NBA Playoff Preview: Boston vs. New York

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SEASON RECORDS
Celtics: 56-26 (No. 3 seed)
Knicks: 42-40 (No. 6 seed)

SEASON SERIES
Celtics sweep 4-0, but know that two games were in December and one was a meaningless game played largely by substitutes on the last night of the season. So, three of the four have no real bearing on the playoff games about to start.

KEY INJURIES
Celtics: Shaquille O’Neal, expected to play and start but has played 6 minutes since Feb. 1 due to Achilles and a calf strain; Delonte West missed time with sprained ankle but should be available.
Knicks: no significant injuries

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKING (points per 100 possession)
Celtics: Off. 104.4 (16th in NBA); Def. 97.7 (2nd in NBA)
Knicks: Off. 108.2 (7th in NBA); Def. 107.1 (22nd in NBA)

THREE KEY CELTICS:

Rajon Rondo: He has just not been himself in recent weeks — Rondo has been shooting a little more, passing a little less and the result is a sticky Celtics offense. Part of that has been funky Celtics lineups as they rest their key players for the playoffs, but part of it is just Rondo being off. Expect him to get back to form — like the other Celtic veterans he knows what is required — but if he doesn’t there will be issues.

Shaquille O’Neal: This series is not where Shaq is really needed, it is the next one, and all the subsequent ones. But Shaq needs to use this series to get some conditioning and his flow back. The lineup of Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Shaq was the second best in basketball among five-man units that played more than 200 minutes. They will need that lineup to give them 20 minutes a night in the future, they need to get it back in a groove in this series.

Paul Pierce: The most entertaining matchup of this series is Garnett on Stoudemire, but that is not where the mismatch is. Pierce will have Carmelo Anthony on him and needs to exploit Anthony’s “defense” or at least make him work much harder on that end of the floor, taking away some energy from his offense. Pierce has been the one Celtic playing better than his season averages the last 10 games (21.4 points a game on 51.6 percent shooting and 42.5 percent from three). He could continue those kinds of numbers this series.

THREE KEY KNICKS

Carmelo Anthony: They are going to need him to provide a lot of offense — Amar’e Stoudemire will get some but Kevin Garnett does a good job traditionally of slowing him down. Lately Anthony has been providing plenty of scoring, averaging more than 30 points a game. The real challenge is that Anthony’s preferred mode of offense — isolation from the wing — plays right into the hands of the Celtics defense. He is going to have to get inside and draw some fouls, and he has to hit contested shots.

Ronny Turiaf: One thing the Knicks have not had this season is a consistent intimidating defensive and rebounding presence in the paint. Turiaf, who has battled through injuries (as he seems to every year) is the best option they have for that. And he is their best chance against Shaq. What we do know is that Turiaf will bring some serious heart and energy to the table.

Chauncey Billups: If there is one Knick who could steal a game, who could get hot and make some plays, it is Billups. He has to keep Rondo in his offensive funk, make Rondo really work on defense and find a way to get his teammates some easy buckets against the Celtics defense. The Knicks need to run some, not let the Celtics get set, and that is where Billups comes in.

OUTLOOK

This is the series where a lot of people see a potential upset. And the Knicks have a couple guys capable of just taking over and dominating a game and stealing one almost singlehandedly. But even with its recent struggles the Celtics defense is still formidable and what the Knicks do — pick-and-rolls, Anthony in isolation — plays to the strengths of that Celtics defense. The Knicks are going to have to play better defense than they have most of the season, because if Rondo starts dishing and Ray Allen starts hitting the Knicks are going to struggle to keep up.

 

PREDICTION

These are going to be some entertaining games, with the full force of two cities that can’t stand each other behind them. But in the end, in the final minutes, it will be the Celtics execution that outdoes the Knicks individual players.

Celtics in 6.

Report: Lakers tell LiAngelo Ball he will not be invited to Summer League team

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LiAngelo Ball was never going to get drafted Thursday night. He simply is not that good (something I heard from every scout I talked to that saw him play).

He did get invited to work out for some teams before the draft (including the Warriors and Lakers). Impress there and the next step is an invite to play on a Summer League team. I don’t know if the middle Ball son impressed enough in workouts to earn an invite, but I do know he had an extra hurdle to climb — and a big one to most teams — because organizations do not want to deal with LaVar Ball and that circus.

That includes the Lakers, reports Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.

It will be interesting to see if another team is willing to give LiAngelo Ball a roster spot in Las Vegas. I would be shocked if a G-League team or two does not make him an offer for next season — for them, the marketing and publicity would be worth the hassle. How well he plays is secondary.

If a player is as talented and has the potential of Lonzo Ball, teams will put up with a lot. The Lakers organization has its frustrations with LaVar (to put it kindly), but they like Lonzo and what he could become (the team just played better with him on the court last season). Yes, Lonzo has trade value, too, but they’re not opposed to keeping him, depending upon how this summer shakes out. They can ignore the dad for him.

LiAngelo simply isn’t the level of talent where teams will tolerate the circus around him.

The big question for me is LaMelo Ball, the youngest of the three brothers, who was considered a top prospect for colleges a couple of years ago (and had committed to UCLA). How has being pulled out of his high school and playing low-level European competition in exhibitions in Lithuania impacted his standing? Something to watch over the next few years.

Just know LaVar Ball is never giving up the dream.

In surprise to nobody, Carmelo Anthony reportedly will not opt out of $27.9 million

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Carmelo Anthony is going to take the money. Who could have seen that coming?

