NBA Playoffs: Celtics bounce back, shut down the Heat

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It looks like the Miami-Boston series might just live up to the hype after all. After looking sluggish and over-matched in the first two games of the series, the Celtics were able to get a convincing 97-81 win over the Heat by doing what they do best: spreading the ball around on offense and playing lock-down defense.

The Celtics were able to get out to an early lead against the Heat’s Bibby/Wade/James/Bosh/Ilgauskas starting lineup, which has been an unmitigated disaster throughout the playoffs; the Heat were outscored by 15 points during Ilgauskas’ eight minutes of floor time. The Heat were able to get back into the game thanks to the spark provided off the bench by Joel Anthony, and actually went into the half with a two-point lead.

At the beginning of the third quarter, the Celtics were once again able to abuse the Heat’s starting lineup, and this time the Heat weren’t unable to dig themselves out of the hole their starters put them in.

Boston’s defense was absolutely stifling. LeBron James had a performance that evoked memories of his abysmal performances against the Celtics in the final games of the 2010 conference semifinals. He shot 6-16 from the floor, and spent most of his time dribbling in no-mans land, either trying to force drives through lanes that weren’t there or tossing up floaters that had little hope of going in. For his part, Chris Bosh was completely invisible, and Bibby and Ilgauskas combined to score a grand total of two points.

Mario Chalmers and Dwyane Wade were able to hit some shots, and Joel Anthony had one of his best offensive games of the season, but that wasn’t nearly enough to make up for the Heat’s big three going a combined 13-38 from the field against a dialed-in Boston defense.

Offensively, Boston was able to move the ball and shoot from the outside with accuracy, but everything ran through Kevin Garnett. Garnett is often the fourth option on offense for the Celtics, but it wasn’t that long ago that he was the league MVP, and Garnett had a throwback performance on Saturday night. The Celtics tossed the ball to Garnett in the post time and time again, and he was able to score over whoever was guarding him with ease.

Rajon Rondo’s performance was another huge key for the Celtics — his final line was pedestrian, but he gave his team a huge energy boost when he played all-out on one arm after dislocating his left elbow early in the third quarter.

But as good as Garnett and Rondo were, the story of the night was the Celtics’ defense. They completely broke down one of the best offensive teams in the league, and held the “Big Three” to their lowest point total of the season. This is the relentless, swarming, physical brand of defense that the Celtics have been built on ever since they traded for Kevin Garnett and became title contenders, and it’s the type of defense they will need to continue to play if they want to even up this series and send LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to an early vacation for the second year in a row.

As for the Heat, they may need to change up their starting lineup, and they will need to get back to containing Garnett and moving the ball they way they did in Games 1 and 2 — Miami may still have a 1-game lead and home-court advantage, but Boston is too experienced, too talented, too hungry, and too dangerous to be given chances to get back in the series.

Deron Williams and Jerry Sloan finally buried the hatchet

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Deron Williams or Chris Paul? That was the conversation in the NBA just a decade ago, a conversation that now seems practically ridiculous. I never personally thought it was very close between the two, being an adamant Paul supporter. Now, CP3 is with the Houston Rockets and Williams is out of the league, despite Paul being just 200 days younger than the former Utah Jazz star (but having played more games).

Williams was part of a two-man attack, along with Carlos Boozer, that helped fuel the Jazz during the first decade of this century as they churned through the Western Conference. But Williams played just five-and-a-half seasons in Salt Lake City, traded after a blow-up with former Jazz coach Jerry Sloan.

Things were unsteady between the two during the 2010-11 season, and Sloan famously decided to retire after a game in February of 2011 in which the Jazz lost to the Chicago Bulls. During halftime of that game, there was a disagreement between Sloan and Williams that apparently pushed the legendary head coach to his tipping point.

Sloan retired and Williams was traded on February 23rd.

Now, it appears that the two have at least made amends. In a story of appearing on UtahJazz.com, Williams recently went to Sloan’s house to talk about the divide between the two and what happened some seven years ago.

