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Celtics’ Stevens remains humble as team continues to thrive

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WALTHAM, Mass. (AP) — When Brad Stevens accepted the Celtics head coaching job five years ago, he didn’t allow himself to get caught up in thinking about how he could add his name to the franchise’s rich history.

He was too busy trying to figure out how to avoid being buried under it.

“You realize that if you’re going to break records here, you’re probably going to break bad ones,” he recently said. “Because none of the good ones are reachable.”

While achieving Red Auerbach status may not be on Stevens’ radar, in just his fifth season there’s no question the 41-year-old is also beyond being the wide-eyed former Butler University coach who arrived in Boston.

In a timeframe that has often already swallowed up most first-time NBA coaches, he’s managed to endear himself to a championship-driven city by helping Boston make an improbable run back to the Eastern Conference finals.

The Celtics seemingly had their championship hopes derailed following the season-ending injuries to both of their offseason additions in Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving.

Yet, Boston won 55 games during the regular season and increased its win total for the fifth consecutive season under Stevens.

Despite having a roster that was down to just 11 healthy players by the end of their second-round win over Philadelphia, the Celtics enter their conference finals rematch with Cleveland on Sunday with an 8-0 record at home this postseason.

They are also the first team in NBA history to make it back to this point without their leading scorer from the regular season (Irving).

Most of the NBA community was taken aback after Stevens failed to receive a single vote from his peers when the National Basketball Coaches Association gave out its coach of the year award. The honor went to Toronto’s Dwane Casey, who was fired Thursday after his team was swept in the East semifinals by the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Stevens has always downplayed the attention placed on coaching awards. He said that he thought Casey deserved the honor and didn’t expect him to be without a job for long.

Boston’s successes this season aside, Stevens said comfort remains a commodity this profession.

“I don’t think that I would ever define anybody in the coaching or playing shoes probably as comfortable,” he said. “You’re just focused on what’s next. But it is basketball. There’s only so much you can do.”

But it’s also clear that one of the reasons that Casey lost his job was the Raptors’ inability to challenge the Cavs in the postseason. Toronto was also swept out of the playoffs by Cleveland last season.

Most of the credit for Boston’s run thus far surely belongs to veteran Al Horford and the Celtics’ corps of young players, including Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum.

Stevens agrees with that assessment and has remained true to his style by blending into the background in public, instead waiting for the huddle or practice to make his voice heard.

He believes his team’s mental toughness and grit have carried it more than anything he’s done.

Horford said Stevens hasn’t shied away from putting their young players in pressure situations.

“I think a lot of our guys have been thrown into the fire. I think it’s been designed that way so guys can just develop and learn as they go,” Horford said. “But I think that one of the things that helps them is the way that coach helps them prepare and the way that he teaches them the game.”

There is also at least one person watching from afar who thinks a lot of the credit belongs to Stevens. And it just happens to be the same player he will spend the next few weeks trying to stop: LeBron James.

From Stevens’ ability to draw up plays out of timeouts, to his management of late-clock situations, to getting the best out of his roster, James has long been a fan.

“I think they are one of the most well-coached teams in our league,” James said. “No matter who has played for them, he can put guys in position to succeed and get the most out of whoever has been in their lineup over the past few years. It’s not just this year.”

Stevens said he’s focused on living in the moment.

“From our standpoint, I feel like it’s been a lot of fun,” he said. “We talked about it prior to the playoffs; nobody should love a challenge more, nobody should have more fun doing it. I think our guys have done a good job with that.”

And though he may never say it, so has their coach.

LeBron’s game-winner in Game 3 may have been moment Dwane Casey lost his job

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It wasn’t just one thing that led to Toronto Raptors’ president Masai Ujiri deciding to fire Dwane Casey after the coach had just led the team to a 59-win season and the No. 1 seed in the East. It was the slow buildup of a lot of things — most of them game-management related (not Casey’s strong suit) — that pushed Ujiri to make an unpopular and difficult decision.

However, the final nail in the coffin of Casey’s job may have been this play, LeBron James‘ game-winner in Game 3.

