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.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

All Around the NBA: First Edition

Taking a look around the league, there are interesting stories for NBA fans to look out for in the coming weeks.  Here is our first ever edition of All Around the NBA.  For starters, let’s talk about the reigning MVP.

Steph Curry is even better than he was last season.  The 27 year old superstar’s early averages are absolutely insane.  Through five games, Curry leads the NBA with 35.8 points per game.  His .574 field goal percentage is best among all NBA guards.  He has also knocked down 28 of 54 three-point attempts for an NBA-high 52% from long range.  

He leads the league with 50 transition points; Isaiah Thomas ranks second with 35.  He has an NBA-high player efficiency rating of 47.23; the best PER last season came from Anthony Davis at 30.89.

But you don’t need all these stats to recognize Curry’s greatness.  He is simply dominating the competition, blowing by defenders, and scoring at will.  He has made more three-pointers this season than five NBA teams.  Just look at his shot chart entering last night's game – is it possible for a reigning MVP to win the most improved player award? 

Curry’s stellar play has helped the Warriors jump out to an early 5-0 record, with all five wins coming against Western Conference playoff teams.  Against the Pelicans (twice), Rockets, and Grizzlies – all of whom were defeated by Golden State in the playoffs last year – the Warriors outscored their opponents by an average of 25 points.

Last night, they notched their fifth win after defeating the rival Clippers, who entered the game as the only other undefeated team in the West.  The Warriors and their MVP are scary good.  They are out to show the world that last year’s historic season was no fluke. 

The Toronto Raptors have never been this good.  Their first 5-0 start in franchise history is not the only evidence.  The Eastern Conference's only unbeaten team lost Lou Williams in free agency, but quietly made up for it with a handful of underrated acquisitions in the offseason.  

Journeyman DeMarre Carroll was a huge part of Atlanta’s unexpected success last season and his presence provides the Raptors with physicality and toughness on the defensive end.  New backup big man Bismack Biyombo does the same off the bench.  Former Spurs’ point guard Corey Joseph provides championship experience and a ton of confidence as the facilitator for Toronto’s second unit.  However the biggest strides have come from players they already had.

Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are playing the best basketball of their careers.  The two dynamic combo guards are each averaging approximately 20 points per game.  The Raptors were swept out of the first round of last year’s playoffs by Paul Pierce and the Washington Wizards and it is clear that the sweep did not sit well with Lowry and the Raptors during the offseason.  The Raptors are playing with a ton of intensity and they currently lead the conference with 106 points per game.  The loss of Williams, last year’s sixth man of the year, has not significantly hurt them because Terrence Ross has stepped into a volume scoring role off the bench.

More importantly, starting center Jonas Valanciunas is a legitimate candidate for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award.  The fourth year big man out of Lithuania has anchored the Raptors frontcourt since he was a 20 year old rookie, but this year he looks like a completely different player.  

The 23 year old noticeably put on a ton of muscle in the offseason and is impressively asserting his dominance in the paint.  The 7-footer has developed into one of the better big men in the league and his overall improvement has helped the Raptors hold their opponents to a conference-best 36.8 points per game in the paint.

With early career highs in points, rebounds, and steals, Valanciunas appears poised for a breakout season.  The Raptors are rarely mentioned in the same breath as the Cavs and Bulls, but there are a lot of reasons that Sports Illustrated magazine previewed them as the second best team in the East.

These rookie big men are the real deal.  The Warriors and Cavaliers may be the trendsetters as the NBA shifts its focus towards small ball, but don’t tell that to this year’s draft class.  Seven of the first twelve players selected in this year’s draft are big men, three of whom are already averaging double-digit scoring numbers as starters for their new teams.  Jahlil Okafor, the third overall pick in the draft, leads the way with 20.3 points per game.  This ties him with Andre Drummond as the NBA's highest scoring center.

