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With LeBron James gone, Eastern Conference set for a new champion

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — The roadblock has been removed. With LeBron James gone, the path to the NBA Finals from the Eastern Conference is open again.

Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto and more are hoping to win the race to it.

James ruled over the East for eight years, making four straight trips to the finals from Miami and then moving back to Cleveland in 2014 and getting there every year since.

From Boston to Indiana, up north in Toronto all the way down to Atlanta, teams would emerge with what they thought was a title contender only to see James send them home for the summer.

Now King James has abdicated his throne and moved to Los Angeles, and there should be rejoicing in the land he left behind.

“It’s a new lease on life in the Eastern Conference,” said Hall of Famer and TNT analyst Reggie Miller, who faced a similar situation when he played in the East during the era of Michael Jordan’s Bulls.

“It’s great that LeBron has taken his talents out West because it opens up the doors for not only a lot of these young players, but these organizations now. Fresh blood, something new to kind of see who can compete for that Eastern crown.”

The Celtics nearly won it last year, falling to the Cavaliers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. They were without the injured Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, and now that the two stars are healthy and have rejoined Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford and the rest of a deep team that made a valiant run without them, Boston is probably the favorite in the East.

But there’s intrigue beyond that, which rarely existed during James’ reign. Philadelphia finished strong in its first season with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons playing together, and now might get a full one with 2017 No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz joining them after his shoulder problems last season.

Toronto shook up a 59-win team by firing coach Dwane Casey and shipping DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio in the trade for Kawhi Leonard, and Indiana bolstered a team that took Cleveland to seven games in the first round.

Any of them have a chance to get to the place that James wouldn’t let them.

“An appearance in the finals is going to be sweet,” Embiid said.

A look at the East, in predicted order of finish:

PLAYOFF BOUND

1. Boston – Depth of talent is not only tops in the East, but comes closest in the NBA to rivaling Golden State’s.

2. Philadelphia – If either Simmons or Fultz develops a jump shot to open things up more for Embiid, look out.

3. Indiana – Victor Oladipo has emerged as an All-Star and the Pacers are balanced behind him.

4. Toronto – If Leonard is fully healthy and motivated, Raptors added a top-five player to a 59-win team.

5. Milwaukee – Giannis Antetokounmpo is going to make the Bucks fun to watch in their new arena.

6. Washington – John Wall and Bradley Beal will give the Wizards plenty on the perimeter, but they need Dwight Howard provide a boost on the interior.

7. Miami – Heat won’t want to send Dwyane Wade into retirement without one final playoff appearance.

8. Detroit – A full season with Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin together should be enough to get the Pistons back into the postseason.

IN THE MIX

9. Cleveland – Kevin Love and the remainder of the Cavaliers that James left behind should still be good enough to fight for a spot in the top eight.

10. Charlotte – The Hornets will host an All-Star Game in February. They’ll try to host playoff games in April.

FACING LONG ODDS

11. Orlando – Steve Clifford is the latest coach to try to mix a collection of young players into one that can defend enough to be a decent team.

12. Brooklyn – Nets made a seven-win improvement last season even while being dismal at defending and rebounding. Do either better and they can take another leap.

13. New York – Kristaps Porzingis remains out indefinitely while rehabbing a torn ACL, so new coach David Fizdale will give rookie Kevin Knox an early green light.

14. Atlanta – Trae Young may be exciting to watch, but he won’t be able to stop another long season of losing in Atlanta.

15. Chicago – The Bulls of Tom Thibodeau were veterans who always defended hard. The Bulls of Fred Hoiberg have been none of the above.

 

Grizzlies’ starter JaMychal Green suffers broken jaw, has surgery, out at least 4 weeks

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For a team that needs everything to go right to make the playoffs in the deep West, this is a significant setback.

Grizzlies starting forward JaMychal Green will be out at least a month, likely more, with a broken jaw suffered against the Hawks on Friday night, the team announced.

“Resume basketball activities” means start to practice, which would make his return more like six weeks. For some comparison, when Nikola Mirotic has his jaw broken last season (in very different circumstances, thanks again Bobby Portis) it took about seven weeks for him to return to the court.

For Green and Grizzlies fans, this is the worst kind of deja vu — last season Green sprained his ankle four minutes into the team’s home opener and missed the next dozen games.

Green is a solid three for the Grizzlies, averaging 7.5 points and 6 rebounds through two games this season (which is right in line with his numbers this season).

This likely means rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. — who has impressed coming off the bench in two games, as he did at Summer League — moves into the starting lineup. That should be interesting for the Grizzlies.

Maintenance rest starts early: Kawhi Leonard, Gordon Hayward, Jimmy Butler all out Saturday

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Last season the NBA leaned in on teams resting players, particularly in high-profile, televised games. The NBA built in rest before those games to help, and teams mostly played along, but players who teams wanted to be cautious with still got their rest. That is not changing now, NBA teams have science to back it up.

