Miami Heat's James and Wade react after a play against the Boston Celtics during the first half in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference Finals NBA basketball playoffs in Boston

Celtics-Heat Game 7 Preview: Five things to watch

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With so much on the line in Game 7, what are the things that will decide this game? What does it come down to? Here are five things to watch as the Boston Celtics meet the Miami Heat in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals Saturday night.

1. For the love of God, stop trying to front Kevin Garnett with Udonis Haslem. The Heat have stuck with this plan for five games and it’s murdered them nearly every time. Rondo can throw a lob pass in-between two crossing speedboats with his eyes closed. So, no, he has not struggled to find the lob to Garnett underneath, resulting in easy scores time and time again. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has sacrificed Udonis Haslem to the former T-Wolf time and time again, despite Haslem having neither height nor athleticism to challenge the entry pass. It’s like building a fortress wall, but only having it be about four feet high. The Heat had more success in Game 6 with timing their double once Garnett goes into his shooting motion in the post rather than upon the catch (where Garnett is more likely to simply pass out). They need to stick with that. They also need to get some help from the Gods by having Garnett miss his 18 footers on the pick and pop. That’s a primary reason Haslem is out there, to have the speed to challenge those shots. He has not been able to. There’s no good answer for stopping Garnett, it’s impossible. There are, however, less awful ones.

2. Keep with the strategy from Game 6 on LeBron James. Sounds nuts, right? But if LeBron James is hitting mid-range jumpers, you’re in trouble, big trouble, awful trouble anyway. Not a lot you can do. Doc Rivers will live with it day in and day out. You take your chances with the jumper. If he hits it, you’ve been beaten by one of the best players in the history of the game who had himself a historic day. You live with it. The temptation is to send doubles at James. The Celtics don’t really do that. Ever. They’ll challenge you with help on drives, but they’re not going to send two defenders at James in a face-up situation from mid-range unless things get really bad. It’s a bad idea. James is an incredible passer, and you’re setting yourself up for easy looks underneath by doing so.

3. Someone unreliable is going to have to have a day. Shane Batter, Mickael Pietrus, Mario Chalmers, Keyon Dooling. One side or the other is going to get hot from the arc and hit shots that honestly, they have very little chances of making regularly. Chalmers and Pietrus can shoot, but in this situation, with these stakes, against this defense? The odds aren’t with them. So what?! Welcome to the circus! Whee! Someone’s going to start nailing threes and that’s going to kill the other team and their fans who will say “We got beat by THAT GUY?!” Like I said, coin flip, man.

4. Drop the Bass. Welcome to Chapter 2 in “Things Erik Spoelstra has done in this series which makes my skull pound like an early Black Keys album is being played  at excruciating volume.” Spoelstra has stuck Battier on Bass. Battier is better matched up with Kevin Garnett than Bass. That’s crazy, but think of it. Garnett’s not going to slam his shoulder into Battier and score underneath. He’s going to take turnarounds based on muscle memory. Battier is susceptible to the lob, but is much better suited to combat that than Bass’ muscle underneath. Bass isn’t going to bust out any great post-moves. He has two shots. The mid-range jumper, which is deadly, and a muscle-in layup underneath. I get that the Heat have limited options, but they’re going to have to either put Joel Anthony or James on Bass. They can’t live with Battier getting crushed underneath. Boston on the other hand can win this game on Bass’ back, making him a hero and entering him into Celtics lore. Kind of a big deal.

5. The Great Big Bosh question. How much can he play? Will he start? A lot comes down to Bosh. The Heat have played better with every minute Bosh is on the floor. They need him, and they need him to deliver, at both ends. The biggest pressure is on LeBron James. The next biggest pressure is on Dwyane Wade. The next biggest pressure is on Erik Spoelstra. After that, it’s Bosh, and his impact could determine not only this game and this season, but the future of the Big 3 in Miami.

Playoff preview: Four key questions about San Antonio Spurs vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

Oklahoma City Thunder's Kevin Durant, center, scores against the San Antonio Spurs during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
AP Photo/Eric Gay
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Between 2011 and 2014, the Spurs and Thunder combined for six Western Conferences Finals appearances with at least one reaching it each year. Last season featured Warriors vs. Rockets. This year, one – but only one – of San Antonio and Oklahoma City will return.

