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Celtics hope return home can slow LeBron, Cavs in Game 5

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BOSTON (AP) — The Celtics expected to see a different LeBron James in Cleveland after the Cavaliers fell into a 2-0 hole to open the Eastern Conference finals

Two games and back-to-back wins later, James has reminded everyone exactly why he’s been to seven straight NBA finals.

Boston will be back in the embrace of its raucous fans at TD Garden for Game 5 on Wednesday. But a team that has thrived on youth this postseason suddenly looks disoriented without a go-to player and opposite a more veteran squad that has found a new attitude thanks to the fuel being provided by its biggest star.

“My teammates are putting me in position and wanting me to be in attack mode and trusting me to put our guys in position to be successful,” James said. “It’s not about me. It’s about the collective group, and I’m one of the byproducts of that.”

While the Cavs are certainly feeling rejuvenated, coach Tyronn Lue said it hasn’t changed their sense of urgency.

“We still gotta play,” Lue said. “We have veteran guys who have been there and know what it takes, but this is a young team, a good team that’s playing at home so experience is not going to be a factor. We have to come in there and have the same mentality that we had in Game 3 and 4.”

Two games ago, the numbers seemed all on the Celtics’ side.

They had moved to 9-0 at home during these playoffs and taken 2-0 series lead, which has been a magic number for a franchise yet to surrender such an advantage during its storied history (37-0). Over the last 96 minutes, Boston has been outscored by 39 points, has dropped to 1-6 on the road and is suddenly facing a must-win game to maintain home-court advantage.

Coach Brad Stevens said at the start of the playoffs that he believed there was value in the greenness of a young group that had several players getting their first taste of postseason basketball. He was proven right with Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum all thriving as first-time postseason starters.

Their success had the cumulative effect of masking the absences of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Now, the lack of an alpha like Irving capable of creating his own shot is sticking out with every 40-point game James produces.

Al Horford, Boston’s only healthy All-Star, was never a dominant scorer, but more of a facilitator who worked well in a finely tuned system.

Horford started off the series strong but his scoring and assist numbers have declined over the last two games.

Lue’s move to reinsert Tristan Thompson back into the starting lineup in Game 2 is a huge reason.

Thompson has not only helped things move better on the offensive end for Cleveland, he’s combined with Larry Nance to make things difficult on Horford. Horford had just four shots and seven points in 30 minutes in Game 3. He scored 15 points in Game 4 but was just 5-of-13 from the field with one assist.

If the Celtics are going to get back to the by-committee style that got them here, it must begin with his leadership. To that end, Horford said they’ll focus on correcting their issues, but also won’t dwell on them.

“As a group, we’re excited to be back, going back home,” he said. “Obviously we understand the challenge of it. We can’t think about the past. We just have to worry about this opportunity. We have a Game 5 at home, and we have to make the most of it.”

Cleveland is hoping James’ once quiet supporting cast continues its surge in Boston.

Kevin Love just missed his third straight double-double in Game 4 and sharpshooters JR Smith and Kyle Korver were 12 of 19 from the 3-point line in Games 3 and 4.

Korver’s efforts have stood out.

At 37 years old he was all over the court scoring in Game 4, diving for loose balls and collecting three blocks. While he anticipated being sore from all the activity, Korver said playing “fun basketball” is still propelling a guy looking for his first ring after appearing in 124 playoff games for five different teams during his 15-year career.

“There’s not many of us `03 class guys still around,” James said of Korver. “I feel like we’re just cut from a different cloth because we’ve been around for so long. We have this work ethic and you see him every day putting in the work, putting his mind, his body into it. It’s not about his age.”

 

Magic Johnson: I told Luke Walton not to worry if Lakers start slow with LeBron James

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The Heat started 9-8 in their first season with LeBron James. There were calls for Miami to fire coach Erik Spoelstra, maybe even from LeBron himself.

The Cavaliers started 19-20 in their first season with LeBron back. Coach David Blatt didn’t get off the hot seat until Cleveland fired him the next year.

How will Lakers coach Luke Walton fare coaching LeBron early this season?

Lakers president Magic Johnson, via Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN:

“As I was talking to Luke [with GM Rob Pelinka], we said don’t worry about if we get out to a bad start,” Johnson, the Lakers’ president of basketball operations, said Thursday as the team’s brass met with the media. “We have seen that with LeBron [James] going to Miami, and we have seen that when he came back to Cleveland. He is going to struggle because there are so many new moving parts. But eventually we are going to get it, and we are going to be really a good team.”

If the Lakers are committed to Walton, they did well to get ahead of the story. Last year, after LaVar Ball said Walton lost control of the team, the Lakers let the story get away from them.

These comments should also anchor Johnson. It’s one thing to soberly assess the situation, as Johnson can do now, and back Walton. It’s another to support the coach while dealing daily with the emotions of losing. Johnson can always look back to these comments as a reminder of his views if necessary.

