Bulls cruise to 24-point opening night win over Knicks

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NEW YORK — Most preseason predictions had the Bulls slated in to be title contenders, while many had the Knicks pegged as a team that would struggle, while waiting to attempt to add talent in free agency next summer.

Opening night at Madison Square Garden did nothing to disprove those notions, and provided strong affirmations instead.

Behind dominant performances from Pau Gasol and Taj Gibson, and a relatively minimal contribution from Derrick Rose, Chicago cruised to a 104-80 victory after leading by as many as 35 points in the second half.

The Knicks started Shane Larkin at point guard after Jose Calderon was a late scratch with a calf injury that has been bothering him throughout the preseason. Amar’e Stoudemire also got the start, after coming off the bench exclusively for the Knicks in preseason action. Head coach Derek Fisher gave a long non-answer when asked for his reason why, but Stoudemire rewarded him for his decision early with an eight-point first quarter on 4-of-4 shooting.

New York started just fine, running the newly-installed Triangle Offense in a manner that could be described as clunky at best, but yielded decent enough results through the game’s first 10 minutes.

As soon as the reserves came in, however, the Knicks completely fell apart, while the Bulls showcased some of the depth they added this summer in taking control of the game, before running away with it entirely.

Pau Gasol looked completely rejuvenated in his first game with the Bulls, and showcased an aggressiveness and a level of skill on the offensive end of the floor that was reminiscent of his days as an All-Star in Los Angeles. Gasol finished with 21 points on 7-of-11 shooting, to go along with 11 rebounds in just 29 minutes of action.

As great as Gasol played, Taj Gibson may have been even better.

The Knicks only had Jason Smith and Quincy Acy to throw at Gibson, and neither was close to being any match. He scored 10 of his 22 points in the second period, as the Bulls reserves pushed the lead to 15 points before New York’s starters temporarily slowed the inevitable tide.

“He was the best player in training camp, the best player in the preseason games,” head coach Tom Thibodeau said of Gibson afterward. “He just goes out there and does his job. … He lets his performance speak for itself, and that’s the way it should be.”

The reserves for the Knicks were, in a word, brutal. The offense in that second quarter consisted primarily of midrange jumpers, which came either off the dribble or were forced up in isolation after only a single pass. The Triangle Offense wasn’t abandoned entirely as the game progressed, but running it appeared to become an afterthought, and multiple possessions would go by before it would occur to the unit in place to once again give it a shot.

Rose, meanwhile, looked much the same way he did while playing for Team USA this summer. His signature speed and explosiveness were evident at times, and while he finished just 3-of-7 shooting, he was able to get into the lane and to the free throw line eight times.

“He’s got to shake that rust off,” Thibodeau said of Rose. “Offensively, I thought he was attacking well, and defensively, he’s got to keep working at it. It isn’t going to happen overnight. He’s got to keep pushing.”

Rose was surprised he wasn’t needed on this night, and seemed a little disappointed he didn’t get more time to play under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden in a nationally televised contest.

“I think this is the first time I’ve ever played in a league where the first game I only played 20-something minutes,” Rose said. “I only had 13 points. I thought for sure tonight I was going to have a little time in the fourth quarter in The Garden, but the game got kind of out of hand and Thibs didn’t call us back in.”

There was no need. This Knicks team has neither the talent nor the cohesiveness to present much of a challenge to these Bulls. It was what was expected before the season began, but the strengths and weakness of both teams became all the more glaring when facing one another in a head-to-head matchup.

“We played the game the right way,” Gibson said. “Our bench really came in and played with a lot of fire. We’ve got a lot of firepower in that second unit, and we just ran with it. And once our starters got themselves going, it was a different ballgame.

“Everybody understood the matchups, and everybody understood the defensive sets that Thibs wanted us to run,” he said. “And we just flourished.”

LeBron James, Dion Waiters’ son engage in a little trash talk

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“Yeah, right.”

That was Dion Waiters Jr.’s response to pretty much everything LeBron James during the Lakers’ practice on Saturday before Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.

LeBron was getting up some corner threes and told Waiters Jr. he would make 100 straight.

“Yeah, right.”

When LeBron missed one, “I missed that on purpose.” 

“Yeah, right.”

“I missed that on purpose, so you’d think I’m human,” LeBron joked.

Got to love Dion Waiters Jr. — he’s got some of his dad’s spunk.

Families have been allowed in the bubble for teams for a couple of weeks, although LeBron’s sons are not there, with LeBron saying it’s not a great place for kids (he’s right, for anyone over about 7 or 8, there would be little to do).

Aggressive, attacking Boston drives right into heart of Miami defense, wins Game 3

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On Boston’s first possession of the game, Marcus Smart drove right to the rim and got an and-1 on a reverse layup.

