“Just wait until Shaq gets back” is legitimate argument for Boston

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The Chicago Bulls made their statement Thursday. Right now, the Bulls are the better team. If Thursday had been Game 1 of a seven-game series the Celtics would be in trouble.

After the game, Kevin Garnett talked about Boston having another gear for the playoffs. Their fans are counting on that. That those days off between the end of the regular season and the start of the playoffs — plus the end of back-to-backs — will mean the veteran team will have fresher legs. That their savvy and understanding of what it takes in the playoffs will lift them to another level that a team like Chicago does not yet grasp.

They also have a trump card — Shaquille O’Neal.

That card is a legitimate play, but we will not see it for at least a couple more games. CSN New England is reporting that Shaq will be out Sunday against Miami and Monday against Washington. Wednesday against New York is still a question mark. Shaq is expected back for the playoffs.

When healthy he changes the game for the Celtics — the team defense remains good but the offense takes a big step forward. John Schuhmann at NBA.com did the heavy lifting on the numbers.

O’Neal has played with the other four Celtics starters in just 18 games. But they were 15-3 in those games and 9-1 against playoff teams. With that lineup intact, they beat the Heat twice, and they beat the Knicks, Bulls, Magic and Lakers.

Of lineups that have logged at least 200 minutes together, the Celtics’ lineup of Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Garnett and O’Neal has been the second-most dominant…

First, let’s be clear, those Boston wins were in the first half of the season. They would face very different Heat, Bulls and Lakers teams now. (Knicks too, not sure it would matter there, though.) But Schuhmann’s point is valid still — Boston’s starting five with Shaq in the lineup outscored opponents by 19.1 points per 100 possessions. Swap in the also injured at times Glen Davis in that with the Celtics big four and they are up 17 points per 100 possessions. (The most dominant lineup, by the way, was the Mavericks lineup with Caron Butler.)

What Shaq brings is an inside scoring presence that Boston lacks right now, allowing teams to stick tighter with players on the perimeter.

And on the offensive end of the floor, where the Celtics have been struggling most over the last month, is where Shaq can help the Celtics most. The lineup of Rondo, Allen, Pierce, Garnett and O’Neal has shot a ridiculous 58 percent from the field (easily the highest among five-man units that have played 200 minutes together). And with O’Neal on the floor, Allen (38-for-69) and Pierce (30-for-59) have combined to shoot an incredible 53 percent from 3-point range.

There are legitimate questions about how much Shaq can give or if he can stay healthy. There are legitimate questions about if this year the dip is about father time catching up with Boston in a way it did not in previous years. Those questions can only be answered once the playoffs start.

But Boston does have another gear in them once Shaq returns to the lineup. And that gear may be one the other teams in the East cannot match.

Report: Signs of Jimmy Butler’s serious discontent showed up after playoff loss

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Tom Thibodeau does not want to trade Jimmy Butler. He seems to hold out hope — no matter how long the odds — that professionalism will win out, that Butler and Karl-Antony Towns will put aside their differences and give it a chance, and the Timberwolves will make a playoff push again. It’s not going to happen. Butler will get traded (when is the unknown question).

For some fans, the Butler/Towns feud seemed to come up out of nowhere recently, but that’s not the case. The rumors around the league of the issues between them have grown stronger all summer, and the warning signs can be traced back to the end of last season, reports Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic.

While Thibodeau said on Monday that last week was the first time Butler made a trade request, the warning signs of discontent were there much earlier. After the Rockets eliminated the Timberwolves in the first round of the playoffs in May, Butler did not fly with the team back to Minnesota, sources said. He took a flight to Los Angeles shortly after the game was over and refused to do the standard medical exam all players go through as part of their exit interviews.

A few days later, he started conveying his concern for the franchise and casting doubts on his willingness to stay long-term. Butler can become a free agent after this season, and his representatives talked with Thibodeau in July about his unwillingness to re-sign in Minnesota, sources said. Butler conveyed the same message directly to Thibodeau in August when the coach came to California to visit him after he had hand surgery, sources said.

