NBA Playoff Preview: Boston vs. Atlanta

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SEASON RECORDS
Hawks: 40-26 (No. 4 seed)
Celtics: 39-27 (No. 5 seed)

SEASON SERIES
Boston won the first two games of a three-game regular season series by a total of five points. The Hawks’ victory came when the most was on the line, however, as Atlanta upended a short-handed Celtics team last Friday to give themselves a lead for the East’s No. 4 seed that they’d never relinquish.

KEY INJURIES
Hawks: Al Horford played just 11 games for Atlanta this season since suffering a torn pectoral muscle in early January. There was some speculation that he might be able to play against the Celtics, but the latest reports say that he’s definitely going to miss the first round … Fellow big man Zaza Pachulia is day-to-day with a sprained left foot, but he’ll likely be available to start the series against the Celtics.
Celtics: The Celtics took the last few games of the regular season to heal up, costing themselves homecourt advantage while trying to ensure they’d be healthy against Atlanta. It worked for the most part, too, considering Ray Allen is the only player expected to be listed on the injury report when the season starts Sunday, and even then he’ll be listed as “probable” due to a right ankle injury.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKING (points per 100 possession)
Hawks: Off. 104.9 (16th in NBA); Def. 101.2 (6th in NBA)
Celtics: Off. 101.0 (27th in NBA); Def. 98.2 (1st in NBA)

THREE KEY HAWKS:

Joe Johnson: It’s incredibly difficult to believe that Johnson won’t be a huge part of this series considering he’ll likely be counted on to shoulder the majority of the scoring load for Atlanta throughout the playoffs. The swingman went through a bit of a slump through the first few weeks of April, but ended the season on a high note — and, for the history buffs among us, Johnson began his NBA career as a member of the Celtics in 2001 before being traded midseason for Tony Delk and Rodney Rogers (whoops!).

Josh Smith: The enigmatic forward hasn’t made a lot of fans over his career due to a lot of people focusing on what he doesn’t do well on the basketball court. When one pays attention to what Smith does do well, however, they see that he’s a solid defender, a good rebounder (when he concentrates on that part of the game, of course) and is actually passing the ball better than every other big when looking at his 20.6 percent assist rate.

Jeff Teague: The quick-footed point guard broke out around this time last year when he was inserted into the starting lineup against Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls during the second round of the 2011 NBA Playoffs. Teague will need to step his game up in the postseason again this year, too, as his matchup against Rajon Rondo could easily be the deciding factor if he’s unable to step up in the playoffs once again.

THREE KEY CELTICS

Rajon Rondo: It was almost a given this season that when the Celtics were on national television, their point guard was going to have a magnificent game. The Celtics-Hawks series will be nationally broadcast in its entirety, however, meaning Rondo will be counted on to carry quite a bit of the load — if not scoring, certainly distributing — while trying to move his team to the second round as injury-free as possible.

Kevin Garnett: The Celtics struggled early this season, but things seemed to undergo a huge change when head coach Doc Rivers decided to move Garnett to the center position. He might not be as good as he once was, but considering the Hawks have had dealt with massive center issues, he should have at least one more series in which he’s able to showcase his game-changing talent.

Paul Pierce: Way to go out on a limb and pick the three healthy Celtics starters as the three Boston players key to the first round, our lovely readers are probably saying upon seeing Pierce’s name in this slot. The longtime Celtic will certainly be important for Boston’s chances in the first round, however, as the Celtics could use some scoring until Ray Allen returns to full health.

OUTLOOK

This series probably isn’t the sexiest of the eight matchups in the first round of the postseason, but it should be one of the best. The veteran-laden Celtics are likely making one of their last runs in the postseason and, fortunately for them, they got better as the season rolled on. The Hawks are trying to get a monkey off of their back this year, too, considering they enter the playoffs with the memory of losing in the Eastern Conference Semifinals the last three years. With both teams likely playing with a sense of urgency, it’ll be interesting to watch whether the Celtics are able to excel after starting the series on the road.

PREDICTION

These games could easily be very boring considering two of their three meetings during the regular season resulted in the winner scoring less than 90 points. Low-scoring basketball could also mean playoff-physical basketball, though, and both teams have two former D-League call-ups capable of delivering in those types of circumstances (say hello, Ivan Johnson and Greg Stiemsma). Hopefully it isn’t ugly basketball filled with missed perimeter jumpers, but it wouldn’t be so bad to see a sort of throwback game when the series starts on Sunday night.

