By the time MVP announced in June ceremony, playoffs will have changed the narrative

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It’s the most anticipated matchup of the first round of the NBA playoffs: Oklahoma City vs. Houston.

Or, more accurately, Russell Westbrook vs. James Harden.

MVP candidate vs. MVP candidate.

Those two have gone back and forth all season, trading monster stat lines and putting up historic numbers, both pushing their teams. It all led to as intense and evenly split MVP debate we have seen in more than a decade, and these two are the frontrunners (although watch Kawhi Leonard is going to get a lot more votes than some people expect).

What happens in this playoff series starting Sunday in Houston will shape the narrative of the MVP debate. If Harden puts up big numbers and the Rockets wipe the Thunder out in five games, The Beard will look like he should run away with the award. If Westbrook puts up four or more triple-doubles in a series that goes seven games, he will look like the MVP when it is done.

And none of it will matter.

That’s because the media voters for the award must have their ballots in by midnight Eastern this Friday. Before this series even tips off.

Also, for the first time the NBA is putting on an awards show, to be broadcast on TNT, where all the league’s end-of-season awards will be handed out in one night. It’s a made for television event similar to what the NFL and NHL have done.

The NBA ceremony is June 26. Two months after the votes were taken.

After the NBA Finals.

After the draft.

When everyone’s minds have turned to free agency, the NBA is going to turn back the clock to the regular season one more time.

As a byproduct of that schedule, by the time the league announces the award winners, the playoffs will have changed how all of us perceive the race.

Fans — and the media members who vote — can’t help but have their perceptions of the season altered by what we all will witness in the playoffs. And not just the Harden vs. Westbrook matchup, it could include Leonard — if he can lead the Spurs to the Western Conference Finals and push (or beat) the Warriors, he will look more and more like the  rightful MVP.

Intellectually voters will be able to say “my vote is a valid one based on the regular season” and they would be right — a vote for Westbrook, Harden, Leonard, or LeBron James is completely justifiable. There is no wrong answer among those four. Today.

But it will feel different by the time we learn who won two months from now.

The league used to roll out its awards over the course of the first round of the playoffs and guys would get the chance to celebrate the awards with their fans. To use the examples of likely winners this season, Giannis Antetokounmpo could receive the Most Improved Player award in front of the Milwaukee fans. Houston fans could celebrate Mike D’Antoni winning Coach of the Year with him.

Not this time — it’s all being packaged for TV.

Which works for the NFL because their awards ceremony falls between the Conference Finals and the Super Bowl — the season just ended one month ago and the interest in the game is near it’s zenith.

But for the NBA, it will all come after the Finals, maybe a couple of weeks after someone hoists the Larry O’Brien trophy (depending on how long it goes). Fans will have turned their focus to if their team can land Blake Griffin or Gordon Hayward or whomever else in free agency for next season, not the long-past regular season anymore.

So remember who you picked for MVP today, because how you may feel in a few weeks may be different — and it will not matter.

Avery Bradley scores 23, Celtics eliminate Bulls 105-83

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CHICAGO (AP) — Avery Bradley scored 23 points, and the hot-shooting Boston Celtics pounded the Chicago Bulls 105-83 to win their first-round series 4-2 on Friday night.

The top-seeded Celtics simply torched Chicago to finish off a tougher-than-anticipated series and advance in the playoffs for the first time since 2012. Boston regrouped after dropping the first two games at home and will meet Washington in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Game 1 is Sunday.

Bradley finished one point shy of a playoff career high he set in Game 5. He nailed three 3-pointers and the Celtics hit 16 of 39 from long range.

Gerald Green scored 16 and Isaiah Thomas had 12 before heading home to Washington state for his sister Chyna’s funeral on Saturday. Her death in a car accident the day before the playoff opener dealt a blow to the Celtics. But Boston rallied around its star player and regrouped when it looked like the series might slip from reach.

Jimmy Butler led Chicago with 23 points. But the Bulls never really found their rhythm over the final four games with point guard Rajon Rondo sidelined by a broken right thumb.

Dwyane Wade shot just 1 of 10 in a two-point effort that could be his final appearance for the Bulls. He has a $23.8 million option on the two-year deal he signed last summer to leave Miami and come home to Chicago.

The Celtics led by 13 at the half and outscored the Bulls 34-18 in the third quarter to put this one away. Things got so bad that loud boos started ringing through the United Center.

TIP-INS

Celtics: Bradley said he was planning to attend Chyna Thomas’ funeral. That hinged on the flight options and whether the Celtics were playing on Sunday. “If I’m not able to be there I’m going to make sure I’m supporting him however I can to let him know I’m here for him during this time,” Bradley said.

