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In a watered down East, Celtics-Cavs is the best thing going

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — As star after star migrated from the Eastern Conference to the West this summer, the lesser of the NBA’s divisions got so watered down that some spice was badly needed.

Kyrie Irving delivered.

The mercurial guard stunned the rest of the league by requesting a trade away from LeBron James and the Cavaliers and the annual trip to the NBA Finals that comes with James. In subsequent interviews since he was traded to the Celtics, Irving has done little to smooth things over with the game’s best player or the franchise that drafted him No. 1 overall in 2011.

“It’s just really between two men,” Irving said last month when asked if he planned to reach out to James to clear the air. “If it happens or not, I’m pretty sure you guys won’t know about it.”

James didn’t hide his disappointment in Irving’s decision after teaming with him to go to the last three finals and win a championship two years ago.

“I tried to give him everything and give him as much of the DNA as I could,” he said. “At some point, when he was ready to take over the keys, I was ready to give them to him. So, the only thing I’m upset about is he took a lot of the DNA and a lot of the blueprint to Boston.”

James wasn’t the only one upset by the deal.

Isaiah Thomas was deeply wounded by Boston’s decision to trade him after an emotional and dominant season, setting the stage for a tense fight for conference supremacy.

“It definitely caught me off guard, but it also woke me up,” Thomas said. “It made me realize that this is a business and anybody other than probably LeBron James or Kevin Durant or those type of guys can be traded.”

This level of drama and intrigue is needed in a conference that lost Jimmy Butler, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague over the summer.

A look at the East, in predicted order of finish:

PLAYOFF BOUND

1. Cleveland – Death, taxes and LeBron in the finals.

2. Boston – The biggest question may be how will they account for the loss of Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder on defense.

3. Washington – John Wall and Bradley Beal are ready for prime time. Now they have to get the rest of the team to follow them.

4. Toronto – Perpetually overlooked around this time of year, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan refuse to give in. Adding C.J. Miles was an underrated score. If they can breathe a little more movement into their offense, they’ll be in the mix again.

5. Miami – Here’s betting the second half of last season (30-11) was a lot closer to what the Heat actually are than the first half (11-30) was. A team that plays as hard as they do could climb even higher in the wide-open East.

6. Milwaukee – Giannis Antetokounmpo – aka the Greek Freak – seems destined for MVP consideration in the very near future. Jabari Parker‘s recovery may keep him out until February, which could hinder the Bucks’ climb up the ladder this season.

7. Charlotte – Here is where it starts to get really tricky. This is a vote of confidence in coach Steve Clifford’s ability to get more out of Dwight Howard than anyone since Stan Van Gundy.

8. Philadelphia – If Joel Embiid is somehow able to stay healthy for 60 games or more, veterans like J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson should be able to usher these kids into the postseason.

IN THE MIX

1. Detroit – Getting Bradley from the Celtics is a nice fit for Van Gundy. The bigger issue will be getting a team that at times seemed fractured and miserable last season on to the same page. That starts with Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond.

2. Orlando – Someone has to be 10th. Adding Jonathan Isaac‘s defensive instincts to the roster is a plus, but it remains an imbalanced team light on shooters and long on big men in a league that is getting smaller by the day.

FACING LONG ODDS

1. New York – New GM Scott Perry is boldly trying to go where few Knicks executives have gone – to Rebuilding Road. Now that Carmelo Anthony and Phil Jackson are gone, it’s Kristaps Porzingis and a bunch of unknowns trying to turn the corner.

2. Brooklyn – A year after posting the worst record in the NBA, the Nets should be … a little bit better. Coach Kenny Atkinson has more to work with in DeMarre Carroll, DeAngelo Russell and Allen Crabbe.

3. Indiana – Everyone knew Paul George was on his way out. That made deal-making difficult for GM Kevin Pritchard, and it showed in the return he got for one of the best players in the league. Now Myles Turner will have to step into the void, which is a big one.

4. Atlanta – That 60-win season seems longer than two years ago. New GM Travis Schlenk arrives from the Warriors, and it is going to take him some time to tear things down and build them back up.

5. Chicago – Likely opening night starting five: Jerian Grant, Justin Holiday, Paul Zipser, Nikola Mirotic and Robin Lopez. Enough said.

WHAT TO KNOW

LEBRON’S FUTURE: There are more than just whispers that James will leave the Cavaliers after this season, with the Lakers and Clippers as two potential suitors. James has said he intends to finish his career in Cleveland, but that doesn’t figure to quiet the questions until he signs a new contract next summer.

