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NBA playoffs debate – Predictions for Celtics-Raptors Game 7

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Let’s go to Game 7!

For the third time in the 2020 NBA playoffs, a series is going the distance. Along the way, the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors have put on eye-popping shooting displays and defensive clinics, with star performances on the court and a coaching chess match on the sideline.

We asked five of our experts to tell us what’s underrated about this series, what to watch for and which team should be favored in Game 7 and beyond.

NBA schedule: Game 7, plus the West semis


1. What’s most underappreciated about this series?

Zach Lowe: Nick Nurse looking exhausted and sounding hoarse in every on-court interview?

OK, fine: Boston winning the center battle despite Serge Ibaka‘s hot shooting. Daniel Theis‘ scoring quieted in Games 2-4, but his defense has been sensational throughout. He has fared well enough corralling Toronto’s high-octane pick-and-roll attack, and looked shockingly comfortable switching onto Kyle Lowry in Game 5.

Given the stakes, the past two games probably mark the finest two-game stretch of Theis’ NBA career: 33 points on 14-of-16 shooting, and steady defense all over the floor. Throw in solid minutes from the Time Lord — even given his shaky defense against Ibaka pick-and-pops — and Boston’s less decorated centers have outplayed their Toronto counterparts.

Chris Herring: That the series has been this close, and tied at three games apiece, despite the Celtics having won a pair of blowouts. Boston also spanked the Raptors by 22 in the bubble prior to the playoffs, suggesting that it has more firepower. That Toronto has a chance is a testament to coach Nick Nurse and the Raptors’ refusal to be dismissed, no matter how many daggers the Celtics drive into them.

Marc J. Spears: These are the two highest-seeded teams remaining in the East, and they are battling in the second round — and in a Game 7, no less. And because it is in a bubble environment, there is renewed meaning to “win or go home” here. Both teams and their loved ones might have to pack in preparation for being sent packing.

Jorge Sedano: How intense, emotional and petty this series has become, from Nurse roaming out of the coaches’ box and baiting Jayson Tatum into a late-game turnover to the Raptors reportedly irking Jaylen Brown by chanting, “Hey, batter batter,” while Brown was at the free throw line. Tensions escalated with Marcus Smart battling Kyle Lowry on the floor and jawing with Norman Powell after the buzzer.

Kevin Pelton: How much Boston’s reserves have stepped up with Gordon Hayward sidelined. Brad Wanamaker is averaging 18 minutes per game and has hit 50% of his 3s, Robert Williams has been an important source of energy and above-the-rim finishing and Grant Williams has played with maturity far beyond his status as a rookie. All three of those players have positive net ratings for the series.

2. What’s the biggest key for the Celtics in Game 7?

Lowe: Finding an offensive rhythm when the Raptors bust out their various geometric zones or go small, with Pascal Siakam at center, and switch everything. In the guts of Game 6, Boston leaned on Kemba WalkerJayson Tatum pick-and-rolls, hoping to get Fred VanVleet switched onto Tatum and exploit that size mismatch. Their production was uneven, though Tatum seemed to find a rhythm late. But Toronto’s schemes took Walker out. Boston will have trouble surviving another subpar Walker performance.

Herring: Limiting Kyle Lowry. As this series has shown, and as we should’ve known already, he’s the heart and soul behind what Toronto does. He’s had to do some heavy lifting offensively in this series because of how well the Celtics are bottling up Siakam. Boston has won all three games in which it has held Lowry under the 20-point mark, while losing all three in which he has eclipsed that mark.

Spears: Take a deep breath and get back to what made them successful during their three wins: great defense, well-rounded offense, not getting too emotional when something goes wrong. Live in the moment and take each play one at a time.

Sedano: Marcus Smart’s defense is the Celtics’ not-so-secret sauce — everyone knows how important the first-team All-Defensive guard is on that end. However, his timely offense has been a huge factor in this series. His offensive heroics in Games 1, 2 and 6 have been eye-opening.