Bulls: Hoiberg said there is no structural damage in Butler’s right knee. He also had this response when asked what soreness means: “Uh, that it hurts.” … New Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky, the No. 2 pick in the draft, got a rude welcome from the Chicago crowd. He was booed when he was shown on the videoboard in the third quarter.

“Fire Hoiberg” chants break out as Bulls eliminated from playoffs

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The problems with the Chicago Bulls — the ones that led to a mediocre season and a first-round exit from the playoffs after being up 2-0 on the Celtics — are certainly not all coach Fred Hoiberg’s fault. Blame starts with the roster that GarPax put together.

However, Hoiberg didn’t have the respect of his stars, his rotation management was bizarre at points, and there just seemed to be no consistent structure. What kind of team where the Bulls trying to be? What was Hoiberg doing to get them there?

As the Bulls were being eliminated by the Celtics Friday night, “Fire Hoiberg” chants broke out at the United Center.

Bulls fans are understandably frustrated, but they are not going to get this wish. Not this summer.

Hoiberg was the handpicked replacement for Tom Thibodeau, the guy Gar Forman and John Paxson — the Bulls front office brain trust — had their eye on and plucked out of the college coaching ranks. They bet big on him, and to admit that was a mistake after two years could endanger their jobs. So Hoiberg will stay.

What the Bulls roster will look like next season is another, more vexing question. Will Dwyane Wade be back? Jimmy Butler? With the seeming lack of a plan by GarPax, it’s all just speculation where they might go.

Whatever happens, Hoiberg will be coaching Chicago next season. Sorry Bulls fans.

John Wall takes over late, clinches Wizards 115-99 win over Hawks, Washington advances

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Closing teams out is hard.

Already up 3-2, Washington on the road was in complete control against Atlanta, up 22 in the third quarter, seeming destined to cruise to a win and a meeting with the Boston Celtics in the next round. Then it started to come apart. The Hawks moved the ball and made some shots, while the Wizards got tight. The lead shrunk down to three at 93-90 Washington, and Atlanta had all the momentum.

Then John Wall happened.

First, he made this play.

That changed the momentum as the Wizards closed the game on a 22-9 run where Wall scored the final 13 points on his way to 42 for the night on 25 shots. The result was a 115-99 Wizards win to close the Hawks out 4-2.

Washington starts the second round Sunday against Boston.

“I was just trying to close the game out, man,” Wall said of his block on Dennis Schroder and his run at the end of the game. “We had a big lead, but we knew those guys was not going to stop fighting. We had a couple careless turnovers, I had, but we just kept fighting and we came back and got this win.”

Heck, Wall was even taunting Julio Jones sitting courtside as he rattled off those late-game points.

Bradley Beal had 31 points in this one as well. Washington had 26 fourth quarter points, Wall and Beal combined for 24 of them. The Hawks went small in the end, benching Dwight Howard in the fourth again, and that was just fine with the Wizards, who have better athletes when small.

Wall and Beal learned over the course of this series to read and adjust to what Atlanta was doing. The Hawks chased and trailed over the top of picks all night, with their bigs staying back trying to protect the rim, and Wall and Beal both just took the shots given them and knocked them down. More than just those two, the packing of the paint by the Hawks in Game 6 allowed Bojan Bogdanovic, Otto Porter and others to step into clean midrange shots they missed earlier in the series. Washington made Atlanta pay for the Hawks’ defensive gameplan.

The feistiness of this game bubbled over in the second quarter when Bradley Beal had a breakaway layup and Kent Bazemore pushed him a little in the air. Beal got up and went right to Bazemore angry.

The referees reviewed that play and Beal and Bazemore got technical fouls with Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jason Smith also getting them for jumping into the fray late.

For Atlanta, an interesting offseason begins where they will try to retain Paul Millsap, an unrestricted free agent, and if they can’t a rebuilding will start in earnest.

For the Wizards, it is on to Boston.

Bradley Beal, Kent Bazemore get technicals for scuffle in Hawks, Wizards

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It’s been a chippy kind of playoff series — one where Paul Millsap gets called a crybaby — and with the Hawks on the brink of elimination emotions were especially high on Friday night.

Kent Bazemore had been frustrated with a couple of calls (and no calls) and he took that out on the play above — he got picked by Kelly Oubre, who threw the ball ahead to Bradley Beal for a layup, and Bazemore gave him a little push in the air. It wasn’t much, but when a guy is airborne and defenseless that touch throwing off balance can lead to serious injury.

Beal bounced up and got in Bazemore’s face. Then an NBA version of a scuffle started.

The referees reviewed it and Beal and Bazemore got technical fouls with Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jason Smith also getting them for their role later in the “festivities.”

The league should come in with a fine for Bazemore on this — you cannot let guys push other guys who are airborne, even slightly. That was a dangerous play, and I’m surprised the officials did not call a technical.