Miami Heat forward LeBron James hugs teammate Dwyane Wade after defeating the Boston Celtics in Boston

NBA Playoffs: Miami Heat make the leap with overtime win

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Early in the year, it didn’t look like they would ever get here.

Miami struggled in close games. They struggled against good teams. Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh played next to each other, not with each other. They took a mountain of criticism.

They weathered it. They matured as a team. They started to figure things out.

Monday night they announced their official arrival.

It’s not just that they won a 98-90 overtime playoff game in the Boston Garden, but how they did it. Playing off each other, interacting and using their athleticism to play good team defense.

The Heat are here. They are contenders. They very likely will come out of the East and may win it all.

“We all know, we struggled earlier in the year trying to find our identity,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said after the game. “Trying to find execution, what we can run, what works for us, where guys are comfortable and we can use their strengths. I think if we didn’t go through all those struggles at the end of games against good teams we probably wouldn’t feel as confident as we do.”

One play in the overtime, the Heat’s second possession, seemed to sum up how far they have come.

Early in the season, it was always LeBron with the ball in his hands late, but one of the lessons learned is how it works better with Wade handling the ball. They ran the Wade/LeBron pick-and-roll, with LeBron setting the pick, Wade came off it but LeBron had virtually slipped it early and was rolling toward the basket. Wade hit LeBron with a bounce pass in the paint and that forced Kevin Garnett to rotate over — then James hit Bosh, who was cutting on the baseline to the basket, with the pass for a easy lay in.

All of the big three touched the ball in quick succession. It’s indefensible. It’s what everyone else in the league feared, that they would start playing off each other well.

Spoelstra seems to keep the Wade/LeBron pick-and-roll in his back pocket, using it sparingly on big occasions. As if he used it too much teams might figure out how to defend it. He broke it out in overtime Monday night and it worked brilliantly.

First overtime possession, Wade came off the pick and slid the ball to LeBron, who isolated on Pierce on the left side and hit a ridiculous fade away over him. (That was not so much the pick-and-roll and mostly just LeBron.) Then came the quick-passing play described above.

The next time Wade went too quickly but still the threat of the play let him get deep into the lane, where he missed an eight-foot floater he normally drains. Wade made up for that a little bit later with a ridiculous three-point shot with West in his face.

But it’s more than that.

On the key basket of the overtime, the Heat ran LeBron off a Bosh pick and the Celtics switched it, happy to have Garnett locked in on LeBron. KG did his job and forced LeBron into a long, contested two that came up short — but the switch meant Ray Allen and Paul Pierce were left to box out Bosh, they couldn’t. He got the dagger tip in. (Sure, you can have a dagger tip in, why not?) The Heat are exploiting the mismatches they create now.

On the other end of the floor, the Heat had a pressure defense that was forcing Celtics turnovers in overtime. Miami’s defense forced the Celtics to shoot 1-for-6 in the extra period. They forced three turnovers. They shut down the Celtics. Granted the Celtics were without Rondo, but the Heat had a part of that too playing physical with him all night.

The Heat are up 3-1 in this series, and they are going to win it. Because they are the better team, the team that creates mismatches and executes under pressure.

They are what everyone hoped or feared they would become — maybe the best team in the NBA.

Heat hang on with Wade’s heroics, force Game 7 vs. Hornets

CHARLOTTE, NC - APRIL 29:  Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat directs teammates against the Charlotte Hornets during game six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Time Warner Cable Arena on April 29, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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“It’s a make-or-miss league” has been a worn-out cliche in the NBA for years, but it was never more apt than Friday night. Dwyane Wade, a career 28.4 percent three-point shooter who hadn’t hit a shot from beyond the arc in the calendar year of 2016, knocked down two threes late to help the Miami Heat hold on and beat the Charlotte Hornets, 97-90, to force a Game 7 on Sunday.

Wade finished with 23 points on 10-for-20 shooting along with 6 rebounds and 4 assists to lead Miami, and had a key block in the closing minute to stave off a Charlotte comeback. The Heat held off Kemba Walker‘s 37-point explosion, which kept Charlotte in the game for much of the second half even as they never led in the third or fourth quarters.

Neither team got much out of their benches, and Miami overcame a rough night from Goran Dragic (6-for-17 from the field) and Hassan Whiteside fouling out in just 28 minutes of action. A three by Walker cut Miami’s lead to 90-88, the closest the Hornets got in the second half.

The two teams will now play a Game 7 in Miami on Sunday, with the winner facing the winner of that same day’s Game 7 between the Raptors and Pacers.

Lakers announce hire of Luke Walton as head coach

CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 20:  Interim head coach Luke Walton of the Golden State Warriors chats with referee Derrick Stafford #9 during a game against the Chicago Bulls at the United Center on January 20, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using the photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Less than a week after firing head coach Byron Scott, the Lakers have their man to replace him: Luke Walton, who is currently associate head coach with the Warriors and coached the team to a 39-4 start to the season while Steve Kerr was out recovering from offseason back surgery.

