A. Sherrod Blakely

About Last Night: Stakes are high for NBA's 'Final Four' in East

About Last Night: Stakes are high for NBA's 'Final Four' in East

WHAT WE'RE TALKING ABOUT

Blakely: Here come the (free) agents of change 

Every team that’s still left standing in the East, has more at stake in their second-round series than simply moving on to the next round of the playoffs. 

All four of the teams remaining in the East have at least one prominent free agent-to-be whose play has been instrumental in getting them to this point and truth be told, may be playing their final games with their current team. 

Kyrie Irving once committed to re-sign with Boston, and later seemed to sway from that position to the point where nobody knows what he’ll do. 

Kawhi Leonard is far from a lock to return to Toronto after being traded there from San Antonio. 

Philly’s Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler could be on the move as well, although it’s likely the Sixers will manage to retain at least one of them. 

So as much as this time of year is about winning games, there are a few organizations who, while certainly wanting to do that at a high level, are just as consumed by winning over top-shelf talent. 

Forsberg: God Dame!

OH MY GOODNESS, DAME LILLARD. 

This man didn’t just will his team back from a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit. He didn’t just hit one of the most absurd game-winners in playoffs history to cap a 50-point night. Damian Lamonte Ollie Lillard literally waved goodbye to the Thunder in the immediate aftermath of his winning shot, making it one of the most bad-ass celebrations these eyes have seen.

Then the Blazers’ Twitter account came in from the top rope, tweeting, “Next question,” with a picture of the final score. 

Listen, Lillard was having himself a night but the Thunder went on a 30-6 run and opened a 105-90 lead with under eight minutes to play. It only set the stage for the absurd finish.

I’m not sure we appreciate Lillard’s game enough out here. Maybe it’s because the Blazers play out west and aren’t a marquee team with a bunch of national regular-season TV games. Regardless, Lillard has put up Kyrie-like numbers this season and we sometimes forget to include him in the conversation about the league’s best guards.

Last night was a reminder that Dame is a cold-blooded killer. In a series full of bad blood, he had ice water in his veins pulling up from 37 feet with Paul George directly in his face. 

While we’re here: What the heck does Oklahoma City do now? That’s three straight first-round exits in the post-Durant era and only four wins to show for their efforts in those series. Russell Westbrook keeps averaging triple-doubles, George was an MVP candidate for much of the 2018-19 season, and yet this team can’t even get out of Round 1 against a team it swept in the regular season.

We should also mention that Jusuf Nurkic’s “Got Bricks? Next Question” T-shirt was pretty savage as well.

Elsewhere, it was Yawn City watching the Raptors and Sixers polish off their series.. … I really thought the Spurs had upset potential against Denver but, when Jamal Murray is making shots and Nikola Jokic is spraying the ball around the gym, Denver looks more the part of a top seed. 

SO... THAT HAPPENED


NUMBER OF NOTE

34 -- Damian Lillard's point total in the first half -- more than Russell Westbrook and Paul George combined.

THEY SAID IT...

“It was quite a performance”

-- Portland head coach Terry Stotts, in the understatement of understatements when describing Damian Lillard’s 50-point performance that included a 37-footer with no time left.  

“We think we can win it all."

-- 76ers center Joel Embiid, as Philly tries to win its first NBA title since 1983

TUESDAY'S SCOREBOARD

  • Toronto 115, Orlando 96 (TOR wins series 4-1)
  • 76ers 122, Nets 100 (PHI wins series 4-1)
  • Nuggets 108, Spurs 90 (DEN leads series 3-2)
  • Trail Blazers 118, Thunder 115 (POR wins series 4-1)

WHAT WE'LL BE WATCHING

Blakely: Rest versus rhythm 

The Celtics aren’t overly concerned about getting too much rest between their first and second round series, and you know what? They shouldn’t be worried. 

The way they were playing in the first-round series against the Pacers, Boston was getting stronger as the series went on, building the kind of momentum that they would love to carry into the next round of play. 

Judging by the increased number of ice bags and heating pads you see players donning before, during and after games, there’s no question that rest will do the bodies of many Celtics players a lot of good. 

But will the downtime lead to some downright awful shooting or defense by the Celtics? 

Because they really need to hit the ground running and try and steal home-court advantage at the first opportunity they get. 

And that opportunity becomes much more real if the Celtics get the kind of rest they are sure to receive in the days between their first and second-round series. 

