NBA Playoffs Preview: Boston Celtics vs. Philadelphia 76ers

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SEASON RECORDS

Boston: 39-27 (No. 5 seed)
Philadelphia: 35-31 (8 seed)

SEASON SERIES

Philadelphia took it 2-1, with the home team winning easily in each game.

KEY INJURIES
Celtics: Paul Pierce has a sprained knee that will not be right until this summer, Ray Allen is battling through ankle pain that may need surgery, and Avery Bradley has a bum shoulder. They will all play but the Sixers are banged up.

Sixers: Nothing that will cause players to miss a game.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)

Celtics: Off. 101.0 (27th in NBA); Def. 98.2 (1st in NBA)
Sixers: Off. 103.9 (20th in NBA); Def. 99.2 (3rd in NBA)

THREE KEY CELTICS:

Paul Pierce: He was at the best we have seen him in a while during the first round, averaging 21.2 points and 6.3 rebounds a game while Ray Allen was slowed with an ankle injury. The Celtics are going to need the same out of him in this round — but he’s going to have to do it with Andre Iguodala draped all over him. That’s a much tougher task.

Rajon Rondo: He also was dynamic in the first round and picked up his shooting pace, averaging 16.8 points and 11.8 assists per game. He has a matchup he can exploit with Jrue Holiday but he also may be called upon to play some defense on Lou Williams, the Sixers potent bench scorer.

Kevin Garnett: Boston is better when he is playing the five spot, and he stepped up and scored 28 points in Game 6 to help close out the Hawks. They are going to need offense from him in this series, and they are going to need him to play good defense on Spencer Hawes — laugh if you want Celtics fans but Hawes ability to step out and hit shots and his ball movement is key to making the Sixers halfcourt offense work.

Note to Philadelphia ownership — don’t insult him through the media. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry.

THREE KEY SIXERS:

Andre Iguodala: In a series where points will be hard to come by the Sixers need him to excel at both ends of the floor. He needs to slow down Paul Pierce on defense, then get some transition and opportunistic points on offense. And maybe getting a few jump shots to fall as well. He is the guy who has to step up big if the Sixers are going to win this series.

Lou Williams: He comes off the bench but he is the one Sixer who can just light up the scoreboard, and he is the guy with the ball in his hands on crucial plays at the end of games. He averaged 12.8 points per game in the first round, but his three point shooting was off, he needs to knock down the looks he gets in this series.

Spencer Hawes: People are just starting to realize how key he is for Philly. He averaged 15.5 points and 10.3 rebounds in the final four games of the Bulls series, but he didn’t have to do that against Joakim Noah… or now Kevin Garnett. If KG shuts him down the 76ers halfcourt offense stagnates — he is the guy that gets the ball moving side to side and gets them open looks. Philly needs him to be on.

OUTLOOK

Bet the under. Look at the statistical ranking above — two top-three defenses and two bottom-10 offenses. These are going to be low scoring, ugly affairs.

What it really comes down to — whichever team can get some consistent offensive spark is going to win. One way to do that is creating turnovers with their defense — something Boston was much better at during the season. Boston forced the other team to turn the ball over on 14.9 percent of their possessions (4th best in NBA), the Sixers on just 13.5 percent (19th). The problem for Boston is Philly was the best team in the NBA at taking care of the ball last season (10.9 percent of possessions ended in a turnover). If either side coughs the ball up and those become easy transition points the other way, it is a huge advantage.

It just seems to me Boston has more consistent weapons when it comes to getting those points — Rondo, Garnett, Pierce can all step up on a given night with a huge game. And Ray Allen is still lurking out there and could catch fire. Philly has Iguodala and Williams, and Jrue Holiday has had good games (and needs to have a monster series if Philly is to win) but it’s just not as many weapons.

The games will be low scoring and close, it will be the little things that decide it in the end. Like having home court advantage so your role players may give you a boost in more games. Or just having savvy veterans who have been through the wars and seem to make plays at key times. All things Boston has.

PREDICTION

Celtics in 7 games.

