Heat have best defensive game of season, rout Spurs

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Since the first day of training camp — really, from the first day Miami’s triad of stars aligned — it’s been about the Heat defense. That was the question, the answer would determine how far they could go.

Ten days ago, the Spurs beat the Heat by 30 when Miami’s defense couldn’t stop the Spurs at the arc or in the paint. Miami looked overmatched, like a team destined for second-round trouble in the playoffs.

Monday night, the Heat showed the kind of defense that can make them a threat in May and June. They bodied Tim Duncan off his spots in the post, they hung with the Spurs shooters at the arc, they controlled the paint. Miami dominated this game from the start and won 110-80.

Miami showed a contender-level defender for a night, led by LeBron James and Dwyane Wade (each had two blocked shots). The Heat defense has been good all season (ranked fifth in points allowed per possession), but they took it to another level for a night against the team that will finish the season with the best record in the NBA. Can they do it consistently is the question.

Miami was the aggressor from the outset and that showed up in who was getting to the free throw line — early in the third quarter Chris Bosh had twice as many free throw attempts as the entire Spurs team. No, Spurs fans, that was not on the refs, the aggressor gets the calls in the NBA and the Heat were the aggressors.

Bosh finished with 30 points, Wade had 29 and LeBron an inefficient 21 (on 19 shots, it was not his best offensive night. The Heat continues to take steps that get them moving, like breaking out the occasional James/Wade pick and roll. The James/Bosh pick-and-pop also is working well.

Bosh was really the force — he has started to demand the ball more and when he did in the second quarter is when the Heat really took charge and made it a runaway. He did it against the Spurs subs, who were the ones seeming overwhelmed this night. One other thing the Heat have stopped experimenting with is the smaller lineups, where LeBron is the four. They have gone back to trying to be big. It’s working.

When the Spurs are getting blown out and it is clear they will not make a comeback, they roll the tents up early, something Timothy Varner of the Spurs blog 48 Minutes of Hell noticed before and was certainly true tonight. This is a veteran team that will cede the big loss to save energy for future fights and the playoffs.

But they got a good smackdown by the Lakers recently and lost to the Sixers. The Spurs are not playing their best ball, but that could just be the foot coming off the gas a little as they await the playoffs. San Antonio still has a six-game cushion for the best record in the NBA over Boston and Chicago. Nobody in the West is catching them. They can coast a little. If that’s all this is with the Spurs, than it is nothing to worry about.

Monday’s game was not about the Spurs, though. It’s about the Heat, about them getting their footing, finding their way heading toward the playoffs. Finding their defense. Because if they really find that the rest of the NBA should be nervous.

Report: Gordon Hayward’s earliest possible return is March

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Gordon Hayward‘s agent, Mark Bartelstein, said the Celtics wing was unlikely to return this season following surgery for a broken leg and dislocated ankle.

We’re obviously dealing with unknowns and probabilities, but there’s another spin to the timeline.

Mike Lynch of WCVB:

It’d be great for Hayward and the Celtics if he can return in March. That’d give him time to acclimate before the playoffs, which Boston could still make.

However, this report casts doubt whether the Celtics will receive a disabled-player exception for Hayward. The NBA grants the exception – worth $8,406,000 in this case – if a league-appointed physician rules Hayward is “substantially more likely than not” to be unable to play through June 15.

When he said Hayward would likely miss the season, did Bartelstein mean the regular season, Boston’s season or the entire postseason? Those could be quite different dates. How likely is a player with at least a chance of returning in March to remain out through June 15?

The NBA is fairly lenient on granting disabled-player exceptions. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Celtics got one.

But I also wouldn’t be surprised if they’re denied – which, in a way, would signal good news for them and Hayward.

Three Things to Know: Giannis Antetokounmpo spoils Boston home opener

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Every night in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, especially on this, the real opening night of the NBA with 22 teams in action. Every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA. Tonight, that includes a few historic numbers… good and bad.

1) Brad Stevens, Celtics have no answer on how to slow Giannis Antetokounmpo either. As a general rule of thumb, if you’re getting mentioned in the record books with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, you’re doing something very right. Monday night, the Greek Freak was rolling to the rim and finishing alley-oops over defenders, hitting floaters and leaners in the lane, and generally using his length to get any shot he wanted against the Celtics on his way to a 37-point, 13 rebound night in Boston. The only other Buck to have an opening night of at least 35 and 10? Yup, one Mr. Abdul-Jabbar.

Put a smaller defender on Antetokounmpo and he shoots right over them. Put a bigger defender on him and he goes around them — or just over them too. Brad Stevens tried a lot of things on defense, and while Al Horford had a little first-half success slowing him nobody did all game as he shot 59.1 percent on his way to dropping 37.

