Boston Celtics vs. Miami Heat: Three things to watch in East Finals

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We have seen this movie — two years ago in the 2020 bubble Eastern Conference Finals. Once again it is the Celtics vs. the Heat, and both teams are returning many of the same core players from that showdown in Orlando.

However, both teams also have evolved since then. Don’t expect this Celtics team to blow multiple fourth quarter leads; this is a more mature and mentally tougher team. Miami has added an All-Star and an NBA champion in Kyle Lowryif he is healthy enough to play.

It’s a showdown between two teams with elite defenses on one end and multiple playmakers on the other. There are similarities in how the Celtics and Heat are built, but the differences will make the series, which starts Tuesday night in Miami (8:30 p.m. on ESPN).

Here are three keys that could decide the series.

1) Can Jimmy Butler match Jayson Tatum for best player in series?

Jayson Tatum made the leap into the NBA’s elite this postseason, going toe-to-toe with the best player on the planet in Giannis Antetokounmpo and outdueling him at times. Tatum looked like a top-five player, an MVP candidate and an unstoppable force against the Bucks.

But Jimmy Butler has outscored Tatum this postseason.

It’s close, 28.7 points per game for Butler to 28.3 for Tatum. With Lowry missing time (and not himself when he has played due to his hamstring injury), more weight has fallen on Butler’s shoulders — against the Sixers he led the Heat in points, assists, steals, and was tied for the team lead in rebounds.

Butler has always been able to crank up his game under pressure, and this postseason has been no different. However, he struggled (relatively) against Boston in the regular season, averaging 19 points a game. Bottom line, the Celtics believe they have the best player in this series with Tatum — if they don’t, if Butler can hang, Miami’s chances to advance go way up.

Miami also is not a one-man show, and that’s where Lowry comes in. As of this writing he is listed as out for Game 1, but he is expected to play at some point in this series. Miami will need Lowry’s passing, toughness, and shot creation against a stingy Celtics defense. Plus, Lowry could change the momentum of a game by drawing a charge on Tatum or Jaylen Brown in a key moment.

Miami also roles out Sixth Man of the Year Tyler Herro (13.8 points a game these playoffs), Bam Adebayo (14.6), and have gotten solid minutes from Victor Oladipo off the bench.

Tied into all of that…

2) Can Miami score in the halfcourt? Heck, can anyone score in this series?

Just bet the under.

In the regular season, the Celtics had the best defense in the NBA and the Heat were fourth. In the playoffs, they are second and third, respectively. These are two physical, smart, long and challenging defensive teams with scheme versatility. Points are going to be at a premium throughout this series.

However, the biggest test will be when the Heat have the ball in the halfcourt. Miami was a pedestrian halfcourt offense this season, 13th in the league, and the Celtics were the best halfcourt defense. Especially with Lowry out for at least the start of the series, there’s going to be a lot of pressure on Butler — and Herro as the secondary creator — to make things happen in the halfcourt.

To thrive on offense, Miami has to get stops, force turnovers, and get some easy buckets in transition — which is exactly what Milwaukee wanted to do but struggled to execute consistently last series. This is another place the Heat miss Lowry, who is their guy to push the ball ahead fast off misses.

3) Can the Heat chase Celtics off 3-point arc?

It wasn’t just Grant Williams raining 3s on the Bucks in Game 7, the Celtics were bombs away all series — Boston made 53 more 3-pointers than Milwaukee in the series. That fits a pattern, the Bucks gave up the second-highest percentage of opponent shots from 3 all season (44.8%).

The team that gave up the highest percentage of opponent shots from 3? The Miami Heat.

The Celtics beat the Heat two-out-of-three meetings this season and in those games they knocked down their threes at an almost 40% clip, but in the one Heat win the Celtics shot 30% from deep. Boston showed last series, that they can win if you let their role players fire away.

Miami has been better about chasing teams off the arc in the playoffs (sixth among playoff teams), but this is the big test. Miami has to make life difficult for the Celtics and not let Williams — or Marcus Smart, or Al Horford, or whomever — just set their feet and fire away. Do that and Miami will be on vacation before June.

Prediction: Celtics in six. Miami is capable of winning this series but they have little margin for error.

Brianna Stewart heads to New York on first day of WNBA free agency

Las Vegas Aces v Seattle Storm - Game Four
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Former MVP Breanna Stewart is headed to New York.

