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Kevin Garnett’s return a major first step in Celtics’ intriguing offseason

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Kevin Garnett’s new contract could take him through Year 20 of his career. (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Kevin Garnett told the Celtics that he would let them know if he would return or retire by Saturday, the day before the start of the free-agent negotiating period. And he is a man of his word: The Boston Herald reported that the 36-year-old big man has informed the team that he will be back next season. The deal will be for three years and $34 million, according to Yahoo! Sports, though it will be interesting to see if some of that third year is nonguaranteed.

The deal is not without some risk for Boston, given his age, 50,000 minutes of mileage and the inclusion of a third year, which would take Garnett’s contract one year beyond the 34-year-old Paul Pierce’s current (and presumed final) deal. But the Celtics’ cap sheet is clean enough that they could make themselves players in free agency each summer, including this one, without much of a problem. Also: Garnett, even after a 2009 right-knee injury that took something out of him, is still one of the most valuable players in the league. He’s so good that you could easily make the argument that he is this summer’s best free-agent big man. The only other candidates are Indiana’s Roy Hibbert, San Antonio’s Tim Duncan and Orlando’s Ryan Anderson, none of whom are expected to switch teams.

Boston has looked around the free-agency landscape and decided that potentially standing pat while tweaking on the fringes and remaining flexible enough to change course on a moment’s notice is the best way to go. That makes sense, especially considering Garnett’s effectiveness. But getting him back at this price also allows the Celtics to proceed in two different ways, including a path that would involve staying over the cap and using the full mid-level exception instead of the smaller one available to teams with payrolls that cross a certain level.

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  • Published On 1:11pm, Jun 30, 2012
  • Ray Allen makes sense for Heat’s small-ball style, tight finances

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    After chasing Ray Allen the last two seasons in the playoffs, LeBron James and the Heat seemingly want to create open looks for the 37-year-old sharpshooter next season. (AP)

    The capped-out Heat are in an interesting position entering free agency, forced to decide rather quickly whether the small-ball lineups that they relied on full time by the end of the postseason — and to spectacular effect — now represent the basic foundation of the team. Miami had long used LeBron James at power forward for stretches of each game, but that alignment became its de facto set-up only after power Chris Bosh’s abdominal injury during the second-round series against Indiana forced a wholesale on-the-fly adjustment of the team’s philosophy. By Games 4 and 5 of the NBA Finals, the Heat were playing only one big man for basically every second of each game — something they could manage in part because of James’ ability to play big on both sides of the floor.

    If the Heat view that as their style going forward, that kind of philosophical shift may guide them toward different kinds of players in free agency than they might otherwise have pursued — guards, wings and shooters over that much-pursued “true center,” perhaps. Within this context, the Heat’s interest in Ray Allen makes a lot of sense — despite huge luxury tax issues looming over everything Miami does. Whether accepting the Heat’s mini mid-level exception, worth $3 million per year, makes any sense to Allen is a different story; Miami will not be able to offer any more than that to free agents, even if it uses the amnesty clause on swingman Mike Miller. Allen will have suitors, including perhaps Boston, a place that can no longer offer him a starting spot but would still bring decent minutes.

    Miami already has big men Bosh, Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony on the roster for next season, plus what amounts to a team option on Dexter Pittman (who started Game 3 of the Indiana series, let us never forget) and the possibility that Ronny Turiaf exercises his player option to stick around and make faces on the bench. Bosh might be the only reliable two-way contributor among that motley crew, but the regular season is a slog, and all five would figure to get minutes if they’re around. Miami isn’t going to just do away with lineups featuring two big men; the MVP needs to rest sometimes, and even beyond those stretches with him on the bench, preserving James’ body and health will be a pressing issue. Read More…


  • Published On 2:30pm, Jun 25, 2012
  • Big Three Celtics have left mark on NBA

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    Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce

    Though they won only one title together, the Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce changed the way title teams are built and how they play. (AP)

    The best NBA teams are the ones that teach us something deep about the state of the league. The Celtics have accomplished that over the last half-decade of excellence and grit, and if the five-year run of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce together is truly over, with Garnett and Allen entering free agency, history should ultimately regard it as a major success.

