Boston Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers preview: Three things to watch

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Before the season tipped off, this is the Eastern Conference Finals we expected. However, the path to get here was nothing like we envisioned. Gordon Hayward out. Kyrie Irving out. Cleveland radically shaking up its roster at the trade deadline.

Yet in the end, here we are — a repeat of last year’s conference finals that the Cavaliers won. They are the favorites again, but this series is not going to be a sweep like the round before, the Celtics are disciplined and playing at a higher level than anyone the Cavs have seen this postseason. Boston has a shot to win this.

Here are three things to watch in this series.

1) Can the Celtics wear down LeBron James with multiple fresh defenders? The question isn’t “who is guarding LeBron?” but rather “how many guys will be guarding LeBron?” The Celtics have a wealth of defenders who will get their turn on The King: Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris, Jayson Tatum (in very limited stints), Semi Ojeleye (off the bench), heck I wouldn’t be surprised to see Brad Stevens ask Dave Cowens if he can still give them 10 good minutes. The idea is to keep fresh bodies on LeBron and hope that he wears down just a little having to work harder to get his shots.

The bigger question is how will the Celtics choose to defend LeBron? In the last two series, Boston was willing to largely single cover the opposing team’s star and let him rack up points — Giannis Antetokounmpo then Joel Embiid — but then stay home on the shooters and the rest of the players. It’s a good plan, one the Raptors tried to employ last round — rookie OG Anunoby did a respectable job on LeBron (as much as can be expected) but the Raptors did not silence Kevin Love, Kyle Korver, or J.R. Smith. If Boston goes with this system they will face a serious challenge because LeBron is both a high IQ player and a gifted passer. However, Boston is a far more disciplined defense that is far more switchable, has far more mobile big men, and doesn’t make the mistakes that Toronto (and before them Indiana did). Boston is going to follow the standard book to a degree and try to turn LeBron into a jumpshooter. LeBron is going to have to carry an even bigger load this series. He’s also fully capable of that.

2) Will a season of bad defensive habits from the Cavaliers catch up with them? No need to rehash how the Celtics were 29th in the NBA in defense during the regular season, but if you think they have been much better in the playoffs, think again: Cleveland allowed 109.5 points per 100 possessions during the regular season, it has been 108.4 per 100 in the playoffs (10th out of the 16 teams). Cleveland’s defensive effort has been better, as it will be in this series, but their communication and recognition have not been sharp.

That’s something Boston can exploit because this is not a team where the defense can just target one guy (Victor Oladipo) or even two (Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan). The Celtics get their buckets out of their system and trust all five guys on the floor to make the right pass, the right cut, and when the time comes take the shot.

Boston makes a defense work for the entire 24 seconds, Cleveland has not been good at second and third defensive efforts. Cavaliers’ defenders can get twisted around on pick-and-rolls, and particularly dribble handoffs (which the Celtics run a lot of). All of which is to say Boston is going to rack up points in this series. The challenge will be getting stops against that Cavalier offense on the other end.

3) How will Cleveland primarily defend Al Horford, with Kevin Love or Tristan Thompson? The answer to this question is less about Horford and more about Tyronn Lue’s philosophy for the series, is he thinking offensively or defensively? We’ll find out quickly with how he chooses to start the game against Boston. In the previous series against Toronto, Kevin Love started at the five and it was a huge advantage for Cleveland on offense because it pulled Jonas Valanciunas away from the basket and forced him to defend in space, something he struggled with (and JV couldn’t make Love pay on defense). However, in the first round against the Pacers, Thompson and his defensive presence in the paint — and on the offensive glass — proved to be important for Cleveland.

Boston brings Horford to the table — he is comfortable protecting the rim and playing inside, plus he can step out and defend on the perimeter. Love and Korver’s corner action is not going to flummox Horford like it did JV and the Raptors, he will sniff it out and make plays.

On the other end, something to watch: Boston may try to run a lot of pick-and-rolls with Horford setting the screen for LeBron’s man (or, if LeBron is on Jaylen Brown as he was often during the season, Brown sets the screen) just to force LeBron to switch and be active on defense. Yes that means pulling Cleveland’s best defender into the play, but it also makes LeBron work on defense, where mostly the Cavs try to hide him and let him rest until key moments of the game. This is part of the “wear him ou”t strategy from above.

Mike Budenholzer no fan of Drake’s free run on Toronto sideline

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Drake is the Mayor of Toronto.

Actually, he does fewer drugs than some former mayors of Toronto, and Drake was not elected, but he’s The Mayor in any meaningful way. The man can do whatever he wants.

Such as walk up and down the sidelines of a Raptors game with impunity, and give Nick Nurse a massage during the game.

Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer has much bigger things to worry about — such as were Eric Bledsoe misplaced his shot — but somehow during his conference call with the media on Wednesday, before a critical Game 5, Drake was the topic of discussion. Budenholzer is not a fan of Drake getting to patrol the sidelines. Via ESPN:

“I will say, again, I see [Drake talking to Raptors] in some timeouts, but I don’t know of any person that’s attending the game that isn’t a participant in the game a coach,  I’m sorry, a player or a coach, that has access to the court. I don’t know how much he’s on the court. It sounds like you guys are saying it’s more than I realize. There’s certainly no place for fans and, you know, whatever it is exactly that Drake is for the Toronto Raptors. You know, to be on the court, there’s boundaries and lines for a reason, and like I said, the league is usually pretty good at being on top of stuff like that.”

My guess is the league (and maybe the referees before Game 6 in Toronto) will reach out to Drake and tell him he can’t go Joe Biden on a coach during the game, and to stay near his seat. This is precisely the kind of distraction from the game that fans love to talk about and annoys the league office, which wants the focus on the court.

Personally, the more personality around the game, the better. It’s entertainment people, enjoy the show.

