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    Jayson Tatum Saves the Boston Celtics’ Season With 46 Points

    Was it the 46 points? The crushing 3-pointers? The clutch free throws? Tatum, the Boston forward, was feeling it against the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday.There was a time when the Boston Celtics’ season seemed in danger of crumbling into a pile of fine dust. They had a losing record in late January. They were scuffling through a series of injuries. There were questions about whether Jayson Tatum could coexist with Jaylen Brown — was it time for the team to consider trading Brown? — along with inevitable critiques of Ime Udoka in his first season as coach.It is familiar history at this late stage of the season, but worth reiterating, especially now. Why? Because on Friday night, in the wake of a late-game meltdown earlier in the week, the Celtics were facing elimination in Milwaukee. Outside of their cocoon, as they braced themselves for Game 6, the questions swirled: Had they blown their chance? Could they somehow find the resolve to extend their Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Bucks?The Celtics, though, seem to embrace adversity. Perhaps they are conditioned to play at their best when everyone else thinks they are finished, a sandcastle about to be swept to sea. Down? Out? Their sandcastle is apparently reinforced with steel beams, and they proved as much with their 108-95 win.“This was a big moment for all of us,” Tatum said just minutes after assembling one of the finer individual performances of the N.B.A. postseason. “I think we showed a lot of toughness and growth.”There was no doubt about that after Tatum finished with 46 points and 9 rebounds to help even the series at three games apiece. In the process, he somehow overshadowed Giannis Antetokounmpo, who tried to drag the Bucks across the finish line with 44 points, 20 rebounds and 6 assists. It was a series that deserved a seventh game, and the Celtics delivered. Game 7 is on Sunday afternoon in Boston.“I believe in everyone in that locker room,” Tatum said. “We have what it takes.”Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) had a big night of his own: 44 points, 20 rebounds and 6 assists.Jeff Hanisch/USA Today Sports, via ReutersThe Miami Heat, who ousted the Philadelphia 76ers from the postseason on Thursday, are awaiting the winner in the Eastern Conference finals, with the opening game of that series set for Tuesday. The Heat must have been delighted to see the Celtics extend their series with the Bucks: Now those teams have time to bludgeon each other some more.“You got two juggernauts going at it,” the Celtics’ Marcus Smart said. “We’re beating each other up.”The Celtics are grateful to be in this position after collapsing in the fourth quarter of Game 5 on Wednesday. That game could have haunted them after they blew a 14-point lead. Smart, in particular, was furious with himself for making a couple of late-game gaffes. He recalled going straight to the team’s practice facility after the game, and then tossing and turning through two sleepless nights ahead of Game 6.“I feel like I let my team down,” he said.The good news, Udoka said, was that the Celtics had played well in Game 5 — until they stopped playing well. The winning components were there. And they were on display again in Game 6, this time for a full 48 minutes.Smart was terrific, finishing with 21 points and 7 assists without a turnover. Brown scored 22 points. And consider the contributions of Derrick White, a former Division II player and trade deadline acquisition who was all over the place in the final three minutes of the first half. He followed up a 3-pointer with a short jumper. He drew a charging foul on Antetokounmpo. And then he made two free throws, lifting the Celtics to a 10-point lead at halftime.But the reality was that Smart, Brown and White were a part of the supporting cast. The stage belonged to Tatum.“He went into another mode,” Smart said. “We seen it in his eyes.”From the start of the playoffs, when he christened the Celtics’ first-round series with the Nets with a game-winning layup, Tatum has gone about his business of elevating his stature as one of the league’s most ferociously skilled players.No, he has not been immune from the occasional clunker. In a narrow loss to Milwaukee in Game 3, he shot 4 of 19 from the field and missed all six of his 3-point attempts. But in the three games since, he has averaged 36.7 points, 9.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists while shooting 47 percent from the field.On Friday, Tatum played a brilliant all-around game. He did more than score. Coming out of a timeout in the third quarter, he stripped the Bucks’ Bobby Portis in the post, leading to a layup for Brown and a 17-point lead.Tatum also was able to counter everything that Antetokounmpo could throw at the Celtics, which was a lot. The Bucks were threatening in the fourth quarter when Antetokounmpo sank a 3-pointer. Tatum proceeded to score the Celtics’ next 10 points, a flurry capped by a deep 3-pointer over the top of the Bucks’ Pat Connaughton.“Obviously, I know when I have it going,” Tatum said. “You feel that rhythm.”No one is counting out Milwaukee, of course. The Bucks are the defending champions, and Antetokounmpo is capable of intergalactic feats. But without the floor-spacing presence of Khris Middleton, an All-Star forward who has been sidelined with a sprained left knee, Antetokounmpo has had to do even more Antetokounmpo things than usual.He clearly needs more help from his teammates on Sunday, especially against the likes of Tatum, a star in his own right.Now, after a season of surviving and growing, the Celtics see nothing but opportunity ahead of them.“We still have a chance,” Udoka said, “to make it a better story.” More

