Seven NBA playoff story lines to watch

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After weeks of trying to predict seedings and matchups while watching teams rest their perfectly healthy superstars, the playoffs are finally upon us.

In no particular order, here are the story lines we’ll be watching when the postseason tournament opens on Saturday.

How much damage can the Lakers do without Kobe Bryant?

L.A. opened the season as the favorites (on paper) to challenge the Heat in the Finals, thanks to the acquisitions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash during the offseason. An early season coaching change, followed by an insane rash of injuries derailed the Lakers’ chances all season long, and Kobe Bryant became the final casualty of the seemingly lost season once he went down with a torn Achilles injury just as the team was making a run at that final playoff spot in the West.

The Lakers managed to keep it together without Bryant long enough to beat the Spurs and the Rockets to seal a playoff berth, and enter the postseason winning eight of their last nine games. But how this team fares without Bryant while they try to combat the efficiency of the Spurs machine in a series will be extremely interesting to watch, though undoubtedly nerve-wracking for Lakers fans at the same time.

How far can the Clippers go, and what will that mean for Vinny Del Negro’s future?

Vinny Del Negro is legitimately on the hot seat in Los Angeles, for a variety of reasons. How far the Clippers do or do not advance in the postseason is likely to determine his fate, but just how far does L.A. have to get for him to be safe?

The Clippers have a tough but favorable first round matchup against the Grizzlies, who they beat in the first round of the playoffs a season ago in seven games. Last year, the Clippers were swept by the Spurs in the second round, so getting there again this year probably won’t be enough by itself to bring Del Negro back next season.

A trip to the Conference finals might be enough improvement to retain Del Negro’s services, but honestly, it’s going to be Chris Paul’s decision as much as it will be anyone’s inside the organization. Paul is an unrestricted free agent this summer, and will have all the say in the world regarding whether or not Del Negro is brought back next season.

Will the Thunder return to the Finals without James Harden?

Thanks to Oklahoma City largely returning the same roster from a season ago that got them to the NBA Finals, the Thunder are once again poised to make a deep postseason run. But the elephant in the room is the fact that they traded James Harden away to Houston, and the reality is that if they don’t make it back to the Finals, this season will be a wild disappointment, and the front office will be scrutinized for choosing dollars over a legitimate championship chance.

Can the Knicks win a playoff series for the first time in 13 years?

It seems like a silly question, given the success New York has put together this year while being lead by the league’s leading scorer in Carmelo Anthony, and a likely Sixth Man of the Year candidate in J.R. Smith. But nothing is guaranteed for the Knicks despite holding the two seed in the East, and a first round matchup against the Celtics could be terrifying given the history between the teams this season, along with the intensity that veterans like Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett will bring to a seven-game series.

How much noise can the Warriors make?

The Warriors are in the playoffs for just the second time in the last 19 years, and with one of the best fan bases in the league there to support them, it’s an exciting time in the Bay Area for a basketball resurgence to be taking place. Mark Jackson has been successful in installing a winning culture in just his second season as head coach, but he and the team have said all along that simply making the playoffs was not the ultimate goal this season. We don’t know what the team believes it’s capable of internally, but a first round matchup with an injury-depleted Nuggets team could prove favorable if Golden State can play flawless basketball during the road games of this series.

Will the Spurs finally live up to their potential?

San Antonio has always been one of the more well-coached regular season teams. Gregg Popovich has his system installed, and has the players on the roster to execute it to perfection, no matter the injuries that may take place over the course of the season.

But despite the regular season success, the Spurs haven’t been to the Finals since winning it all in 2007, and have lost to teams they were favored to beat in the playoffs in three of the last four seasons. We know the system allows for regular season success, but at some point the Spurs are going to run out of chances with their core of Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, and Manu Ginobili to get back to the Finals. Another early exit this season would be a major disappointment, and might signify the end of an era in San Antonio.

Will the Heat repeat as champions?

This is the question we all want answered. Miami ran roughshod over the rest of the league during the regular season, and just about everyone fully expects them to continue the trend throughout the playoffs. The Heat have the best player in the game in LeBron James, and All-Star complimentary pieces in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh that are a wealth of riches when compared to the rosters of other teams Miami might face on the way to a title.

The Heat aren’t just the favorites to repeat as champions; they’ve become the expectation. The way they finished the regular season by winning 37 of their final 39 games is absolutely absurd, and they did so even while resting their best players at times along the way.

It’s gotten to the point where we’d all be surprised if Miami didn’t win the title again this season. But that won’t make the journey any less exciting to watch.

Watch Celtics shooters look sharp in easy preseason win over Hornets

Charlotte Hornets v Boston Celtics
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It’s just one meanless preseason game, but for a franchise that could use some good news the Boston Celtics will take it.

The Celtics’ shooting looked in mid-season form in their preseason opener against the Hornets on Sunday — 57.1% overall and 22-of-47 from 3 (46.8%). Boston just couldn’t seem to miss, especially early.

Jayson Tatum had 16 points in 22 minutes, while Jaylen Brown was the leading scorer with 24 points in 24 minutes.

The one unexpected bright spot was a strong game from Mfiondu Kabengele, who is currently on a two-way contract with the team. He ended up with 10 points on 4-of-4 shooting and showed some hustle.

Kelly Oubre led the Hornets with 17 points, while LaMelo Ball had 14 points, seven rebounds and four dimes.

It’s just one preseason game, don’t read much of anything into it. But the Celtics will take the good news where they can find it.

