NBA Playoffs, Celtics Magic Game 6: Big men will be banging, but little men will decide this one

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Rondo_Jumper.jpgMan is it going to be fun to watch what happens inside the paint tonight tonight. Both as a fan of basketball and MMA — because there is going to be some banging.

Dwight Howard and Kendrick Perkins are going to go at it inside, technicals be damned. Big Baby is back from his injury and ready to rock. You know Sheed will be ready to go, game time decision or not. Celtics fans want blood; Celtics players are going to stand their ground. Howard is not giving an inch.

And all that is not going to decide the game, that’s just the sideshow.

Point guards will decide this one. Not those two men alone, but how the other team’s defense deals with them.

For the first three games, it was all Rajon Rondo. Then since the Magic went to more staggered double screens for Jameer Nelson, he started feeling comfortable enough to attack, and he has been the story as the Magic have won two in a row.

Stop Nelson and you stop the Magic. ESPN did the math for us (and the fantastic Eddie Rivera posted it for us): in the first three games, Nelson shot 38.2 percent, that jumped to 52.8 percent the last two games. More importantly, his points per possession (where he has the shot or assist, or turnover) jumped from 0.86 to 1.21 (know that basically one is the average).

The Celtics knew they had to adjust, so in Game 5 they started to send Paul Pierce in to help on the pick-and-roll, leaving Matt Barnes as the guy to beat them. He did in the first quarter, he hit a couple threes. Combine that with some foul trouble and the Celtics sort of abandoned that strategy.

They should go back to it tonight — Barnes was a 31 percent three-point shooter during the season. Granted, he has hit almost 38 percent in the playoffs, but this is going to a high-pressure, on the road situation. Make Barnes prove he can do it. If that doesn’t work, well, better have a Plan B.

The other Celtic defender that needs to step up in Kevin Garnett — he needs to be everywhere. His responsibilities are huge, but such is the role. He has to help inside, he has to have rotations and recover on shooters (especially his man Rashard Lewis). KG has to be part of stopping the pick and roll, because if the Celtics do that they stop the Magic attack.

Conversely, the Magic need to continue to hold Rajon Rondo in check. They have been physical with him the last couple of games, they have to continue to be without getting fouls. Rondo for his part needs to get back to pushing the pace — something the Celtics should be more comfortable doing at home (we say should, they have not always done that this season). The Celtics need a few easy buckets in transition.

They also need Garnett to get more points on Lewis — KG has the height advantage in the post, he needs to exploit it and when the double comes hit the open man. Garnett needs to go back to being the guy who abused Antawn Jamison last round, not the tentative guy from the conference finals. Some hot shooting from Ray Allen would solve a lot of problems as well.

But it still comes back to the point guards.

Tonight, one of the two guys is going to get loose. Nelson is going to continue to run the pick and roll with impunity, and the Magic will force a Game 7. Rondo will get loose in transition and hit some shots at the rim in the half court — maybe even draw a foul — and the Celtics will end this series and await the winner of the next one.

The big banging bodies in the paint will be fun to watch. But the point guard battle will decide this game. And the series.

In the East, it’s the Cavs and then everyone else – again

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The Cleveland Cavaliers know what it feels like to enter the season as Eastern Conference favorites.

They begin this one with an entirely unfamiliar label – defending champions.

The rest of the East has spent the last six years unsuccessfully trying to unseat LeBron James from the throne. Whether he has been in Cleveland or Miami, James has led his team to the NBA Finals every year since 2011. But his crowning achievement came last season, when his Cavaliers captured the city’s first pro sports championship in 52 years by defeating the record-breaking Golden State Warriors.

Now the Cavaliers are wearing an even bigger target on their backs.

“It’s the same mindset: Let’s win a championship,” James said. “We just want to be able to put ourselves in position to do that. We have the ability, we have the personnel, but we have to work now. We can’t expect for it to happen just like we didn’t expect for it to happen last year. We put the time into it.”

