Game of the Night: Boston holds off Miami’s late surge

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Well, the Miami Heat won’t be going 82-0 this season. The experienced Celtics were able to handle the Heat on Tuesday night, winning by a final score of 88-80 and making the Heat look terrible at times, holding Miami to nine points in the first quarter and just 30 points in the first half. The Heat were able to threaten the Celtics late, but the 2008 champions were firmly in control for much of the game. Here are some thoughts from the season opener and Wade and James’ first official NBA game together:

1. LeBron reminded us what he is and isn’t.

LeBron James more or less picked up where he left off last season. After a very slow start, James was able to show the skills that won him the last two MVP awards, as well as some of the issues that have kept him from winning a championship. With Wade and Bosh both having horrible nights, Miami’s offense was the LeBron show.

James was unable to establish any kind of offensive rhythm against the brutally effective Boston defense that knocked him out of the playoffs last season. He couldn’t find any space on pick-and-rolls, wasn’t able to get any easy opportunities by moving without the ball, and couldn’t create a quality passing lane to save his life. LeBron finished with only three assists and eight turnovers, and it was clear that Boston’s defense wasn’t allowing him to play the way he wanted to, especially in the half-court. Some of LeBron’s turnovers occurred because his teammates weren’t ready for passes, others occurred because he tried to complete a pass that wasn’t there, and some turnovers were the product of pure carelessness. But all of them illustrated just how uncomfortable LeBron was with unfamiliar teammates and an all-too-familiar Boston defense shadowing his every move.

Even with all of that going on, James was the best player on the court for much of the game. He scored a game-high 31 points by shooting over the defense (James scored 15 points on 13 shots taken outside of the paint, and most of them were contested), simply running over his defender, or converting an open-court opportunity. It was impressive to behold, but it wasn’t enough to beat Boston in 2008, it wasn’t enough to beat Boston in last year’s playoffs, and it wasn’t enough to beat Boston on Tuesday night.

James’ three major offensive weaknesses all hurt Miami on Tuesday night. His free-throw shooting was shaky, and Miami could have used the four points LeBron left at the line late in the game. LeBron only posted up twice, and failed to get a basket both times. His shot selection remains bizarre, and he took a few of his ill-advised but predictable “heat-check” threes when he would have been better served setting up the offense.

More importantly, James’ new running mates weren’t able to take any pressure off of him. Bosh and Wade both played terribly, and LeBron never established chemistry with either of them. When that happened, James was forced to try and do everything himself, and was ultimately put in a position to be betrayed by his weaknesses. When James was off the floor, disaster struck — the Heat were outscored by nine points during the five minutes James sat. Simply put, this was not the kind of game LeBron had in mind when he decided to come to Miami.

2. Boston is in midseason form.

It’s stating the obvious, but I’ll say it anyways: Boston looked like a team that has been playing together for a lot longer than the Heat have been. Boston picked apart the Heat’s swarming defense by moving the ball from side to side, having Rajon Rondo attack the open space to open up drive and kick opportunities (Rondo had 17 assists; the Heat had 15), dumping the ball down low to exploit Joel Anthony’s lack of size, and knocking down their open threes, especially when they mattered most. Almost every shot the Celtics took was a high-percentage look; 78 of the team’s 88 points came from inside the paint, the free-throw line, or beyond the arc. That’s what an offense rolling on all cylinders looks like.

Defensively, the Celtics didn’t seem to miss either Kendrick Perkins or assistant coach and defensive wizard Tom Thibodeau; they shut down the paint, rotated on shooters, and forced 17 Heat turnovers. On Tuesday night, the Celtics looked like a team rather than a collection of talents.

3. The Heat might be a bit deeper than we think.

The less said about Wade and Bosh’s performances (a combined 7-for-27 from the floor, with seven turnovers), the better. Wade looked rusty, and Bosh just looked overwhelmed — this is the first time Wade has played more than three minutes of organized NBA basketball since April 27th, and Bosh isn’t going take over against a defense like Boston’s without James and Wade opening things up for him a bit.

The good news for Heat fans is that Miami got some solid contributions from players who weren’t expected to contribute much this season. Eddie House looked like a man possessed; he made some great defensive plays (I’m serious), was all over the court, did a decent job of handling the ball, and nailed some open threes. James Jones had two big threes that kept the Heat in the game in the fourth quarter. Zydrunas Ilgauskas did a great job on the boards, and Miami’s offense actually looked really good when they gave the ball to Ilgauskas in the high post and actually started to move without the ball. It’s obviously an absurdly small sample size, but the fact that the Heat were +17 in Ilgauskas’ 11 minutes of play may be worth noting.

