PBT NBA Playoff Preview: Boston Celtics vs. New York Knicks

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SEASON RECORDS
New York:54-28, second seed in East
Boston: 41-40, seven seed in East (the odd number of games is due to the cancelled one the day after the Boston Marathon tragedy, it did not impact the standings)

SEASON SERIES
The Knicks won the regular season 3-1, but both these teams went through seasons within a seasons — for example, the Knicks were great at the beginning and end of the season but pedestrian in the middle — so you can’t read too much into previous meetings. These are different teams now.

KEY INJURIES
Boston: The two big ones are the two we have known about for a while — Rajon Rondo (right knee) and Jared Sullinger (back) are both out following surgery this season. Paul Pierce has a sore left ankle but he will play.

New York: It might be easier to list guys not banged up. Amare Stoudemire has been out following right knee surgery but may be back for this series. Tyson Chandler is battling a bulging disc in his neck but will play. Carmelo Anthony has a sore shoulder but will play. Kenyon Martin has knee issues but is expected play. Pablo Prigioni is questionable for Game 1 with a sprained right ankle. Marcus Camby is coming off a foot injury. Basically all the older Knicks players have some pains but most will play.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)

Knicks: offense 108.6 (3rd best in NBA), defense 103.5 (17th in NBA)
Celtics: offense 101.1 (20th in NBA), defense 100.4 (6th in NBA)

Differential: Knicks +5.1 (6th in NBA), Celtics +0.7 (14th in NBA)

THREE KEYS FOR BOSTON:

Jeff Green: Since Rajon Rondo went down a lot more responsibility for shot creation and points has fallen on Green. And in a very Jeff Green way he has been aggressive, attacking and brilliant at points; then passive and fading into the background in others. That can’t happen in this series. While the Celtics will play strong defense the Knicks will put up points and the Celtics need to find a burst of offense. In addition, Green is going to spend a lot of time guarding Carmelo Anthony and he needs to make the Knicks prolific scorer work for his points. There is no bigger X-factor in this series — Green needs to have a big series for Boston to win.

Run Knicks’ shooters off three-point line: When Jason Kidd, Steve Novak, J.R. Smith and the rest of the Knicks are draining threes at a high percentage they are virtually unbeatable. They can just simply outscore you. Boston has to finish its rotations, run guys off the line and make them dribble in and take two pointers. One of Boston’s great defensive strengths is making you think you have space to shoot when you really don’t, they need to do that and contest every three they can in this series.

Be consistent: It has been the Celtics biggest issue (outside injuries) this season — just when they seem to get things going and are in position to make a big move they get sloppy. Missed defensive rotations, missed shots, missed opportunities. Against a more talented Knicks team, the Celtics have no margin for error. They cannot have these slips. Do and it costs them a game and a series very fast.

THREE KEYS FOR NEW YORK:

Carmelo Anthony: As he goes, the Knicks go. This season he is getting MVP votes not because he won the league’s scoring title (28.7 points per game) but because he did the other things he didn’t used to do as much — share the ball, defend, play team basketball. Remember early in the season when he missed games with a broken finger hurt diving into the stands for a loose ball? That is the Carmelo Anthony that can lead the Knicks deep in the playoffs, but if he reverts under pressure to isolation basketball it plays into the Celtics’ hands.

Tyson Chandler: He’s listed here as the anchor and representative for the Knicks defense. Without Rajon Rondo on the court, the Celtics offense becomes less creative, and far more hit and miss. But you know Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett can score, and you know if Jeff Green decides to be aggressive that day he’s a force. Chandler needs to control the paint, take away the easy buckets inside, force the Celtics into jump shots (which ideally are contested). Iman Shumpert has to play big on Green and control him, not let him get hot.

