another ageless vet. Andre Miller scored the winning lay-in with a tick left. He turned back the clock for 28. The Warriors got terrible news losing David Lee to a strained right hip flexor. He’s done. A shame because Mr. Double Double finally made his playoff debut after eight years. In his first game, he had 10 and 14. But now, won’t see another game until next season. Best wishes to him.

Look for more NBA Playoff coverage this week.

 

 

 

 

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Nets fire Avery Johnson

In a predictable move, the Brooklyn Nets fired Avery Johnson on Thursday.

In a predictable move, the Brooklyn Nets fired Avery Johnson on Thursday.

The proverbial writing was on the wall. Given the Nets’ December malaise, anyone with a pulse could see that Avery Johnson’s days were numbered. Once the whispers start, you’re usually done. The sad aspect is the likeable coach had Brooklyn off to a good start, guiding an upgraded roster to an 11-4 November that earned him Coach Of The Month.

It all fell apart this month in stunning fashion. Whether it’s due to Brook Lopez missing time due to an injury or Deron Williams’ deterioration, it wasn’t what Billy King had in mind. Moving the franchise to Brooklyn put heavier scrutiny on the team’s performance. Anytime you’re competing against the Knicks under the spotlight, there’s more pressure to have success. The Knicks’ great start probably was a factor. The Nets are expected to compete with them for the Atlantic Division. But a putrid couple of weeks where the team’s lost ground doomed Johnson, who was in the final year of his contract. He’d coached them for two and a half years and was hoping to earn an extension. Instead, the Nets gave him his walking papers.

Fair or unfair, it’s the nature of the business. When the Nets re-signed Williams, traded for Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace re-upped, they expected to compete in the East. Not just to get back to the playoffs but to make a run. What we’ve learned is that when Lopez is healthy, they’re a much better unit. But we’ve also witnessed an unmotivated Williams, who is shooting under 40 percent and unable to take over games. Remember when the former Illinois point guard turned Utah into a contender? Oh wait. He also derailed Hall Of Fame coach Jerry Sloan and then the franchise got rid of the All-Star two and a half weeks later. Maybe they were onto something. Williams clearly isn’t the same player. Whether it’s injuries that are affecting his shooting or a sudden demise, he went for one of the game’s elite guards to a quality pass first PG who isn’t consistent scoring wise.

When he criticized the Nets offense, it was a dig at Johnson, who demanded a taxing defensive style. It was only a few weeks ago that the Nets were locking down on D and winning ugly with the play of a deep bench contributing to their strong start. That changed with the same personnel unable to shut anyone down or protect leads. During the third meeting against the Knicks, New York had a field day in the paint- setting up Tyson Chandler for five dunks. These were off simple pick-n-rolls where nobody rotated, allowing Chandler to slam home alley oops with one featuring a reverse jam. If you were rooting for the Nets, it must’ve been humiliating.

Aside from that, the play of Johnson has been up and down. His scoring has finally picked up but there have been too many big spots where the former Hawk disappeared. The growing question is can a backcourt of Williams and Johnson co-exist. One likes to drive the lane and dish in a pick-n-pop offense while the other is more of a one-on-one specialist who can make difficult shots. Johnson isn’t that different from J.R. Smith. However, he is paid max money. Smith is a bargain who’s a frontrunner for NBA’s top Sixth Man. He also has been more consistent, speaking volumes about the difference between the two franchises.

Is this all on Avery Johnson? No. Sooner or later, you have to put the blame on the stars not getting it done. Unfortunately, they turned out their coach and he paid for it following their latest loss to the Celtics on Christmas Day. That was the breaking point. To his credit, Johnson spoke to the media and thanked everyone in the organization including the same players who stopped playing with the same intensity. I’m mostly looking at Williams, who got his wish. Coach killer.

For now, long-time assistant P.J. Carlesimo takes over as interim coach. The former Seton Hall man who once led the Pirates to the NCAA Championship Game in ’89, gets a chance to clean up this mess. Will that include increasing minutes for second-year guard MarShon Brooks? The former Providence star didn’t have much of a role under Johnson after a decent rookie season. He got lost in the shuffle behind Andray Blatche, C.J. Watson, Reggie Evans, Keith Bogans and Jerry Stackhouse. Only former St. Anthony’s star Tyshawn Taylor rides the pine more. The bench hasn’t been an issue with Blatche, Watson and Evans all solid contributors. You could argue that they’ve given more than Williams despite his stats (16.6 PPG, 8.0 APG).

