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Brad Stevens ‘invigorated’ by challenge of replacing Danny Ainge as Boston Celtics president

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After the Boston Celtics shocked the basketball world with their dual announcement of both longtime president of basketball operations Danny Ainge retiring and coach Brad Stevens leaving the sideline to replace him, Stevens said he chose to leave coaching and take on this new challenge because he wants “to do what’s best for the Celtics.”

“I do think I have a good insight into our team, as Danny now steps away,” Stevens said, when asked why it was best for the Celtics to have him no longer coaching the team, but instead replacing Ainge atop the organization. “I feel like I’ve got a good idea of what we do well, what we don’t do so well, and I’ve been doing this for eight years. I’ve been in that locker room with some of those guys for a long time.

“They’ll get to play for a great coach, with some similarities maybe, but also some great new fresh perspectives. That’s a good thing, so I’m looking forward to finding that person. Because I do think people can be reinvigorated by that. I think, when I looked at the big picture and Wyc and I really talked about it, it made sense. This is a great opportunity to give us a good spark when we’re losing one of the best in his job in the world.

“That’s something we know we all have to (do), step up and meet the next challenge.”

It will certainly be a sizable challenge for Stevens to tackle, as after eight successful seasons on the sideline in Boston he now is being tasked with figuring out how to get the Celtics back on track after a first-round loss to the Brooklyn Nets less than 24 hours ago, and with several notable decisions ahead. Those include potentially moving on from Kemba Walker, who has two years and $73 million left on his deal, whether to extend (or potentially trade) Marcus Smart, who has one year left on his deal, and whether to re-sign impending unrestricted free agent Evan Fournier.

Stevens would’ve likely had input on all of those decisions in his old role. Now, he not only will be the one deciding what happens, but he also has to hire his replacement, as well. When asked the same question, Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck referenced a point Stevens made, about his institutional knowledge of the organization, as what made him ownership’s choice to succeed Ainge, the only basketball executive they’ve ever hired.

“He’s such an insightful person,” Grousbeck said. “It comes out in his coaching, but it also comes out in his analysis of the game day in and day out. He put rosters together at Butler, which went nearly all the way. He was at the table with Danny here in the war room all the way in the eight years, which has had a number of notable successes. Never went all the way [to a title], but went to multiple conference finals with multiple good teams, and drafting some young all-stars.

“Brad’s fingerprints and DNA are on this team right now in terms of putting it together and helping Danny. Danny was running it. For me and Steve and the rest of ownership, it was really a role that I think Brad has been preparing his whole life for, in a way, as a player, as a coach, and now, as Danny [steps away], into the front office.”

For a decision no one saw coming, particularly in the case of Stevens not coaching, all parties involved said it had been in the works for some time. Ainge said he’d been considering his potential future as far back as two years ago, when he suffered a heart attack, and said that his health had weighed on his mind since then – especially when coupled with all of the difficulties of the past year-plus due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Stevens said that he never would’ve considered being anything but a coach while Ainge was in the job – and later said that, had the Celtics hired someone else above him, he’d have been happy to remain in the job. But once he began talking to Ainge about the possibility of changing roles, Stevens said the idea appealed to him.

“When [Ainge] decided to move on and retire and, you know, go enjoy more time with his family and we talked a little about it whenever that was — I don’t remember the timeline, it’s been a while now — then it just kind of moved down the road,” Stevens said.

“I talked to Wyc for a while one day and we decided that was what was best. I told Wyc at that moment: My No. 1 thing is for the good of the Celtics. I love the Celtics. I want to do what’s best for the Celtics. And I really have enjoyed coaching. I loved coaching and I loved coaching the players, both at Butler and here.

“But this is a new challenge. This is what we need to do to hopefully be even better.”

The first step in figuring out how to get better will be to decide on who Stevens will tap as his successor. That any change is happening at all in Boston is notable, as since Grousbeck and co-owner Steve Pagliuca bought the team in 2002 they have hired one executive — Ainge — and only two coaches — Stevens and his predecessor, Doc Rivers.

One thing that was apparently never on the table, however, was Stevens taking on both roles. That is a trend that the NBA has moved away from in recent years, and one both ownership and Stevens said wasn’t one they ever seriously considered.

“I think it’s too much [to do both jobs],” Stevens said. “All of my intention, energy, focus is doing this job well, and hiring a great coach and trusting they will do their job well.

