Dwyane Wade helps Heat overcome stellar game from Rajon Rondo

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The Boston Celtics looked like they might be on their way to a big win on Wednesday night in Miami as Rajon Rondo had his offense hitting on all cylinders in the first half. It apparently wasn’t meant to be for Boston, however, because Dwyane Wade re-ignited the Heat in the second half to take a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals before heading to Boston.

Wednesday night’s game had to be heartbreaking for the Celtics faithful considering they were able to watch Rondo have what may very well have been the best game of his young career. For fans just hoping for a stellar game of basketball, though, it was one of the better games in this year’s playoffs … at least as far as the guard play was concerned. Wade found a way to score 23 points in 44 minutes after just two points in the first half and, while it certainly wasn’t as impressive box score-wise as Rondo’s 44 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists while playing all 53 minutes, it was just enough to help Miami defend their homecourt by way of a 115-111 overtime victory.

Rondo looked like he would be garnering all the headlines early on the way to a win: his jumpers were falling, he connected consistently from the charity stripe and scored a career-high in points in what was almost a must-win game — and that’s before mentioning the near triple-double while having to be almost exhausted due to playing every minute of an overtime game. In all honesty, after Rondo’s stellar play allowed the Celtics to jump out to a 36-21 lead, there were probably quite a few people in the viewing audience anticipating a tied series heading into Friday night’s Game 3 — how bad would Boston have to play to give up a 15-point lead considering they were already able to keep Wade out of the scoring column?

Boston never ended up playing bad, basketball though; in fact, they continued to play quite well. The Heat changed their defensive schemes and were able to bottle Rondo up for a significant portion of the third quarter but, after that, the resilient point guard rebounded and returned to the scoring role he’d adopted in the first half. It was, especially considering the circumstances, one of the most impressive performances submitted in this year’s NBA Playoffs (at a minimum).

Unfortunately for Rondo and Co., though, Wade woke up in the second half.

Wade’s first half performance made it look like he was going to find his way into the headlines for all of the wrong reasons after being held to just two points, by way of a lay-up, late in the first half. He came alive after halftime, though, spurring the Heat to a  12-0 run following a beautiful block on Ray Allen breakaway. Rondo and  the Celtics eventually bounce back from that run thanks to some defensive adjustments of their own, but Wade once again turned on the jets down the stretch — on both ends of the court — allowing fellow superstar teammate LeBron James to avoid the “un-clutch” headlines while also forcing Boston to have to try and figure out how to win four of the next five games.

The Western Conference Finals matchup has shown how brilliant team basketball can be, but Wednesday night’s game in the East showed just how important individual players still can be in today’s NBA. It wasn’t as though Rondo and Wade didn’t get their teammates involved, because they did, but both players figured out what their team needed them to do and when to do it, resulting in a frenetically fun game down the stretch and into overtime.

It’s going to be difficult for Rondo to outdo himself for Game 3 back in Boston, but it had to worry the Heat that he was able to take on a scoring role  — and excel at that, even from deep — because a less-than-heroic second half from Wade would have steered this series in a whole different direction. That obviously isn’t the case, though, and now the onus is on Boston to figure out the next step in the game plan. It won’t be easy, either, considering even holding Wade to such small contributions through the first 24 minutes wasn’t enough on Wednesday night.

PUMA signs likely No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton, hires Jay-Z

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When it was announced that likely top-three pick Marvin Bagley III signed a shoe endorsement deal with PUMA, we noted that they were going all in and spending big (Bagley’s contract is about three times the average high draft pick first shoe deal).

We didn’t know the half of it.

On Monday word came the German-based shoe manufacturer had also inked a deal with likely No. 1 pick DeAndre Ayton, had signed their original endorser Walt “Clyde” Frazier to a lifetime deal, and hired Jay-Z to help with the branding and on the business side.

That’s a heck of a day. And a massive commitment to the market.

Winning over people to buy PUMA basketball shoes is going to take a few things (including making great shoes), but getting high-profile endorsers is part of it. Ayton can potentially be that for them, a global brand ambassador.

Nick DePaula of ESPN broke the Ayton news and had details from the player himself.

For Ayton, there was plenty of interest in pursuing a shoe deal with Puma, although the brand has been out of the basketball landscape for 20 years since signing Vince Carter in 1998. Ayton shares a connection to two of its biggest ambassadors, Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt of Jamaica and pop star Rihanna of Barbados, after growing up in the Caribbean.

“Puma is pretty popular in the Bahamas,” Ayton said. “I’ve always seen the brand growing up. [Bolt] is one of the first people I saw with the brand. It’s important to me that someone I identify with and admire as an athlete is with the same brand.”

