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.

Zion Williamson looks in incredible shape, says he’s focused for restart

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson credits his mother’s wisdom with helping him manage life’s unanticipated twists and inevitable assortment of successes and setbacks.

It has served the NBA’s top overall draft choice well during a highly unusual debut season that has gone nothing like he imagined, yet still holds plenty of promise.

“The last 12 months have been a different experience,” Williamson said Thursday, projecting his typically affable, smiling, easy-going manner during a video conference at the New Orleans Pelicans’ practice headquarters. “My mom tells me, ‘Life is life. You may go through a lot of bad times. You may go through a lot of good times. It’s just: Try to prepare yourself as best as you can.’”

Thursday was an “up” day for Williamson and the Pelicans, at least online, where an image of Zion in the gym had NBA Twitter buzzing.

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Now Williamson and the Pelicans are preparing to make a “playoff push,” something that appeared highly unlikely when he was sitting on the sidelines with a surgically repaired knee, watching New Orleans labor through a franchise-worst 13-game losing streak that left the club with a record of 6-22.

“I think this team can be really special when we’re all healthy,” Williamson said.

The 6-foot-6, 285-pound Williamson was expected to be out six to eight weeks when he had surgery to repair his torn right lateral meniscus the day before the regular season. He wound up missing about three months and 44 games. When he finally returned on Jan. 22, fans packed the stands and Williamson routinely delighted them with around-the-rim highlights.

Williamson averaged 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds in the 19 games he played. New Orleans won 10 of those games and looked to be gaining momentum when the season was suspended March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Still, that stint kept the Pelicans close enough to the playoff picture – 3 1/2 games behind Memphis for the eighth and final playoff seed in the Western Conference — to be included among 22 NBA teams that will finish their regular seasons at a central location in Orlando, starting July 30, when New Orleans plays the Utah Jazz.

Pelicans guard Josh Hart said Williamson’s addition to the lineup “made us a more aggressive, more dynamic.”

“If we had him in the beginning of the year, the story wouldn’t be fighting for the eighth seed,” Hart continued. “It would have been, we’re the four or five seed in the West, honestly.”

Williamson quickly developed an on-court synergy with creative, play-making, up-tempo point-guard Lonzo Ball. Williamson was praised by teammates and coaches for an unselfishness that has allowed other players like Pelicans leading scorer Brandon Ingram to continue to flourish.

Because Williamson’s surgery and rehab had occurred this season, he qualified for an exception that allowed him to continue to seek treatment and work out at the Pelicans’ practice center after team training headquarters around the NBA had been closed to most employees and players.

But Williamson said he remained vigilant about not exposing himself to the coronavirus, performing on-court work only with his stepfather until this week, when the NBA allowed team facilities to reopen to all virtually players except those with positive coronavirus tests.

“At first, it was very tough because even now you don’t fully know what’s going on” with the virus, Williamson said. “Me and my stepdad just found different ways to stay in condition on the court, off the court, wherever we could find it. I do feel like I’m in good shape right now.”

Pelicans general manager David Griffin has caught glimpses of Williamson’s workouts. He said he couldn’t say for sure how Williamson’s game looked because he wasn’t able to work against other NBA caliber players.

“I can tell you he is handling the ball awfully well, and his shooting looks great,” Griffin said. “In terms of his preparedness and fitness for basketball, I can’t give you any indication of that at all.”

Williamson said his early priorities will include bonding with teammates again.

“We’ve got to stick together, keep our emotions high together and I think we’ll be fine,” he said.

Williamson’s eagerness to take on a leadership role comes despite his youth and relative inexperience in the NBA. He turned pro after one season of college basketball at Duke and doesn’t turn 20 until Monday. But he became a global internet sensation while he was still in high school and has been flooded with endorsement offers since his college career ended.

He also encountered another side of the sports business when he was

by his first marketing agent after he fired her in favor of another. That case is ongoing.

“In a weird way I haven’t felt like a teenager in a long time,” Williamson said, “so I feel like it’s not going to be anything different.”

Meanwhile, Williamson indicated that his disappointment over no longer playing in front of fans this season is outweighed by his enthusiasm for returning the sport he loves in games that matter.

“It’s definitely going to be different. You know, I love the fans,” Williamson said. “It’s crazy, man. We’re actually about to go. It’s a lot to process for sure, but I am excited.”

 

Clippers reportedly shut down practice facility after positive coronavirus test among traveling party

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The Brooklyn Nets and Denver Nuggets shut down their practice facilities after positive coronavirus tests among players and/or staff members.

