Birth of a rivalry: a Heat-Celtics primer

1 Comment

The Boston Celtics defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers in last year’s season opener, 95-89. They would go on to defeat the Cavaliers in six games, paving the way for Cleveland’s end as a contender. They began LeBron James’ year by beating him and they ended his year by beating him.

Coincidence?

Okay, yeah, probably so.

When the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics meet tonight in TD Northbank Garden, it won’t decide how either of their seasons will go. It won’t be a premonition of things to come (barring an unfortunate injury that would rob us of a great player on either side, knock on wood). It won’t change either of their chances to win the NBA title this season, nor establish one team’s dominance over the other. What it will do is three-fold.

I. The Cast Is Introduced

Miami has enough questions marks on it right now the Riddler is using them as a secondary costume. We don’t know anything about this team, not even from preseason. Pick and roll? Two-man game? Give and go? Pinch-post? What? What are we going to get? We need to learn way more about how this team functions in both role-oriented and play-oriented constructs before we can get a handle on where they sit in the food chain. If in fact they’re not running a set that maximizes the talent on that team, that just hopes to grind teams down with their ability to play basketball? That’s a far cry from a fully functional death machine.

Boston’s just the same. We’ve heard KG is healthy. We need to see it, full speed. Same for Pierce. We need to see Rondo come back with focus after a summer where he looked frazzled and worn. Jermaine O’Neal and Shaquille O’Neal have to stay healthy and spry for this team to compete, and neither are known to be so. There are questions on this team, even as their pedigree is resolved. We have to get a feel for what this team is setting itself up to be, rather than what it says it is.

II. Matchups, Always Matchups

Pierce-LeBron is fairly familiar. Rondo-Wade is to a certain degree, but not really. KG-Bosh as well. But everything else is an unknown entity, including how Boston chooses to attack the Heat defensively. This game will be represented as a Heat-offense vs. Boston-defense, but in reality, it’s going to be won on the other side. Because the Heat are going to score, and Boston will get some stops. It’s the other side that creates a lot more questions. The Heat’s preseason defense looked phenomenal… in the preseason. Can they match up with this team? Can James stick to Pierce and keep him off that elbow-jumper? Can Bosh man-up and keep Garnett from killing him in the post? Can Wade stick to Rondo and can their help defense rotate like it’s going to need to? These are all things we need to see.

III. Who’s Ready For The Challenge?

Desire is the clichéd and biggest part of this game, this season, this league. It’s such a ridiculously corny concept, and yet it holds true year after year after year. And tonight will be largely about desire. Which team wants this more. Which team wants to send a message to the other that it’s in charge of this conference now, regardless of history or hype? Sure, Boston can lose this game like it can lose any regular season game and rely on their prowess in the postseason. But if they want to set the tone, to put that doubt in Miami’s mind, and to let the media, fans, and world know that they’re still the top dog, and now with the biggest dog of them all in Shaq, they are the favorites now and forever, they need to show Miami that.

Miami, for their part, have every expectation in the world beating down on them. Win, and the season is off to a storybook start for the Triad, and all the haters will have to live with the knowledge that this team is legit, if only in terms of being a top seed in the East before they get a chance to prove it “when it counts.” Lose? And the questions rain down, the pressure ramps up, and everyone’s that’s criticized them from day one will be forming a mob to throw tomatoes in print and cyber-space at them. It will be about their egos, their heart, their pride and not about Boston’s man-help rotation to the strong side or the size advantage on the glass. This is the reality the Heat have made for themselves, and now they have to live with it. Tonight there’s a lot we’ll see that won’t matter. But how this team decides to represent itself from the start? That’s something worth watching.

 

Report: There is mutual interest between the Knicks, Julius Randle

Sarah Stier/Getty Images
1 Comment

The Knicks priority this summer is big game hunting: Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, maybe Kyrie Irving (if one of those first two come). They have the cap space (or can get to it easily) and the lures of New York and Madison Square Garden. They want to be players.