For his part, Towns was not going to sign his max contract extension until the Butler situation was resolved, and said he could not co-exist with the All-Star wing. It was only after the Butler trade process started that Towns agreed to sign his extension.

Big picture: In a brutally tight Western Conference, it’s getting tougher to picture Minnesota in the top eight and making the playoffs. Maybe they will, and maybe Andrew Wiggins will step up and look like a guy who loves to play basketball. But last season them making the playoffs came down to the final night of the regular season, and cloud of drama over the Timberwolves and the talent drop they will suffer — Minnesota will not get equal value back for Butler — will be tough to overcome in a conference where there is almost no margin for error already.

Warriors vow to live in the moment, chase another title

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) With unsettled contract situations making many of the players’ futures beyond this season uncertain, Warriors coach Steve Kerr is encouraging his team now more than ever to go with the flow, have fun and enjoy the moment.

No pressure, even if the end goal is a three-peat.

Two-time reigning NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant signed a one-plus-one contract that allows him to become a free agent again next summer, while fellow All-Stars Draymond Green and Klay Thompson could be up for extensions.

“Nothing lasts forever in this league, but we’ve always said we want to keep this going as long as we can, and we’re right in the thick of it,” two-time MVP Stephen Curry said.

After two straight titles and three in four seasons, all eyes are on the East Bay once more as training camps begin league-wide.

That’s why Kerr is stressing going for it in what might be the final hurrah for the superstar core of this team. Not that Durant, Green nor Thompson is talking about leaving town.

“We are playing with some house money. We won three of the last four championships. Our place in the history of the league is pretty secure,” Kerr said. “I don’t think our guys should feel a ton of pressure. I think they should feel the importance of trying to do it again, because this may be the last time we have this current iteration of the Warriors, just given all the free agents and the money crunch and everything else. So we don’t know what’s going to happen. So why not just go all out and enjoy every step of the way?”

Oh, you can bet these Warriors won’t be satisfied with anything short of another championship – especially as they play their final season in Oakland before moving into the snazzy new Chase Center next year in San Francisco.

“I mean, I definitely don’t approach it like we’re playing with house money. We do have three championships. They’re all in the past,” Green said. “It’s about approaching each year with that same goal and that same mentality. And the point you get to the point where, `Oh, man, we’re just playing house money, we already got it,’ you’re done.

“None of us are ready for this run to come to an end. So we’ve got to continue to approach it like we’ve got zero. And that’s cliche and impossible to do, but you want to try to get as close to that as you possibly can. And that’s my mindset always entering the season.”

A chuckling Curry stood between Green and Thompson during Monday’s media day clearly enjoying himself and all this team has accomplished. The Warriors posed with their three title trophies from the past four seasons.

And why not?

They all know how hard it is to maintain such dominance year after year.

“We have a lot to celebrate. Three titles in the last four years. A chance to add another one in our final season at Oracle. A bunch of free agents next summer,” Kerr said. “A lot could change. We don’t know. Obviously we want to keep this thing going, but at some point you just have to enjoy the moment, enjoy the now because there’s going to be so much speculation as to what’s ahead. Nobody knows what’s ahead.”

While Green understands the business side of basketball and the challenges that come with it, he would like to be in the Bay Area for years to come. The next step is hardly weighing heavily on his mind as practice gets underway.

“I’m confident that I’ll be here for a very long time, so it’s not something I’m going into the season thinking about. Like all that stuff will be taken care of when it’s best for me, when it’s best for the team,” Green said. “I’m not looking at this one-sided like, `Oh man, I’ve, got to do what’s right for Draymond.’ It’s a partnership. And it’s a family. And doing the right thing for everyone involved is important.”

Kerr knows his players realize how special a time this is for them and the franchise.