“I think that everyone will benefit from that approach. To me, that would have been a lot to be able to do both of those things. I know some people have done it, some people have done it really well, but that would have been a great challenge.”

Grousbeck was even more to the point.

“At the Celtics, those are two separate jobs,” he said.

As for what he will look for in his successor, Stevens didn’t give a ton away about the qualities that he will seek in whoever will become the franchise’s 18th coach. But he did say, on several occasions, that his hope is that person will bring a fresh voice and perspective that could be very beneficial to the team moving forward.

“Hiring a new coach will give us a great opportunity to hire somebody that I think will, again, be great at the job, be better than the person he replaces, and be a new, fresh voice with new, fresh perspective,” Stevens said. “I think that’s great, and so it has nothing to do with my own-where I was with coaching.

“Coaching has been awfully good to me and I’m very thankful for every day that I got a chance to do it.”

Ultimately, though, Stevens said this was an opportunity that excited him. And, after a long, successful run as the head coach at Butler University even before his past eight years with the Celtics, he was ready to take on a new challenge.

“I love basketball, I’ve loved my time as a coach, and I also want what’s best for the Celtics and want to do my part into ultimately helping us achieve what we want to achieve,” Stevens said. “That’s the driver for me. This ownership group, Danny, have treated me unbelievably, and this organization means a lot to me and my family. And so, yes, whatever they would have asked me to do, certainly. And I would have done it with the same enthusiasm that I have.

“That said, this now is a great new opportunity and I’m invigorated by it. I’m looking forward to it. I’m excited about it.”

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USA Basketball sets plan for Olympic camps in Las Vegas

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For USA Basketball, the last stop before the Tokyo Olympics will be Las Vegas.

The men’s and women’s national teams will hold training camps in Las Vegas in July, they announced Thursday, and they’ll be playing seven exhibitions there against other Olympics-bound national teams as well.

USA Basketball will open its men’s training camp, led by coach Gregg Popovich, in Las Vegas on July 6. The Olympic men’s teams from Australia, Nigeria, Argentina and reigning Basketball World Cup champion Spain will also be spending some time in Las Vegas; Argentina will start its training camp there this month.

The U.S. women’s training camp under coach Dawn Staley will likely open around July 12; the WNBA break for the Olympics starts after the games of July 11. The Olympic women’s teams joining the U.S. in Las Vegas are Australia and Nigeria.

It’ll all take place at the MGM Resorts, which was announced as USA Basketball’s training camp home and resorts partner with the sides having now agreed to a multi-year sponsorship deal.

“USA Basketball is proud to expand its partnership with MGM Resorts,” USA Basketball CEO Jim Tooley said. “We’re excited to bring our national teams to their properties as we prepare for the challenging competition that lies ahead this summer.”

The U.S. men are seeking a fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal, the U.S. women their seventh in a row. Both will enter the Olympics ranked No. 1 by FIBA, the sport’s international governing body — though it remains unknown who the Americans will have on their rosters for the rescheduled Tokyo Games.

Those rosters could be set by the end of June. Some top NBA players such as Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors, Kawhi Leonard of the LA Clippers and Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers have expressed some interest in being part of the Olympic team; others, such as LeBron James and Anthony DavisLos Angeles Lakers teammates who were dealing with injuries when their season ended last week — are not planning to join the team.

All teams in Las Vegas will be taking part in what USA Basketball described as “comprehensive health and safety protocols … including mandatory and regular COVID-19 PCR testing, administered to athletes, coaches, officials and staff in accordance with FIBA and USA Basketball recommendations and CDC guidelines.”

Those concerns are why the international teams opted to spend time in Las Vegas. Argentina’s men’s team is conducting the entirety of its three-week camp there before flying to Tokyo, simply because it believes a controlled environment and less traveling between different countries will minimize virus-related risks before the Olympics.

“We were lucky and, at the same time, we deserved it to get an organization like USA Basketball to extend this invitation to us,” Argentina coach Sergio Hernandez said. “In such a complicated context it doesn’t get better than this.”

The games are set up as part of five doubleheaders, and fans will be able to attend the matchups at MGM’s Michelob Ultra Arena. Tickets go on sale next week.

