Who are the key role players on contending teams?

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In the NBA, you win with star players (except if you’re the 2004 Pistons, the exception to every championship rule). They’re the guys you lean on in the closing minutes of tight games. The guys that can affect a game with their sheer talent and turn what looks to be a sure loss into a win.

But, even the most star studded teams need contributions from role players to reach the mountain top. The Derek Fisher’s. The Robert Horry’s. These players may not get the headlines day in and day out, but when looking at the rosters of title winning teams their names stand out. Without them, some of the brightest stars the game has seen might have a few less pieces of jewelry on their fingers.

This year’s title contenders are no different. They all have at least one key role player that will be depended on to be a difference maker this season. Who are they? Let’s explore…

Ray Allen, Miami Heat
Allen is used to playoff pressure cooker. He’s been around the block multiple times throughout his career and has stuck the dagger into opponents in the biggest games imaginable. When the moment is the biggest, you know what you’re going to get from Ray. He’s going to stroke that sweet jumper of his and opposing fans are going to hold their breath when the shot is in the air.

But Ray comes to Heat no longer one of his team’s best players. Once part of Boston’s big three, he joins a new triumvirate that’s not only already formed but has already tasted championship glory. With this group he’ll be asked to play a supporting role in limited minutes and excel while doing it.

And, for the first time in his career, there are questions as to whether he’s up to the task. How will he perform coming off the bench for the first prolonged stretch of his distinguished career? Is his defense up to a high enough standard to close games on a team that is already so good on the wing? After a somewhat disappointing playoffs last season, how many more jumpers do his legs have in them?

Knowing Allen’s history, he’ll prove any doubters wrong and hit a few more big shots for the Heat this season. But if Allen falters or if he can not approach his normal standard it will have a big affect on the Heat. Dwyane Wade, Mike Miller, Mario Chalmers, and Shane Battier will need to play heavier minutes than planned. And for a team that’s coming of two straight Final’s runs it would be nice if Allen could soak up some minutes to keep those guys fresher throughout the marathon that is an NBA season.

Antawn Jamison, The Los Angeles Lakers
Jamison is the epitome of the accomplished veteran at the end of his career chasing a ring. He’s been a top scorer in the league and his team’s go-to guy. He’s gone to all-star games and won awards. What he hasn’t done is taste that champagne after his team wins its last game of the season. This is why he came to the Lakers.

The question is, however, does Jamison have enough left in the tank to be a key contributor on a title winning team? After 14 seasons of going being a featured player, it’s more than a fair question. And, so far this preseason, he’s not yet looked like the difference maker off the bench that the Lakers need him to be. His jumper has been erratic and the in-between game that’s been a staple of his success throughout his career has been more miss than hit. And there are, of course, still the long standing issues of his defense and rebounding. Those aren’t exactly the qualities the Lakers signed him for.

No, Jamison will need to hit shots and do so at a consistent enough rate to give space to the front court partner he’s flanking. Be it Pau Gasol or Dwight Howard, Jamison must be seen as a threat to the defense to help give them the room they need to operate in the post. To say nothing of the room created to Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash on the perimeter. His scoring punch and the ripple effect it will have are tantamount to this Laker team.

Jamison has never had a role this important for a team this good. If he can play well, the Lakers are one major step closer to solidifying their bench and shoring up a major weakness from last season. If he’s not, they’ll have an even greater chance of being exposed even with the start power at the top of the roster.

Eric Maynor, The Oklahoma City Thunder
There may not be a more unheralded player that’s returning from injury in the entire league than Eric Maynor. Guys like Derrick Rose and Ricky Rubio are franchise altering talents, but it’s Maynor that plays on one of the clearly elite teams and can literally mean the difference between the Thunder advancing to the Finals or not; between winning a title or not.

No, he’s not one of the Thunder’s big three superstars. But Maynor is one of the league’s best (if not the best) back up point guards. And for a team that had to rely on Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher to back up Russell Westbrook last season, that’s a huge difference. Especially for a team that was so close to winning the title.

Maynor not only offers the Thunder a scoring threat off the bench but also a floor general that can run the team should Westbrook falter. Before he tore his ACL, Scott Brooks could turn to Maynor at any time to settle his team down, get them into their sets, and get the team going in the right direction. That type of luxury is so valuable to a team that, even with all its talent, can still be prone to lapses of judgment and too many unproductive possessions.

Maynor also offers them lineup flexibility, giving them a key contributor to any small-ball lineup Brooks wants to deploy. For example, a grouping of Maynor, Westbrook, Harden, Durant, and Ibaka gives the Thunder a unit that can match up with the position-less Heat lineup that gave them so many issues in the Finals. There’s no hiding defenders against a lineup like that.

