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.

 

Marc Gasol completes historic double, Spain wins World Cup

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BEIJING (AP) — Marc Gasol looked to the sky as confetti fell, some sticking to his massive shoulders, and then cradled and kissed the giant golden chalice that goes to the World Cup champions.

He’s getting good at hoisting trophies.

Gasol got to bask in a championship celebration for the second time in three months — and this time, he did it for his country. Tournament MVP Ricky Rubio scored 20 points, Sergio Llull added 15 and Spain won the World Cup for the second time by topping Argentina 95-75 on Sunday.

“We weren’t the most talented team,” Rubio said. “We weren’t the bigger team. Put anything you want, but we were the team with the biggest heart and we showed it tonight and we showed it during the whole tournament.”

Gasol scored 14 for the winners, who never trailed and added this crown to the one it claimed in 2006. And for him, 2019 will go down as a year the likes of which few others have enjoyed.

The Toronto Raptors center becomes the second player to win an NBA title and a FIBA world gold medal in the same year, joining Lamar Odom — who did it for the Los Angeles Lakers and USA Basketball in 2010. Gasol also became the 19th to win either an NBA or WNBA crown along with a gold medal, either of the Olympic or World Cup variety, in the same year.

The first 18 all did it for the U.S.

This time, Vamos España!

“NBA champion and a World Cup champion as well,” Gasol said. “What can I say? How does it sound to you? I feel very fortunate to be in this position and be able to play this game and help these guys be part of history of Spanish basketball.”

Llull and Rudy Fernandez — the team captain, the one who initially got to accept the Naismith Trophy — went to cut down the nets shortly after the final buzzer. Gasol carried the game ball to the gold-medal ceremony, and Spanish fans wept in the stands during the national anthem.

Gabriel Deck scored 24 points for Argentina (8-1), which got off to a slow start and played uphill the rest of the way. Luis Scola was held to eight points, shooting 1 for 10 from the floor.

“We’re sad right now. We’re very sad,” Scola said. “But I feel confident, in hours, we’ll be able to look back and be very proud. They just played better than us. They were better. They deserved to win. They were the better team in the game and the tournament.”

Spain led 43-31 at intermission, after putting together a 14-2 run to open the game and a 17-1 run later in the half.

“This is basketball,” Argentina coach Sergio Hernandez said. “If you play better than the other team, you win the game. And Spain was the best team today.”

Scola, even at 39 years old still Argentina’s best player throughout the tournament, didn’t get on the scoresheet until he made a pair of free throws with 2:57 left in the third quarter. But they only cut the Spain lead to 19, and by then the Argentinian fans who stood, sang and chanted for much of the game were relatively quiet.

The day belonged to Spain.

And the year belongs to Gasol.

“It’s unbelievable,” Gasol said.

Watch highlights from France taking bronze at World Cup, beating Australia 67-59

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Just as they did five years ago at the last World Cup, France has come away with the bronze medal.

The French came from 15 down at one point to beat Australia 67-59 and win the third-place game at the FIBA World Cup in China. Former Spur Nando De Colo led the way for France with 19 points, Orlando’s Evan Fournier added 16 but on a rough shooting night (5-of–17), and Charlotte’s Nicolas Batum added nine points and six assists. You can see the game’s highlights above.

After the game, Fournier was talkative, including slamming the travel and schedule of this World Cup, spread all across China.

Utah was led by 17 points from Utah’s Joe Ingles and 15 from San Antonio’s Patty Mills.

Michael Jordan sells portion of Hornets to two new partners

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Michael Jordan is adding two partners to the Charlotte Hornets’ ownership group, selling them each a portion of the NBA franchise.

Gabe Plotkin, founder and chief investment officer of Melvin Capital, and Daniel Sundheim, founder and chief investment officer of D1 Capital, have joined the Hornets as partners, pending NBA approval.

Jordan, a six-time NBA champion, will remain the majority owner.

Jordan said in a statement released by the team Saturday that he’ll continue to be the man making decisions about the direction of the Hornets.