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    Celtics’ Horford Turns Back the Clock and the Bucks

    Horford, Boston’s 35-year-old center, delivered 30 points and one big dunk as the Celtics tied their series, 2-2.Early in the second half of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Monday night, Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Milwaukee Bucks star, rumbled down the floor and dunked the ball on Al Horford, the 35-year-old Boston Celtics center who has been tasked with slowing him down.The Bucks had all the momentum in the game and were on the verge of putting the Celtics on the ropes in the series.And then Antetokounmpo, the two-time Most Valuable Player Award winner, miscalculated. He followed up his dunk by staring daggers at Horford and received a technical for taunting. Horford stared right back, nodding his head several times.Giannis got a tech for this.. pic.twitter.com/gZpEsXPsTf— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) May 10, 2022
    “The way he was looking at me and the way that he was going about it really didn’t sit well with me,” Horford told reporters after the game. “And at that point I think just something switched with me.”Horford turned in one of the best performances of his career. He scored 16 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter, carrying the Celtics to a 116-108 win that tied the series, 2-2.At least two of his points were a bit of payback directly on Antetokounmpo: a dunk in the fourth quarter over the Bucks star that saw the typically reserved Horford let out a scream.In Horford’s previous 131 playoff games, he had never scored 30 points in a game. In doing so, though, he may have saved the Celtics season.“We love Al,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said. “He’s the best vet we’ve ever had. Best vet I’ve ever had. You know, he comes in and it never changes with him. Things going bad or good, he’s going to be him. Nine times out of 10, it’s going to work in our favor.”Monday’s performance was made all the more remarkable by the fact that entering the 2020-21 season, Horford was in the basketball wilderness.He had just finished a disappointing season with the Philadelphia 76ers after signing a contract worth more than $100 million. Horford, a five time All-Star, was offloaded to the rebuilding Oklahoma City Thunder, who had little use for an aging center in his mid-30s. The Sixers had to attach a first-round draft pick just to get the Thunder to consider the deal. And then Horford was shut down in midseason. Not because he was injured or playing that poorly. But because he didn’t fit in Oklahoma City.Brad Stevens, the new Celtics president, traded Kemba Walker, another former All-Star with limited productivity in recent years, for Horford, a player he had coached in Boston for three seasons from 2016 to 2019.While Horford made 5 of 7 3-pointers, his teammates struggled to connect from distance.Michael Mcloone/USA Today Sports, via ReutersIt was thought to be a low impact move. What could a past-his-prime, slow-moving center provide to a young Celtics team looking to get more athletic?Quite a bit, it turned out. Horford started 69 games for Boston in the regular season, helping to anchor one of the league’s best defenses. In the first round against the Nets, Horford averaged 13 points and 7.5 rebounds and shot 60 percent on 3-pointers.“I feel like this past summer, I understood that I needed to take it to even another level,” Horford said. “We really started with the summer and just continued in season. And now these are the moments that I want to be a part of.”His motivation, he added, was simple: “That’s from sitting at home. That’s from watching the playoffs. That’s from not knowing what my future was holding and really just hoping to have an opportunity to be in this type of environment.”Against the Bucks, Horford has been the primary defender on Antetokounmpo. It’s a more challenging matchup than one might expect: Antetokounmpo cannot as easily bully Horford in the paint the way he can most defenders. And Horford, even at this stage in his career, is mobile enough to limit Antetokounmpo from speeding past him with long strides.Antetokounmpo scored 34 points on Monday, but he needed 32 shots to get them.Horford’s biggest contribution, meanwhile, has been his shooting. On Monday, Horford made 5 of his 7 3-point attempts. The rest of the team combined to shoot 9 for 30. In several instances, Horford’s baskets came when it seemed the Bucks were on the verge of pulling away.For the Celtics to win this series, they will need to continue to hit their deep jumpers since they are not getting consistent access to the basket because of the rim protection of Antetokounmpo, a former defensive player of the year, and Brook Lopez, the Bucks’ towering center.In Game 2, the Celtics shot 20 of 43 from behind the 3-point line — an exceptional 46.5 percent. They won the game in a blowout. With Horford hitting his shots in Game 4, the Celtics were able to stretch the floor again, and that allowed Jayson Tatum to find more room to navigate in the paint. He recovered from a dismal Game 3 to match Horford with 30 points on Monday, including several key baskets down the stretch.There remain some red flags, though, for Boston in the series. Both of its wins have required uncommon performances — unusually good 3-point shooting, and Horford’s brilliance in Game 4 — and the Bucks still have the best player on either team in Antetokounmpo.Milwaukee, because of its size, also has been able to get into the lane more easily. That produces a more reliable offense, and it puts pressure on officials to call fouls.And other Boston players will need to hit shots. It’s unlikely that Horford, 35, will be able to keep up Monday’s pace, either in shooting or scoring. And in most games, if Horford is the best player on a Boston team with Tatum and Jaylen Brown, something is amiss.Just not Monday night.“Al, man,” Smart said, heaping even more praise on Horford. “He’s been doing this for a very long time, and he understands what he brings to the game and to the team. And we need every last bit of it every night we can. So it’s a big, big, big, big, big, and I mean this, big key, Al being with us.” More

