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.

Report: Kyrie Irving has ‘ghosted’ Celtics as free agency approaches

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The emerging expectation: Kyrie Irving will sign with the Nets in free agency.

Many thought the Celtics had a chance of changing his mind by trading for Anthony Davis. But Boston didn’t deal for the star center.

There’s little reason to believe Irving will re-sign with the Celtics now.

Adam Himmelsbach of The Boston Globe:

The strangest part of the Irving situation right now is that it appears he has essentially ghosted on the Celtics. The people within the organization I have spoken with have made it clear that they have had little, if any, communication with Irving in recent weeks.

Irving is the prize. He’s not interviewing for jobs. Employers are chasing him. By becoming one of the best basketball players in the world, Irving has earned the power to act however he wants in this situation.

The season is over. If Irving wants space, he’s entitled to it.

Maybe it’s because he’s being a jerk. Maybe it’s because telling Boston he wants to leave isn’t an easy message to deliver.

Either way, Irving can proceed as he sees fit. The Celtics will still offer him a max contract if he wants to stay.

This is the same tact he reportedly took on his way out of Cleveland. So, it’s believable he’s behaving this way again.

But we’ve also repeatedly seen players smeared on their way out the door. Whether or not it’s accurate, this report will reflect poorly on Irving in many circles. So, in light of recent history, have at least a little skepticism for this depiction of Irving.

2019 NBA Draft Prospect Profile: Ja Morant is the future of the point guard position

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Over the course of the next two weeks, as the 2019 NBA Draft draws closer and closer, we at Pro Basketball Talk will be taking deep dives into some of the best and most intriguing prospects that will be making their way to the NBA.

Today, we are looking at Ja Morant.

Previous draft profiles:

The trajectory that Zion Williamson and Ja Morant have taken to get to the point where they are projected to be the top two picks in the NBA draft could not be more different.

Four years ago, they were playing on the same, small AAU team out of South Carolina. From there, Zion blew up, becoming a viral sensation thanks to his athletic exploits, having his jersey get worn by Drake when he was still a high school junior and spending the majority of his time in the high school ranks as a top-five talent in his recruiting class.

Morant, on the other hand, was more or less a no-name prospect into the summer before his senior year. He eventually became a popular mid-major target, and he even received a scholarship offer from in-state South Carolina. He was hardly unknown, but he was miles away from being someone considered to be a potential franchise-changing talent at the NBA level.

As it stands today, the thing that both Zion and Ja have in common — besides the two most recognizable first names — is an otherworldly level of explosiveness that has both ratcheted up their hype and buried the lede. The reason Williamson is the most exciting prospect to come out of the college ranks since Anthony Davis is because of his ability to play the point and the five, all at the same time. He’s Draymond Green, only if he was injected with NOS from Dominic Toretto.

Morant’s athleticism rivals Williamson’s. Blessed with a 44 inch vertical, Morant’s motto this season was “jump with me if you want to go viral,” and that couldn’t have been more accurate. He spent more time on SportsCenter this season than every Ohio Valley Conference player before him combined, something that was highlighted by this dunk:

And that explosiveness matters, I would never try to say otherwise. Dunking over weakside defenders in the NBA is going to be more difficult than when playing at UT Martin, but being able to elevate the way Morant elevates will help him transition to the next level. His quick-twitch athleticism also manifests in his ability to make plays in the halfcourt, where his ability to change speeds — and to go from a standstill to top speed — is what allows scouts to be able to project Morant as a player that can create offense against set NBA defenses. For a player who did so much of his damage at the college level in transition, that’s a big deal.

Morant’s physical tools makes it very easy to see him as another De'Aaron Fox. They’re both about 6-foot-3 and 170 pounds with a 6-foot-6 wingspan, and Fox just wrapped up his second season in the NBA with averages of 17.3 points, 7.3 assists and 3.8 boards.

But simply focusing on Morant’s athletic ability is to ignore what he does best: Pass.

Because while Morant did average 24.5 points and 5.7 boards while shooting 36 percent from three, perhaps what is most impressive about his sophomore season with the Racers is that he led all of college basketball in assists at 10.0 per game, just like Lonzo Ball led the nation in assists in 2017 and Trae Young did in 2018.

I mention both of those guys for a reason. Morant does not have the same hit-ahead ability in transition that Ball does, but Morant’s vision in the open floor and ability to make long, accurate passes in the open floor is one of the things that he does best. He also thrives in early-offense, where his And-1 Mixtape handle allows him to keep his dribble alive and probe opposing defenses. Because he is such a threat as a scorer, defenses would then collapse, which is when Morant’s ability as a dump-off passer and a lob-thrower comes into effect.

And that’s not even what he does best as a passer, because where he really shines is in the halfcourt and working off of ball-screens. Morant’s basketball IQ is the most underrated part of his game. He knows how defenses are going to defend him. He knows how to use his eyes to move weakside defenders. He knows where the tag is coming from, and whether the shooter in the far side corner or the roll-man will be open. This is where that Trae Young comparison comes into play, because reading defenses is where Young thrived while at Oklahoma.