Forsberg: Bring on the Conference Finals 

Much like it simply felt inevitable that the Raptors and SIxers were going to win their series, there’s an even stronger sense of “Just get this over with!” as the Rockets and Warriors look to close out at home on Wednesday night.

We all want to see Rockets-Warriors. It’s the Conference Finals one round early. The Jazz put together a scrappy Game 4 win to avoid the sweep but we all know what’s coming this weekend. These teams need to take care of business because all these second-round matchups are far juicier than a lot of these Round 1 snoozefests.

Then again, with at least four more days until the Celtics and Bucks tip their series, we probably ought to savor whatever basketball we can get at this point.

WEDNESDAY'S SCHEDULE

  • Jazz at Rockets, Game 5 (HOU leads series 3-1) -- 8:00pm, TNT
  • Clippers at Warriors, Game 5 (GS leads series 3-1) -- 10:30pm, TNT

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How will Rozier impact Celtics' series with the Bucks?

How will Rozier impact Celtics' series with the Bucks?

BOSTON --  “I'm dead in the middle of two generations, I'm little bro and big bro all at once..."

Those lyrics are from J. Cole’s latest, titled "Middle Child", which speaks to some of the challenges of being youthful relative to one’s contemporaries while at the same time, leaned upon like a veteran because of one’s experience or proven track record at an early age. 

Welcome to Terry Rozier’s world, one in which he is seen as a 25-year-old on the rise but at the same time, an experienced talent that can be leaned upon to play like a savvy veteran.

Based on how he stepped up in the postseason for the Celtics, he is viewed from one lens as a respected veteran on this team. 

But the return of Kyrie Irving to the playoffs, after a year off because of injury, is a reminder that Rozier is still a young player whose best days as a player are ahead of him. 

Navigating the state of being on the rise and pseudo-established, at least in the eyes of the Milwaukee Bucks, is among the more pressing challenges awaiting Rozier and the Celtics with their best-of-seven, second-round series beginning this weekend. 

Still, when he’s on the floor, Rozier tries to keep things as simple as possible. 

“Just trying to make winning plays, try to put my team in position to feed off some energy,” Rozier told NBC Sports Boston. “Go in there and give it all on the court. That’s what I’m trying to be, lead by example when I get out there. Make the right plays, be a ballplayer and have some fun out there.”

"I'm all in my bag, this hard as it get."

Rozier appeared to have lots of fun against the Bucks in the playoffs last year, delivering a series of ankle-breaking, highlight-reel-quality plays that won't be forgotten anytime soon. 

He's well aware that his role this go-around will be very different. 

A year ago, Rozier was a starter in place of an injured Kyrie Irving and performed well above expectations, which was among the keys to Boston escaping its first-round series with the Bucks in seven games. 

It also sparked an on-the-floor war of words with Milwaukee’s Eric Bledsoe. 

“Listen, man, where I’m from we love that,” Rozier said. “We don’t back down from confrontation or none of that. If you’re gonna talk stuff you gotta back it up.

Rozier added, “At the end of the day, it’s about fun. We respect each other. Like I’ve been saying, ain’t nobody out here a boxer or anything like that. If so, that’s what the summertime is for. But right now, it’s the playoffs; just looking to spice things up and have some fun at the end of the day.” 

For Rozier, fun - at least in this series - will have to be defending at a high level. 

With no Marcus Smart (oblique tear) for the foreseeable future, the Celtics have benefited from several players helping to step up and fill the gap that exists in the Celtics defense without Smart around. 

No one seems to have utilized Smart’s absence to benefit them more than Rozier, who put up some impressive defensive numbers in Boston’s first-round series against Indiana. 

In the Indiana series, Rozier was arguably Boston’s best perimeter defender. 

According to Sports Spectrum data, Pacers players defended by Rozier shot just 25 percent (7-for-28) from the field while scoring a total of 22 points in what was 142 possessions. 

And watching him compete now, Rozier’s play defensively now is reminiscent to his days with the Louisville Cardinals under then-coach (and former Celtics coach) Rick Pitino.

“Terry, he’s disruptive,” said Celtics assistant coach Micah Shrewsberry, who also handles the C's defense. “When he’s at his best, he’s back in his old Pitino days where he’s picking the ball up full court, pressuring guys, he’s taking time off the clock from the team. And their offense, they have to start a little further out. His pressure, his energy that he brings to us, that lifts other guys.”

