Gordon Hayward

Jayson Tatum scores 34, Boston holds of Damian Lillard, Portland for win

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Jayson Tatum scored 34 points, Jaylen Brown added 30 and the Boston Celtics built a big lead early before holding on for a 128-124 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday.

Tatum rebounded from a terrible performance in a loss to Milwaukee on Friday when he scored just five points on 2-of-18 shooting.

Damian Lillard had 30 points and 16 assists for Portland. Jusuf Nurkic added 30 points in his second official game back after breaking his leg in March 2019.

Boston led by as many as 24 in the second quarter, but Portland opened the fourth quarter with a 15-4 run, with three 3-pointers from Lillard and two from CJ McCollum, to put them on top 101-98.

Gary Trent Jr. hit a 3-pointer with less than 2 minutes to go before the Celtics used a 7-0 run to take a 125-119 lead with about 30 seconds left.

Carmelo Anthony got the Blazers within three with a 3-pointer and Gordon Hayward was called for a backcourt violation to give Portland the ball back. Lillard lost the ball and the Celtics were called for a foul to give Portland another possession with 6.8 seconds to go.

A layup by Nurkic cut the lead to one with 3.4 seconds left and Hayward added two free throws to push the lead to 127-124. Nurkic’s long inbounds pass bounced out of bounds to secure Boston’s victory.

The Celtics had a 10-point lead with less than a minute left in the third when Lillard was fouled as he banked in an off-balance 3-pointer and he made the free throw to get Portland within 92-86.

Kemba Walker finished the quarter with a basket for Boston to make it 94-86 entering the fourth.

Bring on the games! Seven predictions for NBA restart

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Twenty-twenty-twenty four hours to go and the NBA is back! Finally.

The players from the Utah Jazz and New Orleans Pelicans will kneel around the Black Lives Matters phrase on the court then tip-off the restarted NBA season, maybe with Zion Williamson playing, maybe not. After that appetizer comes the main course, the Lakers vs. Clippers.

You’ve got questions about the return of the NBA season, and we’ve got answers. Or at least predictions. Here are Dan Feldman and my predictions for the restart of the NBA season.

1) WHAT TEAM MAKES A SURPRISING PLAYOFF RUN?

Kurt Helin: Give me the Oklahoma City Thunder. This was a team that was 33-13 from Dec. 1 on with a top-10 offense and defense, before the coronavirus sent the league into hibernation. Chris Paul has been arguably the most clutch player in the league this season, and the three-guard lineup with CP3, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schroder has been a problem for opponents. I think they advance to the second round, regardless of opponent, and they can push the Los Angeles teams. (Honorable mention to Dallas in this category.)

Dan Feldman: Nobody. I’m picking mostly chalk. But I like the Rockets as a dark horse. They have top talent in James Harden and Russell Westbrook, and supporting players like Robert Covington and P.J. Tucker fit so well. Houston’s small-ball system invites variance, which could lead to upsets.

2) WHAT TEAM IS THE BIGGEST THREAT TO THE BUCKS IN THE EAST?

Kurt Helin: I like playoff teams that have versatility, so I will take the Boston Celtics. Their combination of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward — with Marcus Smart off the bench — makes them a matchup nightmare on offense and a switchable defense. With Kemba Walker at the point (if his left knee doesn’t hold him back) and Brad Stevens drawing up the plays, the Celtics just need good play out of the center position to be a real challenge for the Bucks. That said, they may need Milwaukee to stumble to beat them.

Dan Feldman: Raptors. The Raptors, Celtics, 76ers and Heat all have a chance. Philadelphia has the highest upside – a roster designed not only for the playoffs, but specifically to match up with Milwaukee. Still, I’ll take Toronto, which can also match up with the Bucks but has played at a much higher level throughout the season.

3) WHICH PLAYER NOT IN THE BUBBLE WILL BE THE BIGGEST BLOW TO THEIR TEAM?

Kurt Helin: Avery Bradley of the Lakers. So long as Los Angeles has LeBron James and Anthony Davis, they are title contenders (and Davis is expected to play in the opener after suffering an eye injury). But losing a versatile starting two guard hurts. There are matchups where Bradley may not have played extensive minutes, but against teams with elite wings (the Clippers or Rockets, for example), his defense, three-point shooting, and veteran presence would have helped. Throw in the loss of Rajon Rondo (thumb) and that’s 44 minutes a game of guard rotation that has to be filled.

