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.

Everything big and small goes right for DeMarcus Cousins in Warriors debut

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LOS ANGELES — It was the little things.

Not that DeMarcus Cousins’ overall line — he fouled out with 14 points on 5-of-11 shooting, 3-of-4 from three, six rebounds, three assists, one block, and he was +21, all in 15 minutes — was bad at all. In fact, it was pretty damn good. In his first game in nearly a year, Cousins looked like a slightly rusty version of himself. All the trademarks were there, from hitting threes to complaining about calls.

Cousins made the Warriors better from the moment he stepped on the court, and while the big things were obvious it was the little things should worry any challenger to the crown. For example:

• Cousins’ ability to not just score but to be a playmaker out of the midpost adds a new dimension to the Warriors offense.

• Cousins provides versatility to sets the Warriors already run regularly. For example, in the third quarter, he was the guy making the entry pass on the double-screen play the Warriors like, with Draymond Green in the post and Klay Thompson curing off the screens. Cousins set a hard screen that freed Thompson up for a clean look.

• He gives them another three-point shooter, one that creates matchup problems for defenses. The Clippers chose to chase Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson over picks and play on top of them, but that means the big has to drop back and protect against backcuts and drives. Do that with Cousins off the ball and he’s wide open for threes.

“I want to know what the scouting report is on me,” Cousins joked about how open he was from deep.

• Cousins is strong on the offensive glass and that’s going to lead to more kick-out threes for Golden State’s shooters.

• Cousins also gives the Warriors some defense. He’s a big body in the paint who knows how to get in the way. At one point on back-to-back plays Cousins drew a charge on Tobias Harris, then on the next trip down stripped Harris when he drove.

“Like a kid on Christmas,” Cousins said of how he felt on the night. “It’s been a long journey… this was probably one of the best days of my life, just being out on the floor again and playing the game that I love.”

Cousins was part of the Warriors picking up their seventh straight win, beating the Clippers 112-94. Curry led the way with 28 points.

Everything went Cousins’ way — he even got a standing ovation from the bench when he fouled out.

“Hopefully that’s the last time we give him a standing ovation when he fouls out, but it was great to see him out there,” Durant said.

“Probably all the fakest love I’ve received in my life,” Cousins joked.

The NBA world shook when Cousins signed with the Warriors last July. Everyone knew it was going to take him a long time to get healthy and right, but Golden State was a team that could be patient and wait for him, not rush him back, and when he did play it would be another weapon to punish switches or just use in their existing sets.

“I thought, good for him. It’s a good spot for him,” Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers said of his reaction when he read about the Cousins signing. “And then I thought, wow, that’s not right.”

Cousins started the game with Curry, Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green, which meant nobody could really double him.

“This is a first, like in my entire basketball career,” Cousins said of the lack of doubles thrown at him. “I definitely can get used to this.”

Cousins’ first bucket as a Warrior was a thunderous dunk, one created because his man had to focus on Durant (and Danilo Gallinari was late with the rotation).

“I’m just glad to know I can still dunk,” Cousins joked.

Cousins said he was nervous before the game but his girlfriend sent him a picture of himself in the hospital, sitting in a wheelchair the day after his surgery. That helped put the journey in perspective.

“It’s been a year since his injury, he’s gone through a long rehab process…” Kerr said before the game. “This is not the end of the story, this is sort of the middle of the story and it’s a milestone but there is a long way to go.”

Cousins is going to get better at things big and small as that journey continues.

Which should scare the rest of the NBA.

DeMarcus Cousins’ first bucket as a Warrior is a monster jam

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LOS ANGELES — DeMarcus Cousins sure looked his hops are back on this throw down.

Cousins started for the Warriors Friday night after missing almost a full year with a torn Achilles, and on the Warriors first possession they fed him the rock in the post. Cousins faced up on Marcin Gortat, drove baseline with a nice first step, but got caught under the basket and couldn’t power it up through the Clipper big, getting his shot blocked.

Nobody was blocking his next shot.

It was a side pick-and-roll where Gortat had to cut off Durant’s drive, but Danilo Gallinari didn’t tag into the middle to cut off Cousins’ roll (or, made the business decision not to). The result was an impressive first bucket for DeMarcus as a Warrior.

Cousins’ first shift was three minutes long. He’s on a minutes restriction for a while.

D’Angelo Russell drops 40 on Magic including shot that put Nets up for good

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D'Angelo Russell is playing like a guy in a contract year. And that’s just fine with Brooklyn.

Russell tied his career best with 40 points Friday night against the Magic, including hitting the shot that put the Nets up for good on the night with 27 seconds remaining. Russell was 16-of-25 shooting, including 8-of-12 from three, and he was an analytics dream — Russell took all but one of his shots either in the paint or from three.

The Nets — now 24-23 on the season and the sixth seed in the East — came from 21 back to get the win and that included their guards hitting the big shots at the end.

First up was Spencer Dinwiddie.

Then came Russell’s shot that proved to be the game winner.

With the Nets extending Dinwiddie during the season, it’s unlikely Russell returns to Brooklyn next season, but a number of teams are interested in him as a free agent (restricted, the Nets can match if the offer is low).

Report: Isaiah Thomas could return to Nuggets right before All-Star break

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The Denver Nuggets have shown off their depth this season. Three starters — Will Barton, Gary Harris, and Paul Millsap — have missed a chunk of time and yet until a few days ago the Nuggets were the top seed in the West, and they are still a clear second.

And all of that without Isaiah Thomas, their biggest name reserve. He has been recovering from hip surgery last March.

The Nuggets are hoping Thomas will make his debut next month, right before the All-Star Break, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Thomas has been gathering momentum in his rehabilitation process from hip surgery in March, and there’s hope among Thomas and the Nuggets organization he could return as soon as a Feb. 11-13 homestand against Miami and Sacramento, sources said.

There’s strong confidence that he will return no later than the first game after the All Star break on Feb. 22 in Dallas, league sources said….

The final hurdle for Thomas remains playing full 5-on-5 scrimmages. He is expected to start that process soon.

Thomas was playing well and playing through pain in Boston, becoming a fan favorite and pulling that team into the postseason, before his hip injury caught up with him. He tried to recover without surgery playing for the Cavaliers and Lakers last season, but that never really worked like he hoped. He had the surgery and signed a one-year deal with the Nuggets.

Thomas could provide a playmaking guard off the bench, although Monte Morris has filled that role for the Nuggets so well he gets mentioned as a most improved player candidate. Coach Mike Malone will need to finesse the minutes to get both of them touches and involved. How much Thomas can help the Nuggets in the playoffs depends on how he recovers (he has always been a defensive liability because of his size, which factors in as well).

If Thomas can show he would have value as a bench player he will have teams calling next July about a much bigger contract. He has motivation, and he’s popular around the league — people want to see him succeed. But is he fully healthy and does he still have the lateral explosiveness that made him so hard to stop on drives to the rim? We should find out the final couple months of the season.