Pelton: Finding a way to make Toronto pay for going back to the small lineup that finished Game 6. That group has tremendous defensive versatility in terms of switching matchups, but is lacking in rim protection if Boston can consistently break down the first line of defense.


3. What’s the biggest key for the Raptors in Game 7?

Lowe: Production from the supporting cast, particularly Siakam and their two-headed center. Lowry and VanVleet won’t always shoot well — no one does — but they will shoot and score a lot. Ibaka’s 3-point shooting — he’s 14-of-27 in the series — has been massive, especially given Marc Gasol didn’t make a triple until Game 6. OG Anunoby and Norman Powell swing up and down as scorers — typical of supporting wings who get lots of chances on some nights and very few on others. Even if Nurse pulls the plug on his centers early, the Raptors need a certain threshold of points from their three bigs unless their guards go bananas.

Herring: Can Siakam produce a single efficient outing in this series? It’s not shocking that he’s struggled, given Boston’s stoppers. But while we often look out for unexpected, wild-card performances in Game 7s, the Raptors would be well-positioned if Siakam simply managed a good scoring night.

Spears: Use that championship experience, poise, team camaraderie and big-play capability to win this deciding game. The Raptors have played in big games with a lot of pressure before, most notably in the 2019 NBA Finals. Toronto has found success this season by committee and should not forget that.

Sedano: Siakam needs to find his footing. At best, he’s been erratic. At worst, he’s been borderline unplayable on offense. He needs to find some rhythm and be a threat from beyond the arc for the Raptors to win.

Pelton: Is it oversimplifying to say making 3s? Toronto has won all three games in this series with a 3-point percentage better than 30%. “Make or miss league” is a cliché for a reason. More generally, the Raptors need to consistently generate good shots against set defense, something that might be easier with a five-out lineup.


4. Fact or fiction: The winner of Game 7 should be the favorite to make the NBA Finals.

Lowe: Faction, as Kevin Pelton might say. Miami has earned even-up status against Toronto. If Gordon Hayward returns, I would slot the Celtics as slight favorites and I bet Vegas would, too. But Miami is real.

Herring: After watching what Miami just did to Milwaukee, and seeing how Siakam is struggling against Boston’s defense, I don’t know that I could consider the Raptors a clear favorite. I could probably be talked into calling the Celtics the favorite, since they pack more offensive punch than the Heat. Still, I see Miami’s playoff dominance as meaningful. And the Eastern Conference finals should probably be seen as a push.

Spears: Fact. The Miami Heat have two stars, dynamic young players and lots of veterans, and they’ll be well-rested. It will be a tough series. But pound for pound, the Celtics and the Raptors have better teams.

Sedano: It depends. Styles make fights. If Toronto wins, the Heat have a favorable matchup. But if Boston wins, the Celtics have had Miami’s number and should be the favorite in the next round. Regardless, the winners will be basketball fans, who will get an elite coaching matchup in the Eastern Conference finals.

Pelton: Faction. The Heat’s defense seems capable of causing similar problems for Toronto as it did for Milwaukee. Meanwhile, the Heat seem less equipped to match up with Boston, particularly if Hayward is able to return during the conference finals.


5. Which team wins Game 7?

Lowe: I picked Celtics in 7, so I should stick with that. They have two blowouts to their ledger; every Toronto win has been close. That might not mean anything in what feels closer to a coin-flip Game 7 — and with every recent Game 7 seemingly wild and ugly — but I’ll still go Boston.

It will be fascinating to see who looks more tired after eight players — four from each team — played 50-plus minutes in that epic Game 6.

Herring: I initially picked Boston in seven, and likewise am going to stick with that — partly because it’s much easier to answer the question of where the Celtics’ offensive production will come from. The blowouts earlier in the series — and the data in support of teams enjoying big margins heading into Game 7s — makes me think this is their game to lose.