Okafor is a fantastic basketball player and a mountain of a man.  The 270 pound teenager from Duke has better post moves than most seasoned vets.  As I mentioned when his 76ers faced the Celtics in their season opener, Okafor is essentially a young Al Jefferson with a 7’5’’ wingspan.  Most of his fellow rookies believe that Okafor will be the rookie of the year.  His remarkable play is helping to prevent the extinction of the classic bruising center amidst a generation of position-less “tweeners” and the implementation of free-flowing small ball. 

As for the only rookie big man who got picked before Okafor, #1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns has helped the Minnesota Timberwolves win two of their first three games.  The 7-footer is averaging 17.7 points and 10.3 rebounds per game, making him the only rookie currently averaging a double-double.  Furthermore Towns is an effective defensive anchor who actively patrols the paint under the mentorship of Kevin Garnett. 

Towns currently averages 2.67 blocks per game and will be battling Okafor for Rookie of the Year honors.  But unlike Okafor’s terrible 76ers, Towns and the Timberwolves could potentially find themselves fighting for a playoff spot.  The T-Wolves have a lot of young talent led by Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Ricky Rubio.  They have played fantastic thus far in a season dedicated to their late great coach Flip Saunders.

I highly recommend watching from the 4:45 mark in this emotional tribute video to Flip, which was played during Minnesota's home opener.  Afterward try to tell me that the Timberwolves aren't the most inspiring playoff bound team in the NBA this year.

Other notable rookie bigs: The Knicks’ Kristaps Porzingis is averaging 12 points per game.  The 7’3’’ Latvian forward is quickly growing comfortable in the NBA and could develop into a longer more athletic version of Pau Gasol.  Porzingis is the first Knicks rookie since Patrick Ewing to record at least 40 points and 30 rebounds through his first four games.

In Sacramento, Willie Cauley-Stein is worth keeping an eye on.  He started the season on the bench but quickly got promoted to George Karl’s starting lineup thanks to his elite size, athleticism, and energy.  The 7-footer now starts alongside DeMarcus Cousins and comes up with at least one huge block every game.   

Pacers’ rookie forward Myles Turner is contributing very effective bench minutes, as well as about eight points per game.  Turner has demonstrated that he can score effectively in spurts at the NBA level.  He also might see a big spike in playing time thanks to a back injury to starting center Ian Mahinmi.

Break out alert: Andre Drummond.  In case you missed it, the Pistons center has 45 points and 49 rebounds over the past two games.  For a few seasons now, Drummond has been a double-double machine.  However he has never commanded the paint with the authority he has demonstrated this season.  This is largely thanks to the team’s offseason decision to not re-sign Greg Monroe. 

The stretch four is a staple in Stan Van Gundy’s lineups.  He loves using sharp shooting forwards to spread the floor and unclog the paint as much as possible.  Monroe and Drummond are two talented centers who used to play effectively alongside each other, but switching out Monroe for Ersan Ilyasova has allowed Drummond to essentially become a one-man show inside the paint.  He has flourished in the role.

Reading ball trajectory like Kevin Love and athletically attacking boards like DeAndre Jordan, Drummond has been unstoppable this season.  He is essentially averaging 20-20 numbers while confidently assaulting the rim whenever he goes up for dunks and rebounds.  The athletic freak of nature has a 7’6’’ wingspan and is remarkably quick for a guy that is nearly 7-feet tall and lugging around 280 pounds of muscle. 

Furthermore now that Monroe is gone, the paint is no longer constantly clogged with bodies.  This makes it infinitely easier for slashing guards like Reggie Jackson to penetrate inside.  It is no surprise that Jackson and fellow starting combo guard Kentavius Caldwell-Pope are both enjoying career highs in points.

Jackson and Caldwell-Pope now have significantly more space to drive the lane.  They are interchangeable as point guard and shooting guard, making them a very effective duo as they both know when to dish the ball out against a collapsing defense.  When they decide to go up strong and attempt to score, there is a good chance that Drummond will be right there to clean up any residual mess.  Van Gundy’s new offensive scheme may lead to a huge breakout season from Drummond and his Detroit Pistons are a surefire playoff team in the East.