1. Are these Kevin Durant‘s final games with the Thunder?

Let’s get this out of the way. Durant, as you well know, will become an unrestricted free agent this summer. At this point, the best thing Oklahoma City can do to keep him is win. He knows the city. He knows the franchise. He knows the roster (which would likely return in similar form if he re-signs). Whether the Thunder send him into free agency with a good taste in his mouth is the biggest variable.

Will Durant leave just because Oklahoma City loses to the Spurs? Of course not. Will Durant stay just because Oklahoma City beats the Spurs? Of course not.

But this is a big opportunity for the Thunder to accentuate their positives – and the Spurs, another team in the Durant hunt, to do the same.

2. Who wins the Kevin Durant vs. Kawhi Leonard matchup?

More directly on the court… Durant is involved in what might be the best individual matchup of the 2016 playoffs

Durant and Leonard should both finish top five in MVP voting. If they do, it’d be the first time two players top five in MVP voting who play the same position met in the playoffs since 2012, when LeBron James and Durant faced off in the Finals.

The matchup should be fun on both ends of the court, but it’ll be particularly intriguing when Oklahoma City has the ball. Durant is one of the NBA’s best offensive players, Leonard the best defender. I can’t wait to watch them go at it.

3. How do the Spurs handle Oklahoma City’s athleticism?

In his last 20 games against San Antonio, Serge Ibaka is 15-5. Ibaka embodies the athletic advantage the Thunder hold over the Spurs. At his best, Ibaka attacks with hops and speed the Spurs’ bigs can’t match. Ibaka looked old throughout much of the regular season, but he appeared rejuvenated in the first round against the Mavericks. If he was just saving his energy for the playoffs, following the Dwight Howard model in previous years, Ibaka could play a major role.

Ditto Russell Westbrook, who will challenge Tony Parker to keep up. San Antonio could cross match with Danny Green, but that presents complications in transition.

The Spurs are collectively more skilled, but the Thunder have done a better job than most at neutralizing that advantage.

4. Has Billy Donovan found a rotation that narrows the gap?

Billy Donovan passed his first playoff test against Rick Carlisle. Now the challenge grows even greater against Gregg Popovich.

One thing Donovan did right: Putting Nick Collison, not Kyle Singler, in the playoff rotation. Collison’s minutes could be key against a Spurs team that often plays two slower bigs. I guesses Singler rather than Collison would play regularly, which lowered Oklahoma City’s adjusted net rating by a few points per 100 possessions when projecting using only players in the playoff rotation.

I’ll again use nba wowy! to rank playoff teams by regular-season net rating (offensive rating minus defensive rating), counting only lineups that include five players projected to be in the team’s postseason rotation, once the first round ends. But for now, here are San Antonio’s and Oklahoma City’s ratings, from the regular season adjusted to only lineups that include five players projected to be in the playoff rotation:

2. San Antonio Spurs

  • Offensive rating: 110.5 to 110.0
  • Defensive rating: 99.4 to 96.1
  • Net rating: +11.1 to +13.9

3. Oklahoma City Thunder

  • Offensive rating: 113.6 to 117.3
  • Defensive rating: 106.0 to 104.6
  • Net rating: +7.6 to +12.7

Both teams — already strong by this measure — benefited from beating up on their first-round competition, and the Thunder got a bump for using Collison over Singler. Oklahoma City still trails the Spurs, but the gap is much closer than overall regular-season results would suggest.

Prediction: Spurs in 7

Report: Deron Williams opting out of Mavericks contract

DALLAS, TX - NOVEMBER 03:  Deron Williams #8 of the Dallas Mavericks dribbles the ball agains Kyle Lowry #7 of the Toronto Raptors at American Airlines Center on November 3, 2015 in Dallas, Texas.  NOTE TO USER:  User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Deron Williams sacrificed $16 million to leave the Nets in a buyout last summer. He recouped $5,378,974 with the Mavericks this season.

Now – instead of exercising his $5,621,026 player option – he’s looking to get more.

Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

Deron Williams intends to opt out of the second season of his contract with the Mavericks, sources told ESPN.com.

Williams could return to the Mavericks. They’re one of the few teams that need a starting point guard, and two others that do – the Nets and Knicks – are probably off the table given Williams’ antipathy for a large market. Expect Dallas to at least try for an upgrade like Mike Conley first.

But even if Williams signs as a backup, he can still probably command more than $6 million next season. With the salary cap skyrocketing to about $92 million and so many teams flush with cap space, the salary picture is changing.

This also increases the Mavericks’ potential cap space.

They project to fall about $24 million under the cap, counting cap holds for Williams, Chandler Parsons (who has a player option that could go either way) and Dwight Powell. In other words, Dallas could spend that $24 million then exceed the cap to re-sign Williams, Parsons and/or Powell.

Renouncing Williams ($6,454,769 cap hold), Parsons ($19,969,950 cap hold only if he opts out) and/or Powell ($1,180,431) could clear additional cap room. Parsons opting in would restrict the Mavericks’ ability to clear space .

Williams would have been a bargain if he opted in. Instead, Dallas gains flexibility.

Report: Kings willing to trade DeMarcus Cousins because his moodiness bothers teammates

Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins walks up court during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs, Saturday, March 5, 2016, in San Antonio. San Antonio won 104-94. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)
AP Photo/Darren Abate
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The Kings, after years of shutting down DeMarcus Cousins trade rumors, will reportedly seriously explore the market.

What changed for Sacramento general manager Vlade Divac?

Ailene Voisin of The Sacramento Bee:

the sense within the organization is Divac is tempted by the prospect of pairing his center with his personally selected coach but that he has become increasingly frustrated by his center’s ongoing issues and, for the first time, is willing to test the market for the two-time All-Star.

The disconnect between Karl and Divac, and Karl and Cousins, is rivaled closely by the discord within the fragmented locker room. Apart from Rondo, Cousins has few friends among his teammates. Several players privately have complained to management about his mood swings and disrespect for those around him, including his coaches and in particular Karl.

I still doubt Sacramento trades Cousins. There’s a vast gulf between soliciting Cousins offers and actually pulling the trigger on one. He remains one of the NBA’s most valuable players – already a star, 25 and locked up for two more seasons at a reasonable $35 million combined. It’d take a haul to land him, and I doubt any team offers a package that sways Divac – though a few could have him thinking.

But Cousins’ moodiness is a problem. It gets him harmful technical fouls, takes him out of games mentally and – as we learn here – upsets his teammates.

It seems the Kings are attempting to scare him straight – reports like this leaking, including one that their next coach will have management’s backing if he wants to discipline Cousins.  They have to try something. Rajon Rondo‘s leadership, while endearing to Cousins, apparently didn’t change the center significantly enough.

I wouldn’t rule out Sacramento trading Cousins. If you put a player on the market, you might just hear an offer you like. But selling low on Cousins a – franchise-level player – would be a mistake. It’s too hard to get a player with his talent just to dump him when he’s still young.

A far better outcome would be Cousins heeding these implicit messages, maturing and cutting out the nonsense that too often overshadows his immense talent.

Tony Allen warns Mike Conley: ‘If I see you in New York or one of them places, you got a flagrant foul coming’

Memphis Grizzlies forward Tony Allen (9) and guard Mike Conley (11) react during the second half of Game 2 in a second-round NBA playoff basketball series against the Golden State Warriors in Oakland, Calif., Tuesday, May 5, 2015. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
AP Photo/Ben Margot
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Marc Gasol has a simple plan for convincing Mike Conley to re-sign with the Grizzlies: Be nice.

Tony Allen is going another way.

Peter Fleischer of Fox 13 Memphis:

Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace says Conley will re-sign with Memphis. Others disagree. For his part, Conley has been vague – though he left the door open for signing with the Knicks, need a point guard and could have max cap space .

Conley will have options, and he should explore them. This will be his first free agency after the Grizzlies drafted him and signed him to a contract extension. Staying with the only NBA team he has know should be appealing – but other options could be, too.

People in Memphis clearly care about him returning.

Each in their own way.