Knicks president Mills says Porzingis threatened to return to Europe if not traded in seven days

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If you thought the Knicks thrashing or Kristaps Porzingis on his way out the door was over, well, you haven’t been paying attention to the Knicks.

Team president Steve Mills was at a Knicks fan forum on Wednesday and was asked about the Kristaps Porzingis trade and dropped this bomb: Porzingis gave the Knicks the ultimatum of “trade me or I’m going back to Europe.”

“When he walked into our office, my office, and Scott [Perry, Knicks GM] was sitting there with me, and point blank said to us, ‘I don’t want to be here, I’m not going to re-sign with the Knicks, and I’ll give you seven days to try and trade me or I’m going back to Europe.'”

To be clear, Porzingis had to mean going back to Europe to work out and hang out, he could not have played professionally. European clubs honor commitments to NBA contracts — they will not sign and play a guy under an NBA contract — the same way the NBA does with European clubs (as well as China and all FIBA leagues).

Saying he wasn’t going to re-sign makes things clear, it’s one of the reasons the NBA touted the “super-max” contract extensions because teams would find out earlier about player intentions. The Europe part, if Porzingis really said that, is a toothless threat.

For the Knicks brass, speaking in front of Knicks fans, this was the chance to make themselves look good — “see, we already had a good trade in place” — and thrash the guy they had been selling as the franchise savior a year before. It’s all about perception.

The Knicks have a lot of cap space this summer and their perception as a front office will hinge on what they do — or do not do — with it.

Porzingis landed in a good spot with Luka Doncic in Dallas, and the Mavericks will give Porzingis a max contract. Then it’s on him to earn it.

New Suns coach Monty Williams: ‘I’m here at the right time, and I’m here with the right people’

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PHOENIX (AP) The Phoenix Suns have gone through coaches like tear-away racing visors, the count up to five in five years.

The instability has hurt them on the court, the run of playoff-less appearances stretching to nine straight seasons with this year’s 19-63 finish.

Monty Williams, the man GM James Jones hired to coach the Suns, hopes to change the trend.

“Continuity, having a staff here for a while and putting in a system that the players can rely upon, but ultimately it will come down to James, myself and the players pushing this thing forward,” Williams said during his introductory news conference Tuesday. “The players are going to have to embrace a level of work and commitment that it takes to be a champion.”

Williams was hired on May 3 to replace Igor Kokoskov, who was fired after one season in the desert.

Williams’s arrival in Phoenix was delayed while he finished out the playoffs as an assistant to Philadelphia coach Brett Brown. The 76ers were eliminated from the playoffs last week by Toronto on Kawhi Leonard‘s hang-on-the-rim buzzer-beater in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Williams’ name had been linked to numerous head coaching jobs, including the Lakers, but he wound up in the Valley of the Sun after multiple discussions with Suns owner Robert Sarver.

“In my conversations with Mr. Sarver, I saw someone who didn’t duck the tough questions,” Williams said. “We both had tough questions for each other and in this day and age where people throw each other under the bus, make excuses, blame, I didn’t see that. I saw a man who really wants to bring success to this city and I mean that with all of my heart or I wouldn’t have come here.”

Williams had a previous stint as an NBA head coach, leading New Orleans from 2010-15. A year after he was fired, Williams’ wife, Ingrid, was killed in a car crash.

He didn’t know if he wanted to get back into coaching after her death, but was pushed by his kids to return to coaching the sport he loves.

“When everything happened to my family, my focus was just take care of my children,” said Williams, who has remarried. “That led me to believe I might not ever be able to coach again, and I was cool with that. But they weren’t. And to have your children want you to go back to doing what you love to do gave me even more confidence, more strength. Hopefully that translates and the players can pick up on that.”

The Suns have been known as a dysfunctional franchise, but were lauded for landing Williams, a well-respected, well-rounded coach.

Williams played nine NBA seasons with New York, San Antonio, Denver, Orlando and Philadelphia. He’s been a head coach, an assistant and spent two years in San Antonio’s front office.

“His experience in all facets of basketball as a coach, player development on the offensive side of the ball and the defensive side of the ball, in the front office gives him a unique perspective that I think is well suited for our franchise,” Jones said.

In the Suns, Williams takes over a young team with two star-quality players at its core: Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton.

Booker has developed into one of the NBA’s best scorers, leading the Suns with 26.6 points per game. He had five 40-point games the final month of the season, including 50 and 59 in consecutive games.

Ayton was the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s NBA draft and didn’t disappoint, shooting 59% while averaging 16.3 points and 10.3 rebounds.

Phoenix should add to its talent base with the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft.

“There’s so much room to grow,” Williams said. “I think we have a young team that’s learning how to win and they will and I have to do my job. I have to enhance the strengths but be honest about our weaknesses and get the players to consider a new way of doing some things. I think I’m here at the right time and I’m here with the right people.”

Hornets’ Miles Bridges on All-Rookie: ‘I didn’t get snubbed. I played like a— all year’

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The NBA released its All-Rookie teams yesterday. Hornets forward Miles Bridges missed out, getting only one first-team vote and four second-team votes.

Bridges:

I love this attitude. Bridges didn’t deserve to make it. It’s silly to for anyone, including him, to pretend otherwise.

He’s obviously being too hard on himself. He had an OK rookie year. It just wasn’t one of the NBA’s 10 best this season.

Players often hold inflated opinions of themselves. That might help them succeed in a high-pressure job, and that’s obviously their priority. To be clear: I’m not criticizing them for adopting an approach that helped them reach this high level. But it leaves them as lousy analysts of their own performance.

Bridges doesn’t have that problem. It’s easy to see how this will drive him to improve.

His humility won’t work for everyone. But it works for him, and it’s a refreshing change of pace.