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Game 1 Preview: Chicago Bulls at Boston Celtics

Rajon Rondo faces his first team in what promises to be a hard-fought series between the Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics.

Joel Brigham

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The last time Chicago and Boston met in the first round was 2009, and before that series was all said and done, the two teams had gone a full seven games, five of which were determined by three points or fewer and four of which were determined following many, many overtimes. There were 65 ties in the series and 120 lead changes. Players knocked down improbable shots at the buzzer, forcing a total of seven overtime periods and helping establish Joakim Noah, Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo as future stars.

It was awesome:

A lot has changed since then, obviously. Rose and Noah are neither healthy nor in the playoffs, while Rondo, once a hated Chicago adversary, is now one of the Bulls’ best hopes in toppling an entirely new batch of formidable high-seeded C’s.

There are some who called the 2009 Bulls/Celtics series the most entertaining first-round series in the history of basketball, and while that certainly is debatable, we’ll all be lucky if we get 15 percent of the excitement that series provided.

#1 – Boston Celtics

This year’s Celtics are a lot different from the group of defending champions that fell short of a title repeat in 2009. First and foremost, this iteration of Boston players is completely healthy. Led by all-star Isaiah Thomas, who was among the league leaders in scoring this year with 28.9 PPG, as well as big offseason acquisition Al Horford, the Celtics muscled their way to the top of the Eastern Conference this season, relegating this year’s defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers to the 2-seed.

Thomas sees this achievement as a harbinger of things to come in this year’s playoffs, but he’ll have to find ways to stay relevant in what always is a much tighter defensive atmosphere in the postseason. A year ago, the Celtics were booted out of the first round of the playoffs by Horford’s Atlanta Hawks, something they accomplished by holding Thomas to just 75 points in Boston’s four losses, and it is almost certain Chicago will focus their defensive attention on doing something similar this spring.

Horford and Avery Bradley, the team’s next two highest scorers after Thomas, will be key players in this series, especially offensively. Celtics players also need to smash the glass, as Chicago has, by the numbers, been a much, much better rebounding team than Boston this season. Where Chicago finished the regular season third in total rebounds per game with 46.3 (and tied for first overall in offensive rebounds per game with 12.2), Boston finished 26th in overall rebounds (42.0 RPG) and 22nd in offensive boards (9.1 RPG).

Even though the Bulls don’t have Taj Gibson to clean up the glass anymore, the Celtics still need to keep Chicago’s young, hungry rebounders off of the offensive glass. If they can limit second-chance points, the Bulls will have a hard time winning this series.

Chicago and Boston split their regular season series 2-2, and they’re much more evenly-matched than the seeding may represent. The first two games are in Boston, and winning both of those would go a long way toward squashing any criticisms that may suggest the Bulls are better off facing them than they would have been against Cleveland.

#8 – Chicago Bulls

Put delicately, the Bulls are an inconsistent team. That leaves out a lot of the rich narrative that was the 2016-2017 Chicago Bulls season, but there you have it. After jumping off to a hot start, the Bulls were a sad, frustrating 34-39 through the season’s middle portion, only to charge back in the year’s final moments to win 7 of 9, most of which came in the absence of Dwyane Wade.

In theory, this is a team that could give the Celtics some massive headaches in the first round. Is Jimmy Butler capable of stringing together five or six of his world-beater games where no man (and certainly no Boston Celtics defender) can stop him? He is. Could Wade, who proved a year ago that he can still get up for the postseason, string together a series’ worth of vintage performances? He could. Can Rajon Rondo continue his surprising unselfish renaissance against his first NBA team, the one for which he won his lone NBA championship? He can.

And it’s going to take all of those things coming together for Chicago have much of a shot against the Celtics, not only in Game 1 but in the series as a whole.

The rest of this team’s core is incredibly young, with most of the roster never having played any sort of meaningful postseason minutes. And while the experience this spring may be good for their continued growth, an 8-seed doesn’t really have the benefit of waiting for them to adapt to the more intense setting. If Chicago’s going to have a shot, the Three Alphas are going to have to carry them, and that almost assuredly is the team’s plan. That and locking down Thomas.

Head coach Fred Hoiberg is playing for his job, but it’s hard to see him saving himself at the expense of a Celtics team this good. Butler willed this team to a playoff berth—the team’s 8th in nine years—but it’s very difficult to Chicago outlasting Boston.

Who Wins the Series?

As the deeper and more consistent team, the Celtics would be hard-pressed to drop this series. The ol’ 8-seed upset is incredibly rare, but Chicago still can pull together a couple of wins, particularly when they get back to the Madhouse on Madison. Expect this one to go six games, which Boston clinching in Beantown for Game 6.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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NBA

Gregg Popovich Continues To Be The Gold Standard For Leadership

There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and Gregg Popovich.

Moke Hamilton

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There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and the San Antonio Spurs.

Okay, let’s be honest, it’s probably not the first time that you’ve heard that one, but it also won’t be the last.