RIP Kobe Bryant.  The former global sports icon is averaging just 15.8 points in 28 minutes per game.  Last year, Bryant shot a career-low .373 from the field.  This year, that percentage has dropped to an abysmal .323.  

"Depressed Kobe" is a player we have never seen before.  The Black Mamba is typically known for producing supreme confidence with every breath.  For years, Bryant dazzled in the face of adversity and never backed down from a fight.  He once had ice water in his veins and his confidence was unshakable; even during a rape trial.

So what is causing him to say such crazy things this season? Here are some highlights from his interview after a loss to the Mavericks:
“I’m the 200th-best player in the league right now." 
“I just can't make a shot.” 
“I freaking suck.”
Whether it is age or something else, Depressed Kobe is frustrated and humbled.  The former MVP who once hungered for championships is no longer the fierce competitor that struck fear into the hearts of opponents for the better part of two decades.  His Lakers are winless through four games - all of them against non-playoff teams.

The Lakers are a complete mess and Depressed Kobe recognizes it.  He even made uncharacteristic quotes about pulling back in the fourth quarter of close games to let the younger guys call the shots.  Are we really sure that this guy isn't just some imposter in a Bryant uniform?

Just three years ago, Kobe confidently asserted that he will never become the old guy that hangs around and scores only 19 points per game.  But these days, 19 is pretty good for him.  Even as a Celtics fan – or especially as a Celtics fan, depending on how you look at it – the downfall of Kobe Bryant is incredibly uncomfortable to watch.

Kobe was supposed to be a scoring stud until the end; a competitive constant in the league.  He wasn’t supposed to go out like this.  But clearly Depressed Kobe has lost the edge and then some. 

He still converts at least one or two incredibly contested shots per game, but his killer instinct on offense is gone.  Kobe’s [probable] farewell tour could end prematurely if Bryant is unable to stomach this nightmarish season.  When he was asked what he would say to Lakers fans in regards to the team's rocky start, Depressed Kobe consolingly advised,
"Just freak out.  It’s good for the soul."

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Opening Thoughts

The wait is over and basketball season is back.  The Celtics finished their preseason with a promising 6-1 record and tonight they seek to carry that momentum into the regular season.  The game takes place at 7:30 pm in Boston against the lowly 76ers, whom the Celtics defeated 81-65 in their final preseason game last week.  

The Sixers severely lack depth and scoring ability.  They plan to rebuild around their talented new rookie center, Jahlil Okafor, but overall they are currently one of the worst teams in the NBA.  The Celtics have the depth and talent to become one of the top teams in the East, so expect an easy victory tonight.  Here are some important things to watch for in the season opener:  

1. The Starting Lineup – Smart – Bradley – Crowder – Lee – Zeller

Brad Stevens dabbled with several different starting lineups throughout the preseason, but this one was most prevalent.  Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, and Jae Crowder have all stepped into leadership roles while David Lee is also a natural leader.  However Amir Johnson is much more capable on defense than Lee, making him one of several players who are banging on the door of the starting lineup.

Lee is a great addition … just not necessarily a great starting power forward.  He brings intangible assets such as veteran presence, leadership, and offensive versatility.  Unfortunately he is just not that effective on the court anymore.  He helped Golden State win a title last year but barely received any playing time during the postseason.

His offensive awareness helps the team run smoothly and he has developed a nice rapport with Bradley.  However Lee’s defense is unreliable and his scoring ability showed further regression during the preseason.  If Lee starts tonight, look for him to gradually relinquish that role to Johnson.

Lee and Zeller have played well, but not as well as Johnson and Kelly Olynyk have played off the bench.  The rotation may change frequently throughout the season.  Furthermore guards Isaiah Thomas and Evan Turner, two of the team's top playmakers, are part of the second unit right now.  They are fighting for starting roles as well.  Still, the biggest questions remain in the frontcourt, where six talented big men are fighting for four rotational spots.  

