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NBA playoffs – How the Boston Celtics extended the Eastern Conference finals

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For the Boston Celtics, the first half of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals was a tractor pull. They shot 25% percent from the field in the first quarter. Coming off a simple pick-and-pop with Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker sent a pass into the hands of assistant coach Scott Morrison on the bench. On offense, the ball didn’t move, drivers were stuck in neutral, and the Celtics were slow to loose balls. But it wasn’t just a lack of rhythm or execution; Boston looked like a team broken by frustration.

Over the next three quarters, the Celtics rebuilt their spirit piece by piece. They got a healthy serving of instant offense from reserve big man Enes Kanter. Jaylen Brown set an aggressive tone. Boston started protecting the basketball. After halftime, Boston ratcheted up the defensive pressure. Tatum started to attack the paint and drew fouls on demand. The offense exploited the middle of the Miami Heat’s zone defense.

When Game 5 was finally over, the Celtics had woken from their slumber, outlasting Miami 121-108 to narrow the Heat’s series lead to 3-2.

“We just knew in the first half that we were playing with a lot of energy, but it was kind of all over the place,” Brown said. “And we just had to dial it in. We had the right mindset from the beginning of the game, but it was a little bit all over the place. Once we settled in a little bit and kept that same intensity, it worked out for us.”

After the early hiccup, every member of the Celtics rotation performed their role to specification. Tatum and Brown led the way, opportunistic on the drive and quick on the release from distance. Marcus Smart showed off his first-team All-NBA Defensive bonafides at the top of the floor, and threaded the needle in the half court with crafty passes. Gordon Hayward wasn’t exceptionally sharp but glimmers of the playmaking point forward with the full toolbox revealed themselves in the second half. Kanter did his Moses Malone impression. And after being a liability early, center Daniel Theis helped bust the zone and lorded over the offensive glass.

Both Theis and Kanter were also crucial in helping unlock point guard Walker who, despite an unremarkable stat line (15 points on 4-for-11 shooting and seven assists) and foul trouble, played the brand of basketball he prefers. Walker is a pick-and-roll virtuoso who can carve up defenses when he’s operating with confidence out of the action. But in the bubble, Walker has never quite found his game. He came into the restart nursing knee soreness. In the conference semifinals, he was the target of the Toronto Raptors’ box-and-one zone. And he encountered similar trouble against the Heat’s 2-3 zone scheme, never finding a way to show off his dance steps.

On Friday night, he finally got his chance to burst off a high screen and hide behind his big man to find space to launch from beyond the arc. His third-quarter performance was second only to Tatum’s in vaulting the Celtics from potential elimination to survival.

“We were just aggressive, really feeding off each other’s energy,” Walker said. “That’s who we are. We were out there encouraging each other … just really enjoying the game.”

Like Walker, Tatum came into Game 5 with an eye toward redemption. His scoreless first half in Game 4 was a source of embarrassment, and after another forgettable first half Friday, he found offense all over the floor in the third quarter. He connected on a couple from long distance but did most of his damage off the dribble, drawing fouls at will against Miami. The Heat simply couldn’t contain Tatum in the half court without hacking him. He controlled the pace of the game, frustrating a Heat defense that had cordoned off the lane for much of the series and allowing the Celtics’ defense to set on ensuing possessions.

Brown exacted his usual damage in both the half court and in transition. As is often the case, Brown discovered his offense in the flow, taking opportunities where he found him. He was also the first Celtics starter to shake off the doldrums in the first half and challenge the Heat’s defense.

During a huddle in the second half, coach Brad Stevens told his team that, for the first time in several games, they were playing Celtics basketball. Though this was probably obvious to anyone who has watched this conference finals series, it was a powerful statement that spoke to both how much of a departure the Celtics’ recent efforts have been from their ideal selves, and to Boston’s potential to be a two-way monster when the players are confident and aggressive.

“He was absolutely right, we didn’t play the way we wanted the whole series,” Theis said. “We didn’t play our defense, we did adjustments and we just went back to our system the way we played all year. Everybody felt comfortable in our system. You could tell in the third quarter everybody was just enjoying being out there.”

