Miami Heat's LeBron James and Dwyane Wade wait during a timeout against the Philadelphia 76ers in Miami

NBA Playoffs: Boston and Miami try to set tone in Game 1


Often, the first game of an NBA playoff series can feel like the first round of an overhyped boxing match — a lot of dancing around, a lot of feeling each other out, a lot of jabs but no haymakers.

Not Boston vs. Miami.

Game 1 is going to set a tone in this series. Game 1 matters. A lot. Both teams are going to come out swinging.

These are two teams with question marks and one is going to leave more confident than when it came in. The other team is going to have to adjust what it wants to do.

More than any other series, whichever team can set the tone early here has a huge advantage.

For Boston, that means it needs to be physical, as scouts told CSN New England. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade may be able to take the punishment, but the Celtics need to still dish it out. They have to establish themselves as the more physical team, and if you drive the lane on them, you will pay a price. How well Boston can do that without Kendrick Perkins or Shaquille O’Neal remains to be seen.

The other key for Boston will be point guard Rajon Rondo. Ray Allen will have Wade on him, Paul Pierce will have LeBron as his shadow, and Kevin Garnett will have to deal with the long arms of Chris Bosh. But Rondo? He has Mike Bibby on him. Then maybe Mario Chalmers. This is a matchup Boston should exploit, but Rondo averaged just 7.5 points on 37 percent shooting (with a dozen assists) in their regular-season meetings. He must do better.

For Miami, the questions are defense and Wade. With defense, they have been one of the better defensive teams this season, but they do not create a lot of turnovers. They need to do that so they can get out and run this series. You don’t want to just let the Celtics get back and set in their half-court defense, they are still very good at that. You need some easy baskets against this team.

As for the Heat’s offense, LeBron will get his as always, and Bosh actually had some success against the Celtics in the final regular-season matchup.

But Wade averaged 12.8 points (less than half his season average) on 28 percent shooting. Maybe he got tired chasing Allen off all those screens on the other end of the floor, but the Heat will need all of the Big Three to win this series.

There are questions about who will control the boards, about which team’s bench will perform better, about a lot of things.

One team will answer enough of those questions to get the win Sunday. And just as important that team will have set the tone for this series. They will set the other team back, force them to adjust what they want to do.

Celtics president Danny Ainge on Brad Stevens: ‘He’s a keeper’

Brad Stevens

Celtics coach Brad Stevens has never finished a season with a winning record. He’s over .500 this year only because Boston came back to beat the lowly 76ers. He has never won a playoff game.

But Stevens – who signed a six-year, $22 million contract in 2013 – has plenty of job security.

Celtics president Danny Ainge, in a Q&A with Chris Forsberg of ESPN:

You’ve joked about it before, but are you ready to give him another six-year contract yet?

Ainge: [Laughs] Yeah.

You have to start thinking about that. Sure, we’re only in Year 3, but you can’t risk letting a good coach get away.

Ainge: No, listen, he’s a keeper. He’s great. He’s great to work with. Like I said, I think he’s going to be — if he stays in this game long enough — he’s going to be one of the great coaches.

I tend to agree with Ainge’s assessment. Stevens has looked like an excellent coach so far – implementing a sound defense, creating space on offense and communicating clearly with his players.

But Stevens has benefited tremendously from low expectations, arriving in Boston after Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen retired. Expectations sunk even lower when the Celtics traded Rajon Rondo last season.

That’s when Stevens appeared to do his best work, guiding a starless team to a 24-12 finish.

Expectations will keep rising, though. Some expected the Celtics to break out this year, but they’re just 8-7. Stevens faces the difficult task of managing a rotation full of pretty good – but no great – players. This might be his hardest NBA assignment yet.

Stevens has done plenty to earn praise from his boss. But to actually get a contract extension, he’ll have to keep meeting higher and higher expectations.

I believe Stevens is up to the challenge, but I’m not completely certain of it. He wouldn’t be the first coach to impress early in his tenure and then fizzle. Just look at how many Coach of the Year winners lost their jobs a short time later.

Again, I think Stevens will meet any reasonable expectations he faces. He just must actually do it to get a longer deal.

League executives, players wince watching this Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant
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Over the last few days, we’ve written in more detail about Kobe Bryant‘s shooting troubles. He’s jacking up threes his fastest pace ever, he can’t create space to get off clean shots, he’s hitting 31.1 percent overall and 19.5 percent from three. There are flashes of vintage Kobe, but they are fleeting (and mostly because poor shot choices are falling). Byron Scott is still in Kobe’s corner, saying they just need to get the veteran better looks.

However, talk to people around the league about Kobe and you hear some variation of the phrase “hard to watch.” After 20 seasons, more than 55,000 minutes on the court, and coming off two major injuries, Kobe clearly is not the same player everyone admired for so long.

Over at the Los Angeles Times Mike Bresnahan and Broderick Turner got a number of sources to wince about Kobe for a story — except nobody wanted their name attached to attacking a legend of the game.

“Man, I don’t want to see Kobe go out like this, looking this bad and not able to do what he once could do,” said a retired guard who faced Bryant. “He doesn’t have anything else to prove to anybody. He was one of the greatest. I know he’s owed that $25 million, but he should just walk away now. He ain’t got it anymore.”

“He’s one of the few players in NBA history to have gotten everything possible out of his body. Now his body has nothing left to give,” (an Eastern Conference executive) said. “But that’s life in the NBA, in professional sports. At some point, the body just can’t do it anymore and Kobe’s body can’t do it anymore.”

One West scout said Bryant looked “disinterested” at times. A current player in the West went a step further.

“Yeah, I’ve seen him play and it’s disgusting,” he said. “He’s one of the best of all time. But he really hasn’t played that much in the last two or three years. He’s got nothing left. It’s sad to watch because he used to be so great, and I mean great.”

Kobe is not going to walk away mid-season, and nobody wants an injury to force him out of the game.

But it’s hard to see how anything is going to dramatically change. Kobe may shoot a little better than his current but it’s not likely going to change in a meaningful way. Which will just make things hard to watch for a full season.

Spurs to give Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili Friday night off in Denver

Manu Ginobili, Harrison Barnes, Tim Duncan
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The Spurs are 12-3 and comfortably in second place in the West, they have the best defense in the NBA allowing just 93.8 points per 100 possessions, and they have a top-10 offense to go with it.

So, time to start making sure guys are rested.

That is the first night of a back-to-back, with former Spurs’ assistant coach Mike Budenholzer and his Atlanta Hawks coming to San Antonio on Saturday. Popovich is saving his two veterans for that game.

Duncan and Ginobili have looked like they found the fountain of youth this season. Duncan is taking on less of the offense but has been very efficient in those moments. Ginobili has the impact he did a few years back in his bench role.

What Gregg Popovich cares about is them playing like that come the postseason. So they will rest on Friday.

Brandon Armstrong impersonates Ray Allen (video)

2014 NBA Finals - Game Five
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Ray Allen is retired-ish, but he’ll always be running through screens – in our mind and in this video.