And it could be necessary. The Lakers have some, um, interesting ideas about how they want to play. There could be significant growing pains.

But the Lakers seem ready to ride them out with Walton.

Rebuild? What’s that? Grizzlies bring in veterans, dream of playoffs

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This is the latest of NBC’s NBA season preview stories, and we will post at least one a day on these pages until Oct. 16, when the NBA season kicks off. We will look at teams and topics around the NBA throughout the series, with today the focus on Grizzlies.

When the NBA zigged, the Memphis Grizzlies… zigged.

The biggest factor in the Grizzlies offseason direction came last April when primary owner Robert Pera bought out two minority owners of the franchise, keeping control of the team. At the time there was a lot of buzz around the league about this being the right spot for Memphis to rebuild — trade 33-year-old Marc Gasol, trade 31-year-old Mike Conley, explore the trade market for the other veterans, and since they were already tanking to end last season have that draft pick (which turned out to be Jaren Jackson Jr.) as the first step along rebuild road.

Pera didn’t want a rebuild. End of story.

Instead, Pera had the team re-load and aim for the playoffs — and making it is not out of the question, if a lot of things go right. We’ll get back to that.

With ownership having set a direction, Memphis’ front office had a quality summer, prying Kyle Anderson out of San Antonio as a restricted free agent, plus adding solid veterans who can help like Garrett Temple, Omri Casspi, and Shelvin Mack. Last season, when the injury bug hit the Grizzlies hard — Conley only played 12 games — the lack of quality depth they could trust became the team’s downfall. This season, they have veterans who coach J.B. Bickerstaff can trust in a pinch.

In trying to predict this season’s Grizzlies, you learn little from last year’s team — they were 7-5 when both Conley and Gasol played, but that’s such a small sample size it’s near meaningless. However, the record in those dozen games fits with the previous 43-win season where Conley and Gasol played 63 games together. This season, 43 wins is not going to be enough to make the postseason in the West, but with a better bench they believe they will beat that number. Pera said there is no reason this can’t be a 50-win team.

Um… the rest of us see those reasons. But the Grizzlies can make the playoffs…

• If Conley and Gasol are both healthy and can play at least 65 games together, ideally more. They did that in 2014-15 (70 games) but in the three years since have averaged 40.3 together per season. While the talent around them is better, these are still the two best players on the team and they need both of them together to be a threat in the deep West.

• If they get some depth and help out of Chandler Parsons, who played 36 games last season, and that was better than the one before. Parsons wasn’t bad when he was on the court last season, he could contribute in the rotation, but he has to be healthy enough to do that.

• If the Grizzlies can get back to being an above average defensive team. The era of Gasol as Defensive Player of the Year is long gone but he can still be — and needs to be — a quality presence in the paint (with Jackson blocking shots). Mike Conley needs to return to form as one of the better defensive point guards in the NBA. With Gasol, Jackson, Anderson, and JaMychal Green the Grizzlies have the length inside to be a problem. The pieces are there to be good, but can this group execute in the halfcourt?

• If rookie Jaren Jackson can contribute, particularly defensively, starting this season. Jackson was one of the best players I saw at Summer League this year (particularly in Salt Lake City, by the time he got to Vegas and had played five games in seven days he was looking a little tired). He can be a defensive/shot blocking force right away, and his offensive game shows promise.

• If Kyle Anderson can work as a secondary shot creator. The question isn’t “can Anderson make some plays” because we know he can, we saw him as a good ball handler in San Antonio, a guy who averaged 1.01 points per possession as the pick-and-roll ball handler once you include passes (stat via Synergy Sports). While he has a nice enough spot-up jumper, he needs the ball in his hands, playing his slo-mo game, to be effective. Bickerstaff has to fit that into the offense.

• If Dillon Brooks can take a step forward and rookie Jevon Carter can bring the defense off the bench (once he gets healthy from his thumb injury, he could see some early season time in the G-League).

That’s a lot of “ifs.”

Probably too many “ifs” to make the playoffs in the deep and brutal West. Too many things need to go right. And if things start to go wrong… will they regret not going the rebuild direction?

Doesn’t matter now, the call has been made. Memphis is making another run at it.

Assessing Jimmy Butler’s trade value

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Thanks to his trade request, Jimmy Butler instantly became the hottest name on the NBA’s trade block. How much is he worth to teams that want to deal for him? The answer is particularly complex, with numerous – significant – factors pulling each direction.

Pro: Production

This sounds simple, but it’s an important place to start: Butler is really good at basketball. He aces every test. Traditional stats, advanced stats and old-school scouting all reveal an elite player.

Over the last two years, Butler has averaged 23.1 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game. A large majority of times a player hit those marks for a full season, he got MVP votes.

