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Cavaliers, Celtics ready for Eastern Conference finals rematch

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BOSTON (AP) — The jerseys and venues will be the same, but so much has changed since the last time Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics met in the Eastern Conference finals.

Kyrie Irving was dealt to Boston in a blockbuster offseason deal for Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder. But following a roster upheaval in February, the Cavs were left with only five players from last year’s team that rolled past the Celtics 4-1 to earn a place in the NBA Finals.

Irving will watch this year’s rematch from the sideline after a pair of knee surgeries late in the regular season denied him an opportunity to play this postseason. It was the capstone of an injury-plagued year in Boston that also saw the seasons of Gordon Hayward and rookie Daniel Theis truncated.

The one constant has been Cleveland’s LeBron James, who at age 33 has again found another gear in the playoffs despite the different pieces surrounding him. His 34.3 scoring average in these playoffs is his highest since the 2009 postseason.

James can become the sixth player in league history to play in at least eight consecutive NBA Finals. The five others who have done so all played with the Celtics, led by Hall of Famer Bill Russell’s run of 10 straight appearances.

James hasn’t yet had a chance to reflect on his own run but says he isn’t taking anything for granted at this point in his career.

“You dream about being able to play in big games in the NBA and even when I got to the NBA that was one of my only goals to be as great as I can be, to play in big games in the NBA and be remembered and I think I’ve done that in my career,” he said. “Just trying to add onto it while I can.”

The series starts Sunday in Boston. This is the eighth playoff matchup between the teams overall, with the Celtics leading 4-3.

The Celtics are seeking their first trip to the NBA Finals since 2010, when they got past James and the Cavs in the East semifinals.

Since Irving’s injury, Celtics coach Brad Stevens has relied heavily on veteran Al Horford and a youthful corps that includes 24-year-olds Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart, 21-year-old Jaylen Brown and 20-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum.

Horford is averaging career playoff-high 17 points per game, while carrying the leadership torch.

Rozier has flourished in a starting role since Irving was sidelined in mid-March. It’s carried over into the postseason where he is averaging 18.2 points per game. And Tatum is coming of a series against Philadelphia that saw him average 23.6 points per game – the second-highest by a Celtics rookie in franchise history.

“I feel like we more together (than last year),” Rozier said. “Obviously guys been going down all year and it’s like you never know who’s going to down. But we found a way, we pulled together.”

As for Rozier’s prediction for the series?

“Stay tuned,” he said.

 

Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/khightower

Devin Booker says after latest Suns’ win “Kobe’s with me every day”

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Devin Booker grew up a huge Kobe Bryant fan. When Booker made the league in 2016 he got to play against his idol and threw up 28 points on the night. Kobe was impressed. The two talked after the game and Kobe gave him an autographed pair of shoes with an inspirational message:

“Be Legendary.”

Booker took that to heart. He got the phrase as a tattoo. He’s been writing “Be Legendary” on his Nike’s before every game in the bubble. And after he scored 20 against the Pacers Thursday, helping the Suns remain undefeated for the restart, he said Kobe is still inspiring him every day.

“Kobe’s with me every day. You guys see what I put on my shoes with the ‘Be Legendary.’ It’s a reminder.”

Whatever he’s doing, it is working. Booker hit a Kobe-like turnaround game-winner to beat the Clippers. He’s averaging 28 points and 6.5 assists a game for the restart, and shooting 40% from three. Defenses are keying on him, but with a healthy Deandre Ayton and other players stepping up — Cameron Johnson has been a surprise standout in Orlando — the Suns look sharp and keep on winning.

Kobe would be proud.

 

Giannis Antetokounmpo drops 33 on Heat, Bucks secure No. 1 seed

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton scored 33 points each, and the Milwaukee Bucks overcame a huge early deficit to get a 130-116 win over the Miami Heat on Thursday to clinch the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

The Heat led by as many as 23 points in a first half where the team piled up 73 points despite playing without Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic. Miami cooled off after the break and the Bucks took the lead in the third quarter but were down by 6 to start the fourth.