If the Celtics can sustain what they found in Game 5 for two more games, that statement can be a prophecy.

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Milwaukee Bucks’ George Hill supports local organization urging early voting

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MILWAUKEE — Milwaukee Bucks guard George Hill said the importance of Wisconsin in the upcoming election caused him to fly back here this weekend to assist in a local voting drive.

Hill, who lives in San Antonio, worked alongside about 50 volunteers from the Milwaukee-based organization Common Ground walking through local neighborhoods Saturday to encourage people to vote early.

“This [state] could make or break the election,” Hill said. “To spend a couple of dollars to get on a flight to come back here, to get out and knock on doors and go around this city, to show them that I care for them just as much as they care for themselves, and show them that we need them, we need them, we need their voices, we need their communities to be better and things like that, it’s all worth it at the end of the day.”

Hill wore a shirt with the message “VOTE” and a Bucks logo plus a mask with the message “Votes Count In the 414” as he walked through several blocks in various neighborhoods with a group that included Bucks senior vice president Alex Lasry. Milwaukee’s area code is 414.

They occasionally would greet residents at their homes or stop people walking or driving by them. Hill would ask whether they’d voted and would remind them of the importance of voting.

“I’m not here to say vote for one side of the other,” Hill sad. “But I’m here to say use your voice and vote. Our ancestors, our fathers and things like that fought for this right. You should take advantage of it and get out and vote and use it.”

Hill made this visit nearly two months after he and his Bucks teammates opted against playing a first-round playoff game with the Orlando Magic to protest the shooting by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, of Jacob Blake, a Black man. The Bucks’ decision led to an NBA-wide postponement of playoff games.

Now that the season is complete and Hill is out of the playoff bubble at Walt Disney World, he has continued doing community outreach through youth mentorship programs at his home in Texas as well as his work Saturday in Milwaukee.

Earlier this month, Hill was one of five NBA players to receive the NBA Community Cares Assist Award along with Sacramento’s Harrison Barnes, Boston’s Jaylen Brown, Oklahoma City’s Chris Paul and Dallas’ Dwight Powell.

“You always try to figure out different ways you can strike change and be accounted for,” Hill said. “When I first got to the NBA, Coach Pop (Gregg Popovich) told me one thing that always stuck with me, is how do you put your whole fingerprints on the world and leave your mark.

“Sometimes you have to stand up for what’s right, and sometimes that may be ruffling feathers and may be frowned upon by everyone else, but at the end of the day in your heart, knowing you’re on the right side of history and knowing that you did the right thing, good or bad, you have to live with that.”

Hill and Common Ground were walking through Milwaukee neighborhoods encouraging voting on the same day that President Donald Trump was scheduled to visit the Milwaukee suburb of Waukesha, an indication of Wisconsin’s importance in the upcoming election.

Trump won Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes in 2016 after beating Hillary Clinton by under 23,000 votes out of nearly 3 million ballots cast.

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Miami Heat president Pat Riley ready to run it back next season with similar team

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MIAMI — Pat Riley is always looking for ways for the Miami Heat to improve. This offseason has him wondering if that might come from within.

The Heat president on Friday said that the top offseason priority for the Eastern Conference champions “is to take care of the players that we have” — such as free-agent-to-be Goran Dragic — while maintaining salary-cap flexibility to add an impact player in a 2021 offseason that could see many stars on the move.

“We have a good idea of what we want to do,” Riley said in his annual end-of-season media availability.

No plan can be considered completely firm yet; the NBA board of governors met Friday, simultaneous to Riley speaking, to discuss ideas about when it might be feasible to start next season. And the financial details for next season remain unclear as well, such as salary-cap changes and luxury-tax numbers. All that will have an obvious impact on every team’s plans, Miami’s included.

But Miami is clear on some matters: The Heat have no intention of letting extension-eligible All-Star center Bam Adebayo leave, and Riley said keeping this past season’s team as close to intact as possible has crossed his mind.

Kelly Olynyk has a player option for about $12 million, while Meyers Leonard, Jae Crowder, Solomon Hill and Derrick Jones Jr. are among the Heat’s free agents.

