Blakely's Celtics-Heat Game 6 preview

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Blakely's Celtics-Heat Game 6 preview

BOSTON It's hard to imagine that the biggest X-factor in the Eastern Conference finals between Boston and Miami is a seven-time all-star.

But that's the reality of this Celtics-Heat series, with the outcome in tonight's Game 6 matchup hinging heavily on the play of Chris Bosh.

The 6-foot-9 Heat forward returned from a nine-game absence (abdominal strain) in Boston's Game 5 victory at Miami on Tuesday, tallying nine points along with seven rebounds (six offensive) in just over 14 minutes.

Following the Heat loss, Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra has been heavily criticized for not using Bosh at all in the fourth quarter when the game was up for grabs.

"I thought those are the decisions you have to make as a head coach," Spoelstra said. "I know after the fact those can always be secondguessed. But we're treading in kind of new waters right now, and he had been out quite a while. But he'll play more (in Game 6)."

And that will put even more pressure on a Celtics defense that has already had its hands full with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.

"You know, I was very surprised how good he looked (in Game 5)," C's coach Doc Rivers said of Bosh. "He looked like he had been playing. So we were very surprised with that."

But as far as why Bosh didn't play more in Game 5, Rivers wasn't about to touch that question.

"I will stay away from that," Rivers said. "That's the other thing. I didn't notice it until after the game. That's how focused we were. I was really focused on us. Then after the game when one of my coaches brought it up, I said, well, yeah, that's interesting. But I'm sure there was a reason."

For the Celtics, why Bosh wasn't on the floor down the stretch isn't important. He will play tonight, more than he did in Game 5. And dealing with that will be more than enough of a challenge for the Celtics.

Indeed, Bosh's play will be a major subplot to follow in tonight's game. Here are some other keys to keep tabs on as the Celtics hope to continue their dominance at home (8-1 in the playoffs) needing just one win to move on to the NBA Finals for the third time in the Big Three era.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR -- Keeping Dwyane Wade in check in the first half has been a huge factor in Boston being in control of this series. He's averaging 22 points per game in the Conference finals, but only 5.8 of those points has come in the first half. More significant, he's connecting on just 27.5 percent of his shots in the first half, shooting 40 percent or less in every game thus far.

MATCHUP TO WATCH -- Kevin Garnett vs. Chris Bosh: For the first time in the postseason, Kevin Garnett will not have a decisive advantage at the center position. In many ways, Garnett will have to deal with a mirror-image of himself in Bosh only younger. Both will score points, but the edge will go to which player does a better rebounding the ball.

PLAYER TO WATCH -- Three-time league MVP LeBron James is a must-see every game, but he's especially eye-grabbing in elimination games for all the wrong reasons. Between his years in Cleveland and Miami, James has been in eight elimination games and has emerged victorious just two times. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, James has averaged just 24.3 points in his last three elimination games. Not only are those numbers down from what he usually does scoring-wise in the playoffs, but those last three games? They all ended with James' team losing.

STAT TO TRACK -- Bench play tends to pick up at home, which bodes well for a Celtics' second unit that is coming off its first game in this series in which they outscored their Heat backup brethren, 19-16. Between Mickael Pietrus and Keyon Dooling, the C's defensive duo has stepped up their game offensively by averaging 13 points off the bench in the Celtics last two games.

2017 NBA title odds are out, Celtics rank second in the East

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2017 NBA title odds are out, Celtics rank second in the East

Teams are still fighting for the 2016 Larry O’Brien Trophy, but the 2017 NBA title opening odds have already been released by the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook. The Warriors unsurprisingly come in as heavy 3/2 favorites. The Cavaliers already punched their ticket for this year’s finals and are second, with 5/2 odds. Then there’s the Spurs, Thunder, and Clippers, as you’d expect rounding off the top five.

But then there’s the Celtics with 20/1 odds -- sixth-best in the NBA -- to raise Banner 18.

With eight draft picks and a chunk of cap space, the Celtics are in a position to capitalize on any opportunities that may come their way. There is a lot of uncertainty at this point in the NBA calendar, so Vegas must be hedging their bets on the Celtics making a leap towards contender status.

Celtics fans will also be happy to know the Nets have 500/1 odds to hoist the trophy next season, which ranks last of all teams. The Celtics have the right to swap first-round picks with the Nets in the 2017 draft, which could give them another swing at a superstar prospect.

For full draft profiles of players the Celtics could draft this year, click here.

Team Opening odds
Golden State Warriors 3/2
Cleveland Cavaliers 5/2
San Antonio Spurs 6/1
Oklahoma City Thunder 8/1
Los Angeles Clippers 16/1
Boston Celtics 20/1
Toronto Raptors 25/1
Miami Heat 25/1
Chicago Bulls 40/1
Atlanta Hawks 40/1
Minnesota Timberwolves 60/1
New Orleans Pelicans 60/1
Houston Rockets 60/1
Portland Trail Blazers 60/1
Memphis Grizzlies 80/1
Utah Jazz 80/1
Charlotte Hornets 80/1
Washington Wizards 100/1
Indiana Pacers 100/1
Dallas Mavericks 100/1
Milwaukee Bucks 100/1
Detroit Pistons 100/1
Los Angeles Lakers 100/1
New York Knicks 100/1
Sacramento Kings 100/1
Philadelphia 76ers 100/1
Orlando Magic 100/1
Denver Nuggets 100/1
Phoenix Suns 300/1
Brooklyn Nets 500/1

Warriors force Game 7 with 108-101 win over Thunder

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Warriors force Game 7 with 108-101 win over Thunder

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Klay Thompson made a playoff-record 11 3-pointers and scored 41 points, and the defending champion Golden State Warriors forced a seventh game in the Western Conference finals with a 108-101 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday night.

Stephen Curry bounced back from a slow start to finish with 29 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists.

The Warriors, who set the league's regular-season record with 73 wins, will host Game 7 on Monday. The winner will play Cleveland in the NBA Finals.

Oklahoma City dominated Games 3 and 4 at home, but the Warriors made 21 of 44 3-pointers on Saturday, while Oklahoma City was 3 of 23.

Kevin Durant scored 29 points and Russell Westbrook added 28 for the Thunder. But Durant made just 10 of 31 shots and Westbrook was 10 of 27.

Trying to become the 10th team to overcome a 3-1 deficit, the Warriors trailed much of the game and trailed by eight going to the fourth quarter.

Thompson kept them in it with four 3-pointers in just over seven minutes to start the period. Curry then hit two 3s, the second of which tied the game at 99 with 2:47 to play.

Thompson's 3 with 1:35 to play put the Warriors up 104-101.

The Thunder, who blew a number of fourth-quarter leads during the regular season, fell apart in the final minutes after Golden State had finally gone ahead for good.

Westbrook lost control of the ball, and after Thompson missed a 3, Westbrook turned the ball over again. Curry's layup with 14.3 seconds to play put the Warriors up by five, the Thunder turned it over again, and the Warriors were in the clear.

The Thunder led 23-20 after one quarter, then seized momentum early in the second. Steven Adams' powerful one-handed dunk on Draymond Green drew a roar from the crowd and gave Oklahoma City a 37-28 lead. Green, who had hit Adams in the groin area twice during the series, was a constant target for the vocal Thunder fans.

Thompson opened the second half with back-to-back 3-pointers to give the Warriors a 54-53 edge, but the Thunder closed the quarter strong and led 83-75 heading into the fourth.