SIMMONS DEBUTS: 76ers G/F Ben Simmons, last year’s No. 1 overall pick, missed the entire season with a foot injury. He is ready to go this year, giving the Sixers even more hope that all the pain of the last few years is finally behind them.

HAYWARD’S IMPACT: Gordon Hayward was one of the few stars to leave the Western Conference for the East this summer. How quickly he assimilates with Irving and Al Horford will directly impact Boston’s ability to unseat the Cavs.

HOT SEAT: In a volatile industry, the NBA went an entire season without a coaching change for the first time since 1963-64. The odds of that remarkable stretch of stability holding until the start of next season are remarkably small. Van Gundy, Clifford, New York’s Jeff Hornacek and Indiana’s Nate McMillan enter the season under scrutiny.

 

Donovan Mitchell goes off for 19 in fourth quarter, Jazz hold off elimination with win

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This game just felt different — the Utah Jazz were playing with a passionate desperation we had not seen from them all series. Down 3-0 to Houston, Utah did not want to be swept out of the playoffs on their home court. The Jazz defended better, got a big night from Jae Crowder (14 points in the first quarter alone), and were knocking down shots.

But Utah could not pull away. Houston was always within striking distance.

Until the fourth quarter.

That’s when Utah went on a 12-1 run early, sparked by Donovan Mitchell who had 19 in the fourth, and the Jazz created some separation and held on for the 107-91 win.

Mitchell finished with 31 on the night.

Mitchell had some help. Crowder finished with 23 points, while Ricky Rubio added 18 points and 11 assists.

“We were okay until the last quarter… again, they had more of a desperation than we had,” Rockets’ coach Mike D’Antoni said.

James Harden got his, 30 points on 19 shots, in part because he went 6-of-12 from three. Chris Paul had 23 as well. All the other Rockets combined to shoot 29.3 percent on the night. In the fourth, the Rockets were 0-of-13 from three.

For the Rockets this is a blown chance to get more rest. The Warriors play Wednesday night in Game 5 of their series, if the Rockets had closed the series out they could have had a little more rest. Instead, they also now have a Game 5 Wednesday.

For the Jazz, this was a matter of pride, they finally found what it would take for them to beat the Rockets. It was their most energized defensive performance of the series, and the shots were falling. The series is not in doubt — no team has ever come back from a 0-3 deficit to win a series — but the Jazz showed the fight and resilience we have come to expect from a Quin Snyder coached team.

Will that be enough Wednesday night is another question.

Phoenix Suns fire coach Igor Kokoskov

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Following a 19-63 season where the man who hired him — GM Ryan McDonough — was already shown the door, there was a lot of speculation that coach Igor Kokoskov was next on the chopping block.

That happened Monday night, the Suns decided to move on from Kokoskov.

“After extensive evaluation, I determined it is best to move in a different direction with our head coaching position,” said Suns general manager James Jones in a statement. “I want to thank Igor for his work this past season and wish him the best with his future endeavors.”

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN added some detail.

The Suns recently hired Jeff Bower as their senior vice president of basketball operations. Bower gave Monty Williams his first head coaching job, hiring him to coach the Hornets back when Bower was the GM there.

Williams will have his second interview with the Lakers next week. Williams is rumored in some quarters to be the frontrunner for the Los Angeles job (he and Tyronn Lue will have second interviews coming), the Suns are starting this race from behind but do have a relationship there.

Kokoskov was the first European born person to be a head coach in the NBA. He was Luka Doncic‘s national team coach, but the Suns took Deandre Ayton No. 1 (reportedly at the urging of owner Robert Saver).

Kokoskov was handed a young roster that lacked a point guard or solid veteran leader, so it’s no surprise the Suns and Kokoskov got off to a slow start, going 4-18 and looking a mess. However, the team improved, Kelly Oubre Jr. was added, and the Suns went an improved 8-15 after the All-Star break, including wins against the Bucks and Warriors. Devin Booker improved, Deandre Ayton was growing, and the team showed improvement. That said, there were questions about Kokoskov’s rotations and communication with players.

Phoenix, with meddling owner Robert Sarver at the helm, is known for turnover and instability — whoever is hired next will be the team’s seventh head coach in eight years. This move just fits right in with the perception.

 

Bucks win first playoff series in 18 years, give Pistons longest playoff-game losing streak in NBA history

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DETROIT – Between on-court postgame interviews, Giannis Antetokounmpo took a pit stop at the Bucks’ bench for a drink. He appeared to need a few moments to catch his breath, so Fox Sports Wisconsin reporter Katie George asked whether he was ready.