James, Wade, and Bosh are going to do the heavy lifting for this team, and Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller (when he returns), are going to play major roles. However, the other seven players on the Heat roster are going to have to produce at times, and it’s going to be a major advantage for the Heat if they can trust players like House and Ilgauskas to play significant minutes.

That’s all from me on this game. Great win for the Celtics. The Heat should take some comfort in keeping the game close when they were so completely outclassed for most of the game, but this is not the way they wanted to start their season.

76ers once again overhaul around Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there

Can Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons coexist?

While I’ve wondered about that question, the 76ers have charged ahead with the pairing. Embiid and Simmons are the givens. The surrounding players change. In just two seasons, J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Markelle Fultz, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris have cycled through as starters.

The latest supporting starters: Harris, Al Horford and Josh Richardson.

This might be the last chance to find a trio that works.

Philadelphia has taken advantage of Embiid’s and Simmons’ low rookie-scale salaries, which was always a selling point of The Process. A roster loaded with cheap young players created a window to add more-expensive talent. Then, with everyone already in place, NBA rules generally allow teams to keep their own players.

But Embiid is already on his max contract extension, and Simmons just signed a max contract extension that will take effect next year. The flexibility is vanishing.

One last time, the 76ers made the most of it. They signed-and-traded Butler for Richardson and let Redick walk in free agency. That left enough cap space to sign Al Horford (four years, $109 million with $97 million guaranteed) and use Bird Rights to re-sign Tobias Harris (five years, $180 million).

That’s a lot of deliberate disruption for a team that was already good and rising.

The big question: Did it make Philadelphia better?

I just don’t know.

As fond as I am of Butler, I understand all the reasons to be wary of offering the 30-year-old a huge contract. But moving on from him to give a huge deal to a 33-year-old Horford? That’s curious. Then again, Philadelphia also added Richardson – a solid replacement for Butler on the wing – in the process.

The 76ers will miss Butler’s shot creation. He often took over their offense in the clutch during the playoffs. Harris can pick up some of the slack, but that still looks like a hole.

At just 27, Harris is young for a player who has already been in the league so long. That’s a big reason it was worth Philadelphia signing him to a sizable long-term contract.

Horford’s deal could age poorly, but he’s a winner still playing quality all-around basketball. If nothing else, the 76ers removed Embiid’s best defender from the rival Celtics.

Philadelphia filled its bench with several value signings – Mike Scott (room exception), James Ennis (minimum), Kyle O'Quinn (minimum), Furkan Korkmaz (minimum), Raul Neto (minimum) and Trey Burke (partially guaranteed minimum). However, sometimes teams need production more than cost-effectiveness. The 76ers’ bench struggled last season, and they devoted minimal resources to upgrading.

In the draft, Philadelphia traded the Nos. 24 and 33 picks for No. 20 pick Matisse Thybulle. That’s a costly move up, especially for a player I rated No. 34. Worse, it seemingly happened because Boston snuffed out the 76ers’ interest in Thybulle then leveraged them. That’s small potatoes, though.

Simmons (No. 9 on our list of the 50 best players in 5 years) and Embiid (No. 11 on our list of the 50 best players in 5 years) will likely define this era for Philadelphia. Embiid is on his way to becoming one of the NBA’s very best players. Simmons is so good, giving him a max extension was a no-brainer.

But they were already in place.

Harris, Horford and Richardson will define this offseason. I just can’t tell whether they made the 76ers’ promising future even brighter or slightly dimmer.

Offseason grade: C

Michelle Roberts says if you don’t like player movement blame owners, too

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Last summer was one of the wildest offseasons in NBA history, maybe the wildest, and the headline was player empowerment. Anthony Davis pushed his way to the Lakers, Paul George forced his way out of Oklahoma City to go to the Clippers and join Kawhi Leonard, which soon had Russell Westbrook joining his old teammate James Harden in Houston. It led to frustration by some owners and changes in how the NBA will handle tampering.

Except, by choice is not how most players change teams. While AD or George has the leverage to make a power play — because of their exceptional talent — most of the time players are traded because the owner/team has all the power and can uproot players for whatever reason (basketball reasons sometimes, saving money other times). The stars have free agent options, rotation players much less so in that system.

