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.

PBT Extra: Rockets vs. Spurs far more than Kawhi Leonard vs. James Harden

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Kawhi Leonard vs. James Harden. Two MVP candidates matching up in the second round of the NBA playoffs.

However, the San Antonio Spurs vs. Houston Rockets is much more than that.

It’s a battle of pace. It’s a chess match between two of the best coaches in the game. It’s about which team’s role players are going to step up.

I talk about all of that in this latest PBT Extra. Plus, of course, when Leonard will guard Harden.

How to start your Saturday night: Watching 15 minutes of best plays from NBA season

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There are no NBA playoff games Saturday night, the first night since the start of the postseason there hasn’t been one game. Don’t worry, there are two games on Sunday, including Game 7 between the Jazz and Clippers.

But if you need a Saturday night fix, this will have to do: 15 minutes of the best plays from last season, as compiled by NBA.com.

Go ahead, watch it. You’ve got nothing better to do.

 

Paul Millsap says the expected, he will “most likely” opt out of contract

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This is ranked right next to “overeating can lead to weight gain” on the list of surprising things, but we will dutifully report it anyway:

Paul Millsap is going to opt out and officially become a free agent this summer.

Atlanta’s owner as well as Mike Budenholzer, the coach and head of basketball operations, have both said they plan to do whatever it takes to re-sign Millsap with the Hawks. Millsap didn’t sound like someone eager to leave after the Hawks were eliminated from the playoffs Friday.

“It’s been great. I’m looking to expand this and see where the franchise can go. These last four years has been great. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Even with both sides singing Kumbaya, keeping Millsap in Atlanta likely means a five-year contract at or near the max, which for a 32-year-old player means the Hawks would regret the last year or two of that deal.

Not that the Hawks have much of a choice here, they have to come in big and keep him. For one, they can’t afford to lose Al Horford and then Millsap for nothing in back-to-back years. If they were going down the rebuilding road, they needed to trade Millsap at the deadline (or last summer) to make sure they got something in return. Atlanta explored trade options at the deadline, but then pulled back (rumored to be because of an edict from ownership, which didn’t want to see the team blown up after the Kyle Korver trade).

By not making that trade the Hawks signaled their intention to remain a good team — a 43-win team this season that got them the five seed — with Dennis Schroder and Dwight Howard, one that draws well at an arena that historically has not been that full, and see if they can add on. They strike me as a team that will win between 42-50 games a year and be middle of the pack in the East for the next few years, unless they can find a way to add an elite player (which is incredibly difficult).

But if the Hawks can’t re-sign Millsap, then the plan gets blown up. So expect them to come in with a big offer come July 1.

Milwaukee Bucks eager to build after strong finish to season

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ST. FRANCIS, Wis. (AP) — With the sting of their frantic but failed Game 6 comeback effort still fresh in their minds, the Milwaukee Bucks returned to their practice facility Friday morning to pack their things and head their separate ways.

The Bucks consider themselves a team on the rise in the Eastern Conference, a belief no doubt reinforced by a furious 14-4 run late in the season that propelled them to sixth place in the East and solidified by a strong, though inconsistent, effort against Toronto in the playoffs.

“We thought we were the better team,” forward Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “We thought we could beat the Raptors and go to the second round. We feel like we got the Raptors’ attention so hopefully next year … we can go deeper in the playoffs.”

To get to that next step, which includes gaining home-court advantage and winning a playoff series for the first time since 2001, a lot of work needs to be done. Milwaukee needs Antetokounmpo to continue his rapid development, but will be looking to young additions like Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon, the Bucks’ two picks in last year’s draft, to refine their bodies and their games this summer.

Maker was one of the biggest surprises in the league. The 15th overall pick was a relative unknown and figured, at the outset, to be a draft-and-develop pick. Instead, he made a strong impression on the coaching staff with his commitment to defense and made opposing teams panic with his ability to shoot the 3 and wound up starting all six playoff games.

“It was amazing,” Maker said. “Unexpected. I thought I was just going to be on `Project: Build Maker’ and build my body but that’s (what I’m doing) this summer now. I thought that’s what this year was going to be about but everything turned around. I worked hard and it turned out to be way more than I expected. I don’t like the end results – it could have been way better – but you live with the results and you learn.”

Brogdon might have been an even bigger surprise. He was Milwaukee’s second-round pick and began the season on the bench behind free agent acquisition Matthew Dellavedova. But he, too, put in the work and by season’s end, was not only the starting point guard but a key piece of the Bucks’ core.

“I think it’s strong,” Brogdon said of Milwaukee’s nucleus. “I think it’s going to be one of the strongest in the NBA, as long as we’re able to stay together and as long as we’re able to stay healthy. I think we’re going to be one of the best teams in the NBA.”

The Bucks have been in this position before. They were considered a team on the rise in 2010, when they forced the Hawks to seven games but stumbled the next season and didn’t return to the postseason until sneaking into the eighth spot in 2013.

Two years later, Milwaukee was thought to be a sleeper after the Bucks finished .500 in Kidd’s first season at the helm, but again they faltered the next season and missed the playoffs.

Maintaining the momentum will be a major focus as preparations begin for the next season.

“My first year we had seven or eight free agents, so we knew that wasn’t going to be the same team,” forward John Henson said. “(The) second year we had a new coach, more free agents.

My third year coach Kidd coming in, we knew there was going to be some stability. He’s had the same core guys and this is what happens; not have a letdown like we did the year before.”

Milwaukee should benefit with some roster stability. The team’s young core appears set in place with Antetokounmpo, Henson and Khris Middleton locked into long-term contracts, as are Dellavedova and Mirza Teletovic.

Tony Snell, who went on to start 80 games after being acquired late in training camp, is a restricted free agent. Greg Monroe, who became one of the league’s best sixth men, holds a player option for next season.

The Bucks will likely be open to bringing back veteran guard Jason Terry for a 19th season, too.

“I think that’s how you become a team that doesn’t regress next year – keeping some of the pieces together,” Henson said.

General manager John Hammond also faces a tough question with Jabari Parker, who will miss at least the first half of the 2017-18 season after tearing his ACL in February. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 draft is eligible for a contract extension this summer and was in line to earn something close to the $100 million Milwaukee gave Antetokounmpo last year.