Unfortunately for the Hawks, the veteran savvy of the Celtics should prove to be key.

Celtics in 6.

Lakers are happy with the hype surrounding rookie Lonzo Ball

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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) He has a Facebook reality show and a family shoe brand. His dad talks big on ESPN. He was the No. 2 overall draft pick and expects to transform one of the NBA’s glamor franchises.

Other than that, Lonzo Ball is an ordinary teenager.

The 19-year-old guard comes with otherworldly expectations, with the Los Angeles Lakers having fallen on hard times. They hope the local product can help them rejoin the NBA’s elite.

Ball’s journey officially begins Tuesday when the Lakers open training camp, but he appears to have already won over his new teammates during summer workouts.

“When you play with a pure point guard like that, it just makes it easier for everyone,” center Brook Lopez said. “He elevates players to a whole other level.

“I know it’s going to be great for me, just being on the receiving end of his passes. He’s going to gift-wrap baskets for me. He’s so good at turning other players into impact, amazing players. He’s going to be a transcendent talent.”

That has been the plan all along, particularly from his outspoken father LaVar Ball, who almost seemed to will his son’s journey from Chino Hills High School to UCLA to the Lakers.

If Lonzo Ball seems to arrive with the trappings of circus, he appears the calm in the center of the storm.

“Honestly, Zo is relaxed,” forward Julius Randle said. “Zo is chill. He’s one of the guys. For as much as he has going around him, you would never know.”

Ball doesn’t say a lot himself, and what he does say comes out in rapid-fire fashion. Reporters circled around some eight deep Monday at the team’s media day, but Ball appeared to take it in stride.

“I’ve been kinda like this my whole life, so I really don’t feel anything to be honest,” he said. “It’s just playing a game, the game I love.”

That approach has hardly gone unnoticed by legendary point guard Magic Johnson, now the Lakers’ president of basketball operations.

“I told him, he’s just like me,” Johnson said. “When I came here there were a lot of expectations put on my shoulders and the Lakers as an organization. Now I’m his boss, but I’m also his big brother.”

When those comments were relayed to Ball, the rookie responded: “More like an uncle. He looks older than my brother.”

It was a rare glimpse of the sense of humor that teammates say is not uncommon when the cameras are off.

As for those lofty expectations? Like most everything else, Ball just shrugs and flashes a hint of his confidence.

“I think I’ll be fine,” he said. “I’ve been playing basketball my whole life and I’m pretty good at it.”

More NBA basketball: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Jaylen Brown wants Celtics to protest Donald Trump as a team

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The Latest on Monday’s events from NBA media days (all times local):

1:40 p.m.

Boston Celtics forward Jaylen Brown says he has talked to the rest of the team about protesting President Trump’s comments about athletes.

Brown said Monday at that Celtics media day that he’s also spoken to Celtics general manager Danny Ainge and “he’s all for that.”

The president complained about football players taking a knee during the national anthem to protest racial inequality and said NFL owners should fire them. The league responded on Sunday with a much wider protest that included condemnations by owners and more than 200 players taking knees during the anthem. Other teams locked arms, sometimes with their owners and coaches.

Brown says he wants the Celtics to find a way to protest as a team because “our voices are stronger together.”

1:30 p.m.

LeBron James says he would love to have Dwyane Wade join the Cavaliers.

Wade has accepted a buyout from the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland could be a potential landing spot. James and Wade won two NBA titles together with the Miami Heat and are close friends.

James said Monday at the Cavaliers media that he has spoken to Wade, and plans to again.

12:25 p.m.

The Carmelo Anthony era in New York is officially over.

The Knicks completed their trade with Oklahoma City on Monday morning, sending the All-Star forward to the Thunder for center Enes Kanter, forward Doug McDermott and Chicago’s 2018 second-round draft pick.

Knicks President Steve Mills thanked Anthony for his play with the Knicks but also for what he “accomplished off the court for the City of New York by using his platform to address social issues.”

Mills announced that the Knicks were donating $100,000 to Anthony’s relief efforts to aid Puerto Rico in its recovery from the recent hurricanes.

Anthony also thanked the Knicks and New York in an online essay .

12:10 p.m.

Cavaliers point guard Isaiah Thomas has made progress with his hip injury, and officials said Monday the organization expects him to play by January.