“I’m excited to welcome Gabe and Dan as my partners in Hornets Sports & Entertainment,” Jordan said. “While I will continue to run the Charlotte Hornets, make all decisions related to the team and organization, and remain the team’s NBA Governor, Gabe and Dan’s investment in the franchise is invaluable, as we continue to modernize, add new technology and strive to compete with the best in the NBA. Both Gabe and Dan are industry standard-setters and proven leaders, with a belief in philanthropy and a passion for the game of basketball. They share my commitment to Charlotte and the Carolinas, and I look forward to working with and learning from them.”

Marc Gasol goes for history when Spain meets Argentina in World Cup final

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BEIJING (AP) — Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Lamar Odom, LeBron James, and Kyrie Irving.

Those are the only five players to win an NBA title and a gold medal in the same year, whether it was in FIBA or Olympic competition, with Pippen doing it twice.

It is an exclusive club – one that Marc Gasol is on the cusp of joining.

A mere three months after helping the Toronto Raptors win the NBA Finals, Gasol has led Spain to the gold medal game at the World Cup. It’ll be Spain against Argentina on Sunday, with both nations looking for their second title. Spain won the world championship in 2006 when Gasol was a 21-year-old backup, and Argentina won the inaugural tournament in 1950.

“I’m so deep in the rabbit hole right now that I don’t get to see much light,” Gasol said. “You’re so focused on your opponent, your next rival, recovering, doing whatever’s necessary to win games that you don’t look at the big picture. It’s been great. I’m very fortunate.

“I knew that committing to the national team this summer would not be easy physically. But it’s so worth it, and not just because we’re in the final game.”

He simply willed Spain into the final game.

Gasol scored 33 points – his career-high for any of the 18 FIBA-sanctioned or Olympic tournaments he’s played over the last 18 years – in Spain’s double-overtime win against Australia in the semifinals. He gave up his NBA offseason to be part of this team, a group that failed to medal at the last World Cup in Spain five years ago, and knows he might not have too many more years left on the international stage.

“It’s the responsibility of passing along that commitment, that loyalty to the team,” said Gasol, who still remembers the thrill of getting invitation letters from the Spanish federation to be part of youth teams when he was 11 or 12. “Those values that we were taught so many years with the older players, now it’s our turn to pass on the legacy to the next generation. And that’s not talent, that’s just commitment.”

Argentina has one of those passing-legacy-on players, too.

Luis Scola, 39 years old, was part of the team that won gold for Argentina at the 2004 Athens Olympics – and he’s been the best player for his team at the World Cup. He scored 28 points in the semifinal win over France, and on a team that has flashy guards who aren’t afraid to throw behind-the-back passes in any situation Scola has been the steadying force in the biggest moments.

“I’m only 27,” France center Rudy Gobert said as he lauded Scola after the semifinal matchup. “Maybe when I’m 39, I’ll know the secrets that Scola knows.”

Here’s some of what to know going into Sunday’s final:

DOUBLING UP

Pippen’s double-gold years came in 1992 and 1996 with Chicago. Jordan’s was in 1992 with the Bulls, James’ was in 2012 with Miami and Irving’s was in 2016 with Cleveland – all of those being Olympic years. Odom played on the U.S. world championships team in 2010, after his Los Angeles Lakers won that year’s NBA Finals.

OTHER DOUBLES

There have been 14 U.S. women who won a WNBA title along with a World Cup or Olympic gold medal in the same year, led by Sue Bird – who did it three times (2004 Olympics, 2010 world championship, 2018 World Cup).

UNBEATENS

Spain and Argentina are the only unbeaten teams left in the World Cup, each 7-0 so far. This is the fourth time that the gold medal will be decided in a game between unbeaten teams. The others: U.S. over Turkey (both 8-0 entering) in 2010, Spain over Greece (both 8-0) in 2006, and Argentina over the U.S. (both 5-0) at the first world championship in 1950.