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Shootaround (May 15) — Washington Wizards, Boston Celtics gear up for Game 7

No. 1: Wizards getting Game 7 experience tonight against Celtics — Tonight in Boston, the Celtics will square off against the Washington Wizards in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference semifinals series (8 ET, TNT). Including the regular season, these two teams have played 10 times this season, with the home team winning every game. Of course, playing in a Game 7 is unlike anything else. For many of the Wizards, though, this will be their first experience in the crucible of a Game 7 writes Candace Buckner of The Washington Post:

In a behind-the-scenes video taped immediately following the Washington Wizards’ 92-91 win over the Boston Celtics on Friday night, Coach Scott Brooks can be seen addressing his players. His hands on his hips, Brooks calmly poses a rhetoric question.

“What’s the two best words in playoff basketball?” he asks.

The correct response, as muttered by several players, would be “Game 7″ — the dessert of this delectable Eastern Conference semifinal series between rivals that happens Monday night inside TD Garden.

However, the “two best words in playoff basketball” could very well have been in Latin for most of the players inside that locker room.

Starting center Marcin Gortat last appeared in a Game 7 during the 2009 playoffs; he played 9:53 as Dwight Howard’s backup when the Orlando Magic defeated the Celtics on the road. Brandon Jennings has also played in one Game 7; he was a rookie starting point guard for the Milwaukee Bucks when they lost to the Atlanta Hawks in the first round in 2010.

Almost every other Wizard — including John Wall and Bradley Beal — has never sniffed a Game 7. Monday will be their first, as well as the first for Washington since the 1979 Eastern Conference finals. The Celtics, however, as a legendary franchise, have won more Game 7s (21) than 28 NBA teams have even played.

They may be short on experience, but the Wizards do have one player with a Game 7 pedigree.

“Game 7s are fun and actually those games are … easier to prepare [for] because you just got to go out there and give everything you have,” center Ian Mahinmi said.

Mahinmi has appeared in three Game 7s, all with the Indiana Pacers. Last season, Mahinmi, who also is the only Wizard with a championship ring (2011 Dallas Mavericks), started for the Pacers when the team took the second-seeded Toronto Raptors to the brink before eventually falling short. Mahinmi’s role has since changed; now he plays behind Gortat and continues to work his way into form after a left calf strain forced him to miss the start of the playoffs. Even so, Mahinmi plans to share his wisdom with teammates before Monday’s game.

“It’s plain and simple. There is no ‘I’m going to save this for the fourth quarter.’ Because if you lose, you go home,” Mahinmi said. “Mentally you just relax and you just go out there and do what you’ve been doing all year. It’s kind of a privilege to get to that point where one game is going to decide your whole season, basically. I’m going to tell those guys, it’s nothing to overthink. Just go out there and play hard. We’ve been playing hard, so more of the same.”

1:51
The Celtics and Wizards meet tonight for a spot in the Eastern Conference finals.

* * *

No. 2: Spurs likely to play it safe with Leonard — The San Antonio Spurs built up a 25-point lead during yesterday’s Game 1 of the Western Conference finals against the Golden State Warriors. But after Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard exited after tweaking an ankle injury in the third quarter, the Warriors waged an epic comeback, eventually winning 113-111. Clearly, the Spurs are better with Leonard. Leonard’s status for Game 2 is uncertain, but looking back at San Antonio’s history addressing injuries, it would seem to suggest we won’t see Leonard playing again until he’s well past any injury risk, writes Michael C. Wright for ESPN.com:

Kawhi Leonard walked slowly and deliberately through the quiet loser’s locker room. No limp, no brace, no tape covering the sprained left ankle that buckled with 7 minutes, 53 seconds left in the third quarter of the San Antonio Spurs’ 113-111 loss to the Golden State Warriors on Sunday in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.

In fact, the All-Star forward never deviated from his normal, pigeon-toed gait on his way to the athletic training room.

The only strangeness witnessed was the fact that the training staff sat Leonard at a table and taped up the injured ankle after the game, before the forward pulled on a Spurs sweat suit and strolled out to the team bus.

“I feel good,” Leonard said. “I’ll get back healthy. I have faith in my teammates, and we’re going to see what happens [in] Game 2.”

That’s likely going to involve Leonard playing the role of spectator instead of savior on Tuesday in what was already expected to be a lopsided series. It is now tilted heavily in favor of the host Warriors.

A league source said that Leonard would undergo an MRI on Monday morning. When the forward originally suffered the injury in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Houston Rockets, a source explained San Antonio’s philosophy for dealing with injuries, which dates all the way back to the early Tim Duncan years and provides something of a clue for how the Spurs might proceed with Leonard throughout this series.

In the season after San Antonio’s first championship, Duncan tore the lateral meniscus in his left knee on April 11, 2000, Game No. 78 of the season. That forced him to miss the final four games. As the Spurs prepped for the postseason, Duncan tried his best to show the staff that he could move well enough to help his team win. The problem was that a bit of loose cartilage that moved around remained in the knee and posed a risk Popovich didn’t want to take.