The rest is starting early this season — Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard, Boston’s Gordon Hayward, and Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler are all out Saturday night on the second night of back-to-backs.

Neither of these should be a surprise. Both Hayward and Leonard are coming off injuries that cost them a season and both are clearly feeling their way back into this season (Leonard seems ahead of Hayward on that front so far). Both Toronto and Boston have their eyes on May and June, there is no reason to push a player and risk injury in October that could be a much more significant setback.

In Toronto, OG Anunoby will start on the wing for Leonard. In Boston, Aron Baynes will start as Brad Stevens goes big.

In Minnesota…

It will be interesting to see how the Timberwolves come out against Dallas without Butler, who is their spark plug. Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns should step up and have big nights to lead the team, this is a game Minnesota should still will, but how will they respond on a back-to-back? Something to watch.

Lakers’ James to make home debut against Rockets tonight

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — LeBron James will make his regular-season home debut as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers when they host the Houston Rockets on Saturday night.

James, a four-time NBA most valuable player, signed with the Lakers in July after leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to four straight NBA Final appearances, including their first championship in 2016.

He has played in every NBA Finals since 2010, also winning titles in 2012 and 2013 with the Miami Heat.

James had 26 points, 12 rebounds and six assists in his Los Angeles debut against the Trail Blazers in Portland on Thursday night, but the Lakers lost 128-119.

The Lakers will likely need a better start with their long-range shooting against the Rockets. Los Angeles missed its first 15 tries from 3-point range before finishing 7 for 30 (23.3 percent) against Portland.

James said he and his new teammates are still going through a feeling-out period.

“It takes a while to get to where you can close your eyes and know exactly where your guys are,” he told reporters after his Lakers debut. “It’s going to take patience from our team, from all of us, to just figure out one another, figure out what we are good at, figure out what we are not so good at, how we can be better at it.”

The Rockets returned their core players from last season’s team that lost to the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, and they added 10-time NBA All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony to the mix. They seemed to run low on energy in their season opener against the visiting New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday night, however.

After getting outscored by 17 points in the first half, the Rockets were unable to generate a push against the Pelicans and lost 131-112. New Orleans shot 53.1 percent from the floor.

“I thought they were tired,” said Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, who coached the Lakers for two seasons (2012-13 and 2013-14).

James Harden, who averaged an NBA-leading 30.4 points last season en route to winning NBA MVP honors, was held to 18 points on 6-for-15 shooting.

Anthony, who played the last season with the Oklahoma City Thunder, scored nine points off the bench on 3-for-10 shooting.

Harden, a Los Angeles-area native, is averaging 30.3 points in 32 career games against the Lakers.

One of the bright spots for the Lakers in their season opener was the play of reserve shooting guard Josh Hart. The second-year player scored 20 points on 8-for-12 shooting, including 3 for 5 from 3-point range.

Hart played 27 minutes, the same as starting shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. who was limited to five points on 1-for-3 shooting from the floor.

Hart didn’t want to talk about his offense afterward, but rather how he could improve on his defense after Portland reserve shooting guard Nik Stauskas scored 24 points and shot 5 of 8 on 3-pointers.

“Just got to make sure we get the adjustments down and get better on defense,” he told Spectrum SportsNet.

Raptors’ pregame video on Canadian broadcast is group therapy session for Toronto

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Raptors fans are pumped — and they should be, their team knocked off the Celtics Friday night with Kawhi Leonard dropping 31 points (and still showing some rust on the offensive end, he is going to get better). Toronto is positioned to be the one team in the East that is a genuine threat to the Celtics (sorry Philly, not just yet).

Yet Raptors fans as a whole expect the worst, they come with a grey cloud following them and an inferiority complex, Leonard is a free agent next summer, and there is a history of players leaving Toronto…

Which is why the Sportsnet Canada broadcast pregame video is remarkable — it’s a group therapy session for Toronto and all of Canada. To be clear, this was not shown in the arena before the game, it was on the national broadcast, but still, check it out.

Letting go of the past, not worrying about the future, and living in the moment is always good advice.

Leonard said the key to keeping him in Toronto is winning, and Friday night was a good first step down that road. Of course, there’s more to it than that and other teams are going to be in the mix (keep an eye on the Clippers), but sources around the league I talk to think the Raptors have a chance. Sort of like Paul George in Oklahoma City, if he has a very positive experience, it’s possible he opens his mind to staying. Plus, he can get five years, $190 million from the Raptors and four-years, $139 million from anyone else, for a guy coming off basically missing a season due to injury that security and guaranteed money may matter.

Nobody knows what will happen next summer — Leonard and his family/advisors have been unpredictable. Leonard likely doesn’t even know yet.

Which is why Raptors’ fans should let go of the past, live in the moment and savor this season — it could be the greatest one in Raptors’ history.