Antetokounmpo, the favorite to win his second MVP award, sat out about five minutes of the fourth quarter after collecting his fifth foul with 11 minutes to go. Milwaukee trailed by 1 with about five minutes remaining before using a 20-0 run, with three dunks from Antetokounmpo, to make it 130-111 with less than a minute to go and cruise to the victory.

Antetokounmpo and Middleton played 30 and 34 minutes respectively after the stars both sat out the entire second half of their last game on Tuesday.

Duncan Robinson had 21 points for the Heat, who lost to Milwaukee for the first time this season after winning the first two meetings.

The Heat led by 6 with about 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter when Antetokounmpo picked up his fifth foul on a charge and headed to the bench. Andre Iguodala made a 3 for Miami before the Bucks scored the next 13 points, capped by a 3 from Bledsoe, to take a 107-103 lead with about seven minutes remaining.

Robinson made a 3-pointer to end a scoring drought of almost four minutes for Miami with about 6 ½ minutes to go and Antetokounmpo re-entered the game soon after that.

The Heat led by 12 with about 10 minutes left in third quarter before Milwaukee used a 16-3 run to take an 82-81 lead with five minutes left in the quarter. Antetokounmpo and Wesley Matthews each had five points each in that span to help close the gap.

The Bucks cut the lead to 3 with a dunk by Antetokounmpo late in the third. But the Heat wrapped up the quarter with a 5-2 spurt to take a 98-92 lead into the fourth.

Report: Bulls likely to keep Jim Boylen as coach for financial reasons

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The Bulls appeared ready to fire Jim Boylen. After all, Chicago just hired a new team president in Arturas Karnisovas who’d want to pick his own coach. That was unlikely to be Boylen, whose tenure had been defined by players disliking him, ill-timed timeouts and losing.

Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:

But as the Sun-Times learned this week, even if Karnisovas didn’t like what he would have seen from Boylen he would likely be handcuffed from making a change.

According to several sources, there is strong growing momentum that financial concerns the Reinsdorfs have about the 2020-21 NBA season will keep Boylen in his current seat, as well as most of the coaching staff.

Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf has earned a reputation for his frugality. However, the economic downturn surrounding the coronavirus pandemic has caused many teams to tighten their belts. The financial consequences will likely continue into next season.

But this puts Chicago at a disadvantage.

Boylen has looked like one of the NBA’s worst coaches. Though Bulls ownership is more optimistic than most on Boylen and he could exceed expectations, it’s telling that Chicago probably wouldn’t have kept him based on merit. This is about saving money and hoping for the best.

That’s obviously great news for Boylen. He has improved significantly since taking over last season. More time on the job could allow him to grow into it. That said, improving from a near-mutiny in his early days doesn’t exactly mean he’s in an acceptable place now. Boylen still has a long way to go, and it could be more difficult if players are tired of him.

Nets fined $25K for injury-reporting violation

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Earlier this season, Kyrie Irving missed several weeks with a shoulder injury. Throughout the absence, the Nets provided few details and no clear timeline. Eventually, a report said Irving could miss 2-3 additional weeks with bursitis. The Nets denied it. Later, Irving confirmed he had bursitis then returned nearly three weeks after the report.

Finally, Brooklyn caught the league’s ire.

NBA release:

The NBA today announced that the Brooklyn Nets have been fined $25,000 for failing to comply with league policies governing injury reporting.

It’s unclear what specifically caused this violation. Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, Jarrett Allen, Jamal Crawford and Rodions Kurucs have all appeared on the Nets’ injury report during the resumption. As 19-point underdog, Brooklyn pulled a historic upset of the Bucks. Remember, public injury disclosures are primarily about preserving gambling integrity.

For the NBA not to reveal even basic details while fining the Nets for their lack of transparency is ironic. It’s also ironic this fine comes amid a restart that featured the NBA being highly secretive about player heath.

The Clippers got fined $50,000 earlier this season for saying Kawhi Leonard was healthy. What did Brooklyn do that was less egregious but still worth of a fine?