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Three things to watch: Boston Celtics vs. Chicago Bulls


1. How vulnerable are the Celtics?

Boston outscored opponents by just 2.6 points per game – the second-lowest mark ever for the No. 1 seed in either conference. Only the 1976 Celtics (+2.3) fared worse and still claimed a conference’s top seed.

This Boston team still rates ahead of the Bulls (+0.4), but Chicago played exceptionally well when using only players projected to be in its playoff rotation. The deep Celtics received a much smaller bump when eliminating lineups that include players unlikely to have roles in this series.

Plus, Boston’s biggest weakness (defensive rebounding) coincides with one of the Bulls’ biggest strengths (offensive rebounding).

That said, Chicago hasn’t crashed the glass nearly as well since trading Taj Gibson. And in the same period, the Celtics have defensively rebounded much better, up to a middling rate.

Boston isn’t as strong as a typical No. 1 seed, and the rebounding is concerning. But the Celtics still have an overall advantage, and the matchup issues aren’t as troublesome as they appear at first glance.

2. How does Chicago defend Isaiah Thomas?

A key reason Boston went 53-29 and outperformed their Pythagorean-projected record of 48-34: Isaiah Thomas scored excellently in the clutch, turning multiple seemingly coin-flip games in the Celtics’ favor. Even when everyone knew Thomas would dominate the ball, nobody could stop him.

Will the Bulls?

Rajon Rondo hasn’t defended well in years. Jimmy Butler, who sounds up for the challenge and can probably cause problems in small doses, is more accustomed to covering bigger wings. Dwyane Wade probably can’t handle an assignment like Thomas anymore. Giving more minutes to Jerian Grant, Michael Carter-Williams, Cameron Payne or Isaiah Canaan invites its own problems, not to mention no clear solution for Thomas.

The Bulls better focus on punishing the 5-foot-9 Thomas on the other end.

3. Can Dwyane Wade coexist with his teammates?

With Wade sidelined by injury late in the season, Chicago went 7-4. Rajon Rondo (10.9 points, shooting 47.0% from the field and 40.7% on 3-pointers, 8.5 assists and 6.2 rebounds per game) and Nikola Mirotic (16.9 points per game, shooting 52.3% from the field and 48.7% on 3-pointers) particularly looked more comfortable in that span. The Bulls shot 38.7% on 3-pointers in those games.

Now Wade comes back to… add talent? Complicate floor balance?

It’s unclear whether Chicago just happened to get hot while Wade sat or whether he’s restricting his teammates. The answer could make all the difference for the Bulls.

Wade, Rondo and Butler have played an entire season together, but we’re still wondering about the very first question with this team.

LeBron James’ triple-double lifts Cavaliers past Bucks

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CLEVELAND (AP) — LeBron James scored 40 points as part of his third triple-double in four games and the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Milwaukee Bucks 124-117 on Monday night as coach Tyronn Lue began his leave of absence to address health issues.

Lue said Monday in a statement he been dealing with chest pains and loss of sleep, and that tests have offered no conclusion about what the issue is. Associate head coach Larry Drew will run the team in Lue’s absence.

James scored 17 points in the third quarter and finished with 12 rebounds and 10 assists for his 16th triple-double this season and 71st of his career.

The four-time MVP took over in the third beginning with back-to-back 3-pointers. After not getting a foul called on a third attempt, he finished Cleveland’s next possession with a massive dunk. He was fouled attempting another dunk and made both free throws the following time down.

Milwaukee cut a 17-point lead to 117-109, but James drove the length of the floor for a dunk with just over a minute left.

Cavaliers All-Star forward Kevin Love returned after missing six weeks because of a broken left hand and scored 18 points in 25 minutes. He sparked a 10-0 run in the second quarter with two 3-pointers

Giannis Antetokounmpo had 37 points and went 11 for 11 at the foul line for Milwaukee, which is seventh in the Eastern Conference. Khris Middleton had 30 points, making 11 of 16 from the field.

