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Your opening-day National Basketball Association preview

Miami Heat fans waving an oversize cutout of LeBron James
REUTERS/Andrew Innerarity
Miami Heat fans waving an oversize cutout of LeBron James during a timeout against the New Orleans Hornets on Friday.

Welcome to MinnPost’s 2012-13 NBA Preview. Although my column for the site will be devoted to the hometown Timberwolves this season, I couldn’t let the previous two years of compiling a weekly NBA Power Rankings for SI.com go to waste as background research for a league-wide overview of the season, which begins Tuesday.

I have refrained from predicting individual honors or playoff outcomes — this thing is already long enough. But the preview is organized according to how I think teams will fare within their divisions, with predicted conference seedings in parentheses.

Feedback is encouraged. I’ll respond to the smart comments in the hopes of stimulating a dialogue with readers throughout the season as we mutually enjoy the greatest game on the planet. 

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Atlantic Division

Boston Celtics (2)

They need a healthy year from Kevin Garnett and a rapid recovery from off-guard Avery Bradley, but if they get it, that small lineup will spearhead the NBA’s best defense this season. Point guard Rajon Rondo is ascendant, and veteran free-agent signee Jason Terry is a better attitudinal fit than Ray Allen. Wild card: Jeff Green.

Brooklyn Nets (5)

I get the hype over the expensive fresh blood in the fancy new building in the borough, but am not sold on any synergy happening with the all-star backcourt of Derek Williams and Joe Johnson. And aside from aging small forward Gerald Williams, there isn’t an above-average defender on the roster — and several, including center Brook Lopez, who are terrible.

New York Knicks (6)

The ball-hogging of Carmelo Anthony marginalized Amar’e Stoudemire last season, so it was smart to bring back Stoudemire’s pick-and-roll partner from two years ago in point guard Raymond Felton. But now Stoudemire is out more than a month with a chronic injury on his uninsurable knee, joining the team’s best perimeter defender, Iman Schumpert, on the sidelines. ‘Melo will still score in bunches, but coach Mike Woodson will need more lunch-bucket attitudes like he gets from center and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler and less toxic personalities like guard J.R. Smith. Either way, it won’t be dull in Gotham.

Philadelphia 76ers (7)

The Knicks, Nets and Sixers all have marvelous potential and huge question marks. I dock Philly most because their key acquisition, center Andrew Bynum, has been perpetually immature and too often petulant in a relatively pressure-free environment with the Lakers. Now he’s the de-facto team leader, under a hard-nosed coach with a reputation for burn-out in Doug Collins. Getting Bynum cost the Sixers their best wing defender and former team leader, Andre Iguodala. With sharpshooting sixth man Lou Williams also gone, they need a breakout campaign from swingman Evan Turner.

Toronto Raptors (9)

The Raps will be the best last-place team in any division this season. They’ve got a couple of players, point guard Kyle Lowry and center-forward Andrea Bargnani, on the cusp of stardom if Lowry seizes the reins with a positive attitude and coach Dwane Casey can again motivate Bargnani to play defense as assiduously as his pre-injury first month of last season. They’ll take a step back developing 7-foot Lithuanian Jonas Valanciunas this season, but it should pay off handsomely in the future.

Central Division

Indiana Pacers (4)

People are expecting big things — like a conference finals appearance — from the Pacers this season. I’m skeptical. Talented swingman Paul George will continue to improve, but the Pacers need center Roy Hibbert to remain assertive for an entire season. Ian Mahinmi and D.J. Augustin are nice pickups, but the Pacers can’t count on being the healthiest team in the NBA again. They ascend here mostly because the Bulls have dropped.

Chicago Bulls (8)

The Bulls’ secret weapon the past two seasons has been tremendous defense from their second unit, but now Omer Asik and Ronnie Brewer are gone. Their not-so-secret weapon is 2011 MVP Derrick Rose, who is expected to miss most of the season with a knee injury. His backup, Kirk Hinrich is dinged, leaving Nate Robinson as the opening day starter. And Carlos Boozer is still an overpaid defensive liability at power forward.