While on one side we should give credit to Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue for not advancing the ball to halfcourt for the inbound, allowing LeBron to get up a head of steam coming down the court and making it harder to double him, the fact Toronto went with single-coverage and now help on the play when it was obvious to everyone on the planet who was going to take the shot frustrated Ujiri to no end, reports Michael Grange of Sportsnet Canada.

Ujiri’s frustration with Casey’s inability to transfer regular-season success was rising, according to multiple sources….

According to multiple sources the confusion and subsequent lack of execution on the final play was another log on the fire. After the game, Ujiri stormed into the Raptors dressing room at Quicken Loans — just out of sight of most of the players but not out of earshot — and rebuked Casey in the coach’s office for failing to double-team James. Ujiri didn’t reserve his frustration for just Casey – he also tore into the officials in the hallway as well. But observers noted that the intensity was more than typical for Ujiri, who can run hot at the best of times.

It wasn’t just those things in this series. It was Game 2 when the Cavaliers started using the Kevin Love/Kyle Korver corner pick action that left Jonas Valanciunas in no-man’s land. Or in that same game when the Cavaliers started doing pick-and-roll actions that left C.J. Miles switched onto LeBron, and LeBron would just post him up and score (that happened five or so times in a row without an adjustment). Or in Game 4, when Casey went to Lucas Nogueira at center in a four-point game for no good reason. Casey was outcoached against Boston.

Does all that warrant firing Casey? Not alone. Ujiri just felt with this roster and this coach the team had gone as far as it could, and with both Boston and Philadelphia fast on the rise in the East (plus whatever LeBron decides to do this summer) the Raptors needed a change. Coach was a spot where change could be made more easily than the roster (which Ujiri assembled, and has its flaws).

The big question for the Raptors now: Who’s next? Who is that upgrade?

Not an easy question to answer. (Well, not Drake is the easy answer, but beyond that…)

Marcus Morris says he’s best LeBron defender in NBA outside Kawhi Leonard

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Marcus Morris doesn’t lack for confidence.

“We’re coming. You would be a fool to count us out of anything,” Morris told NBC Sports Boston after the Celtics eliminated the Sixers last round.

Cleveland, however, presents a new level of challenge, mainly in the form of LeBron James. One of the greatest players ever to lace them up, still playing at the peak of his game, he can both drop 40+ on an opponent, or shred them with his passing to get Kevin Love, Kyle Korver and the rest of the team going. Or both. Boston is likely going to throw a lot of different defenders at LeBron, Morris among them — and did I mention Morris does not lack for confidence?

It’s not going to be just one guy, and it can’t be just one look with LeBron. He has to see some doubles (from unexpected angles ideally), an occasional trap, some one-on-one, and the help has to be ready as does the person helping the helper. Boston, much more than the Cavs’ first two opponents (Indiana and Toronto) can do just that. Boston is five guys on a string right now, moving in unison, and they are going to cut off a lot of what worked and got Love and Korver going last round.

Over the first game or two, expect Brad Stevens to try Morris, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, and probably others on LeBron. The Celtics have a lot of bodies to throw at LeBron and a lot of fouls to use to slow him down.

Is that enough? And even if the Celtics can slow LeBron and keep the rest of the Cavaliers in check, can Boston score enough to win four out of seven?

It’s a lot to ask, but the Celtics have surprised the first two rounds.

And they have the secret weapon of Marcus Morris.

Report: Timberwolves want to bring back Derrick Rose

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When Tom Thibodeau signed Derrick Rose — after the former MVP was traded at the deadline when Cleveland cleaned house, then waived instantly by Utah — NBA Twitter was a combination of scorn and derision. Especially Timberwolves fans. The consensus was Rose was going to be wretched on defense and certainly didn’t solve the team’s need for more shooting.

However, Rose was solid, particularly in the playoffs against Houston. In those five postseason games, Rose averaged 14.2 points per game, shot 50.9 percent from the field, and was knocking down his threes. While those numbers are not sustainable over the course of a regular season (or even more playoff games), Rose defended better than expected and showed he can still have a role in the NBA — backup point guard giving a team 15 minutes a night and creating shots.

Thibodeau and the Timberwolves want Rose back, reports Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic.

No question that they are interested in bringing Rose back. Thibs certainly heard plenty of questions when he first brought Rose in. But in that role as a combo guard off the bench, Rose was good. He played solid defense, scored well and was a great teammate.