Popovich shut down Duncan for the postseason, and the Spurs lost an opening-round series 3-1 to the Phoenix Suns.

Leonard’s injury isn’t as significant as Duncan’s. But the source said that situation started a philosophy by Popovich of the team always striving to “do what’s best for the player” when dealing with injuries, even if it means faltering in the playoffs. In this case, it’s probably best for Leonard to sit, considering that after Game 2 on Tuesday, these teams won’t clash again until Saturday in San Antonio. That would give Leonard nearly a week to rest the sore ankle.

“Of course, it’s going to be tough,” said power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who led the Spurs with 28 points and eight rebounds. “He’s our leading scorer and our go-to guy. But guys have to step up and try to take some of that load and try to be better out there. It’s about defense right now: got to play better defense, make [fewer] mistakes, and we’ll be good.”

1:30
Kawhi Leonard suffers an ankle injury in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.

* * *

Pahulia says Leonard injury an accident — In the aftermath of Leonard’s injury, a lot of watchers on social media suggested the play from Golden State’s Zaza Pachulia, whose foot Leonard landed on, was meant to intentionally injure Leonard. After the game, however, Pachulia took offense to any talk that he was out to hurt Leonard, writes Monte Poole for CSN Bay Area:

“I just did what I was supposed to do and challenged his shot,” Pachulia said. “And I turned around and there was a call. I didn’t notice that he was down until I turned back. I didn’t see what happened there.”

Referee Marc Davis whistled a foul on Pachulia. Leonard made a pair of free throws, after which he left the game for good.

There was immediate and incessant reaction on social media, where Spurs fans and others blamed Pachulia for purposely trying to injury Leonard.

Asked if it was intentional, Leonard said he didn’t think so.

“He was contesting a shot,” he said. “The shot clock was coming down and . . . I’ll have to see the play.”

Pachulia had harsh words for those who believed he was trying to hurt Leonard.

“That’s really stupid,” he said.

“I don’t think I should be making (any) comment,” he added. “I’m not that good to be doing intentional stuff like that. I did my part. I had to challenge the shot. It was a handoff situation and I saw that my teammate was behind the screen. I had to challenge the shot. That’s what I did. And I turned around for the rebound and that was it.

“I hate anybody going down like that with an injury. I’m an athlete, too, so I know how it feels. I wish it’s nothing serious for him because we are colleagues at the end of the day. So we’re going to move on.”

0:58
Kawhi Leonard didn’t think Zaza Pachulia made a dirty play in Game 1.

* * * 

D’Antoni focused on ramping up Rockets’ defense — Coach Mike D’Antoni and defense have never been associated much with each other. Critics of his coaching style may point to that as a reason why none of his teams have ever reached a conference final, let alone The Finals. In the wake of his Houston Rockets’ Western Conference semifinals loss, D’Antoni is vowing to improve his team’s defense for 2017-18, writes Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle

“The offense starts off, we just had one layer in, and it was pretty good, but we can add to that. Defensively is where we are going to make our most strides and, again, we are talking about being a top 10 (defense). That is the key.

“I guarantee we will get better.”

D’Antoni said upgrading the defense is the “first step.” There is reason to believe that can be done with the talent on hand. The Rockets had the second-ranked defense in December, when they had their best stretch of the season. Before their Game 6 flop, they were the third-ranked defense in the playoffs and even in just the second round. The key, they said, is to become more consistent.

“You are selling trust,” D’Antoni said. “We developed a bond between the players and the coaching staff. (Assistant coach) Jeff Bzdelik has done an incredible job. In case you hadn’t noticed, we aren’t a very defensive-minded team, but Jeff is creating habits and that takes a while. That’s our next big step, and we will get better at that next year.”

The next steps could be even more difficult than going from 41 to 55 wins, one postseason win to six.

They had hoped to skip the steps it normally takes to go from a team that slipped in to the playoffs on the last day to one expecting more than a six-game, second-round exit. But before the season crashed, D’Antoni knew the building project was not done.

“We took nice steps, but we didn’t take that big step we all wanted to, and we have to make it part of the process,” he said. “We had a good group. We had good guys. I thought we could do it. But if you look back at the normal process, you go to the second round, the next year to the conference finals, and next year you win it. You can also go back. It’s up to us to keep it going that way. We’re going to dedicate everything we have to it.”

* * *

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Golden State Warriors forward Andre Iguodala will have an MRI on his left knee today … Breaking down some of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ signature handshake routines … According to a report, the Philadelphia 76ers are interested in signing Robert Covington to a contract extension this summer … Is Phil Jackson hurting Carmelo Anthony’s trade stock? … During the pre-Draft combine, the prospects get asked some pretty weird questions … ESPN’s Shelley Smith is doing well after suffering stroke symptoms in the Golden State locker room following Game 1 against the Spurs

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