Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Gerald Green Deserves Your Respect

There is a difference between being liked and being respected.

Gerald Green was well-liked during his first two NBA seasons in Boston. He averaged 10 points per game as a sophomore and momentarily shocked the basketball world by dethroning Dwight Howard in the 2007 Slam Dunk Contest.

Green was certainly no hero, but his raw potential and freakish athleticism represented hope during a dismal 2006-07 Boston Celtics campaign.

The Celtics finished 24-58 that year – their second worst record in franchise history.

Nevertheless, the 6’7’’ Green became a fan favorite in Boston thanks to his energetic play and rim-rattling dunks. During his 15 minutes of fame at All-Star weekend, the rest of the basketball world became aware of his offensive potential.

A few months later, the Minnesota Timberwolves traded Kevin Garnett to Boston for draft picks and a package of players centered around Green and Al Jefferson.

In other words, if not for Green, the Celtics may have never won their only NBA championship since 1986.

That’s a good reason to like him. Here is why you should respect him:

Since being traded nearly ten years ago, Green has worked tirelessly at rounding out his game to become a better player. He does not blame the Celtics for trading him for Garnett; he would have done the same thing.

Boston was his first home as a young adult and he is ecstatic to return to the city where his NBA journey first began.

"It's an amazing dream to come back to the team that drafted me so I'm blessed man. I'm blessed to be sitting here talking to you right now. I'm very honest and very humbled to be back with the Boston Celtics."

As one of the last players drafted out of high school, the 18th overall pick in the 2005 NBA Draft spent time in China, Russia, and the NBA D-League on the way to transforming his basketball identity.

He wants you to know that he is not just a dunker.

“This is my 12th season professionally so I'm very mature now. I still got a lot in the tank. Legs feel good, everything feels good about myself. I feel like I've learned so much about myself. I feel like I'm a way better defensive player. I know I'm a way better defensive player than when I first came here.”

Now 30 years old, Green is excited to begin the new season with an important role and a newfound veteran’s mentality.

Green will be a mentor and a high-volume scorer off the bench for one of the NBA’s youngest and most talented teams.

Furthermore, his height, athleticism and ability to provide instant offense enables him to play multiple positions for Brad Stevens’s various small-ball sets.

It was only three seasons ago that Green played in all 82 games for Phoenix and averaged 15.8 points while shooting 40% from three-point range.

It is comforting to have a player on the floor who can create scoring opportunities for himself. The Celtics roster is built around hard workers and tough defenders, but they were plagued last season by long stretches of inefficient offense during close games.

Green’s ability to score in bunches can command the attention of opposing defenses, which frees up teammates to focus on spacing the floor, setting quality screens and making smart cuts.

Isaiah Thomas has a similar effect for the Celtics starters.

Unsurprisingly, the two scorers loved playing together in Phoenix. As Green puts it, he and Isaiah are “like Kool-Aid and sugar.”  Thomas heavily recruited Green in the offseason.

Danny Ainge also got a pretty sweet deal on Green. The swingman will make the veteran’s minimum this season, thus preserving vital cap space for potential midseason trades.

Green may be getting paid less than James Young and Demetrius Jackson, but as a big-time scorer off the bench for an elite Eastern Conference contender, he will be one of the best value signings of the NBA offseason.

An explosive offensive threat with a chip on his shoulder is exactly what the Celtics needed. Green will become a fan favorite in Boston once again.

So grab a glass, a spoon and some ice cubes. It’s time for some Kool-Aid and sugar.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Celtics Should Reunite the Big Three

Sometimes it is difficult to believe that the Big Three only won a single championship together in Boston. Those Celtics teams seemed far too complete and much too cohesive to only win one title.

Age and injuries contributed to their downfall. You can partially blame Danny Ainge, if you’d like.

Nevertheless, the prospect of reuniting Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to give the 2016-17 Boston Celtics one of the oldest, most experienced and most intriguing benches in the NBA is too magnificent not to romanticize.

The 41-year-old Allen reached out to the Celtics, Bucks and several other teams this week about a potential comeback. He said during an interview with the Hartford Courant, “It doesn’t necessarily have to be championship-or-bust for me to go back to the NBA.”