Add the Clippers to that coronavirus list, they shut down their facilities on Thursday after a member of the traveling party tested positive, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Woj’s phrasing implies that a staff member, not a player, tested positive.

Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers, just 24 hours earlier, told reporters that “to his knowledge” nobody with the team had tested positive for the coronavirus. Rivers also said he believed that all the players — including Lou Williams — intended to join the team in Orlando.

This isn’t a knock on Rivers, it’s a sign of how fast things change in a coronavirus world.

It is possible the Clippers re-open their facilities before the team heads to Orlando a week from today, July 8.

The Clippers head to the NBA’s Orlando restart as one of the three-favorites to take home the title (along with the Lakers and Bucks).

Anthony Davis: Lakers’ title chances “higher” after long rest

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It’s completely unpredictable how teams will respond to a long break, a short ramp-up, and playing without fans in the NBA’s restart bubble in Orlando.

Anthony Davis tried to play Nostrodamus anyway — he says the Lakers will be better after an extended rest.

Here’s how he phrased it Thursday in a conference call with reporters, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“Actually, I think our chances are higher just because we’re all rested and we’re all ready to go,” Davis said Thursday on a videoconference call with reporters. “If anything, our chances got higher and it’s going to be about just who wants it more…

“It’s been good for me to kind of let some of them lingering injuries I had towards the time when the NBA stopped to kind of recover and heal and get back into the best version of myself,” he said. “I feel 100 percent healthy. Well, I don’t feel, I am [100 percent healthy]. I feel like I’m ready. Ready to go.”

One theory on how teams would come out of the break — and all anyone has are theories — was that older, veteran teams would benefit from the rest. Teams such as the Lakers. Others think the condensed schedule, from mini training camps through playoff games every other day, would favor younger teams with more bounce in their legs.

Davis being healthy is critical for the Lakers. He averaged 26.7 points with an impressive 61.4 true shooting percentage, plus 9.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists a game. On the other end of the court he was a force, averaging 2.4 blocks a game and playing at a level that will get him on a lot of Defensive Player of the Year ballots.

Davis will be ready to ball in Orlando. LeBron James will be focused and a force as well. Whether the Lakers have enough around their stars to match the Clippers, Bucks, and any other challengers is the question. One we will start to answer July 30.

 

 

Adrian Wojnarowski: Jacque Vaughn likely to coach Nets next season

Nets coach Jacque Vaughn
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The Nets have two stars in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving and the ammo to get a third star. Expectations are rising quickly in Brooklyn. Merely qualifying for the playoffs isn’t enough. Nobody felt that more than Kenny Atkinson, who got ousted historically late in the season for a postseason-bound team.

The next logical step: Hiring a blue-chip coach.

Former Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue, Irving’s reported preferred choice, was considered favorite. Jason Kidd, Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy were also high-profile candidates.

Or maybe the Nets will just keep Jacque Vaughn, who took over for Atkinson.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

People sometimes are treating Jacque Vaughn like he was named the interim coach when Kenny Atkinson and the Nets split up. But he’s not. He’s the head coach. They didn’t make him interim coach. And while I think the Nets are considering the possibility of a search, I would still give Jacque Vaughn, I would take Jacque Vaughn against the field right now to keep that job.

“Interim” is just a label. The Nets can call Vaughn whatever they want. He’s coaching the team right now, and no job is permanent.

But unless hearing otherwise, there’s an expectation a team will conduct a coaching search the offseason after an in-season coaching change.

This might be the otherwise.

Vaughn reportedly has a legitimate opportunity to win the job. But Brooklyn will be without Durant, Irving, DeAndre Jordan, Wilson Chandler, Nicolas Claxton and maybe Spencer Dinwiddie as the season resumes in Disney World. That’s not a recipe for impressing.

That’s especially true because Vaughn doesn’t fit the marquee image the Nets were reportedly seeking. In his only previous head-coaching position, Vaughn went 20-62, 23-59 and 15-37 with the Magic before they fired him in 2015.

One thing Vaughn has going for him: He reversed Atkinson’s strategy of starting Jarrett Allen over Jordan, who’s close with Durant and Irving. It’s practically impossible to see Brooklyn picking a coach – especially Vaughn – without the support of Durant and Irving.

The Nets should conduct a full coaching search. If Vaughn emerges as the best choice, great. But he hasn’t done enough to warrant Brooklyn ignoring other candidates.