2. Interior Presence – Somebody must step up

The frontcourt puzzle will play itself out.  The Celtics have plenty of talented big men and some will earn more minutes than others.  However one of the best ways for these guys to establish themselves in the rotation is to step up their interior defensive game. 

The Celtics have spent the last five years getting outmuscled and outrebounded.  They need immediate improvement in paint presence so that they no longer look helpless against opponents who can score effectively inside.  Offensive rebounds have also been a major issue. 

Smart, Bradley, Crowder, and Terry Rozier give the Celtics an elite defensive presence in their backcourt.  However, once opponents penetrate inside, the Celtics bigs often look overmatched against (what should be) inferior opponents.  Lee and Olynyk are the biggest culprits of getting beaten inside by inferior players.  Zeller is guilty too. 

Look for Johnson to fight for minutes, as well as a starting role, by building upon his defensive prowess.  Johnson’s high level of activity on defense makes him very valuable.  He has an underrated quickness that enables him to impact the game in many ways.  

This team does not need Johnson to be a big-time scorer.  He just needs to consistently work hard and use his size and athleticism to maximize his defensive impact.  Furthermore, Sullinger and Mickey are on the outskirts of the rotation, but they can still earn some minutes if they are able to help control the paint by grabbing boards and playing physical defense.  Sullinger got hot towards the end of the preseason, finally parking his gigantic body under the rim and proceeding to pull down 14 rebounds during their final preseason game.

3. Noel and Okafor – The Saviors of the Sixers?

Sixers fans have been waiting for months to see their star big men in regular season action together for the first time.  Okafor and Nerlens Noel are both exceptionally skilled centers.  Okafor is a massive threat in the post while Noel is freakishly athletic.  The young and talented 6’11’’ centers combine for an intriguingly ferocious frontcourt in Philly.
Many believed that Okafor would be the #1 overall pick this past summer.  However the 19 year old, 270 lb freshman somehow slipped to Philadelphia at #3, right after leading Duke to a national championship.  Nevertheless the massive youngster has NBA-ready post moves and an NBA-ready body.  Essentially, he is teenage Al Jefferson with a 7'5'' wingspan.

Nearly half of this year's draft class believes that Okafor will win Rookie of the Year.  It's easy to see why, especially when you put him alongside a blossoming Noel, the #6 overall pick in the 2013 draft.  The exciting duo will give the Celtics a lot of trouble, but other than two big men, the Sixers don't have much else going for them.

Expect Okafor and Noel to combine for approximately 25 points and 20 rebounds tonight.  The rest of the game should belong to Boston.  Okafor will show off some nifty offensive plays in his NBA debut, working the post against Zeller and the Celtics.  Nevertheless the Sixers stand little chance of winning the game.  

Prediction: Celtics win 94-81.  Look for Smart to dominate on both sides of the ball, Crowder to set the pace in the hustle department, and rookie point guard Terry Rozier to come up with some big plays in his first official NBA game.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Celtics Rookies Implicated in Louisville Escort Scandal

During the Celtics’ preseason trip to Milan, Terry Rozier declined to speak to reporters about the ongoing investigation into the Louisville sex scandal.  He simply said,
“When it’s time to answer those questions and deal with that, I will. But right now I’m just trying to take in this moment with these guys out here and have a lot of fun with my teammates. So, like I said, when that time comes to answer that, I will.”
This morning, ESPN’s Outside the Lines aired an in-depth investigation into the scandal.  Katina Powell, who runs the escort service, claims that from 2010-14 many Louisville players and recruits were treated to on-campus dorm room shows complete with strippers, dancers, and sexual encounters for money.  

In her book about her business dealings with the Louisville basketball program, she claims that several high school aged recruits, including rookie Celtics Rozier and Jordan Mickey, had sex with her dancers for money.  The dancers were paid by Andre McGee, a former Louisville grad assistant to the basketball team.    