The Boston Celtics finally found a star in Al Horford to team with a lunch pail group that has overachieved under coach Brad Stevens. The Toronto Raptors are back for more after falling to the Cavs in the Eastern Conference finals and Chicago and New York brought in aging stars in a desperate attempt to change the balance of power in the league’s weaker conference.

James’ reply: Bring it on.

“We can’t be entitled to anything we’ve got to go out and get it and work for it,” he said. “We’re a team that’s very driven and we look forward to all the challenges the season holds.”

A look at the East:


1. Cleveland – Championship hangover? No one expects that with the Cavs. There is one certainty in the NBA: LeBron will make it to the finals.

2. Boston – Horford and Stevens appear to be the perfect match.

3. Toronto – Keep doubting the Raptors. Kyle Lowry wants you to. Should be nip and tuck with the Celtics all season.

4. Washington – Here’s where it starts to get dicey. Wiz are betting Scott Brooks will be able to push the buttons Randy Wittman couldn’t.

5. Atlanta – The Hawks took a step back last season, then swapped Horford for Dwight Howard. Things could go either way in Hotlanta this season.

6. Charlotte – Mostly stood pat this summer after a surprising sixth-place finish last year. A healthy Michael Kidd-Gilchrist sure could make a difference.

7. Detroit – Would have picked them higher, but Reggie Jackson‘s injury is a concern.

8. Indiana – Pacers swapped out the underrated George Hill for Jeff Teague, traded Frank Vogel for Nate McMillan and brought in Thaddeus Young and Al Jefferson to funk things up.


9. Chicago – Dwyane Wade‘s homecoming is a great story. But the severe lack of shooting figures to hold the Bulls back.

10. Miami – With Wade and Chris Bosh gone, it’s rebuilding time. Don’t expect Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra to be down long, though.

11. New York – Manhattan is all excited about the star power that Phil Jackson brought in. The reality is Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah have not been completely healthy for years.

12. Milwaukee – Khris Middleton‘s injury is a killer that prompted scrambling for wing help. The Greek Freak at point guard, thought? That will be appointment viewing.


13. Orlando – Vogel landed with the Magic and he has all kinds of defensive weapons at his disposal. That will be essential because scoring may be difficult to come by.

14. Philadelphia – You have to be kidding us with the Ben Simmons injury. Hey, at least Joel Embiid is healthy. Please keep it that way.

15. Brooklyn – Move over Philly, there’s a new basement dweller in the East! Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson are well thought of, but it’s going to take time to get this thing turned around.


LEBRON’S LEGACY: The last time James did not appear in the NBA Finals was 2010 when the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Celtics. James’ Cavaliers were eliminated in the East semifinals by the Celtics, and he signed with the Heat that summer.

WALL AND BEAL: Much has been made of the chemistry, or lack thereof, in Washington’s backcourt. If John Wall and Bradley Beal are on the same page, the Wizards are dangerous. If they can’t find a way to harmonize, Washington could plummet down the standings.

NEW FACES: Brooks in Washington, McMillan in Indiana, Vogel in Orlando, Atkinson in Brooklyn and Jeff Hornacek in New York start their first seasons as coaches after a summer of upheaval in the conference.

SCHRODER TIME: The Hawks traded Teague to Indiana to open the door for Schroder’s slashing game. He’s been waiting for this chance, and his ability to run the team, play defense and knock down the occasional jumper will be critical to Atlanta’s chances.

ROOKIE WATCH: Only three of the top nine picks in the draft went to teams in the East. Youngsters to keep an eye on include Jaylen Brown in Boston, Jakob Poeltl for Toronto, Thon Maker in Milwaukee and Denzel Valentine in Chicago.

AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report.

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Wade, Rondo bring intrigue if not title hopes to Bulls

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Associated Press

CHICAGO (AP) No matter how this season plays out, this much is clear about the Chicago Bulls: They’re worth watching.

They jettisoned one hometown superstar and welcomed another when they traded former MVP Derrick Rose and signed three-time NBA champion Dwyane Wade.