Cleveland Cavs (10)

Last season’s Rookie of the Year, Kyrie Irving, is the real deal. If the Cavs decide not to trade high-motor center Anderson Varejao, that’s the other half of a dynamic duo that could ambush an extra handful of wins from less-motivated opponents. It would help if Omri Casspi could bounce back and add to the wing depth alongside Alonzo Gee. And if Tristan Thompson takes a leap forward at power forward, the Cavs could be the surprise team of 2012-13.

Milwaukee Bucks (12)

Acquiring Monta Ellis to pair with Brandon Jennings in the backcourt was a special kind of stupid for Bucks management. Not only did it cost them franchise center Andrew Bogut, but all the touches and shots required to keep Ellis and Jennings happy are ones that more efficient scorers like Mike Dunleavy and Ersan Ilyasova can’t execute. They need to play defensive stalwart Ekpe Udoh heavy minutes, but even so, coach Scott Skiles will be happily out the door at or before season’s end.

Detroit Pistons (13)

I don’t share the enthusiasm some have expressed about a potential Pistons resurgence. They are redundant at combo guard with Brandon Knight and Rodney Stuckey, and even if their top draft pick Andre Drummond becomes a solid complement to emerging star (but mediocre defender) Greg Monroe in the front court, it will take longer than a season to accomplish.

Southeast Division

Miami Heat (1)

The Heat are the presumptive favorites to repeat as champions. Lebron James has vanquished his checkered past of curiously dysfunctional post-season play. Chris Bosh has accepted that he belongs at the center position on this team, freeing up Lebron to dominate at point power forward. Dwyane Wade should be healthy more frequently this season. And, in need of three-point shooters, they merely added the greatest one in NBA history in Ray Allen.

Atlanta Hawks (3)

Don’t sleep on the Hawks, who lost Joe Johnson but collectively replaced him with a trio of ace long-range shooters (Lou Williams, Anthony Morrow and Kyle Korver); have the uber-talented but long-enigmatic Josh Smith finally figuring it out as he enters a contract year; and will enjoy the services of their best player, Al Horford, for the entire season after he missed all but 11 games with a torn pectoral muscle.

Washington Wizards (11)

On the bright side, the Wizards rid themselves of some chuckleheads (Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee, Nick Young), drafted a great young guard in Bradley Beal, discovered a gritty power forward last year in Kevin Seraphin, and won’t be dreadful or tragi-comical for a change. Unfortunately, their franchise star of the future, John Wall, suffered a knee injury and will be lost for the first month of the season. Their supposed veteran leader, Nene, has a disturbing habit of being sidelined by minor injuries. Even with veteran newcomers Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza, sustained competence still feels beyond the reach of this team.

Charlotte Bobcats (14)

They had the league’s lowest-rated offense and defense and finished with the worst winning percentage in NBA history last season, so there really is nowhere to go but up. And they’ll be better, having acquired vets like center Brendan Haywood and guards Ramon Sessions and Ben Gordon, as well as drafting swingman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. But in this context, “better” still doesn’t mean anything close to “good.”

Orlando Magic (15)

The Magic are in shambles after firing coach Stan Van Gundy, finally trading their indecisive superstar center Dwight Howard for pennies on the dollar, and inexplicably dumping the reigning Most Improved Player of Year, stretch forward Ryan Anderson. Their new best player, Arron Afflalo, failed to seize a leadership role after signing a large contract in Denver last season. Orlando will battle with Charlotte and Phoenix for the NBA’s worst record this season. 

WESTERN CONFERENCE

 Southwest Division

 San Antonio Spurs (2)

The ageless wonders put on a clinic of both ball movement and player movement to fashion a magnificent offense that knew just when to push the pace and when to dissect opponents in the half-court. Veterans Boris Diaw and Stephen Jackson are around for a full season and second-year defensive stopper Kawhi Leonard is ready to join veteran stars Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili as an integral part of the team’s core.

Memphis Grizzlies (7)

The Grizzlies ownership locked up their top four players with large, long contracts only to have one of them go down with a major injury (first Rudy Gay, then Zach Randolph) the past two seasons. Now the legitimate fear is that this expensive nucleus won’t be enough to get them to an elite level — a cautionary tale that is OKC’s best argument for trading James Harden. Their collapsed margin for error makes their role-player maneuvers crucial — and essentially swapping out O.J. Mayo for Jerryd Bayless was not a good move.