Next possession, Jaylen Brown got a bucket cutting for a layup, with the assist from Smart. Next possession, Brown drove the lane and banked in a floater. The next Boston bucket was a Jayson Tatum driving layup.

The first nine Boston points came with them attacking the heart of the Miami defense (going at Duncan Robinson in particular), and that continued all game with the Celtics getting 60 points in the paint.

“Boston came out with great force. You have to give them credit for that,” Heat coach Eric Spoelstra said after the game.

Throw in 31 quality minutes from Gordon Hayward in his return from a sprained ankle — providing more quality wing play and good decision making — and Boston raced out to a comfortable lead then hung on at the end for a 117-106 win in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Heat lead the series 2-1, with Game 4 not until Wednesday night (a little delay to allow the West to catch up).

After a sloppy Game 2 loss where the Celtics became passive in the face of Miami’s zone defense in the second half, followed by a postgame meltdown and meeting of the minds, the guys at the heart of the Celtics young core stepped up their game on Saturday night.

Particularly Brown, who had 26 points on 11-of-17 shooting and was getting to the rim all game. He also was playing smothering defense.

Smart — an All-Defensive Team player — had his best game of the series, blanketing Goran Dragic, who had been the Heat’s best scorer and shot creator through two games. Without Dragic breaking down the Celtics’ defense and getting points in the paint, Miami has to live by the three and the Celtics defenders did a better job staying home.

“Marcus’ ball pressure on Dragic was important,” Celtics’ coach Brad Stevens said postgame. “It’s something we need to continue to look at. Marcus did a great job on a guy who is playing better than I’ve ever seen him.”

Boston also got more minutes from Gordon Hayward than expected, minutes Stevens called a “stabilizing force” for the team.

“I’m extremely tired right now. My ankle is pretty sore,” Hayward said postgame, adding with the extra days off he should be good to go for Game 4.

Hayward’s presence also allowed Boston to play small ball without Daniel Theis or any true center on the floor, the Celtics switched everything defensively, and Miami didn’t take advantage. Look for Eric Spoelstra to turn to more Bam Adebayo against that small lineup next game.

“They got us on our heels. They were out there hooping and having fun. I guess that was the difference in the game,” Bam Adebayo said postgame.

Miami didn’t shoot the ball well Saturday night, hitting just 27.3% from three. Jae Crowder, who had been hot, was 2-of-8 from deep, while Tyler Herro was 4-of-12. Adebayo had 27 points and 16 boards to lead the Heat.

Boston had four players with more than 20 points: Brown (26), Tatum (25), Kemba Walker (21), and Smart (20).

Boston will need another game like that — and they will need to close better, Miami made it interesting late — to even the series on Wednesday.

Miami said postgame they saw what happened in this game as a challenge to them. Game 4 is going to be intense.

Ja Morant points out one person who didn’t vote him Rookie of the Year

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Ja Morant was not the unanimous Rookie of the Year — 99 out of 100 media members voted for him, one voted for Zion Williamson.

When the media votes became public Saturday, Morant got to see who the one voter who voted for someone else was: Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Crowley stood up for his vote, and everything was good between them (at least on social media).

While the votes come from media members, the NBA goes out of its way to put together voters who see things differently, something ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne talked about is an excellent thread on Twitter, although she was speaking about the case for LeBron James over Giannis Antetokounmpo for MVP.

To be clear, I was one of the Morant voters, and I will readily admit that Zion is the better player (at least right now). I consider the impact on winning heavily when voting, which led me to Morant because he played 59 games before the bubble and had his team in a playoff position, while Zion played only 19 and did not (only games before the NBA restart in Orlando were to be considered, per NBA rules). I also expect and respect the fact that not everyone will see it that way, or even define what matters most in winning the award the same way. Diversity of thought and views is a good thing, it leads to better outcomes. Crowley should vote what he sees and believes, and that should be respected.

Unanimous or not, Morant will go down as the 2019-20 Rookie of the Year. The voting will be a footnote at most.

Boston’s Gordon Hayward warming up, available to play in Game 3

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The Celtics are getting their X-factor back — Gordon Hayward is available for the must-win Game 3 for Boston.

This had been expected, but he was out warming up pregame as reports he would be available started to bounce around the web.

Even 20 minutes of Hayward would be a big boost for the Celtics. Hayward suffered a grade III ankle sprain in the first game of the playoffs against Philadelphia. He’s been out ever since, even leaving the bubble for a while to get treatment.

Hayward’s return gives the Celtics another versatile player who can create his own shot and knock down the open looks others create for him. Hayward can run pick-and-rolls with the second unit while Tatum and Walker get rest. He’s the Celtics’ fourth-best scoring option right now, but he’s more dangerous than any other team’s fourth scorer.

Miami leads the series 0-2. If Boston doesn’t find a way to break down Miami’s zone defense and defend the rim better themselves this series is going to be short. Maybe Hayward can help with that on Saturday night.