NBA Playoffs: James, Wade defeat Celtics, their demons

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In the summer of 2007, a former league MVP and a perennial All-Star joined a franchise player to form a group that, when healthy, dominated the NBA’s Eastern Conference and kept its two best players from reaching an NBA Finals. They took out LeBron James’ Cavaliers in 2008 in an amazing seven-game series that culminated in a duel for the ages between James and Paul Pierce. In 2010, they sent Dwyane Wade home, despite Wade doing everything humanly possible to keep his hopelessly over-matched team alive. In those same playoffs, they humilated and eliminated LeBron James, setting in motion a chain of events that led to LeBron leaving Cleveland.

Three years later, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, along with Chris Bosh teamed up, hoping to do to the Celtics what the Celtics had been able to do to them. On Wednesday night, they achieved that goal, beating the Celtics 97-87 and advancing to the Conference Finals.

Game 5 wasn’t simply a matchup of two of the best teams in the Eastern Conference — it was the culmination of what had become a personal mission for James and Wade. The game played out accordingly.

The best version of the Heat did not show up in Game 5. They failed to move the ball, Joel Anthony’s foul trouble kept them from putting the kind of defensive pressure on Boston that they wanted to, and they failed to create looks for their spot up-shooters outside or big men inside.

However, the best versions of Wade and James did show up, and the Heat are now moving on to the Conference Finals. Wade was masterful throughout the game, especially in the first half. He slithered through traps, attacked the rim with abandon, hit his mid-range jumpers, and kept the Boston defense completely befuddled throughout the game. Just like they did in Game 4, the Heat spent most of the game down by two or three possessions, but Wade kept them in the game through his sheer brilliance.

For his part, James started the game slowly. His drives to the rim failed to yield positive results, and his usually-crisp passing was off the mark all night long. But he more than made up for it with his outside shooting, especially late in the game. James got himself going with some long jumpers in the third quarter, and that set up one of the best clutch performances of his career late in the fourth quarter.

With Boston up five and just under four minutes left to play, Kevin Garnett missed a mid-range jumper that probably would have put the game away for Boston. It caromed harmlessly off the rim, and LeBron found James Jones for an open three in transition that cut the Boston lead to two. After a Chris Bosh dunk and a missed Paul Pierce layup, the score was tied with just over two minutes to play, the ball found itself in LeBron’s hands with time winding down off the shot clock. James then calmly drained a clutch three directly in Paul Pierce’s face. Just over a minute later, he dribbled down the clock and hit another one to put the Heat up by six, then stole the ensuing Celtic inbound pass and dunked it to seal the game and the series for the Heat.

It was the perfect way for the Heat to end the conference semifinals. They beat the Celtics by hanging tough all game, wearing them down, and out-executing them in crunch time, which was supposed to be Boston’s MO. The player who supposedly couldn’t make a clutch shot all season long tore out Boston’s heart down the stretch for the second time in as many games — the two biggest games of the Heat’s season.

Tonight will be Miami’s night. They beat the team they were built to beat, and they did it by overcoming their one Achilles’ heel throughout the regular season — their ability to close out tight games against good teams. For tonight, the Heat have answered all the questions that were asked of them all season long. The last two defending champions, the ones who were supposed to punish the Heat for their audacity during the off-season, are out of the picture. And the Heat remain, on top of the league. For tonight.

Tomorrow, reality will set in. Unless Atlanta can win two games in a row against Chicago (I mean, never say never, but…), the Heat have a date with the team with the best regular-season record in the league, a defense even better than Boston’s, and a player better and more explosive than anybody on the Celtic roster. And if they want to get to the finals, they’ll have to win at least one game in Chicago, thanks to the fact they let all three of their games against the Bulls slip through their fingers in the regular season.

The Heat accomplished a huge feat on Wednesday night, and James and Wade now have the Boston monkey off their backs. But they’re still only halfway to their ultimate goal, the one goal they need to achieve to justify their hype, and they’ll have to pass tests that could well be tougher than the ones they’ve faced to achieve it. The Heat should savor this night. Because rest assured, if the Heat come up short against Chicago or fail to win the Finals, it won’t be remembered for long.