Dan Feldman: Jazz forward Bojan Bogdanovic. Though better players will miss the rest of the season, they’re on lesser teams. Bogdanovic was superb for Utah before undergoing season-ending surgery. With him, the Jazz were a fringe championship contender. Without him, they’ll likely lose in the first round. The difference is especially stark considering Donovan Mitchell‘s and Rudy Gobert‘s rift. Winning cures most ills, and losing tends to exacerbate problems.

4) WHICH TEAM IS MOST LIKELY TO GO 0-8?

Kurt Helin: The Washington Wizards. No John Wall, no Bradley Beal, no Davis Bertans. Outside of that, how many Wizards players can you name? This is a 24-40 team without its two best players and questionable motivation to push and stay in the bubble. Don’t be surprised if things fall apart fast for Washington.

Dan Feldman: Suns. I project Phoenix to play at a higher level the rest of the season than the Nets, Wizards and Spurs. The Suns will probably beat Washington in their first seeding game and render this moot. But if not, they have a tough schedule that ends with teams (Thunder, 76ers, Mavericks) likely to be still competing for seeding position. Phoenix could also fall from playoff contention quickly, reducing motivation to compete.

5) WHICH TEAM GETS THE EIGHTH SEED IN THE WEST?

Kurt Helin: The Memphis Grizzlies. Two reasons for this. First, Ja Morant is really good at basketball. Second, the NBA gave advantages to the Grizzlies at the restart — advantages Memphis earned in the first 65 games playing its way into the eighth seed. They have a 3.5 game cushion, outside of a total collapse the Grizzlies will be in a two-game play-in series to make the playoffs. Then Memphis just needs to win one of those two games to advance. Portland and New Orleans have a shot, but Memphis is the favorite to get that spot.

Dan Feldman: Grizzlies. This is math more than confidence in Memphis, though both obviously factor. Up 3.5 games on the chasing pack, the Grizzlies are the most likely team in the race* to clinch a playoff spot in seeding games. The Grizzlies are the most likely team to be involved in a play-in. The Grizzlies are most likely to be in eighth place in a play-in, which would mean needing to win only once before the ninth-place team wins twice. The Trail Blazers and/or Pelicans might play at a higher level than Memphis the rest of the way, but the Grizzlies’ record advantage makes them the safe pick.

*The Mavericks haven’t technically clinched a playoff spot yet. But I don’t consider them in the race. They’re practically a lock.

6) WHO WILL BE THE MVP OF THE BUBBLE?

Kurt Helin: Kawhi Leonard of the Los Angeles Clippers. He showed last season for Toronto that, when healthy and focused, he can raise his game to the highest level of any current player and lead a good team around him to a ring. He is trying to replicate that formula with Los Angeles. Leonard is fully rested and ready to go, and a Clippers team around him that was knicked up is healthy as well. LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo both have a real shot at earning this title as well.

Dan Feldman: Kawhi Leonard. Leonard, LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo are all fine choices. But how could Leonard not get the benefit of the doubt after last year’s championship run with the Raptors? Leonard absolutely can deliver in the biggest moments. He looks even better this season – getting closer to his peak lockdown defense and improving as a passer.

7) WHAT IS YOUR NBA FINALS MATCHUP? WHO WILL BE CROWNED CHAMPION?

Kurt Helin: I’ll take Leonard and his Clippers over the Bucks. If any of the Lakers, Bucks, or Clippers won the title it would not be a surprise — they are all incredibly close — but come the playoffs the teams that win have great versatility and strong play on the wings. That’s the Clippers. They can beat a team playing small or playing big, and the Leonard and Paul George pairing is the best wing combo in the league. The only question for the Clippers is getting everyone healthy and in Orlando, and building enough chemistry.

Dan Feldman: Clippers over Bucks. The Lakers are right in the mix, too. But the Clippers get the edge because their stars (Kawhi Leonard and Paul George) outshine Milwaukee’s (Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton), and their depth/versatility bests the Lakers’ depth/versatility around LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

Kemba Walker back at Celitcs practice, will sit out first scrimmage

Kemba Walker practice
David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images
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The balky left knee that had Kemba Walker sit out 14 games this season and had Celtics’ coach Brad Stevens taking it slow with his point guard at the NBA’s Orlando restart was not an issue Thursday — Walker was back at practice.

That doesn’t mean he will play in the Celtics first scrimmage on Friday, but Walker said he felt good after going through a full practice Thursday.

Walker said he had no concerns for the rest of this restart about his knee, adding “it’s all about maintenance.” Stevens had previously suggested a possible minutes limit for Walker through the seeding games (Boston just needs to not give up 2.5 games to Miami and it maintains the three seed).