Whether they land a superstar or not — and right now “not” seems the more likely outcome, reading the tea leaves around the league — they will need to round out the roster with good players to fit next to rookie R.J. Barret and young prospects such as Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson.

Enter Julius Randle.

From Marc Spears of ESPN’s The Undefeated:

Other free agents on the Knicks’ radar include their own free-agent center DeAndre Jordan, Warriors center DeMarcus Cousins and twins Markieff and Marcus Morris. New Orleans Pelicans forward Julius Randle and the Knicks also have mutual interest, according to sources.

“We are going to have the opportunity to meet with the guys we want to meet with,” [Knicks president Steve] Mills said without offering details or confirming names.

Randle, just 24, has seen his stock go up in recent years and averaged 21.4 points and 8.7 rebounds per game for the Pelicans last season. His game is a throwback, he uses his strength and athleticism to bully his way to buckets. He also shot 34.4 percent from three, forcing teams to respect him from the arc.

Randle could fit well with the Knicks. The question, as always, is at what price.

As for the others mentioned in the report, DeAndre Jordan may well land wherever Kevin Durant signs (they are good friends). Cousins and the Morris twins are second-tier players, meaning once the stars make their picks teams will be looking to round out rosters and those guys will start getting more and more calls. (The Warriors can only offer Cousins a little more than $6 million to return, another team will likely come in higher, but what worries teams more is the years, he very well may not get more than two.)

Drew Brees sent Zion Williamson a signed jersey that said “Passing the torch to you”

Getty Images
2 Comments

New Orleans is a football town.

The Pelicans are trying to carve out their space in that market — and landing Zion Williamson with the No. 1 pick in the draft has helped generate the kind of excitement they need — but the Big Easy is all about the Saints. Quarterback Drew Brees is treated like a deity in that town.

Brees welcomed Williamson to town Tuesday by giving him an autographed jersey, one that read, “Passing the torch to you.” It also came with a card that said, “Zion, welcome to the family. Let’s dance.”

The best part of this is Williamson’s reaction — he is genuinely in awe. Much like when he teared up on the night of the draft (when we all knew he was going to be taken No. 1 for months), Williamson just seems humble and taken aback by everything through this process.

Masai Ujiri ‘confident’ Kawhi Leonard will return to Toronto Raptors

Getty
Leave a comment

TORONTO (AP) Still absorbing the magnitude of his team’s accomplishment, Raptors President Masai Ujiri is confident Kawhi Leonard and the rest of Toronto’s core will reunite next season in a bid for another title.

“We’re on to the next issue, which for us is coming back and being champions again,” Ujiri said Tuesday in his first news conference since Toronto won its first title nearly two weeks ago. “We want to experience this moment here again and again and again.”

Retaining Leonard is the most pressing issue. The two-time finals MVP is expected to opt out of the final year of his contract and become a free agent. Toronto can offer a five-year deal worth about $190 million – one year and some $50 million more than any other team.

“I know what we’ve built here,” Ujiri said. “I’m confident, and you see how these things go.”

Ujiri stressed the main selling points of his pitch to Leonard: health, trust, success.

“I said we have to be ourselves, and we were ourselves for the whole year,” Ujiri said. “I think he saw that. I think we built a trust there.

“I believe winning a championship, him seeing who we are, working with his medical staff combined with our medical staff and getting him to where he wanted to be,” Ujiri added.

Injured for all but nine games in his final season with San Antonio, Leonard played 60 games this season and another 24 in the playoffs. After averaging career bests of 26.6 points and 7.3 rebounds in the regular season, Leonard raised his averages to 30.5 and 9.1 in the playoffs.

Ujiri says he and Leonard have had multiple talks the past several days, discussions he called “positive.”

The Raptors will stay in touch and meet formally once free agency begins Sunday. After that, Ujiri is not worried about how long Leonard takes to decide.