Thomas has begun running and doing on-court activities as he rehabilitates the injury, which prematurely ended his 2017 postseason with the Boston Celtics. The Cavs acquired Thomas this summer from Boston in a blockbuster trade for All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving.

Thomas doesn’t need surgery and the Cavs are confident he will be back on the floor in games by the end of the calendar year. While the Eastern Conference champions have been encouraged by Thomas’ recovery, they will not rush him back.

Thomas averaged 28.9 points last season for the Celtics, who sent him along with forward Jae Crowder, center Ante Zizic and a 2018 first-round draft to Cleveland for Irving.

Cleveland was concerned with Thomas’ injury and the Celtics added a second-round pick to complete the deal.

11:05 a.m.

The Miami Heat aren’t sure if they are going to Mexico City for a game this season.

The Heat are scheduled to play the Brooklyn Nets on Dec. 9 in Mexico City, a city where at least 186 people died in a massive earthquake last week. Rescuers were still digging in dangerous piles of rubble Monday, desperately seeking any more survivors.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra says the team sent personnel to Mexico City to see the arena before the quake, and will send people back to Mexico City in the coming weeks.

“Our hearts go out to the folks in Mexico City,” Spoelstra said. “It’s horrific to see that.”

Across Mexico, at least 324 people died in the quake. The NBA has said that, for now at least, the game remains as scheduled.

10:30 a.m.

Politics is already the talk of NBA media day.

After a weekend where President Donald Trump rescinded the Golden State Warriors’ invitation to the White House and Cleveland star LeBron James responded by calling the president a “bum,” it was clear that Monday’s season-opening media sessions for 28 teams were quite possibly going to be as much about politics as basketball.

Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores released a statement early Monday that did not specifically mention Trump, but says “America’s most treasured values include equality and diversity, and the right to effect change through peaceful expression and thoughtful debate.” Gores also says he will support the Pistons players and their right to thoughtfully raise awareness to various causes.

On Sunday night, Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive said Trump’s “recent comments are deeply disappointing, because our focus should be on fostering a culture of sensitivity and inclusion.”

7 a.m.

The most retweeted post ever sent by LeBron James before this weekend was one in 2013 in response to the incessant who’s-better debate about him and Michael Jordan.

“I’m not MJ, I’m LJ,” he wrote. It was retweeted nearly 112,000 times.

And then LJ took on POTUS, calling President Donald Trump a “bum.” James’ Twitter account exploded from there, the 640,000 and counting retweets making it one of the top 15 shared posts ever.

If James’ tweet is any indicator, politics will be center stage across the NBA on Monday when 28 teams gather for their media days – the annual precursor to the start of training camps. Carmelo Anthony will formally become part of the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday, Kyrie Irving’s first season in Boston will truly begin and Dwyane Wade is about to become a free agent after reaching a buyout with Chicago.

But those story lines, and probably all others, will almost certainly take a back seat to athletes reacting to politics.

More AP basketball: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Charles Barkley is so very wrong on the Warriors and Trump

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Charles Barkley always has some goofy opinions, and that’s just when it comes to the game of basketball, so this next one shouldn’t come as a surprise.

By now you have to be aware of what happened late last week between the Golden State Warriors and Donald Trump. In case you’re not up to speed, it went like this: the Warriors were set to vote on whether to head to the White House. When asked about the upcoming vote, Stephen Curry said that he would vote no. Trump then heard about the video, and preemptively disinvited the team via Twitter.

As if that wasn’t wild enough, Barkley then weighed in on the matter during an NBA TV segment after all that went down.

The TNT broadcaster’s response was that he felt that the Warriors deciding to forgo a trip to the White House would set a bad precedent.

Via Twitter:

“I think it’s really unfortunate. I think that it’s an honor and privilege to go to the White House, no matter who the president is. And also, I thought it would have been an opportunity for those guys to sit down and talk to the president about some of the issues and concerns they had.

“We’re all concerned about police brutality. I’m concerned about DACA. They could have negotiated a sit-down instead of just coming in, do that informal stuff where he stands there and you get your jersey and everything. It’s unfortunate. It’s just really sad, to be honest with you. When guys start not going to the White House because they don’t like who the president is, I think that sets a bad precedent.”

Remember, the Warriors didn’t actually decide to not go to the White House. It was Trump that told them they were not allowed to come. The team was set to vote on the issue, but didn’t actually get to do so after Trump saw Curry’s comments.

