Birth of a rivalry: a Heat-Celtics primer

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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.

 

Hawks’ Collins out weeks with sprained ankle, Hunter also at least a week

Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images
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ATLANTA (AP) — The Atlanta Hawks will be without both of their starting forwards for at least the next three games.

John Collins will miss at least the next two weeks with a sprained left ankle and De'Andre Hunter will be sidelined for at least one week with a right hip flexor strain, the Hawks said Thursday.

Both departed with injuries during Wednesday night’s win over Orlando. Hunter played only seven minutes and Collins was hurt after a dunk that didn’t count at the halftime buzzer.

Hunter is third on the Hawks in scoring at 14.9 points per game, and Collins is fourth at 12.3 points.

Hunter, a fourth-year player out of Virginia, has yet to play a full season because of various injuries.

Draymond Green wants to play 4-5 more years, ideally with Warriors, not stressed about contract

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Jordan Poole got a contract extension from the Warriors this summer. So did Andrew Wiggins.

Draymond Green did not — and he punched Poole and was away from the team for a time.

All this has led to speculation about the future of Green in Golden State. He has a $27.6 million player option for next season, but he could become a free agent this summer. With the Warriors’ payroll through the roof — Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are on max extensions, Poole and Wiggins just got paid, and contract extensions for Jonathan Kuminga and the rest of the young players are coming — there are questions about how long Green will be in the Bay Area.

In an open and honest interview with Marc Spears of ESPN’s Andscape, Green talked about everything from his relationship with Poole after the punch to his future. Here are a few highlights:

“I want to play another four or five more years. That would be enough for me.”

“You can look around the NBA right now. There are five guys that’s been on a team for 11 years-plus. We have three of them [along with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson]. It’s a very rare thing. There’s 470, 480 players in the NBA? There are five guys that’s been with his team for 11 years plus. That’s amazing. So, you don’t just give that away. So, absolutely I’d be interested in that.”

On rumors he wants to play with LeBron James and the Lakers: “I never said that. People can say what they want. I’m also not really one to react much to what one may say. I react to things when I want to react to it. I don’t react to things just because somebody said it.”

Is he worried about his next contract: “No, not at all. I have a great agent [Rich Paul]. The best agent in the business. That’s why you align yourself with an incredible agent, because they handle the business. I play basketball. That’s what I want.”

I don’t doubt there is mutual interest in Green staying with the Warriors, the question is at what price. It’s not a max. As for the threat of him bolting, Green is still an elite defender and secondary playmaker, but it’s fair to wonder what the free agent market would look like for him. Green is not the scoring threat he once was, and his unique skill set is not a plug-and-play fit with every roster and system (does he really fit on the Lakers, for example).

The conventional wisdom around the league right now is that Green will opt into the final year of his contract with the Warriors — especially if they make another deep playoff run — because that level of money is not out there for him. That said, it only takes one owner to fall in love with the idea and send his GM out to get the deal done. The market may be there for him after all, or he may be open to the security of three or four years with another team but at a lower per-year dollar amount.

Green also talks about his relationship with Poole in the Q&A and makes it sound professional and business-like. Which is all it has to be, but it’s not the “playing with joy” model the Warriors are built upon.

 

Lakers reportedly leaning toward packaging Beverley, Nunn in trade

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While the Lakers have looked better of late winning 6-of-8 with a top-10 offense and defense in the league in that stretch, plus Anthony Davis continues to play at an All-NBA level at center.

That run — which still has Los Angeles sitting 13th in the West — came against a soft part of the schedule (three wins against the Spurs, for example), and is about to get tested with a few weeks of tougher games, starting with the suddenly healthy Milwaukee Bucks on Friday. While the Lakers have been better, nobody is watching them and thinking “contender.” Are they even a playoff team?

Which is why the Lakers are still in the market for trades. But Jovan Buha reports at The Athletic the Lakers realize moving Russell Westbrook and his $47 million may not happen, so they are focused more on a smaller deal moving Patrick Beverley and Kendrick Nunn (with maybe a pick) to bring back quality role players to round out the roster).

The Lakers are leaning toward [a Nunn/Beverley trade] at this point, the team sources said. That would entail making a smaller move to marginally upgrade the roster while retaining the possibility of following up with a larger Westbrook deal later in the season…

Beverley ($13 million) and Nunn ($5.3 million) are both underperforming relative to their contracts. With the Lakers’ needs for additional size on the wing and a better complimentary big next to Anthony Davis, along with the roster’s glut of small guards, Beverley and/or Nunn are expendable. Packaged together, the Lakers could acquire a player or players in the $20 million range.

Trading Nunn and Beverley lines up with a couple of good options from the Lakers’ perspective. For example, the salaries work to get Bojan Bogdanovic out of Detroit, or it matches up with a deal for Jakob Poeltl and Josh Richardson out of San Antonio. However, neither the Pistons nor Spurs care much about adding veteran guards on expiring contracts in Nunn and Beverley, so it’s going to require the Lakers throwing in one of their first-round picks unprotected (2027 or 2029) and maybe a second-rounder to get it done. (With how well the Pacers are playing, it’s not a sure thing that a Myles Turner/Buddy Hield trade is still available.) The Spurs trade may be more appealing to the Lakers because Richardson and Poeltl are expiring contracts, so it doesn’t change the Lakers’ plans to use cap space to chase bigger names this offseason (Bogdanovic was recently given a two-year, $39.1 million extension).

These may not be the “move us into contender range” blockbuster Rob Pelinka and the front office hoped was out there, but either of those trades would make the Lakers better. It could move them into playoff-team status, and considering LeBron James turns 38 at the end of the month they can’t waste a year and retool next offseason.

The Lakers have made a number of miscalculations over the years, but they are all-in with this group now and have to find a way to maximize it, even if the cost is a little painful.

Khris Middleton reportedly set to return to Bucks Friday vs. Lakers

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The Milwaukee Bucks are about to get better. Likely a lot better.

Which should worry the rest of the league because the Bucks have looked like one of the two best teams in the Association this season: A 15-5 record with the best defense in the NBA and an MVP and Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Now they are about to get Khris Middleton back.

Middleton — the Bucks Olympian and All-Star forward — is set to make his season debut Friday night against the Lakers, reports Adrian Wojnarowski at ESPN. Middleton had been recovering from wrist surgery.

Middleton averaged 20.1 points and 5.4 rebounds and assists per game last season. More importantly in Milwaukee, Middleton is the hub of the Bucks’ halfcourt offense — he is the ball handler in the pick-and-roll at the end of games, asked to create for himself and others in the clutch (with Antetokounmpo working off the ball and sometimes setting picks). Without him so far this season, the Bucks’ halfcourt offense has struggled, ranked 21st in the NBA this season in points per possession (via Cleaning the Glass). Overall the Bucks have a middle-of-the-pack offense because of it.

That is about to change.

While Mike Budenholzer will ease him back into the rotation as he gets his wind back, having Middleton back makes the Bucks much more dangerous. Which is bad news for the rest of the NBA.