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Three Things to Know: Celtics project confidence after fourth straight loss… should they?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Celtics continue to project confidence as defense falls apart weeks before playoffs. The Boston Celtics have eight games left before the playoffs begin — playoffs that almost certainly will start on the road in Indiana. This is when Boston should be building momentum and confidence for a deep playoff run…

The Boston Celtics have lost four games in a row. In that stretch their defense is fourth worst in the NBA, clustered around Memphis and Washington and other teams missing the postseason. In their last 10 games, their defense is bottom 10 in the NBA.

So much for building momentum.

Yet even after LaMarcus Aldridge dropped 48 on them and the Spurs beat the shorthanded Celtics (no Al Horford or Jayson Tatum) on Sunday, Boston was projecting confidence. Marcus Smart, Kyrie Irving, and Brad Stevens all were. (Via A. Sherrod Blakely of NBC Sports Boston).

“I know we’ve been here plenty of times before saying the exact same thing — ‘We’re gonna get it, we’re not worried about it’ — but we can’t put extra extra extra stress and more weight on ourselves,” Smart said… “”We got to take a deep breath, breathe, just relax — and then go out there and have fun and play basketball.”

“I never worry about how we’ll respond,” said Irving. “We’ve proven that. We just have to be consistent with that and be committed to it, that’s all. We have a lot of great guys in this locker room and they are committed to winning. We have winners in this locker room as well, so I’m never worried about trying to go back and respond with these guys. They are a resilient group who have proven that for the last year and a half we’ve been together.”

“I don’t think we’ve given any reason to suggest that [Boston can figure it out] right now,” said Stevens “But I think, ultimately, we’ll see how the rest of this story plays itself out.”

It’s better the Celtics are confident than panicking… but if Celtics fans wanted to panic, I wouldn’t blame them.

When Boston made it’s unexpected run to the Eastern Conference Finals last season (despite no Irving or Gordon Hayward) it was on the back of an elite defense. Tatum and Terry Rozier got deserved credit for stepping up and taking on the offensive load, but what kept the Celtics going through all of that was a defense that could slow any team down, anchored by Al Horford playing elite ball in the paint. That was the foundation of their success. It should have been again this season.

Now, that Celtics foundation seems built on sand. Boston was up 18 on Charlotte with less than nine minutes to go Saturday then gave up 30 more points the rest of the way and lost. The Celtics’ four straight losses are to three playoff teams and a Hornets team playing with the desperation of a team trying to hang on to its playoff hopes (keep reading down to item No. 2). Give those teams credit —  and give

the Spurs credit for doing what they do and executing the game plan, and for LaMarcus Aldridge for just going off.

I can envision a scenario where Boston, playing a shorthanded Pacers team in the first round, gets pushed six or seven games but starts to find its groove and by the end is playing with the confidence and teamwork we saw last season. Those kinds of leaps can happen in the playoffs. Then the Celtics bring that increased level of play up against a Bucks team without that playoff experience (and maybe without Malcolm Brogdon) and suddenly Boston is dominating like the team we expected preseason. That absolutely could happen.

But watch the Celtics the past week or so and it’s hard to envision that scenario. We’re 74 games into the season and it feels a little late for “We’re gonna get it, we’re not worried about it.”

2) Charlotte will not let its playoff dreams die, even if it takes a Jeremy Lamb prayer to keep them alive. Saturday night the Hornets came from 18 points down to the Celtics to stay within two games of the Miami Heat and the playoffs.

Then on Sunday, Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard looked like the closer the Raptors need him to be. Toronto was down 13 midway through fourth but went on 18-3 run to take lead, with Pascal Siakam (10 points in fourth) making plays Leonard hitting the shots when it mattered, including the apparent game-winner.

Then Jeremy Lamb did this from 48 feet.

Unreal. Siakam even made a good defensive play to tip the ball into the backcourt.

Watch Kemba Walker’s reaction in the last angle of that video — he had popped out from the far side and the hope was likely he would get the ball, but he was well defended. When Lamb took his shot Walker turns his back and throws down his arms in disgust. That was never going to go in… until it did.

Charlotte is still two games back of Brooklyn and Miami, who are tied for the 7/8 seeds in the East, and fivethirtyeight.com gives the Hornets just a 14 percent chance of making the playoffs. It’s still a longshot. But so was Lamb’s shot. Sometimes desperation heaves work out.

3) LeBron James drops triple-double, “I will not cheat the game.” The Lakers are out of the playoffs. There is more interest in who will coach the team next season (and who will be on the roster) than there is in the remaining games. For the sixth straight year, the Lakers are just playing out the string.

That didn’t stop LeBron from dropping a 29-11-11 triple-double on the Suns in a Lakers’ win Sunday night (Kyle Kuzma had 29, too).

LeBron is not going to cheat the game. He would never anger the game gods like that.

 

Joseph Tsai to buy rest of Nets, Barclays Arena for $3.4 billion

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NEW YORK — Joe Tsai has agreed to buy the remaining 51 percent of the Brooklyn Nets and Barclays Center from Mikhail Prokhorov in deals that two people with knowledge of the details say are worth about $3.4 billion.

Terms were not disclosed Friday, but the people told The Associated Press that Tsai is paying about $2.35 billion for the Nets – a record for a U.S. pro sports franchise – and nearly $1 billion in a separate transaction for the arena. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the transactions have not yet been completed.