The truth is ugly. He’s stunk. Either he puts it together and saves the sinking ship or the Nets are stuck with his fat contract. Not exactly the rosy picture the Nets had in mind.

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NBA Conference Semi Picks

The first round of the NBA playoffs finally was completed last night with the eighth seeded Grizzlies finishing off the top seeded Spurs for a stunning upset- becoming the second team to accomplish this feat since the opening round went to best-of-seven. A few years back, an athletic Golden State was too much for the Mavericks before fizzling out in the second round. Will the same fate happen to Zach Randolph, Mike Conley and Marc Gasol?

We’re here to tell you how they’ll fare against Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook’s Thunder while also going out on a limb with the Lakers and Mavs finally meeting up. Two fascinating match ups that should keep hoopsters locked in while the East gives us the much anticipated Heat/Celtics while the upset minded Hawks try to compete with certain League MVP Derrick Rose’s Bulls.

So, how will it all break down? Let’s take a look at who we see advancing to the NBA version of the Final Four!

EASTERN SEMIS

Bulls over Hawks in 5

Celts over Heat in 6

Why: For obvious reasons with Chicago just having too much for Atlanta to deal with. Nobody can guard Rose one-on-one. He’ll have his way. Joakim Noah should pose a problem inside for Al Horford and even Carlos Boozer should show up. Kyle Korver is money from downtown and Luol Deng and Taj Gibson provide strong support. Joe Johnson will need a repeat performance and Mr. Clutch, Jamal Crawford the same for the Hawks to stand any chance. Unless Josh Smith snaps out of it, this will be a short series. …

The Celtics and Heat are more evenly matched. Experience versus youth. Half court against transition. Old guard takes on new guard, looking to back up all the hoopla surrounding the Big Three of LeBron, D-Wade and Chris Bosh. How can Boston slow them down? Well, they get back on D and won’t allow many dunks or fastbreaks. There’s also unique point guard Rajon Rondo, who destroyed the Knicks at MSG with a triple double and another big game in closing them out before an angry Jim Dolan. If he didn’t own our franchise, I’d be a lot more ticked. If the games are close, you have to like the Celts’ chances with reliable Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett all proven closers. Miami’s had trouble all year finishing games with the ball too much in either LeBron or Wade’s hands. At least they got it together to finish off their “breakfast.” :-\ A silly James reference to the 76ers, who pushed them despite losing in five. The fact the Celts found ways to beat us in the first two and then got down to business bodes well because it allowed their older legs to rest. The Heat will need help from Mario Chalmers, Mike Bibby and Joel Anthony, who is a key inside presence off the bench. The Celts counter with Glen Davis, Jeff Green, Jermain O’Neal and Delonte West, which should give them an edge. Shaq is back but how much will he play if the other O’Neal continues to turn back the clock? Don’t forget too that Doc Rivers is a better coach than Erik Spoelstra, which could be a factor. That’s why we’ll go with the New England Clam Chowdah over Miami Beach.

WESTERN SEMIS

Mavs over Lakers in 6

Thunder over Grizzlies in 7

Why: I know what you’ll say. Are you crazy going against Phil Jackson, Kobe, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and a healthy Andrew Bynum? Perhaps. Doesn’t anyone find it a little strange that LA was pushed by the Chris Paul Hornets minus David West? Granted. A motivated CP3 is one of the game’s best and roasted Derek Fisher and whoever else Jackson tried with Kobe even getting the assignment. Jason Kidd provides a different challenge in that he’s much older but is superb overall. This is his last chance to win along with Dirk and it also happens to be the deepest team Dallas has ever had, featuring Jason Terry, Tyson Chandler, Shawn Marion, Peja Stojakovic, J.J. Barea, Deshawn Stevenson and Brandon Haywood. Rick Carlisle could also have versatile Caron Butler at his disposal, which should boost their chances. The Mavs are deep, lock down on D and don’t rely on just Dirk offensively. Terry can do damage and Barea’s a smart player who was key in closing out Portland. Stevenson is crazy enough to guard Kobe, who will get his numbers. It boils down to do the Mavs have enough to neutralize the Lakers’ size? If they rebound, there’s no reason they can’t pull it off. Dirk looks really determined. He knows he’s running out of chances. The time is now. …