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    Bucks’ Physical Play Makes Celtics Suddenly Look Average

    Giannis Antetokounmpo overcame early struggles to post a triple double against Boston, which had looked impressive in its sweep of the Nets.The task of stopping a player like Giannis Antetokounmpo — has there ever been a player like Giannis Antetokounmpo? — represents something of a collaborative quagmire.You need a player at once big and strong and nimble enough to stay in front of him. You need others, preferably long-armed men, pestering him with their hands from the periphery. Then you need someone to stand tall and protect the rim from the inevitable onslaught.The Boston Celtics have all of those things. They showed as much last week, in spectacular fashion, when Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and the rest of the Nets were swallowed up in their quicksand defense. And, still, it may not be enough.On Sunday, Antetokounmpo led the Milwaukee Bucks to a comprehensive, 101-89 win at Boston in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinals matchup, quieting, for a night, the hype bubbling around the Celtics after their impressive four-game sweep of the Nets.In the process, in making one of the N.B.A.’s hottest teams look normal for a night, the Bucks were also making a point: The national basketball conversation — that nebulous thing that floats across television and social media and newspaper columns — may inexplicably overlook them at times, but they are the defending champions, and they employ one of the world’s most spectacular athletes.The league’s Most Valuable Player Award this year may be seen as a two-man contest between Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets and Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers. And soap operas and train wrecks may draw the focus of fans to other big-market teams. But all the while, Antetokounmpo and the Bucks are going about their business as one of the most formidable clubs in the league.For Antetokounmpo, then, this series represents an opportunity: How better to burnish your towering reputation than against the league’s most feared defense?“He keeps reading the game,” Bucks Coach Mike Budenholzer said of Antetokounmpo, who overcame some early struggles to register a triple double: 24 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists. “Sometimes it’s scoring it. Sometimes it’s sharing it. He knows he’s got to do both.”The Celtics made a loud entrance onto the playoff stage last month with a flock of long-limbed, athletic defenders working together in the switching, scrambling, disorientingly aggressive defensive system of their first-year coach, Ime Udoka.Durant seemed perplexed by it all. After the series, he willingly sang Boston’s praises.Durant and Antetokounmpo enjoy similar statures in the N.B.A. They are both virtuoso artists. But they work in different mediums. If Durant is a painter with a palette of fine watercolors, Antetokounmpo is a sculptor wielding a mallet and a chisel.If Sunday was any indication, the physicality of Antetokounmpo and the rest of the Bucks’ roster could represent a key difference between the first and second rounds for the Celtics.When the Celtics tried to funnel Antetokounmpo this way or that, he simply skipped around them, a sports car swerving through traffic. If Boston’s defenders — large men, all of them — tried more physical methods to throttle him, they bounced feebly off his body.Midway through the fourth quarter, the Celtics appeared, for once, to corral Antetokounmpo into a dead end. Looking around and realizing he was trapped — “I’m going to get stuck,” he said he told himself — he flipped the ball off the backboard and snatched it out of the air again for a two-handed dunk over Jayson Tatum’s head.“That’s pure talent, pure instinct,” Budenholzer said. “He’s a great player. He does things that are unique and special and timely. That’s one of those plays where you’re just happy he’s on our side.”More important than one superstar’s solo work, though — and another potentially crucial difference between the circumstances of Durant and Antetokounmpo — were the contributions of Milwaukee’s supporting cast.Antetokounmpo, driving for a basket, posted 24 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals in Boston.David Butler Ii/USA Today Sports, via ReutersThe spotlight on Antetokounmpo has sizzled brighter in the absence of Khris Middleton, the team’s second-best player, whose participation in this series remains in doubt after he injured his left knee in Game 2 of the first round last month. A three-time All-Star who averaged 20.1 points and 5.4 assists per game in the regular season, Middleton commands plenty of attention with his ability to create his own shot and score in isolation.With him watching the game from the bench in a navy blue jacket, so much more of the Celtics’ focus could flow toward Antetokounmpo, with the ball spending so much more time in his hands.But those bemoaning Middleton’s absence may be overlooking the Bucks’ remaining cast of trustworthy satellite contributors, players capable of sinking a shot after a defense has collapsed on Antetokounmpo.Jrue Holiday, celebrated often for his defense but a formidable scorer when called upon, chipped in 25 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists. Grayson Allen led the Bucks’ reserves with 11 points, making three of six 3-point attempts.