Kevin Love says about a month until he’s back on court with new-look Cavaliers

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LOS ANGELES — Kevin Love had some of the best seats in the house for the new-look Cavaliers and their 2-0 push before the break, and he wants back on the court to be part of it.

“I’m probably about two weeks out from getting this movable cast off for good, and then from there about a few weeks after that before I get back,” Love told NBCSports.com about his recovery from a fractured left hand. “So I have a good amount of time, about a month.”

Love was in Los Angeles all last weekend, where he had been voted onto the All-Star team by the coaches for the fifth time, but for the second consecutive year had to sit out due to injury. Love seemed to be at all the events in his former home Los Angeles — working with Kevin Hart for the “Closer Than Courtside” with Mountain Dew Kickstart, at the Beats by Dre party in Hollywood, and courtside for the All-Star Game itself sitting next to Kyrie Irving and LeBron James — but not on the court where he wants to be.

When he does get back on the court, it will be a very different team in Cleveland he’s playing with — and he thinks that’s a good thing.

“Just clearing out… I shouldn’t say that, just getting new faces and getting new energy in the locker room has been big for us,” Love told NBC Sports Saturday. “Even in the last two games, you can just see the energy is different, you can see guys are really competing on both ends of the floor, and that bodes well for us the second half of the season.”

The changes were needed.

“It might not have been a bad thing to get some fresh faces in there and guys from situations where they really wanted to win,” Love said during media day. “I think first and foremost, seeing those (new) guys in Atlanta, they didn’t play, but they got there right after the trade and they just said they want to win.

“You can tell when somebody says it, you can tell when somebody means it. They really meant it and it felt good to have that there.”

In Los Angeles, Love was having fun working with the other guy who seemed to be everywhere all weekend, comedian Kevin Hart. Love was working with Hart on the Mountain Dew Kickstart “Closer Than Courtside” Contest – a nationwide search to find Hart new “CourtsideKick” where fans tell Hart on social media why they think they’re courtside ready for a chance to sit with him during the NBA Playoffs.

“I’ve been drinking Code Red Mountain Dew, and Baja Blast forever,” Love said of this partnership. “My friend and I were just talking about how long we’ve been drinking Code Red, which is kind of a throwback flavor now.”

He’s just drinking it with his right hand. His left — his off, non-shooting hand — is still in that soft cast.

But having been down the injury road before, Love knows what it takes to get back.

“Just look at it from an optimistic point of view,” Love said of his mental process. “Even last year I missed the New Orleans All-Star Game because I just had my knee scoped, so just knowing that I’ve been there before, knowing that I’ve had success coming back, and just getting over that mental hurdle of coming back from an injury.

“Looking at it glass half full, it’s my left hand, so I can still do a ton of stuff out there on the floor and be ready to play in a month.”

A ton of stuff includes both cardio work and being able to do some strength and lifting with bands so that when the cast does come off his return to the court is faster. Once he gets there, Love expects that even with the new players he’ll be back in the same roles playing both the four and a lot at the five with these smaller, speedier lineups.

“I know we will supplement different guys in the lineup,” Love said. “I’ll hopefully be able to come back quite easily, I’ll have my legs under me — like I said, just because it’s my left hand — and I’ll be able to get back into rhythm here really fast.”

The Cavaliers hope so, too.

Little change in TV ratings for new-look NBA All-Star Game

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NEW YORK (AP) — A new format for the NBA All-Star Game had a negligible impact on television ratings.

Total viewership for the game was down slightly compared to last year, although it improved over 2014, the previous time the league’s midseason showcase faced competition from the Winter Olympics.

Turner Sports announced on Monday that the game drew an average of 7.7 million viewers Sunday night on TNT. Last year’s game attracted an average of 7.8 million viewers. In 2014 during the Sochi Olympics, an average of 7.5 million people watched the NBA’s best at the All-Star Game.

This year’s game abandoned the traditional East-vs.-West format in favor of teams selected by superstars LeBron James and Stephen Curry. James’ team won 148-145 in an uncommonly competitive matchup that featured better effort on defense.

