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Gordon Hayward makes first return to Utah since leaving Jazz in free agency

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Two seasons in the making, Gordon Hayward‘s return to Utah will finally go down Friday night, giving Jazz fans the first chance to let their collective feelings known.

Hayward bolted from the Jazz to the Celtics as a free agent following the 2016-17 season in a somewhat awkward departure that much of Salt Lake City learned about in the forward’s own story written in the Player’s Tribune.

Rejection letters sting, no matter the format.

Gordon’s presence Friday, after seven seasons with the Jazz, will be more than just a side note when the Celtics play in Utah on Friday night. At least call it equal billing with the Celtics’ curious play of late, their first-half struggles and late rally Thursday at Phoenix notwithstanding.

Hayward’s much-anticipated return did not happen last season after the Butler product was injured in the Celtics’ season opener and he missed the remainder of the year.

“Obviously he did so much for this organization, for this state,” Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell told reporters after Wednesday’s victory over the Dallas Mavericks. “He’s a great player.”

Mitchell has become the main object of affection for Jazz fans these days. His 23-point performance Wednesday, with multiple highlight-reel dunks, is evidence as to why.

But taking over the star-player throne from Hayward has not been easy. Hayward averaged 15.5 points per game in his seven years in Utah, but that final season he poured in 21.9 per game and became an All-Star. Then poof, he was gone.

“Gordon, he’s a good guy. It is what it is,” the Jazz’s Rudy Gobert said, according to the Deseret News. “Sometimes you make choices that you think are good for you and we’re not here to judge anyone. It’s just a game. We’re just going to go play basketball and that’s it.”

As far as the game goes, the Celtics will arrive in Utah with a positive outlook after that rally to defeat the Suns on Thursday, but needed overtime to do it on the first night of back-to-backs. It was a remarkable turnaround in a game where only one starter — Kyrie Irving — scored a point in the first half as Boston trailed by 20 points after two quarters.

The Jazz, is also feeling a whole lot better about its situation after a convincing victory Wednesday that ended a four-game skid.

Mitchell was able to get things going for the Jazz after returning from an ankle injury. He sat out two of the Jazz’s previous three games.

The Jazz will try to figure out a way that Mitchell can expose the Celtics’ defense much like Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray did, when he scored 48 points against Boston this week. Celtics players bristled when Murray tried to pass the 50 mark on a long 3-pointer at the buzzer of a game that had long been decided.

“We stopped moving the ball, we started settling, a lot of iso stuff,” Celtics guard Jaylen Brown said after Monday’s defeat, according to the Boston Globe. “Missing some easy ones. We still could have won this game. We just have to find ways to win when it comes down to the end, rebounds, stops. That mentality is going to get you a W.”

It got better Thursday at Phoenix, but only in the second half. Not only did the Celtics erase that 20-point deficit after the break, they had a 15-point deficit in the fourth quarter before forcing overtime and earning a 116-109 victory.

Even with Hayward playing again, the Celtics are in somewhat of a transition period. Hayward still has not come close to returning to the player he was during his Utah days and has been on monitored minutes. Irving is also returning from a knee procedure in April that ended his season and he played 43 minutes Thursday.

The Celtics are expected to be a force in the Eastern Conference, but are only 7-4 as they search for consistency. They have been solid overall on defense, entering play Thursday third best in the NBA after allowing 101.3 points per game. But have been vulnerable in key stretches, leading to defeats such as Monday when Murray ushered them out of Denver.

“We tried a lot of different guys, a lot of different coverages, we tried to go small and switch, tried to do a lot of different things,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said, according to nba.com. “He pretty much cooked us all night. He had a heck of a game.”

Is FIBA’s decision to move World Cup to year before Olympics reason for USA drop outs?

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FIBA made a mess of World Cup qualifying moving the games from the summer to during the season for the NBA and all the major European leagues. The USA qualified thanks to a team of G-League players coached by Jeff Van Gundy, but the process was not pretty. For anyone.

Now it could be another FIBA decision that has led to the rash of stars — James Harden, Anthony Davis, Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard, and others — deciding not to play for Team USA this summer.

Traditionally, the FIBA World Cup took place every four years, on the even-numbered year between Summer Olympic cycles. For example, the last World Cup was 2014, the Rio Olympics were 2016 with the Tokyo games in 2020. However, FIBA pushed this World Cup back a year to 2019 (instead of 2018) and that has changed the calculus for players, something Michael Lee of The Athletic speculated about.