Behind the genius of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have qualified for the NBA Playoffs 20 consecutive years. In hindsight, they appear to have been the only team to legitimately frighten the Golden State Warriors during their 16-1 playoff run last year, and this season, well, they’ve been the same old Spurs.

That’s been especially amazing considering the fact that the team has been without Kawhi Leonard. Although Popovich recently said that Leonard would return “sooner rather than later,” he himself admitted to not being certain as to what that meant.

Best guess from here is that Leonard will return within the next few weeks, but at this point, it’s entirely fair to wonder whether or not it even matters.

Of course, the Spurs don’t stand much of a chance to win the Western Conference without Leonard thriving at or near 100 percent, but even without him, the Spurs look every bit like a playoff team, and in the Western Conference, that’s fairly remarkable.

“A team just has to play in a sense like he doesn’t exist,” Popovich was quoted as saying by Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News.

“Nobody cares if you lost a good player, right? Everybody wants to whip you. So it doesn’t do much good to do the poor me thing or to keep wondering when he is going to be back or what are we going to do. We have to play now, and other people have to take up those minutes and we have to figure out who to go to when in a different way, and you just move on.”

In a nutshell, that’s Popovich.

What most people don’t understand about Popovich is what makes him a truly great coach is his humility. He is never afraid to second-guess himself and reconsider the way that he’s accustomed to doing things. Since he’s been the head coach of the Spurs, he’s built and rebuilt offenses around not only different players, but also different philosophies.

From the inside-out attack that was his bread and butter with David Robinson and Tim Duncan to the motion and movement system that he built around Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the latest incarnation of Popovich’s genius isn’t only the fact that he has survived without Kawhi Leonard, it’s what could fairly be considered the major catalyst of it.

There are many head coaches around the league that take their roles as authority figures quite seriously, and that’s why a fair number would have been threatened by one of their star players requesting that things be rebuilt in a way to maximize his potential.

So when LaMarcus Aldridge proactively sat down with his coach to discuss the ways that he felt he was being misused in the team’s schemes, it wouldn’t have come as a shock for Popovich to meet him with resistance.

Instead, he did the opposite.

“We have talked about what we can do to make him more comfortable, and to make our team better,” Popovich acknowledged during Spurs training camp.

“But having said that, I think we are mostly talking about offense. Defense, he was fantastic for us. Now, we have got to help him a little bit more so that he is comfortable in his own space offensively, and I haven’t done a very good job of that.”

Just 11 days after those comments were printed, the Spurs announced that they had signed Aldridge to a three-year, $72 million extension.

Considering that Aldridge’s first two years as a member of the Spurs yielded some poor efforts and relatively low output, the extension seemed curious and was met with ridicule.

Yet, one month later and 15 games into the season, the Spurs sit at 9-6. They’ve survived the absence of Kawhi Leonard and the loss of Jonathon Simmons.

Behind an offensive system tweaked to take advantage of his gifts, in the early goings, Aldridge is averaging 22 points per game, a far cry above the 17.7 points per game he averaged during his first two years in San Antonio.

Coincidence?

I think not.

Death, taxes and the Spurs.

So long as Gregg Popovich is at the helm, exhibiting strong leadership while remaining amazingly humble, the Spurs will be the Spurs.

Sure, Kawhi Leonard will be back—at some point.

But until then, the Spurs will be just fine.

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NBA AM: Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon Is Letting Shots — And Jokes — Fly

Dewayne Dedmon’s emergence has been an unexpected positive for the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks.

Buddy Grizzard

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It’s been a brutal season for the Atlanta Hawks, they’re just already 3-12 with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Wednesday’s franchise-record 46-point win over the visiting Sacramento Kings was a rare chance for Atlanta to have a laugh in the postgame locker room and reflect on things that have gone well, including hot shooting for the team and a potential breakout season for center Dewayne Dedmon.

The Hawks trail only the Golden State Warriors in three-point shooting at just over 40 percent. Prior to joining the Hawks, Dedmon had attempted only one three-pointer in 224 career games. As a Hawk, though, Dedmon is shooting 42 percent on 19 attempts. Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer explained after Wednesday’s game how his staff decided to encourage Dedmon to extend his range.

“You do your research and you talk to friends around the league, you talk to people who have worked with him and you watch him during warmups,” said Budenholzer. “We had a belief, an idea, that he could shoot, he could make shots. We’re kind of always pushing that envelope with the three-point line. He’s embraced it.”

Dedmon is currently averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes, and set season-highs in points (20), rebounds (14) and assists (five) against the Kings. He’s also brought an offbeat sense of humor that has helped keep the locker room loose despite the struggles. It became apparent early on that Dedmon was a different type of dude.

At Media Day, when nobody approached Dedmon’s table and reporters instead flocked to interview rookie John Collins at the next table, Dedmon joined the scrum, holding his phone out as if to capture a few quotes.

“This guy’s going to be a character,” said a passing Hawks staffer.

Those words proved prophetic, as Coach Bud confirmed after Wednesday’s win.