What’s not to love about this other match up between two young athletic teams with one ensured of the Conference Finals. This is great for basketball. Fresh blood finally! So, why do we like Oklahoma City over Memphis? His name is Kevin Durant and he can ball. The kid from Texas is ultra smooth and cannot be guarded. The Grizz’ size should help but Durant can make shots from anywhere, using his wingspan. He’s not afraid to take the ball to the rim late as he did in carrying them in Game 5 over the Nuggets. Randolph had his way with the Spurs, abusing Antonio McDyess and even making Tim Duncan look old. A sad sight but that’s still the greatest power forward to ever play the game. Zebo is a tough cover because he’s silky smooth, beating you with his back to the basket or facing you. However, shot blocker Serge Ibaka provides the Thunder with the kind of athletic big that can make it tougher on the game’s most disrespected superstar. His nine blocks were one shy of the NBA playoff record shared by Akeem The Dream and Mark Eaton. James Harden can light it up from the outside. While Memphis will be doubling Durant, that will leave the dangerous Westbrook to go one-on-one with Conley. Though the Ohio State product’s made huge strides, that’s a tough assignment. Kendrick Perkins provides additional beef inside against Marc Gasol, who will need a big series for the Grizz to string the upset. Unlike his brother, Marc’s a conventional center who can finish inside and rebound. That match up should be fun to watch. Thabo Sefolosha provides gritty D and Eric Maynor important minutes when Westbrook needs a breather. It’s hard not to prefer the deeper Grizz with athletic Tony Allen, high riser Darrell Arthur, scorer O.J. Mayo and Shane Battier all key contributors. Sam Young can also shoot it from three. The strategy seems obvious. Try to wear down Durant/Westbrook. I just feel that if they can make life difficult on Zebo, Memphis will have a tough time prevailing. It’s Durant’s time and he’s ready for that next step.

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Random Thoughts: Knick big gamble

Will Donnie Walshs big gamble land LeBron or D-Wade this summer?

Will Donnie Walsh's big gamble land LeBron or D-Wade this summer?

So, the Knicks did what they had to do clearing enough space to ready for this summer and chase the dream LeBron and D-Wade. That’s all well and fine moving forward for a dysfunctional franchise that hasn’t been taken seriously for a decade. Maybe Donnie Walsh will luck out. He’s essentially throwing all his eggs in one basket, sacrificing future No.1 picks (’11, ’12) and draft flop Jordan Hill in a desperate attempt to lure King James to Broadway.

Will it work? You probably have a better shot at dating Ana Ivanovic. James, Wade and other prospective big names Chris Bosh, Joe Johnson and Amare Stoudemire have to decide what’s best for their careers. With a lot of uncertainty surrounding the Knick roster, can they win right away in the Big Apple? A pro outlook would be that young guns Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler are solid ballers who should only improve. Adding T-Mac who’s off to a decent start in his Orange and Blue debut donning Starbury’s No.3, is low risk. If he performs, maybe they convince him to stay thinking he can convince a couple of big names to team up. Whatever happens, McGrady’s contract comes off regardless.

Adding long distance threat Eddie House to the mix is wise as he’s proven it in the spotlight helping the Celtics to an NBA title. The 31 year-old 10-year vet will be a perfect fit for Mike D’Antoni’s system. Hey. They rid themselves of self-serving Nate Robinson, who despite talent needed a change of scenery. Perhaps going to Beantown under Doc Rivers with demanding stars KG and Paul Pierce will pay off as Boston takes another run at the brass ring. Good luck! An added bonus for Walsh is that he got a No.1 pick conditional second rounder back for a player who was a team headache and wasn’t returning. Big ups for the former Pacer executive.

What about “Mr. Double Double” David Lee?!?!?!?!?! No question the late No.1 pick under Lord Isiah has been a good pro earning his first All-Star appearance even if it was due to injury. It’s hard not to admire the 26 year-old former Gator who’s improved every year. The undersized starting center gets 20.1 pPG and 11.5 rebounds along with a career high 3.5 assists. All excellent numbers which make him a staple of D’Antoni’s offense. However, he can’t play a lick of D frequently getting beat up inside. Unfortunately, playing out of position against stiffer competition has its drawbacks. He’ll be a free agent again after the season looking for a nice raise. Last year, there wasn’t any market. So, he stayed put and has been a good soldier. As sufficient as he is offensively, it’s doubtful the Knicks re-sign him.

