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.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Lakers' Marcelo Huertas Tries out for "Shaqtin' a Fool"

Just in case anyone was wondering how the Lakers' season is going...

This fascinating shot from the 32 year old Brazilian rookie has gone viral, making it the only highlight of the Lakers season thus far.  The play is all but guaranteed to make an appearance on "Shaqtin' a Fool."

The Lakers are 1-6 after passing on Jahlil Okafor in the draft for D'Angelo Russell.  They now rely on a disengaged Kobe Bryant and an inept Bryon Scott as leaders, which is why shots like this from Marcelo Huertas may be the most exciting thing for Lakers fans to look forward to this season.

RJ Goes Buck Hunting; Celtics Face Pacers Tonight

The Celtics trailed by 12 in the first quarter but Brad Stevens quickly rallied his Celtics to bounce back and trounce the Milwaukee Bucks 99-83 on Tuesday night.  Isaiah Thomas started once again for the injured Marcus Smart, contributing a game-high 20 points despite shooting just 1-10 from 3-point range. 

This was an impressive victory.  The C’s clearly still have some issues to sort out in the frontcourt, but fortunately Greg Monroe and the Bucks’ massive size advantage was overshadowed by the performance of the Celtics high-powered bench.  The Celtics bench once again outscored their starters 50-49, even with Thomas in the starting lineup.

Depth proved to be a critical factor in this game, especially when Avery Bradley went down with a lower leg bruise.  Rookie R.J. Hunter was thrust into meaningful rotational sets for the first time in his young career and the potential future face of the franchise did not disappoint.

Hunter knocked down 3-5 jump shots for seven points, but more importantly showed off an ability to contribute in a multitude of ways.  He pulled down seven rebounds in just nineteen minutes, while David Lee, Kelly Olynyk, and Jonas Jerebko collectively gathered seven rebounds in a combined 58 minutes.

Hunter also showed active hands and incredible tenacity on defense.  His lateral footwork could be better, but he showed resilience in fighting through screens and sticking on his assignment.  He had a nice steal and a beautiful block from beyond in the second half, all contributing to an impressive + 19 plus/minus.  

Despite not registering any assists, Hunter passed the ball very effectively, further emphasizing his high basketball IQ.  Stevens showed a lot of confidence in the rookie by making him the direct beneficiary of Bradley’s injury minutes.  If Bradley is out for an extended period, then Hunter might see a huge increase in playing time; if he keeps playing like this, then those are minutes that he might never give back. 

Stevens is already drawing up plays specifically designed for Hunter, such as this one.  

Hunter's sharpshooting and versatile skillset makes him an extremely effective weapon in the Celtics offense.  Bradley is one of the best on-ball defenders in the league, but Hunter might already be the better overall shooting guard.  R.J.'s untapped scoring potential makes me giddy.  Regardless of Bradley’s health, there is no question that Hunter deserves regular rotational minutes.  He is far ahead of the rookie curve and rapidly developing into a great NBA player.

Now There's a Tommy Point!  In the game’s final minutes, Hunter was visibly exhausted after making a series of hustle plays. He had already been on the court for almost the entire second half and Stevens decided to pull Hunter out of the lineup to let him rest with the game essentially in the bag. But Hunter wasn't feeling the bench.  Within sixty seconds, he was back up at the scorers table, eager to check back into the game. This kid loves to contribute whenever and however he can.  When you watch him play, it is easy to visualize the great player that he will become.  Hunter will soon become a Tommy Point machine.  

Hunter has all the talent and all the intangibles to become a great player, especially on a Celtics’ team that needs an identifying face of the franchise.  I cannot wait to bust out my #28 jersey for the first time at the TD Garden later this month.  With Hunter’s impressive play, the team on the upswing, and the potential first overall pick in next year’s draft thanks to Brooklyn, the future is starting to look very bright in Boston.

The C’s are back in action tonight in Boston against an inconsistent Indiana Pacers team.  The Pacers play a ton of small ball, led by Paul George and Monta Ellis.  They will be looking to run, so the game should be fun because both teams flourish in fast-break situations.

The Celtics get the edge thanks to their depth, speed, and disruptive backcourt defense.  The Pacers defeated the Celtics by two points last week, but the Celtics have played drastically better since then and should be able to come away victorious tonight. 

Prediction: Celtics win 98-95.  The Celtics are the better team, but back-to-backs are never easy and George and the Pacers play with a ton of passion and physicality.  The Celtics should be able to maintain control and dictate the pace, but the game will be close.  Look for Thomas to score around 30 points in this small-ball oriented matchup.  If Bradley cannot play, look for Hunter to continue impressing while clawing his way towards the top of the depth chart.