Meanwhile the 40-year-old Garnett needs just one more season under his belt to surpass Robert Parrish and Kevin Willis for longest career in NBA history. He is entering the final year of his contract in Minnesota, but close friend and former Timberwolves interim head coach Sam Mitchell says Garnett is leaning towards retirement because Mitchell was recently fired.

And, "The Truth" - Pierce turns 39 in October and is contemplating retirement after a rough year in Los Angeles. Whenever he is ready, he will retire as a member of the Celtics and someday his #34 will be enshrined in the Garden rafters amongst the other all-time Celtics greats.

But just imagine if Pierce’s second Celtics stint featured one more long playoff run alongside the same future Hall of Famers who once united to deliver Boston its only NBA title since 1986.

Wouldn’t that command your respect more than a one-day retirement contract?

Ainge has quietly returned the Celtics to prominence in the Eastern Conference by assembling a young, exciting and hardworking core under Brad Stevens. The acquisition of Al Horford may put the Celtics in position to face the Cavaliers in the Conference Finals next season.

Pierce, Garnett and Allen are in the final stage of their careers. They cannot be relied on for consistent minutes anymore, but their very presence would stimulate the team culture by instilling strong leadership tendencies and providing a vital veteran cognizance off the bench.

Despite their age, they will play well together in spurts against plenty of opposing bench units. More importantly, they will be invaluable teammates to the younger players thriving on their guidance during practices, games and especially during the postseason.

Amir Johnson is active and athletic, but how much better could he be with Garnett teaching him to harness his energy more efficiently?

How much could sharpshooters R.J. Hunter and James Young benefit from witnessing Allen’s intensive practice routine and flawless shooting form firsthand?

How high could Jaylen Brown’s ceiling be with Pierce as a mentor?

Reuniting the Big Three would require mild maneuvering. Fortunately, the Timberwolves are always hungry for young players and draft picks. Ainge could easily acquire the old brooding Garnett for some rookie reserves or future second-round picks.

Pierce will eventually return to Boston, but Ainge can make that happen sooner rather than later. Allen can sign pretty much anywhere, as most teams would be thrilled to acquire one of the world’s greatest shooters.

The Celtics roster has terrific depth with players like Brown, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Jonas Jerebko and Gerald Green, but Ainge could still make just enough room on the bench for the reunion and farewell tour for the Big Three if they all put aside their past differences to seek out greatness one last time together.

Just picture Pierce, Garnett and Allen entering the game on the final possession, joining Horford and Isaiah Thomas.

Garnett sets the screen. Horford inbounds to Thomas. He drives. Defenders converge and he kicks the ball out to Allen, who dishes to Pierce.

Pierce launches up the contested jump shot…

Perhaps this is just a pipe dream. Maybe I am living in the past.

Or maybe, “Anything is possible.” 

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The "Upside" of Buddy Hield

The Case for Buddy

The 2016 NBA Draft is just hours away and Danny Ainge is working relentlessly to trade away the #3 overall pick.  If trading away draft picks is what it takes to bring an All-Star like Jimmy Butler to Boston, then you can’t really blame Ainge for doing his job.  

With that being said, Buddy Hield was both the best player and best scorer in college basketball this season.  These terms are not always synonymous, but they are in Hield’s case as he won the Wooden Award for Most Outstanding Player and led the NCAA with 25 points per game.  
*Technically Hield was #2 in scoring behind James Daniel, the 5’11’’ guard who launched 19+ shots per game for the 12-20 Howard Bison.

Many people do not realize that Hield grew up in the Bahaman Islands, staying out late every night to shoot basketballs at a “hollowed-out milk crate he'd fashioned into a hoop for so many hours his mother would literally come in the dark to chase him home.”

His identity is crafted from a unique love for the game of basketball.  This deeply-rooted connection helped him become the top-ranked middle schooler in the Bahamas, get recruited to a prep school in Kansas, develop into a college basketball star at Oklahoma, and finally enter tonight’s draft as one of the best young players in the world.

