Eastern Conference Round 2 Playoff Preview: Boston vs. Miami

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SEASON RECORDS
Heat: 58-24 (No. 2 seed)
Celtics: 56-26 (No. 3 seed)

PLAYOFF SERIES:
Heat: defeated Philadelphia 4-1
Celtics: defeated New York 4-0

SERIES SCHEDULE
Game 1: Sun., May 1 at Miami, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
Game 2: Tue., May 3 at Miami, Time TBD (TNT)
Game 3: Sat., May 7 at Boston, 8:00 p.m. (ABC)
Game 4: Mon., May 9 at Boston, TBD (TNT)
Game 5: Wed., May 11 at Miami, TBD (TNT)
Game 6: Fri., May 13 at Boston, TBD (ESPN)
Game 7: Mon., May 16 at Miami, 8:00 p.m. (TNT)

SEASON SERIES
Celtics 3-1, two of those games were in the first weeks of the season. The final game in April was a complete and total blowout by the Heat, 100-77.

KEY INJURIES
Heat: Udonis Haslem, who has not played since November when he tore a ligament in his left. He’s been working out to try and get back for this series, and the Heat could seriously use his depth up front.

Celtics: Shaquille O’Neal, has played only 5 minutes since Feb. 1 due to calf and Achilles injuries. But Boston needs him how. If the goal of the Celtics is to punish the Heat in the paint — and that is the goal — then they need Shaq because he is their best offensive center by a long shot.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKING (points per possession)
Heat: Offense 109.3 (3rd in NBA); Defense: 100.8 (5th in NBA)
Celtics: Offense 104.4 (16th in NBA); Defense. 97.7 (2nd in NBA)

THREE KEY HEAT

LeBron James. Obviously he must go on any list of key Heat players for any series, but he had particularly big games against Boston: 31 in the first meeting, 35 in the second and 27 in the Heat’s win in April. In the four meetings between these teams he shot 49 percent. The Celtics have a hard time stopping him, and he may be the guy leading the charge in this series.

Dwyane Wade:On the season he averaged 25.5 points per game but against the Celtics it was just 12.8 points on 28 percent shooting. The Heat need to get two-thirds of their big three going on any night and Chris Bosh is going to have Kevin Garnett in his face every game. Wade simply is going to have to give more.

Mario Chalmers. The first guard off the bench represents the entire Heat bench here — Miami has to get good play out of their subs. Against the 76ers the Heat were better with Chalmers and Joel Anthony on the floors in their starters. Which says more about the starters, really. But the Celtics will roll out quality players like Jeff Green, Glen Davis and Delonte West. The Heat are going to have to find a way to match some of that production.

THREE KEY CELTICS

Ray Allen. He was the guy the Heat could not account for in the first two wins — the Celtics shot the three ball particularly well against the Heat and Allen was a key part of that. Allen also outplayed Wade in the team’s meeting this summer at both ends of the floor. Allen was red hot from deep in the first round against the Knicks and if he carries that on the Heat will not be able to leave him on the perimeter.

Shaquille O’Neal. He his stat line not particularly impressive in either of the games he played against Miami, with 14 points and 14 boards combined. However, the Big Four of the Celtics are much, much better on offense when Shaq plays. He creates spacing on the floor because he is a threat inside. And, Boston needs the inside points. Also, his rebounding was key in those games.

Rajon Rondo. Put simply, he should destroy Mike Bibby and Mario Chalmers. He average 12 assists a game against the Heat this season and he is the guy that is going to have to create shots for others in the face of the perimeter pressure the Heat want to employ. If he can get into the teens in assists, score some and not turn the ball over then the Celtics will be getting looks that they like and they always knock those out.

OUTLOOK: Now we’ve got the series that everybody has looked forward to since the seedings started to shake out.

For all the talent on the court, this is going to be a grind-it-out series with two of the better defensive teams in the league slowing each other down. Outside of Miami getting to 100 in a blowout win in the final game, these were lower scoring games with slow paces when they met this season. Expect that again.

LeBron James did a lot of the shot creation for the Heat when these teams played, and he continued to do that in the first round of the playoffs. He’s going to be the man. But he’s got to get other guys involved and get some help, Boston’s defense is too good to let one man beat them. It will be hard for Chris Bosh to get going with Garnett draped all over him. That leaves it for Wade to step up and as we noted he struggled against the Celtics this season. Well, Miami could count on someone off the Heat bench. Like a huge night from James Jones. Hey, they can dream, don’t laugh because it’s nearly impossible.