The Lakers announced the hiring of Walton in a press release on Friday evening:

Earlier today, the Los Angeles Lakers and Luke Walton reached an agreement on a multi-year contract for Walton to become the next Head Coach of the team, it was announced by General Manager Mitch Kupchak. Walton will begin his new duties at the conclusion of the Golden State Warriors season.
“We’re excited to bring Luke back to Los Angeles, where we feel he’s going to start an outstanding coaching career,” said Kupchak. “He’s one of the brightest young coaching minds in the game and we feel fortunate that he’ll be leading the on-court future of our team.”

The Warriors released statements from Kerr and GM Bob Myers after the Lakers’ announcement:

“We are thrilled for Luke,” said Warriors GM Bob Myers.  “This is a tremendous opportunity for him to return home and serve as head coach for one of the most storied franchises in sports.   Luke has done an incredible job during his two-year stint with our team and has played a significant role in our success, including last year’s championship and again this season under some very unique circumstances.  We are certainly going to miss Luke after we conclude our playoff run this season, but we wish him the very best with the Lakers.”

“I’m incredibly happy for Luke,” said Warriors Head Coach Steve Kerr.  “As we witnessed earlier this season, he has all of the intangibles necessary to be an outstanding head coach in this league, including a terrific understanding of the game the ability to communicate with a wide range of people.   He’s certainly ready for this opportunity and I’m confident he’ll do a great job with the Lakers once our season is complete.”

Walton had long been rumored to be the Lakers’ top target, given his successful run with the Warriors and his ties to the organization, where he played for nine seasons. It’s a solid hire, not a big name but someone with a good reputation around the league.

Drake performs free concert outside Air Canada Centre before Raptors playoff game

TORONTO, ON - APRIL 26:  Singer Drake celebrates after Terrance Ross #31 of the Toronto Raptors sinks a 3-pointer in the second half of Game Five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Indiana Pacers during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on April 26, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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Game 6 of the Raptors-Pacers series is in Indianapolis, but that didn’t stop a large crowd from gathering outside the Air Canada Centre to watch it. And those people got rewarded for their trouble with a free impromptu performance by Drake. Here’s a video:

https://twitter.com/DilTamber/status/726213270986579968/video/1

Drake just released his latest album, Views, last night, and it includes several NBA references in the lyrics.

Optimism high as Celtics enter a likely active offseason

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BOSTON — The emergence of an All-Star and lots of victories made the Celtics one of the biggest surprises in the NBA this season.

It also left Boston with lots of questions following its second straight first-round exit from the playoffs – this one, a six-game loss to the Atlanta Hawks – with a young roster that probably still needs a few more pieces to make the next step.

It has lots of draft picks and salary cap space to play with, which promises to make the summer an active one for the Celtics.

“This is probably the closest them I’ve been on. I love being around the guys. But everybody sees it. We do need a little more,” said point guard Isaiah Thomas, who averaged a career-best 22.2 points and was named to his first All-Star appearance in February. “(Celtics President Danny Ainge) will do his part. I know he will and this organization will come back even better.”

The rebuilding project that began three years ago under coach Brad Stevens is clearly ahead of schedule. The franchise that hit the reset button after the departure of Doc Rivers and its Big Three has gotten production from a young core anchored by Thomas, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder.

Under Stevens’ defensive-minded approach Boston blossomed into one of the NBA’s stingiest teams.

“You go from…under .500 and barely making the playoffs and kind of eking in at the end by winning six straight, to being in the mix for being a top-four seed in the East. And so yes, there’s progress,” he said.

As much as Stevens recognizes the improvements, he said he also knows the bar only goes up from here.

“People have told me all along there’s two really tough tasks, right? One is getting to be a very good, competitive team at a top 10-15 level on offense and defense and give yourself a chance to be in the discussion we’re in now. And that’s been a path in the last three years to get there,” Stevens said.

Here are some other things to note as the Celtics head into the offseason:

HEALING UP: Before the Celtics can think about potential roster changes, they first have to make sure the players they have are healthy. Seven-footer Kelly Olynyk was only able to suit up in four of Boston’s playoff games after aggravating a right shoulder injury in Game 1 against the Hawks. Guard Avery Bradley was lost for the playoffs in that game with a strained right hamstring.

Olynyk said he planned to get multiple opinions from doctors on what his next step will be. They haven’t discussed a need for surgery, though he said nothing has been ruled out.

DRAFT PICKS GALORE: Ainge is known for his deal-making abilities and will have eight total draft picks in June, including three in the first round. The biggest, is the Nets’ unprotected first-round pick Boston acquired in 2013 when it traded Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn. The Nets finished with the league’s third-worst record and have about a 16 percent chance of landing the No. 1 overall pick in May’s lottery.

Ainge has made it clear to Thomas that he wants him to be involved in the wooing of potential free agents this summer, and is in a symbolic move will send Thomas to represent the team at the lottery.

“I can get a few guys here,” Thomas said. “I’m gonna do my job…I’m gonna do the best I can to put my recruiting hat on.”

DECISIONS, DECISIONS: Boston only has a handful of decisions to make with the roster it currently has. Tyler Zeller and Jared Sullinger are both restricted free agents who could be expendable. Meanwhile the contacts of Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko aren’t fully guaranteed for next season if they are waived by July 3. The most interesting question is what to do with unrestricted free agent Evan Turner. His second year in Boston was his best season since 2013-14, but his production will certainly garner interest around the league. He said he wants to return, but that could depend on just how high his price tag winds up being.

Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/khightower