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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

Paul George scores 33 in Clippers debut, but it’s not enough to beat Pelicans

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Paul George expected to shoot well in his Clippers’ debut because his surgically repaired shoulders felt great.

It was the rest of his game – from ball handling to defense — that concerned him.

Jrue Holiday scored 36 points and stole the ball from George three times in the final minutes to lead the New Orleans Pelicans to a 132-127 victory over Los Angeles on Thursday night.

“I thought I was terrible,” said George, who was limited to 24 minutes by early foul trouble but still scored 33 points.

“That’s the best my shoulders have felt in a really long time, so I knew coming into tonight shooting wouldn’t be a problem,” George added. “Just playing basketball is what I’m lacking right now.”

George was playing for the first time since signing as a free agent with the Clippers because he’d been recovering from procedures in May on his right shoulder and June on his left.

“A lot of breakdowns happened because of my lack of being out there with those guys,” George said. “I’m here to win games and I didn’t get a win. … We had a chance to win tonight and a couple bad possessions in a row that we have down the stretch and we lose. That’s what I gauge good games and bad games on.”

Holiday, who had six steals in all, intercepted of Lou Williams‘ attempted bounce pass in the final seconds to seal the victory. The play capped off a night in which Holiday scored 12 in the final 4:20, including a pair of pivotal 3s.

“It felt good,: said Holiday, who hadn’t scored as many as 20 points in any of his previous eight games. It’s all about timing and rhythm. I felt like I got a little bit of that back tonight.”

Derrick Favors, in his first season with New Orleans, had 20 points and a career-best 20 rebounds in the first 20-20 game of his 10-year career.

“I’m starting to get comfortable now and just try to keep it going throughout the year,” Favors said. “It was a great game for me, a great game for the team, and we came out and played hard, but we just have to stay consistent.”

Frank Jackson added 23 points in a reserve role.

The Clippers played without Kawhi Leonard, who was being rested for the third time this season to ease stress on his sore knee after playing a night earlier in a loss at Houston. But the Pelicans were hardly sympathetic with starters Brandon Ingram (right knee) and Lonzo Ball (groin) sidelined, as well.

George’s 3 cut the Pelicans’ lead to 126-123 with 42 seconds left. But the Clippers left Jackson unguarded on the perimeter on the other end, and he took his time squaring up and connecting on his fourth 3 of the game to restore New Orleans’ six-point lead with 30 seconds left.

J.J. Reddick, who started and scored 19, hit two free throws with 11.4 seconds left to help wrap up just New Orleans’ third victory in 11 games this season.

Williams scored 31 points and Rodney McGruder 20 for the Clippers, who’ve dropped two straight.

 

Marcus Morris’ stepback three game-winner gives Knicks revenge in Kristaps Porzingis’ return

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The boos started during lay-up lines, grew deafening when he was introduced, and once the game got rolling “KP Sucks” chants echoed through Madison Square Garden.

Knicks fans wanted revenge on Kristaps Porzingis.

Marcus Morris — one of the guys New York spent all that cap space they got in the Porzingis trade on — gave it to them with a game-winning stepback three.

The Knicks beat the Mavericks 106-103.

Porzingis had 20 points on 7-of-17 shooting, plus 11 rebounds in his return to MSG. Not exactly a “you’re going to miss me” game to frustrate Knicks fans, but better than most of his games to start the season. After 20 months off, Porzingis is still shaking off the rust, and getting used to playing next to Luke Doncic (who had a triple-double of 33 points, 11 assists, and 10 rebounds). Still, he made some plays.

Morris had 20 for the Knicks leading a balanced attack. Julius Randle added 17.

From LeBron through Patrick Mahomes, everyone reacting to Carmelo Anthony return

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Carmelo Anthony is back in the NBA — he is signing with the Portland Trail Blazers.

While Anthony didn’t have a lot of love in NBA front offices, he remains wildly popular among other players and fans. Something obvious on NBA Twitter in the wake of the Anthony news breaking. Check out the reactions from other players.

It’s not just NBA players who were pumped about the return of ‘Melo.

There were also great fan and media reactions.

 

Portland reportedly signs Carmelo Anthony to non-guaranteed contract

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Off to an ugly 4-8 start this season — despite Damian Lillard tearing it up at an MVP level — the Portland Trail Blazers are desperate for any help in the frontcourt they can find, especially a four who can stretch the floor.

Enter Carmelo Anthony.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the story.

He will join the team during its upcoming six-game road trip. Lillard is reportedly on board with this.

Portland visits Houston on Monday of that road trip — the last team that ‘Melo played for.

This is really a low-risk move by the Blazers thanks to the non-guaranteed contract. If it doesn’t work out, Portland just moves on.

Anthony has been searching for a path back into the NBA through most of last season — the Rockets let him go after just 10 games, deciding to part ways — and this past summer, with no takers until now. Two issues were holding teams back. First has been concern about his willingness to accept a role. ‘Melo is losing the race with Father Time and is no longer a top offensive option, yet he reportedly wanted to be treated like one — and get the touches of one. There were concerns he would be disruptive, something he (and the people around him) pushed back hard against.

The second issue was ‘Melo’s defense, which has gone from not good to dreadful. In an NBA where big men now have to cover more in space, Anthony has been exposed. And will be again.

Portland was in the right position to roll the dice on Anthony.

Portland has an elite backcourt led by Damian Lillard, who is averaging 30.5 points per game and carrying the offense. His backcourt partner CJ McCollum has struggled out of the gate, but Portland isn’t really worried about him finding his rhythm soon and getting back to being himself.

The frontcourt, however, has been a disaster. Jusuf Nurkic — their third-best player last season, and at points arguably their second-best — is out until likely after the All-Star break from a fractured leg that required surgery. The Blazers had hoped Zach Collins would take a step forward this season and fill that role both at the five and as a stretch four, but he is out four months following shoulder surgery. Pau Gasol was signed this summer but he has yet to step on the court and is battling a foot issue.

Hassan Whiteside was a big off-season signing, but he has played like he always has — sporadic effort and empty calorie stats. His inability to set a good pick has hurt the ability of Lillard and McCollum to find space. Beyond that, Anthony Tolliver and Skal Labissiere getting plenty of minutes.

In that context, adding Anthony to see if it can work out makes sense.

If not, the Blazers can just move on, but you know Anthony will be motivated to make this work.