Let’s say they land LeBron or Wade. Would Lee take less to stay or does he move on? Buyers also might ask if he’s a product of the system. Valid question. Honestly, he would be better served on a team boasting a legit big which would alleviate pressure.

Based on what we’ve seen from McGrady, who’s got a team high 19 along with three dimes in the first half versus Kevin Durant and the Thunder, he’s shown flashes- finishing strong scoring the last five on a trey from the left key plus a bucket putting the Knicks on top 57-52 at the break. He’s 7-of-12 from the field with a trey and 4-of-4 from the line in 17-plus. A nice debut yet there’s still two more quarters to go. At the opening press conference, he did indicate he’d consider taking less if they could land a big fish. But let’s also remember this is a former top star playing for a contract, who’s back from microfracture surgery with his career at stake. In short, he has to do what’s best for T-Mac.

If there’s a negative, it’s that both Gallinari and Chandler hardly touched the ball, combining for only six points in the opening 24 minutes. Not what you want to see. Sergio Rodriguez and Chris Duhon both have goose eggs with just three assists. For as much attention as what the organization has done for the Class of 2010, the glaring weaknesses of no true PG or center are still apparent. Unless Spanish Chocolate or MIA Tony Douglas prove otherwise, that’s a huge hole.

Walsh also failed to move Al Harrington, who’s still in the rotation. Sure. The former St. Patrick’s star has been a solid Knick putting up respectable numbers. But he’s taking away minutes from a kid. Al’s not part of the future. So, it doesn’t make much sense.

Then again, it’s easy to forget that the franchise is still run by Jazzy Jim. One thing that’s lost is that Dolan wants the big names to make the team a hot ticket. He doesn’t necessarily care about winning championships. It still will be intriguing to see how the big summer plays out. For now, the offensive-minded Knicks play out the string with few part of the plan.

We’ll see if the big gamble pays off.

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Now that’s Hawktastic

In the old days, the NBA had a signature phrase, “Now that’s fantastic.” These days in Atlanta, it’s more like Hawktastic! 

Twenty years ago, the Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics hooked up in a great seven-game second round series. Best remembered for the classic Game Seven duel between superstars Dominique Wilkins and Larry Bird, the scoring war went to The Human Highlight Film but not the series as Boston advanced thanks to 20 fourth quarter points from Larry Legend. Wilkins, who scored a game high 47 (13 better than Bird) had 16 in a losing effort. The Celtics won 118-116.

In the rich history of the Boston Celtics, they’ve never lost a series deciding Game Seven. That and plenty more will all be on the line when the East’s top seed hosts the underdog Hawks tomorrow afternoon at TD Northbank Garden. It doesn’t quite have that same feel as the fabled Boston Garden where the green and white won so many NBA titles. Just maybe that will be enough incentive for upstart Atlanta, a team who won 37 games during the regular season. That’s 29 fewer than Kevin Garnett and the Celts won in posting the league’s best record to gain home court.

The deciding game became necessary when the Hawks held up their end of the bargain by winning on their home floor at a loud Phillips Arena of better than 20,000. Like Game Four, Boston built a double digit lead taking a 32-20 cushion after one quarter. But the Celts couldn’t handle prosperity allowing a resilient group of Hawks to outscore them 29-18 cutting the deficit to one by the half.

Everytime the Celtics tried to take control, Atlanta made a timely basket to stay right with them. Trailing by three after 36 minutes, the Hawks used better aggressive defense and heady play on the offensive end to stifle their opponent outscoring them 24-18 to pull out a hard fought 104-101 Game Six win.

When his team needed a big bucket in crunch time, Game Four hero Joe Johnson delivered once again. With the Celts within two and the shot clock winding down, he faked out defender James Posey and then stepped into a trey from the right arc nailing it for a 100-95 lead with over a minute left. It was the only three Atlanta made all night.