The best way to describe Morant’s ability as a passer is that he not only knows when and where his teammates are going to come open, but he has the ability to find a way to make the pass that will get them an open shot. Morant is right-handed, but he will, at times, look like a left-handed player because of how often he makes bullet, live-dribble passes with just his left. He makes reads, and passes, that few point guards in the NBA today can make.

That passing is what makes all the difference, and as much as his athleticism or ability as a scorer, it’s the reason why he can be viewed as a player with the potential to be a franchise-changing point guard in the same stratosphere as the likes of Russell Westbrook and John Wall.

Now, Morant does have some flaws, and they are quite notable and relevant.

For starters, he is of a slight build, which is less than ideal. He is not going to be able to bounce off of contact in the NBA the same way he did in the OVC, and in a league where switchability is a priority at the highest-level, he is going to be targeted. Opposing coaches are going to target him by trying to force switches the same way that Nick Nurse did with Steph Curry in the finals. That is going to be an issue if he can’t add some weight and strength, particularly because he has not been a consistently great defender to date. Some of that can be attributed to the load that he was asked to carry offensively, and there is reason to believe that Morant’s athleticism, anticipation and quick hands will translate to being an above-average defender in the NBA.

Morant can also be a bit sloppy. He averaged more than five turnovers per game, and while some of that is strictly a result of workload and defensive attention, he also had a habit of trying to force passes that weren’t there.

But the biggest question mark, and what is going to determine his ceiling more than just about anything else, will be how well his jumper comes along. Morant shot 36.3 percent from three this past season, but that number drops to just 33.6 percent if his 7-for-8 shooting from three in the NCAA tournament is factored out.

Put another way, as good as Morant was this past season, there is still plenty of room for him to grow moving forward.

And in a league where ball-dominant lead guards that thrive in ball-screens is the norm, Morant is a player with quite a bit of value in the long-term.

Damon Jones says Lakers are in play for Kawhi Leonard

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I had heard from multiple sources going back to Summer League last year that the Lakers were not an option for Kawhi Leonard. He’s a guy who does not like a lot of drama and chaos around him, he just wants to play basketball, and being with LeBron James on the Lakers is to live in the spotlight with drama your constant companion.

Did the Anthony Davis trade change his thinking? Damon Jones, the former NBA player and assistant coach, said yes it did on ESPN’s Get Up show. He said a source that would know told him the Lakers are now in play.

Two thoughts here:

First, nobody knows what Kawhi Leonard is thinking. We can all play the “read the tea leafs” game — at the Raptors’ championship parade some fans started a “one more year” chant and Leonard’s close advisor Uncle Dennis (as he is commonly known) had one finger up and was chanting along, read what you want into that — but none of us really know which way Leonard leans. The “people close to Leonard” have sent mixed signals from the start, some have different agendas, and they are not Leonard. Stay in Toronto, come to the Clippers or Lakers? We don’t know.

Second, getting Leonard to the Lakers requires a semi-complicated salary cap move. After the Davis trade the Lakers have between $23 million and $27 million in salary cap space (depending on how much of Davis’ trade kicker he is going to take, if any) but that is not enough to sign Leonard to a max contract. And he’s not taking a discount. Los Angeles could create the room by delaying the Davis trade for a month. Follow along: Currently, the Davis trade can’t be executed until July 6. However, if the Lakers draft whoever the Pelicans want with the No. 4 pick, sign him, then wait a month and include that player and his salary in the trade (the CBA says a draft pick cannot be traded for 30 days after he signs his contract) then the Lakers could have $32.5 million in cap space, enough to sign Leonard (or Kemba Walker, or Jimmy Butler, or Kyrie Irving, or any free agent with 7-9 years of service and earning a max deal).

Except, the Pelicans want to get the trade done and, I was told, don’t have to agree to this delay. Would the Lakers have to throw in another second round pick or something to make this work? Maybe.

That all assumes Leonard wants to come to the Lakers. And nobody really knows that for sure.

Whatever happens, the board man gonna get paid.

 

 

Rumor: Patrick Beverley may meet with five teams before Clippers

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The Los Angeles Clippers want to bring Patrick Beverley back next season, his spark was at the heart of why this team made the playoffs and impressed with their potential.

First, however, the Clippers are going big game hunting for the likes of Kawhi Leonard and/or Kevin Durant (even with the Achilles injury). Beverley isn’t just going to sit around and wait for them, reports longtime NBA reporter Sean Deveney Tweeted.

The Bulls need a point guard and Beverley — a Chicago native — has said he is interested.

The Lakers also are reportedly big game hunting, but Beverley is the kind of guard they could use around LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Phoenix and other teams have been mentioned.

Beverley is going to have options, but he loved his time with the Clippers last season, and that means something.