NBA

LeBron James delivers another game-winner to crush Toronto Raptors' hopes

Jay Asser 6/05/2018
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LeBron James hit a game-winner in Game 3 to beat Toronto.

LeBron James is just messing around at this point.

The Cleveland Cavaliers superstar found a new way to deliver a dagger into the hearts of the Toronto Raptors when he hit a game-winner at the buzzer to win Game 3 of the series 105-103.

James has hit several game-winners throughout his career, but maybe none have been so disrespectfully indifferent as the one to take a 3-0 series lead on Toronto.

After calling timeout following OG Anunoby’s game-tying 3-pointer, the Cavaliers opted to inbound the ball from their own end of the floor instead of advancing it past half-court. The decision allowed James to receive the ball and streak down the court, making it more difficult for the Raptors to trap him without leaving someone on the Cavaliers wide open.

Perhaps Toronto should have taken that risk because what ended up happening was incredibly demoralising.

James not only leapt off his wrong foot (left foot) while going left, he put up a one-handed floater from nine feet out that kissed off the glass and dropped in right in front of the Raptors bench as time expired.

The audacity to attempt a shot with such a high degree of difficulty in that moment was impressive in itself, let alone that James drained it while making it look like something he does with regularity.

“It is very difficult,” James said afterward with a smile. “Don’t try it at home.”

The LeBron-Michael Jordan debate over who is the greatest of all-time may never be settled, but James continues to build his playoff resume with clutch shots.

While Jordan was 5-of-11 with three buzzer-beaters in the final five seconds of the fourth quarter or overtime in his postseason career, James is now 7-of-15 with five buzzer-beaters, according to ESPN Stats and Info.

One of those buzzer-beaters for James came earlier in these playoffs when he nailed a 3-pointer to life the Cavaliers to a Game 5 win over the Indiana Pacers in the first round.

“I’ve been doing that since I was like six, seven, eight years old,” James said after adding his latest in Game 3 versus Toronto. “Maybe even before that. There’s a picture floating around of me beside a Little Tikes hoop with a saggy Pamper on and I was doing it back then and all the way up until now, at 33.

“Things that you dream about, that you get those opportunities and I’ve been fortunate enough to get a handful of those in some of the biggest moments in my career.”

James and the Cavaliers are now one win away from returning to the Eastern Conference Finals and have the opportunity to close out the series at home in Game 4.

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NBA

Brad Stevens draws up 'genius' late-game play calls in Boston Celtics' Game 3 win over Philadelphia 76ers

Jay Asser 6/05/2018
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Brad Stevens has been a calm presence for the Celtics on the sideline.

Brad Stevens is lauded as a coaching savant, but his brilliance on the sideline can at times be more subtle than overwhelmingly obvious.

That wasn’t the case in the Boston Celtics’ 101-98 win over the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 3.

Boston took a practically insurmountable 3-0 lead in the second round series on the strength of Stevens’ late-game coaching, which included two beautiful play calls after timeouts.

The first came at the end of regulation when the Celtics were down by two with 26 seconds left.

With Philadelphia switching on all screens, Stevens drew up a play in which all five Boston players were near the 3-point line, leaving the paint wide open when Jaylen Brown set a back pick, only to dive to the basket where he received a lob and finished a contested layup.

The second crucial play call came with the Celtics down by one and 8.4 seconds left in overtime.

The 76ers switched on screens again, which Stevens capitalised on again by drawing Robert Covington onto Al Horford in the paint. Horford shielded Covington from the basket, caught the overhead lob and finished a point-blank look that would be the game-winner.

Afterward, Stevens’ players credited their coach’s ingenuity.

“Brad is a genius, man. Unbelievable,” Horford told ESPN immediately after Boston’s victory. “Sometimes he draws stuff up, and I look at it, I’m like [confused]. But Marcus [Morris] delivered it, great pass, I missed some shots that I normally make there, but I made that one, so it was good.”

Morris added: “That man Brad Stevens is a guru. He might have the best out-of-bounds plays I’ve ever seen. He called the switch [that got Horford on Covington] and knew it was going to happen.”