The question will be can he stay healthy for a full season? His body just keeps betraying him, and he missed some time with a sprained ankle during his stint with the Wolves.

I have two thoughts here.

First, sure Minnesota wants him back, but at what price? Rose was on a one-year, $2.1 million this season, and at around that number he is an affordable part of the rotation. If another team wants to offer more (or if Rose demands it), the Timberwolves should back away from the table. Rose struggles to stay healthy at this point and he’s the wrong guy to trust to play more than 60 games next season.

Second, re-signing Rose cannot get in the way of minutes for Tyus Jones. At the end of the season and into the playoffs Jones lost his minutes to Rose, but Jones is the future at the backup one spot. His development matters more than just finding a replacement.

Houston’s Clint Capela develops into pivotal player for Rockets

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HOUSTON (AP) — Houston’s Clint Capela certainly isn’t a household name, and doesn’t get nearly the attention other centers like Ruby Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns receive.

But after he outshined those stars the first two rounds of the playoffs, the league is taking notice that Capela is one of the pivotal pieces to Houston’s success as the team prepares for its showdown with Golden State in the Western Conference finals starting Monday.

“What he does is as good or better than anybody in the league without a doubt,” coach Mike D’Antoni said.

Capela leads the NBA this postseason in blocks (2.8 a game) and offensive rebounds (4.1 per contest). He’s fourth with 12.2 rebounds a game overall and his 14.4 point average in the playoffs ranks third on the Rockets behind James Harden and Chris Paul. This came after a regular season where the fourth-year player posted career highs in virtually every statistical category. He averaged 13.9 points, 10.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in helping the Rockets to 65 wins and their first No. 1 seed in franchise history.

“What he does has been unbelievable,” D’Antoni said. “And he’ll be overlooked. They’ll say he’s a role player and it’s not true.”

The Rockets insist that their high-powered, three-point centered offense wouldn’t work the way it does without the 6-foot-10 Capela. His work as the finisher in Houston’s pick and roll has proven valuable in the playoffs so far. His prowess in that area was on full display in Houston’s Game 5 win that eliminated the Timberwolves in the first round. He shot 12 of 14 and finished with a game-high 26 points to help Houston to the 122-104 victory.

Harden has often said this season that Capela is the player that makes everything else work for the Rockets, and said Friday that he’s undoubtedly developed into one of the league’s best centers.

“For sure,” Harden said. “He’s done it for the last few years and he’s definitely showing it now in the postseason. You’ve got guys that just are comfortable with being in the NBA and you’ve got guys that actually want to have a legacy and Clint’s one of those guys.”

To that end Capela is constantly trying to learn and add new wrinkles to his game. He was always picking the brain of eight-time All-Star Dwight Howard when he backed him up in his first two NBA seasons and he’s developed a close relationship with former Rockets star and Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon. Capela can often be seen working with and talking to Olajuwon at practice and Capela said Olajuwon has been impressed with the 23-year-old’s progress.

“He just said I was great and playing with confidence and energy and to keep it up,” Capela said.

While the Capela sees Olajuwon as one of his top mentors, he also appreciates a particular skill of another former Rocket. There are times after Capela blocks a shot that he wags one of his long fingers in the air as Dikembe Mutombo often did during his more than decade-long career in the NBA.

“Just having fun and also sending a message that it’s still my paint,” Capela said with a laugh.

Capela has had at least one block in each of Houston’s playoff games this season and tied a career-best with six in Game 4 against the Jazz. Most impressive about that performance is that five of those blocks came in the last three minutes to help Houston secure the road victory.

He said that shot-blocking barrage was the product of his getting upset after receiving a rare technical earlier in the fourth quarter when he got tangled up with Donovan Mitchell and the two did a little jawing at each other.

“Whenever I got a little into it with this guy from the other team, it fired me up a little bit and I just decided that they wouldn’t score anymore, not in my paint,” he said. “So this is what happened.”

Capela is happy with his improvement this season, but far from satisfied with his play. He knows he’ll have to keep getting better if the Rockets hope to reach the NBA finals.

“I’m just trying to be more consistent every game,” he said. “I think during the playoffs I’ve gotten better with my intensity and by doing that I thought that our team got better too.”