If Johnson was the star in outscoring Boston 20-17 by himself a few nights ago, then he got plenty of help from a well balanced attack which included 16 points, five rebounds and four assists from NBA Rookie of The Year runner-up Al Horford. On a night when Boston doubled to limit Johnson’s touches, other Hawks came through including veteran guard Mike Bibby, who made just enough free throws to hold off Boston’s last charge without Paul Pierce, who fouled out and drew a technical.

Bibby stepped up supporting Johnson’s 15, five assists and four rebounds with a similar 17, seven assists and six boards. After converting one-of-two to keep the Celts’ hopes alive of forcing overtime, the former Sacramento King and teammates played splendid D not allowing Rajon Rondo to find an open Posey or Ray Allen for a potential tying three. Instead, the pass oriented point guard went to the last option forcing a 25-footer which drew nothing but air as the Hawks and their pumped up fans celebrated by chanting, “Se—ven, Se—ven, Se—ven!!!!!”

All five Atlanta starters hit for double figures including Marvin Williams’ 18 which paced them despite missing most of the final quarter due to a twisted knee while guarding Pierce. Showing playoff mettle, he came back into the game to play defense with 20 seconds remaining. The plan worked as an Allen force from way downtown missed wide forcing the Celts to foul. He just didn’t have the touch from the outside clanging seven of eight three-point attempts despite 20 points.

When Williams wasn’t in, replacement Josh Childress was ripping it up to the tune of 15 points, six rebounds, three assists and a steal. The former 2004 first rounder out of Stanford has really played big in this series, playing awesome D along with timely hoops and unselfish dishes. His hustle has also kept several loose balls alive including three big offensive rebounds last night.

The Hawks also got a valiant effort from little used reserve center Zaza Pachulia. The big man who jawed with Garnett during Game Four played 28 big minutes scoring nine points on three of four from the field with three free throws, six boards including four offensive and two steals.

That kind of yeoman effort is the reason they’re headed back to Boston for a Game Seven rematch 20 years in the making. Well, maybe it’s not quite Nique and Bird with current Celtic coach Doc Rivers on the Hawk side. But it sure is great theater.

The pressure will be squarely on Boston. They swept all three regular season meetings and have won by an average of 22 points in Games 1, 2 and 5 on their home court.

They didn’t bring in the Big Ticket (22 pts, 7 rebs, 6 assists) and Allen to flop in the first round against a hungry athletic opponent who wants to victimize a heavy favorite much the way Baron Davis and the eighth seeded Golden State Warriors stunned Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks in this same round. So, the pressure will be immense when they tip off Game Seven at 1 ET tomorrow in Boston.

If the Celts win, they’ll play LeBron James and the Cavs, who for the third consecutive year eliminated the Wizards on their home floor . James posted a triple double with 27 points, 13 assists and 13 rebounds in a 105-88 Game Six win at Verizon Center. Deadline pickup Wally Szczerbiak connected on six treys netting 26 points and Daniel Gibson came off the bench for 22 including another four from beyond the arc.

Antawn Jamison paced the Wizards with a double/double (23 and 15) in a losing effort. Game Five hero Caron Butler was limited to 18 on 6 of 14 shooting with four turnovers.

The Utah Jazz also advanced to an enticing Conference Semifinal match-up against rumored regular season league MVP Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. Despite a heroic 40 points, 10 boards and five assists from Tracy McGrady, the Jazz used a more balanced attack with seven different players netting double digits including 10 apiece from reserve guards Kyle Korver and Matt Harpring.

McGrady, who is now 0-7 in playoff series did all he could for the shorthanded Rockets who lost starting guard Rafer Alston to an injury early on which didn’t help their cause. In the past, I’ve been critical of him but the guy did all he could to get his team back in the game. They trailed by 19 in the first half before a McGrady led run which included back-to-back three’s cut the lead to four at the half. The only other Rocket in double digits was rookie power forward Luis Scola, who finished with 15 and nine boards.

The Jazz responded with a strong third quarter outscoring the Rockets 27-11. Point guard Deron Williams had 13 by himself including two straight trifectas which put Utah back in command up 18. The former Illinois standout finished with 25, nine assists and six rebounds. Mehmet Okur added a double/double (19 and 13) and Carlos Boozer chipped in with 15, 10 and 5. 

Utah cruised to a 113-91 Game Six win to setup Sunday’s Game One at Los Angeles. Figure that to be a great series.