“I try to be as simple as possible,” Antetokounmpo said. “My teammates were there, they were open and they were knocking down shots.”Still, all of these players, the entirety of the Bucks’ universe — their offense, their defense, their collective mood and personality — revolves around Antetokounmpo.How much fuel does he have to burn? He played all but a few seconds in the first quarter, took a short break at the start of the second and got some reluctant rest in the third after an ill-advised fourth foul. Otherwise, he huffed through 38 punishing minutes, earning respite at the end only because the game was clearly decided.Afterward, he let out a long groan as he folded himself into a chair to talk to reporters.“Maybe I’m weird,” Antetokounmpo said when asked whether he felt roughed up. “I thrive through physicality. I love feeling beat up after games. I don’t know why. My family thinks I’m a weirdo.”For a Celtics defense still smarting from a steamrollering, these may be ominous words. More

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    NBA Christmas Day Games 2021: What to Know

    A coronavirus outbreak across the league has cast a shadow over Saturday’s highlight slate of games, with several key players unavailable to compete.The N.B.A. has long looked to Christmas Day as a highlight of the young season, a made-for-TV spectacle that brings together many of the best teams and best players for a daylong extravaganza of basketball fireworks.This year? Not exactly.Dozens of players have been cycling through the N.B.A.’s coronavirus health and safety protocols in recent days, forcing teams to improvise by signing scores of replacement players to 10-day contracts. So if you’re expecting to see Kevin Durant lead the Nets into their game against the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday, you’ll be disappointed: On Friday, Durant remained in the protocols. But fans should be able to catch the surprise return of Joe Johnson, whom the Boston Celtics signed on Wednesday to shore up their own battered roster — the same Joe Johnson who is now 40 and had last appeared on an N.B.A. court in 2018.The pandemic has wrought havoc on the holiday season, and the N.B.A. has not been immune. The league even issued a memo this week to the teams scheduled to play on Saturday that their tip times could be tweaked if any of the prime-time games are postponed. (The Nets, for example, have already had three games scuttled over the past week because of low roster numbers.)For now, and keep in mind that this is subject to change, here is a look at the five games penciled in for Saturday:All times Eastern.Atlanta Hawks (15-16) at Knicks (14-18), Noon, ESPNKnicks forward Julius Randle is having an up-and-down season, but his short-handed team will need him against the Hawks on Saturday.Mary Altaffer/Associated PressSurprising runs to the playoffs last season led to these teams meeting in the first round, spurring talk about the two franchises resurrecting. The Hawks easily dispatched the Knicks then, with the Hawks’ star player, Trae Young, delighting in quieting abrasive Knicks fans, while the Knicks’ top player, Julius Randle, had a terrible series.The matchup looked like it would start a rivalry between two up-and-coming teams on their way to the Eastern Conference’s elite.But this season, both teams, far from being resurrected, have been two of the more disappointing teams in the league. The Knicks’ new additions, Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker, have been mostly underwhelming, though Walker, after being benched for several games, has been on a tear in a recent return to the lineup. And while Atlanta had one of the N.B.A.’s worst defenses, its stellar offense hasn’t been enough to compensate for it. Young, already one of the league’s best offensive players, is having the best year of his career, while Randle has struggled.The good news is that the same thing happened last season, and both teams had impressive second half turnarounds to make the playoffs.The Christmas game will undoubtedly lose some of its luster with several key players likely to miss the game as a result of the N.B.A.’s health and protocols, including Young, Clint Capela and Danilo Gallinari from Atlanta, and Nerlens Noel from the Knicks. Derrick Rose, one of the Knicks’ lone bright spots against Atlanta in the playoffs, is slated to miss several weeks with an ankle injury.Boston Celtics (16-16) at Milwaukee Bucks (21-13), 2:30 p.m., ABCJayson Tatum’s shooting percentage is down slightly this season, but he is still Boston’s leading scorer with 25.6 points per game.Charles Krupa/Associated PressFresh off their first N.B.A. championship since 1971, the Bucks knew the early part of their schedule would pose some challenges. For starters, last season’s playoff run extended into late July. Then, two of the team’s best players, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, helped the United States men’s basketball team win gold at the Tokyo Olympics in August. The Bucks subsequently reconvened for the start of their season and lost eight of their first 15 games.Despite a shifting roster — Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo are among the players who have missed games after landing in the league’s health and safety protocols — the Bucks seem