Not that we should blame the man — anybody else in his shoes (including you, dear reader) would do the same thing. Anthony is contractually owed $27.9 million next seasons, and while he can opt out he knows if he did the open market would not pay near that much. So the man is going to take the cash, which was expected but Marc Stein of the New York Times is making it official.

Carmelo Anthony does not intend to opt out of his current contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder, according to a person familiar with Anthony’s decision.

Anthony has until Saturday at midnight (Eastern) to exercise the option that would make him a free agent July 1 — provided he were willing to walk away from the $27.9 million he is owed next season. But he is planning to let the deadline pass quietly and keep his current contract in effect, according to the person, who was not authorized to discuss the situation publicly.

The Thunder are in a bind.

It became clear in the playoffs that at this point in his career, Anthony’s defense and ball-stopping offense are just not a fit with this Oklahoma City roster. He played 194 playoff minutes with the Thunder and had two assists. Last regular season, 32.5 percent of Anthony’s offense came from isolations or post ups, and he scored less than 0.9 points per possessions on those — his numbers aren’t awful, but they’re not good enough to  make up for his poor defense. (Stats via Synergy Sports.)

That’s why Anthony saw his minutes and role shrink in the postseason — but he said after the Thunder were eliminated (in the first round) he did not want to accept that role and fewer touches next season. He said he wants to get back to playing his way. (Stop laughing, Knicks’ fans, it’s not polite.)

The Thunder may try to trade him. Good luck with that. There is going to be limited to no market. With that salary they are going to have to throw in a serious sweetener to get other teams to bite (and/or take on a worse, longer contract in return).

Anthony is not likely to take less in a buyout to get out of town.

Nobody should blame Anthony here — he is taking the money is is contractually owed. The Knicks gave him this contract, the Thunder traded for it. But OKC is backed into a corner with this move and has few options.

 

Report: Steve Clifford strongly urged Hornets to draft Donovan Mitchell over Malik Monk

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The Hornets have been taken through the ringer for rejecting a monster trade package from the Celtics, who wanted Justise Winslow, for the No. 9 pick in the 2015 draft. Instead, Charlotte kept the pick to take Frank Kaminsky.

Though they weren’t alone in erring by refusing to trade with Boston, the Hornets added another catastrophic missed opportunity to their ledger last year.

Charlotte picked Malik Monk No. 11 over rising star Donovan Mitchell (whom the Jazz selected No. 13) and apparently over protests of then-Hornets coach Steve Clifford.

The Lowe Post podcast:

Jonathan Givony:

Charlotte, I had them projected to take Donovan Mitchell, because I heard that Clifford was on the table in the war room saying, “We need to draft Donovan Mitchell.” And he was overruled on that, and they took Malik Monk instead. And it’s interesting how that played out in hindsight.

Zach Lowe:

Cliff was 100 percent trying to get them to take Donovan Mitchell.

I rated Monk ahead of Mitchell, but unlike me, the Hornets had an opportunity to work out the players. Mitchell performed so well in his Charlotte workout, he believed the Hornets would pick him. They have to own that mistake.

It’s unclear who overruled Clifford – then-general manager Rich Cho or owner Michael Jordan. But Clifford and Cho paid the price, both getting fired this year.

It’s easy to believe that, if Charlotte took Mitchell, both Clifford and Cho would still have their jobs there.

To be fair, it’s also easy to believe we’ll never hear about the draft calls Clifford would have gotten wrong.

Five undrafted players to keep your eye on

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At any given point, about 15 to 20 percent of the players in the NBA were not drafted. Some guys just fly under the radar, take longer to develop, and just mature later and find how they can fit into a team.

This year is no exception, some guys who didn’t get their name called are going to stick in the NBA.

Here are five guys to watch in Summer League and beyond:

• Malik Newman, 6’4” guard (Kansas). In a league where teams are always looking for scoring he is a player who can just get buckets — he’s got great range as a shooter and can slash to the rim as well. He’s not a true playmaking point guard and he’s undersized for the two in the NBA. That size issue leads to concerns on the defensive end. Still, seems worth a second round gamble.

Kenrich Williams, 6’7” power forward (TCU). The 2017 NIT MVP likes to play physically, and is solid at shooting, rebounding, and defending — he can do everything well but does not have one elite, standout skill. That limits his ceiling, but as a high IQ player he has the potential to develop into a solid role player. He will play in the NBA Summer League with Denver.

Rawle Alkins, 6’5” shooting guard (Arizona). Tough, high-motor player who defends well and has the potential to be a good scorer (he’s already a good finisher in transition and can knock down threes). He needs to develop his skills to go with his power and athleticism, he has to work on his passing, and he has to play in control and not turn the ball over. Good potential for a rotation wing player. The Toronto Raptors are giving him a shot at Summer League and maybe into training camp.

• Brandon McCoy, 6’11” center (UNLV). He was heavily recruited out of high school and he did average 16.9 points and 10.3 rebounds a game for Las Vegas last season. He’s not a great shot blocker for his height, and there are concerns about his feel for the game, but he still produced last season. Usually big men with that kind of frame and potential at least get a look from NBA teams.

• Trevon Bluiett, 6’6″ guard (Xavier). The guy can shoot the rock, and that should get him more of a look than he did so far. He averaged 19.5 points per game and shot 41.7 percent from three last season. He’s a senior, there’s a question about his defense and who he guards at the next level. He’s not an elite athlete. But he can shoot and that should get him some attention.

• LiAngelo Ball. 6’5” guard (Vytautas Prienai-Birstonas in Lithuania). Just kidding. He’s not an NBA player, no teams thought so. The Lakers aren’t even going to bring him on their Summer League team (and not wanting to deal with LaVar is part of that).