LeBron James, Kevin Garnett

Eastern Confernence finals preview: Celtics vs. Heat

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SEASON RECORDS

Miami 46-20 (No. 2 seed)
Boston: 39-27 (No. 5 seed)

SEASON SERIES

Boston won the season series 3-1. In their second to final game before the playoffs the Heat did not play any of their big three against the Celtics, so toss that one out.

KEY INJURIES
Celtics: Starting two guard Avery Bradley is out after having surgery on both shoulders last week, and his defense will be missed. That moves Ray Allen into the starting lineup but he battling through ankle pain that may need surgery after the season. Paul Pierce has a sprained knee that will not be right until this summer.

Heat: Chris Bosh is still out with a strained abdomen and you shouldn’t expect to see him this series. Dwyane Wade has a knee issue and had to have it drained during the last series. Mike Miller has more things wrong with him than that guy on the table in the game operation, but he will be out there.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)

Heat: Offense 106.6 (8th in NBA); Defense 100.2 (4th in NBA)
Celtics: Offense 101.0 (27th in NBA); Defense 98.2 (1st in NBA)

THREE KEY CELTICS:

Rajon Rondo: When the pressure was on he played his best late in Game 7 against Philly — now he’s going to have to replicate that every game against the Heat for the Celtics to have a chance. They need his penetration to set up the other Celtics, particularly Brandon Bass cutting baseline or knocking down the midrange jumper. They need his jumper to fall. They need his defense. They need him to have the best playoff series of his life

Kevin Garnett: The Heat don’t have the size to exploit the Celtics when they go smaller and play KG at the five, which is good for Boston. Garnett’s offense was good against Philly but Boston needs more — he simply has to get deep post position and bring it on offense. Without Bosh to defend him Garnett has to put up big numbers for the Celtics to score enough in this series.

Paul Pierce: He had Andre Iguodala on him last series, if he gets hot at all in this one he’ll get LeBron James. Great. But again it comes down to scoring — we know the Celtics will defend well and as talented as the Heat are they will not score as much as normal. The problem is that Boston needs to put up more points than they have in the playoffs and they are about to face the best defense they’ve gone against yet.

THREE KEY HEAT:

LeBron James: Heat coach Erik Spoelstra pulled no punches the other day — LeBron and Dwyane Wade are going to have to play at the level the duo did for the last three games of the Pacers series for the Heat to have a chance in this one. Boston plays great team defense but LeBron can get his and has to get his for the Heat to be successful. Also, he likely will have Paul Pierce to defend late in games, he has to shut down The Truth.

Dwyane Wade: Read what Spoelstra said above — the Heat need his scoring. They will need his defense and steals that create transition offense. They need the Wade that is one of the elite players in the NBA, anything less and they are thin.

Udonis Haslem: He’s got work to do at both ends of the floor. Defensively he’s going to get some time matched up on Garnett, and that could include key times in the game. They need his defense (and not his flagrant fouls, because the Celtics will be physical). On the other end, they need him to space the floor, to knock down the midrange jumper when Wade drives the lane and kicks it out. Like Haslem did in Game 5. They need that guy.

OUTLOOK

In their regular season meetings, the Celtics offense torched the Heat defense. Even if you throw out the final meeting when the Heat just rolled out the subs for 48 minutes.

Boston put up 117 in a game on Miami and racked up incredible shooting numbers in the regular season. The Celtics hit 76 percent of their corner threes against the Heat, with Ray Allen and others getting good looks (Boston shot 44 percent from there for the season). In their four meetings Boston shot 66.7 percent on long twos (20 feet to the arc). That’s the worst shot in basketball and they killed it from there. (Stats via NBA.com).

I don’t think they can come close to replicating that for four out of seven games. First off, two Boston wins came in April when they caught Miami during its “we’re just waiting for the playoffs to start” malaise. Also, against the Sixers last round the Celtics were not hitting those shots consistently. Ray Allen is not shooting like Ray Allen right now because of that ankle injury.

Instead I expect the Celtics will work hard to establish Garnett on the block, especially with Bosh not there to defend. He is going to have to have a monster series for the Celtics to have a chance. Also, Rondo is going to have to get into the teeth of the defense and create open looks for Garnett and Bass, who need to knock them down.

Miami’s defense is like a better version of the Sixers — they just have athletes all over the floor that pressure, gamble and try to force you into mistakes they turn into transition points. If Boston is to have any chance they have to break that pressure and put up points.