Spears: Toronto. The Celtics had their chances ahead 2-0 and 3-2 in the series, and didn’t succeed. Yes, Toronto won on a prayer in Game 3 and after two overtimes in Game 6. But Fred VanVleet was right. The Celtics should not have given the Raptors another chance.

Sedano: Boston. The Raptors have been a worthy defending champion, showing they could play at a high level without Kawhi Leonard. But if Siakam’s woes continue, Boston has too much firepower in Tatum, Brown and Walker and an elite glue guy in Smart.

Pelton: The beauty of neutral-court Game 7s, as we saw in the first round with both Denver-Utah and Houston-Oklahoma City, is that they’re truly up for grabs without home-court advantage as a massive swing factor. Based on the way they’ve outplayed the Raptors over the course of the series, I think the Celtics are the favorite, but neither outcome should be remotely surprising.

Lowe: Nine NBA playoff things I like and don’t like



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Nikola Jokic’s late heroics can’t save Denver Nuggets in loss to Los Angeles Lakers

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Nikola Jokic had a feeling Anthony Davis‘ buzzer-beating 3-pointer was going to fall over his outstretched arm and all he could do was hunch over and put his hands on his knees as the Los Angeles Lakers celebrated Sunday.

The Denver Nuggets center did everything he could to steal Game 2, scoring 11 of his 30 points in a furious final 2 minutes and 42 seconds. The problem was that Jokic didn’t have the ball in his hands at the end of the game. Davis did and he drilled the game-winning 3 over Jokic to lift the Lakers to a thrilling 105-103 victory in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.

“Either going to be him or LeBron [James to take the last shot], so we kind of knew it,” Jokic said of the final play, which saw the Nuggets’ Mason Plumlee start on Davis only to see Plumlee and fellow forward Jerami Grant end up on James, freeing up Davis.

“Just happened, a little bit of miscommunication. I think I had a really good contest, to be honest. I think I was right there. As soon as he shot the ball, he shot it really well. Like, I kind of felt it going in. Great players make great shots.”

The resilient Nuggets have made history by overcoming a 3-1 deficit in a series two times in a row in this NBA postseason, shocking Utah in the first round and then the LA Clippers in the second round. But this actually will be the first time this group attempts to come back from a 2-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series in the past two postseasons.

“I mean, we are here [as] underdogs,” Jokic said. “That is how you say, underdogs? I mean, we need to fight. That’s our only chance. They were up 15, isn’t it, or 16? I don’t know how much they were up. We could just call it a game and quit. I think we just want to give the fight. Maybe it’s going to be 30 points, but fight needs to be there, and effort.”

The Nuggets trailed 70-54 with 8:12 remaining in the third quarter. And they were down eight with 3:03 left in the game. But Jokic finally was able to get loose against the Lakers’ defense. He got some favorable switches onto smaller defenders and was able to make the Lakers pay for sending double-teams, with five of his nine assists coming in the third quarter.

But like the Nuggets have this entire postseason, Jokic raised his game when things looked bleak for Denver. With under three minutes left, he hit a 19-foot fadeaway, made two free throws and buried a 3-pointer. Then after Jamal Murray missed a deep 3-point attempt short, Jokic somehow tipped the miss in to give the Nuggets a 1-point lead.

Davis responded with a 13-foot floater. After a timeout, Jokic backed in Davis and hit a hook over the All-Defensive first-teamer with 20.8 seconds left to push Denver back up 103-102.

But on the final play, Jokic was challenging the inbounds pass when he tracked the ball to Davis on the left wing. Jokic did his best to contest the shot only to watch it sink the Nuggets in Game 2.

“Losing sucks,” Denver coach Michael Malone said after the loss. “That’s the bottom line, losing sucks. Some guys like to win, some guys hate to lose. I think we’re a group of guys that hate to lose. Whether it be by 20-something points in Game 1 or at the buzzer tonight, counts as the same.

