Five reasons why C's, Rockets may meet in NBA Finals

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Five reasons why C's, Rockets may meet in NBA Finals

HOUSTON -- Take a look at the NBA standings and you’ll see that Boston and Houston have been at or near the top most of this season.
Based on their play, no one should be shocked if Saturday night’s game between the Celtics and Rockets serves as a prelude to a potential NBA Finals showdown.
The Celts have won with their defense, which, despite a string of sub-par performances, still ranks among the best in the NBA. Houston has been an offensive power all season with its use of the 3-point shot.
But what gives both teams hope that they can be one of the last two teams standing is how each has performed on the side of the floor where they have been less dominant.
Boston’s offense has stared to show signs that it can be really special. The Celtics come into Saturday’s game having scored a season-high 134 points in a 28-point win against Charlotte.
And the Rockets’ defense is just outside of being top-10 worthy, which, when combined with a lethal offense, shows why Houston's rise toward the top of the NBA standings record-wise, is not all that complicated.
And that’s just the beginning.
Here are five more reasons why Saturday’s game between Boston and Houston may be a prelude to the NBA Finals this year.



When it comes to something like a new-look NBA Finals, you can rest assured if there’s any historical connection between the two teams we’ll hear about it . . . a lot. That holds true between Boston and Houston, two teams that aren’t necessarily bitter rivals but do have some history.
Boston met the Rockets in the 1986 Finals and finished them off in six games. The two met five years earlier in the Finals with an identical result: Boston wins in six.


It really is a shame that we only get to see James Harden and Marcus Smart go at each other twice a year. To see them go at each other at least four times in the Finals . . . that alone makes this something we should all want to see.
Harden is having another MVP-like season statistically and his team is winning an incredible rate, which -- for a change -- makes him the odds-on leader to win it this season.
And Smart’s defense, always good, has been exceptional against the best and in the biggest of moments.
The two offensive foul calls Smart got against Harden when these two met Dec. 28, is the kind of stuff that a player like Harden won’t forget about anytime soon.
And Smart will be looking to do his part to show what he did just a few days after Christmas, was not a fluke.


While most of us -- media and fans alike -- have anointed Golden State as the team coming out of the West this season, the Rockets have done enough so far to be considered more than just the next-best thing to Golden State. Houston has reeled off 14 straight wins and currently has a slim, half-game lead over the Warriors for the best record in the West. More telling is how the Rockets have already won the head-to-head series 2-1, which means if they finish in a tie for the best record, Houston will be the top seed.


We have seen Stevens’ coaching acumen on display in the regular season and in the playoffs, and he has been good. So the next logical step in his growth as a leader is to see how he handles himself when the stakes are as high as they can possibly be. And they don’t get any higher than the NBA Finals. He’s regarded as one of the NBA’s best basketball minds, but until he wins an NBA title there’s going to be a little bit of doubt in the minds of some as to just how good he really is as a coach.  


Question him for his flat-Earth comments, or any other head-scratching narrative Kyrie Irving has spoken about lately. But the man’s decision to get out of Cleveland when he did, is making him look like a freakin’ genius.
The Cavs weren't very good with the pieces they acquired as part of the trading away of Irving. And now, just weeks after hitting the reset button on their season by jettisoning out some players (Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder) who weren’t helping them win much, they’re back to where they were before making all the changes -- not winning much.

Meanwhile, Irving had another All-Star season and his new team has been among the best in the league all season. For Irving to go back to the Finals and Cleveland continue to falter  . . . maybe the earth is flatter than you think?



WATCH: Jayson Tatum ribs Bam Adebayo after Heat star crashes interview

WATCH: Jayson Tatum ribs Bam Adebayo after Heat star crashes interview

Only in the NBA bubble could two budding stars battle on the court one moment then ham it up in the media room the next.

Celtics forward Jayson Tatum was speaking to reporters via video conference Tuesday night after Boston's 112-106 loss to Miami when Heat big man Bam Adebayo strode into the room for his own interview session.

Adebayo wasn't in a waiting mood, though, so he tried to distract Tatum with a few incredulous looks from the corner.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Nets, which begins Wednesday at 8 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 9 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Here's the entertaining scene, as captured by ESPN's Rachel Nichols in Orlando:

Props to Tatum for maintaining his focus as Adebayo tried to run interference. The two young stars then shared a playful exchange in which Tatum appeared to chide Adebayo for benefiting from some whistles. (The Heat big man scored 11 of his 21 points on free throws thanks to 18 free throw attempts, a game high.)

"You shot free throws like you won MVP or something," Tatum appeared to tell Adebayo.