Ball movement on offense: During their recent winning streak the Knicks were moving the ball on offense as well as any team in the NBA. They must keep this up in the playoffs. The Knicks don’t use that ball movement for as much traditional catch-and-shoot as you would think — Zach Harper at CBS cleverly called it “selfish ball movement” — but they do create space with passing to give guys room to work. The Celtics defense is predicated on overloading a side and taking away dribble penetration with easy kick-outs. If the ball sticks — and when the Knicks struggle it sticks on a side — then the Celtics defense can get set and shut them down.

OUTLOOK

This series is right for the Knicks in an epic hero kind of way — the Celtics have long been the Knicks tormentors. In Carmelo’s first playoff series as a Knick it was the Celtics that swept them away. The Knicks are on the precipice of their greatest season in more than a decade, they have the potential to make a deep playoff run. So it is fitting that to advance the protagonist must first conquer his old demons. The Knicks must slay the Celtics to move on.

To do that the Knicks have to prove that the changes we saw this season were not cosmetic, that the more cohesive offense will not come apart under the pressure of the Celtics defense. Because Boston will pressure New York and both Carmelo and J.R. Smith have a habit under pressure of reverting to more isolation, taking on more themselves — which is exactly what the Celtics want you to do and what their defense is designed to shut down.

Boston is going to grind. Paul Pierce is going to make big shots, Kevin Garnett is going to scowl, Avery Bradley is going to be tenacious and Doc Rivers is going to pull the right strings. This is going to be a physical, war of a series. The Knicks are going to have to play at both ends. Maybe most importantly, they have to take care of the ball and not give the Celtics easy buckets — conversely if the Celtics can get some turnovers they give themselves a real chance.

New York doesn’t get to coast, they are going to have to earn this series win.

PREDICTION:

Knicks in the full seven games.

Kyrie Irving trade doesn’t change LeBron James’ plans. Probably.

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The Kyrie Irving trade to Boston was really about LeBron James.

Irving wanted out of LeBron’s shadow in Cleveland and asked for a trade. Cleveland got in Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder two guys who can help them win next season and chase a ring (and the Warriors) while LeBron is in Cleveland. It also gave the Cavaliers the Brooklyn Nets pick next draft and Ante Zizic, players that could help Cleveland rebuild if LeBron leaves next summer as a free agent.

What this trade doesn’t do is change LeBron’s calculus.

Probably.

LeBron can opt out of the final year of his contract and become a free agent next summer, and he almost certainly will do that. Even if he wanted to stay in Cleveland, he’d opt out to sign a bigger, longer deal.

What has not changed with this trade is the sense around the league is LeBron has one foot out the door — good luck finding anyone who thinks he’s likely to stay a Cav after next season. He seems ready to move on to the next chapter and challenge, having brought a ring to Cleveland and it looks like this era and team has played itself out.

However, what LeBron has done well is leave his options open, something he has done very intentionally sources tell me. Maybe he wants to go to Los Angeles to enjoy the weather, be close to his business interests, and chase rings with Lonzo Ball and whoever else the Lakers can land in free agency (such as Paul George). Maybe Blake Griffin is on to something and he wants to be a Knick. Maybe a lot of things, the point is LeBron left his options open to make whatever call he wants.

Including staying in Cleveland. Even if it’s a longshot right now, a season is a lifetime in the NBA and attitudes shift.

With this trade, the Cavaliers remain the team to beat in the East, and Crowder gives them the kind of shooter and wing defender the team desperately needed in a matchup with the Warriors (they need more like him). The reality is that if the Warriors are healthy, maybe the series ends in six games instead of five (and that’s a big maybe), but Golden State is still clearly superior. However, the Cavs will be in the Finals, they will get their shot — and stuff happens. We’ve seen it before, a player misses a game (let’s say due to a suspension for kicking) or another has an injury and is not quite 100 percent, and the door opens — then LeBron and Thomas can bust right through it. If the Cavaliers are in the Finals, they have a chance.

Win a ring, or even if the Cavs look like they can legitimately win a ring, LeBron will take it into consideration. That’s where the Brooklyn Nets pick comes in — maybe the Cavs can draft an elite player to add to the mix, or maybe they can trade the pick to get another top veteran player to come to Cleveland to round out the team.

That’s a lot of ifs. LeBron still is more likely to leave then stay next summer. His thoughts, his calculus does not change. What this trade does is give the Cavaliers a slightly better shot at a ring (even though Thomas has some serious defensive issues that can be exposed). With that there’s a chance.

The trade also gives Cleveland options if LeBron looks like he’s leaving. They have a little more flexibility, too.

Winners, losers in the Kyrie Irving trade to Boston

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Here’s the hard thing about coming up with this list: There really weren’t big losers.

Unlike some of the other blockbuster trades this summer — Jimmy Butler to Minnesota, Paul George to Oklahoma City — the trade of Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and Brooklyn’s first-round pick next draft didn’t have a clear loser. The Cavs did well in the short term and got themselves more flexibility, the Celtics may have set themselves up for future banners. So this list is heavy with winners. But here it is.

Winner: Cleveland Cavaliers. Once it became public knowledge that Irving wanted out of Cleveland their leverage was gone. They went looking for a potential young star player in a deal — Devin Booker, Jayson Tatum — and were shot down at each turn. It looked like they would have to settle for a lesser package or bring Irving back to training camp and tell him to get along with LeBron James.

Then this deal came through, and it’s a clear “A+” for the Cavaliers. Cleveland lands an All-NBA point guard whose production next season will be close to what Irving provided, and Thomas plays with more of a chip on his shoulder. Also, the Cavaliers added what they desperately needed — a quality “3&D” wing in Crowder, a guy who can knock down jumpers and cover Klay Thompson or Kevin Durant (as much as anyone can cover them). On top of it, the Cavaliers get what will be a high draft pick — Brooklyn may be better but this is still no worse than the 5-6 pick — in a draft deep with quality big men.

Cleveland is still the best team, the team to beat in the East, and they got a key pick to help add youth and athleticism to the roster.

Winner: Boston in a couple of years. Boston’s argument it won the trade is simple — it got the best player in the trade. Thomas and Irving put up comparable numbers last season, but Irving is capable of defending (even though he rarely does, not even in the Finals last season). Irving is a couple of years younger, and because of his height will likely age better than Thomas. However, in giving up Crowder and the Brooklyn pick, the Celtics surrendered their best trade assets.

Cleveland is going to be a better team than Boston next season, but the Irving/Hayward combo with good role players around them has Boston poised to be even better in a couple of years, once guys like Jayson Tatum and Jalen Brown develop. Boston is set to be next (providing they can re-sign Irving).

Winner: Kyrie Irving. He wanted out of the immense shadow of LeBron and he got it — and he still landed on a contender. In Boston, he is the most marketable player and while the team has other stars — Gordon Hayward, Al Horford — none are the kind of dominant force of nature that LeBron is. Kyrie will get plenty of time in the sun, he will get great opportunities in Brad Stevens offense (better sets than he was running in Cleveland), and he will continue to win.

Irving may have wanted to be the star, but he didn’t want to be the one-man show on a bad team. Now he’s in a good place.

Loser: The Los Angeles Lakers (maybe, or any other team with dreams of signing LeBron next summer). LeBron James still more than likely bolts Cleveland next year. But Cleveland got a little closer to keeping them with this trade, and as our own Dan Feldman noted on the PBT podcast that is not good for teams dreaming of signing LeBron. Isaiah Thomas brings buckets at the point guard spot plus he plays with a chip on his shoulder that this team could use (the Cavaliers coast too much during the season). In Crowder the Cavaliers land the kind of wing player they need to match up better with Golden State. If they want to pick up a role player at the trade deadline, Ante Zizic could be part of that package. More importantly, that Brooklyn pick could be used to bring in a high draft pick player LeBron likes, or it could be traded to get a veteran that LeBron wants to play with.

LeBron wants to add rings to his legacy. If this trade helps him think Cleveland is where he can best do that, he could stay. I wouldn’t bet on it as likely, but the odds LeBron stays in Cleveland after next season got just a little more likely. Which makes the Lakers potential losers.

Winner: Koby Altman. I couldn’t bring myself to put Dan Gilbert here, it was still a stupid decision to show David Griffin the door. But give due credit to the man who replaced Gilbert, Kobe Altman. He just orchestrated a brilliant trade that keeps the Cavaliers as the favorites in the East next season and gives them more flexibility going forward. It was a master stroke, getting a guy in Danny Ainge known for hoarding assets to give up two of his best shows Altman knows how to do his job.

Winner: NBA Fans. Opening night, Oct. 17, the first game of the NBA season is the Boston Celtics visiting the Cleveland Cavaliers. Kyrie Irving is going to get booed mercilessly. Isaiah Thomas (if his hip is healthy) will be looking to put on a show for the new home fans. It’s going to be glorious.

It may not have tilted the balance of power in the East, but it made the conference far more entertaining to watch this season.

LeBron James on Kyrie Irving: “Nothing but respect”

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Kyrie Irving is now a member of the Boston Celtics. Tuesday’s trade sent Isaiah Thomas to Ohio to join forces with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, while Irving gets to head east to Boston.

On paper, many believe Cleveland appears to have received the better side of the deal. I’m not absolutely certain that’s the case, as the Celtics were able to get a point guard on an extra few years while simultaneously giving themselves some flexibility in the years to come.

The Cavaliers should be in good shape, especially if Thomas’ hip is A-OK. They beefed up their wing depth with Jae Crowder, and added a 2018 first round pick from the Brooklyn Nets that will help them either draft in LeBron’s absence next summer or trade for another star this year.

Meanwhile, LeBron himself took to Twitter — as did many other NBA players — to respond to the trade.

In a tweet sent out on Tuesday night, Lebron said he had nothing but respect for Irving.

Via Twitter:

Well there you have it. We still don’t know whether James is going to stay in Cleveland past this summer, but we have to assume they are again favorites to make the Finals this year.

We will have to wait until the season starts until we find out whether Irving can make an impact on that arc with his new team in Boston.

Andrew Wiggins fires agent shortly after negotiating $148 million max deal

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Is Andrew Wiggins still going to sign a $148 million max contract extension? Probably!

The big question now will be whether in his previous agent, Bill Duffy, will receive a commission for negotiating that contract.

According to a report from ESPN, Wiggins filed paperwork with the NBA to separate his association with Duffy and representing firm BDA Sports.

The move comes as a shock to many in the NBA sphere, as it certainly is an oddity to release one’s agent directly after negotiating such a large new contract offer.

Meanwhile, it appears that Duffy has already contacted the players association to discuss his rights in a potential tampering case.

How juicy.

Via ESPN:

Duffy, the chairman of BDA Sports and one of the league’s most prominent player agents, told ESPN on Tuesday that he had recently been made aware of rival agencies and potential start-up enterprises who were recruiting Wiggins with inducements that included no commission fees on contracts.

“We are disappointed that Andrew made this decision, especially after a three-year partnership where we worked closely with Andrew and his entire family,” Duffy told ESPN. “Unfortunately, tampering is a common problem in our industry, and that’s part of the reason why I’ve already been in contact with the NBPA to discuss my rights in this matter. Obviously, whenever Andrew signs the max extension that we negotiated with Minnesota, we will work with the NBPA to make sure that our interests are protected.”

Wiggins and the team still have yet to formally agree to the extension, so it’s not really clear what will happen for any of the parties involved.

But if the recent Paul George tampering case and the Kyrie Irving/Isaiah Thomas trade isn’t enough to make you think the NBA offseason is completely wild, this one ought to do.