to be finding their footing as they eye another title. That’s no great stretch, thanks to the presence of Antetokounmpo, a two-time winner of the Most Valuable Player Award who still seems determined to expand his game. He is expected to play on Christmas after missing the past five games.The Celtics, meanwhile, are enduring growing pains under Ime Udoka, their first-year coach. From the start of training camp, Udoka has stressed the need for his players to pass more willingly around the perimeter. But too often, the ball still sticks — frequently in the hands of Jayson Tatum, a talented young player who has struggled with his shooting this season. The Celtics have also been hindered by injuries to Jaylen Brown.Boston needs to play a much more complete brand of basketball to have a shot of landing in the postseason, let alone to challenge the likes of the Bucks.Golden State Warriors (26-6) at Phoenix Suns (26-5), 5 p.m., ABCChris Paul leads the league in assists per game, which has helped his Phoenix Suns stay among the West’s best despite injuries.Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesThis game features the top two teams in the Western Conference. The Suns are hoping to improve upon their trip to the finals last year, while Golden State looks to continue its resurgence.In November, the N.B.A. began investigating Robert Sarver, the Suns’ owner, after ESPN published accusations of racism and sexism against him from what ESPN said were current and former Suns employees. If the specter of that investigation has affected the team, it hasn’t shown on the court.Phoenix has looked formidable in Coach Monty Williams’ third year with the franchise. After a 1-3 start to the season, the Suns went on an 18-game winning streak, which set a franchise record for consecutive wins. That included a win over Golden State and ended with a loss to Golden State. Aided by point guard Chris Paul’s steady veteran hand (he leads the league in assists per game), they’ve weathered injuries. Deandre Ayton missed eight games with a leg injury and illness, and Devin Booker missed seven games with a hamstring injury.Golden State awaits the return of Klay Thompson, Stephen Curry’s sharpshooting counterpart, who has been absent for more than two years with two serious injuries. He could return soon, but not in time for this game. The team has rocketed to the top of the conference even without him.Curry set the N.B.A. record for career 3s last week and has been playing well enough to merit consideration for his third M.V.P. Award. Role players, such as Jordan Poole and Gary Payton II, have made major contributions as well.Nets (21-9) at Los Angeles Lakers (16-17), 8 p.m., ABC and ESPNThe Nets have been hit hard by the virus recently, with so many players, including James Harden, unavailable that three games were postponed.Carmen Mandato/Getty ImagesIdeally, this would be a matchup of the Nets’ Kevin Durant against his longtime elite contemporary, LeBron James of the Lakers. And in theory, there would be other stars, too, like Kyrie Irving for the Nets and Anthony Davis for the Lakers.But it’s not to be. Davis is out for several weeks because of a knee injury. And the Nets are missing so many players as a result of the league’s health and safety protocols — including Durant and Irving — that their last three games have been postponed. On Thursday, Nets Coach Steve Nash announced that James Harden had left protocols, making him available against the Lakers.For this matchup, the Nets, who are in first place in the Eastern Conference, are taking on a Lakers team fighting just to stay in the conversation to make the playoffs.The Lakers’ supporting cast around James and Davis, thus far, has proved to be ill-fitting, and the roster has dealt with a scourge of injuries. Russell Westbrook, the Lakers’ most high-profile off-season addition, has struggled at times. James is putting up exceptional numbers for a 36-year-old, but appears to be finally slowing down: He’s more reliant on his jumper than ever before, averaging a career high in 3-point attempts per game, and a career low in free-throw attempts per game. James is still one of the best players in the league, but it’s not apparent that he can carry an offense by himself like he used to.With the Nets slated to be without so many key players, this should have been marked as an easy win for a James-led team. But not this year. These Lakers, even at full strength, are mediocre and prone to coast through games. Right now, it’s a tossup.Dallas Mavericks (15-16) at Utah Jazz (22-9), 10:30 p.m., ESPNDonovan Mitchell, left, and the Utah Jazz will face a Mavericks team that has been dealing with injuries all season.Rick Bowmer/Associated PressWhat’s regular-season dominance without playoff success? The Utah Jazz found themselves confronting that question last season when they finished the regular season with the best record in the N.B.A., but only reached the second round of the playoffs.That’s meant so far this season their game-to-game focus is on not just their early wins and losses, but on what lessons they can take into the postseason.“If you’re perfect in November, no one’s going to care come playoff time,” Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell said.Mitchell has led the Jazz offense with more than 25 points per game, while Bojan Bogdanovic and Jordan Clarkson, the league’s reigning sixth man of the year, have also been important pieces.Defensively they are led by Rudy Gobert, who is the league’s best with 15.1 rebounds per game and also contributes more than 2 blocks per game.They’ll face a Mavericks team that has dealt with injuries all season, including to guard Luka Doncic, their best player, who is expected to miss this game because of the league’s health protocols.Although Doncic leads the team with 25.6 points per game, the Mavericks are not dramatically different statistically when he’s on the court. But they are more fun to watch. If Doncic misses the Christmas Day game, a Dallas team ravaged by the virus and injuries will have a tough time making a game against the Jazz interesting. More