Notice all those shots are close to the rim. Antetokounmpo was a ridiculous 10-of-12 at the rim and 12-of-18 in the paint overall, but just 1-of-4 outside the key. It’s easy to say “make him a jump shooter” but good luck finding anyone who can stay in front of him, or that he can’t just finish over. The man was dunking over Aron Baynes, how do you get anyone much bigger in front of him?

Boston was up four points entering the fourth quarter when the second night of a back-to-back seemed to hit them, they scored just 20 points on 8-of-25 shooting in the final frame, 4-of-21 outside the restricted area. Meanwhile, Antetokounmpo went off for 16 in the fourth as he ramped up his aggressiveness and Brad Stevens and the Celtics had no answer. Marcus Smart was fiery and got into it with Matthew Dellavedova, that may have exemplified Boston’s spirit, but Celtics looked physically and emotionally worn down by the end. Hard to blame them.

Rough start to the season for Boston, who lost Gordon Hayward just minutes into the opener (he’s out for the season), they fell to the Celtics Tuesday night and now are off to an 0-2 start. They will bounce back, but just now how the team with all these new players thought things would start.

2) Jeremy Lin injures knee and there is “tremendous” concern it is serious. Midway through the fourth quarter against the Pacers, Jeremy Lin drove the lane and finished a layup at the rim that looked ordinary — except when he landed he went to the ground grabbing his knee and did not get back up.

This isn’t good. Neither were the reports during and after the play.

Brooklyn was counting on Lin to help stabilize the point guard position and the backcourt with D'Angelo Russell (who had 30 on the night in a losing effort). If Lin is done for all or most of the season, it’s a huge setback for a team that, while bad, was expected to be a little better than in previous seasons. Remember, the Cavaliers have Brooklyn’s first-round pick this season unprotected (part of the Kyrie Irving trade from Boston).

• While we’re on the injury front, Boston’s Gordon Hayward underwent surgery on his dislocated ankle and fractured tibia on Wednesday, and according to his agent he is “unlikely” to return this season. Hayward did send a video message to Celtics fans thanking them. Boston will try to move on, but it’s been a difficult and emotional start to the season for the Celtics.

3) Suns’ season opening performance wasn’t just bad, it was the worst ever. The record for worst opening night loss in NBA history belonged to the 1987 Los Angeles Clippers coached by Gene Shue, who were blown out by Denver by 46 points.

No more. That record now belongs to the Phoenix Suns, who fell at home to the Portland Trail Blazers 124-76 — a 48 point loss. The Suns shot 31.5 percent as a team — Devin Booker was 6-of-17 and didn’t hit a three, Eric Bledsoe was sloppy and reckless all night and finished 5-of-18 with five turnovers and three assists, while Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss combined to go 1-of-10 off the bench. The Phoenix offense was about as in synch as the left shark, and many possessions ended with a terrible shot being jacked up because, well, somebody had to shoot it.

I’d like to say this was a good omen for the Trail Blazers’ defense, but really it’s impossible to judge how good it was against this offense. It was still a win the Blazers will gladly take, Damian Lillard had 24 points while Pat Connaughton came off the bench for 22.

PBT Extra: Bobby Portis punch adds to challenges for Bulls this season

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Nikola Mirotic will be out 4-6 weeks due to his concussion and fractured jaw.

Bobby Portis has been suspended for the first eight games of the season for causing those injuries to Mirotic with a punch at practice.

What does this mean for a Bulls locker room that was already going to have to deal with the weight of losing a lot of games.  I get into all these questions in this latest PBT Extra.

It’s going to be a long season in Chicago.

Gordon Hayward’s agent says return this season unlikely

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Wednesday night in Boston Gordon Hayward underwent surgery to repair his dislocated ankle and fractured tibia suffered just five minutes into the season-opening game, a gruesome injury that put a pall over the rest of the night.

There had been hope from some Celtics fans that Hayward could return this season, likely for the playoffs, but now that the surgery is complete Hayward’s agent told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN not to expect him back until next season.

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who saw the injury. Hayward is in the first year of a four-year deal with the Celtics, they were always going to choose a cautious path rather than rush him back. Under Danny Ainge Boston has always taken the long view, even with all their moves this summer — specifically bringing in Hayward and Kyrie Irving — the target was to be the team set up for next as LeBron James and the Cavaliers faded. That plan does not change now.

Earlier in the day, Hayward had sent a video message out to Celtics fans thanking them for their support in the past 24 hours.

Without Hayward, the Celtics now will focus more on smaller lineups, rookie Jayson Tatum will get more run, as will Marcus Smart in his contract year. Jaylen Brown will be thrust into a more significant role. Also, Kyrie Irving will be asked to do more as the team’s second-best playmaker is now out for the season.

The Celtics will take a step back this season without Hayward, who was going to be crucial for them on both ends of the floor. That’s evidenced by their 0-2 start, falling to the Cavaliers and Bucks on the first couple nights of the season. Boston should still be a team well above .500 and in the playoffs, but they will not be quite the same this season.