Lillard poised to pass Drexler as Trail Blazers all-time leading scorer

2022-23 Portland Trail Blazers Media Day
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images
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Damian Lillard could have done what a lot of NBA stars have done — what a lot of them told him to do while recruiting him — and has chosen to stay in Portland. He wants to be remembered as the greatest Trail Blazer ever.

One good way to do that: Become the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. Sometime around Thanksgiving or a little after, Lillard will do just that, passing Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler and his 18,040 points (Lillard is 531 back).

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports spoke to Lillard about when he knew the record was within reach, during Trail Blazers training camp in Santa Barbara, California (go Gauchos!). It was when Lillard got to 10,000 points.

“I was like, ‘Damn, I got 10,000 already?’ ” Lillard told Yahoo Sports he recalled at the time. “It was my sixth season in the league. That’s when I started thinking, if I could be consistent, I could score into the high 20,000-point range. As a scorer, 20,000 points is always looked at as a special mark. From that moment, I knew it was possible, but it’s also when I first researched Clyde Drexler’s [scoring] record with the team.”

Drexler is good with being passed by Lillard.

“You and I know records are made to be broken, but I can’t think of a better player or person to break the record than Dame,” Drexler told Yahoo Sports. “He exemplifies being a team player and going about his business in a professional way. I have nothing but admiration and respect for him. When he comes close to getting the record, and if our schedules align, I would love to be there to help out in any way I can. That’s a nice milestone to achieve. I am looking forward to him accomplishing that.”

Lillard is on a lot of front office people’s watch list this season, as in “how long before he is unhappy and asks for a trade?” The thing is, Lillard has been on that list for years and he keeps choosing Portland — he isn’t looking to leave. Of course, the $120 million extension and a retooling of the roster around him helped with that decision, but Lillard always had other options if he wanted them (and at times it felt like he would take them).

The Trail Blazers brought in Jerami Grant, re-signed Anfrenee Simons, and will put them with a solid core of others such as (a finally healthy) Jusuf Nurkic, Josh Hart, Gary Payton II and others. It’s a good roster, the question is how good in a deep West?

There are a lot of questions about how this season shakes out in Portland, but the one seeming sure thing is Lillard becoming the Trail Blazers’ all-time leading scorer. And that seems fitting.

Suns update: Ayton blames Sarver for contract, Crowder conflict, Johnson to start

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Phoenix went to the NBA Finals two seasons ago and had the most wins in the NBA last season, yet dark clouds seem to be blocking out the Suns heading into this NBA season.

Here’s the latest on three situations with the Suns: Deandre Ayton‘s contract frustration, why Jae Crowder is asking out, and who starts at the four now.

• Ayton ended up signing a four-year, $132.9 max contract and will be back with the Suns to start this season, but the road to get there was rocky. The Suns would not offer Ayton a max five-year contract extension, his name kept coming up in Kevin Durant trade rumors, so Ayton went out and got a four-year max offer from the Pacers — which the Suns instantly matched. Phoenix saved $40 million and a guaranteed year, but the process left Ayton a little bitter.

Ayton blames outgoing owner Robert Sarver — a notorious penny pincher as an owner (among other, much worse things) — Marc Spears and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN discussed on NBA Today (hat tip Real GM).

“That is certainly something that caused the ire of him,” said Marc J. Spears. “I was told that it was Robert Sarver who didn’t want to give him that fifth year, who wanted to save the money.”

“My understanding from talking to people close to Deandre is that he thinks this was Robert Sarver’s decision as well. And Robert Sarver’s not going to be the owner anymore. So there is some healing that can happen there. But I know there were some hurt feelings over that contract and how that played out.

“If they were going to instantly match an offer sheet that he signed, why not just give him the max contract? Yes, it saved them a year and $40 million but as somebody close to Deandre told me ‘There’s a karma to this. Why do that to your No. 1 overall pick?'”

Shelburne hit the nail on the head — the NBA is a business, but it’s a business of relationships. Not only did the Suns sour theirs with Ayton, but you can also be sure every other agent around the league noticed how that was handled. It doesn’t help when recruiting players. The eventual new owner, whoever it ends up being, has a lot of work to change the franchise’s perception.