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    N.B.A. Eastern Conference Preview: The Bucks Aren't Finished Yet

    The Bucks might be better, while the Sixers and Nets are playing wait-and-see with key stars. The Eastern Conference could play out in several ways.Here lie the N.B.A.’s most compelling story lines.Potential contenders in the Eastern Conference scrambled during the off-season to assemble teams fit to knock off Giannis Antetokounmpo — now with a new, improved jump shot? — and the reigning N.B.A. champion Milwaukee Bucks. Even the conference’s perennial bottom feeders built rosters that will demand attention from basketball devotees. Some teams are just hoping that distractions don’t derail their seasons before they start.Many wonder how the Ben Simmons situation in Philadelphia will end. The 76ers seemed locked in a stalemate with Simmons, a three-time All-Star, who has wanted to be traded for months. Simmons ended his holdout midway through the preseason and reported to the team but has not played. The 76ers have said they want him on their roster, but if they persuade him to stay, can they really go forward with business as usual?Meanwhile, the Nets have a bona fide championship roster. They know this, and even with the distraction of Kyrie Irving’s murky status because he’s not vaccinated, they expect to hoist the Larry O’Brien championship trophy at season’s end.Could the N.B.A.’s balance of power, which has long rested in the West, be shifting to the East? Here’s a look at how the Eastern Conference shapes up this season.Miami HeatIn some ways, it seems so long ago. But little more than a year has passed since the Heat plowed their way to the 2020 finals before losing to the Los Angeles Lakers. Was it a fluke, aided by playing under the unusual conditions of a bubble environment, with no fans? The Heat were up and down last season before the Milwaukee Bucks ejected them from the 2021 playoffs in a lopsided first-round series.Jimmy Butler needs to be efficient. Duncan Robinson needs to be consistent. Tyler Herro needs to recapture his assertiveness. And Bam Adebayo needs to keep making the sort of strides that have pushed him toward becoming a perennial All-Star.The team should benefit from two additions: Kyle Lowry, who at 35 left the Raptors after nine seasons, and P.J. Tucker, who helped the Bucks win the championship last season.Philadelphia 76ersThe Sixers don’t need Ben Simmons to be competitive (they do have Joel Embiid, pictured), but they are better with him.Matt Slocum/Associated PressBen Simmons is, for now, back in the City of Brotherly Love.Simmons, who reportedly demanded a trade in late August and missed training camp, reported to the 76ers ahead of their third preseason game but did not play. Simmons’s future in Philadelphia remains unclear, though. He still has four years left on his maximum contract.With or without him, Philadelphia is antsy to win now. Joel Embiid is coming off the best season of his career, when he finished second in the voting for the Most Valuable Player Award. The 76ers were the No. 1 seed in last season’s Eastern Conference playoffs but collapsed in the semifinals, continuing their inability to turn regular-season wins into deep postseason success.Philadelphia is a better team with Simmons, 25, despite his offensive shortcomings. But even if he doesn’t play anytime soon, Embiid, Seth Curry, Danny Green and Tobias Harris should be experienced enough to keep the Sixers in contention.New York KnicksThe Knicks doubled down on last season’s roster, which unexpectedly made the playoffs then flamed out — albeit after a brilliant flare — in the first round. The veterans Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson are back, but Elfrid Payton, who triggered an influx of gray hairs for fans, is not. The additions of Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker are significant, and should help take the offensive load off RJ Barrett and Julius Randle, who signed a four-year contract extension in the off-season.This feels like a make-or-break year for the 23-year-old Mitchell Robinson, the center who is up for an extension and can jump through the roof. At his best, he protects the rim and is an excellent roll man. But he has had difficulty staying healthy. Look for bigger roles for Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin, who each showed promise off the bench as rookies last season.The Knicks should easily make the playoffs, but their bench depth is a question mark.Milwaukee BucksThe Bucks kept the band together. Same coach. Same star. Same core — mostly. And why not? Fresh off their first championship since 1971, the Bucks seem poised for a title defense.The challenge could be fatigue. Because of the pandemic, their postseason run stretched into July, and two starters — Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday — helped the U.S. Olympic team win gold in August. The Bucks also lost P.J. Tucker, invaluable in the late stages of last season, to the Heat in free agency.But Giannis Antetokounmpo, the two-time M.V.P., is still the face of the franchise and the proud owner of a newly minted championship ring. And he may be better than ever, showing off an improved jump shot in the preseason. With a contract that runs through the 2025-26 season, he is not