Their banter was all in good nature: Tatum and Adebayo were teammates in the 2016 McDonald's All-American Game and entered the 2017 NBA Draft together, so they go way back. But Tatum still may have had a bitter taste in his mouth after picking up five fouls and getting hit with a technical in Tuesday's loss.

Both players are also in the running for the NBA's Most Improved Player Award amid career seasons; Adebayo is averaging a double-double (16.3 points, 10.5 rebounds) with 1.3 blocks per game for Miami, while Tatum is racking up 23.4 points and seven rebounds per game as he blossoms into an NBA star.

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NBA Restart: Celtics still waiting on any bench player to step up

NBA Restart: Celtics still waiting on any bench player to step up

We could sit here and scream about how poor Boston’s defense has been inside the bubble. The Celtics own a defensive rating of 117.9 after their first three seeding games, and only one team has a worse mark (the helter-skelter Sixers).

We could lament Boston’s lethargy after the team whiffed Tuesday with a chance to essentially lock up the No. 3 seed while playing a Jimmy Butler-less Miami Heat team that was on the second night of a back-to-back.

Boston hasn’t played with any sort of consistent energy in its three games, falling behind early against Milwaukee, coughing up a big lead against Portland, and trying to play catchup all night against Miami.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Nets, which begins Wednesday at 8 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 9 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

But here’s one thought we couldn’t shake while watching Tuesday’s game: What a luxury it is for Miami to have a rookie like Tyler Herro on their bench. Herro chipped in 11 points over 22 minutes during the Heat’s 112-106 triumph.

With Marcus Smart in foul trouble — so much so that he fouled out late in the third quarter — Boston lacked a bench boost. Take away Enes Kanter’s 10 points and the Celtics’ reserve trio of Grant Williams, Brad Wanamaker, and Smart combined for 14 points on 4-of-18 shooting.

At one point during the second half, Celtics coach Brad Stevens dispatched Romeo Langford for his first seeding-game minutes but Langford turned in a scoreless 3 minutes, 44 seconds, in which he mostly blended into the scenery.

Herro, of course, went one spot ahead of Langford in the 2019 draft. There had been a buzz before draft night that the Celtics were fond of Herro and that he had impressed the team with his shooting in one of his workouts. There might have even been a few groans inside the Auerbach Center when Miami snagged the Kentucky product at No. 13.

The Celtics ultimately took Langford, who has no shortage of potential and might eventually be a better pro. But his rookie season got off to a slow start as he healed from hand surgery and then he dealt with a bunch of minor maladies that even limited how much floor time he got with the Maine Red Claws of the G-League.

Herro has now appeared in 50 games for Miami while shooting a robust 39 percent beyond the 3-point arc on 5.4 attempts per game. He wasn’t even Miami’s best rookie this season — that distinction goes to Kendrick Nunn — but Herro won Erik Spoelstra’s confidence and is now a key rotation piece while logging 26.9 minutes per game.

On Tuesday, Miami’s four-man bench combined for 43 points on 31 shots while each player logged at least 21 minutes of floor time. For Boston, Semi Ojeleye missed five of his six shots, including multiple open 3s. Smart finished 0-for-5 shooting.

Make no mistake, Boston will lean heavy on its core players when the playoffs arrive. When Kemba Walker is off his minute restriction, and combined with a hefty dose of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward, that might leave only a small handful of minutes for reserves not named Smart.

Still, games like Tuesday night show how important it is to have players that can take the baton, even if it’s only on rare nights. None of Boston’s younger players have shown enough this year to earn Stevens’ unwavering trust.

Again, guys like Grant Williams and Langford could have bright futures. Maybe Carsen Edwards and Tremont Waters, too. That’s especially important for Boston because of how much money they have tied up long term in their core players.

But the fact of that matter is that, right now, none of Boston’s rookies have seized their opportunity, nor has 2018 first-round pick Robert Williams, who was only inserted late in Tuesday’s game to defend an inbounds attempt with his length and bounce.

Those players could get another chance to show what they’ve got on Wednesday when Boston plays a back-to-back against the Nets. With Walker set to rest his knee and Stevens unlikely to go too heavy on starter minutes in the team’s first (and only) bubble double, younger players will need to take advantage of whatever minutes come their way.

Herro won’t be the difference between a first-round upset and a first-round exit for Miami. But the Heat are well-positioned moving into the future because of the progress their youngest players made this season. It’s critical teams develop talent if they are going to commit most of their money to their top stars.

The Celtics are left waiting for their youngest players to show they are ready.

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