And that lift in this series will come by way of his defense, a departure of sorts from what we saw from Rozier the last time he was in the postseason facing the Bucks.  

“I feel like if I control my defensive energy, everything else will take care of itself,” Rozier said. “I can obviously put the ball in the hoop; just trying to let the defensive things take care of that, worry about that. And everything else will take care of itself. Now obviously with [Marcus] Smart being out, we’re gonna need my defensive presence off the bench and be impactful.”

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Round 2, here come the Celtics

Round 2, here come the Celtics

INDIANAPOLIS -- As fans made their way into BankersLife Field House, some came wearing summery shirts with flamingos and palm trees.

It would be in many ways a sign of what was to come as the Boston Celtics sent the Pacers vacationing for the summer with a 110-106 win.

The Celtics swept the first-round series against the Pacers, becoming the first team this season to advance to the next round of the playoffs.

And by doing it in just four games, this Celtics team became only the sixth in franchise history to pull off a sweep in a best-of-seven series, and the first under sixth-year coach Brad Stevens.

Boston could not have begun the game any better, scoring the game’s first eight points before Pacers head coach Nate McMillan had seen enough and called a time-out.

During the time-out, the Jumbotron showed Indiana all-star Victor Oladipo who suffered a season-ending injury in January.

The time-out, his presence, it doesn’t matter.

Moments after the Jumbotron sighting, Indiana came out and played better and eventually did enough damage to lead 23-21 after the first quarter.

But the second quarter looked eerily similar to the first as Boston opened with an 8-2 run only for the Pacers to come back and eventually take a slim 49-47 lead into the half.

As the two teams went back and forth, there was an undeniable flatness about the usually-vocal Pacers fans who had the kind of energy you expect in a preseason game and not a playoff one.

The second half saw the Pacers faithful come alive as their team opened the quarter by scoring five of the quarter’s first seven points.

But the Celtics, as we’ve seen time and time again in this series, put together a strong third quarter to go into the fourth ahead 73-72 following a pair of free throws by Marcus Morris.

The fourth quarter saw the Celtics make just enough plays to escape with the win and with it, move on to the next round of the playoffs while the Pacers as well as their flamingo, palm tree-wearing fans are now officially on vacation.

Here are the standouts in Game 4 of the Boston-Indiana first-round series.

MVP

Gordon Hayward: He played with a steady level of aggression that we had not seen at any point in this series. There were drives to the basket, aggressive play defensively and overall, Hayward doing a lot of little things that really stood out. He was Boston’s go-to guy when it mattered most in the fourth quarter as he finished with 20 points on 7-for-9 shooting.

MOST IMPROVED

Terry Rozier: This has been a tough series for Rozier, who came into Game 4 shooting 5-for-18 from the field and 3-for-11 on 3’s. On Sunday, Rozier tallied 11 points while connecting on 4-for-6 shooting from the field.

Al Horford: He had a double-double game for Boston, but they can’t afford to have him struggle like this in the next round when he has so many open to lightly contested shots. Still, Horford made a number of key plays whether it was defense or passing in the second half that would play a role in Boston getting the win, finishing with 14 points, 12 rebounds and five assists.

SIXTH MEN

Domantas Sabonis: Other than an occasional tug on Marcus Morris’ shorts or a nudging of Terry Rozier into a Pacers shooter to create a foul, Sabonis played a clean, hard-fought, well-played game before finishing with 14 points and eight rebounds.

Marcus Morris: He closed out the series similar to how it began - knocking down big shots. Morris would finish with a near double-double of 18 points and eight rebounds.

MR. NOT-SO-GREAT

Wes Matthews: It’s never good when a guy brought in to help with shooting, goes 1-for-7 in the biggest game of the season. But that was indeed the stat line on Wes Matthews which included him missing four of his five shots from 3-point range.

TURNING POINT

With Indiana ahead 82-81, the Celtics force a turnover as Terry Rozier gets the ball up court and into the hands of Jayson Tatum for a likely dunk. Indiana’s Corey Joseph, trailing on the play, fouls Tatum with the contact that included a blow to the head resulting in a Flagrant-1 penalty. Boston would not trail for the remainder of the game.

UP NEXT: The Celtics move on to face the winner of the Milwaukee-Detroit series which the Bucks lead 3-0.

BLAKELY: NBA Mock Draft 1.0>>>

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