They also handed the keys to an All-Star guard in Jimmy Butler who called out his coach last season. And on top of that, they added mercurial point guard Rajon Rondo to the mix.

Coming off a flat season that ended with them missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008, the Bulls at least spiced things up in the offseason. Now, it’s time to see if interesting also means better.

“I love the vibe of this group,” Hoiberg said. “I love the competitiveness of this group.”

The Bulls clearly had to do something after a year that began with high expectations ended with a 42-40 record, a fractured locker room and all sorts of questions about team leadership.

Gone is Chicago native Rose – derailed by injuries after leading the Bulls to heights they hadn’t reached since the Michael Jordan Era – after being dealt to New York for center Robin Lopez and guard Jerian Grant. So is Joakim Noah, who signed with Knicks not long after the big trade. Pau Gasol went to San Antonio as a free agent.

Wade shocked Miami when he chose to come home to Chicago and accept a two-year deal worth about $47 million.

Here are some things to look for this season from the Bulls, who open at home against Boston on Oct. 27:


The Bulls thought Hoiberg’s fast-paced tempo and soft-spoken style were just what the team needed when he was hired. They just didn’t think the learning curve would be as steep as it was. Hoiberg got called out by Butler last season for not coaching the team hard enough. The system and the roster did not mesh.

So does Year 2 bring a better Hoiberg?

Executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson said he expects it. So does Hoiberg, who came to the Bulls after a successful five-year run at Iowa State.

But is this the right roster for him? After all, Wade and Rondo are both in their 30s. And if the Bulls struggle, who takes the fall?


Who knows what might have happened had Wade signed with the Bulls six years ago rather than form a superstar triumvirate with LeBron James and Chris Bosh in Miami? But he’s here now, coming off a strong season and being counted on at age 34 to set the tone for the Bulls’ younger players. The 12-time All-Star has been doing just that, speaking up in practice and meetings.


It’s been a steep climb for Butler from low first-round draft pick to bench warmer to two-time All-Star with an Olympic gold medal. But his success hasn’t translated to team success. Butler’s first All-Star season ended with Tom Thibodeau’s firing. Last year, the Bulls dropped into the lottery. And while Wade and Rondo have said the Bulls are Butler’s team, it’s not clear exactly how far he can lead them.

“I can learn from (Wade and Rondo), the winning culture they’ve built,” Butler said. “I’m excited because there’s so much growth I can handle in that aspect of the game. You look at what Wade has done for his career, a future Hall of Famer. I think that I can model the way I do things around him.’


While the Bulls added scoring punch and the reigning assists-per-game leader in Wade and Rondo, they still lack a starting guard who can consistently hit from long range. That was a problem last season with Rose and Butler, who moves to small forward.

Spacing could be a problem when Rondo, Wade and Butler are on the court together, though the Bulls do have solid shooters in Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott. Gasol’s departure also creates a scoring hole in the paint.


Rondo is coming off a resurgent season with Sacramento that saw him average 11.9 points and a league-leading 11.7 assists. It was the fourth time he averaged a double-double in a season and the first for him since the 2012-13 season. The four-time All-Star has clashed with coaches, most notably Dallas’ Rick Carlisle, and his relationship with Hoiberg could be one to watch.

Damian Lillard drops first rap album “The Letter O”

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Damian Lillard via Twitter
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Damian Lillard keeps hearing the calls from fans on social media to work harder in the gym instead of rapping. This summer, it looks like he did both.

Lillard announced on Thursday that he would be dropping his first album, titled “The Letter O”, with features from artists like Lil’ Wayne and Jamie Foxx.

The Portland Trail Blazers point guard has come out with a few songs here and there, but this is the first full-featured album of his career. The album comes after Lillard performed at the Crystal Ballroom in July, a premiere concert hall in downtown Portland.

Oh, and about that whole “stay in the gym” thing? Lillard answered that too.