    The Celtics “only” won one ring in that time, and the franchise will forever curse that day in February 2009 in Utah, when Garnett leapt for an alley-oop and came down holding his right knee. The Celtics had by far their best offensive team of this “era” in that season, and though they were in a midseason mini-slump (something that would become their trademark, along with super-fast starts), they appeared to be the favorites for a repeat title.

    They were never the same after that Garnett injury. They fell short in three separate Game 7s, including one against the Lakers in the 2010 Finals. Center Kendrick Perkins missed that game after blowing out his knee in Game 6. The team has justifiably wondered what might have happened had Perkins been around to protect the glass and spare Garnett and Rasheed Wallace some minutes in Los Angeles.

    Boston lost point guard Rajon Rondo during its five-game playoff loss to the Heat last season and was missing guard Avery Bradley during its seven-game defeat to Miami this season. This year’s Heat series was eerily reminiscent of the 2010 Finals as a thin, aging team that was running on empty and could not score with a broken offense fell short.

    But here’s the thing: The playoff injury luck shifted in Boston’s favor this season, and the team just wasn’t good enough to make the Finals. Power forward Chris Bosh’s abdominal injury changed the Heat into a different team, and Bulls point guard Derrick Rose’s ACL tear on the opening day of the playoffs removed a potential second-round opponent that has eaten Boston alive playing the same defense that vaulted the Celtics into the league’s elite.

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  • Published On 11:42am, Jun 11, 2012
  • East finals Game 7: What to watch for

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    Dwyane Wade, shooting 44 percent, needs to improve his shot selection in Game 7. (Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

    Five things to watch in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals on Saturday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN):

    Miami’s offense: In the flow?

    The Heat had a possession early in Game 6 where they operated the way they’ll have to play more often to win Game 7 and ultimately have a realistic chance to beat the Thunder in the NBA Finals. It started with Chris Bosh holding the ball at the left elbow as LeBron James cut from the right corner, darted around two screeners and caught the ball near the foul line. LeBron’s man, Paul Pierce, had somehow fought through both screens, and so the Heat went into their next option: Bosh ran to the left corner and screened for Dwyane Wade, who came sprinting around the pick to catch a pass from James.

    Boston passed that test, too, as Ray Allen managed to stick with Wade. So Miami moved on to option No. 3: a quick-hitting Wade/James pick-and-roll, which finally broke the defense. Allen had to switch onto James, who used his huge size advantage to post up the Boston guard and score.

    Miami’s half-court offense has too often lacked that commitment to steps two, three and four in the conference finals. That was even the case for the most part in James’ epic explosion Thursday in Boston. Wade’s shot selection, in particular, has been awful, as he has too often settled for pull-up jumpers in transition and when coming off that first screen in the corner. Wade is 11-of-40 on mid-range shots in the series. The Heat have taken nearly 28 percent of their shot attempts from three-point range, up from 19 percent in the regular season, according to NBA.com’s stats tool. And as others have noted, an unsustainable percentage of James’ season-saving 45 points in Game 6 came on contested mid-range shots, some out of ho-hum isolation plays that Boston will happily give him almost every night.

    The Heat will have to do better, whether it’s Saturday or in the Finals. The James/Wade pick-and-roll has been more effective and prolific in this series than at any time over the last two seasons, forcing Boston into repeated compromising switches. As for the threes, there are good threes and bad ones, and the Heat would be wise to limit their tries to those attempted by role players (Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier, Mike Miller) who find themselves open as Boston’s defense tilts toward the Miami stars. (Note: It’s a cliché to say each team needs its role players, but each team needs its role players.)