PUMA also reached an endorsement deal with NBA rookie to be Zhaire Smith.

Going old-school with Frazier was a classy touch.

But the surprise news was the partnership with Jay-Z and his Roc Nation organization. Complex had the story.

On top of that, JAY-Z has joined as the company’s president of basketball operations. “We’ve been working with Roc Nation for quite some time. They’ve been great partners to us for several years. We’ve done many different deals with many different ambassadors,” Adam Petrick, Puma’s global director of brand and marketing, told Complex. When Puma approached him about this opportunity, JAY-Z felt it “was something he wanted to be a part of,” according to Petrick.

Hov will have a hand in the players selected to join Puma’s basketball division, as well as assist in the art design and overall concept and direction of the brand.

Will this work?

Maybe, despite Nike’s stranglehold on the basketball shoe market (through the Jordan brand as well as endorsers such as LeBron James and Kevin Durant), there is room to get a foothold in the space. However, this needs to be a long-term commitment from PUMA where they not only design quality products but keep doing it for years and years. It’s one thing to maybe buy a pair of retro low-top Clydes to wear around, it’s another to get people to change the shoes the play in. People trust Nike and their products (and, to a lesser extent, Adidas and UnderArmor). PUMA has a lot of work to do to earn that level of respect.

But you can’t fault them for coming back with a big splash.

PBT Podcast: Risers. Sleepers. Who should go No. 2? Final full draft breakdown.

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Luka Doncic? Marvin Bagley III? Jaren Jackson Jr.?

If you were in the shoes of Vlade Divac and the Sacramento Kings, who would you draft No. 2?

In this latest PBT Podcast, Kurt Helin and Rob Dauster (who has been writing the in-depth prospect profiles such as Trae Young, Michael Porter Jr., Deandre Ayton, and others — of NBC Sports try on those shoes — and go an unexpected direction with it — as well as breaking down the rest of the draft such as the risers, the sleepers, and is Michael Porter Jr. worth the risk?

Also, in the bigger picture, are we focused too much on the bigs at the top of this draft — the majority of guys who will go in the top six — when we just saw in the last two rounds of the NBA playoffs that a lot of bigs can’t stay on the court in those situations? Which of these draftees can?

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

Rumor: Raptors trying to trade up in draft for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

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The Raptors have major problems in the playoffs annually.

Is a coaching change enough to fix them?

Toronto already fired Dwane Casey and promoted assistant Nick Nurse after a highly successful regular season. Perhaps, major roster turnover could follow.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander projects to be a late lottery pick. The Raptors have no selections in this draft. So, acquiring one high enough to pick the Kentucky point guard would take plenty.

Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are stars. Toronto’s bench is stocked with solid young players. O.G. Anunoby is very promising.

So, the Raptors have pieces to move. The only question how much they’d package for a draft pick.

Toronto already has Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright at point guard. But Lowry is 32, and VanVleet will be a restricted free agent this summer. If they really believe in Gilgeous-Alexander, the Raptors should try to get him.

All that said, this is the time of year rumors – both credible and not – fly. So, it’s worth remaining skeptical while still considering the validity of what reputable reporters like Stein convey.

Luka Doncic, Donte DiVincenzo, Jerome Robinson among NBA draft invitees

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Of course DeAndre Ayton will attend Thursday’s NBA draft. The Suns will likely draft him No. 1 overall.

But what about more marginal first-round prospects?

The NBA’s draft invite list is an important tool in judging their stock. The league wants to avoid players sitting in agony until their names are called. So, the NBA works to invite only the prospects most likely to get picked high in the draft.

The full list of invited players (which the league notes is subject to change):

Luka Doncic will go high in the draft, and though how high is still uncertain, his inclusion on this list says nothing about his stock. It just speaks to whether we’ll see him Thursday night. His attendance will depend at least on when Real Madrid’s season ends, though the NBA is apparently confident enough to list him.

Jerome Robinson has climbed draft boards since the season ended. He must be impressing in workouts and interviews.

Donte DiVincenzo is a bit of a surprise selection, as he’s not widely viewed as a first-round lock. Perhaps, the league is looking to capitalize on his popularity stemming from a breakout NCAA tournament championship game.

This will only reinforce the idea Chandler Hutchinson received a promise. Otherwise, he’s a surprise invitee.

Among the top players not attending: Kevin Huerter (Maryland), Jacob Evans (Cincinnati), Troy Brown (Oregon) and Josh Okogie (Georgia Tech). Though they could go higher than players listed here, that says something about Huerter’s Evans’, Browns’ and Okogie’s stock, too.