Via UtahJazz.com:

“He doesn’t forget a lot of things, instances where I pissed him off, things I did to upset him,” Williams said. “He definitely told me about that—and rightfully so. He was great about some other things. It was kind of typical Coach Sloan, really. If you know him, he’s never been one to shy away from telling you the truth and how he feels.”

“Eventually, I think Jerry came around,” [Jazz CEO Greg] Miller said. “He never really said, ‘Let’s put it behind us’ or anything, but maybe in Sloan speak he did.”

“Two strong men said what they needed to say, shook hands and are now moving forward,” [Jazz president Steve] Starks said.

Sloan, 76, is living with Parkinson’s and reportedly not in the best of health. It’s good to hear that Williams was remorseful about how he acted, and that the two great sportsmen were able to come together and at least see each other’s point of view as a sort of armistice.

Masai Ujiri on Kawhi Leonard: ‘He is happy. There is no maintenance with him’

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No doubt there are big expectations for the Toronto Raptors this year after trading franchise cornerstone DeMar DeRozan for disgruntled San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard. Ever an enigma (and coming off of one of the worst-managed exits from a team in recent memory) Leonard has fans in Ontario biting their nails about whether he will return healthy this season, and happy for the next.

According to Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, Leonard is giving them every indication that he is ready to go heading into the 2018-19 NBA season. Speaking to the media on Tuesday, Ujiri said that Leonard is happy.

Via Sportsnet:

“He is happy. From what everybody has told me he is healthy. He spends a lot of time with our coaches,” said Ujiri. “He went to L.A. to meet our guys out there. He will be here shortly.”

“He is just quiet … that’s his nature. We can’t all be the same kind of people. But he is as engaging as he would want to be and he’s very interesting. There is no maintenance with him. There’s nothing. It’s remarkable … His (focus) is on basketball which is what you want. He is a basketball junkie … once you just start to talk about basketball his eyes change.”

We have heard rumors that Leonard has purchased a home in Toronto instead of merely renting. We’ve also seen photos of Leonard happy and working out with players like Kobe Bryant, nearly even smiling. And Ujiri is doing his part here, trying to ease any sentiment around Leonard.

The PR machine is in sixth gear in Toronto, but you can’t really blame them. It’s the first good public relations move we’ve seen from Leonard’s enclave in more than a year, and it helps bolster the team if things go south.

Do I believe anything that is reported about Leonard anymore? No. Not after last season. Unfortunately, the issue with Leonard remains the fact that we will have to simply sit to wait and see what he chooses to do next year.

Raptors fans, who are dedicated and passionate, should be hoping that they finally make a Finals run this year. Just in case.

Report: 76ers rookie Zhaire Smith expected to return around Christmas

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76ers first-rounder Zhaire Smith suffered a Jones fracture in his left foot last month, leaving plenty of uncertainty about when he’d return.

Keith Pompey of The Inquirer:

The 76ers expect injured rookie Zhaire Smith to be available to play in a game around Christmas, league sources say.

A rookie on a team with legitimate aspirations of deep-playoff advancement, Smith was already unlikely to crack Philadelphia’s rotation this season. All this lost developmental time makes it even less likely.

But the sooner Smith returns, the better for him and Philadelphia. The No. 16 pick impresses with his athleticism and motor, but he needs time to develop his perimeter skills.

Kevin Love launches “Love Fund” to bring more focus to mental health issues

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The NBA is not shying away from the issue of the mental health of its players.

In the wake of All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love coming forward about their mental health challenges, the league and the players’ union combined to tell players to speak out on the issue and take advantage of the services offered.

Kevin Love is doing more than just that, he has formed the Kevin Love Fund to help change the stigma around mental health issues. The fund has partners such as Headspace, with the focus being on prioritizing mental health awareness. He went on the Today Show on NBC to talk about it.

Love has become a leader and spokesman around the issue. Love came forward near the end of last season to talk about his battles with anxiety and depression. That opened the door for others around the NBA to step forward as well, such as Kelly Oubre and Paul Pierce.