LeBron gets his ring, leads Heat to opening night win over Celtics

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The last time the Heat opened the season after raising a banner and receiving their championship rings, the night was all about the pre-game festivities. After celebrating the 2006 NBA title, Miami had no interest in the basketball game that followed, and suffered an embarrassing 42-point loss at home to open the season at the hands of the Chicago Bulls — the very team that would wind up sweeping them out of the first round of the playoffs to end their season.

By contrast, the 2012 version of the Miami Heat were ready to compete from the start.

After LeBron James received his first championship ring, he looked every bit like the reigning MVP that we saw last June — especially in the first half — and helped lead Miami to a 120-107 victory over the Boston Celtics.

James had 16 points, 9 rebounds, two assists and two steals by halftime, while former Celtic Ray Allen had a quick 13 off the bench in 14 minutes to carry the Heat to 62 points and an eight-point lead at intermission.

The game was a competitive one between two teams who truly don’t like each other; the Ray Allen storyline only adds to the animosity. Kevin Garnett wanted nothing to do with Allen when he headed over to the Celtics bench to greet his former teammates and coaches late in the first quarter, but the cold shoulder had no effect on Allen’s hot shooting — his first made bucket in a Miami uniform came on a three-pointer from the corner, which, if you’ve watched Allen play even a little throughout his career, should come as absolutely no surprise.

The Heat pushed their lead to double-digits midway through the third, but Boston managed to hang around and keep things from getting out of hand — that is, strangely enough, until James and Dwyane Wade both headed to the bench at the same time.

James was back and forth from the locker room to the bench in the second half due to what was reportedly cramping issues, which forced an unusual lineup late in the third of Mike Miller, Mario Chalmers, Rashard Lewis, Ray Allen, and Chris Bosh. That unit blew the game open, and turned an eight-point lead into a 17-point advantage by ending the third on a 12-3 run over the final 3:36 of the period.

The Celtics, however, clawed their way back in it, thanks to a summer pickup of their own: Leandro Barbosa, who exploded for 16 fourth-quarter points to bring the Celtics back to within four with just under two minutes to play. Chris Bosh took over for the Heat from there, and with James sidelined went on a personal 7-0 run to seal the win for the Heat.

Wade led all scorers with 29 points, and was on the receiving end of a grab around the neck from Rajon Rondo which was ruled a flagrant foul with 16 seconds left and the game having already been decided. Again, these teams don’t like each other.

It was ultimately a successful night for the Heat, and if the production they received off the bench from Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis was a sign of things to come, Miami could be even more dangerous offensively than last year’s championship edition. The Celtics competed for much of the night and almost came back to have a chance to steal this one at the end, and a focus on improving team defensive principles as the season progresses could get them back to a postseason meeting with this same Miami team.

But the Heat are the defending champions, and played like it on opening night. If the performance from James and company was just the beginning, we might very well see them there at the very end once again.

Giannis Antetokounmpo slashes Celtics, forces Game 7 in Boston

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The Milwaukee Bucks needed a big game from Giannis Antetokounmpo on Thursday night. Boy, did they get it.

After a disappointing in Game 5 in Boston, Antetokounmpo was fearsome in his return to the Bradley Center for Game 6. The Bucks were able to keep their defensive intensity up, and we got the game most of us expected from Antetokounmpo in a return to his home court: complete domination on the biggest stage.

The game started out much the way we’ve seen in this series — sort of kooky. It was another low-scoring affair as the first half closed with Milwaukee leading, 49-38. The Celtics couldn’t get things rolling offensively, and were saved by baskets in the paint in the first quarter. Boston scored just 15 points in the second period, saving themselves with makes from beyond the 3-point line.

The real story of the game came in the second half. Antetokounmpo would not let up from the gas, scoring both as the Bucks center and on the break. Milwaukee’s franchise player matched up against Al Horford all night long, and the battle between the two was intense. Both seemed to want to muscle each other, and for different stretches they both got the better of each other.

Boston battled back, eventually tying the game at 61-61 with 4:21 to go in the third. The Celtics’ charge was led by Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Horford, all three of whom allowed Boston to make up a 14-point deficit. Boston played carefully, allowing their young wings to do the work. Despite not having a fastbreak point until late in the third, they also didn’t have their first turnover of the second half until there was little more than three minutes to go in the same quarter. Antetokounmpo, who couldn’t let Boston’s run continue after the tie, turned on the jets to close the quarter and Milwaukee entered the fourth period with a 9-point lead they would never cede.

The fourth quarter was much of the same, with the matchup between Antetokounmpo, Horford, and Horford’s backup in Aron Baynes. Several times, Antetokounmpo ran full speed after starting with the ball on the opposite free-throw line, going right at either Horford or Baynes. But the Bucks star wasn’t completely selfish. He managed to stave off tunnel vision, at times finding teammates on his spins to the bucket.

A lot of talk was made about Antetokounmpo’s poor performance in Game 5, a career playoff-low of 16 points on just 10 field goal attempts. The Greek Freak made sure that didn’t happen again, finishing the game with 31 points on 13-of-23 shooting, adding 14 rebounds, four assists, and two steals.

Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton were amped up as well. Both finished with 16 points, and as a team the Bucks scored 25 points on the break, with 50 points coming from the painted area, topping Boston in both regards.

For the Celtics, Tatum led the way with 22 points on six-of-14 shooting, adding three rebounds and three assists. Terry Rozier continued his playoff emergence, scoring 18 points while nabbing seven rebounds and dishing out five assists. Boston shot just 27.8 percent from the 3-point line.

Game 7 now heads back to Massachusetts, where we will see if Antetokounmpo can keep his foot to the floor and drive the Bucks past the second-seeded Celtics on Saturday.

Stephen Curry back in full practice mode for Warriors

AP
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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) Stephen Curry resumed full practice with contact and could play for the defending champion Golden State Warriors as soon as Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals Saturday night against New Orleans.

Curry looked strong as he practiced Thursday wearing a protective brace over his sprained left knee, which has sidelined him since the injury March 23 – the same day he returned from a six-game absence because of a hurt right ankle.

Coach Steve Kerr is calling Curry questionable for Saturday. That could change if the two-time NBA MVP still feels fine Friday and is fine after one more day of full practice before the Pelicans visit Oracle Arena to begin the best-of-seven series.

“Steph practiced at 100 percent, he did everything, he looked good,” Kerr said. “What we have to do is see how his body responds the rest of the day, put him through another practice tomorrow. I think he needs to string together two good days but it was very positive today. … I think it’s been coming along pretty well. When we were in San Antonio and I was asked a question about how he was doing, I think I was able to give an answer, `He’s doing great but we haven’t ramped him up yet.’ I think today was an important day because it’s the first time he’s actually gone live action and he was allowed to go through practice. And he appears fine.”

Curry went through his usual shooting work with Kevin Durant from various spots after practice, cutting and exhibiting his fancy footwork and dribbling skills. The Warriors have played well without their floor leader, eliminating the San Antonio Spurs in Game 5 of the first-round series with a 99-91 win Tuesday night.

The Pelicans will present a different, faster pace for the Warriors, so getting Curry back to push the ball and direct the offense would be important. Andre Iguodala, the 2015 NBA Finals MVP, started in the first round in his place while Quinn Cook handled point guard duties late in the regular season with Curry out.

“We’re excited. I know he’s very eager to play,” said Klay Thompson. “He’s a competitor, so sitting out I know kills him. We can’t wait for him to get back whenever that is.”

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

PBT Extra: How big a threat are Pelicans to Warriors?

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Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and the New Orleans Pelicans were the surprise of the first round of the NBA playoffs. We knew they were good, but they looked dominant on both ends sweeping the three-seed Portland Trail Blazers right out of the postseason (and into a somber period of reflection).

New Orleans looked like the best team in the West in the first round and now they take all that momentum to Golden State where… let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

In this PBT Extra I discuss how the Pelicans have found an identity, but the matchups against Warriors are dramatically more challenging than what they saw in Portland. And that’s before Stephen Curry returns to the fold.

The Pelicans are a great story, but the pecking order in the West is real for good reason.

Nuggets’ Mason Plumlee undergoes surgery to fix core-muscle injury

AP Photo/David Zalubowski
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DENVER — Denver Nuggets center Mason Plumlee underwent surgery to fix a core-muscle injury.

The team said Plumlee had the procedure performed Thursday morning by Dr. William Meyers in Philadelphia.

Plumlee is expected to return to basketball activities this summer and be ready for training camp in the fall. He averaged 7.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.9 assists for a Nuggets team that narrowly missed out on the postseason.

The 28-year-old Plumlee was acquired by Denver as part of a deal in February 2017 that sent center Jusuf Nurkic to Portland. Plumlee signed a three-year, $41 million deal with the Nuggets last September.