Rozier recently told Outside the Lines,
"I don't want to talk about it. ... I was already committed before I took my visit. ... I will say, though, Coach P [Pitino], as far as the dorm situations and visits, he'd go out to eat with the recruits and their parents. As far as after that, he wouldn't know. ... I can say his nose is clean."
Mickey could not be reached for comment.  If these allegations are true, Louisville and head coach Rick Pitino will face deadly sanctions, not just from a recruiting standpoint but from a legal one as well.  

Promoting prostitution is a Class D Felony and both Louisville officials and Powell are in danger of facing prison time depending on how the case unfolds.  A major point of focus will be whether or not Powell personally profited from the exchanges. 

It is highly unlikely that McGee, a grad student at the time, could afford to pay for all these expensive sex parties.  

Powell claims that McGee would often bring wads of cash to the parties and hand out money to the recruits to “pay” the dancers to simulate a strip club environment inside the dorm rooms.  McGee would allegedly ask the recruits which girl they liked, and then would negotiate deals with the individual strippers to have sex with the recruits. 

This story is gaining a lot of momentum and it is very unfortunate that two promising young Celtics players had to be involved in this sinful scandal out of Louisville.  In addition to the young recruits, many of the dancers, including Powell’s own daughters, are said to have participated in these sex parties as minors.  However the age of consent in Kentucky is 16. 

The Louisville program may be forever damaged by these allegations and Pitino’s coaching legacy will be forever tainted if it is determined that he knew anything  about the escort services.  The school may very well be stripped of their 2013 championship.  

Whatever happens in Louisville – here’s to hoping that the scandal will not be a huge distraction for Rozier and Mickey as they begin their promising young professional careers in Boston.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Five Takeaways From Last Night’s Preseason Game

The Celtics showed off their depth and versatility last night with a commanding victory over the Brooklyn Nets.  Boston defeated Brooklyn 109-105 however the Celtics never trailed and they firmly controlled the game from start to finish. 

Boston led by as much as 18 before inserting non-rotational players such as Corey Walden and James Young into the lineup for the entire fourth quarter.  Overall, the Celtics were undeniably impressive in their first taste of NBA preseason action.  Here are five key takeaways from last night’s victory.

1. The Celtics defensive backcourt wreaks havoc.  As expected, the Celtics displayed high levels of energy and were incredibly active on defense.  They contested nearly every single opposing shot in the first half and frequently harassed opposing ball handlers with tight defensive pressure.  The Celtics recorded 12 steals and 9 blocks, frustrating Nets players and causing them to lose their cool and play errant basketball.  Brooklyn point guard Jarrett Jack was ejected in the second quarter for tackling Jonas Jerebko after Jack had turned the ball over to Jared Sullinger.  

The Celtics use hustle, resilience, and tenacity to create chaos for opposing offenses.  It was very impressive that the Celtics could keep their defensive intensity level high even with three of their best on-ball defenders missing the game.  Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, and Terry Rozier are combo guards that bring explosiveness and tenacity to their backcourt defense while often producing subsequent fast-break points.  The Celtics scored 18 fast break points last night and that number will only go up when those guards return from their respective ailments. 

2. The Celtics defensive frontcourt still lacks paint presence.  This is an issue that has plagued the Celtics for five years.  While the Celtics can outrun almost any opponent and can produce offensively in a variety of ways, they still lack an interior defensive anchor.  The Nets played poorly last night but they still out-rebounded the Celtics while managing to score 50 points from inside the paint.  The Celtics big men need to do better.  

Amir Johnson is a slight upgrade from last season in terms of defensive presence, but without a commanding force that truly deters opponents from frequently attacking the rim, Johnson and the other bigs must learn to work together more effectively.  It is worth noting that David Lee also did not play last night, however majority of Lee’s contributions will come through his offensive versatility and veteran leadership rather than his defense.