Walker averaged 21.2 points and 4.9 assists a game in Boston this season, but for the first time in years was playing as part of an ensemble with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward all able to go out and get buckets. Walker isn’t in Charlotte anymore where he was all the offense, now he has Tatum developing into a superstar around him. It’s what led Walker to tell his teammates this week this was a title team they just needed to show the world, something Enes Kanter relayed on his podcast (via NBC Sports Boston).

“Actually, we had a [team] meeting and, in the middle of the meeting, [Walker] stepped up and said, ‘Listen, man, we have something really special in this locker room. We are like brothers. So let’s just go out there, let’s compete, have fun, and win this championship. Let’s show the whole world that we can do it.’”

The Celtics with a healthy Walker are the biggest threat in the East to Milwaukee. They bring an athletic and switchable lineup (Walker, Tatum, Brown, Hayward, with Marcus Smart off the bench) that was top five in the league defensively and can score a variety of ways. There is a lot to like if the Celtics can get their rhythm back, if Tatum can keep up the All-NBA level of play he had the last month or so of the season, and if Walker’s knee is healthy.

Which is why him practicing on Thursday was such a good sign.

 

Thunder’s Dennis Schroder will leave bubble next month for birth of child

Dennis Schroder child
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Oklahoma City guard Dennis Schroderjust like Boston’s Gordon Hayward and Utah’s Mike Conley — has a pregnant wife due to give birth to his child while he is in the bubble.

Just like those guys, Schroder said he is leaving the bubble to put family first when it is time. Via Joe Mussatto of The Oklahoman:

“I’m not gonna leave my wife by herself while she’s having a second baby,” Schroder said. “(Dennis) Jr. is still 17 months old, so I’m for sure gonna go there and support her and try as much as I can to be there for my family…

“For me it’s tough,” Schroder said. “I love my teammates, I love basketball, but family comes first all the time. I’ll try to make something happen with the organization. I sacrifice a lot for my team, but like I said, we still gotta get on the same page that I can see my family maybe when the baby is coming. We’re going to make it work.”

The baby is due in “3-4 weeks,” which is mid-August.

Schroder is absolutely doing the right thing prioritizing his family. Nobody should criticize his decision.

That said, if he is gone for some of the first round of the playoffs, which start Aug. 17, it would be a blow to the Thunder, who almost certainly will be in a difficult matchup in the middle of a crowded West (currently they would face Utah in a 4/5 matchup, but with the middle of the conference bunched together the seeding games likely change that).

Schroder is a Sixth Man of the Year candidate averaging 19 points per game while shooting 38.1% from three. The Thunder are at their most dangerous with a three-guard lineup where Schroder is paired with Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a rotation that can’t happen with Schroeder gone.

Schroder can return to the team. He has to get tested every day he is outside the bubble, but because this is an excused absence and the league has been notified, upon his return Schroeder will have a four-day quarantine (so long as he continues to have negative tests). Players who leave the bubble without notifying teams face a 10-day quarantine.

Oklahoma City is going to need Schroder and his crafty game if they are going to be a playoff threat that moves beyond the first round in Orlando.

 

Boston ‘going to move very slowly’ with Kemba Walker return to play

Kemba Walker Boston
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For Boston and Kemba Walker, the target is the playoffs, not the eight seeding games running up to the postseason.

Which is why the Celtics are going to be cautious with Walker and his troublesome left knee, do a little load management early, and target the postseason for him to go all out, coach Brad Stevens told reporters, via A. Sherrod Blakely of NBC Sports Boston.

“We’re going to move very slowly with Kemba Walker and let him strengthen (the left knee),” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens following the team’s first practice in Orlando, Fla. on Friday. “And make sure that he’s all good to go as we enter the seeding games and obviously, the playoffs.”

Stevens suggested a minutes limit for Walker during the seeding games.

Walker missed 14 games this season and lingering left knee soreness was an issue — the team was already looking at getting him time off before the coronavirus put the season on hold. Walker said last week that four-month break gave his knee time to heal up and get healthy. Like a lot of players, Walker is eager to get back at it.

Stevens is smart easing Walker back into action, there is no need to push things. Boston needs Kemba Walker in the playoffs, the seeding games are not as vital (Boston just needs to not give up te 2.5 games to Miami and slide out of the three seed).

The Celtics enter the Orlando restart bubble as maybe the biggest threat in the East to Milwaukee. They bring an athletic and switchable lineup (Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward, with Marcus Smart off the bench) that was top five in the league defensively and can score. There is a lot to like if the Celtics can get their rhythm back, and if Tatum can keep up the All-NBA level of play he had the last month or so of the season.

Boston also will need a healthy Kemba Walker or that. So he will get eased back into play.