The one shot and stat to watch — Boston and the corner three. This is the one shot Boston got and hit at a 72 percent clip in their meetings this season and it was particularly deadly in the first couple Celtics wins. The thing is, to get that they needs spacing, they need a threat in the paint, and that is where Shaquille O’Neal comes in. Boston needs him. If he comes back and comes back healthy — well, healthy enough — and is a real threat in the paint, the Celtics have an advantage.

The Celtics are also the deeper team by far. Miami’s starters got outscored and outplayed by the 76ers starters in that series. Miami does that against Boston’s starters and they are toast. They will not win this bench battle.

PREDICTION: This could go either way. It’s almost a coin flip. Honestly, I’ve thought about this for a couple days now, and I think it’s the Celtics because of the execution and depth, and I think they’ll get enough out of Jermaine and Shaquille O’Neal to have more balance. But as me again in three days and I may think differently.

Celtics in 6.

Knicks reportedly very interested in Anunoby, if Raptors make him available

Toronto Raptors v Golden State Warriors
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The Toronto Raptors are the one team that could move this trade deadline from a dud to shaking up the playoff race. There are 29 other GMs waiting to see what Massai Ujiri will do, and when they called, they’ve been told “the franchise will make a decision about being a buyer or seller – or standing pat – near deadline day,” reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

If Toronto does decide to trade a player beyond the expected Gary Trent Jr., then the Knicks want to be at the front of the line for defensive wing O.G. Anunoby, Charania reports.

The Knicks and Suns are among the interested suitors in Raptors forward O.G. Anunoby, sources say. New York has shown a willingness to offer multiple first-round picks for Anunoby, according to those sources. The Suns, meanwhile, have control of all of their first-round picks — eight in total —through 2030. SNY first reported the Knicks’ interest last week.

There would be a lot of teams in line for Anunoby, but he is a very Thibodeau-style player — an All-Defensive Team level wing stopper who can finish and is averaging 16.9 points per game — so you can see where the interest comes from. Anunoby also is just 25 and is locked in next season at $18.6 million. While the demand for wings in general is lower this trade season — point guards and centers are more in demand — a lot of teams could use a player the quality of Anunoby. Including the Knicks.

Getting him won’t be cheap — two unprotected first-round picks (or lightly protected) with matching salary would be the price range.

All of that is moot if the Raptors don’t make him available, which is what everyone is waiting to see.

Report: Bucks have been given permission to talk to Jae Crowder

NBA 2022 Playoffs - Phoenix Suns v Dallas Mavericks
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Jae Crowder may be the most likely player to be traded at the deadline. The Suns need a shake-up (and to get Devin Booker back), and they are sitting on a $10.2 million player that is not helping them on the court and has yet to bring back any trade value they want.

We may have movement on that front, based on reports from Shams Charania of The Athletic.

In a new development, the Suns have given permission to the Bucks to meet with Crowder and they met over the weekend, league sources tell The Athletic. The Bucks are believed to be the only team that has received permission to visit one-on-one with Crowder, those sources have also indicated…

Both the Suns and Bucks have engaged in serious trade talks for months, with current proposals surrounding Jordan Nwora, George Hill, Serge Ibaka and second-round draft compensation to Phoenix for Crowder, according to sources. The Bucks and Suns have searched for a third team to provide Phoenix with a forward – so what outcome will emerge between now and next Thursday?

Those talks between the Bucks and Crowder likely focused on his role on the team this season (backup four) and possibly re-signing him after this season (he will be a free agent).

Crowder has sat out the season after asking for a trade but is still a Sun because Phoenix head of basketball operations James Jones had a very specific ask in the trade — a forward with a similar skill set to Crowder. It’s tough to trade like-for-like in the league, so nothing has happened. It’s also why that offer from the Bucks doesn’t seem the fit the Suns want. Nwora is a forward but a fringe rotation player, Hill can help with some backup point guard minutes, but nothing really moves the needle for Phoenix. The problem is the Suns have waited so long to get a trade done that Crowder’s value has gone down — by the time he is traded, works his way back into game shape, then steps on the court for his new team he’ll be lucky to play 30 games in the regular season. Teams aren’t going to give up as much for a rental.

The report states the Heat also are interested, which is not a shock they want a P.J. Tucker-like player at the four and Crowder fits the bill, but putting together a trade that works for both sides is difficult (unless the Suns suddenly fell in love with Duncan Robinson, which would be a bigger trade). The Hawks come up, but there is a growing sense around the league that the new Landry Fields-led front office is less inclined to trade John Collins, and they may ride with him at the four.

It’s likely Crowder gets traded somewhere at the deadline and the Bucks maybe make the most sense, but this deal could have been done long ago if the sides wanted to.

Free agent Candace Parker announces she will sign with champion Aces

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The WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces are about to get better.