“I texted Kawhi last night, I talked to his uncle this morning,” Ujiri said. “For us, there’s that trust regardless of wherever it goes, and there’ll be constant communication.”

Center Marc Gasol also has a player option for next season, and guard Danny Green is a free agent.

“I think they know what the effect of Kawhi’s decision is, but we’re really approaching it like we want to bring everybody back on this team,” Ujiri said. “That’s a priority for us.”

Less urgent is a potential extension for forward Pascal Siakam, a runaway winner of the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. The parties plan to meet during the summer league.

“Pascal has gotten to a place where he’s definitely a priority for us and it’s definitely going to be a conversation that we’ll have,” Ujiri said.

Ujiri said little about his confrontation with a deputy following the Game 6 clincher. The deputy’s lawyer, David Mastagni, says his client is on medical leave with a concussion and jaw injury and is considering a lawsuit.

Ujiri says his lawyers are updating him about the investigation.

“I am confident about who I am as a person, my character and as a human being,” Ujiri said. “For now, I’ll just respect their process there and wait for the next steps.”

Asked to address reports linking him to NBA job offers, Ujiri stresses that his family loves Toronto.

“My kids are Canadians,” he said. “For me, the blessing is being wanted here and finding a place that makes you happy and finding challenges that really make you grow as a person.”

As for celebrating the NBA title with political leaders, Ujiri says the team has yet to decide on a White House visit if invited. He adds that seeing Canada’s prime minister would be a “priority.”

Ujiri did have one regret Tuesday – not bringing the Larry O’Brien Trophy with him. But minutes before the news conference ended, the golden trophy arrived and was placed on the table next to him. Ujiri carried it out as he left.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

PJ Tucker says Chris Paul-James Harden rift is ‘fake news’

AP
Leave a comment

There have been reports out of the Houston Rockets organization that both James Harden and Chris Paul are upset with each other. The situation has reportedly become untenable, with Harden as the franchise cornerstone apparently hoping that general manager Daryl Morey will be able to ship Paul off somewhere else.

It was already expected that Morey would be trying to move Paul’s contract this summer. Paul has fallen off, and the rift between the two players was noticable. Still, it’s a tall task to move CP3’s deal — it’s enormous, and his skills are clearly in decline.

But at least one player things that all of this talk is just… talk.

According to Rockets swingman PJ Tucker, there aren’t big issues between Paul and Harden. In fact, speaking to The Athletic Sam Amick this week, Tucker called the supposed conflict “fake news” and that the tension after the team’s Game 6 loss to the Golden State Warriors wasn’t anything out of the ordinary given the circumstances.

Via The Athletic:

“I’m sick of the fake news man. It’s fake. Everybody – I argue with Chris and James more than Chris and James argue.

“It was what it was. Everybody’s mad. Everybody’s pissed. You can’t – I’m sick of all the highlight of whoever this person is trying to come up with all this crap, like I argue with Chris and James more than Chris and James argue with each other. Like, I’m the center, focal (point) of the argument because I’m always yelling at somebody and they’re yelling at me. So for me, it’s like ‘If you’re not arguing…’ You don’t think Kobe and Shaq argued?”

The problem here is that reports have said that Harden is sick of Paul trying to coach the team. Meanwhile, Paul has found that Harden’s ability to generate offense for himself isn’t necessarily what he thinks is best for the squad. It’s an impasse.

And of course, Kobe and Shaq hated each other so much they broke up a dynasty. Paul and Harden don’t compare to that tandem in their prime right now, and Tucker’s example is ignoring the fact that Shaq got shipped off to the Miami Heat.

It’s possible that Tucker is giving out the information he knows to be true. It’s also possible that he’s simply being a good teammate for the Rockets. And, begrudgingly, I will admit it’s also possible that the discourse between Paul and Harden is par for the course for stars of their stature and competitive nature.

Still, I won’t hold my breath for things to get smoothed over in Houston.