Houston Rockets (9)

Landing Harden after the previous high-profile acquisitions of point guard Jeremy Lin and center Omer Asik makes the Rockets a fascinating team to watch this season. Houston GM Daryl Morey believes their complementary skills will synergize enough for them to reach and sustain their enormous collective potential. It will take time and require a few more pieces, but Morey has the patience, savvy, and resources enough to generate well-founded enthusiasm about this team’s future.

New Orleans Hornets (10)

The Hornets are another team on the rise, lucking out in the lottery to land top pick Anthony Davis, a big man who will mesh perfectly with the defensive emphasis of underrated young coach Monty Williams. Trades for Ryan Anderson and Robin Lopez completed an impressive makeover of the front court. How quickly this team improves will depend on would-be star shooting guard Eric Gordon staying healthy and removing his idiotic disdain for having to remain with New Orleans after the team matched his contract offer from Phoenix.

Dallas Mavericks (11)

I’m apparently alone in my belief that the Mavs are on the verge of collapse. But superstar Dirk Nowitzki is hurt and aging, new center Chris Kamen is already dinged up, the volatile guard Delonte West imploded and was released, and all their significant acquisitions — forward Elton Brand, point guard Darren Collison, off guard O.J. Mayo — are flawed, middle-of-the-pack performers who will have trouble lifting up a team that barely made it into the playoffs last season.

Northwest Division

Oklahoma City Thunder (3)

Just as the Thunder took advantage of Boston’s supposedly awkward salary cap situation a couple of years ago to snatch up center Kendrick Perkins, they now repeat the Celtics’ premature punting of a possible championship by dealing James Harden to Houston less than a week before the season opener. Harden was only OKC’s best playmaker — yes, better than Russell Westbrook. Losing him will retain the Thunder’s “cap flexibility” down the road and the team is talented enough to remain a formidable contender. But in those final rounds of the playoffs against the other NBA elite, a fading Kevin Martin, rookie Jeremy Lamb and a batch of future draft picks (the compensation for Harden) will punk the diehard fans of this franchise who thought that the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow would be in the shape of championship rings.

Denver Nuggets (5)

Yes, the Nuggets were bedeviled by injuries last season, but a deep roster mitigated much of the damage. The more insidious problem was inconsistent effort and a lackadaisical attitude, especially on defense. Landing Andre Iguodala from Philly will help in that area — he’s a proud and persistent on-ball defender. But whether the Nuggets can get past the second round of the playoffs will depend on how quickly (or if) center JaVale McGee can improve his court recognition and concentration. Another factor: How shrewdly coach George Karl juggles the NBA’s most talented 12-man roster.

Utah Jazz (6)

The Jazz are big and bruising, capable of playing four guys who are 6-8 or taller at the same time when Paul Millsap slides to “small” forward and Gordon Hayward moves to the backcourt. Such lineup innovations — or a major trade — are necessary with the emergence of both 6-10 Derrick Favors and 6-11 Enes Kanter added to a front line that already includes 6-10 Al Jefferson. But dramatic improvement from last year’s surprise playoff appearance may lie with new 6-1 point guard Mo Williams, a probable upgrade over Devin Harris and the second-best player on 66-win Cleveland team with Lebron back in 2008-09.

Minnesota Timberwolves (8)

I’ll have a full season preview devoted to the Wolves on Thursday, but even with the injuries to Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love, and the inevitable injury complications that will involve Brandon Roy, I’m obviously bullish. Meanwhile, enough with this “white team” idiocy. A franchise that wasted lottery picks on Jonny Flynn and Wes Johnson and offered Nicolas Batum $48 million can hardly be accused of racism, and those who make such accusations do their cause — and their reputations — great harm. 

Portland Trail Blazers (14)

The Blazers are trying to rebuild on the fly, retaining their all-star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge and paying swingman Nicolas Batum and Wes Matthews close to top dollar while dismantling the rest of the roster. By all accounts, they drafted smartly with point guard Damian Lillard, a rookie of the year candidate, but the hiring of coach Terry Stotts, who failed in Atlanta and Milwaukee, doesn’t inspire confidence, and it is difficult to see how the endgame of their current strategy results is anything above mediocrity.