Stevens has deservedly earned credit for a multitude of reasons and his after-timeout plays are just one factor in why he’s been so successful as a coach.

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NBA

Philadelphia 76ers have come a long way but the series with the Boston Celtics has shown they still have further to go

Jay Asser 6/05/2018
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Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are getting their first taste of the playoffs.

It’s been a fun ride, but it’s time for the Philadelphia 76ers to Process this: they still have a long way to go to get where they want.

Declarations that the 76ers’ rebuild is complete and title contention will be a regularity going forward were as premature as the confetti shot off at Wells Fargo Center at the end of regulation in the Boston Celtics’ 101-98 overtime win in Game 3 of the second round series.

Winning 52 games and a first-round series in a season where Ben Simmons put together a Rookie of the Year campaign and Joel Embiid stayed relatively healthy is a massive success for a franchise that was trapped in the lottery as recently as a year ago.

That success came faster than anticipated, which is why expectations were (justifiably) raised ahead of the playoffs. And with how wide open the East looked due to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ struggles, the Toronto Raptors’ unreliable nature and the Celtics’ injury woes, it actually appeared as if the stars were aligning for Philadelphia to reach the NBA Finals.

But the second round against Boston has splashed some cold water on Process truthers and provided much-needed perspective on where the 76ers are right now.

An argument can be made that Philadelphia’s current predicament of being down 3-0 in the series has more to do with the Celtics than it does with the 76ers’ limitations. After all, playoffs are often about matchups and Philadelphia just looked like world-beaters en route to a gentleman’s sweep over Miami a round earlier. It’s not crazy to think the 76ers might be faring better if they were playing Cleveland or Toronto, based on the strengths and weaknesses of those teams.

Nevertheless, Boston has exposed Philadelphia’s deficiencies in ways that aren’t unique to just them. And it starts with the 76ers two cornerstones: Simmons and Embiid.

Aside from the one-point stinker he had in Game 2, Simmons has been his usual self scoring-wise in the series, averaging 17.0 points on 56.0 per cent shooting. But those stats don’t begin to tell how the Celtics have corralled him in the half-court and leveraged not just inability to shoot, but his unwillingness to.

It may only seem like a subtle difference, but Boston’s advantage of completely ignoring Simmons when he’s beyond the arc has allowed them to tweak their defensive positioning to the point they can simultaneously cover the paint and stick with Philadelphia’s shooters – essentially playing five-on-four on occasion.

By keeping Simmons in front of them and then challenging him to score over their long defenders when he drives, the Celtics have shut off a lot of drive-and-kick opportunities. Boston haven’t been as successful when back-up T.J. McConnell has been on the floor – McConnell is plus-19 in the series while Simmons is minus-19 – because of his quickness and ability to keep the defence somewhat honest.

McConnell plays his role extremely well, but he can only help to a certain extent. You know who would be a perfect complement to Simmons and give the 76ers what they need? The Markelle Fultz that came out of college, before… whatever it is that derailed his rookie season.

Fultz

It’s way too early to say Fultz won’t ever be that, but it’s also no sure thing to say he’ll return to what he was, let alone develop into a star. If he does, he could be the missing link and final piece of the 76ers’ puzzle. But again, that’s a big ‘if’.

As far as Embiid, this second round has shown he’s far from a finished product.

He’s averaging 24.3 points against the Celtics, but it’s his 43.5 per cent shooting that’s been more telling of how the series has gone for him. Boston have been mostly content with leaving Aron Baynes or Al Horford in single coverage against him and living with post-up after post-up. Embiid is an absolute load to deal with, but his post game still leaves a lot to be desired.

And on the other end of the floor, the Celtics have sapped his rim protection by dragging him out near the perimeter with bigs who can knock down jumpers.

Embiid and Simmons are just 24 and 21, respectively, so it would be foolish to assume they won’t get better. Their shortcomings in this series shouldn’t be viewed as a failure, but rather as an indication of the room they still have to grow.

The Process, insofar as the methodology of tanking to acquire draft picks, may be over.

However, the next phase – going from good to great – has just begun.

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