Not every Wooden Award Winner (see, Jimmer Fredette) achieves NBA stardom, but it is considerably rare for a shooting guard to impact the game so significantly at the college level that he actually wins the prestigious award.  The last three shooting guards to win are J.J. Redick (2006), Michael Jordan (1984), and Ainge (1981).  
*Hall of Famer Chris Mullin also won in 1985, but he split minutes at small forward.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Significance of Thomas as an All-Star

Isaiah Thomas has been selected as a reserve to the 2016 Eastern Conference All-Stars, making him the first Celtic to play in an All-Star game since Kevin Garnett in 2013.  Rajon Rondo was also voted in as a starter that year, but was sidelined with a torn ACL. 

This is the first All-Star selection for the 26-year-old Thomas, who was the 60th and final overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft.  Standing just 5-foot-9 on a good day, the undersized underdog is both the smallest (tied with Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy) and lowest-drafted player in All-Star game history. 

Thomas’ playmaking ability has been the driving force behind Boston’s high-scoring offense this season.  His 21.5 points and 6.7 assists per game are career highs, while his 21.54 PER ranks second amongst Eastern Conference point guards.  Furthermore Thomas and the Celtics lead the East in scoring with 104.6 points per game.

Thomas has found his offensive rhythm, expertly playing to his teammates’ tendencies and utilizing their individual strengths to maximize his own effectiveness. 

Every team has an offensive facilitator or two, but very few players can make smart decisions while attacking the lane at the speed that Thomas does.  When he penetrates inside and collapses the defense, Thomas can determine in the blink of an eye whether an elusive finish at the rim or a quick pass to an open teammate is more appropriate.

The Celtics trounced the Magic on Tuesday to improve to 27-21, good for fifth best in the Eastern Conference.  They are just one game behind the Bulls for sole possession of third place.  But Thomas will need additional help for his Celtics to legitimately challenge the Cavaliers or Raptors for conference dominance.

This is where his All-Star selection could be a game-changer.  Thomas has earned league-wide recognition from players and coaches who admire his relentlessly spirited style of play.  As one of the smallest players in recent league history, Thomas plays with a massive chip on his shoulder and strives to improve every day.

His All-Star selection increases the likelihood that Danny Ainge can bring another star player to Boston.  Thomas being officially named as one of the best guards in the NBA increases league-wide desire to play alongside him.  Other All-Star caliber players will want to join Thomas in leading the young and passionate Celtics, who play selflessly and continuously shatter expectations while charging towards the top of an inconsistent East.

When asked about his plans for All-Star weekend, Thomas responded that he is eager to support fellow Celtics Marcus Smart in the Rising Stars Challenge and Jordan Mickey in the D-League All-Star game.  

Who wouldn’t want to play alongside an All-Star with that sort of team-first mentality?

Last year’s postseason struggles against the Cavs proved that Thomas' offense alone probably cannot sustain adequate scoring numbers against an elite defense in a playoff series.  But Danny Ainge has successfully established an extremely solid foundation of talented young players.  The addition of one more dynamic scorer to shift the focus of opposing defenses away from Thomas could make this team truly elite.

Even if Ainge opts to wait until the offseason to acquire another All-Star caliber player, expect the Celtics to make some sort of deal by the trade deadline.  David Lee has not been shy in voicing displeasure with his recent lack of playing time and Ainge has reportedly been “quietly aggressive” in trade talks.  With talented players like DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Love, and Danilo Gallinari on the market, Ainge could very well pull off a deadline deal that makes the Celtics immediate contenders and a top-3 team in the conference.  

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Boston's Gift to Milwaukee

'Tis the season of giving and the Celtics sent an early Christmas present to Milwaukee on Saturday night: an undefeated but physically exhausted Warriors team.

After the grueling double-overtime battle against the Celtics on Friday night, the Warriors sputtered to their first loss of the season on Saturday against the decent yet inconsistent Milwaukee Bucks.  The Warriors entered Milwaukee with an NBA-record 24-game winning streak to start the season, but could not recover from tired legs and a sluggish first half.   

The Celtics unfortunately came up short of ending Golden State’s historic streak, but battled valiantly and gave the Warriors a massive scare.  The Bucks should be thanking coach Brad Stevens and his Celtics for physically draining the Warriors players, as Stephen Curry and Draymond Green played a combined 97 minutes against Boston. 

The Warriors, who are arguably the greatest team of the decade, were not their usual dominant selves on Saturday night.  

