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.

Craig Sager and his flashy suits return to All-Star weekend

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TORONTO (AP) — The All-Star game in New York was a little less colorful last year.

Craig Sager, the TNT sideline reporter known for wearing flashy suits, missed the NBA’s annual midseason gala for the first time since he started doing them in 1988. Another bout with the leukemia he’s been battling for the last few years resurfaced, and Sager was forced to sit out while undergoing more treatments.

Sager considers the All-Star festivities the most important weekend of the season for him, and so it pained him to have to watch on television while receiving his treatments.

“It was hard for me not to be there, but I had to address my health,” Sager said. “To be able to get that in remission and be able to go through this year, it’s going to be extra special for me. I’ve really been looking forward to this a long time.”

That’s right. Sager is back for All-Star weekend in Toronto this year.

He spent the week leading up to it in Houston receiving his monthly treatment, which included a blood transfusion, to make sure he was healthy enough for the trip. Once he arrived in Canada, he was easy to spot.

“I just saw him,” Spurs coach and longtime foil Gregg Popovich said after the Western Conference team practiced on Saturday. “His suit spoke to me. It blinded me for a second.”

It’s been an emotional run for Sager, the longtime fixture at NBA games. He has needed two bone marrow transplants and still has to make those treks to Houston once a month. He has returned to the sideline for games this season and is feeling so well that he was scheduled to do both the Saturday night activities that include the 3-point shootout and the dunk contest as well as the game on Sunday.

“I feel great. Got my weight back. Got my strength back,” Sager said. “I’m back to playing golf.”

Two of his youngest children – daughter Riley and son Ryan – will be with him on the court this weekend serving as a ball boy and ball girl.

And of course, Sager will do a round with Popovich on television during a quarter break on Sunday. The two have turned the sideline interview into a passion play,

“He’s been an iconic figure in the NBA. He does a great job,” Popovich said. “His sense of humor is obvious. we have a lot of fun going back and forth with that. To have him back where he belongs, obviously we’re happy for him and his health. But for the league it’s great too, because he’s a fixture that everybody enjoys.”

Sager called the support he has received from Commissioner Adam Silver, coaches, players and fans “humbling” and said he was looking forward to coming back to his favorite event of the season.

“It’s been very uplifting, very therapeutic,” Sager said. “Very supportive on their part. That really has been very helpful to me, my treatment and my drive to get back.”

Kevin Hart, Draymond Green get in All-Star Saturday three-point shootout

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TORONTO — This is going to come up in the Golden State locker room.

Right before Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry put on a three-point shooting exhibition, actor/comedian/self-promotor Kevin Hart came out and challenged Draymond Green to a shooting contest. Green was ready to go. They did the three-point shooting contest, and Green put up a total of 12 (which would have been dead last in the actual three-point contest, for the record).

Then Hart stepped up — and tied him with 12 points.

Steve Kerr, if you’re ever looking for a lineup to go REALLY small….

Other All-Stars pay tribute to Kobe Bryant’s legacy

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TORONTO — This is Kobe Bryant‘s weekend.

In what will be his final All-Star Game, he has been an absolute rock star in Toronto — huge ovations, huge crowds (of fans and media), and cameras trained on him everywhere he goes. The weekend has been a celebration of one of the game’s all-time greats and a storied career.

Over the course of the weekend, nearly every other All-Star has been asked about Kobe and the impact he’s had both on the game and on the players, personally. For many of them, this is personal, the younger NBA players grew up idolizing him. Here are a sampling of their responses.

James Harden (Houston Rockets):
“He’s been my idol growing up, my basketball idol. Like I said, just watching him play meant everything to me. So this is his last year, and he’s going to retire, and there’s going to be no more Kobe Bryant playing basketball, it’s kind of sad. It’s kind of sad about that, but at some point he had to go.”

Kyle Lowry (Toronto Raptors):
“He’s the Michael Jordan of our era. He’s the most competitive player we’ve played against, and the thing he’s done throughout his career and the things he’s done to change the game, to motivate the players is unbelievable.”

Chris Bosh (Miami Heat):
“Kobe, this is his weekend. I know he probably would never say that or admit that, but, yeah, he’s one of the iconic players of this — greatest iconic players this league has ever had. He’s had such an imprint on our childhood. I know he had an imprint on my childhood. And then I was in that mix where I was a kid, and then I was trying to figure it out in the NBA, and next thing you know you’re competing against him. So, it’s been crazy.”

DeMar DeRozan (Toronto Raptors):
“I grew up watching the Lakers. I grew up watching him his whole career and getting a chance to have a relationship with him and kind of, you know, patterned my game after him so to speak, so definitely speaks volumes.”

Russell Westbrook (Oklahoma City Thunder):
“Me growing up in Los Angeles and being able to see Kobe, obviously he’s one of the greatest players to play the game. It was a true honor to be able to learn from him. It’s a great experience to be able to learn different things from him, not just on the floor but off the floor as well and very different experiences.”

Tyrone Lue (Coach, Cleveland Cavaliers):
“When I first got there (playing for the Lakers) he was still young. He was Kobe, but he hadn’t been a starter yet. And that third year of his career, that was my first year, Rick Fox went down, and he stepped in and took a starting role. But just seeing the film he watched all the time, the players he was talking about, the Oscar Robertsons, Michael Jordans, the Magics, he knew from day one who he wanted to be like. He knew that to be the best, you had to work hard. That’s what he did every single day. Not one day did I see him take off.”

Paul George (Indiana Pacers):
“He was just fearless. He’s a champion. To get to where you want to get to, you have to put the work in. His work ethic is one thing that he has. That’s the reason why he’s so great.”

Paul Millsap (Atlanta Hawks):
“The only thing I can remember is him always beating us when I was at Utah in the playoffs. We always had to try to overcome the Lakers and Kobe Bryant and just could never do it.”

John Wall (Washington Wizards):
“Basically, the Michael Jordan of our era is what I see with all of his dedication to the game, his competitive drive. He’s one of those guys that always wants the ball in a tough situation. No matter the circumstances, he believes in himself, no matter what.”

Aaron Gordon (Orlando Magic):
“I watched Kobe growing up and watched him in the All-Star Game. The impact he’s had on my basketball game and in my life and so many other people, it’s really big. It’s astronomical. That’s Kobe. That’s the man.”

Draymond Green (Golden State Warriors):
“He’s meant so much to the game. Growing up in the era that I did, Kobe was that guy. So to play in an All-Star Game with him, I mean, that’s special. I grew up a Kobe fan, so it’s something that’s really special.”

C.J. McCollum (Portland Trail Blazers):
“He’s had a huge impact (on me). Obviously for us, he was the Michael Jordan of our era, a guy we watched. He emulated Michael. He had a lot of the same fadeaways, sticking out his tongue, winning championships. Just a sense of self to understand exactly what it takes to be successful. So for us, he was a guy I looked up to. His work ethic, his understanding and he knew how to bounce back from losses and shooting air balls in the playoffs as a rookie to hitting game winners.”

Watch it again: Epic dunk contest duel between Zach LaVine, Aaron Gordon

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TORONTO — I am always hesitant to say a player/team/situation is one of the best of ever because the history of the NBA is filled with greats. We tend to overstate how good something current can be.  That said…

That was one of the best dunk contests ever.

Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon put on a show for the ages. Gordon had the best dunks of the night (in my opinion), but LaVine is consistently amazing, every dunk he does is flat out ridiculous.

Officially, LaVine won. In reality, we all won. Enjoy watching it one more time.