Pacific Division

Los Angeles Lakers (1)

When healthy, the Lakers starting lineup is Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace. They were never healthy in their winless (0-8) preseason, and Bryant is questionable for the opener. They must surmount a surfeit of age and ego, and quickly establish familiarity and a reasonable pecking order. Nash and Bryant comprise a potentially porous perimeter defense. And the second unit is pretty bad. But reread that starting five. I’m going with “awesome” until proven otherwise and am now picking them over OKC after the Harden trade.

Los Angeles Clippers (4)

They have a chance to barge into the NBA’s top tier, but it will probably require coaching skillful enough to mesh the apparently mismatched talents of front court mates Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan on defense and best use the disparate but potent abilities of sage veteran Chauncey Billups and young blur Eric Bledsoe at the off-guard spot beside, and occasionally in place of, all star Chris Paul. Is much-maligned coach Vinny Del Negro up to the task? In a year when Paul’s contract is due to expire, that’s a loaded question.

Golden State Warriors (12)

The Warriors have been a joke on defense too many years to be taken seriously without proof of a legitimate change in identity. Center Andrew Bogut is gifted at both blocked shots and drawing charges, but has had trouble staying healthy and currently isn’t 100 percent. Besides, the idea that his defensive prowess would be contagious is belied by the array of defensive sieves that comprise Golden State’s lineup, which include gifted shooters Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson and prolific scorer David Lee. This is also the season we discover that second-year coach Mark Jackson is overmatched.

Sacramento Kings (13)

DeMarcus Cousins has the potential to become the game’s best center behind Dwight Howard, but Sacramento’s other supposed cornerstone, swingman Tyreke Evans, has regressed since his Rookie of the Year season three years ago and the roster doesn’t reflect an organizational blueprint so much as a patchwork quilt. For example, the team’s major free agent signing was 6-foot point guard Aaron Brooks, confirming that they wasted a lottery pick on 6-2 combo guard Jimmer Fredette and have no faith in last year’s feel-good story, Isaiah Thomas, a 5-9 point guard who emerged as an offensive catalyst after being taken with the last pick in the 2011 draft. 

Phoenix Suns (15)

It is only fitting that the Suns be absolutely atrocious in their first year without Steve Nash, who established a much cherished legacy with his fast-paced style of play in the desert and loyally propped up the team for years as they faded. Goran Dragic is a fine point guard in Nash’s stead and has a capable pick and roll partner in center Marcin Gortat. But this team will get torched on defense and struggle to recover from transitions like the one at small forward, where Michael Beasley takes over for Grant Hill and puts the concept of “court I.Q.” into stark relief.

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Comments (9)

Can't wait for the season to start

Not sure I agree with ranking Utah above the Wolves but we'll see soon enough.

I have high hopes for this season and am looking forward to seeing the new team come together.

Great stuff, as always.

I agree on the Heat and Lakers being favorites. Barring major injury (I feel dumb even writing that, because it's implied with any sports prediction) I can't see anybody keeping the Heat from the Finals this year. In the West, the Lakers have a bit more uncertainty due to chemistry and age factors, but their talent upside is off-the-charts so I also expect to see them back in the Finals for the umpteenth time.

I also agree on Dallas seeming overrated in most previews. Dirk had health and conditioning questions last year that nearly cost them a playoff bid, and those only seem to have gotten worse. Add to that the Kidd and Terry departures (coupled with the enormous Chandler loss of the prior offseason) and Dallas should be getting worse, not better. I hope that means, as you predict, a Wolves playoff appearance. Roy, AK47 and Pek need to keep that ship sailing for the first month or so, without Kevin Love.

On Boston, I'm not expecting such a great regular season. Although they took Miami to seven games, they were under-.500 at the halfway mark of last year's (abbreviated) season. As you say, they need a healthy Kevin Garnett, and that seems questionable in light of his 2009 breakdown and incredible effort and mileage. They also need Avery Bradley--a key factor in last season's turnaround--to return quickly and effectively, despite having two bad shoulders. Finally, the Miami thing itself was less impressive than it now seems, when you consider Chris Bosh's absence for much of the series. With a healthy Bosh, Miami looked near-unstoppable. Without him, they were historical performances from LeBron (Game 4) and Wade (Game 6) away from losing the Indiana series. What Boston does have going for them is a weak Eastern Conference that will pad its record versus bottom feeders like Charlotte, Washington, and Orlando (10 or 11 wins, guaranteed) and injury problems to rivals for that 2 Seed (Amare, Rose, now Granger). With all of that considered, I expect a middle seed for Boston and Round 2 matchup with Miami.