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Celtics hold serve to go up 3-2

In the movie classic Wizard Of Oz, Dorothy’s character claims, “There’s no place like home.”

Thus far, that’s held true for the first five games between the East’s top seeded Celtics and eighth seeded Hawks in the First Round. Coming off consecutive losses in Atlanta, Boston rebounded with a 110-85 Game Five victory to go up 3-2 in the best-of-seven series.

The result wasn’t surprising since the Celts fed off the energy like they did in Games One and Two. Factor in that Atlanta was 0 for their last 11 in road playoff games. So, it was predictable especially with a young team.

Though Boston led throughout building a double digit lead, the pesky Hawks chipped away at it cutting the deficit to 11 with under a minute left in the third quarter. That’s when the two biggest plays were made from Paul Pierce and James Posey to rebuild an 81-64 lead by the quarter’s conclusion.

First, Pierce drove the lane and converted a very difficult acrobatic lay-up getting fouled for a three-point play. Following an Atlanta misfire, heady Boston point guard Rajon Rondo got the ball quickly up court and found a wide open Posey for a bread and butter trey with a second to spare. 

Just like that, instead of the Hawks possibly being down by nine, instead they trailed by 17. While not insurmountable, it was just too much to ask for a vastly inexperienced Atlanta club to comeback from.

Led by Pierce’s series best 22 (10-of-17 FG) along with seven rebounds and six assists, the Celtics cruised to the 25-point win at TD Banknorth Garden. Kevin Garnett scored 20, posted five boards and seven assists. Rondo also dropped seven times as Doc Rivers’ club spread the wealth with 12 more assists than their opponent (Celts-28, Hawks-16).

Boston also got a splendid shooting night from Ray Allen, who connected on five-of-eight three’s en route to 19 points. Even savvy vet Sam Cassell got into the act nailing two triples on his way to a valuable 13 off the bench in just 15 minutes.

The Celts held the three-point edge sinking 9-of-20 to the Hawks’ 4-of-13.

In a losing effort, Game Four hero Joe Johnson paced his team with 21 finishing 6-of-11 from the field including two from downtown plus a perfect seven-for-seven at the charity stripe. Rookie center Al Horford had his best effort of the series notching a double/double (14 and 10) to go with five assists. Josh Smith added 18 with five boards, three assists and three steals.

So, can the Hawks do what team legend and exec Dominique Wilkins flashed showing seven fingers to a TNT camera? They’ll need a better effort from veteran guard Mike Bibby. Six points and just one assist while turning it over three times in almost 40 minutes just won’t cut it. Conversely, he had 18 in their Game Four win at Phillips Arena. That’s what they’ll need.

It will take a lot of effort on both sides of the court to extend the battle tested Celtics the distance. By now, they want to get this series over with and not chance going a seventh game.

Sure. They’re not losing this series. However, going seven this round won’t help their quest to reach the NBA Finals.

In the other playoff series last night, the Cavs couldn’t close out the Wizards dropping an 88-87 decision on their home floor. They got outscored 6-0 in the final 1:47 blowing an 87-82 lead.

Delonte West’s three-point play had supplied Cleveland with the five-point lead but some bad possessions along with a Caron Butler score plus two Antonio Daniels free throws suddenly cut it to 87-86 with 43 ticks left.

A couple of more Cleveland misses from in tight allowed the Wizards to get the ball back. Following a timeout, they went to their best player Butler, who hit a tough driving lay-up with LeBron James draped all over him.

There were still 3.9 seconds left. Enough time for LeBron to once again end Washington’s season as he had a couple of years prior. However, this time he missed a runner off the backboard and rim allowing the Wizards to escape with new life.

They’ll now get a Game Six back in the nation’s capital tomorrow. Who thinks they’re losing that? You can pretty much book a Game Seven.

Butler’s heroics put the exclamation point on a brilliant night. The former Uconn star finished with 32 points on 11-of-22 shooting including four trifectas along with six-for-seven from the line. He also added nine rebounds, five assists and two swipes in nearly playing all 48.

For once, a Walt Frazier expression played true. The Butler did it! There’s a reason he’s one of my fave players. He’s really worked hard to become an NBA All-Star and a versatile player who can score, get teammates involved and D up. His big night along with DeShawn Stevenson’s 17 and Daniels’ 12 helped offset only eight from Antawn Jamison.