GAME SCHEDULE

July 10 — U.S. men vs. Nigeria, Argentina vs. Australia

July 12 — Argentina vs. Nigeria, U.S. men vs. Australia

July 13 — U.S. men vs. Argentina, Australia vs. Nigeria

July 16 — U.S. women vs. Australia, U.S. men vs. Australia

July 18 — U.S. women vs. Nigeria, U.S. men vs. Spain

PREQUELS

The Nigeria-U.S. women’s game will be a prequel to the teams’ Olympic meeting on July 27 in Tokyo, the first game there for both of those teams. Nigeria and the U.S. are both in Group B at the Olympics, along with Japan and France.

The Australia-Nigeria men’s game is also the warmup for an Olympics-opening matchup. They’ll play in a Group B game on July 25.

The men’s teams from Spain and Argentina — the teams that played in the World Cup final at Beijing in 2019 — are both in Group C for the Olympics. They’ll both spend some time in Las Vegas but are not scheduled to face off there before flying to Japan.

FIBA RANKINGS

Las Vegas will see the top four men’s teams in the FIBA rankings there for the exhibitions: The U.S. is No. 1, Spain No. 2, Australia No. 3 and Argentina No. 4. Nigeria is ranked No. 22.

The U.S. women also hold the No. 1 FIBA ranking, and their July 16 opponent Australia is ranked No. 2 in the world. Nigeria’s women are ranked No. 17.

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Phoenix Suns’ Chris Paul ‘makes it look normal’ after notching 15 assists, zero turnovers in win vs. Denver Nuggets

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It had been seven years since a player had a game in the postseason with 15 assists and no turnovers, but Chris Paul accomplished the feat on Wednesday as the Phoenix Suns routed the Denver Nuggets 123-98 to take a 2-0 series lead.

The last player to post a 15-to-0 assist-to-turnover ratio in a playoff game? Paul, in 2014, with the LA Clippers.

“Guys are open. I got the easy part. All I got to do is find them,” said Paul, who had 17 points. “They got to make the shots. It’s a credit to our coaching staff to tell you the truth. Things we’ve drilled all season long, it’s nice to see it come into play in game form, especially in the playoffs.”

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Paul had the 10th playoff game with 15 assists and zero turnovers since assists were tracked in 1977-78. And Paul has accounted for three of those games himself.

“Obviously 15 assists, zero turnovers is unheard of,” Devin Booker said, “but for Chris Paul, it’s a thing that he does, and makes it look normal.”

In the two games in the series, Paul has 26 assists to just one turnover. Going back to his last three playoff games, that ratio gets even more ridiculous, sitting at 38-2. He’s the first player with 10 or more assists and one or fewer assists in three straight playoff games since Maurice Cheeks in 1989.

The Suns showcased their impressive balance with six players in double-figures, including all five starters. But even with 123 points, no player scored more than 18 (Booker). It was a clinic in distribution, particularly in a raucous second half, as Paul carved the Nuggets, finding efficient possessions nearly every trip down the floor. In Game 2, the Suns shot 15-of-24 off Paul passes. Of the 15 makes, 11 were uncontested looks.

“I’m telling you man, I’ve never been on a team quite like this where everybody can shoot it the way that they do,” Paul said. “You don’t have to try to find a certain guy.”

Like in Game 1, Paul found his spots to assert himself offensively, too, hitting a flurry of shots early in the fourth quarter as the Suns put the game away. It’s one of Paul’s many rare talents, an ability to sense moments and pick his spots to attack the game himself, or get teammates involved.

When Paul joined the surging young Suns in the offseason, there was a lot of talk about his role as a mentor, as a leader, as a culture cultivator. At age 36 and plenty of tread on his tires, Paul’s cerebral presence was thought to be something that could boost the Suns just as much as his play. But as he’s shown this postseason, there’s still plenty left in the tank.

“I would never doubt Chris,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “His ability to manage the team, his track record, has success all over it and everywhere he’s been he’s been successful. He works his tail off and yeah, he’s 36 years old but he’s doing a lot of stuff off the floor so he can be effective on the floor.”

The series now turns to Denver, where the Nuggets are desperate for a response. Paul has been using his experience as a motivator, recounting the 2007-08 second-round series against the San Antonio Spurs where the New Orleans Pelicans took a 2-0 series lead, winning the opening two games by a combined 37 points.