Tsai is the co-founder and executive vice president of the Alibaba Group, the Chinese e-commerce giant. He already had purchased a 49 percent stake in the team from Prokhorov in 2018, with the option to become controlling owner in four years.

Instead, he pushed up that timeline for full ownership of a team on the rise after signing superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in July.

Prokhorov, a Russian billionaire, became the NBA’s first non-North American owner in 2010 and oversaw the Nets’ move from New Jersey to Brooklyn two years later. He spent big in the first couple years after the move in a quest to chase a championship, but the team soon became one of the worst in the NBA before rallying to return to the playoffs last season.

“It has been an honor and a joy to open Barclays Center, bring the Nets to Brooklyn, and watch them grow strong roots in the community while cultivating global appeal,” Prokhorov said in a statement. “The team is in a better place today than ever before and I know that Joe will build on that success, while continuing to deliver the guest experience at Barclays Center that our fans, employees, and colleagues in the industry enjoy.”

The deal is expected to be completed by the end of September and is subject to approval by the NBA’s Board of Governors.

That would put Tsai, a native of Taiwan, in full control of the team by the time the Nets head to China to play two exhibition games against the Los Angeles Lakers in October. That comes at the start of a season of renewed excitement for the Nets, who just three seasons ago won an NBA-worst 20 games but are set to make a big move up the standings after landing two of the best players on the market when free agency opened.

“I’ve had the opportunity to witness up close the Brooklyn Nets rebuild that Mikhail started a few years ago. He hired a front office and coaching staff focused on player development, he supported the organization with all his resources, and he refused to tank,” Tsai said. “I will be the beneficiary of Mikhail’s vision, which put the Nets in a great position to compete, and for which I am incredibly grateful.”

Brett Yormark, the CEO of BSE Global, which manages the team and the arena, will oversee the transition before leaving for a new role.

Jazz coach Quin Snyder tells Donovan Mitchell to ‘be a sponge’ around Gregg Popovich

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While other players continue to pull out of the USA Basketball roster — De'Aaron Fox was the latest, and P.J. Tucker before him — Utah’s Donovan Mitchell has been outspoken in his commitment to the team.

“Me, I’m 22, some guys are older and got to rest their bodies and I understand that…” Mitchell said Friday night after Team USA’s exhibition game win over Spain. “For me, I’ve never been part of USA Basketball and I’m honored to be here, I’m honored to have this privilege to go out and compete.”

A lot of players have left — or just not put their names in the hat in the first place — saying they wanted to focus on preparing for the regular season, especially players in the Western Conference, which is deep with outstanding teams. The Utah Jazz, now with Mike Conley at the point, are one of those teams with high expectations.

Mitchell, however, has the full backing of his coach Quin Snyder to stay with Team USA and learn from Gregg Popovich, as Snyder told Marc Stein of the New York Times.

“Both Donovan and I have been excited for this opportunity, not just the chance to compete for his country but to play for Pop. I think he has an appreciation for the fact that he’s playing for the greatest coach that’s ever coached…

“Just try to throw yourself completely into it,” Snyder said he told Mitchell. “And try to communicate with Coach as much as you can. Be a sponge.”

Popovich has had an impact on the young players on the roster. For example, there’s more maturity to Kyle Kuzma‘s game, and Popovich recognized him on the court Friday night when Kuzma made a couple of smart plays against Spain.

Just having different coaching voices — not just Popovich but his assistants Steve Kerr, Lloyd Pierce, and Villanova’s Jay Wright — can help a young player. The message may be consistent, but said in a different way, one that better gets through to the player. Styles matter.

Mitchell led Team USA in scoring against Spain with 13, but Snyder and Jazz fans are hoping for more. Not just gold at the World Cup in China starting Sept. 1, but that Mitchell comes back energized and with a broadened game after having been a sponge next to Popovich.

Marcus Smart reportedly cleared to play for Team USA

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Through two weeks of training camp, first in Las Vegas then in Los Angeles, through one intrasquad scrimmage and one exhibition game, Marcus Smart has sat in street clothes.

The Celtics guard has a calf injury that has sidelined him. On Thursday in Los Angeles he took part in the shooting parts of practice during training camp, but not the full-contact scrimmages against the select team. All he could really do was this.

Friday night he never got out of his warmups and did not play against Spain, but he did say on the broadcast he would be back.

Turns out, he was cleared to be back the next day according to Mark Stein of the New York Times.

This takes away a little of the sting of De'Aaron Fox deciding to withdraw from the team just before it left on Saturday for Australia.

It also means four Celtics are on the USA roster: Smart, Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown. USA assistant coach Steve Kerr jokingly said to me last week he asked Brad Stevens for a thank you gift for running Celtics mini-camp.

Smart is one of the 13 players headed down under for a series of tune-up games before the World Cup (against Australia and Canada). If he’s fully healthy enough to go, Smart is a lock to make the roster because of his physical perimeter defense and ability to shoot the three (36 percent last season in the NBA, and the international line is a little closer in). He likely would come off the bench at the two behind Donovan Mitchell.

Bill Walton broadcast White Sox vs. Angels game and was nothing short of brilliant

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Bill Walton is brilliant.

The Hall of Fame hippie and big man was in the broadcast booth Friday night — not for basketball, but for the White Sox vs. Angels MLB game. Walton loves baseball even if his understanding of the sport is… unconventional.

I want Bill Walton to narrate my life.

The world missed him while he battled serious back issues, it’s so good to have him out and around and being himself again.