For the Cavs, James led the way with 34 netting 24 in the second half. Did we also mention the man child had 10 boards and seven assists? Just awe inspiring. How can you not love LeBron? Well, with the exception of driving a really fast car at insane speeds and all the other fame which comes with it…Never mind. ;-)

Zydrunas Ilgauskas had 19 and West netted 12 points, five rebounds and eight assists. Great pickup from Seattle for next to nothing! I called that one.

Realistically, I can’t see the Cavs dropping this series. The Wizards are without Gilbert Arenas. Even if they have played well without him, it’s hard to see them winning three in a row over LeBron. Especially with a seventh game back in Cleveland.

Figure the MVP candidate to rescue his team.

Mavericks Fire Johnson: In other NBA news, it came as little shock that Dallas fired coach Avery Johnson for another first round disappointment. Still, I feel he got a raw deal here as it was just too much to expect the former NBA Coach Of The Year to suddenly make it all work because crazy owner Mark Cuban got Jason Kidd at the deadline. Two months just isn’t enough time to mesh and they ran into a better opponent in the Hornets.

You have to figure Johnson will wind up coaching again. Maybe the Bulls or Knicks? It’s also rumored that Mike D’Antoni will step down as Suns coach. Look for him to resurface in Toronto and re-team with Bryan Colangelo. That also would mean Sam Mitchell would not return as Raptor coach even though he’s done an admirable job.

That’s the NBA for ya where it’s all about now and how far you go. Proven track records only work if your name is Larry Brown, who still manages to get jobs even though he’s just in Charlotte for another paycheck.

Ditto Pat Riley, who “retired from coaching.” Just ask current Magic coach Stan Van Gundy about that. Who really could take Riley at his word? In the old WFAN days, Steve Somers and Russ Salzberg got it right when Riles dissed New York only to resurface in Miami:

The Loser Within

See. Even American Idol’s Paula Abdul got one right.

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Johnson’s 20 in fourth quarter helps Hawks draw even with Celtics

Joe Johnson couldn’t be stopped. The top seeded Celtics had no answer for the explosive leading Hawks’ scorer who scored 20 of his game high 35 in a fourth quarter comeback to lead the big underdog to a second straight home win 97-92 in Game Four-leveling the best-of-seven first round series at two games apiece.

In a back and forth riveting playoff game at Phillips Arena which saw the eighth seeded Hawks comeback from a 16-3 hole to take an eight-point lead before a strong third quarter by Boston put them down 10, the home team rallied outscoring the Celts 32-17 in the last 12 minutes to win their second straight. Most expected them to go quietly and get swept after not being competitive in the first two games but Atlanta had other ideas taking Game Three 102-93 and using that strong fourth quarter to square the series and put all tons of pressure on Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen  along with the rest of former Hawk point guard Doc Rivers’ team.

It was Johnson and super athletic deluxe Josh Smith (28 pts, 12 of 13 FT, Hawks franchise playoff record seven blocks, six rebounds) who took all the Hawks’ shots combining to score all 32 points dominating the paint against a normally strong Boston defensive club. In particular, they weren’t able to shutdown Johnson, who toasted Allen on effective pick n’ roll isolation all quarter scoring on an array of floaters. Maybe the biggest shot in a game where his team trailed 75-65 after being outscored 27-14 in the third was a classic schoolyard crossover where defender Leon Powe was so badly faked out that he fell down allowing Johnson to step back and drain a trey from the left arc, putting Mike Woodson’s team up four with 4:41 left as a raucous crowd erupted invoking memories of Atlanta-Boston series past which featured NBA Hall of Famers Dominique Wilkins and Larry Bird.

At one point, Johnson scored nine straight including a couple of ridiculous finishes where he sliced and diced the Boston D. Along with some money free throw making from Smith, they wouldn’t allow Atlanta to lose insuring that there would be another home game in the series.

Two late James Posey three’s weren’t enough as Johnson and Smith finished off the Celts at the line. In fact, the dynamic duo finished with 18 of Atlanta’s 29 free throw makes. Overall, the Hawks shot lights out going 29 for 33 as compared to the Celtics’ 10 of 18. That was the biggest difference.