“I recorded the entire album in L.A. and it took me one week,” said Lillard. “So I was there for five days and from 12 noon to 12 midnight I was in the studio. I’d workout at 8 am and then I’d go lift and then I’d go to the studio, 12 to 12, five days straight.”

The Letter O is a tribute to Lillard’s heritage — Oakland, Ogden, and Oregon — the three places that are the mileposts of his basketball career. During lineups, Lillard is announced as “Wearing the letter O” before every Blazers game.

You can The Letter O on Spotify, Apple Music, and iTunes.

Horford’s addition gives Celtics high hopes for new year

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Associated Press
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BOSTON (AP) From afar, Al Horford has always had respect for the history of the Boston Celtics.

He made his first visit to the Garden as a rookie in 2007 and found himself drawn to the championship banners that hung above the court.

That was the same season that Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joined Paul Pierce to form the Big 3 and went on to win Boston’s 17th NBA championship.

As the Celtics biggest free agent signing since then, Horford – with his four-year, $113 million contract – is now the centerpiece of the franchise as it chases banner No. 18.

He enters the 2016-17 campaign no longer the wide-eyed rookie that arrived in Atlanta nine years ago. He’s now a veteran four-time All-Star that team president Danny Ainge believes can provide leadership to a young core led by Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder. The immediate goal is to help Boston advance past the first round of the playoffs for first time since 2012.

“I know that I’m gonna help our team be better,” Horford said. “I’m gonna try to come in and try to gel as fast as I can and just make sure that we’re playing at a high level, and that we’re working every day. And we’ll see what happens.”

There’s no denying that Horford joins a team that has been on the upswing under coach Brad Stevens. Boston won just 25 games his first season in 2013-14 but have improved to 40 and 48 wins the past two, which have included back-to-back playoff berths.

But each of those postseason appearances ended in first-round exits, including a 4-2 loss to Horford’s Hawks last season.

That loss was marred by a hamstring injury to Bradley in Game 1, as well as nagging injuries which dogged Crowder and center Kelly Olynyk.

With all of that behind them, Thomas is anxious to see what this group can accomplish when healthy and with some extra star power.

Aside from providing some help defending the rim and rebounding, Horford’s shooting ability also should open up the floor more for a scoring point guard like Thomas, and improved shooter like Bradley.

The expectation is that Crowder will also be freer to operate with Horford drawing attention in the paint.

There is also No. 3 overall draft pick Jaylen Brown, whose athleticism should fit right in with a group that loves to run the floor.

“We have a pretty good team, a team that could make some noise – some legitimate noise,” Thomas said. “If we put it together and play the right way, we can make a lot happen this season. You don’t ever want to put a ceiling on it, but we have a really good team I know that.”


Probably the Celtics’ biggest loss this offseason was the departure of swingman Evan Turner to Portland in free agency. Aside from being a productive sixth man, he also at times triggered their half-court sets when he was in the game. “That’s a big loss,” Stevens said. “A big loss because of the way he handled the ball, the big shots that he made late in the game, his positional versatility defensively, his everyday workman-like attitude in the gym.”


The Celtics were dealt a small blow to their second unit when Marcus Smart suffered a left ankle sprain in their preseason finale. The silver lining is that while he’s out, it will almost certainly mean increased playing time for second-year point guard Terry Rozier. Rozier had his best moments as a rookie on the defensive end, but showed a lot of improvement in his shooting during the preseason. “He works hard at the game and it’s no surprise that he’s having success,” Stevens said. “We’re going to rely on him.”


Olynyk sat out the entire preseason recovering from arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder in May. After not being cleared for contact in time to appear in any preseason games, it’s possible he could miss a good chunk of games early in the season. It will mean one less body to relieve Horford, but will give the Celtics opportunities to play smaller at times.


The Celtics have a fairly balanced schedule over the first full month of the season, but will play 10 of their first 18 games on the road. Horford will play his former Hawks team three times this season, beginning Jan. 13 in Atlanta.

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