Antetokounmpo nodded as if he didn’t give it a second thought.

Of course he was ready.

Antetokounmpo was ready for everything tonight.

He scored 41 points – the most so far by anyone this postseason – and blocked four shots to lead the Bucks to a 127-104 Game 4 win over the Pistons. By sweeping Detroit, Milwaukee got its first playoff-series victory in 18 years.

“Where we were and where we are right now,” Antetokounmpo said, “it’s been an unbelievable journey.”

The Bucks advance to face the Celtics in the second round, an awaited rematch of last year’s first-round series. But Milwaukee cared far more about its opening round than most 60-win No. 1 seeds do.

Every NBA MVP besides Kevin Garnett, who didn’t advance until his ninth year, won a playoff series in his first five seasons. Antetokounmpo, who’s favored to win MVP this year, just won his first series in his sixth season.

The wait has been even longer for Milwaukee, which ends the fourth-longest playoff-series-victory drought of all-time at 17 seasons:

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The Bucks left no doubt, beating Detroit by 35, 21, 16 and 23. This is just the second four-game sweep with every game won by at least 15 points in NBA history (Celtics over Rockets in 1980).

The sweep gives the Pistons sole possession of the longest playoff-game losing streak of all-time, 14 games:

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Detroit’s streak includes 2009 and 2016 sweeps by the Cavaliers, meaning the Pistons have now gone 11 straight seasons without winning a playoff game. That’s one of the longest such droughts of all-time (record during drought listed):

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Detroit just had no answer for Antetokounmpo, who drew 16 fouls Monday. The most impressive came as he rose to dunk on Andre Drummond, withstood contact and shifted to make a circus shot:

The play left his teammates in awe.

Eric Bledsoe: “I had to tell him, ‘Bro, you don’t understand how athletic you’ve been all season and finessing at the rim.’ That one, it was just unbelievable. It was unbelievable, man.”

Pat Connaughton: “There are sometimes you’ve just got to shake your head at some of the things that he can do. … I think the nickname ‘Freak’ is for a reason.”

Nikola Mirotic: “It was just amazing watching him tonight”

The Bucks will have a little time to lock back in.

Milwaukee-Boston will be the first series between teams coming off sweeps since Lakers-Suns in the 2010 Western Conference finals. It’ll be the first such second-round series since Pistons-Bulls in 2007.

As Antetokounmpo repeatedly said in the locker room after tonight’s game, “I can’t wait.”

Report: Luke Walton sued for sexual assault

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Luke Walton is being sued by a female reporter claiming sexual assault from a hotel room incident that dates back to before he was hired as the Lakers’ head coach (he was recently let go from that position and is currently the coach of the Sacramento Kings).

Kelli Tennant was writing a book and wanted Walton to write the forward, according to a lawsuit obtained by TMZ. The two had a business relationship and she agreed to meet him in a Santa Monica hotel to discuss him writing the forward to the book, according to the report. We’ll let TMZ take it from there:

In the suit, Tennant says when she arrived at Walton’s hotel, he convinced her to come up to his room so they could discuss the book. She claims when they got up to his room, Walton suddenly pinned her to the bed, placing his hips and legs over her body.

In the docs, Tennant claims Walton then began forcing kisses on her neck, face and chest. She claims she screamed for him to stop and tried to free herself, but he held her down, groped her breasts and groin, and rubbed his erection on her leg.

She says he eventually relented and let her get up from the bed, but as she was walking towards the door to leave he grabbed her from behind and again forced his body up against hers.

The lawsuit goes on to say Walton and her would interact after that, because of her job, and he would give her exaggerated hugs, kisses, and would make lewd comments to her.

Walton took over coaching the Lakers for the 2016-17 season. The alleged assault took place while Walton was still an assistant coach with the Warriors, however, some of the comments/actions that made her uncomfortable came later while Walton was with the Lakers.

Walton’s attorney released a statement to Sam Amick of The Athletic.

The Sacramento Kings have made a statement:

“We are aware of the report and are gathering additional information. We have no further comment at this time.”

The Warriors issued this statement:

“We became aware of the alleged incident and story this evening and are in the process of seeking more information. We’ll have no further comment at this time.”

The Lakers issued this statement:

“This alleged incident took place before Luke Walton was the Head Coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. At no time before or during his employment here was this allegation reported to the Lakers. If it had been, we would have immediately commenced an investigation and notified the NBA. Since Luke Walton is now under contract to another team, we will have no further comment.”