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  • Published On 4:12pm, Jun 08, 2012
  • He proved clutch in Game 6, but you can’t judge LeBron James by one game

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    LeBron James scored 45 points in Game 6 to help the Heat stave off elimination in the East finals. (Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

    The image still surprises me every time it appears in ESPN’s opening montage for these Eastern Conference finals. Right after the famous clip of John Havlicek’s steal against the 76ers in Game 7 of the 1965 Eastern finals comes an image of LeBron James, wearing his Cleveland No. 23 uniform, rising for a buzzer-beating three-pointer over Hedo Turkoglu to win Game 2 of the 2009 East finals over Orlando. It catches me off guard because James’ play in that series has to be the greatest forgotten postseason performance in NBA history — forgotten because the top-seeded Cavaliers, featuring Mo Williams as their second-leading scorer, lost to the Magic in six games.

    James averaged just about 40 points, nine rebounds and nine assists in that series. He won Game 2 on what should be the signature shot of his career. That followed his ridiculous 49-point performance in a Game 1 loss, during which he shot 20-of-30 from the floor, scored 10 points in the fourth quarter, hit an “and-one” runner (plus the foul shot) over Dwight Howard to put Cleveland ahead by one point with 25 seconds remaining and forced a tie-up with just over a second left to give the Cavaliers one final shot. In Game 4, a crushing overtime loss, James scored 10 more fourth-quarter points, including two free throws with less than a second left to force overtime, and then added 10 of the Cavs’ 14 points in the extra session. In Game 5, with his team facing elimination and the score tied entering the fourth quarter, James scored 17 points to pull away from Orlando.

    Last-second free throws, go-ahead baskets within the last 30 seconds, 40-point games, monster fourth quarters — it does not get any more clutch than this. And yet, in the minds of many, it is almost as if this series never happened. The discussion about James’ “clutch” play focuses mostly on his failures — his Game 5 no-show against the Celtics in the conference finals two years ago, and especially his meltdown in the Finals against Dallas last season.

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  • Published On 11:45am, Jun 08, 2012
  • How Boston gained the upper hand in surprising Eastern Conference finals

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    Kevin Garnett had 26 points as Boston won its third straight game in the series. (Steve Mitchell/US Presswire)

    Ranting about “crunch” time and the supposed implosion of Miami’s offense — and of LeBron James — in the most important moments on Tuesday wouldn’t be totally off the mark. The Heat weren’t in peak form on offense in their 94-90 loss to Boston in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals. They too often would run one quick-hitting action, perhaps a James/Dwyane Wade pick-and-roll, and stagnate from there, finally chucking a contested mid-range jumper or three-pointer as the shot clock ticked down.

    This wasn’t just a fourth-quarter thing, either. James, after all, scored nine points in the final period and played at a high-octane level for about a two-minute stretch early in the quarter and again on certain later possessions.  He drove at Kevin Garnett but had his layup blocked with about 3:20 remaining. On Miami’s next possession, he sliced into the heart of Boston’s defense to set up Mario Chalmers’ three-pointer that put the Heat ahead 83-82 with 2:33 to play. He made a similar move to create another open Chalmers three (a miss) with 41 seconds left and Miami trailing 90-86. But in between those stretches of aggression, James was mostly content to set a pick for Wade and roll quickly to the corner, where he became a non-threat.

    James’ crunch-time performance was spotty again, but it did not cost the Heat the game and deal them a 3-2 deficit entering Game 6 in Boston on Thursday. If you want to rip apart Miami’s offense, you’d be better off focusing on stretches late in the second and third quarters, when the Heat collapsed as one of the perimeter stars rested. The Heat were plus-12 in the 37 minutes James and Wade played together in Game 5, meaning they were a whopping minus-16 in the 11 minutes when only one was on the floor, according to NBA.com. Those latter stretches included some ugly offense — one-set possessions that resulted in contested, lazy jumpers — with plays that broke down when that first action failed to yield anything and Miami was left to improvise with five guys standing still and the shot clock dwindling.

