FOX Sports writers provide game tips throughout the NBA Playoffs. Here are her thoughts from the opening day of round one.
Hawk’s 130, Celtic’s 122: Falcons steal one
After beating the Atlanta Hawks in their first game and then steadily retiring in the second, the Boston Celtics apparently decided that a solid fourth quarter would be enough to get the job done in Game 3 of their best-of-seven first-round series.
You were wrong. But not much.
The Hawks are now 2-1 down after their 130-122 win of the series, avoiding the dreaded 3-0 hole in the series from which no team in NBA history has escaped.
Game 4 is Sunday and it’s certain that the Celtics won’t take the Hawks lightly again. The league’s third-best defense allowed Atlanta to score 74 points in the first half while shooting 65%. If the Celtics didn’t feel a sense of urgency, it was because the Hawks’ lax outside defense allowed them to stay within striking distance by nabbing open 3s. Boston took 22 of them in the first half and made 15, a nearly 70% clip. That was good enough to stay within seven at halftime.
The Hawks’ lead was seven with the last 12 minutes when Boston decided to bolster its defense. The effect was immediate. Atlanta committed four turnovers in the first 2 1/2 minutes. The Celtics converted each of them into a layup or tip-in, cutting the deficit to one.
Despite several chances for a tie or the lead, the Celtics couldn’t turn the tide. Twice, down two, they coaxed the Hawks to miss, but failed to intercept the rebound that followed.
“I thought they took their second chance, unlike the first two games,” said Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla.
The biggest sequence came with 2:45 left and Atlanta leading 118-116. Trae Young missed a finger roll layup and Clint Capela’s tip-in attempt also failed, but the ball went wide in front of Boston. Dejounte Murray then missed a 12-foot pullup on the subsequent inbound play, but the ball again went wide in front of Boston. The Hawks eventually appeared to be stuck, Al Horford thwarting Young’s drive to the basket while the shot clock was running down, but Young returned to the arc and buried a three to bring the lead back to five.
However, Marcus Smart refused to back down. His layup cut the lead to three again and once again it seemed as if the Celtics’ defense could squeeze empty possession out of the Hawks, catching Murray in Derrick White’s left corner and the shot clock about to expire. Murray, who jumped and disappeared, managed to get off a shot and hit nothing but the net.
“I thought Trae hit a hard shot, I thought Murray hit a hard shot,” Mazzulla said. “They hit a lot of big shots.”
But Smart responded with another three, and when Jaylen Brown grabbed the ball from Atlanta’s DeAndre Hunter on ensuing possession, it looked like the Celtics might finally be able to tip the scales. Brown handed it to Al Horford, who threw it crosscourt to a wide-open Jayson Tatum to tie the potential Game 3. But his try slammed from the back edge and Boston’s best last chance at a comeback ended. Young, who struggled greatly in the first two games of the series, scored Atlanta’s last six points, four of them from the free-throw line, and finished the game with 32 points and nine assists.
“The whole team played all night,” Young said. “It’s not always about goals. I was just trying to play the right game and tonight I did it.”
Knicks 99, Cavaliers 79: Knicks put the brackets on Cavs
With less than 10 minutes left at Madison Square Garden, all that was missing were balloons falling from the ceiling.
Obi Toppin found Mitchell Robinson with a no-look dish for a slam over Jarrett Allen. JB Bickerstaff reluctantly called a timeout. MSG’s DJ blasted at Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York. And the crowd of 19,812 kicked off a Friday night sing-along in Manhattan.
A party ensued, resulting in Obi Toppin and Jalen Brunson dunking a minute apart, Josh Hart adding his flare to the blowout, and Derrick Rose receiving a standing ovation from the New York faithful as he entered the final minutes of the game .
The Knicks defeated the Cavs 99-79 to take a 2-1 lead. The fourth game takes place on Sunday at 1:00 p.m. ET at MSG.
Cleveland’s 79 points marked the lowest total points of any team in the NBA that season.
“They saw it, they got shaken up,” Mitchell Robinson said, describing Cleveland after the win.
Friday night was a Tom Thibodeau special where the Knicks knocked the Cavaliers off the jump and methodically wore them down with an outspoken New York-style defense.
“I thought we had great energy and connectivity,” Thibodeau said after the win.
The Knicks gave Darius Garland his worst nightmare, responding to a 32-point performance and holding him to 10 points in 4-for-21 from the floor. Jalen Brunson was brilliant defensively on Garland while leading the scorer list for the Knicks with 21 points.