Again, great stuff and looking forward to that Wolves preview.

A few points

I don't expect as much of a dropoff with OKC, though I don't think they can live up to last year's team. While Kevin Martin had a poor season last year statistically, as a third option his efficiency will become more apparent (if he stays healthy). He's no James Harden, but can contribute in other ways; with the benefit of hindsight, OKC fans should probably be more upset with Serge's contract which set them up for this trade. Is having an elite shot blocker a good use of resources when serviceable guys like our Wolves' own Dante Cunningham or Lou Amundson can be had for cheap?

As for Dallas, I get ready to write them off every year, but I actually like the moves they've made. They brought in a few new veterans and are definitely one of the deepest teams in the league. If I'm going to write off a team, it's going to be the Celtics, who stubbornly refuse to get a veteran big who can play defense without KG on the court. Of course they'll still make the playoffs, but unless their draft picks exceed expectations, I don't see how the the completely overrated Avery Bradley and Jeff Green are going to help this team that much.

I am pretty bullish on the Nuggets this year as well - I've really enjoyed watching them ever since Melo left, and adding Iguodala only makes them a sweeter blue-collar counterbalance to the flashy Lakers.

Responses: "Manna From Heaven"

Ah, I love my readers. Intelligent stuff right out of the chute. Thank you.

Both Andy and Anton are not nearly as confident about Boston as I am, and provide solid reasoning. Yes, KG has enormous--and hyper-intensive--mileage on his sneaker tread, and Bradley's shoulders are indeed a concern. But don't forget how far Boston got last season--especially in the second half, after they switched Garnett to center and installed Bradley at the 2--despite significant injuries to Ray Allen that had him shooting a lower FG% with each succeeding month of the season, losing Jeff Green (and yes, I think he's way overrated too, but better than the junk they had off the bench) for the entire season, and even missing Rondo for 13 games with injury.
Andy, you mention Bosh's injury, but don't forget that the Celts lost Bradley in Game 4 of the Philly series and he never returned, plus Pierce wasn't healthy for most of the playoffs, which really affected his ability to guard Lebron. (And sure, nobody guards Lebron, but Pierce's history against him is better than most). IMO, Bradley is perfect for that team, aside from being undersized. He flat out traumatized Jameer Nelson in two blowouts last year in a manner I haven't seen since Kevin Johnson torched Pooh Richardson in the early years of the Wolves franchise.
Anton, you say the Celts stubbornly won't get a big man, but they in fact ran through a gauntlet of them last season before realizing that having Garnett, Bass and Pierce all on the court at the same time was the best option, so long as Rondo kept the pace up and he and Bradley disrupting half court sets on the perimeter before they had a chance to post up KG. I know they will sorely miss Stiensma and rue the day they signed Darko (Wolves clearly got the best of that de facto swap). They drafted a couple of big men and from what I've heard from folks I respect, Jared Sullivan has a chance to be pretty good and Fab Melo is terrible (I don't follow the college game so I wouldn't know).
Anyway, I'm not sold on any of those other Atlantic teams, although I imagine the law of averages says that one of Brooklyn, New York and Philly should emerge and live up to their talent. Looking carefully at the rosters and the potential cohesion or dysfunction, I had no choice but to elevate Atlanta to third(!) which shocked me, and put the Pacers 4th. And when I tried to put any of them above Boston, I remembered how gritty they were the past few seasons, how Doc Rivers won't let them die, and how they thrived despite a terrible bench that will now boast Jason Terry, an ideal fit for them in that slot. With the Jet and the Truth plus that intensity, this team will be very tough to put away in the 4th quarter, and I don't think any of their Atlantic rivals have the juice to do it.
Okay, before this gets to be a novel, quick reactions:
Mark, Utah has tremendous front court depth. Derrick Favors in particular is going to be a beast, especially at the defensive end, and Paul Millsap is an all star in waiting penalized for playing in the Mountain Time Zone. Plus, although I've been really hard on Gordan Hayward the past, he works hard, is 6-8, and has a pretty fair all-around game. If Mo Williams thrives at the point, Utah will be very tough.
Anton: I can't stand Kevin Martin, so take what I say with that bias in mind. But the dude isn't as important as a third option as he is spearheading the offense of the second unit, a job Harden did exceedingly well because he could create his own shot, create shots for others, and get to the free throw line. There in *nothing* K-Mart can do on the court better than Harden can do it. Once the league took away the "rip" move where you throw yourself into your opponent to draw the foul, Martin's free throws per 36 minutes declined from 9.1 to 5.3 last year. He's a dog on defense who pouts when he doesn't get enough touches but is a lousy distributor. I predict the Thunder will be very unhappy with his play by Christmas at the latest.
And Anton, you're right about Denver being fun to watch. That Lawson-Miller backcourt is a basketball marriage made in heaven. I also expect Gallinari to have a breakout year (I said that last year as well, though) and Faried will continue to be a Sportscenter mainstay for his athleticism. But I want to see even two consistent months out of McGee before I think signing him was the right move, and I frankly don't know why they piss away games sometimes through inattentive and sluggish play, but it happened way too often last season for me to put them in the top four of the West.