“The only thing you can talk about tonight is we were in the game. They had to rely on a great shot by a great player to beat us at the buzzer. But as long as we’re putting ourselves in position to win games, that’s all you can ask for. One thing I know about our group, even though we are disappointed, frustrated, angry, we’ll use that motivation to come out and try to take Game 3.”

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NBA Playoffs – Biggest takeaways from Game 2 of Nuggets-Lakers

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When the Los Angeles Lakers took a 16-point lead with 8:12 left in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals against the Denver Nuggets, it seemed like they would cruise to a victory, similar to Game 1.

But the Nuggets kept playing, cutting the Los Angeles lead to 82-78 entering the fourth quarter. After a Nikola Jokic hook shot, Denver took a one-point lead with one possession to defend.

Anthony Davis’ buzzer-beater gave the Lakers a 105-103 win to take a 2-0 series lead, but it was quite a way to get to the end. Our experts submit their takeaways after two games between the Nuggets and Lakers.

Anthony Davis leaves a legacy against Nikola Jokic

LeBron James had played in 54 conference finals games heading into Sunday night, and in none of those would he ever have walked away with a victory the way he played in the second half of his 55th.

But until now, James didn’t have the type of all-encompassing force that is Anthony Davis as running mate. That is the reason why the Los Angeles Lakers won Game 2 over the Denver Nuggets.

Davis made a 3-pointer at the buzzer, flashing out to the wing and stepping back to launch the gorgeous arcing bomb, and that sure is the headline.

“This is what they brought me here for,” Davis said moments later on the TNT broadcast, “to make big plays.”

But there is everything that orbits around that play that explains why having a James-Davis marriage is proving to be as fearsome as anyone with the Lakers could have dreamed.

First off, James was miserable by his standards in the second half. He went 2-of-9 on shooting and had just 6 points after halftime with more turnovers (4) than assists (3). In the fourth quarter, as the Lakers’ offense wheezed and the Nuggets made one of their classic comebacks, James spent more time complaining to the refs than scoring as he went 1-of-6 from the field.

Davis, however, made James’ rare playoff lapse fade to the background as he scored 22 of his 31 points on 8-of-13 shooting in the second half. He scored 10 in the last five minutes, nailing two enormous 3-pointers.

Second, Davis was so good that it allowed James to be a decoy on the final play.

It’s not that this hasn’t happened before — James stood in the corner and never touched the ball when Kyrie Irving made his famous 3 in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals — but it just never would happen on a last-second shot.

In 2015, then-Cleveland Cavaliers coach David Blatt tried to draw up a play with 1.5 seconds left in a road playoff game against the Chicago Bulls with James as decoy, with Irving getting the look. James halted the huddle and changed the play, saying later he “scratched” that idea.

Davis is such a complex player to guard, Denver coach Michael Malone put in backup center Mason Plumlee to guard Davis with 2.1 seconds left because he was afraid of a lob at the rim. Rajon Rondo, the triggerman inbounding the ball, saw the switch and instantly decided they’d take advantage of Plumlee and run the faster Davis outside and leave him in the dust.

“[Rondo] made the right read,” James said on Spectrum SportsNet. “I definitely was thinking the ball was coming to me but AD broke open behind me.”

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Anthony Davis hits a game-winning 3-pointer as time expires to give the Lakers a 105-103 win over the Nuggets in Game 2.

Rondo didn’t have to consult with James; everyone understood this was the best policy. James doesn’t “scratch” plays for Davis. Even in their first year together with Davis deeper in the playoff pool than he’s ever been before.

Sensitive to criticism that they overpaid in the trade for Davis last year when they sent three young players including All-Star Brandon Ingram, three first-round picks and pick swap rights to the New Orleans Pelicans, the Lakers and their fans like to question how any of those assets compared to Davis in that night’s box score.

In this moment, as Davis celebrated the triumph and a brilliant second half that bailed out James, he felt like a bargain at twice the price.