But for New York, Friday’s response was powered by RJ Barrett after a 107-90 loss in Game Two in Cleveland. The No. 3 draft pick overall in 2019, entering the series’ night shooting 6-for-25, landed the opening shots at the Cavs and stayed steady during a dominant performance. He finished with 19 points on 8 of 12 from the floor and burdened the Knicks with 28 points after 21 Cleveland turnovers.
“RJ is the kind of person who keeps bouncing back,” Brunson said. “It never gets too high or too low. You can never tell by his behavior and that’s what makes him so good.”
The turning point? After Isaac Okoro hit one of just seven Cavs 3s — of 33 attempts — to give Cleveland a 24-23 lead at 8:59 in the first half, the Knicks began converting their stops into points. New York rolled out a 15-3 run in which Brunson assisted or hit five of the seven buckets, ultimately turning a one-point play into a 45-32 lead at the break.
Cleveland would be 64-55 with 2:18 in the third quarter, but Hart, Quickley and Brunson drilled three straight buckets to end the period with an 8-0 run and eradicate any doubt as to where this was going game went ahead.
“There are things that contributed to that (79-point performance), but at the end of the day we missed shots,” said Donovan Mitchell, who had 22 total points, seven rebounds and five assists in the loss. “We have to trust ourselves. We have to do everything we can to get that back to Cleveland 2-2.”
Aside from what the Knicks were doing on the floor, an inexperienced Cavs team that was struggling on the streets this year was blown away by the boisterous crowd. An 8:30 a.m. start time meant the New Yorkers were not delayed, and they had more than enough time to stock up at local facilities in advance.
“It’s The Garden, man,” Barrett said with a smile. “It was so much fun playing in it. You grow up thinking about those moments. I can’t wait to be back here on Sunday.”
If the Knicks could get that one in Manhattan, their fanbase would raise yet another roar, as New York would be just one win away from the franchise’s second straight playoff win in the last 23 years.
– John Fanta
Nuggets 120, Timberwolves 111: Nuggets go up 3-0
Nikola Jokic had his seventh career triple-double in the playoffs with 20 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists for the Denver Nuggets, who fended off the Minnesota Timberwolves 120-111 and in the first-round NBA playoff series with 3: 0 in the lead Friday night.
Michael Porter Jr. had 25 points and nine rebounds and Jamal Murray added 18 points and nine assists as Denver withstood another dashing performance from Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards to a raucous crowd of white-shirted fans after another frustrating postseason loss to send home.
Game 4 is here Sunday night.
Edwards scored 36 points to take his total to 95, Karl-Anthony Towns had 27 points after scoring just 21 points in his first two games, and Rudy Gobert had 18 points and 10 rebounds for the Wolves, but one here defensive errors and a rush 3-pointer were enough to seal their fate against a well-rounded Nuggets team finally healthy enough for a run at the NBA Finals.
Bruce Brown had 12 points to lead Denver’s 29-10 lead in bank points, and the Nuggets shot a hard-to-hit 57% from the field.
With the Nuggets taking their first 2-0 lead in nine playoff series under Mike Malone, their message from the coach was to go full throttle and not give the underdog Wolves extra confidence.
The Western Conference’s top team held on by shooting as their seededs depend and passing Wolves on nearly every long rebound. The Nuggets had two 9-0 runs in the first half and could hardly go wrong, starting the second quarter with 12 of their first 16 shots and building a 13-point lead.
Then Edwards, who had 41 points for the franchise playoff record in Game 2, single-handedly brought the Wolves back with the kind of starburst only players like him are capable of.
After a rotten pass from Towns was intercepted by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Edwards rushed to the block and quickly converted a Euro-Step layup at the other end. The wolves kept the momentum and shortened to 61:55 just before half-time. At the end of the third quarter, they were still within six points.
Wolves won their play-in game here a week ago by going big on the backs of Towns and Gobert, the unlikely pairing they created when former Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly did the same job stormed in Minnesota and accepted a blockbuster trade from Gobert.
Wolves attacked the basket better than they had in their first two games, and Towns drew Jokic’s fourth foul at 5:51 in the third quarter, but the 7-foot Serb is just too skilled – and too strong – to be hit like that.
The two-time reigning NBA MVP led the league with 29 triple-doubles in the regular season.
– The Associated Press
Friday night was a showcase of what Thibodeau has built. It wasn’t pretty, but the Knicks never were when they were successful in the postseason. They made the Cavs uncomfortable all night while setting fire to MSG.
Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has authored two books, Rebound, about NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with early-onset Parkinson’s disease, and Yao: A Life In Two Worlds. He also has a daily podcast, On The Ball with Ric Bucher. Follow him on Twitter @Ric Bucher.
John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of roles, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to commentating on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.
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