Boston Celtics move into first in East with win over Timberwolves

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BOSTON — Celtics coach Ime Udoka has his priorities set for the final push to the playoffs, and trying to figure out Boston’s best matchup isn’t among them.

“Teams manipulate where they want to play. We’re not concerned about that,” the rookie head coach said on Sunday after the Celtics cruised past the Minnesota Timberwolves 134-112 and climbed to the top of the Eastern Conference.

“There’s too much closeness to try to manipulate things and pick an opponent,” Udoka said. “Home court advantage is the main thing, and let the chops fall where they’re going to fall.”

Jayson Tatum scored 34 and Jaylen Brown had 31 points and 10 rebounds to lead Boston to its sixth straight win. The Celtics won for the 24th time in their last 28 games and, combined with the 76ers loss to Phoenix, took over the No. 1 spot in the East.

Boston and Miami have the same record at 47-28. The Celtics have beaten the Heattwice this season, and the teams meet again Wednesday.

“It’s been a journey,” Tatum said. “We had to find our identity. Lost some teammates; got some new guys. We’ve had to battle, but it’s been fun. We had some tougher times, but we’ve benefited from it, and made us better.”

This win came at the expense of the team that until recently had been the one of the hottest in the NBA: Minnesota is 12-5 since the All-Star break, winning 10 of 11 before back-to-back losses to Phoenix and Dallas this week.

Anthony Edwards scored 24 and Karl-Anthony Towns added 19 as the Timberwolves opened a four-game road trip with a loss – their third in four games.

The Celtics scored 13 of the first 15 points in the second quarter to open a double-digit lead they never relinquished. It was 72-49 at halftime.

By that point, the only question was whether Tatum would move into the NBA lead in scoring. He did, finishing the day with 1,923 points to pass Atlanta’s Trae Young (1,915) for the top spot.

The Celtics star already has one of the top 15 scoring seasons in Celtics history and has seven games left to become the seventh player in franchise history to top 2,000 points in a season. He would join John Havlicek, Paul Pierce, Larry Bird, Isaiah Thomas, Kevin McHale, Sam Jones.

The Celtics were without forward Al Horford, who missed the game for undisclosed personal reasons and is unlikely for Monday night in Toronto. Minnesota missed Malik Beasley, who left Friday night’s game with a sprained ankle.

Brown and Tatum both tested their sore knees before the game and were cleared to play. Robert Williams III, who had 13 points and 10 rebounds, limped off the court at the end of the third quarter with the Celtics up 26, and did not return.

The team said he had a left knee sprain. Udoka said Williams had “quite a bit of pain” but the team would know more after seeing a scan on Monday.

Udoka said some players might sit out against Toronto in the second game of a back-to-back on Monday night – even with the East’s top four seeds within a half-game of each other. (Boston and Miami were 47-28, with Milwaukee and Philadelphia at 46-28.)

“As far as rest goes, that’s the main thing,” Udoka said. “We’ve got some guys who’ve got some nicks now and you have to be smart about it.”

Watch Kawhi Leonard score two clutch buckets, including game-winner, in his return

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Kawhi Leonard looked rusty in his return for the first 47 minutes Monday night: 5-of-13 shooting, 0-3 from beyond the arc.

But that final minute was special.

First, there was a great hustle play from Paul George — also making his return — that got the ball to Leonard to tie it up.

Then, after a stop, the Clippers got the switch they wanted, cleared out the side and let Leonard go to work on the game-winner.

Los Angeles picked up the 119-117 win on the road. Not exactly pretty, but for a team just starting to get healthy and build some chemistry, they showed resilience and got the win. Leonard finished with 16 points on 7-of-15 shooting, and George looked sharp on his way to 19 points on 8-of-15 from the floor. It was a balanced Clippers attack, which is what Tyronn Lue is trying to build.

Kelly Oubre Jr. scored 28 and P.J. Washington added 26 for the shorthanded Hornets.

James Harden returns to 76ers Monday night, is on minutes restriction

Minnesota Timberwolves v Philadelphia 76ers
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The 76ers were able to keep their heads above water. For 14 games, James Harden was out with a right foot tendon sprain — both Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey missed games in that stretch as well (Maxey remains out) — and Philadelphia went 8-6 with a +2.9 net rating and the best defense in the NBA over that stretch.