“He brings a lot of personality to our team, really from almost the day he got here,” said Budenholzer. “I think he’s getting more and more comfortable and can help the young guys and help everybody.”

Dedmon took an unconventional path to the NBA. Growing up, his mother — a Jehovah’s Witness — forbade him to play organized sports. Once he turned 18, Dedmon began making his own decisions. He walked on to the team at Antelope Valley College, a two-year school in Lancaster, Ca., before transferring to USC and eventually making it to the league.

His personality, which formed while Dedmon forged his own path, shone through in the locker room after the Sacramento win. Asked about conversations he’s had with Budenholzer about shot selection, Dedmon turned to teammate Kent Bazemore at the adjacent locker.

“What’s the phrase, Baze? LTMF?”

“Yep,” Bazemore replied.

“Yeah, LTMF,” Dedmon continued. “Let it fly. So he told me to shoot … let it go. I’m not going to say what the M means.”

Amidst laughter from the assembled media, he explained that ‘LTMF’ is Budenholzer’s philosophy for the whole team, not just part of an effort to expand Dedmon’s game.

“Everybody has the same freedom,” said Dedmon. “So it definitely gives everybody confidence to shoot their shots when they’re open and just play basketball.”

With the injury bug thus far robbing Atlanta of its stated ambition to overachieve this season, Dedmon’s career year and team success from three-point range are two big positives.

Rebuilding or retooling can be a painful process. But with a unique personality like Dedmon helping keep things light in the locker room, Atlanta should make it through.

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Covington’s Contract Extension Adds Value On and Off the Court

Robert Covington cashed in for himself while also allowing the Sixers to potentially cash in this summer.

Dennis Chambers

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The Philadelphia 76ers are keeping their X-factor in town for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday night, hours before the Sixers were set to tip off against the Los Angeles Lakers, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Covington and Philadelphia were finalizing a contract extension for four-years and $62 million.

But what the Sixers did to preserve their financial flexibility for the future, while still rewarding Covington, was potentially what makes this deal so valuable. In addition to his current $1.57 million salary this season, the Sixers will renegotiate an additional $15 million into Covington’s salary for this year.

As Wojnarowski reported, that chunk of change the Sixers coughed up this season allows them to still have $25 million in salary-cap space next summer. Along with paying a large portion of the deal upfront, the four-year extension Covington will wind up agreeing to pays him around $45 million over the duration, as reported by The Athletic’s Derek Bodner.

For Covington, coming from his undrafted status out of Tennessee State, to being sent down to the D-League after a short stint with the Houston Rockets, to a team-friendly Sam Hinkie special four-year contract with the Sixers back in 2014, now finally culminating in a big payday as one of the NBA’s premier 3-and-D players, is nothing short of an amazing story.

It’s duly noted what Covington brings to the table for the Sixers on the court. After leading the league in deflections last season, along with his ability to guard 1-4 spots on the court, Covington secured votes in the Defensive Player of the Year race. This season, without sacrificing any of his defense (registering the same 105 defensive rating as last season), Covington is experiencing a renaissance on the offensive end.

Along with averaging a career-high 16.5 points per game, Covington is shooting an absurd 49.5 percent from deep on 7.2 attempts per game. Believe it or not, he has made more threes than Stephen Curry and is shooting a higher percentage from beyond the arc—Covington is 50-of-101 from three-point range, while Curry is 47-of-121.

It’s only the second week of November, but that is nonetheless impressive, and a testament to how on-fire Covington has been this season.

Playing along Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and another sharpshooter like J.J. Redick gets Covington open looks. He’s learned to maximize those opportunities.

Now, with his new extension, Covington is just as big of an impact off the court, as well.

By renegotiating his salary for this season, the Sixers are left with enough money to be serious players next summer when some marquee free agents will hit the open market. It was a stroke of genius for the front office, and also a rare occurrence, as ESPN’s Bobby Marks pointed out that a move similar to this has occurred just seven times since 1998.

As reported last season, the Sixers made a significant push to acquire Paul George from the Indiana Pacers at the trade deadline. Part of that package included Covington. Although they love Covington in Philadelphia, they believed giving him up for George would have been worth it. Obviously, that didn’t pan out, but the good news now is that the Sixers will have the cap space to pursue George should he opt for free agency this summer.

It’s been no secret that George would like to test the open waters and find the best fit for himself. Although George is playing alongside the most talented players he’s ever had by his side with Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony, he is just one of many impact free agents on the market.

Covington’s brilliant extension gives Philadelphia the option to meet with a player like George, and not only offer him the promise of playing with budding stars like Embiid and Simmons, but with quality starters like Covington. And if George isn’t amenable to the possibility, someone else might be.

On a personal level, Covington embodies “the process” in Philadelphia. From his humble beginnings to now being a multi-millionaire whose efforts are being handsomely rewarded, his story is a good one. 

Not only for him, but for the Sixers, too.

Yes, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid hold the keys to the Sixers’ championship hopes, but once again, Covington is proving to be the X-factor.

This time, he’s extending his intangibles off the court as well.

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