They also got invaluable contributions from rookie Al Horford on the defensive glass as he finished with a game high 13 boards. Josh Childress came off the bench to grab nine rebounds including a big offensive board late to get a new shotclock. He also had a highlight reel tomahawk jam netting four points and two assists in nearly 32 minutes.

The game also featured some nastiness with Garnett and Atlanta backup center Zaza Pachulia going nose to nose before cooler heads prevailed. Pachulia took exception to a KG elbow going right after the Boston superstar nearly butting him. Both got T’s as did Sam Cassell and Johnson in which each respective coach came out making certain nobody from the bench got involved.

Good thing too because league commish David Stern was in the house looking on. There could be fines but it doesn’t look like there will be any suspensions which would be the best case scenario with a best two-of-three deciding this series.

“We all know he’s a great player,” Pachulia later indicated of Garnett who finished with 20 points, nine rebounds and six steals in a losing cause. “He’s done a lot of good things for the league. He’s a future Hall of Famer. But it doesn’t matter when we’re on the court.”

“I don’t take anything from anybody,” Pachulia added. “The message was, ‘We’re right here. Even if we lose, it’s not going to be easy.”’

Message delivered.

Two Advance: In the other two first round games played Monday night, both Orlando and the Lakers advanced to the Conference Semis.

The Magic got another 20/20 performance from man child Dwight Howard (21 pts, 21 rebs) as they eliminated the Raptors posting a 102-92 Game Five home win.

Howard paced a balanced attack which saw all five starters hit for double digits including a double/double from Rashard Lewis (18 and 13), 19 from Jameer Nelson and Hedo Turkoglu’s 12 along with a game high nine assists.

Turkoglu was presented with the NBA’s Most Improved Player before the game beating out Memphis’ Rudy Gay and Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge. Reserve guard Keith Bogans also came off the bench nailing three triples for 11 points, six boards and two assists in 35 minutes.

Toronto was paced by star power forward Chris Bosh’ 16 and nine rebounds. Supersubs Jason Kapono, Carlos Delfino and Jose Calderon each netted double figures combining for five treys and 39 points. Raptor point guard T.J. Ford added 14 but only five assists while turning it over four times.

Orlando now will await the 76ers-Pistons winner. That series is tied 2-2.

Meanwhile out West, the top seeded Lakers advanced with a hard fought 107-101 Game Four road win over the Nuggets, sweeping their talented opponent out of the playoffs. It’s the fifth consecutive year Denver’s bowed out in the first round. According to TNT, the Nuggets became the first 50-win team in playoff history to be swept in Round One.

Kobe Bryant came alive in the final quarter scoring 14 of his 31 in the last five and a half following a 17+ minute drought. Making an assortment of Kobe-esque shots as only the Laker superstar can do, he carried his team down the stretch in shooting down a more pesky Denver team finishing them off to advance to Round Two where they’ll play either Utah or Houston. The Jazz lead that series 3-1.

Bryant is a lot like Michael Jordan in that when his team needs it most, he’ll step up and make the very difficult big shots which provide sparks. This was a fun game to watch with the Nuggets refusing to go away thanks to some ridiculous hot shooting from sixth man J.R. Smith. The 22 year-old out of Freehold, New Jersey hit a couple of deep three’s including a 28-footer. That along with a three-point play put Denver back ahead by one 96-95 with over three minutes to play.

But a tough Kobe trademark 15-foot floater along with some great passing to setup an uncontested Luke Walton trey from the right corner put Los Angeles on top 100-96 with 2:37 left.

The Nuggets never seriously threatened again. It was the first time in franchise history they were swept out of the postseason.

“My wish would be that we had four games like tonight and we all could have been happier,” Nuggets coach George Karl lamented of his team which doesn’t always play disciplined on both ends.

“I’ve said all along, when they play the right way, they’re fun guys to coach.”

The dilemma for Denver moving forward is how do they change that chaotic style into a winner. They can score with Carmelo Anthony (21 pts, 11 rebs) and Allen Iverson (22 pts, 10-of-22 FG, only 2 assists) plus Smith, who becomes a free agent this summer. However, where’s the D? Marcus Camby plays hard as does Kenyon Martin, who has never quite fit in since bolting the Nets.

Unless Denver alters their style meaning not as much reliance on the offensive end at one-on-one emphasizing better team oriented play in the halfcourt set, they’ll continue to win games but not when it counts most.

It’s high time for an adjustment.

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