The most coveted free agent this offseason, who won the WNBA MVP award in 2018, announced on social media that she was going to New York with a photo of her in a Liberty shirt. Stewart had spent her entire career in Seattle since the Storm drafted her first in 2016. She won two championships with the team in 2018 and 2020.

The 28-year-old wing has averaged 20.3 points and 8.6 rebounds in her WNBA career. She missed the 2019 season with an Achilles injury.

By coming to New York it brings Stewart closer to home. She grew up in Syracuse which is an hour flight from New York. It also is an easier flight to Spain to see her wife Marta’s family.

New York representatives, including coach Sandy Brondello and owner Clara Wu Tsai met with Stewart in Turkey last week. Stewart had narrowed her choices down to Seattle and New York before choosing the Liberty.

The move turns the Liberty into an instant championship contender. New York is one of the WNBAs original franchises, but has never won a championship. The Liberty already added 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones and Kayla Thornton through a three-way deal to complement 2020 No. 1 draft pick Sabrina Ionescu.

The news was met with elation on social media by Jones, Ionescu and Nets star Kevin Durant, who said on a podcast that he had reached out to Stewart to get her to come to New York.

Stewart was the second big-name free agent to announce her intentions to play for another team this season. Candace Parker said last weekend that she was going to sign with the Las Vegas Aces and officially did.

“As I’ve gone through free agency this time around, of course I’m thinking of where I can compete for my third championship, but the words home and family are what I kept coming back to,” Parker said. “After evaluating the landscape together with my family, we’ve decided the Las Vegas Aces are the right organization for us at this point in our lives. To play for a championship close to home is the perfect situation for us. I’m looking forward to continuing the journey this summer in Las Vegas.”

Wednesday was the first day that free agents could sign with teams. Other moves announced included:

— Brittney Sykes with Washington

— Lexie Brown and Stephanie Talbot with Los Angeles

— Teaira McCowan with Dallas

— Alysha Clark with Las Vegas

Many free agents were waiting for Stewart to make her decision, including Courtney Vandersloot.

Vandersloot announced on social media that she wasn’t returning to Chicago, where she had spent her entire career. She has led the league in assists six times during her 12-year career and helped the Sky win the 2021 WNBA championship.

“To the Sky organization who drafted the little guard from a mid-major and believed in me from the jump, I couldn’t have asked for anything better,” Vandersloot wrote on Instagram. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I have realized my dreams because of you. Although I never planned for this day to come, I have decided it is time for me to pursue a new beginning.”

Stewart and Vandersloot are currently playing together in Turkey.

While Stewart and Vandersloot will be playing for different WNBA teams this season, Brittney Griner, who is also a free agent, announced in December when she returned home from her 10-month ordeal in Russia that she planned to remain with the Phoenix Mercury. Her long-time Mercury teammate Diana Taurasi is also a free agent, but she too is expected to go back to Phoenix.

Weather strands Pistons in Dallas, forces postponement of Wednesday game vs. Wizards

Winter storm, Minneapolis, December 2022
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The Detroit Pistons talked smack to Luka Dončić and paid the price, watching him drop 53 on them Monday night.

Then the Pistons have been stranded in Dallas ever since. In recent days, freezing temperatures have grounded more than 2,000 flights out of both the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport and Dallas Love Field, impacting thousands of passengers. The weather also has hit the Pistons, who were supposed to fly home to Detroit to take on the Wizards on Wednesday night. The league has officially postponed that game.

“Due to severe weather conditions in the Dallas area, the Pistons have been unable to fly back to Detroit after their game on Monday at American Airlines Center,” the league said in its official release. “The date for the rescheduled game will be announced at a later time.”

The Wizards have won six in a row and are 12-5 in their last 17, jumping them back into the play-in picture in the East.

This is not the only game that could be lost due to the weather in Dallas, the Pelicans — fresh off a loss to the Nuggets on Tuesday — may not be able to fly into the city for their Thursday game.

Freezing temperatures are expected to continue in Dallas through Wednesday, warming up slightly on Thursday, but by Friday getting up to a relatively balmy 50 degrees and sunny.

Watch Dennis Schroder hit the most casual half-court buzzer beater ever

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Act like you’ve done it before.

The Lakers’ Dennis Schroder drained a half-court buzzer-beater against the Knicks — turning his back on the shot and being completely non-pulsed when it happened.

The Lakers had been 2-of-16 from 3 before that shot, and they ended up needing those points. Despite a historic triple-double from LeBron James, the Lakers had to go into overtime to beat the Knicks, 129-123.

Three things to Know: Is Nikola Jokić going to win third straight MVP?