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  • Published On 12:35pm, Jun 06, 2012
  • Is LeBron James “clutch”? As Game 4 showed, the answer is complicated

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    LeBron James

    LeBron James had some good and bad moments down the stretch of the Heat’s loss in Game 4. (Damian Strohmeyer/SI)

    It is simultaneously the most fascinating and tiresome debate in the NBA: Is LeBron James “clutch”?

    First, the entire concept of “clutch” is overblown for two reasons:

    1. The first 45 minutes of an NBA game matter. Focusing only on “crunch time” is arbitrary and ignores the fact that every possession is meaningful. If your favorite team lays an egg on defense in the first half, that matters, even if it rallies in the second half.

    2. There is a great deal of randomness in “clutch” statistics over the long haul. Sort the data by individual player or team, and you’ll see that year over year, these things swing wildly. Paul Pierce is monstrously clutch one season and a choke artist the next — by the numbers, anyway. The Lakers were shaky in the “clutch” last season but emerged as the league’s best clutch offense this season — right up until they went off the rails against the Thunder in the second round of the playoffs.

    Where is the hard truth here? Is there any?

    The same confusion can make it hard to judge individual “clutch” performances, an unfortunate obsession among NBA fans and talk-show pundits. James missed a potential game-winning shot in Game 4 on Sunday in Boston and threw several passes that appeared to be of the dreaded “hot-potato” variety. A certain subset of fans will thus brand the performance as “unclutch.”

    The great and horrible thing about basketball is that it is complicated. What appeared to happen on a key possession might not be what you see once you take the time to re-watch the same possession three and four times. These judgments are important, in that they inform our collective evaluation of a player and play a part in deciding his place in NBA history.

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  • Published On 3:50pm, Jun 04, 2012
  • Can Chris Bosh salvage a regressing Miami Heat defense?

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    Chris Bosh

    Chris Bosh has been sidelined with an abdominal strain since Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

    Miami’s Chris Bosh is likely to return from an abdominal strain for Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals, according to ESPN.com, and it’s refreshing that we appear to be past the point of asking whether the Heat are better off with or without their best big man. Trends ebb and flow with each game, depending on matchups, randomness and coaching adjustments, but in the big picture, the truth has always been obvious: The Heat are much better with all three of their stars on the court, and they will need Bosh to seriously compete against the Oklahoma City/San Antonio winner, let alone escape a proud and ferocious Boston team that evened the series at 2-2 on Sunday in Boston.

    The Heat’s need for another quality big man is all-encompassing at this point. They need the threat of Bosh’s offense so that Kevin Garnett cannot rove anywhere he pleases to double-team Miami’s other stars or clog the lane on the LeBron James/Dwyane Wade pick-and-rolls that the team ran so often — more than I can ever remember in a single game — in Game 4. They could use another scorer, period, after having wiped out a huge chunk of their play book and replaced it with isolations during Bosh’s absence. They need more flexibility to play two big men against a depleted Boston team thrilled it can go small, and they need a big man to help clean up their suddenly broken defense.

    Step back from the “clutch” debate and Miami’s shaky last-second possessions on Sunday, and you’ll see that the larger question emerging in this series surrounds Miami’s disturbing regression on defense.  We can say Boston’s explosion in Game 2 was the product of a random jump-shooting outburst from Rajon Rondo, who just completed what may have been the best three-game stretch of his career in lifting Boston back into this series. But in the first six quarters of Games 3 and 4 in Boston, the Heat played some of their worst defense of the past two seasons. Boston deserves credit for working its side-to-side sets, limiting turnovers (a half-decade-old bugaboo for these Celtics) and finding creative ways to get Garnett the ball in the post during Game 3. But there were also simple breakdowns from Miami — startling mistakes of miscommunication, laziness, confusion and botched rotations so bad we have no choice but to wonder if fatigue is starting to set in among Miami’s stars.

    The Heat reversed that trend in the second half of Game 4, cleaning up rotations and showing a new sense of urgency in flying around the court. Yet their furious second-half rally, undone by some inefficient late-game offense, would not have been necessary had they not helped one of the league’s worst scoring teams pile up 61 first-half points.

