Progress breeds optimism, labor deal “within striking distance”

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Friday could be the day.

But if not Friday it may be this weekend — the NBA season is close to being saved. Maybe not all of it, but most of it, enough to have an asterick-free, credible NBA season. Progress through two more days has everyone, even the participants, hopeful.

NBA Commissioner David Stern says it would be a failure if there is not a new NBA labor deal reached in the next few days.

“There’s no guarantee that we’re going to get a deal done but we’re going to give it a heck of a shot,” Stern said in a post-talks press conference (broadcast on NBA TV).

That statement was made after more than seven more hours of talks on Thursday. That followed a marathon 15-hour session Wednesday, and Friday morning the two sides will be back at it at 10:30 a.m.

There is a real sense of optimism that a deal is near, a framework that would start the clock toward the opening of training camps and the start of the NBA season around Dec. 1.

If you want a really good sign, Stern stood in the back of the players association press conference and laughed with union head Billy Hunter on issues. The two sides don’t go near each other’s press conferences when there is acrimony.

Reports are that progress was made on the luxury tax issue on Thursday, which had been one of the key sticking points of the talks so far. The owners had wanted a more punitive tax that kept big spending teams in line, the players wanted something more akin to the old system. We don’t know what that progress looks like but there are multiple reports of the gap on that issue being closed. We have heard that things such as the Bird rights (allowing teams to go over the cap to re-sign their own free agents) and allowing teams in the luxury tax to make trades will be part of the new deal, increasing player options on where to play and for how much.

“I think we’re within reach (on system issues), within striking distance of getting a deal,” Hunter said.

There are still big hurdles ahead, ones that could mean negotiations will need to go through the weekend or even into next week.

For one, the two sides have yet to talk about the split of basketball related income (BRI) — the revenue that comes into the league through ticket sales, television deals and just about everything else down to hot dog sales in the arenas. That has remained a key sticking point, the owners wanted a 50/50 split (which isn’t a true even divide, the owners take expenses off the top), while the players have not gone any lower than 52.5 percent. There had been a sense that if the “system” framework was in place BRI would be easier to divide, but that is not necessarily the case.

Stern said he expects everything to be discussed on Friday, and Hunter told Chris Sheridan BRI would be the first thing discussed Friday. (Which means a long meeting Friday is a good sign.)

One other challenge — once a deal is reached, Stern and Hunter need to sell the deal to their hardline constituencies. That has blown up previous progress in these talks (we’re looking at you, Kevin Garnett and Paul Allen).

But right now there is a real optimism around the league that a deal is close. Team general managers have cancelled scouting trips to be ready for a free agency period, team ticket sales offices have started making calls to renew seats and agents are starting to pitch teams about their clients (through back channels).

It feels like a deal is coming sooner rather than later. But after this long and bitter fight that has seen the first two weeks of the regular season cancelled, until Stern and Hunter are shaking hands on a podium nothing is certain.

PBT Extra: NBA Mock Draft Top 10

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DeAndre Ayton is going to go No. 1 in the upcoming NBA Draft. After that, things get interesting: Will the Kings take European sensation Luka Doncic, or are they tempted by the scoring potential of Marvin Bagley III. Where does Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson fit into all of this?

Recently, myself and College Basketball Talk’s Rob Dauster sat down and did an NBA Mock Draft. This is our Top 10.

We have Ayton going first to Phoenix. Yes, the new Suns’ coach Igor Kokoskov is the Serbian national team coach and knows Doncic well, but Ayton is more likely to be a franchise-changing player, and no GM can afford to leave that kind of player on the table.

We have the Kings’ taking Doncic second, although that is no guarantee. The Kings need help everywhere but the guard spots, and Doncic as a playmaking three makes sense, but then so would Bagley as a big who can score (the bigs the Kings have drafted have not panned out as hoped). That has us sending Bagley to the Hawks at three, but Jackson and Mohamed Bamba could be in play.

Check out the video above to see our mock draft Top 10.

You can see the entire first round picks here.

And if you really want to nerd out on the draft, Dauster and I did a two-hour, two-part podcast where we made these mock draft picks. Check them out.

Al Horford had to tell Aron Baynes to take the ball to the basket (VIDEO)

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Boston’s Aron Baynes has seen his minutes increase the past couple of games of the Eastern Conference Finals as Brad Stevens tries to match up better with Cleveland’s Tristan Thompson.