3. The Celtics have ridiculous depth.  Before the game, I wrote about the depth on the Celtics roster and that depth is what enabled them to dominate the Nets even when four important Celtics players were sidelined.  

The Celtics theoretically have enough talent to field three NBA starting lineups, so opposing second units will always be overmatched against Boston's bench.  The Celtics backups exhibit zero drop-off in both production and intensity. 

 There is no rest for the weary against the Celtics, who attack their opponents with intensity and fresh legs by mixing in so many different hard-working defensive-oriented players into the lineup.  Many teams find themselves struggling to field a passable roster during the middle months of the long NBA season, but the Celtics have the talent to always be productive, regardless of what combination of players is on the court.

4. I’m going to keep saying it - R.J. Hunter may be the future face of this franchise.  Deep down, we can all see that this kid is special and there is no ceiling on his potential.  Hunter was stroking it from three-point range in the first half last night and then filled up the rest of his stat sheet in the second half.  He works hard and has the ability to score like crazy.  Obviously he’s just a rookie and can’t be trusted yet as a reliable volume scorer in the NBA, but that hasn’t stopped him from finding countless other ways to contribute.  

His length and basketball IQ often help him intercept passes and he recorded a team-high 4 steals against the Nets.  He also contributed 11 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 assists in his first game against NBA opposition while showing no hesitation when pulling up from three-point range.  His jump shot will only become more lethal as he gradually becomes more comfortable in the NBA.

5. Sullinger looks very out of place.  He’s clearly uncomfortable about his uncertain role in the rotation and he honestly looks like he belongs on another team.  After all the offseason hype about Sullinger finally getting in shape, he predictably failed to do so.  Furthermore he shot 1-8 from the field last night, chucking up erroneous long range jumpers.  It is hard to watch Sullinger launch three-point attempts when everybody knows that he should be using his gigantic backside to post up defenders.  

There was a time when Sullinger was one of the best young players on this team, but with a measly two rebounds, three points, and four fouls in 12 minutes of action yesterday, it is hard to envision him receiving meaningful playing time this year.  The offseason acquisitions of Johnson and Lee make Sullinger entirely expendable, but truthfully there are no teams right now that would be interested in trading for a young player that isn't showing any improvement either from a skills or a conditioning standpoint.

Sullinger will likely be relegated to a bench role, and that’s probably for the best if Stevens wants his team to be as fast, active, and aggressive as possible.  Sullinger could be a starter for many NBA teams but he is holding himself back from reaching his full potential.  He will only play significant minutes this season when Lee is resting or when another big man gets hurt.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Deep Impact

The Celtics were surprisingly productive last season, and after upgrading in the offseason, they are ready to turn heads once again.  Evan Turner, Avery Bradley, David Lee, and other Celtics players have not been shy in talking about the team’s remarkable depth at every position.  This team expects to be playoff-bound for the second straight year, and for the first time since 2010, the roster features fifteen legitimate players – all non-busts – who are ready to compete. 

Yes, the Celtics still lack a star scorer (let alone three like the 2008 Championship team) but Danny Ainge has fashioned an undeniably impressive foundation of young hard-working players.  R.J. Hunter may eventually grow into a bigtime scoring role, but in the meantime, the Celtics will operate with fifteen different guys (arguably sixteen if you count James Young) with unique skillsets and excellent work ethic.  They have fifteen different players that could potentially be starters in the NBA if they were not all crammed together on one roster.  Ainge has quietly transformed the Celtics into the deepest team in the East.

Check out the box score from their preseason exhibition win against Olimpia Milano.  Every single Celtics player contributed.  Turner, who led the team with three triple-doubles last season, was out due to a knee injury.  Fourteen of the remaining fifteen players scored points. (way to go James Young – perhaps you would have gotten on the board too if you were more concerned with consistency on the basketball court rather than consistency on the dance floor.)

The roster can be broken down into three logical rotations.

