After taking Monday off, the NBA is back on Tuesday with its final two-game day of the season. The Eastern Conference Finals will get underway with Boston, which should be refreshed after getting a couple extra days off following its Game 7 win over Toronto, taking on a very well-rested Miami Heat team.
The Celtics will still be without one of its starters for Game 1, but we may see Gordon Hayward at some point in the series. That game will be followed by Game 7 of the Nuggets/Clippers series, with Denver attempting to erase 3-1 deficits in back-to-back series. Waiting for the winner are the Los Angeles Lakers, who dispatched the Rockets in five games.
— Gordon Hayward (ankle) ruled out for Game 1
Hayward still isn’t ready to make a return to action, as he did not take part in Monday’s practice and was declared out for Game 1 as a result. He did go through what was labeled as a “hard workout” at the end of the session, getting some small group work in. Brad Stevens said that Hayward “looked good,” but did not provide a timetable regarding a possible return to action. Hayward, who’s been out since Game 2 of the Celtics’ first round series against Philadelphia, left the bubble briefly before returning to Orlando.
The question now is whether or not he’ll get to a point where he’s healthy enough to return during the Eastern Conference Finals, giving Boston another versatile forward to utilize against a Miami rotation that doesn’t lack for those options, either. He’ll need to go through a full practice before being cleared, and with games being played every other day Boston could be deep into the series before their starting forward becomes available. Also worth noting in this is the fact that Hayward will leave the bubble again at some point, as his wife is expecting.
Hayward has played against the Heat twice this season, posting averages of 22.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.5 blocks and 0.5 3-pointers in 37.0 minutes per game. While he posted solid overall field goal (55.6) and free throw (81.3) percentages, he shot just 14.3 percent from beyond the arc. One of those two games was played in the bubble, with Hayward shooting 5-of-13 from the field and 5-of-6 from the foul line in a loss to the Heat on August 4. In that game he played 36 minutes, tallying 15 points, seven rebounds, three assists and three turnovers. Hayward missed all five of his 3-point attempts in the loss, and was nowhere near as effective as he was in a January 28 win over Miami.
He shot 10-of-14 from the field and 8-of-10 from the foul line, scoring 29 points with nine rebounds, one assist, one blocked shot and one 3-pointer (on two attempts). It’s worth noting that this game was played before Miami made the deadline trade with Memphis that resulted in Jae Crowder, Andre Iguodala and Solomon Hill making the move south. As we've seen this postseason that changes things, as Miami boasts an 8-1 record heading into the conference finals.
Of the players currently in the Heat rotation it’s been Duncan Robinson who has defended Hayward the most this season, with NBA tracking data crediting him with 5:20 spent on the Celtics forward over the course of two games. In those minutes Hayward shot 6-of-12 from the field and 3-of-4 from the foul line, scoring 15 points with Boston scoring 28 points when those two were matched up.
Crowder got to see Hayward twice, once as a member of the Grizzlies, defending for just under three minutes. Jimmy Butler has also defended Hayward for just under three minutes this season. So if Hayward is able to return at some point in this series, the Heat won’t be limited to just one option when it comes to defending him.
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— No injury report changes ahead of Nuggets/Clippers Game 7
Will Barton (knee) remains out for Denver ahead of the decisive game, and the Clippers’ injury report is once again empty. The question for me heading into Tuesday is just how deep will Doc Rivers go into his rotation. Patrick Beverley has been on a minutes restriction as he works his way back, and to be frank he should be well-rested after fouling out in just 18 minutes Sunday. What his foul trouble did was force Rivers to rely more on guards that struggle on the defensive end more than he would have liked to.
As good of a scorer as Lou Williams is, he’s never been known as a lockdown defender but he’s actually been serviceable on that end of the floor. In the Clippers’ three wins in this series he boasts a defensive rating of 91.0 per the NBA’s stats, and a net rating of plus-23.3. In three losses his defensive rating skyrockets to 115.9, and a net rating of minus-1.2.
Landry Shamet has even worse net rating splits, as he’s a plus-12.6 in wins and minus-13.4 in losses, and Reggie Jackson really can’t be used given his defensive struggles. Williams is obviously going to play as the Clippers need his scoring off the bench, but Beverley getting into foul trouble would put Rivers in a tough spot due to the ineffectiveness of the other reserve guards.
The reserve who’s arguably struggled the most defensively in this series has been Montrezl Harrell, who has a defensive rating of 106.1 in the Clippers’ wins (net rating of plus-1.2) and 110.3 (minus-22.9) in the team’s three defeats. It’s gotten to the point where JaMychal Green is the better option to fill in at the five when starter Ivica Zubac either needs a rest of is saddled with foul trouble. Harrell’s DFS price tag should be cheap for this one given his struggles, but Green is the better choice for those looking to fill their roster with a low-cost option.
For Denver the approach to Game 7 is simple: don’t dig themselves a hole that proved too deep to crawl out of. Michael Malone’s team trailed by as much as 19 in Game 6, but as was the case in Game 5 Denver found a way to come back. Jamal Murray, who’s been hounded by Beverley, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George all series, had his best game of the series with regard to overall field goal (9-of-13) percentage in Game 6.
He finished with 21 points, five rebounds, five assists, two steals, one 3-pointer and one turnover, and he has a total of two turnovers in Games 5 and 6. Murray was banged up during Sunday's win, but the fact that he wasn't listed on Monday's injury report likely means that he's a full go for Tuesday.
If Murray can provide similar production to go along with the seemingly unstoppable Nikola Jokic, and Denver gets timely contributions from its supporting cast, it would not come as a surprise if the Nuggets managed to rally from 3-1 down for the second straight series. But won’t be easy, especially with the tandem of Leonard and George on the other side.