Baynes is a solid big man who can step out and hit a three, but he’s not exactly blessed with the offensive gene — he’s no natural scorer. Sometimes it’s not even clear he knows where the basket is.

Such as on this fourth quarter play from Monday night, where Al Horford has to point Baynes to the rim and tell him to go there.

It worked. This time.

Baynes, Horford and the Celtics made things interesting in the second half, but could not overcome their early deficits and lost Game 4 to the Cavaliers 111-102, tying the Eastern Conference Finals at 2-2.

Fast start, LeBron James enough for Cavaliers to hold on to win, even series

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For the first time in 11 days, we had an NBA playoff game that finished with a single-digit margin. Barely.

It didn’t look like it would be early — Boston missed lay-ups and dunks all through the first quarter, LeBron James was being LeBron James, and the Cavaliers had a 16 point first quarter lead. It was 15 at the half.

But these Celtics would not go quietly.

Boston started to find it’s offensive groove — hunting Kevin Love incessantly — but in the end couldn’t get enough stops because, well, LeBron James. He finished with 44 points on 17-of-28 shooting, his sixth 40-point game of these playoffs. He got wherever he wanted on the floor all night, carving up the top-ranked regular season defense of the Celtics like a surgeon. No other Cavalier had more than 14 points (Kyle Korver), but the supporting cast played enough defensive and made hustle plays to hang on.

@realtristan13 with the swat and @kingjames with the finish!

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Cleveland got the win, 111-102, and evened the series at 2-2. Game 5 is Wednesday night back in Boston.

What Celtics fans can feel good about is their team’s resilience and grit. Down big for the second-straight game on the road in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics fought back from as much as 19 down earlier in the game to get it to single digits and make the fans in Quicken Loan Arena nervous in the fourth quarter. That is something the team can carry over to Game 5, as they can some defensive tweaks that shut down opportunities for Korver and the rest of the supporing cast.

What should bother Celtics fans was another night where they struggled to generate offense in the face of more intense defensive pressure.

That came from the opening tip, with the Celtics missing a few layups and a couple of Jaylen Brown dunk attempts — all of which allowed the Cavs to get early offenses and mismatches going the other way. Those missed shots fueled a 10-0 Cavaliers run that had Cleveland up 19-10 early. The Celtics shot 3-of-10 at the rim in the first quarter, shot 26 percent overall, and trailed 34-18 after one.

The second quarter saw the Celtics start to find their offense — they scored 35 points on 50 percent shooting — but they only gained one point on the Cavaliers lead because Boston couldn’t get stops. LeBron had 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting in the first half to pace a Cleveland team that shot 61.5 percent overall and hit 6-of-11 threes. That’s why the Cavs were up 68-53 at the half.

The Celtics energy was better than Game 2, but in the first half they looked like a young team, one that made a lot of mistakes.

In the second half, the Celtics started to figure things out — they started making the extra pass, they got stops for stretches, they looked more like a young team finding their footing on a big stage on the road. They finished the night with 25 from Jaylen Brown, 17 from Jayson Tatum, and Terry Rozier had 16 points and 11 assists.

They just couldn’t completely close the gap because they couldn’t get consistent stops — the Cavaliers shot 60 percent as a team for the game, and a ridiculous true shooting percentage of 59.6. Cleveland mercilessly hunted Rozier on switches — forcing him on to LeBron or Kevin Love then attacking — and the Cavs got enough from their role players. Tristan Thompson did what he needed to bringing energy in the paint and some defense, plus he had 13 points. Korver was diving on the floor for loose balls. Larry Nance Jr. had his second good game in a row. George Hill had 13 points.

And whenever the Cavaliers needed a play, they had LeBron to turn to. He set another NBA record on Monday night, most playoff field goals made for a career.

LeBron is what needs to worry Boston most of all. The Celtics will be better at home in Game 5 — they have not lost in TD Garden all postseason — but if this thing goes seven, it’s a dangerous thing when the other team has the best player on the planet.

LeBron James passes Kareem to become all-time leader in playoff made field goals

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LeBron James is already the NBA’s all-time leading playoff scorer, having passed Michael Jordan last postseason.

However, LeBron racked up his buckets in the era of the three-point shot (as did Jordan, to a lesser extent), so Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the all-time leader in field goals made in the postseason. A lot of them beautiful skyhooks that still give Celtics fans nightmares.

Monday night, LeBron made history passing Abdul-Jabar for the top spot in NBA playoff made field goals.

Just add that to the already insane resume.