Monday night in Houston, Harden returns.

This wasn’t a surprise, nor is the fact Doc Rivers confirmed Harden will be on a minutes restriction at first.

Harden averaged 22 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds a game before his injury, and while his 3-point shooting percentage was down (33.3%) he was still efficient and finding his footing as more of a facilitator than scorer.

The 76ers are 12-11 on the season and sit in a three-way tie for fifth in the East (with the Pacers and Raptors). If Harden can spark the Philadephia offense there is plenty of time for them to climb into the top four, host a first-round playoff game and position themselves for a deep playoff run. But it starts with getting their starting guards healthy again.

Harden is ready to take that on.

Trae Young frustrated ‘private conversations get out to the public’ about missed game

Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers
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Rumors and chatter of tension in Atlanta — about how Trae Young was adapting to playing with Dejonte Murray, and his pushback on coach Nate McMillan and his efforts to get the ball moving more — have been all over the league since the start of the season. Over the weekend, a little of that leaked out, with reports Young chose not to come to the arena Friday after McMillan gave him a choice of participating in shootaround or missing the game.

Young addressed the report and seemed more concerned that it got out than the report’s content.

“I mean, it was just a situation. I mean, we’re all grown men here and there’s sometimes we don’t always agree. And it’s unfortunate that private situations and private conversations get out to the public, but I guess that’s the world we live in now. Yeah, I’m just gonna just focus on basketball and focus on helping my team win. And that’s what I got to be focusing on…

“Like I said, it’s a private matter, again, made public, which is unfortunate. And if it was to stay private, it probably wouldn’t have been as big of a deal. But like I said, it’s unfortunate in my job, and my goal is to win championships. And that’s what I focus on.”

Young went through shootaround  Monday and is set to play against the Thunder.

Murray has been professional throughout this situation, saying he didn’t see anything at the shootaround Friday and backing Young and McMillan when asked.

Bringing in Murray was supposed to take some pressure off Young and spread the wealth more on offense, ideally allowing Young to be more efficient. Instead, Young’s usage rate is nearly identical to last season, he is shooting just 30.3% from 3 and his true shooting percentage has fallen below league average. The Hawks as a team make the fewest passes per game of any team in the league (stat via NBA.com). The Hawks’ offense is still a lot of Young, but it’s not as efficient as it has been in years past.

Atlanta is still 13-10 on the season, has a top-10 defense and sits fourth in the East — they are not struggling. But neither have they made the leap to become a team that could threaten Boston or Milwaukee atop the conference, and that’s what the Hawks expected.

There could be personnel moves coming in Atlanta — John Collins is available via trade, again — but if the Hawks can’t smooth out their internal, existing concerns (and get Collins and DeAndre Hunter healthy) other roster moves will be just cosmetic.

Nike, Kyrie Irving part ways, making him a sneaker free agent

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Here’s the positive spin for Kyrie Irving: He will have the chance to remake his situation into something he’s more comfortable with during 2023. As a player, he will be an unrestricted free agent and can choose where he wants to play in coming seasons (how many teams are interested and for how many years will be interesting to see).

Irving also is a sneaker free agent — Nike has cut ties with him, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Irving is happy with this.

The separation is not a surprise. Nike suspended its relationship with Irving after he Tweeted out support for an antisemitic film, did not apologize (at first), and was suspended by the Nets. Here was the company’s statement at that time:

“At Nike, we believe there is no place for hate speech and we condemn any form of antisemitism. To that end, we’ve made the decision to suspend our relationship with Kyrie Irving effective immediately and will no longer launch the Kyrie 8. We are deeply saddened and disappointed by the situation and its impact on everyone.”

Nike founder Phil Knight said it was likely the end of the company’s relationship with Irving.

That’s not a small thing by Nike, Irving has had a signature shoe line since 2014 and is reported to have a deal with Nike worth more than $10 million a season because his shoes are popular. However, his contract with the shoe giant was set to end in October 2023, and there had been reports Nike did not plan to extend that deal before this current controversy started.

Nike is already looking in a new direction, at Ja Morant.

Irving now has the chance to choose his new direction.