Boston vs. Miami rivalry comes to the bubble; three keys to decide series


The rivalry between Miami and Boston runs deep.

It starts at the top — Danny Ainge and Pat Riley can’t stand each other. Their isses date back to the 1980s when Ainge was a pesky player for the Celtics and Riley coached the Showtime Lakers. The rivalry runs through the 2011 and 2012 playoffs when LeBron went to the Heat and the Celtics had the Big Three led by Kevin Garnett. It was compounded when Ray Allen left the Back Bay for South Beach.

Back in 2013, Ainge went on a radio show and criticized LeBron James, only to have Riley put out a press release that said, “Danny Ainge needs to shut the f*** up and manage his own team.”

Now the rivalry runs into 2020, when the Boston Celtics are emerging as an elite team in the East but they face a young and gritty Heat team led by veteran Jimmy Butler. The Miami Heat team that just knocked off the top seed with ease and is finding ways to win in the bubble. This also is a matchup of a couple of the league’s best coaches — Eric Spoelstra vs. Brad Stevens.

This could be the first of years of Heat vs. Celtics playoff matchups, and it should be tight. Boston is a slight favorite to win the series at -140, while Miami is +115 (odds provided by our partner, PointsBet).

Who is going to come out on top in 2020 and move on to the NBA Finals? Here are three keys to watch:

1) Can Miami’s defense slow down Jayson Tatum?

Miami just locked down on reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo (as much as one can), but they now face a very different challenge in slowing Boston’s emerging superstar Jayson Tatum. Miami can’t simply wall off Tatum and dare him to shoot over them — Tatum’s pull-up jumper is as good as anyone’s in the league, and he’s hitting 41.9% of his threes in these playoffs. Leave Tatum the shots Miami left Antetokounmpo and the Heat are cooked.

Tatum is averaging 25.3 points and 10.1 rebounds a game through the playoffs. Defending him is almost the opposite of Antetokounmpo — don’t let Tatum pull up from three, force him to attack the rim against size, he’s less efficient that way. But letting Tatum drive creates another problem for the Heat defense.

Boston as a team thrives on penetration into the paint with kick-outs to three-point shooters who can knock it down (including Marcus Smart in the bubble). Miami was a middle-of-the-pack halfcourt defensive team this regular season that has been better in the playoffs and that has to continue. Miami must slow Boston’s guard/wing penetration. Miami’s biggest challenge may be defending Kemba Walker, who was such a threat Toronto ran some box-and-1 defenses against him in Games 6 and 7. Bam Adebayo is going to have to protect the rim and Heat perimeter defenders are going to have to close out hard on shooters.

Miami players such as Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro are about to face a defensive test unlike anything they have faced so far. The Heat have to stay disciplined, and how it responds will go a long way to determining this series.

On the flip side, Boston is going to have to use Marcus Smart and others to keep Jimmy Butler in check. Which brings us to another key in this series…

2) Can Boston’s strong three-point defense contain Miami’s shooters?

Boston had a top-five halfcourt defense this season (stats via Cleaning the Glass), but Miami presents a defensive challenge for Boston — they have shooters that have to be chased off the arc, like Robinson and Herro, but the Heat will also carve a team up with backcuts and drives to the rim (think Game 1 of the Milwaukee series). Last series, half the battle for the Celtics was to cut off Toronto’s transition play — Miami had the third-best halfcourt offense in the league this season, they thrive when things slow down.

Boston has to cut off Goran Dragic driving to the rim, it has been critical to Miami’s bubble offense (he’s starting now, he was a sixth man most of the season). Jimmy Butler also has to be made into more of a jump shooter, but the key is the Celtics have to do it without fouling. Miami’s ball handlers are excellent at drawing fouls and you know that will be part of the Heat’s plan — attack and Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Walker in foul trouble. Boston’s challenge is if they become too focused on that, Adebayo will get the ball at the elbow and hit a cutting Dragic in the lane or Robinson curling off a screen at the arc. If Miami wins this series it will be because Adebayo was the problem Boston could not solve.

Miami moves the ball, moves off the ball, and finds the open man; all of Boston’s defenders will need to be on a string.

3) Gordon Hayward may be the X-Factor in this series… whenever he returns

Gordon Hayward suffered a grade III ankle sprain in the first game of the playoffs against Philadelphia. He’s been out ever since, even leaving the bubble for a while to get treatment, but he is close to a return (he was taking shots on the court before Game 7 against Toronto). Exactly when? Brad Stevens isn’t tipping his hand but said he expects to have him this series.