There is also something to be said for Barkley’s insistence that the Warriors had to go to the White House. That is, impressing upon an individual to partake in an activity of which they are morally or otherwise personally opposed. An activity that is not part of their contract, a specific part of winning the Larry O’Brien trophy, or part of what many would consider to be the American ideal — to force any person of free will to do such an inconsequential activity.

That’s before you even get into the idea that Barkley suggested, that the Warriors could have had a conversation with Trump about the issues with which they disagree on. Let’s not argue about whether or not that was possible at this juncture, but instead focus on the fact that the Warriors themselves said that is not something they felt they would be able to do. Head coach Steve Kerr specifically wrote as much in his article on Sports Illustrated:

Internally, we’d discussed whether it’d be possible to just go and meet as private citizens and have a serious, poignant discussion about some of the issues we’re concerned about. But he’s made it hard for any of us to actually enter the White House, because what’s going on is not normal. It’s childish stuff: belittling people and calling them names. So to expect to go in and have a civil, serious discourse? Yeah, that’s probably not going to happen.

Perhaps Barkley is right. Perhaps the Warriors refusing to go to the White House should they have been given the chance would set a precedent. However, should we not encourage the same kind of agency and liberty for our athletes — both as players and as private individuals — that we demand for our everyday citizens?

It seems as though, if the Warriors had refused the opportunity to head to the White House, it would have set a precedent alright. A very good one.

Miami, Cleveland and Oklahoma City players all lobbying for Dwyane Wade

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MIAMI (AP) Teams cannot officially start pursuing Dwyane Wade yet, because that would be tampering.

The same rules don’t apply to players.

So on Monday, even though Wade’s agreed-upon buyout deal with the Chicago Bulls has not yet become official, plenty of his NBA colleagues – particularly those in Cleveland, Oklahoma City and his former home in Miami – started lobbying the 12-time All-Star in earnest about where they think he should be playing this season.

“If I was to talk to that guy that would happen to possibly be like a brother to me, hypothetically, I would say I would love to have you in Miami,” said Heat forward Udonis Haslem, Wade’s teammate in Miami for 13 seasons. “I would love to finish my career with you. I would love to have you help me mold this young group of promising young men that have the chance to take the Heat culture to the next level.”

Wade isn’t expected to clear waivers until 5 p.m. Wednesday. He and the Bulls reached an agreement Sunday on the buyout, a person with direct knowledge told The Associated Press. Wade was due to make about $24 million this season in Chicago, and he told AP that he intended to take a couple of days to talk with players and teams about his options.

“My decision is a pure basketball decision and I’ll make the one that fits me best at this point in my career, and with what I feel I have to offer a team that needs what I have to offer,” Wade said in the AP interview.

It’s unclear how many teams have reached out to Wade’s representatives. Wade said he hopes to make a decision quickly.

Wade helped recruit LeBron James to Miami in 2010, and James is now hoping to do the same by getting his close friend to Cleveland.

“I would love to have D-Wade a part of this team,” said James, Wade’s teammates on Miami’s title teams in 2012 and 2013. “I think he brings another championship pedigree, championship DNA. He brings another player to the team who can get guys involved, can make plays and also has a great basketball mind.”

James said he will talk to Wade about what to do next.

“But it’s not up to me,” James said. “It’s up to D-Wade if he can clear waivers and then it’s up to our front office. But I hope we can bring him here. I would love to have him.”

Wade worked out with James this summer – that’s not uncommon, they vacation together, dine together and talk all the time anyway. Wade also spent some time this offseason in the gym with Paul George, now with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

George said he would be hitting Wade up on Snapchat and Twitter to do his campaigning. And now the Thunder have longtime Wade friend Carmelo Anthony, after Oklahoma City’s trade with the New York Knicks was finalized Monday.

“Come on, D,” Anthony said. “You know where you belong.”

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra, like Heat President Pat Riley last week, raved about Wade on Monday – but, wary of tampering, didn’t come anywhere near close to openly lobbying for a reunion.

Heat point guard Goran Dragic had a very simple message.

“This is D-Wade’s home,” Dragic said. “We’ll see how he’s going to choose. But hopefully, he comes back.”

AP Sports Writers Cliff Brunt and Tom Withers contributed to this report.

More AP basketball: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball