Boston Celtics v Miami Heat

Seven NBA playoff story lines to watch

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After weeks of trying to predict seedings and matchups while watching teams rest their perfectly healthy superstars, the playoffs are finally upon us.

In no particular order, here are the story lines we’ll be watching when the postseason tournament opens on Saturday.

How much damage can the Lakers do without Kobe Bryant?

L.A. opened the season as the favorites (on paper) to challenge the Heat in the Finals, thanks to the acquisitions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash during the offseason. An early season coaching change, followed by an insane rash of injuries derailed the Lakers’ chances all season long, and Kobe Bryant became the final casualty of the seemingly lost season once he went down with a torn Achilles injury just as the team was making a run at that final playoff spot in the West.

The Lakers managed to keep it together without Bryant long enough to beat the Spurs and the Rockets to seal a playoff berth, and enter the postseason winning eight of their last nine games. But how this team fares without Bryant while they try to combat the efficiency of the Spurs machine in a series will be extremely interesting to watch, though undoubtedly nerve-wracking for Lakers fans at the same time.

How far can the Clippers go, and what will that mean for Vinny Del Negro’s future?

Vinny Del Negro is legitimately on the hot seat in Los Angeles, for a variety of reasons. How far the Clippers do or do not advance in the postseason is likely to determine his fate, but just how far does L.A. have to get for him to be safe?

The Clippers have a tough but favorable first round matchup against the Grizzlies, who they beat in the first round of the playoffs a season ago in seven games. Last year, the Clippers were swept by the Spurs in the second round, so getting there again this year probably won’t be enough by itself to bring Del Negro back next season.

A trip to the Conference finals might be enough improvement to retain Del Negro’s services, but honestly, it’s going to be Chris Paul’s decision as much as it will be anyone’s inside the organization. Paul is an unrestricted free agent this summer, and will have all the say in the world regarding whether or not Del Negro is brought back next season.

Will the Thunder return to the Finals without James Harden?

Thanks to Oklahoma City largely returning the same roster from a season ago that got them to the NBA Finals, the Thunder are once again poised to make a deep postseason run. But the elephant in the room is the fact that they traded James Harden away to Houston, and the reality is that if they don’t make it back to the Finals, this season will be a wild disappointment, and the front office will be scrutinized for choosing dollars over a legitimate championship chance.

Can the Knicks win a playoff series for the first time in 13 years?

It seems like a silly question, given the success New York has put together this year while being lead by the league’s leading scorer in Carmelo Anthony, and a likely Sixth Man of the Year candidate in J.R. Smith. But nothing is guaranteed for the Knicks despite holding the two seed in the East, and a first round matchup against the Celtics could be terrifying given the history between the teams this season, along with the intensity that veterans like Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett will bring to a seven-game series.

How much noise can the Warriors make?

The Warriors are in the playoffs for just the second time in the last 19 years, and with one of the best fan bases in the league there to support them, it’s an exciting time in the Bay Area for a basketball resurgence to be taking place. Mark Jackson has been successful in installing a winning culture in just his second season as head coach, but he and the team have said all along that simply making the playoffs was not the ultimate goal this season. We don’t know what the team believes it’s capable of internally, but a first round matchup with an injury-depleted Nuggets team could prove favorable if Golden State can play flawless basketball during the road games of this series.

Will the Spurs finally live up to their potential?

San Antonio has always been one of the more well-coached regular season teams. Gregg Popovich has his system installed, and has the players on the roster to execute it to perfection, no matter the injuries that may take place over the course of the season.

But despite the regular season success, the Spurs haven’t been to the Finals since winning it all in 2007, and have lost to teams they were favored to beat in the playoffs in three of the last four seasons. We know the system allows for regular season success, but at some point the Spurs are going to run out of chances with their core of Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, and Manu Ginobili to get back to the Finals. Another early exit this season would be a major disappointment, and might signify the end of an era in San Antonio.

Will the Heat repeat as champions?

This is the question we all want answered. Miami ran roughshod over the rest of the league during the regular season, and just about everyone fully expects them to continue the trend throughout the playoffs. The Heat have the best player in the game in LeBron James, and All-Star complimentary pieces in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh that are a wealth of riches when compared to the rosters of other teams Miami might face on the way to a title.

The Heat aren’t just the favorites to repeat as champions; they’ve become the expectation. The way they finished the regular season by winning 37 of their final 39 games is absolutely absurd, and they did so even while resting their best players at times along the way.

It’s gotten to the point where we’d all be surprised if Miami didn’t win the title again this season. But that won’t make the journey any less exciting to watch.

Rajon Rondo on signing with Knicks: ‘The triangle’s not really a good look for me’

Sacramento Kings guard Rajon Rondo, left, saves the ball from going out of bound as New York Knicks center Robin Lopez, right, defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Sacramento, Calif., Thursday, Dec. 10, 2015. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
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Mike Conley threw the point-guard-needy Knicks a bone, saying he’d consider New York (and everyone else) in free agency.

They better hope that’s more than lip service.

This free-agent class doesn’t run deep, especially at point guard. And the second-best unrestricted point guard – a one-time target – doesn’t sound interested in the Knicks.

Kings guard Rajon Rondo, via Mike Mazzeo of ESPN:

“The triangle’s not really a good look for me, I don’t think,” Rondo said.

“[The] coach. And style of play. The biggest thing for me is the style of play,” he replied before the Kings were destroyed by the Nets, surrendering 18 3-pointers and 55.8 percent shooting in a 128-119 loss. “I wouldn’t want to go to a system where I don’t really have the ball in my hands and they have you stand in the corner and shoot 3s. That’s not my style of play. … The style of play is the biggest thing, and then obviously personnel on the court and coaches.”

This is the drawback of Phil Jackson’s triangle attachment. The Knicks know what they want to do, but that also means they lack the flexibility to acquire players who don’t fit their scheme. To their credit, the Knicks have bent more this season – but not enough to change perception of their methods.

If they want to change Rondo’s mind, they weren’t going about it by flattery.

Just ask former Knicks coach Derek Fisher, who played for Jackson’s Lakers that beat Rondo’s Celtics in the 2010 NBA Finals (and conveniently ignore Boston winning the same Finals matchup two years prior).

Chris Herring of The Wall Street Journal:

Rondo has earned a big raise with a bounce-back season. The Kings will likely pay him, but if not, he’ll have other suitors – likely including the Knicks’ crosstown rivals, the Nets. I doubt this tiff with the Knicks will affect him.

New York, on the other hand, faces grimmer prospects. Conley seems to legitimately enjoy playing for the Grizzlies. After Rondo, the Knicks could make a longshot offer to restricted free agent Jordan Clarkson, but the Lakers would likely match. Then what? Brandon Jennings? He’s alright, but he also might leave New York wishing its system accommodated choosing from a wider pool of players.

Hey, maybe firing Fisher will change Rondo’s perception of the Knicks. Then again, its essentially impossible to see Jackson hiring a coach who won’t run the triangle.

Tony Parker to play with France despite wife’s pregnancy

AP Photo/Michel Spingler
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PARIS (AP) San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker says he has found a deal with his wife that will allow him to take part in France’s Olympic qualifying tournament this summer.

Parker had raised the possibility of missing the tournament from July 4-10 and the Olympics – if France qualified – because of the expected birth of his second son in July.

But Parker told L’Equipe newspaper Monday that he will be available for both events, saying: “I will be at the Olympics if we qualify.”

Parker says his wife is making a “big sacrifice” by letting him go and has warned him he “should better bring a medal back home.”

The Olympic basketball tournament in Rio de Janeiro will be held from Aug. 6-21.

Rumor: Lakers would fire Byron Scott for Luke Walton

Golden State Warriors interim coach Luke Walton, left, walks off the court with Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant after an NBA basketball game in Oakland, Calif., Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015. The Warriors won 111-77. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
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The Lakers reportedly view the rest of the season as a tryout for Byron Scott.

Unless Warriors assistant Luke Walton wants the job. Then, Scott is out.

So says a notable Lakers rumormonger.

Stephen A. Smith on ESPN LA on Scott:

I’m hearing he’s gone if Luke Walton wants to come in and take the job next season, that if he wants to do that, that obviously they would move beyond the Byron Scott era and bring in Luke Walton, that Luke Walton, however, as much as he loves the Lakers and California, may not find that to be an attractive job unless they position themselves to acquire somebody like a Ben Simmons. That is what I have heard.

I have also heard that it’s very, very possible that Jeanie Buss is going to keep her word and fire her brother Jim Buss – thank the good lord – and that Mitch Kupchak may very well not be safe as well.

How definitive that is remains to be seen. But that is the chatter in NBA circles.

Walton played for the Lakers, and Kobe Bryant still respects him. Though Kobe will retire after the season, his endorsement could still carry weight – especially as it speaks to players’ perception of Walton.

The Golden State assistant impressed while filling in for Steve Kerr as acting head coach. He has already been linked to the Knicks and Suns, and he could get other offers.

If the Lakers keep their top-three-protected first-round pick, they’d have an intriguing job with D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, a promising rookie, matching rights for Arenas-provision-limited Jordan Clarkson and tons of cap space. If the Lakers lose their pick, the job would look a lot worse. Either way, staying in California and leading one of the NBA’s premier franchises could appeal to Walton.

It’s this interest that makes me believe Scott’s “tryout” is little more than a courtesy for a former player who helped the Lakers win championships. If they’d fire Scott for Walton, how many other replacements would warrant dumping Scott? My list would be long enough to ensure he gets canned.

As far as Jim Buss, his deadline for turning around the team or losing his job has been a source of contention. But even Jeannie, who gives him less time than he gives himself, said he had until the summer of 2017.

Lakers fans might have to settle for exercising one one of their demons.

Report: Luke Walton and Brian Shaw top Knicks’ candidates to replace Derek Fisher

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 06:  (L-R) Assistant coach Brian Shaw, head coach Phil Jackson and assistant coach Frank Hamblen of the Los Angeles Lakers sit on the bench in the second half against the Boston Celtics Game Two of the 2010 NBA Finals at Staples Center on June 6, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Out: Derek Fisher.

In: Kurt Rambis.

That’s only the first step of the Knicks’ coaching change.

Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

Of course, Luke Walton and Brian Shaw – like Fisher and the other top candidate in 2014, Steve Kerr – played for Phil Jackson. The Knicks president has a type, one that includes both good and bad candidates.

The good: Walton. He impressed with his handling of the Warriors in Steve Kerr’s absence. He’s one of the hottest coaches on the market. I have some doubts, given Kerr’s and Golden State’s players’ influence. But Walton has done plenty right to be in this position.

The bad: Shaw. Jackson reportedly preferred Shaw to Fisher two years ago, but Shaw was under contract with the Nuggets. Denver since fired him, because he did a stunningly awful job connecting with his players. Perhaps, he has grown in that area since, though.

It seems inevitable Tom Thibodeau’s name will come up. The former Bulls coach isn’t a Phil Jackson disciple, but he previously worked as a Knicks assistant. Maybe his New York connection will allow Thibodeau to overcome his lack of a Jackson tie.

A direct connection to Jackson clearly puts someone on the fast track for this job.