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.

How do you like “The Process” now? Sixers eliminate Heat, advance to second round

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It felt inevitable.

Not “The Process” from the start. There were some severe downs before the ups.

Not this first playoff series against Miami from the start, because it felt even… until Game 3 when Joel Embiid returned in his mask and tipped the scales.

No, it was Game 5’s result felt inevitable as it unfolded. Not because Philadelphia won the previous game in Miami and could close it out at home. Not because the Sixers have the two biggest talents in the series in Ben Simmons and Embiid.

Rather, Game 5 felt inevitable because the Sixers got better looks all night long. They got them with ball movement, with player movement that created mismatches or clean jumpers. It was tied 46-46 at the half because Philadelphia just missing its good looks while the Heat were struggling with hands in their face all night. Philadelphia shot 38.1 percent in the first half overall and were 2-of-12 from three.

In the third quarter, it all changed.

Philadelphia went on an early 9-0 run, shot 50 percent as a team for the quarter, all while continuing to play defense and get stops. The Sixers won the third 34-20 and held on through Miami rallies in the fourth to take the game comfortably, 104-91.

With the win, Philadelphia wins the series 4-1 and advances to the second round, where they will face either Boston or Milwaukee (Boston leads the series 3-2).

They did it behind 27 from J.J. Redick, who knocked down five threes. Embiid had 19 points and 12 rebounds, Simmons had 14 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists. However, it was the defense that held the Miami to 38.6 percent shooting overall and 16-of-31 from three within eight feet of the basket that won the game for Philly.

This young Sixers team learned lessons in this first round, and maybe the biggest was how to adapt the physicality of the playoffs, and keeping your cool while things don’t go your way.

“I thought we withstood the physicality of the Heat,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “They’re a great organization. They came to mean it, we knew they wouldn’t go away easily, and we had to have that physical element to match.”

They matched that physicality, but what they had was talent that could step up.

They also savored the moment. Midway through the fourth, up comfortably and still knocking down shots, the young Sixers were reveling in the deafening crowd in the Wells Fargo Center. Philadelphia was reveling in success after years of struggling through the process — the players and fans wanted to start that party midway through the fourth.

However, Heat have no chill and no quit in them, they went on a 10-0 in the fourth quarter, not-so-coincidentally after Sixers fans started chanting, “We want Boston!”

But when it mattered the Heat couldn’t get stops — the Sixers talent showed through. Redick hit threes. Embiid owned the paint. Simmons did a little bit of everything.

It was a moment of revelry in Philadelphia. One years in the making — and maybe the first in many years of future celebrations on that court.

Sixers players douse Brett Brown, present him with bell after closing Heat (VIDEO)

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The Philadelphia 76ers are moving on. Let’s just try to process that for a moment.

After beating the Miami Heat on Tuesday night, 104-91, this iteration of the Sixers experienced their first playoff series win together. It was also the first series win for coach Brett Brown as the man in charge of an NBA team.

As such, players gathered in the locker room after the win to hear Brown speak about the win, and about how the team had more to give and to learn as they moved forward together in the playoffs.

When Brown concluded his speech, he tried to hand off the victory bell to JJ Redick. As soon as Redick received it, he bestowed the honor of the bell right back upon Brown.

That’s when teammates showered Brown with whatever they had nearby, and Brown rung the bell.

Man, what a moment.

Marcus Smart returns, helps Celtics win Game 5 over Bucks

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Marcus Smart returned to the Boston Celtics after suffering a thumb injury earlier in the year, and boy was it just in time.

The Celtics guard came off the bench, doing what he does best: attacking opposing guards, grabbing rebounds, and making hustle plays for his squad. Smart thoroughly annoyed the Milwaukee Bucks, and as Giannis Antetokounmpo failed to make a push in the second half (and as Khris Middleton‘s shooting slowly deteriorated) it was Boston who came out with a win in Game 5, 92-87.

Milwaukee’s offense failed to show up early. According to NBA TV, it was the second-lowest halftime total for the Bucks this season, and the away team scored just 37 points at the break. Milwaukee struggled mightily as a team, shooting just 21 percent from 3-point range. Despite the issues, both Antetokounmpo and Middleton had 11 points by half.

Boston’s attack was balanced, with nine players scoring in the first half but none reaching double figures. Smart was effective off the bench, playing 12 minutes in the first half. Smart’s presence was felt elsewhere on the floor as well; in those minutes he racked up two blocks, two rebounds, and two assists.

The Celtics stalled to start the third quarter, at times going several minutes between baskets. The intensity level was still high, particularly during one tussle with 9:33 left in the third. Eric Bledsoe and Terry Rozier got into a bumping match on the baseline away from the ball, resulting in one player getting pushed into an official. Bledsoe earned a Flagrant 1 for his efforts, and Rozier was assessed a technical.

Milwaukee began to battle back on surprising baskets by Shabazz Muhammad. The former Minnesota Timberwolves wing dropped two 3-pointers to help the Bucks make a run at the Celtics all the way into the fourth quarter.

The critical play of the game came with 80 seconds left. With the shot clock winding down, Al Horford was allowed by officials to shoot a long jumper. The refereeing crew didn’t blow the whistle, and Boston took a second possession after a backtip.

Then, with 28 seconds left as the Bucks were trying to steal or foul the Celtics, came the play Boston fans had been waiting for from Smart. At first it appeared Milwaukee had shot at a turnover as they hustled Smart to the floor on a trap. Thinking quickly, Smart leapt on the lost ball, flipped over, and sent a pass to a wide open Horford for the basket, all but sealing the game.

Milwaukee tried to play the foul game in the final minute or so, but weren’t able to come up with a win. Antetokounmpo finished with just 16 points and Middleton with 23. Horford led the Celtics with 22 points, 14 rebounds, and three assists.

Boston now leads the series, 3-2, as they head back to Milwaukee for Game 6 on Thursday.

Meek Mill gets out of jail, takes helicopter to 76ers-Heat, rings bell pregame

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Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid had been one of the most notable NBA players leading the charge for the #FreeMeekMill movement. The rapper Meek Mill, a Philadelphia native and Sixers fan, has been incarcerated for violating the terms of his probation multiple times.

At the heart of the movement to free Meek Mill is the idea of comparative justice, that he has been unfairly targeted because of his race as an absorber of punishment from the penal system despite it being a decade since he committed his crime. People from Embiid to New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft have made their voices heard on the subject.

Today, Meek Mill was released from prison and was sent a special gift: the opportunity to fly via helicopter, provided by 76ers minority owner Michael Rubin, to Game 5 between the Sixers and Miami Heat.

When he arrived at the game, the rapper rung the ceremonial bell before tip-off.

Not a couple of hours fresh out of the joint.