Word is that Maynor is fully recovered from his knee injury and should be ready to return to the form he showed before he got hurt. If that’s the case, one of the best teams in the league just added another fantastic young talent to flank their already stacked core. If he’s not, the Thunder will once again be stuck playing below replacement level players behind Westbrook.

Jeff Green, The Boston Celtics
Green is one of the most uniquely positioned role players in the league.

First, he’s coming back from missing an entire season due to having heart surgery. Second, he signed one of the more “wait, he got how much?” contracts this past free agency period. And third, he’s coming back to a Celtics team that has made itself over with smart signings and a solid draft to the point that they’re thinking their window isn’t quite yet closed yet.

How Green performs in the middle of all this remains to be seen. As a tweener forward, he’ll be asked to play in both big and small lineups and use his versatility on both sides of the ball. There will be times that he’ll have to chase small forwards around the perimeter on defense and then attack them in the paint on offense. The next night he may be spacing the floor on offense while playing on the back line of the C’s vaunted defense directing traffic while he hedges and recovers on a pick and roll.

Green has never proven that he’s been up to such responsibilities and that’s one of the reasons the Thunder were okay trading him away for Kendrick Perkins. Yes, his versatility was nice but at some point he needed to show that he could to deliver at a high enough level in those areas rather than just being good at them. With the Thunder, he never did get that done.

Will that change with these Celtics? Will coming off the bench help his game? Will playing with a point guard savant like Rajon Rondo (rather than the more shot happy Westbrook) help him find his stride on offense? Will learning at the altar of Kevin Garnett help him with his defense?

The Celtics can only hope that the answers to those questions are in the affirmative. They’ve invested a fair amount of time and money into Green and for them to be as good as they hope to be, they’ll need him to live up to his lottery talent.

Cleveland GM David Griffin: “I hope everybody says we have no chance”

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The Golden State Warriors are heavy favorites to win the NBA title. According to bovda.lv, bet $100 on the Warriors to win the title and you get $41.7 dollars. Bet $100 on the Cavaliers and you get $200. And that number is likely to get worse for Warriors fans.

The Cavaliers are okay with that. They like being the underdogs. Look at what GM David Griffin said in a televised interview after they eliminated the Celtics in Game 5, via Cleveland.com.

“I hope everybody says we have no chance,” General Manager David Griffin said during a TV interview following the Cavaliers’ 135-102 win Thursday night against the Boston Celtics, clinching a third straight NBA Finals appearance.

“Obviously the team we’re playing is as good as you can possibly put together, it’s going to be an unbelievable battle for us, but I think [the Cavs] love battling together. The greater the odds, the better we seem to play together. We really do rally around each other in that sense.”

There is some truth to that.

There’s also a difference between that truth and slowing Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. How the Cavaliers are going to do that will be the interesting part of these playoffs.

Detroit’s Van Gundy honored for cooperation with media, fans

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) — Stan Van Gundy of the Detroit Pistons has won the Rudy Tomjanovich Award, which honors an NBA coach for his cooperation with media and fans, as well as excellence on the court.

The Professional Basketball Writers Association announced the winner Friday. Van Gundy was one of five finalists for the award. The others were Steve Clifford of the Charlotte Hornets, Mike D’Antoni of the Houston Rockets, David Fizdale of the Memphis Grizzlies and Brad Stevens of the Boston Celtics.

Dwane Casey of the Toronto Raptors won the award last season.

No surprise: It’s Cavs-Warriors in the NBA Finals, again

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OAKLAND (AP) — Here they go again.

For the third straight year, it’s Cleveland and Golden State in the NBA Finals. The 2016 champions versus the 2015 champions . The first “threematch” – rematch of a rematch – in league history. It’s the matchup most expected, the matchup most predicted, and probably the matchup the Cavaliers and Warriors wanted as well.

Let the hype, and the waiting, begin: Game 1 isn’t until June 1.

“I’ve been very blessed the last few years to be a part of this league and play on the big stage,” said Cleveland star LeBron James, who has now reached the Finals for the eighth time – including each of the last seven years. “But we’re going to enjoy this for a couple more days before we have to lock in on that juggernaut out west.”

The Cavaliers and Warriors split their two meetings this season, both winning at home. Cleveland won by one on Christmas Day, Golden State prevailed by 35 on Jan. 16.

Golden State led the league with 67 wins this season and is a staggering 27-1 in its last 28 games – including a perfect 12-0 in the Western Conference playoffs, the first time a team has gone this deep into an NBA postseason without losing. Cleveland, which seemed sleepy at times in the regular season, went 12-1 in the Eastern Conference playoffs that ended with a win over Boston on Thursday night.

“Playing in this league, you can’t take anything for granted,” Warriors guard Stephen Curry said. “Thirty teams suit up every year trying to get to this point, and only two teams do. So you have to appreciate it. … We need to understand the privilege that we have and the opportunity that we have to play in the Finals again, to have the opportunity to win a championship.”

Already, the back-and-forth is underway.

Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue was quoted earlier this week saying he thought Boston’s offense was “harder to defend” than Golden State’s. Countered Golden State acting coach Mike Brown, when asked about it Thursday: “That’s his opinion. It’s cute.”

And there will be reminders of the Halloween party that James threw for the Cavaliers last fall, with “3-1 Lead” – a nod to what the Warriors lost in last year’s Finals – prominently displayed on the drum set.

Much more of that sort of that will likely follow over the next week, filling time before Golden State plays host to Game 1. But there’s also a clear respect level between the clubs as well.

“The best team in our league the last three years,” James said of the Warriors. “And they’ve added an unbelievable player in Kevin Durant this year. So it makes it even more difficult. They’re going to challenge us a lot, offensively, defensively, mentally, physically. We have to be ready for the challenge.”

For James, the Finals are an annual rite.

For Durant, this trip ends a five-year wait.

Durant’s only other time in the Finals was 2012 when he was with Oklahoma City. The Thunder lost to Miami in five games, a series that made James a champion for the first time.

At the very moment where the clock ran out in that series, the person James was embracing was Durant – telling the then-Thunder star, his offseason workout partner at the time, how proud of him he was.

“Hopefully,” James said that night, “I don’t continue to have to run into him.”

They’ll collide again, starting next week.

Durant’s decision to leave the Thunder for Golden State as a free agent last summer meant the Warriors went from mere overwhelming favorites to win the West again to super-duper-overwhelming favorites to win the West again. They got a big scare in late February when Durant had a left knee injury, but he’s back and the Warriors have rolled since.

“It’s a little different, definitely. I can’t lie,” Durant said, when comparing the 2012 Finals trip to this one. “I went when I was 23 years old, and it felt like the Western Conference Finals was almost like the championship. Just getting to that point, you know how hard it is and how much work you put in to start the season. So it’s a little different now, obviously. We have a bigger goal in mind.”

The storylines are many. Can James win his fourth ring? Can Durant win his first? Will the Warriors be haunted by letting last season’s 3-1 lead slip away? Will they become the first team in NBA history to go undefeated in a postseason? How will Golden State guard Kyrie Irving? How will Cleveland try to contain Curry?

There’s also the irony that Brown, the first coach who took James to an NBA Finals in 2007 – Cleveland was swept by San Antonio – will now coach against him, likely in the same leading role he’s had for Golden State since head coach Steve Kerr was forced to take a break because of continued problems with his surgically repaired back.

“I don’t care who you’re playing, to make it to the NBA Finals, to win your conference finals, it’s a big task,” Brown said.

The biggest task awaits.

Isaiah Thomas wants Celtics to sign free agents, reportedly they are not looking to trade him (yet)

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The Boston Celtics made a huge leap forward this season: They got the No. 1 seed in the East and made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. For a team on the rise, that’s impressive.

However, as soon as they landed the No. 1 pick in this draft, a big question started to bubble up:

What is the future of Isaiah Thomas with this team? Which is a strange thing to say about a guy who averaged 28.9 points per game and was All-NBA this season, but here we are.

First, the Celtics are not looking to trade IT this summer as some have suggested, reports Sean Deveny of the Sporting News.

That starts with All-Star Isaiah Thomas, whose name has lately been the subject of trade speculation. But league sources indicate that any talk of dealing Thomas is strictly speculation at this point — the Celtics have had no such discussions. Not yet, at least.

The challenge for the Celtics seems to be this: If they draft Markelle Fultz No. 1 (as is expected by everyone around the league), then what is the future for Thomas? Do you want to pay Thomas max money just as he turns 29 when you have a stud young point guard coming up behind him?

That led to talk of extending Thomas this summer with the team’s cap space (which assumes they do not sign Gordon Hayward). Except Thomas would rather the money be spent on free agents than himself, as he told Chris Forsberg of ESPN.

“We need the best possible player that’s gonna help us win, and I’m with that,” said Thomas. “Anything Danny and this organization need me to do to help bring even more talent to this city, I’m all for that. I want to win a championship and being so close to getting to the Finals, that makes you want it that much more.

“I’m all help if they need it. I’ll be around.”

Nothing is certain in the NBA, but here is the most likely outcome of the Isaiah Thomas situation: They keep him, they draft Markelle Fultz, they do not extend Thomas (whether they land Hayward or not), and they see how it all fits together for a season. Then they make a decision on Thomas in the summer of 2018. The bottom line is he may well have more value to the Celtics than another team, and while he’s certainly getting a raise from the $6.3 million, he will make next season he may fall short of the max, and in a zone where the Celtics are willing to keep him.

In pure basketball terms, the Celtics may be hesitant to spend on Thomas, but he is also the most popular player on the team by a mile. Letting him go is not that simple.

There are a lot of questions to be answered between now and next summer when it comes to IT.