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  • Published On 12:06pm, Jun 04, 2012
  • Zone defense unlikely to help C’s much

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    Celtics coach Doc Rivers broke out a zone defense late in Game 1. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

    With about eight minutes left and Boston trailing by 13 on Monday, Celtics coach Doc Rivers went to a zone defense in an attempt to confuse Miami. Over the next four minutes, the Heat missed their first five shots against the zone, scoring only in transition (a Dwyane Wade floater) and off an offensive rebound (a LeBron James basket).

    Rivers said after Boston’s Game 1 loss that he expects the zone to be a weapon in this Eastern Conference finals series, and there is a general sense among NBA observers that the Heat struggle against zone defenses. (The Celtics used a zone against Miami with some success on Dec. 27 in the second game of the season for both teams.) Magic Johnson mentioned before Monday’s game that Dallas’ zone defense flustered Miami in the Finals last season, and it’s true that neither Wade nor James is a reliable three-point shooter — a classic zone-buster. The Heat are also missing Chris Bosh, a very good passing-and-shooting big man who can fill that sweet spot in the heart of zone at the foul line.

    The Celtics, for their part, may have no choice but to use a zone more often than they’d like because they have no workable matchup for Wade — at least when the hobbled Ray Allen is on the floor.

    But here’s reality: The Heat have played against a lot of zone this season, and they have done quite well against it. Only three teams — Utah, Charlotte and Oklahoma City — faced zone defenses on a larger percentage of their possessions than Miami did, according to a report prepared for SI.com by the statistics- and video-tracking service Synergy Sports. The Heat shot 48.3 percent against zones (112-of-232), the third-best mark in the league, behind only Sacramento and Orlando, which went against a zone less often than any other team. The Heat scored more efficiently against zones, in terms of points per possession, than they did overall for the season, per Synergy.

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  • Published On 2:38pm, May 29, 2012
  • LeBron James still adding to his game

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    LeBron James has shot 50 percent or better from the field in his last four games. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

    The Heat blitzed the Celtics in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals on Monday for a number of reasons, the two most important being:

    1. Boston, a bad offensive team, could not produce consistent offense against a top-five defense, which is no surprise. Coach Doc Rivers stretched the playbook pretty far, especially in his team’s 35-point second quarter, and he found some interesting ways to generate spacing even though the Heat were barely defending point guard Rajon Rondo on the perimeter. But Miami mostly foiled all of that with stellar individual defense, aggressive rotations, solid coaching adjustments (having Dwyane Wade defend Rondo and rove off him) and sound scheming away from Boston’s weaker shooters (Rondo, Mickael Pietrus, Keyon Dooling).

    2. Miami has the two best players in the series — and perhaps in the league — and they are on an incredible run of crazy shot-making. Wade and LeBron James have each shot 50 percent or better from the floor in four straight games, and Wade has cracked 55 percent in all four. They are hitting shots off motion offense, high pick-and-rolls (using forward Shane Battier as a screener for Wade has given both Indiana and now Boston problems) and on those isolation plays in which coach Erik Spoelstra clears one side of the floor for one of his stars. Those plays are brutally simple and use the defensive three-second rule to create space for star attackers to go one-on-one.

    Both players have hit some ridiculously tough shots out of those isolation sets — floaters in the lane, fadeaways from the post, tricky runners. There will be games when those shots fall only a quarter of the time instead of half the time, and in those games the Heat will either keep going in hopes of the math turning their way or lean more heavily on other things.

    One thing they can increasingly lean on: LeBron’s active cutting away from the ball. This isn’t entirely new. James has improved this part of his game gradually since signing with the Heat. He didn’t really have a choice after joining Wade, another ball-dominant player without the kind of deadly outside shot that allows for Ray Allen- or Kyle Korver-style off-ball movement. The Heat have long used scripted sets that involve two of their stars doing something active away from the ball, often in cooperation, while the third holds the ball elsewhere.

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  • Published On 12:14pm, May 29, 2012


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