T.J. Warren still out for Nets; team to reassess status in November

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The Brooklyn Nets bet that the T.J. Warren from the bubble in Orlando — the one who averaged 26.6 points and 6.3 rebounds a game for the Pacers — would re-emerge and give them a quality forward they could mix into a deep rotation.

Instead, so far it has looked more like the Warren who has played just four games since the bubble due to stress fractures in his foot.

Warren is improving and the Nets are bringing him along slowly, keeping him off the court until November at least, reports Brian Lewis of the New York Post.

Small forward T.J. Warren, who has missed nearly two full seasons following multiple foot surgeries, is “doing some shooting” and “a little bit more movement the last two weeks than he was prior,” Nash said. He added that Warren will be reassessed in about a month.

The Nets can afford to be patient. They have plenty of other questions to answer as a team before worrying about what Warren can or cannot contribute. But in the dream scenario where everything comes together for the Nets this season, Warren gets healthy and becomes a valuable contributor off the bench giving the Nets more versatility, scoring, and shooting along the front line.

For now, the Nets and Warren wait.

NBA returning to Seattle for exhibition game; when will it be more?

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SEATTLE — An NBA preseason game may not seem like a benchmark moment, even in a basketball-hungry city like Seattle, but Jamal Crawford believes there’s value even in an exhibition.

“It reignites a whole new generation of kids who need to see this,” said Crawford, a Seattle native who has been a basketball ambassador for the city through a 20-year NBA career and now with a pro-am that brings in NBA players every summer. “They need to be able to dream and know that it’s real.”

The NBA is making its latest brief return to the Emerald City. The Los Angeles Clippers will play the Portland Trail Blazers there on Monday night, the first time two NBA teams will meet in Seattle since 2018, when the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings played a preseason game. That was the last sporting event inside KeyArena before it was gutted and rebuilt into the gleaming Climate Pledge Arena.

There was a warm-up act of sorts Friday when the Clippers played Israeli team Maccabi Ra’anana in an exhibition, one where the most of the Clippers’ big names – Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, John Wall and Reggie Jackson – weren’t participating.

A sell-out crowd turned out for that Warriors-Kings game four years ago, the first one in Seattle since the beloved SuperSonics left for Oklahoma City in 2008 after 41 years in the Pacific Northwest. Another big crowd is expected Monday.

“The Sonics haven’t been a team since I’ve been in the NBA. So just to go play in Seattle is cool,” Blazers star Damian Lillard said. “We played in Vancouver a few years back. I think like two or three years ago, we had a preseason game at the (Memorial) Coliseum. So every time we get to do something like that, I always enjoy it because I wondered what was it like when it was a real thing, when the games were played in these different arenas. So I am excited to play in Seattle.”

Someday, possibly soon, the expectations are that Seattle will reclaim its place as an NBA town.

“It’s always been a great city to me,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said Friday. “It’s unfortunate that they lost their team and the team went to OKC. This city definitely deserves a team.”

Speculation is nonstop about when the NBA will choose to expand. Thanks to the resolution of its arena situation, Seattle seems likely to be at the forefront of those expansion talks, with Las Vegas likely right behind it.

But NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has been noncommittal about a possible expansion timeline, and it seems likely those talks won’t pick up steam until the league deals with the new collective bargaining agreement and television deals that are on the horizon.

The community’s commitment has never been in question. The appetite of Seattle fans hasn’t waned in the years since the Sonics left and as the region became a hotbed for NBA talent, whether it was Crawford continuing to carry the banner for the city, to Zach LaVine of Renton, Washington, to this year’s No. 1 overall pick Paolo Banchero, another Seattle native.

As if any reinforcement was needed, the summer provided a perfect example as fans camped overnight outside Crawford’s summer league venue for the chance to get inside and watch LeBron James make his first basketball visit to the city in more than a decade.

“Anyone that knows Seattle knows what a great basketball city we are,” Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell said this summer when the preseason game was announced.

The idea for having the Blazers and Clippers meet in Seattle was the result of a brainstorm between Lue and Blazers coach Chauncey Billups. The two close friends wanted their teams to meet in the preseason and Lue noted the owners for both teams are Seattle based: Steve Ballmer of the Clippers and Jody Allen for the Blazers.

“I haven’t been back since I played there in 2008, I think it was. So just to be able to go back there and you know, Mr. Ballmer and kind of see his offices and how he lives, and (Chauncey) to get a chance to see his owner, and then to be with my best friend, I thought it would be a great common ground,” Lue said.

Steven Adams inks two-year, $25.2 million extension with Grizzlies

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Steven Adams signed a two-year, $25.2 million contract extension with Memphis, which will keep him tied to the team through the 2024-25 season. ESPN’s Adrian Wojanrowski broke the news on Saturday.

Adams has been crucial to the Grizzlies’ recent success. He’s coming off his first season with the team, where he averaged career-highs in rebounds (10.0) and assists (3.4). He also helped them lock up the No. 2 spot in the Western Conference and make it to the Conference Semifinals, where they lost to the eventual-champion Warriors 4-2. Despite the improved numbers, a lot of his value is from intangibles that don’t show up in the box score.

Adams spent the first seven years of his career with the Thunder before being traded to New Orleans in the four-team deal that sent Jrue Holiday to Milwaukee. Adams was moved again to Memphis in a package for Jonas Valanciunas.

Adams has found a new home with a young Grizzlies team that is looking to win a championship. The team is built around Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Desmond Bane, but Jackson Jr. is expected to miss time after being diagnosed with a stress fracture in his left foot. Memphis will rely on Adams more than ever to begin the season.