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Conference leaders Rockets, Raptors collide

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TORONTO — One winning streak will end Friday night in a meeting between conference leaders at the Air Canada Centre.

The Houston Rockets (51-13), who are first in the Western Conference, have a more impressive winning streak at 17 games on the line after defeating the Bucks 110-99 on Wednesday in Milwaukee.

The Eastern Conference-leading Toronto Raptors (47-17) have quietly built a six-game winning streak that includes a 121-119 overtime win over the Pistons on Wednesday in Detroit. The Raptors clinched a postseason spot with the victory in which guard DeMar DeRozan scored 42 points.

The Raptors look forward to challenging the Rockets on their home court after defeating the Rockets 129-113 on Nov. 14 in Houston.

“We know they are one of the best teams in the league,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “We feel like we’re one of the top teams. It’ll be a good test for us. I’m hoping we have a hot gym, (the fans) get so excited that they make it a hostile situation for Houston.”

The Raptors were supported by a strong Canadian contingent for their game in Detroit.

“I loved it,” Casey said. “It felt like we were at home. My hats off to the fans. They presented themselves and they helped us when times were tough.”

The Rockets have a devastating guard combination in Chris Paul and James Harden. They become particularly tough when the game is on the line as they showed again Wednesday when the Bucks cut the lead to five points.

“We somewhat simplify it,” Paul said. “We know where different guys like the ball and most of the time it’s me or James doing the same thing we’ve been doing the rest of the game. We make the right play. If a guy helps, we kick it to the corner or wherever it may be. But we play the way that we play.”

Said Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni: “A lot of times it takes two, three years of learning how to close teams out best and all that. But these players, they want to get it done now.

They’re talking all the time: ‘What’s the best way to do this? What’s the best way to guard that?’ They’ve kind of figured out offensively who they can pick on and who they want to try to go to, who has the hot hand.”

The Rockets also have depth.

“You want to have some consistency,” Rockets forward Luc Mbah a Moute said. “It prepares you for when stuff happens. I think at the end of the day, you want consistency to know how you play, who you play with.

“So far, this season has been kind of hectic. There is always someone out. At the beginning, Chris (Paul) was out. We’ve been able to fill in with other guys. I want to say it prepares us better. It’s good for us in general. I like to have more consistency, but I guys you can say it prepares us if something happens.”

Rockets swingman Joe Johnson missed his second straight game because of illness Wednesday.

The Raptors also showed their depth Wednesday.

Forward OG Anunoby missed his fourth straight game with a sprained ankle.

Forward Serge Ibaka was ejected from the game in the second quarter and guard Delon Wright left during the first half with a sprained right toe that was sustained in the home game against the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday. Both are considered questionable to play Friday.

Raptors struggling swingman Norman Powell, who started at small forward for the second time in four games, came up with one of his strongest games of the season with 17 points. Powell had totaled 16 points in his previous 10 games.

“I control the effort I put in, how hard I work,” Powell said. “Just leave the rest on the floor and see what happens. If it doesn’t go that way, you just keep fighting, keep looking at the big picture, and plugging away at it. Long season, long career, you know?”

In the first meeting, DeRozan scored 27 points and the Raptors built a big first-half lead. Harden had 38 points and made 19 of 19 foul shots for the Rockets, whose six-game winning stopped with that loss.

Gordon Hayward does not plan to leave bubble for birth of son

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When Boston first went to the NBA restart bubble in Orlando, Gordon Hayward was upfront: He was leaving the bubble for the birth of his fourth child.

Hayward ended up leaving the bubble for another reason β€” he severely sprained his ankle and was out for more than a month. During his rehab, Hayward left the bubble and spent time at home, returning a couple of weeks ago. Saturday he played his first game back for Boston, helping it to a win against the Heat.

Hayward’s wife, Robyn, has yet to have their son, but now Hayward does not plan to leave the bubble for the event, something first reported by Rachel Nichols of ESPN during Saturday’s game.

Hayward confirmed this after the game. So did Robyn in a social media post, adding the reports she was in labor already were not true.

I don’t envy the Hayward family having to make this choice. As a parent, I can’t imagine having missed the births of any of my children, but, like everything else in 2020, this is far from a typical decision at a typical time. The Haywards are making the best of it they can. They deserve support no matter what they choose.

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,Β “I missed that on purpose.”Β 

“Yeah, right.”

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

Got to love Dion Waiters Jr. β€” 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 β€” providing more quality wing play and good decision making β€” 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 β€” an All-Defensive Team player β€” 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 β€” and they will need to close better, Miami made it interesting late β€” 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 β€” 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.