Two-time MVP and two-time WNBA champion Candace Parker announced she plans to sign with the Aces when free agency opens on Feb. 1

The WNBA champions just got better — a starting frontcourt of Parker and reigning MVP A’ja Wilson (with Kelsey Plum in the backcourt) could make Las Vegas the best defensive team in the league. While Parker may not be the scorer she once was, she can serve as a fulcrum for the offense, get the ball to the other players on the deeply talented Aces, and make them a serious threat to repeat.

Still, a cloud hangs over the Aces organization after what Dearica Hamby alleged after she was traded to the Sparks. Hamby said she was “lied to, bullied, manipulated, and discriminated against” by the Aces front office surrounding her pregnancy and contract. Those are serious allegations, and the WNBPA is looking into the matter.

On the court (if the investigation results don’t weigh them down), the Aces have to be title favorites now. However, when WNBA free agency comes on Wednesday that could shift, depending on what Breanna Stewart chooses to do (along with other key free agents). There has been speculation Stewart could head to New York to team up with Jonquel Jones, Betnijah Laney and Sabrina Ionescu on a Liberty team that would instantly be the biggest threat to the Aces (if not the outright favorite).

Stay tuned, it’s going to be an interesting WNBA free agency.

Three things to Know: Giannis Antetokounmpo puts up 50 spot in 30 minutes

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Three Things To Know is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Giannis Antetokounmpo puts up 50 spot in 30 minutes

Before the ball was even tossed up at center circle Sunday, this looked to be a long night for the Pelicans: No Zion Williamson (strained right hamstring), no Brandon Ingram (toe injury) and no CJ McCollum (sprained right thumb).

Then Giannis Antetokounmpo went to work early, scored 18 points in the first quarter, 29 in the first half, and went on to have an efficient 50 on 20-of-26 shooting on the night, including hitting 3-of-4 from 3.

The All-Star Game captain is having a “down” season by his insane standards, but he is still averaging 31.3 points and 12 rebounds a game, shooting 64.5% in a season where he has had to take on more offense load because of Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday missing time. He’s still one of the best in the game, and if healthy the Bucks are still a postseason threat (even if they could use some depth at the four).

This was eight straight losses for the Pelicans, who are 3-11 in January and have fallen all the way to the No. 8 seed in the West. New Orleans has looked like a dangerous team on the rise when healthy this season, but the injuries have caught up with them and now they are scrapping to stay in the play-in in a crowded middle of the West.

2) Hornets get 31 from Rozier, upset sleepy Heat team

It will be hard for Miami to hold onto the No. 6 seed in the East (and avoid the play-in) if they don’t win the games they are supposed to win.

Miami looked sleepy for the 1 p.m. start in Charlotte, didn’t play good defense down the stretch, and fell to the Hornets. Charlotte got 31 from Terry Rozier, 27 from P.J. Washington, LaMelo Ball scored 13 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter, and Gordon Hayward was 7-of-7 shooting for 20 points. Charlotte snapped Miami’s three-game win streak with the 122-117 victory.

To be fair to the Heat, sometimes it’s about when you catch teams and the Hornets are playing their best basketball of the season having won 4-of-6. Jimmy Butler scored 28 points for Heat, Tyler Herro added 24.

This was the start of a four-game road trip for the Heat and things are about to get tougher with games at the Cavaliers, at the Knicks (a key game in the chase for the No. 6 seed) and at the Bucks.

3) LeBron James, Anthony Davis out in Brooklyn Monday night

The epidemic — and league-wide PR problem — of stars sitting out will continue Monday night as LeBron James and Anthony Davis will rest as the Lakers face the Nets (officially, LeBron has a sore left ankle and they are watching the foot injury that sidelined Davis for 20 games). This is the team’s one trip to Brooklyn this season. It comes a day after Kawhi Leonard and Paul George sat out in Cleveland (the Cavs blew the Clippers out as a result), and the list goes on and on all season long with Stephen Curry, Jimmy Butler and other stars seemingly resting more than ever before.

There is no easy answer here. Coaches and team medical staffs tasked with ensuring their players peak for the playoffs are resting guys during the season (and on back-to-backs) to avoid injuries and fatigue. Top players have their personal trainers monitoring them and weighing in on these decisions. The NBA schedule is still too long — but reducing that number is a financial mess — and there is nothing in the upcoming CBA that will change this trend.

But fans are noticing. Keep showing them the regular season doesn’t matter and they will respond in kind.

In LeBron’s case — and he hasn’t missed much time this season — this pushes back the timeline for him to pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time NBA scoring record to Feb. 7 against the Thunder or Feb. 9 against the Bucks, both games in Los Angeles at the crypto.com Arena. If you want to think that’s a coincidence, go ahead, but I’m a little more cynical than that.