On offense, Miami is going to count on huge series from Wade and LeBron, who are attacking off the pick and roll. Boston lacks someone the size of Roy Hibbert on the back line but still no team was better during the regular season at containing the ball-handler coming off the pick. The Celtics need to get the attack-minded duo to hesitate and ultimately give up the ball.

What makes Miami dangerous is when Wade and Lebron can trust guys like Udonis Haslem, Shane Battier and Mike Miller to knock down kickout shots (this is also where they miss Chris Bosh). And it should go without saying, you have to slow the Heat’s transition game. Well, you can say it but doing it is something else entirely.

PREDICTION

Miami in 5.

The truth is the Heat already beat the second best team in the East last round (after the Derrick Rose injury changed the landscape). Boston if they were healthy all the way around would have some pieces to challenge Miami but without Bradley’s defense and a steady Allen they don’t have the guys on the wings to defend the Heat. Boston’s defense is good, but their offense will not be able to keep up with what the Heat put on the board.

Nicolas Batum zips pass between Tobias Harris’ legs to assist Frank Kaminsky (video)

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Listen up, defenses: Nicolas Batum will throw passes between your legs.

Three things we learned Wednesday: Warriors, Cavaliers try to make statements in December

Golden State Warriors forward Kevon Looney, left, and Los Angeles Clippers guard Jamal Crawford reach for a rebound during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, in Los Angeles. The Warriors won 115-98. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
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ESPN thought they had a great double header on Wednesday, but those games were decided by a combined 49 points, you should have flipped over to Hairspray Live. Anyway, here are the big takeaways from Wednesday.

1) You can’t have a statement game in December. But if you could Cleveland, Golden State made them. Can we just skip ahead to Christmas when these two teams finally play each other? Plus by then my shopping will be done, and I’m dreading doing it. We’ve said before the Cavaliers and Warriors have established themselves as the best in their conferences and they made that point with authority on Wednesday.

Cleveland did it thrashing the Knicks 126-94. To be fair, the Knicks were on the second night of a back-to-back and were without Derrick Rose. But that is a small part of the disparity here. First, Phil Jackson may want to not try to piss off the best player on the planet. Just a suggestion. Beyond that, the Knicks have had a good season (12-10), but they match up poorly with Cleveland. They don’t have a good defender for Kyrie Irving. Nobody has a good one for LeBron (well, maybe the Spurs). Kristaps Porzingis struggles to defend in space, and Kevin Love can exploit that. I can go on, but you get the picture. Between beating Toronto Monday and this, the Cavs are back to exploiting their advantages out East.

Golden State made its statement by blowing out a Clippers team that had been the second-best team in the West to this point. The Warriors did it with defense first — Los Angeles shot 39.6 percent as a team. Stephen Curry did a respectable job on Chris Paul (15 points on 14 shots), Klay Thompson blanketed J.J. Redick (just four shots), and Draymond was built to guard Blake Griffin (12 points on 20 shots, with seven turnovers). The Warriors anticipated the Clippers skip passes and turned those into transition chances (Golden State won the fast break points battle 27-11). The Warriors didn’t even have a great night on offense — Curry was 0-of-8 from three — and won 115-98 (and it wasn’t that close). Still, the Warriors ball movement was there.

Marreese Speights is in a unique position — the Clippers backup big was with the Warriors the past few seasons, and he was honest and harsh in his assessment of the differences between these teams.

2) Giannis Antetokounmpo got a triple-double on an off night. He’s that good. Portland is not a good defensive team. Improved with Al-Farouq Aminu healthy and back on the court, but still not good. However, their defensive strategy of having their bigs play back and not press high off picks works against Giannis Antetokounmpo because you want to make him a jump shooter anyway — and the Greek Freak was notably frustrated at times Wednesday night.

And he still had a triple double of 15 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists. He’s playing that well. Look at it this way, in a Westbrook/Harden world Antetokounmpo is the only NBA player averaging more than 20 points, eight rebounds, five assists, two blocks and two steals a game this season.

The real story for the Bucks was the 27 from Jabari Parker, that’s the reason Milwaukee beat Portland 115-107.

3) Kemba Walker needs to be an All-Star, he got Hornets a win over Pistons. Charlotte shot 34.1 percent Wednesday night, no way they should get a win in that situation. But alas, there was Kemba Walker, who had 14 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter sparking a Charlotte win, 87-77. Walker is averaging 23.6 shots per game, is shooting a career-best 41.4 percent from three, has a true shooting percentage of 58.2 percent (well above the league average), and is the everything for the Hornet’s offense.

