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Boston Celtics say getting healthy the key to meeting expectations next season after playoff elimination

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After a disappointing season for Kemba Walker saw him sit out the final two games of the Boston Celtics‘ first-round playoff loss to the Brooklyn Nets with a bone bruise in his left knee, the All-Star guard says this offseason is all about getting himself healthy and back to the player he has been throughout his career.

“It’s tough,” Walker said after watching the Celtics lose 123-109 to Brooklyn in Game 5 on Tuesday night, ending Boston’s season. “It’s been really tough especially because over the course of my career, I’ve played so many games when I’ve been healthy.

“I came to Boston to be a part of those special runs and be a part of high-intensity games and fans going wild, and I wasn’t able to be a part of that unfortunately. Just try to get right. I gotta get right.”

Walker spent essentially none of this season right for the Celtics. After dealing with left knee issues for most of the 2020 calendar year, Walker embarked on a 12-week knee strengthening program that carried into January, causing him to miss the first few weeks of the season.

Even after Walker returned, he played in only half of every back-to-back set, causing him to miss 29 games. By comparison, he missed only 35 in his first eight seasons in the league with the Charlotte Hornets.

Still, Walker said he thought the way Boston handled his knee worked, and said the bone bruise he suffered in Game 2 of this series — which led to him struggling mightily in Game 3, before he sat out Games 4 and 5 — was the result of “landing funny,” and not any of his prior issues.

He said the goal now is to spend the offseason getting himself healthy, so that next season there won’t be a need to go on such a program again.

“I’m not planning on it to be like that, to be honest,” Walker said. “I’m really just planning on having a big summer, get myself feeling good again. It’s been a while since I’ve really really had time off. So this is really an important time for me.

“I’m just really going to attack [the offseason]. Just taking some time off, reflect on the year, just think about some things that I have to improve on, think about ways to just get myself back feeling good. For sure, I need some time for that.”

Walker’s future, given that he has two years and over $73 million remaining on his contract, is just one of several questions looming over the future of this team. Another is that of Evan Fournier, whom Boston acquired using the trade exception generated by the Gordon Hayward sign-and-trade last offseason, and who is an unrestricted free agent this summer.

It has been a rocky couple of months for Fournier in Boston, as he got COVID-19 almost immediately upon arriving from the Orlando Magic and then struggled with the after-effects of it upon returning to the court. After playing in what could be his final game as a Celtic, he said it was too early to say what will be on his mind when he hits unrestricted free agency for the first time this summer — which will happen while he’s in Tokyo playing with the French national team at the Olympic Games.

“This is not the right time to talk about it,” Fournier said. “But what can I tell you about the Celtics? It’s obviously an A-plus type of organization. They really showed it. They were really excited to get me and they showed me a lot of love, and everybody was extremely positive.

“It wasn’t easy for me. Obviously my first game wasn’t good and then I had COVID and all that, but they all remain, from staff, players, to management, they all showed a lot of love and that’s something I really, really appreciated. You know, I really did.

“So, I mean free agency, you know, we’ll see. I don’t even have the date. I have no idea when free agency starts so, we’ll see.”

The longest-tenured Celtic, Marcus Smart, also has a murky future with the franchise, given he has one year remaining on his contract and is eligible for a contract extension.

Smart, who remains one of the best defensive guards in the league, was defiant when asked whether Boston, which is coming off making the Eastern Conference finals three of the past four years, is still good enough to make it back to that level after seeing where the leading contenders in the East — including the Nets — stand.

In his mind, the equation is simple: Get the Celtics healthy, after they ended this series without Walker, Jaylen Brown and Robert Williams, and away from a season that saw a rotating cast of players go to the sidelines with both COVID-19 and injuries, and this team is still more than good enough to compete in the East.

He repeated that sentiment several times, in various ways, in his postgame media session.

“When we’re healthy and we have everybody, we’re a b—-,” Smart said. “And we’ve proven that time after time when we’re healthy so, just really getting everybody back, getting their bodies right, and having that for us.

“It was an unfortunate year for a lot of guys — myself included. I had a couple of injuries — Rob [Robert Williams], Kemba, Jaylen. We’re missing three of our star players, so it’s tough. But take the rest, learn from it, see what you need to do and, like I said, try to stay healthy.”

For Jayson Tatum, it was, individually, a very successful season. He took another step forward, establishing himself as a multi-time All-Star, and might still make the All-NBA teams — which would net him a significant raise on the max extension he signed with the Celtics before the season began.

He said that hasn’t stopped him from being motived to get better this summer, though.

“When I started playing, it wasn’t just to make the NBA,” Tatum said. “It was to excel at the highest level, and be considered one of the best, be a winner, be MVP, all of those types of things.

“That’s what drives me.”

Tatum, who said he’s open to playing for Team USA in the Olympics, also said he’s feeling “really good” and has “gotten better every month” after having a rough recovery from his own bout with COVID-19 back in January. He also added that he thinks he’s “got a long way to go,” and that has him excited about how he can improve moving forward.

But when it comes to the Celtics improving their team, Tatum said he will leave that to the front office and will instead focus on his job.

“What’s going to look different? I don’t know,” Tatum said. “That’s not my job description. I don’t have any say or input in that. It’s just, show up to work and do what I can, and go from there.

“I’m sure that I could make suggestions,” Tatum added, referring to what the roster should look like going forward. “I kind of feel like everybody has their job, and I just think my job is to show up and play basketball, not to suggest trades or who to bring in, who to let go, things like that. That’s not what I do.”

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Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James plans to change jersey number from No. 23 to No. 6, source says

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LeBron James plans to change his Los Angeles Lakers jersey number to No. 6 next season, a source confirmed to ESPN.

James had worn No. 23 during his first three seasons with the Lakers. The number change was first reported Wednesday by The Athletic.

Fellow Lakers star Anthony Davis will keep his No. 3, a source told ESPN.

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Miami Heat president Pat Riley fined $25K for tampering over comments about Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James

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Miami Heat president Pat Riley was fined $25,000 by the NBA on Wednesday for violating the league’s anti-tampering rule.

Riley was fined for comments made during a June 4 radio interview regarding Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James who played for the Heat from 2010-14 before returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“I would leave the key under the doormat if he would call me and let me know that he’s coming,” Riley said. “I would do that, but I doubt very much that key…That key is rusted now.

“LeBron, look, he’s one of the greatest of all time, and for four years down here, if we want to go back and remember what those four years were like, it was four years in the Finals, four years of excitement, two world championships…It was the best time for the Heat. So I wish him nothing but the best, and if he ever wanted to come back, I’ll put a new shiny key under the mat.”

James, 36, is under contract with the Lakers for the next two seasons.

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Nate Bjorkgren fired as Indiana Pacers coach after playoff streak ends, sources say

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Nate Bjorkgren has been fired as Indiana Pacers coach after one season with the team, sources told ESPN.

Bjorkgren was informed Wednesday of the decision to dismiss him, sources said, after he met with management Tuesday.

The Pacers are expected to pursue a more experienced, established head coach after Bjorkgren lost the locker room and much of the organization in his one year as coach.

Indiana saw a six-year playoff streak end this season after the team went 34-38 and lost to the Washington Wizards in the play-in tournament for a chance at the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference.

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