“We’re cool. We’re cool. We’ve got a great locker room, guys that understand the moment. A guy like Jae Crowder, who’s been to the Finals,” Paul said. “I’ve played a lot too. I’m always talking about 2007-08, we played against the Spurs when I was in New Orleans and we won the first two games, beat the brakes off of ’em. I remember looking over there at Tim [Duncan] and all them and they weren’t fazed. It was just one game. That’s what we talk about as a team too. It’s just one game.”

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NBA playoffs 2021 – Chris Paul couldn’t have drawn up a better scenario for the Phoenix Suns

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Chris Paul plans.

He planned when he forced a trade out of New Orleans a decade ago. He planned when he creatively leveraged a contract option to get himself to Houston. He planned when he helped change an arcane age rule in the collective bargaining agreement that enabled him the chance to earn tens of millions in extra salary.

Even in the moments after Paul’s Phoenix Suns finished a 125-98 thrashing of the Denver Nuggets to take a 2-0 series lead, Paul was planning. In the locker room, knowing the Nuggets twice came back last season from 3-1 deficits, he was getting his teammates to think about Game 3 on Friday night in Denver. Paul told stories of going up 2-0 against the San Antonio Spurs in 2008 while with New Orleans, only to eventually lose in seven games.

But even on his most rosy drawing board, he probably couldn’t have seen the situation that is unfolding.

The Suns have won five straight playoff games and, with each victory, appear to be getting stronger. His long-time adversaries are falling off the board. Stephen Curry is home. LeBron James is home. Injuries are mounting across the league and this time the one Paul had in the playoffs, his shoulder stinger that almost wrecked this run before it started, seems to be healed.

The Suns are healthy and playing brilliantly as a group. In both games of the second round, five players have scored in double figures.

People around the league are starting to talk about how this might be Paul’s best shot ever at a Finals. It might be premature to say that considering his Houston Rockets team was up 3-2 on the Golden State Warriors in the conference finals before a hamstring pull sidelined him three years ago.

But after the routine disappointments with the LA Clippers and the letdowns and near misses in Houston, this rising Suns streak feels like the most unexpected playoff situation of Paul’s career.

“I’m telling you,” Paul said after scoring 17 points with 15 assists and no turnovers in Game 2. “I really haven’t been on a team quite like this one.”

Working with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Paul had several hopes when picking a trade destination last offseason. He wanted to be close to his family in Los Angeles, be in good weather and have a shot at playing next to a star; he would have that in Devin Booker. Represented by the same agency, Booker was desperate to get some help. “I’m done with not making the playoffs,” Booker said three years ago after a 21-61 season. “I’m serious.”

After going a perfect 8-0 in Orlando to narrowly miss the playoffs in 2020, the Suns were upwardly mobile — but they were not seen as real contenders. Different people in their fanbase and organization may have jumped to that conclusion as this special season unfolded, but now that it’s actually happening, Paul is basking in the position he’s found himself in.

Booker has been the star he believed in, his 47-point closeout game to knock out the champion Lakers being the gem so far. Paul can’t believe how effective his teammates are at shooting, with Jae Crowder, Mikal Bridges, Dario Saric, Cam Johnson and Cameron Payne lighting up the opposition from outside.

Paul, who was the centerpiece of Lob City with the Clippers and on an offensive juggernaut in Houston, says he’s never seen anything like it.

“Everybody shoots,” Paul said. “You don’t have to try to find a certain guy. Everybody [on our team] are knock down shooters.”

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Chris Paul connects with Deandre Ayton for a roaring two-handed slam.

During the five-game winning streak Paul has 53 assists and four turnovers. That’s 53-4. With his shoulder better — he couldn’t even attempt long shots for several games in the last round — he’s made 14-of-24 shots and 4-of-5 3-pointers in this series. His two 3s Wednesday were fourth-quarter daggers.

“He manages games better than anybody I’ve ever been around,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “It’s not something I take for granted, it’s not something our team takes for granted.”

It is dangerous to think this fairy tale will continue, Paul’s playoff career is one long string of unexpected setbacks. But it’s also human nature to watch him, at age 36, and wonder whether there is some bit of karma heading his direction.

Outwardly Paul will not allow it, he has literally done dozens of commercials about insurance covering unexpected disasters. But inwardly he probably can see the road ahead and start to feel some warmth.

“We’re cool,” Paul said. “We have guys who understand the moment.”

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