“We leaned on him, especially in the fourth quarter,” James said. “And he brought us home.”

— Brian Windhorst


Another fast start for LeBron James

Back in May 2018, the last time LeBron James was in the playoffs, he made a declaration that surely confounded the statistical formulas relied upon by analytics acolytes everywhere: “Two points ain’t two points. That’s a lie. Two points is not two points.”

He was coming off one of the more impressive playoff games in his career, tossing in an array of tough, fadeaway jumpers in a 43-point performance to go up 2-0 on Toronto in the Eastern Conference semifinals. He made that statement a couple days later at shootaround before Game 3, explaining that those shots didn’t just switch the scoreboard, they squelched the spirit of the Raptors.

In Sunday’s Game 2 of the Western Conference finals against Denver, that quote from James came to mind when he scored 20 of his 26 points in the first half. It wasn’t about degree of difficulty so much as importance of the moment.

When he scored the first 12 points of the game for Los Angeles, his last five points of that run — a stepback 3, followed by a finger roll in transition — felt like more than five points because the Nuggets had jumped out to a 12-7 lead and were threatening to control the tone.

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LeBron James drives through and puts in a difficult shot with some spin while getting fouled in the fourth quarter.

It carried over in the second quarter. His 3 with 8:18 increased L.A.’s lead from two to five. When Denver scored on the next possession to get it back to three, James cut back door and scored at the rim to push it to five again. Los Angeles went on a 12-1 run from there to build its biggest lead of the game. He found moments that mattered.

The Nuggets, being the Nuggets, made a comeback. And James contributed to it, certainly, shooting 2-for-9 with 4 turnovers in the second half after going 8-for-11 with 2 turnovers in the first half.

But, his words still rang true. Trailing Denver 103-102 with 2.1 seconds left, Rajon Rondo threw a baseline inbounds pass to Anthony Davis on the wing for a game-winning 3 at the buzzer.

If he misses, Denver ties up the series and adds another incredible confidence-boosting comeback to their postseason journey. But he made it, putting L.A. up 2-0, just two wins away from the NBA Finals.

Sometimes three points ain’t three points either.

— Dave McMenamin


Nuggets in a hole again, but it’s different this time

Being doubted and overlooked has become a part of Denver’s identity in the Florida bubble, as they’ve bounced back from one seemingly insurmountable series deficit after another. Jamal Murray’s assertion that they play their best basketball with their backs against the wall has become a team rallying cry.

“Well, we actually did petition the league to see if we could just get right to it and start 3-1 down,” coach Michael Malone joked before the conference finals began. “But that was shot down.”

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Jamal Murray blows by Anthony Davis for the tough layup, which is answered by a Danny Green triple on the other end.

Playing from behind isn’t new to the Nuggets. Their loss to the Lakers on Sunday, though, marks the first time they’ve fallen into a 2-0 hole. In the first two rounds, Denver has managed to tie the series before falling down 3-1.

And this time, it came down to the last shot.

“There’s no silver lining,” Malone said after the game. “This is the Western Conference finals. The message is: We’re down 2-0. We’ll go out and win Game 3.”

— Malika Andrews


The Nikola Jokic experience

After several trips to the free throw line in the second quarter, Nikola Jokic would immediately sprint back down court even though the ball wasn’t in play yet.

No one could blame Jokic after the Los Angeles Lakers looked like they were running laps around the Nuggets at times in their Game 1 blowout win. Michael Malone made it a priority to try to slow down the Lakers’ transition game.

But the Nuggets didn’t get this far with Jokic playing at someone else’s pace. When Jokic is at his brilliant best, he’s picking apart a defense at his methodical pace, one in which no one can speed him up or slow him down.