• Jae Crowder remains away from the Suns during training camp awaiting a trade (which reportedly will not be to Dallas). Crowder started 109 games for the Suns during the past two seasons and was a key part of their run to the NBA Finals, so how did things deteriorate so quickly? Marc Stein lays it out in his latest Substack newsletter.

Entering the final season of his current contract at $10.2 million, Jae Crowder let the Suns know that he was seeking a contract extension. League sources say that the Suns’ messaging, in response, was to let Crowder know that, at 32, he was no longer assured of starting or finishing games ahead of Cam Johnson. That gulf between the parties led Crowder to seek an exit from the desert that has landed him on indefinite mutual leave from the team until Phoenix can find a trade for him.

While Miami gets mentioned as a suitor a lot, it’s next to impossible to put together a trade that works for both sides right now (at the trade deadline, maybe, but Crowder isn’t going to be with the Suns that long). Cleveland is currently the hot name in league circles when talking Crowder trades, and Stein also mentions the Milwaukee Bucks, who have been looking for a P.J. Tucker-like replacement for P.J Tucker. But, do any of these teams want to extend Crowder at age 32?

• Suns coach Monty Williams confirmed what Crowder heard — Cameron Johnson will start at the four for the Suns this season.

Johnson brings better shooting to the table — 42.5% last season on 3-pointers — and is more athletic at this point, but Crowder brings better defense, toughness, and veteran savvy that can be trusted in the playoffs. The Suns may miss that when it matters, but Johnson will get the chance to prove us all wrong.

Blake Griffin agrees to join Boston Celtics on one-year deal

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According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Blake Griffin has agreed to join the Boston Celtics on a one-year contract which will be fully guaranteed.

The Celtics were desperate for frontcourt depth following injuries to Danilo Gallinari and Robert Williams, as Luke Kornet was even getting some run with the starting group at training camp.

You do have to wonder just how much the 33-year-old Griffin has left in the tank though. Last season with the Brooklyn Nets, Griffin only managed to play 17.1 minutes per game and his 3-point percentage dropped like a stone to 26%. He was also a major liability on defense, and the Celtics surely know that after Jaylen Brown drove by him with ease time and time again during the postseason.

Griffin was still an effective playmaker and that may make him a good fit with the second unit alongside the likes of Malcolm Brogdon, Derrick White and Grant Williams with all of these capable of handling the ball. Injuries and Father Time have zapped Griffin’s athleticism, but if anyone can squeeze the last bit of value out of him, I’d bet on Brad Stevens and the Celtics.

Highlights from Japan Game: Hachimura and Wiseman put on show, plus Suga and Curry

Golden State Warriors v Washington Wizards - NBA Japan Games
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The NBA preseason is officially here — and it started in Japan. The Golden State Warriors faced the Washington Wizards in front of a sold-out crowd at the Saitama Super Arena in Tokyo. In case you didn’t wake up at 6 am Eastern to watch a meaningless preseason NBA game (and if you did, we’re worried about you), here are a few highlights and notes from the night.

• The Wizards were there because they have the biggest Japanese star in the NBA, Rui Hachimura, and he was given a chance to shine. The crowd erupted when he did anything.

• The leading scorer on the night was the Warriors James Wiseman with 20 points on 8-of-11 shooting, plus nine boards.

• Dunk of the game goes to Kyle Kuzma.

Stephen Curry was doing Stephen Curry things.

• Stephen Curry also met Suga of BTS and gave him some game-worn kicks. This will win Twitter for the day.

• Oh, by the way, the Warriors won 96-87. As for the level of basketball, it looked like the first preseason game after a flight halfway around the world. The teams combined to shoot 11-of-47 in the first quarter (23.4%) and both were under 40% for the game.

Klay Thompson is sitting out both Warriors games in Japan.

TRIVIA TIME: Can you name the other two players currently in the NBA born in Japan?

Cam Thomas (Yokosuka) and Yuta Watanabe (Yokohama), both of the Brooklyn Nets (Watanabe is on a training camp deal and is not expected to make the roster). Both were raised much of their lives and went to high school and college in the United States.