Hayward would give the Celtics another versatile player who can create his own shot and knock down the open looks others create for him. Hayward can run pick-and-rolls with the second unit while Tatum and Walker get rest, and the Celtics’ offense would not see a huge drop-off.

Hayward is the best fourth scoring option in the league and allows Stevens to run out an offense-heavy lineup of Walker, Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Hayward (Marcus Smart can be subbed into that lineup too, for defense).

Hayward also spent time guarding Butler during the regular season matchups and doing well in that role.

If Hayward returns and is himself, that puts Heat defenders in even more of a scramble mode trying to cover all the Boston players who can get buckets. He could turn the series.

Prediction: Boston in six.

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Report: Udoka used ‘crude language’ with female subordinate prior to improper relationship


The Boston Celtics handled the Ime Udoka investigation and suspension by the corporate handbook: They kept the woman’s name out of the news, kept details confidential (not even telling the players much for legal reasons), and acted swiftly and decisively.

But as the team on the court starts defending its Eastern Conference title, there has been a concern that details leaking out about the investigations — and responses to those leaks — could turn this into a season-long drama and distraction for the team. That first started on Friday when Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported this:

The independent law firm probe into Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka found that he used crude language in his dialogue with a female subordinate prior to the start of an improper workplace relationship with the woman, an element that significantly factored into the severity of his one-year suspension, sources told ESPN.

Those investigative findings — which described verbiage on Udoka’s part that was deemed especially concerning coming from a workplace superior — contribute to what is likely a difficult pathway back to his reinstatement as Celtics coach in 2023, sources told ESPN.

A few thoughts here.

• “Crude language” is just part of a more detailed and damning report, league sources have told NBC Sports. There is much more uncovered by the independent investigation, including about the power dynamic in play. It was enough that the Celtics thought the best move was to suspend for an entire season a coach loved by players who led the team to the NBA Finals (it’s not something the Celtics organization did lightly).

• As Wojnarowski and others have noted, it’s increasingly unlikely Udoka returns to coach the Celtics next season, even if that is not yet official.

• While some pundits and people around the league have said Udoka is “done,” the NBA has seen unexpected turnarounds before. Never say never in this league.

• About the only sure thing is that this story is not over.

Lillard poised to pass Drexler as Trail Blazers all-time leading scorer

2022-23 Portland Trail Blazers Media Day
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

Damian Lillard could have done what a lot of NBA stars have done — what a lot of them told him to do while recruiting him — and has chosen to stay in Portland. He wants to be remembered as the greatest Trail Blazer ever.

One good way to do that: Become the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. Sometime around Thanksgiving or a little after, Lillard will do just that, passing Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler and his 18,040 points (Lillard is 531 back).

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports spoke to Lillard about when he knew the record was within reach, during Trail Blazers training camp in Santa Barbara, California (go Gauchos!). It was when Lillard got to 10,000 points.

“I was like, ‘Damn, I got 10,000 already?’ ” Lillard told Yahoo Sports he recalled at the time. “It was my sixth season in the league. That’s when I started thinking, if I could be consistent, I could score into the high 20,000-point range. As a scorer, 20,000 points is always looked at as a special mark. From that moment, I knew it was possible, but it’s also when I first researched Clyde Drexler’s [scoring] record with the team.”

Drexler is good with being passed by Lillard.

“You and I know records are made to be broken, but I can’t think of a better player or person to break the record than Dame,” Drexler told Yahoo Sports. “He exemplifies being a team player and going about his business in a professional way. I have nothing but admiration and respect for him. When he comes close to getting the record, and if our schedules align, I would love to be there to help out in any way I can. That’s a nice milestone to achieve. I am looking forward to him accomplishing that.”

Lillard is on a lot of front office people’s watch list this season, as in “how long before he is unhappy and asks for a trade?” The thing is, Lillard has been on that list for years and he keeps choosing Portland — he isn’t looking to leave. Of course, the $120 million extension and a retooling of the roster around him helped with that decision, but Lillard always had other options if he wanted them (and at times it felt like he would take them).

The Trail Blazers brought in Jerami Grant, re-signed Anfrenee Simons, and will put them with a solid core of others such as (a finally healthy) Jusuf Nurkic, Josh Hart, Gary Payton II and others. It’s a good roster, the question is how good in a deep West?

There are a lot of questions about how this season shakes out in Portland, but the one seeming sure thing is Lillard becoming the Trail Blazers’ all-time leading scorer. And that seems fitting.