going anywhere anytime soon.Atlanta HawksAtlanta guard Trae Young led the Hawks on a surprising run through the first two rounds of the playoffs last season.Brett Davis/USA Today Sports, via ReutersAfter a surprising run to the Eastern Conference finals last year, the Hawks enter the season with the burden of expectations and the benefit of continuity. This team is deep and should compete to be one of the best in the East.Most of the key players are back. The Hawks locked in their two best players, Trae Young and John Collins, with long-term extensions. Coach Nate McMillan will be running the team from opening night, as opposed to being thrust into the job midseason as he was during the last campaign after Lloyd Pierce was fired.Atlanta almost pulled off a miracle run to the N.B.A. finals last season, after taking down the Knicks and the Philadelphia 76ers, but were bedeviled by injuries against the eventual champions, the Milwaukee Bucks. Players who were unavailable or not 100 percent, like De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and Bogdan Bogdanovic, are expected to start the season with clean bills of health. The Hawks also added some quality veteran bench pieces in Gorgui Dieng and Delon Wright, and an intriguing rookie they drafted late in this year’s first round, Jalen Johnson.Charlotte HornetsLaMelo Ball, last season’s rookie of the year, highlights Charlotte’s promising young core. He’ll likely be the Hornets’ primary facilitator and already has great court vision and playmaking ability, and he is continuing to improve his jump shot.Ball and forward Miles Bridges in the pick-and-roll were elite last season, with Bridges’s power at the basket and Ball’s precise lob placement on display. That pairing should only be better this season.The Hornets already had solid veterans in Terry Rozier and Gordon Hayward, and they added Kelly Oubre Jr. and Mason Plumlee. Oubre is an inconsistent shooter, but could be impactful in transition. Plumlee is a versatile big man.This group won’t be knocking at the door of the N.B.A. finals this season, but the Hornets will be a fun team to watch, and have a real chance at a playoff berth.Brooklyn NetsWith the addition of Patty Mills and Paul Millsap, as well as the return of Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge, the Nets, on paper, are one of the best teams in N.B.A. history. In normal circumstances, they would be title favorites, given their Big Three of Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Kevin Durant. But that was the case last year too, and the Nets bowed out in the second round of the playoffs.Health will be the principle factor for determining how far the Nets go. All of the Nets’ top players have significant miles on their legs and have missed substantial time in recent years.If there is a potentially weak point for other teams to exploit, it is defensively, where the Nets struggled last season, and their off-season additions didn’t seriously address that. This could come back to bite them in the postseason, particularly in the frontcourt against players like Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, who scored at will during last year’s playoffs, or Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid.But the offensive firepower is top notch. It’s hard to see the Nets being beaten in a seven-game series if they’re healthy.Chicago BullsDeMar DeRozan gives the new-look Chicago Bulls a threat from the mid-range.Kamil Krzaczynski/USA Today Sports, via ReutersChicago could be a sneaky-good team this season.Arturas Karnisovas, the Bulls’ executive vice president of basketball operations, voiced displeasure with the team’s 31-41 record shortly after last season. Since then, he’s added DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso and Tony Bradley to a roster with Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic, whom Chicago acquired from Orlando at the March trade deadline.DeRozan is lethal in the midrange, but some have questioned how he’ll fit with LaVine, as both players are most effective with the ball in their hands. Chicago will have an upgrade at point guard with Ball, who is a deft passer. And Caruso will add a rugged spark off the bench. Coach Billy Donovan will have to figure out how they all fit on the court.In any event, Michael Jordan said that with the changes the Bulls made, they could compete in the East. How long has it been since those words were last spoken?Toronto RaptorsIt’s a new era in Toronto basketball. Kyle Lowry, perhaps the most lauded Raptor in franchise history, has gone to Miami. Without him, the Raptors are likely stuck between being too talented to get a top draft pick and not being so good that they’ll contend for a top seed in the conference.But there may be an opening for Toronto in the turbulent East: Scottie Barnes, whom the team surprisingly drafted at No. 4 this year, showed potential in the preseason. And the Raptors’ frontcourt, helmed by Chris Boucher and the newly acquired Precious Achiuwa, will be a force.There are lots of questions for the Raptors entering the season: Is Pascal Siakam, who is expected to miss the start of the season as he recovers from shoulder surgery, a true franchise cornerstone? Will Lowry’s replacement at guard, the 35-year-old Goran Dragic, last the season in Toronto? Or will Masai Ujiri, the Raptors head of basketball operations, flip Dragic’s expiring contract?Detroit PistonsYou’d be hard pressed to find any Pistons fans who haven’t already crowned the rookie guard Cade Cunningham as their Magic Johnson. Johnson, of course, won an N.B.A. title as a rookie after the Lakers drafted him No. 1 overall in 1979.Detroit drafted Cunningham, a savvy scorer and shot creator, No. 