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Three Things To Know is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Is Nikola Jokić going to win third straight MVP?

That’s a weird headline to write just days after Joel Embiid outplayed Nikola Jokić head-to-head. Embiid absolutely is in the MVP mix again this season — 33.6 points and 10 rebounds per game with strong defense will do that — and that 47-point game is the kind of thing that sticks in voters’ minds. Jayson Tatum, Luka Dončić and Giannis Antetokounmpo are in there, too (not sure Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry will play enough games to win the award).

But Jokić is averaging a triple-double this season — 25.1 points, 11.1 rebounds and 10 assists — and his team is in first place in the West. It’s a season worthy of a third straight MVP. If someone is going to dethrone him, well, you come at the king, you best not miss.

Jokić had 28 points, 16 rebounds and 15 assists on 10-of-14 shooting in the Nuggets’ win over the Pelicans on Tuesday night — Denver is now 16-0 this season when Jokić has a triple-double.

Heading into the season there was a sense MVP voters would be hesitant to make it a historic three straight MVPs for Jokić — putting him in Larry Bird and Bill Russell territory — when the Nuggets haven’t been to the Finals yet. However, Denver sits atop the West and looks like a contender with Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. healthy.

Plus, Jokić’s numbers are undeniable — the Nuggets are 20.2 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court this season. They win because of him, Denver gets outscored by 8.5 points per 100 when he is off the court. And we’re not going to dive into EPM, VORP and the rest of the advanced stats, just know they love Jokić like no other, too.

Jokić may not win his third MVP, there are other deserving guys in the mix and we have 30+ games to go this season. Just don’t be shocked if he does, he has been that good.

2) LeBron has historic night as he chases big his historic night

LeBron James is now just 89 points short of passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. He probably passes KAJ next week, Abdul-Jabbar has 38,387 career points, LeBron is now at 38,299.

First he made some history on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden. LeBron had a triple-double of 28 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds, making him the first player in NBA history to have a triple-double in his 20th season.

More impressively, with those 11 assists he moved past both Mark Jackson and Steve Nash into fourth on the NBA’s career assists list. Think about that for a second, the league’s all-time leading scorer is fourth in assists, too.

The Lakers couldn’t hold on to a late lead in regulation — LeBron missed a couple of long jumpers that could have sealed the win — and Los Angeles needed overtime to get the 129-123 victory. They needed it after dropping two games to start this road trip. Anthony Davis moved back into the starting lineup and the Lakers need to string together a few weeks of wins to climb back into the play-off — or even the play-in mix — or all this history by LeBron will be squandered by the franchise.

3) Banchero, Henderson lead group that will make Rising Stars worth watching

The Rising Stars challenge is often the forgotten child of All-Star weekend. It takes place on Friday night and isn’t all that interesting.

This year may be different — a deep cast of talent will play in the new format that was a hit last season. The 28 players will be divided into four teams of seven, with those four teams going into a tournament bracket. The games were not timed, but players competed to a target score of 40 — something that last season led to the young stars defending and playing hard. It was entertaining.

Here’s the list of who will be playing:

Rookies

Paolo Banchero (Orlando Magic), Jalen Duren (Detroit Pistons), AJ Griffin (Atlanta Hawks), Jaden Ivey (Detroit Pistons), Walker Kessler (Utah Jazz), Bennedict Mathurin (Indiana Pacers), Keegan Murray (Sacramento Kings), Andrew Nembhard (Indiana Pacers), Jabari Smith Jr. (Houston Rockets), Jeremy Sochan (San Antonio Spurs), Jalen Williams (Oklahoma City Thunder)

Sophomores

Jose Alvarado (New Orleans Pelicans), Scottie Barnes (Toronto Raptors), Josh Giddey (Oklahoma City Thunder), Jalen Green (Houston Rockets), Quentin Grimes (New York Knicks), Bones Hyland (Denver Nuggets), Evan Mobley (Cleveland Cavaliers), Trey Murphy III (New Orleans Pelicans), Alperen Sengun (Houston Rockets), Franz Wagner (Orlando Magic)

The G-League team will consist of:

Sidy Cissoko (G League Ignite), Scoot Henderson (G League Ignite), Mojave King (G League Ignite), Kenneth Lofton Jr. (Memphis Hustle), Mac McClung (Deleware Blue Coats), Leonard Miller (G League Ignite), Scotty Pippen Jr. (South Bay Lakers)

It’s a group worth watching on Friday night (Feb. 17) of All-Star weekend.