Okay, enough for now. Thanks for chiming in. One of the things I loved about my old gigs at City Pages and The Rake was the chance to be enlightened and to spout off in conversations with my readership. Good commentary creates more good commentary and the next thing you know, we're all smarter.

Agree on Avery Bradley...

When healthy, he is shockingly-good on defense. Kind of like Jrue Holiday, but on a team that people actually watch. About that though, I notice the C's have a long list of off guards. When Bradley comes back, he fights for minutes with Barbosa, Terry and Courtney Lee. I wonder how all of that works out. Lee can play a some 3, when aging Pierce needs rest, which he will, but it's still a log jam.

Dallas looks better than expected without Dirk. Not good news for the local squad...

I agree with you that there

I agree with you that there is nothing that K-Mart does that Harden does better - plus Harden is an excellent pick-and-roll player, with creativity that rivals Wade in that position (rejecting picks, splitting defenders, etc.). This shot chart comparison tells the story as well (sorry I can't embed HTML):

http://www.grantland.com/blog/the-triangle/post/_/id/41491/title-tk-the-...

But! Martin does provide a veteran presence - something that is difficult to quantify. I think the Thunder still made the right move by trading Harden, and I do not see another team desperate (and asset-laden) enough to make such a bold move. OKC gets a lottery pick (my favorite nickname: Jeremy "The Sacrificial" Lamb, whose DraftExpress ceiling is listed as...Kevin Martin!), a vet at the same position, and those draft picks which can be used to sweeten future trades.

As for last night's Lakers game, what is the point of getting two elite pick-and-roll players (Nash and Howard) if you aren't going to run the pick and roll? What a disappointment - I didn't watch any of their preseason games (where they went 0-8), but I can kind of understand it now.

And Britt, if you're looking for consistent effort from JaVale McGee, I think you're going to continue to be disappointed. Karl is actually bringing him off the bench (which I think is a good move), so maybe he can grow into a super-sub type of energy guy (to go along with Faried's hustle and Lawson's pace).

Genius at work

So, the Lakers are "awesome" and the Mavs are "on the verge of collapse."

We'll see if I get any smarter in the days and weeks ahead...

That game surprised me

Dallas is a lot deeper than they looked on paper, and I didn't really see much from them in preseason. The Wolves absolutely have to play at least .500 ball until Love gets back.

And Boston looked like they put everything they had into last night's game while Miami barely broke a sweat but I still wish we were in the East.

Lakers didn't show up

Mark--

I think the Lakers were bad more than Dallas was good. Seven points and four assists for Steve Nash with Kobe, Dwight and Pau surrounding him? And that FT shooting from Howard and Hill was unbelieveable. I don't think the Wolves need to play .500 pre-Love. It's a long season.

Agree with you though about Miami. Boston played really well for most of the game--and got hosed.