Butler’s real plus-minus has steadily climbed over the years – from 69th to 23rd to 18th to 7th all the way to 4th last season. His individual numbers aren’t empty. He immensely positively impacts winning.

Just watch him play. He’s a force on both ends. He digs into his man defensively and takes charge offensively. He’s not fancy, but he steadily creates and converts good shots while adding an excellent all-around game. He just does so many little things – making the right pass, the right rotation, etc. – to help his team.

Con: Age

Butler will turn 30 before playing on his next deal. He’s reaching the age most players decline, and a long-term deal would surely take him past that point.

Con: Mileage

Tom Thibodeau coached four All-Stars who were in their 20s with the Bulls – Butler, Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng. The other three have aged terribly, and it doesn’t seem like total coincidence. It’s not just heavy playing time, though Butler has consistently ranked near the top of the league in minutes per game. Thibodeau also pushes his players hard in practice.

Con: Cost

Butler’s max next summer projects to be $190 million over five years if he re-signs or $141 million over four years if he leaves his team. Given the previous two concerns, that’s a scary amount of money.

Few think as highly of Butler as I do. Even I would be leery of maxing him out over the most possible years.

Pro: Work ethic

Butler is one of the NBA’s hardest workers. Even while taking a social-media shot at Andrew Wiggins‘ brother, Butler was working out.

He didn’t just get lucky in his rise from overlooked college recruit to No. 30 pick to NBA star. He earned his rise by putting in the work.

Pro: Example set

Not only does Butler’s strong work ethic help him, it can inspire teammates. Some young players just don’t understand how much effort it takes to thrive in the NBA, but they can look to Butler as a model. Ideally, everyone follow his lead.

Con: Patience

However, not every player wants to work that hard. Some just want to get by, and Butler – understandably, considering his background – doesn’t have much patience for that. His testiness toward teammates who didn’t match his competitiveness and effort caused problems in Minnesota and Chicago. If he wants to be a leader for all situations, Butler must get better at lifting teammates who aren’t on his level. Coarseness doesn’t work on everyone.

Pro: Kyrie Irving friendship

Butler is close with Kyrie Irving, and there has been plenty of chatter about the two playing together. That type of talk occurs way more often than stars actually team up. But getting Butler could mean an inside track on signing Irving, who can become an unrestricted free agent next summer.

Pro: Availability

Butler’s trade request tanked the Timberwolves leverage. They proceed as if they’ll keep him, but everyone knows he wants out.

Some interested teams will wait to try signing him outright next summer rather than surrender significant assets now.

Minnesota is also pressed by Karl-Anthony Towns‘ reported discord with Butler. Towns’ Oct. 15 extension deadline looms.

Con: Flight risk

Butler can become an unrestricted free agent next summer. An extension before then seems unrealistic. Any pledge Butler makes now would be nonbinding. There’s always a chance things go south over the next season and Butler leaves a team that trades for him.

Even the Clippers, Knicks and Nets – Butler’s reported preferred destinations – can’t be assured he’ll re-sign.

Bottom line

Butler is an awesome player. The cost of trading for him should be high. The cost of re-signing him should be high.

Given the circumstances, teams might be able to trade for him without surrendering as much as a player of his caliber would usually command. But that likely comes with giving him a massive contract next summer, and that deal could age poorly.

Teams ready to win now or soon that have key players with strong competitive streaks should target Butler. There are more than enough such teams to drive up the price.

That’s why Minnesota has a valuable asset – for now – and Butler is positioned to cash in next summer.

Report: Timberwolves rebuffing Jimmy Butler trade calls

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Timberwolves president-coach Tom Thibodeau reportedly had no interest in trading Jimmy Butler despite the star’s trade request. In fact, some believe Thibodeau would rather leave Minnesota than take a step back by dealing Butler.

Just how serious is Thibodeau about keeping Butler?

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

I’m curious whether Thibodeau and Taylor are on the same page as far as not entertaining offers for Butler.

There’s a selfish logic to Thibodeau’s stance: If the Timberwolves fail to reach the playoffs this season, he could get fired. Keeping Butler maximizes Minnesota’s talent right now, and even if Butler leaves in unrestricted free agency next summer, that buys Thibodeau time to figure out something.

Taylor can take the longer view, trying to do what’s best for the franchise. Maybe he feels immediately ending all talks right now maximizes the Timberwolves’ leverage.

Or maybe this is all Thibodeau’s doing so far.

At some point, Minnesota should hear out offers. That doesn’t mean trading Butler. Perhaps keeping him and trying to change his mind – and Karl-Anthony Towns‘ – is the right course. It depends what other teams offer. But the Timberwolves should at least explore the market.

This puts the ball back in Butler’s court. Will he report to training camp? Not showing up would certainly add pressure for Minnesota to take these calls more seriously. But it’d also escalate the situation into something even more dramatic.