1 overall earlier this year to hopefully lift itself out of years of irrelevancy. An ankle injury sidelined him in the preseason, and the team is being cautious.Detroit’s young group showed promise last season, despite finishing with the worst record in the East, but the Pistons are another team in rebuilding mode. Coach Dwane Casey has said that this season’s goal is to earn a spot in the postseason play-in tournament.Cleveland CavaliersOnly someone like LeBron James could render an entire franchise into an afterthought. But that was what he effectively did when he departed the Cavaliers for the glamour of Hollywood in 2018, leaving them to rummage through the wilderness without him. The Cavaliers instantly went from title contender to lightweight, though the team has some up-and-comers — highlighted by Collin Sexton and Darius Garland in the backcourt — who are cause for cautious optimism.None of this is to suggest that the Cavaliers will come anywhere close to sniffing the playoffs. But a slow, steady rebuild — augmented by smart draft picks — is the way back to respectability. And there is more good news: Kevin Love (remember him?) has just two seasons remaining on his gargantuan deal, which could make him a more appealing target on the trade market.Boston CelticsJayson Tatum has shown promise with Boston, but postseason success has so far eluded him.Jasen Vinlove/USA Today Sports, via ReutersFrom the start of training camp, Ime Udoka, the Celtics’ first-year coach, has had a particular emphasis: ball movement. He does not want the ball to stick. He wants his players to work together to generate the best shots.This must have been welcome news to fans who got tired of watching the Celtics’ offense devolve into isolation sets last season. Jayson Tatum, 23, and Jaylen Brown, who will turn 25 this month, form one of the most talented young tandems in the league, but fulfilling their promise in the postseason has so far eluded them.Perhaps Udoka can help them deliver. He replaced Brad Stevens, who moved to the front office after a posting .500 record and losing in the first round of the playoffs in his eighth season as the team’s coach.Washington WizardsWes Unseld Jr., Washington’s new head coach, has a tall task ahead of him.The Wizards are not a championship-caliber team, even after adding solid veterans like Spencer Dinwiddie, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma and Montrezl Harrell. So this season will be mostly about persuading Bradley Beal, who can become a free agent next summer, to make a long-term commitment to the franchise.It’s hard to win without multiple elite playmakers, and the Wizards have just one in Beal after trading Russell Westbrook to the Los Angeles Lakers. But even in a yet another bridge year, the Wizards should, at the very least, have a playoff team. They’ll have the promising center Thomas Bryant back from injury, and the team can hope for some growth from its last two lottery picks, Deni Avdija (2020) and Rui Hachimura (2019).Orlando MagicThe Magic have a young team with a first-year head coach in Jamahl Mosley. They’ve made just two playoff appearances in the past nine seasons, and traded away their best players, Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic, in the middle of last season. Then they landed Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs at No. 5 in this year’s draft.Suggs joined a roster that is crowded at guard, with Markelle Fultz, who will return from a knee injury, RJ Hampton, Terrence Ross, Cole Anthony and Gary Harris. Suggs probably has the highest ceiling of those players, though, and he was solid in the summer league before injuring his thumb.The Magic will not be legitimate contenders for a while, so they have plenty of time to sort out their roster.Indiana PacersRick Carlisle, back for his second stint with the Pacers, is the team’s third coach in three seasons. Indiana could use some stability to help develop a young core that includes Malcolm Brogdon, Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, already a two-time All-Star at 25.But the Pacers, who have not advanced past the first round of the playoffs since 2014, are coming off a 34-38 season, and Caris LeVert is out indefinitely with a stress fracture in his back.Carlisle coached the Pacers for four seasons, from 2003 to 2007, while guiding them to three postseason appearances. It will take some hard work to get them there again. More

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    The Milwaukee Bucks Win the N.B.A. Championship

    The Bucks defeated the Phoenix Suns in the N.B.A. finals in six games for their first title in 50 years. It’s the first championship for Giannis Antetokounmpo.MILWAUKEE — A half-century ago, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — a young goliath then known as Lew Alcindor — led the Milwaukee Bucks to their first championship. For decades, it was the only time the franchise had reached that height. More

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    A Free-Throw Expert’s Advice for Giannis: Just Shoot It

    Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Milwaukee Bucks star, has frustrated fans and opponents with his drawn-out free-throw routine that often ends with a miss.Philip Flory, a college basketball player from Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., is a huge fan of the Milwaukee Bucks. He is rooting for them in the N.B.A. finals against the Phoenix Suns, though Flory has found himself cringing whenever Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks’ do-everything forward and one of his favorite players, tries to do one of the few things that make him look vulnerable: shoot free throws. More