“We know what our priorities are,” Riley said. “It is to take care of the players that we have, that we have to make decisions on almost immediately. We know Bam has a decision to make and we do with him. We know the guys that have sacrificed for us that we really like, our free agents, especially Goran.”

The Heat might have ended up as the surprise of the league this season, with All-NBA player Jimmy Butler‘s arrival leading a turnaround that saw Miami go from missing the 2019 NBA playoffs to winding up in this season’s finals as a No. 5 seed. Riley raved about what Butler has brought to the Heat, and also lauded coach Erik Spoelstra for doing what he called a masterful job this season.

“Spo was the coach of the year, for me,” Riley said.

The Heat have long been expected to be a major player in the 2021 free-agent season, when names like two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, two-time NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and many others could potentially choose to hit the market.

What they do in this offseason will obviously affect their spending power next year.

“I just think we need to remain fluid,” Riley said. “Once we get all the numbers and we get everything down, we get the schedule, we know when the dates are, and what the rules are in everything, once we get all of that, we’re going to remain fluid. And whatever presents itself to us, we’ll look at it.”

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Sources — NBA eyes pre-Christmas start, 72-game regular season

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The NBA is pursuing a pre-Christmas Day start and a reduced regular-season schedule for the 2020-2021 season, abandoning plans to delay the opening with hopes of incorporating fans back into arenas, sources told ESPN.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the NBA is proposing several changes to next season that include a 72-game regular season, a play-in tournament and the likelihood of no All-Star Game or All-Star Weekend in Indianapolis, sources said. The league is considering a two-week break at the midway point of the season, sources said.

The NBA shared these plans in a call with the league’s board of governors on Friday afternoon, and the league plans to move quickly to complete negotiations with the National Basketball Players Association to implement the plan, sources said.

The reduction in regular-season games — which would help accommodate a play-in tournament format for both conferences — allows the NBA to finish the season before the Summer Olympics in Japan.

A pre-Christmas start also allows the NBA’s television partners — ESPN and Turner — to further realize the value of broadcast partnerships.

As the coronavirus continues to rage across the country, the NBA strongly prefers to stay out of a bubble format and continues discussing travel and game schedules that would keep teams in a marketplace longer and playing multiple games, similar to Major League Baseball series, sources said.

Two-thirds of the league’s local jurisdictions aren’t currently allowing for public gatherings of more than 500 people, and ominous public health projections for the trajectory of the virus’ spread have limited the league’s hope of safely returning fans to arenas in the next few months, sources said.

Around the league, there’s support to be playing again by Christmas, but a realization that it’s going to become a chaotic challenge coming out of a Nov. 18 draft, free agency and training camps that would need to be open shortly after Thanksgiving. Without a bubble environment, the NBA will be facing positive coronavirus tests for players and staff.

Oct. 30 is setting up to be a key date. The NBA and NBPA agreed that day would be the deadline to complete ongoing discussions on modifications to the collective bargaining agreement for the 2020-21 season, a deadline date that requires the league or union to provide 45 days notice if either decides to terminate the CBA — a scenario that sources continue to believe is a remote possibility.

It would also mark roughly eight weeks until Christmas week. Commissioner Adam Silver has told the union that there would be at least eight weeks between an agreement and the formal start of next season.

The loss of fan revenue on game nights — which Silver says is 40% of the league’s revenue — is causing the NBA and NBPA to make significant financial allowances in salary caps and player escrows.

Talks between the NBA and union have been productive on making the necessary financial allowances on 2020-2021 salary-cap and luxury-tax thresholds to account for the massive losses in revenue from the pandemic, sources said.

Ongoing talks are centering on increased escrow taken from players’ salaries, sources said. The league and union are still awaiting full audits on the Basketball Related Income that accounts for the league’s 51-49 revenue split with players.

The NBA and NBPA are working on resetting the 2020-21 salary-cap and luxury-tax numbers based upon those audits and financial projections for the next year. This allows for teams, agents and players to have more time to prepare for the financial realities of the pandemic’s impact on the league. As the NBA draft approaches on Nov. 18 — and with free agency expected to start soon after — teams are anxious for the league to reach an agreement with the union and deliver them more certainty on the cap and tax bills.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe and Tim MacMahon contributed to this report.

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