Michelle Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Players’ Association, wants you to remember that it’s not just player power that has led to the increase in player movement, as she told Mark Spears of The Undefeated.

Michele Roberts, told The Undefeated that she believes there is a “double standard” between how stars are viewed when they decide to move on compared with when franchises choose to make a major transaction, adding that team owners “continue to view players as property.”

“If you want to be critical of one, be critical of both,” Roberts said from the NBPA’s offices in Manhattan. “Those of us who made decisions to move, it’s really astounding to even consider what it feels like to be told in the middle of your life you are going to have to move. But that’s the business we’re in. …

“No one seems to spend a lot of time thinking about what it’s like to make those kinds of moves completely involuntarily. You volunteer to play or not play. But, yeah, if it’s still the case that if you think you’ve got to suck it up, player, then, hell, you’ve got to suck it up, team.”

She’s right. From Chris Paul to Blake Griffin, plenty of big stars have been moved against their will. The door swings both ways, but in those cases most fans tended to see why and like what the teams did. Those fans like it less when players do the same thing.

There’s also a classic labor vs. management angle to all this, which has political overtones.

For my money, how one views player movement tends to be part generational and part where you live.

Older fans remember days — or, at least think they remember days — when players stayed with teams for much or all of their career. It’s understandable, fans form a bond with players and want them to stay… while they’re still good and useful, after that fans beg ownership to get the “dead weight off the books.” Players before the late 1980s stayed with teams because they didn’t have a choice — for Bill Russell in the 60s or Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the 1980s, free agency was not an option. And for every Kobe Bryant that did stay with a team, there were a lot more Wilts and Shaqs, who were traded several times and played with multiple teams.

Younger fans (generally, nothing is universal) are okay with the player movement, sometimes are more fans of a player than a team, and like the action and buzz of all the trades.

Location matters because if you’re in Oklahoma City there’s reason to not like what George did and the era of player empowerment. New Orleans fans can feel the same way (although part of that case is the “supermax” contract that owners wanted but really forced up the timeline on teams and players to make a decision on paying stars). But fans in Los Angeles or wherever players ultimately choose to go will feel differently. Fans want what’s best for their team, but there is no way in the star culture of the NBA to wash away the lure of big markets or of teaming up with another elite player.

The NBA dynamic is different from the NFL’s (for now), but it’s not changing. LeBron James helped usher in an era of player empowerment and it’s the new reality for the NBA, one the best franchises will adapt to rather than fight.

Evan Fournier says that Frank Ntilikina just ‘needs a real opportunity’

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New York Knicks fans haven’t had a lot to cheer for recently. The team traded away Kristaps Porzingis, who is thought to be the franchise cornerstone. Now they move forward with a young core, RJ Barrett, and tons of cap space.

So what does that mean for players who have been around in the Big Apple like Frank Ntilikina?

Based on how Ntilikina played in the 2019 FIBA World Cup for France this year, things might be looking up.

Ntilikina’s statistics weren’t eye-popping, but he was seen as a very solid player in a backcourt that helped propel France to the bronze medal in China.

To that end, fellow countrymen Evan Fournier thinks that all Ntilikina needs is a chance to shine.

Via Twitter:

Ntilikina’s season last year was marred by injuries, and he played in just 43 games. Still, he has the physical tools to be a useful NBA player, and he’s just 21 years old. With the surprisingly low-pressure situation in New York, it’s possible that extended time playing in the World Cup could help aid what Ntilikina is able to produce next season for the Knicks.

Report: Lakers receive DeMarcus Cousins disabled-player exception

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A chance at a championship. LeBron James. Anthony Davis. The Los Angeles market. Great weather.

The Lakers can offer plenty to anyone who gets bought out this season.

Now, the Lakers – who lost DeMarcus Cousins to a torn ACL – get a mechanism to offer post-buyout players more money.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

The exception holds little value presently. It’s worth less than a full-season minimum salary for anyone with more than four years experience.

But minimum-salary and mid-level exceptions decline throughout the season. This exception does not.

So, on March 1, a team with only a minimum slot available can offer a free agent just between $233,459 and $666,546 (depending on the player’s experience level). The Lakers can offer $1.75 million.

This means an NBA-appointed doctor ruled Cousins is “substantially more likely than not” to be out through June 15. Given that prognosis, the Lakers could open a roster spot by waiving Cousins, who’s on a one-year deal and facing a domestic-violence charge. They’d still keep the exception.

If Cousins can return more quickly than expected, he’d be eligible to play, whether or not the Lakers use the exception.