Milwaukee guard Jason Terry was given a Flagrant-1 foul for hitting Ante Zizic in the face with an open hand while the rookie center was putting up a shot in the lane. Zizic made both free throws, helping spark a run that built a double-figure lead.

Lue, 40, led Cleveland to the 2016 NBA championship after taking over for David Blatt midway through that season.

The Cavaliers (41-29) are third in the Eastern Conference and have endured roster shake-ups, injuries and other distractions as they try to reach the NBA Finals for the fourth straight time.

No timetable has been given for when Lue will return. He missed the second half Saturday, the second time this season he left a game because he wasn’t feeling well. Lue also sat out a game against Chicago at home in December.


Pelicans rookie Frank Jackson has another surgery, will miss entire season now

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The New Orleans Pelicans say rookie guard Frank Jackson won’t make his NBA debut this season after having follow-up surgery to remove residual scar tissue from earlier right foot operations.

The Pelicans say Jackson also received an injection in his foot.

The club says a specialist in New York handled Jackson’s latest procedure.

The Pelicans acquired the 6-foot-4 Jackson through a draft-night trade with the Charlotte Hornets, who selected the former Duke player with the first pick of the second round last summer.

Following the draft, the Pelicans signed Jackson to a three-year contract at the NBA minimum with two years guaranteed, but Jackson needed a second foot surgery last summer to address a setback following his initial surgery last May.

Jackson spent one season at Duke, averaging 10.9 points.


Giannis Antetokounmpo turns bad pass into ridiculous alley-oop (VIDEO)

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That is just not fair.

Milwaukee’s Eric Bledsoe threw an alley-oop pass to Giannis Antetokounmpo that was off the mark — high and behind him — but it just doesn’t matter. The Greek Freak gets up and throws it down.

It’s early, but it’s going to be hard to beat that one for dunk of the night.

League’s Last Two Minute Report backs referees (mostly) in Raptors/Thunder game

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Anyone who watched the Thunder’s win over the Raptors Sunday afternoon in Toronto — especially the final few minutes — thought it was not referee Marc Davis and crew’s finest hour. There were missed calls and three-straight ejections of Raptors players, which all seemed rather hair-trigger (especially coach Dwane Casey, who was tossed for something a fan behind him said).

The NBA’s Last Two Minute report doesn’t see it that way — it says the referees nailed it.

According to the report, there was only one missed call in the final two minutes: Carmelo Anthony held Pascal Siakam as a pass came to him with 11.7 seconds left, and that should have been called.

What about the play that set DeMar DeRozan off and ultimately got him ejected, the drive to the basket with 33 seconds left (and the Raptors down two) where DeRozan thought Corey Brewer fouled him? The report said that was a good no call:

DeRozan (TOR) starts his drive and Brewer (OKC) moves laterally in his path and there is contact. The contact is incidental as both players attempt to perform normal basketball moves….

RHH shows Brewer (OKC) make contact with the ball and the part of DeRozan’s (TOR) hand that is on the ball. The hand is considered “part of the ball” when it is in contact with the ball and therefore, contact on that part of the hand by a defender while it is in contact with the ball is not illegal.

(I didn’t see it that way, I think the contact was more than incidental, and to me looking at the replay Brewer catches some wrist and impedes the shot in a way that was not legal. Just my two cents.)

The report does not cover the ejections, which are reviewed by league operations but not part of this report.

Three thoughts out of all this:

1) Raptors fans/management/players have every right to feel the calls went against them in this game. As for calls always going against them — as DeRozan complained about after the game — 29 other teams and fan bases are convinced the officials have it out for them, too. I never bought that.

2) The Raptors didn’t lose this game solely because of the officiating. Russell Westbrook was clutch down the stretch, the Thunder were part of it, and the Raptors had other issues, too (Serge Ibaka had a rough game, for example).

3) This loss also does not say a thing about the Raptors in the postseason (even if they went a little too much isolation at the end) — this was their third game in four days, they looked tired and flat at the end. That will not be the case in the playoffs.