The Serbian big man did his best to try to even this best of seven Western Conference Finals in a third quarter that saw him start to dissect the Lakers’ defense and then a furious fourth-quarter rally where he almost went toe-for-toe with Anthony Davis. But unfortunately for the Nuggets, Jokic did not have the ball in his hands at the end. It was in Davis’ hands, and the Lakers’ All-Star big man drilled the game-winning 3 with Jokic flying at him to hand the Nuggets a 105-103 loss and a 2-0 hole in this series.

Jokic did all he could, finishing with 30 points, nine assists, six rebounds and four steals. Jokic scored 11 points in the final 2:42 to nearly steal Game 2 for the Nuggets.

After he was effectively taken out of Game 1 by foul trouble when he picked up his third personal with over seven minutes left in the first half, Jokic found himself living at the free throw line in the second quarter of Game 2. He went 8-for-8 from the line to slow the pace down for the Lakers.

And when the Lakers opened up a 70-54 with 8:12 in third, Denver went on a 21-8 run and got back into the game with Jokic impacting the game the way the Nuggets need him to.

Finally able to get some favorable switches onto smaller defenders, Jokic was able to draw double teams and expose them with his passing. Finding open or cutting teammates, Jokic had five assists in the third quarter and Denver went into the fourth down by just four.

Michael Malone gave Jokic a much-deserved breather to start the fourth after the center played the entire third. And Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and PJ Dozier helped the Nuggets actually briefly take an 87-86 lead with 7:26 left. But the Lakers buried four 3-pointers and pushed the lead to 100-92 with 3:03 left.

But as Denver has done all postseason long, the Nuggets played their best when they had to. An aggressive Jokic showed up just when things looked bleak. Davis had the last shot and the last word. Now Jokic has to find a way to respond in Game 3, or the Nuggets will find themselves perhaps staring at a 3-0 hole for the first time under Jokic.

— Ohm Youngmisuk


Rob Pelinka’s Lakers two wins from NBA Finals

It was 14 months ago when Lakers GM Rob Pelinka was used as a public piñata.

It started with the public humiliation on ESPN’s First Take by his former boss Magic Johnson. From there, it was the questions about whether the Lakers hired the right coach in Frank Vogel. A month later, it was whether the Lakers had given up too much in draft picks and young players to acquire Anthony Davis. And finally, it was Kawhi Leonard spurning them to sign with the crosstown LA Clippers.

The same speculation continued — Pelinka was is in over his head.

What has transpired since is that Vogel would lead the Lakers to the best record in the Western Conference and coach in the All-Star Game.

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Frank Vogel explains why he likened Anthony Davis’ game-winning 3-pointer in Game 2 to a shot that Kobe Bryant would’ve made.

Davis was named first team All-NBA and first-team All-Defense, while finishing second in Defensive Player of the Year and fifth in MVP.

As for losing Leonard to the Clippers?

Instead of having Davis, LeBron James and Leonard (yes, it would have been formidable) with a bench of players on a minimum contract, Pelinka pivoted to a Plan B.

He would use Davis and James as a sounding board on all free agent decisions.

“We were doing constant calls about, ‘What do you think of this or this player?'” Davis told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin before the season started. “Rob was almost like a stalking girlfriend. He was an agent, so he’s played both sides. He knows that in order for stuff to work, the players have to be involved. And he tried to make sure that LeBron and I were involved as much as possible. During free agency, every decision I got a text or a call, even just two minutes, ‘Look, this is going on. … How do you feel? OK, cool.'”

The $32 million in cap space that was designed for Leonard was used to sign Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso and JaVale McGee. Veterans Rajon Rondo and Jared Dudley signed for the veteran minimum exception. Former Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard came on board for a non-guaranteed minimum contract.

In February, the final signing came when Markieff Morris agreed to give back all of his 2020-21 salary ($4.2 million) with the Detroit Pistons to sign with the Lakers.

A year after being a punchline, the team that Pelinka built is now two games away from the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010.

— Bobby Marks

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Follow live: LeBron James, Lakers look for 2-0 series edge vs. Nikola Jokic, Nuggets

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