They surrendered 108 points to a Milwaukee team that only managed 83 points in their previous game against Toronto. The typically-explosive Warriors were moving uncharacteristically slow and finished with a season-low 95 points.

It would be irresponsible to take all credit away from the Bucks.  Their standout center Greg “Moose” Monroe dominated the paint against the Warriors’ small ball lineups with 28 points and 11 rebounds.  Their 7-foot wingman Giannis Antetokounmpo recorded a triple-double and their 6’6’’ point guard Michael Carter-Williams came off the bench to make a huge impact on both ends of the floor.  Milwaukee’s size advantage proved lethal against the fatigued Warriors, who notoriously utilize small ball to dispel the notion that size matters on the basketball court. 

Like the Warriors, the Celtics also played the second game of a back-to-back last night.  But unlike the Warriors, the Celtics were able to bounce back from their tired legs and a sluggish first half to knock off an inferior opponent. 

Isaiah Thomas recorded 21 points and dished a career-high 13 assists while Avery Bradley led all scorers with 23 points to help the Celtics defeat the sharpshooting Charlotte Hornets.  

With the victory, the Celtics have now won 10 consecutive games in the second night of a back-to-back when on the road.  This impressive streak dates back to last season’s All-Star break.

Boston’s recent strong showings against Golden State and San Antonio, as well as their convincing win over Chicago, have earned the Celtics some much deserved national media attention.  After Boston’s courageous performance on Friday, it has become evident that the Celtics have the ability to hang with any team in the league. 

But the Celtics have no interest in moral victories and Stevens believes that there are no such things as good losses.  Jae Crowder and the other Celtics players were visibly upset on Friday night after the tough loss, so it was encouraging to see them immediately bounce back for an important win against an underrated Charlotte team.

Still, it is undeniably frustrating to watch Golden State’s historic streak come to an end, largely thanks to an arduous endeavor that the Celtics ultimately started but could not finish.  Stevens should be receiving a gift basket as a token of gratitude from Bucks’ head coach Jason Kidd any day now.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Dear Kobe: A Letter From a Celtics Fan

Dear Kobe Bryant,

I hate you.

Can you blame me?  As a Celtics fan, I rooted against you for two decades.  I rejoiced in your agony when my Celtics beat you in the 2008 Finals.  Paul Pierce deserved it way more than you did.  You already had three rings at the time.

But three just wasn’t enough for you.  You got your revenge and ultimately your fifth ring in 2010 while ripping my heart out in the process.  I hope you still know how lucky you are that Kendrick Perkins was out for Game 7.

I read your letter in the Players' Tribune today and was shocked.  Not because you announced your retirement – we all already knew that.  I was shocked because of the way your letter made me feel. 

In my mind, I have always grouped you and Derek Jeter together.  You are the players that we as Boston fans bitterly hate, but cannot help but respect.  You played the game the right way – with passion, pride, and professionalism. 

You were true students of the game who pursued greatness by working harder than anybody.   You became generational icons of your respective sports.  You embraced every challenge.  You gave it your all. You put your bodies on the line.  You knew how to win.  You respected your sport, your craft, and your rivalry with Boston.

December 30 marks the last time that you will play in Boston.  This is also the last opportunity for us Celtics fans to cheer our team to victory against arguably the most dominant player in the storied history of the Celtics and Lakers.  

As you go, so goes what is left of the rivalry that once dominated the NBA.  Perhaps someday it will be rekindled by new faces.  Perhaps not.

So when you come to the Garden next month, I hope the crowd puts you through hell.  I hope we heckle you and boo you more emphatically than we did in the championship bouts.  I hope you miss every single free throw.  I hope you never forget what it’s like to be surrounded by 17,000 screaming fans who bleed green and would give anything to watch you fail one last time. 

I hope we beat LA once again.  And when you get pulled from the lineup halfway through the fourth quarter when my Celtics are up by 20 points, I think something beautiful will happen. 

Every single person in the Garden will stop booing.  We will rise to our feet and show respect in the form of the loudest, most passionate standing ovation you have ever witnessed.  We will chant your name.  We will wipe our eyes.  We will say our bittersweet farewells.