For American players, the Olympics are the bigger draw, when more people watch. We grew up with the Dream Team at the Olympics, not the World Championships. That means if players have to choose, despite the allure of the Chinese market, they will choose the Olympics next year.

The other factor: The NBA feels wide open, with as many as eight teams heading into the season believing they can win the title. A lot of those contending teams have new players, which is leading players to prioritize club over country this time around.

This is different from 2004, when the NBA’s top players stayed home from the Athens Olympics because of a combination of terrorist concerns and players not liking coach Larry Brown. Today’s players love Gregg Popovich, but other concerns are weighing on them more.

It has left team USA without the biggest stars of the game — Kemba Walker is the only All-NBA player on the roster — but USA Basketball has such a depth of talent that they are still the World Cup favorites. The margin for error just got a lot smaller, however.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was working on jump shot with Kyle Korver (VIDEO)

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Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s jumper is getting better. Last season after the All-Star break he shot 31.5 percent from three (up from 22.3 before the ASG) and in the playoffs that jumped to 32.7 percent. He struggled on catch-and-shoot threes in those final 19 games after the ASG, shooting just 16.7 percent, but off the bounce he shot 33.8 percent after the break. Also, all of last season he didn’t take many long twos, but when he did he shot 41 percent on them.

What would make his jumper better? Working on his shot with the newest Buck, Kyle Korver.

Which is happening.

Be afraid NBA. Be very afraid.

Antetokounmpo recently said he is only at about 60 percent of his potential. If he can start to consistently hit threes off the bounce when defenses sag back off the pick-and-roll (trying to take away his drives), he might become unstoppable. Or, more unstoppable. If that’s a thing.

Zion Williamson signs shoe deal with Nike’s Jordan Brand

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Russell Westbrook. Jimmy Butler. Blake Griffin. Chris Paul.

And now Zion Williamson has joined them as a Jordan Brand athlete. Williamson announced that he had signed with Jordan on his Instagram.

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Let’s Dance #JUMPMAN

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Williamson was probably the biggest shoe free agent on the market this summer. While still a rookie, he already is a huge marketing presence — Summer League in Las Vegas sold out to see him the first two nights (people ended up disappointed) — and it was estimated he would make north of $10 million a year on his rookie shoe deal.

While we have not heard official numbers yet, the rumors are he did get that money.

If true, this is the second-largest rookie shoe deal in history. LeBron James got seven-years, $87 million, however, Williamson is second and bumps Kevin Durant to third (seven years, $60 million).

There are rumors Puma had offered even a larger contact, but Williamson wanted to be a Jordan brand guy.

“I feel incredibly blessed to be a part of the Jordan Brand family,” Williamson said in a statement. “Since I was a kid, I dreamed of making it to the league & having the type of impact on the game Michael Jordan had & continues to have today. He was one of those special athletes I looked up to.”

“Zion’s incredible determination, character and play are inspiring,” Michael Jordan said in a statement. “He’s an essential part of the new talent that will help lead the brand into the future. He told us he would ‘shock the world,’ and asked us to believe him. We do.”

Nike continues to dominate the NBA and basketball shoe market, with more than two-thirds of NBA players wearing Nikes. Even still, landing Williamson — who will play for the New Orleans Pelicans — was such a big score that Nike stock jumped up one percent on the news. He has the potential to be the next LeBron or Durant for Nike, if he can live up to the hype and weight of being the most discussed No. 1 pick in a decade.

He’s the kind of player who could sell a lot of shoes, and Jordan is betting on just that.

Al Horford calls Celtics’ reported tampering allegations ‘ridiculous’

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The Celtics have reportedly complained about the 76ers tampering with Al Horford.

Horford opted out, and it seemed he could return to Boston. But more than a week before free agency officially began, a report emerged he’d leave the Celtics while expecting a four-year, $100 million contract elsewhere. He committed to the 76ers on the first day of free agency, getting $97 million guaranteed and up to $109 million over four years.

What did Horford make of tampering allegations coming from Boston, where Danny Ainge runs the front office?

Horford on The Dan Patrick Show:

It’s pretty ridiculous. But it is what it is. Danny – I love Danny. Danny was always really good to me. I know that he’s definitely frustrated with things didn’t work out with us.

Notice the lack of a denial.

But Horford is right: It’s ridiculous. Because the Celtics are hypocrites who locked up Kemba Walker before free agency officially began.

Though Boston’s specific complaints don’t hold water, there are legitimate issues with the wider landscape.