“They really enjoy being around each other. They really enjoy the process,” Kerr said. “And having won several championships, I think they feel like, `All right … we’ve done some damage and let’s keep it rolling,”‘

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

Lakers loving LeBron’s leadership in first practice together

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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) Although the Lakers’ first official practice of the LeBron James era was focused on defense and learning new terminology, they ended it with a good old-fashioned 3-point shooting contest.

The Lakers’ new superstar was just another teammate during the spirited back-and-forth competition Tuesday. When James wasn’t draining his own 3s, he marveled along with everybody else at the surprising perimeter prowess shown by JaVale McGee, the 7-foot veteran with exactly one 3-pointer during a game in his 10-year NBA career.

The Lakers have many weeks of work ahead to become a cohesive team assembled around James, but he can already sense they’re heading down the right path. They’re planning to have plenty of fun along the way, too.

“I’m not a very patient guy, but I understand that I have to be patient right now,” James said. “I’ve got to be patient with myself, too, because this is a new start for me. It’s my first year in a new system. I know how to play the game of basketball, but this is all new to me, too. So I have to be patient with myself, not only with my teammates.”

James was both upbeat and businesslike after his first workout under coach Luke Walton, who entered the NBA in the same draft class as James in 2003. The Lakers will hold double practices and a scrimmage on the first two days of camp leading toward their preseason debut in San Diego on Sunday night.

James intends to enjoy the process in his new city.

“We’re here for one reason and one reason only, and that’s to someday hoist the trophy,” James said. “Obviously that’s the end of the road, but you have to have those types of championship habits every day, not only on the floor, but off the floor as well. … Everyone is excited to get back to work. That’s a good thing. No one is coming in today and wishing it was still summer. It’s the best time of the year. Basketball season is back up, baseball season is on its way to the playoffs, and the NFL is in Week 4. So what could you ask for as a sports fan?”

James naturally becomes the center of attention on any team, and he quickly assumed a leadership role for the Lakers. He’s also eager to see his veteran teammates assert themselves to help the Lakers’ young returning core, whether it’s Rajon Rondo instructing his fellow guards on assignments, or Lance Stephenson vocally calling out defensive instructions in half-court work.

“He’s LeBron. He’s one name,” Rondo said. “It speaks for itself. He’s been a leader and a mentor in this league for a long time, on and off the court. He has a blueprint off the court as well. So he embraces his role. He embraces all the pressure that he’s ever dealt with in his career, and he’s always risen above the occasion.”

Although Walton and James are just getting to know each other, the coach is grateful that his new star is leading by example from the opening practice.

The Lakers have lacked this level of respected on-court leadership in the two seasons since Kobe Bryant’s retirement, but LeBron and his fellow new veterans have strong ideas about how an NBA team must approach its work to be a winner.

“I could see it yesterday,” Walton said. “The way he’s approaching (practice) has changed from the pickup we were playing in the summer. It definitely set the tone. We’re on a journey that started today, and we’re very serious about the business that we got done today.”

More AP NBA: http://www.apnews.com/tag/NBA and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Sports

Dion Waiters looks a little out of shape as training camp starts (PHOTO)

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Each summer in the NBA we have to sit around and watch as players seemingly add pounds of muscle to their body. Over the course of the season, this added muscle typically melts away as players spend less time in the weight room and start running more than ever.

#MuscleWatch is a hilarious and staid part of the summer. But its cousin, Weight Watch, is a bit different.

On the flip side, some players show up in worse shape than they ended the season prior. Boris Diaw used to be the king of the early fall extra poundage. Now it appears that Miami Heat wing Dion Waiters is carrying a little bit of baggage with him as he starts training camp.

When Waiters’ headshot was published this week, Twitter had a bit of a field day with it.

Via Twitter:

This is not to body shame Waiters in anyway of course. As an athlete, his body is up for intense scrutiny with regard to his readiness for the season. And, how Waiters looks heading into training camp is markedly different than how he looked last summer.

No doubt when training camp starts, Waiters will get himself into shape and he will be ready to play by the time games start in October. Still, it’s always shocking to see a professional athlete add some lbs.