They say you never truly know what you got 'til it’s gone.  So before you go, I just want to say thank you for being far more than just a great basketball player.  To an entire generation of NBA fans, you are basketball. 

I can’t believe I’m saying this… but I’m really going to miss you.

Love (and hate) you always,
A Celtics fan who didn’t appreciate you enough

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Boston’s Backcourt Bandits

The Celtics backcourt defense is fierce.  They routed the Houston Rockets 111-95 on the road yesterday, just 24 hours after stifling the Thunder in OKC.  With these wins the Celtics improve to 6-4 and have their first three game winning streak of the young season.  Based on the way their backcourt defense is playing, this winning streak may be the first of many.

Prior to these high-octane matchups against elite scorers like James Harden and Russell Westbrook, the Celtics kicked off their streak with a commanding 106-93 victory over the Atlanta Hawks.  In all three wins, the Celtics limited typically-high scoring opponents under 100 points.  

The Celtics are now 6-1 when holding their opponents under 100, with the only loss coming against the San Antonio Spurs and their #1 ranked defense.  But while San Antonio may have the best overall defense, nobody has a better defensive backcourt than the Celtics.  

The trio of Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder constantly apply aggressive ball pressure that leads the Celtics to a whopping NBA-leading 11.8 steals per game.  These “Backcourt Bandits” lead by example.  Their relentless effort on defense inspires other Celtics role players to step up and play tough defense of their own.  As a result, the Celtics have won five of their last six games.

Crowder also leads the NBA with three steals per game – but the steals statistic does not encapsulate all the plays in which tenacious defense leads to turnovers.  Right now, the Celtics force an average of 19 total turnovers per game – the best mark of any team in this category since the 1997-98 Boston Celtics.

Furthermore this year’s Celtics already rank fourth in defensive efficiency, but their 94.2 defensive rating continues to drop as they win games.  They are still ranked behind the Spurs, Heat and Warriors, but with their ability to shut down top scorers, they could easily surpass the Heat and the Warriors on the defensive efficiency leaderboard by the end of November.

Smart is the team’s defensive MVP.  The Celtics’ winning streak began when Smart was reinserted into the starting lineup alongside Isaiah Thomas.  In the OKC game, Smart thoroughly outplayed Westbrook.  Not only did he contribute 26 points and eight rebounds, but he limited the Thunder’s superstar guard to just 5-20 shooting from the field.

On the very next night, Smart was tasked with guarding Harden and his blanket coverage left Harden scoreless on 2-point field goal attempts.  Smart did not allow Houston’s elite scorer anywhere near the rim, causing Harden to finish with just 16 points on 4-10 shooting and all four of his buckets coming from 3-point range.  

Harden is an artist at drawing contact and he perennially leads the league in free throw attempts. But against Smart and the Celtics backcourt defense, Harden attempted just four free throws.

The Celtics actually trailed the Rockets by 15 points in the second quarter before Brad Stevens called a timeout to rally his team.  The defense quickly tightened up, especially on Harden, and the Celtics stormed back to tie the game by halftime.  By early in the fourth, the Celtics found themselves up by nearly 30 points.

The backcourt’s ability to frazzle opposing ball handlers may feasibly enable the Celtics to maintain forced turnover numbers that have not been generated in nearly two decades.  The 19 forced turnovers per game is legitimate; the statistic is not being boosted by any outliers.  In comparison, the defensive-oriented 2007-08 championship Celtics forced just 16 turnovers per game.

Creating turnovers leads to fastbreak points for the young athletic Celtics, but more importantly, it leads to an increase of wild plays, frustration and technical fouls from exasperated opponents.  

Opposing ball handlers visibly lose confidence in either themselves or their teammates after several turnovers have been forced.  Once that happens, the turnovers begin mounting in a snowball effect of frustration and excessive dribbling against unrelenting pressure.  

Some coaches are great at getting their team to regroup and settle down; but a lot of coaches aren’t. As a result, the Celtics will frequently force 20+ turnovers in certain favorable Eastern Conference matchups.  

Look for the Celtics to continue this trend of stellar play and elite defense as they steadily carve out a top-5 spot in the Eastern Conference.  This young Celtics team is undeniably exciting and their fierce backcourt defense is just one of many reasons why they are arguably one big trade away from becoming immediate contenders this year.