The man deserves to be playing in New Orleans in the All-Star Game this year. I know the East is loaded with quality point guards — Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry, Isaiah Thomas, John Wall — but Kemba has earned the recognition this year.

Warriors rout Clippers 115-98 for 7th straight win over LA

Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson, left, tries to go up for a shot as Los Angeles Clippers guard Alan Anderson defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, in Los Angeles. The Warriors won 115-98. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Klay Thompson scored 24 points, Draymond Green added 22 points and the Golden State Warriors routed the Clippers 115-98 on Wednesday night for their seventh straight win over Los Angeles.

Stephen Curry had 19 points for Golden State, and Kevin Durant, who came averaging a team-best 27.0 points, was held to 16 on 5-of-17 shooting.

Curry failed to make a 3-pointer for just the second time this season, going 0 of 8. The Warriors were 7 of 30 from long range.

Jamal Crawford scored 21 points for the Clippers, who have lost five of seven. Four of their seven overall losses have come at home.

Giannis Antetokounmpo gets triple-double, Bucks beat Blazers 115-107

Portland Trail Blazers' Allen Crabbe fouls Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo during the second half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, in Milwaukee. The Bucks won 115-107. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Giannis Antetokounmpo is emerging as a dynamic player and precocious leader – and at 22 years old, he’s already closing in on one of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s franchise records.

Antetokounmpo got his second triple-double of the season to lead the Milwaukee Bucks over the Portland Trail Blazers 115-107 on Wednesday night.

Antetokounmpo had 15 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists for his seventh career triple-double – second-most with the franchise behind Abdul-Jabbar’s eight. Antetokounmpo is the only NBA player averaging at least 20 points, eight rebounds, five assists, two blocks and two steals this season.

“Maybe it wasn’t a fluid game for Giannis, but this is what he does,” Milwaukee coach Jason Kidd said. “He fills up the stat sheet. … He is a winner and he helped his team find a way to win tonight by getting other guys involved. That is the maturity of a 22-year-old, that you can see a leader is growing right in front of us.”

Jabari Parker added 27 points for Milwaukee, which rebounded from a one-point home loss to San Antonio on Monday to win for the fifth time in six games.

“The team is rolling right now, feeling good,” Antetokounmpo said. “Jabari is a beast right now.”

The Bucks entered holding opponents to a NBA-best .311 shooting percentage from 3-point range, but Portland drilled 17 of them on 40 attempts – both season highs.

Damian Lillard made five and scored a team-high 30 points to go with seven rebounds and six assists.

C.J. McCollum added 23 points, including four 3-pointers, as the Blazers continued a nine-game stretch of playing eight times on the road.

“That’s one of the things we do,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “We shoot a lot of 3s when we move the ball.”

Milwaukee led 101-90 with 5:27 left after two free throws from Antetokounmpo, but then Portland hit three straight 3s in 56 seconds to trim the deficit to two.

The Bucks responded with the next three baskets to take a 107-99 lead after a jumper from Parker with 2:03 to go.

Another 3 from Allen Crabbe trimmed the margin to 109-105 with 56 seconds remaining, but that is as close as Portland got.

TIP-INS

Trail Blazers: The team’s 12 3-pointers in the first half tied the franchise high. The last time it had that many was 2002. … Mason Plumlee became the fastest Portland player to tally 150 rebounds and 100 assists (23 games) since Scottie Pippen in 1999-2000 (22 games).

Bucks: Jason Terry played his 1,300th career game. … Antetokounmpo was called for a 10-second violation when attempting a free-throw in the third quarter. … Miles Plumlee, the older brother of Mason, sat out for the third straight contest.

ONE WAY TO LOSE

Portland had eight of its 15 turnovers in the final quarter, including three in a stretch of 1:13 midway through the frame.

“I don’t know if I’d say it was sloppy,” Stotts said. “Not all turnovers are sloppy. (Crabbe) stepped out of bounds – that’s a turnover. We had a 24-second shot clock (violation) – that’s a turnover. But I was probably more concerned with some of our shots.”

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT

Kidd, when asked about Lillard’s play: “He is one of the top guards in the world,” he said. “His range is once he gets past half court.”

MONROE SCORING AGAIN

Greg Monroe had 15 points – one shy of his season high. Since a two-point game at Brooklyn on Thursday night, he is averaging 12.3 points per game in three outings.