Suns update: Ayton blames Sarver for contract, Crowder conflict, Johnson to start


Phoenix went to the NBA Finals two seasons ago and had the most wins in the NBA last season, yet dark clouds seem to be blocking out the Suns heading into this NBA season.

Here’s the latest on three situations with the Suns: Deandre Ayton‘s contract frustration, why Jae Crowder is asking out, and who starts at the four now.

• Ayton ended up signing a four-year, $132.9 max contract and will be back with the Suns to start this season, but the road to get there was rocky. The Suns would not offer Ayton a max five-year contract extension, his name kept coming up in Kevin Durant trade rumors, so Ayton went out and got a four-year max offer from the Pacers — which the Suns instantly matched. Phoenix saved $40 million and a guaranteed year, but the process left Ayton a little bitter.

Ayton blames outgoing owner Robert Sarver — a notorious penny pincher as an owner (among other, much worse things) — Marc Spears and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN discussed on NBA Today (hat tip Real GM).

“That is certainly something that caused the ire of him,” said Marc J. Spears. “I was told that it was Robert Sarver who didn’t want to give him that fifth year, who wanted to save the money.”

“My understanding from talking to people close to Deandre is that he thinks this was Robert Sarver’s decision as well. And Robert Sarver’s not going to be the owner anymore. So there is some healing that can happen there. But I know there were some hurt feelings over that contract and how that played out.

“If they were going to instantly match an offer sheet that he signed, why not just give him the max contract? Yes, it saved them a year and $40 million but as somebody close to Deandre told me ‘There’s a karma to this. Why do that to your No. 1 overall pick?'”

Shelburne hit the nail on the head — the NBA is a business, but it’s a business of relationships. Not only did the Suns sour theirs with Ayton, but you can also be sure every other agent around the league noticed how that was handled. It doesn’t help when recruiting players. The eventual new owner, whoever it ends up being, has a lot of work to change the franchise’s perception.

• Jae Crowder remains away from the Suns during training camp awaiting a trade (which reportedly will not be to Dallas). Crowder started 109 games for the Suns during the past two seasons and was a key part of their run to the NBA Finals, so how did things deteriorate so quickly? Marc Stein lays it out in his latest Substack newsletter.

Entering the final season of his current contract at $10.2 million, Jae Crowder let the Suns know that he was seeking a contract extension. League sources say that the Suns’ messaging, in response, was to let Crowder know that, at 32, he was no longer assured of starting or finishing games ahead of Cam Johnson. That gulf between the parties led Crowder to seek an exit from the desert that has landed him on indefinite mutual leave from the team until Phoenix can find a trade for him.

While Miami gets mentioned as a suitor a lot, it’s next to impossible to put together a trade that works for both sides right now (at the trade deadline, maybe, but Crowder isn’t going to be with the Suns that long). Cleveland is currently the hot name in league circles when talking Crowder trades, and Stein also mentions the Milwaukee Bucks, who have been looking for a P.J. Tucker-like replacement for P.J Tucker. But, do any of these teams want to extend Crowder at age 32?

• Suns coach Monty Williams confirmed what Crowder heard — Cameron Johnson will start at the four for the Suns this season.

Johnson brings better shooting to the table — 42.5% last season on 3-pointers — and is more athletic at this point, but Crowder brings better defense, toughness, and veteran savvy that can be trusted in the playoffs. The Suns may miss that when it matters, but Johnson will get the chance to prove us all wrong.

Blake Griffin agrees to join Boston Celtics on one-year deal


According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Blake Griffin has agreed to join the Boston Celtics on a one-year contract which will be fully guaranteed.

The Celtics were desperate for frontcourt depth following injuries to Danilo Gallinari and Robert Williams, as Luke Kornet was even getting some run with the starting group at training camp.

You do have to wonder just how much the 33-year-old Griffin has left in the tank though. Last season with the Brooklyn Nets, Griffin only managed to play 17.1 minutes per game and his 3-point percentage dropped like a stone to 26%. He was also a major liability on defense, and the Celtics surely know that after Jaylen Brown drove by him with ease time and time again during the postseason.

Griffin was still an effective playmaker and that may make him a good fit with the second unit alongside the likes of Malcolm Brogdon, Derrick White and Grant Williams with all of these capable of handling the ball. Injuries and Father Time have zapped Griffin’s athleticism, but if anyone can squeeze the last bit of value out of him, I’d bet on Brad Stevens and the Celtics.