Turner said the ratings improved among key demographics, including people between ages 18 and 34, and that video views on social media channels were up 37 percent compared to 2017.

Fergie says she “tried my best” after national anthem blowback

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Fergie is apologizing after trying something different with the national anthem at the NBA All-Star Game.

“I’ve always been honored and proud to perform the national anthem and last night I wanted to try something special for the NBA,” the Grammy-winning singer said in a statement Monday. “I’m a risk taker artistically, but clearly this rendition didn’t strike the intended tone. I love this country and honestly tried my best.”

Fergie’s slow, bluesy rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” on Sunday night wasn’t particularly well received at Staples Center or on social media before the 67th edition of the NBA’s annual showcase.

A low chuckle rumbled through the sold-out arena after she finished the first line of the song with a throaty growl on “the dawn’s early light.”

Fans throughout the star-studded crowd reacted with varying levels of bemusement and enthusiasm while her languid, 2 +-minute version of the song continued. Although Fergie was on pitch, her tempo, musical accompaniment and sexy delivery were not exactly typical for a sporting event or a patriotic song.

Golden State All-Star Draymond Green captured Sunday’s mood – and became an instant GIF – when he was shown open-mouthed on the scoreboard and the television broadcast in apparent confusion over the unique vocal stylings. Green then chuckled to himself after realizing he was on TV.

After a forceful finish, Fergie finally got big cheers when she shouted, “Let’s play some basketball!”

The Black Eyed Peas singer, born Stacy Ann Ferguson, is from nearby Hacienda Heights, California.

Famed basketball commentator Charles Barkley joked that he “needed a cigarette” after Fergie’s performance during the TNT halftime show.

Former Lakers star Shaquille O’Neal leaped to Fergie’s defense, saying: “Fergie, I love you. It was different. It was sexy. I liked it. Leave her alone.”

Others on social media weren’t as kind, with criticism of the performance outpacing the positive reviews.

 

Did Lakers help keep LeBron James in Cleveland with trade?

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When the trade went down between the Lakers and Cavaliers before the deadline — sending Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. to Cleveland in exchange for Isaiah Thomas and Channing Frye plus Cleveland’s 2018 first-round draft pick (top-five protected) — it caught the NBA by surprise.

The first reaction for a lot of people to the deal? This opens up as much as $70 million in cap space for the Lakers this summer (depending on other moves with players such as Julius Randle). Los Angeles could sign two max players — LeBron James and Paul George. Why would Cleveland help Los Angeles open up room to steal LeBron.

The Cavaliers didn’t see it that way — they knew they had to make a major shakeup or LeBron was gone. At that point, does it matter where? So in a series of moves, Cleveland GM Koby Altman radically remade the roster around LeBron. The goal was to energize them back into being the team to beat in the East, and from there make it hard for him to leave as a free agent. Since the trades, the Cavaliers are 2-0 and LeBron has clearly been reinvigorated, plus they will add Kevin Love back in a few weeks.

Altman’s plan seems to be working, one executive told Mark Spears of ESPN’s The Undefeated.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he stays in Cleveland now,” one high-ranking Eastern Conference team executive said. “The Cavaliers put a really good team around him. The Cavaliers have made it really tough for him to decide to leave Cleveland again. The Lakers might have helped them keep LeBron.”

I had heard from sources for a while LeBron to the Lakers was not likely (Paul George is another story, that door remains open). As Spears notes, the Lakers did not have an All-Star in Sunday’s game. Even if LeBron and PG13 went to Los Angeles, that team was third or fourth best in the West next season. LeBron is in full on legacy mode and wants to win rings. Los Angeles is not the place to do it.

Houston is interesting (and it’s still a team I hear some execs think has a real shot), but the gutting or role players on that roster to make it work would be a concern. Maybe a dark horse such as Philadelphia can emerge. However, if LeBron can lead this newly-energized Cavaliers team to the Finals again (his eighth consecutive trip there), they get a high draft pick with the Brooklyn pick, then LeBron gets a commitment from Altman and owner Dan Gilbert to keep spending and being aggressive, where is he going to be closer to a title than at home?