PG: Marcus Smart
Isaiah Thomas
Terry Rozier
SG: Avery Bradley
Evan Turner
R.J. Hunter
SF: Jae Crowder
Jonas Jerebko
Perry Jones
PF: David Lee
Amir Johnson
Jared Sullinger
C: Tyler Zeller
Kelly Olynyk
Jordan Mickey
*SG James Young is not listed on these rotations because he’s clearly still not ready for meaningful minutes.

Defeating Milan is obviously no big deal.  However it is extremely encouraging to see that all fifteen Boston players who touched the court in their first preseason game registered positive plus/minus ratings.  In other words, the team played well from start to finish, regardless of which combination of players was on the court. 

These preseason trips to Europe inherently build a great deal of chemistry and comradery for NBA teams.  Many of these players have a chip on their shoulder from being cut or traded by previous teams, and many of them have a chip on their other shoulder from being told by many Celtics fans to tank for a lottery pick last season.  

Ainge promised each and every one of these players an opportunity to contribute for the Celtics and they all bought in, working hard under Brad Stevens to silence the doubters and surge to a playoff spot in the second half of the season.  This roster is full of hard-working talented players and that is no accident. 

These like-minded individuals often form a brotherhood during these kinds of trips and a passionate culture becomes infectious.  The 2008 championship squad traveled to Italy in the preseason and bred a powerful winning culture known as “Ubuntu” to unite the team, while priding themselves on hard work, defense, and faith in a coach that identifies with and speaks to the players. Sound familiar?

This team may not yet have the star power to win a championship, but they have everything else they need to become a top-four team in the East.  With a team-wide focus on defense and three productive players at every position, this team is incredibly well-equipped to handle the grind of a long NBA season.  Better yet essentially every player is capable of playing multiple positions, so the possible lineup combinations that Brad Stevens will dabble with are endless. 

These Celtics are multidimensional with an ability to play big or small.  They will often look to outrun opponents – but they can also work the middle with newly acquired veteran big men, Lee and Amir Johnson.

There is a plethora of three point shooting ability that will help their offense regardless of whether they play fast-paced or decide to slow it down.  Working the ball inside and using Lee to establish a an inside-outside presence was very effective during their preseason games in Europe. 
Something interesting to watch out for – Lee and Bradley have formed an unlikely scoring duo in the starting unit.  The two of them have combined for 57 points in two preseason games.  Isaiah Thomas obviously continues to be the offensive lightning rod as their sixth man, but Lee’s veteran leadership seems to be rubbing off on Bradley, who at 24 years old is the longest tenured Celtic. 

I wrote about Hunter’s bright future in Boston and mentioned that Bradley’s inconsistent jump shot is one of the reasons that Hunter will have the opportunity to shine as a sharpshooting volume scorer.  However Lee’s presence, as well as the battle for playing time, has seemingly motivated Bradley to “fix” his jump shot.  Thus far in the preseason he is 7-8 from three-point range while playing his usual tenacious defense, and while his long range buckets came mostly on wide-open looks, it does appear that Bradley has removed a hitch from his jump shot that hurt him last season. 

Many of Bradley's three-pointers were also assisted by Lee, who was scoring effectively and frequently drawing double-teams in the paint.  The veteran leadership that Lee is demonstrating is very valuable to a team with so many young players.  Coming off a championship season with the Warriors, Lee knows what it takes to be successful and has frequently drawn comparisons between the Celtics and the Warriors.  Bradley seems to love having him on the court and in addition to helping him because more effective as a player, hopefully Lee teaches the young veteran a thing or two about being a leader as well.

The Celtics get their first taste of NBA action tonight in Brooklyn against the Nets.

Don’t be surprised if the Celtics are out there running way too hard for a preseason game.  It’s not like they have to worry about fresh legs.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Celtics Draft Grades

Following a promising 2014-2015 campaign, the Celtics entered the offseason with two glaring needs: a dominant rim protector who controls the paint and a consistent three point shooter who stretches out opposing defenses.  Consequently it was no surprise that a chorus of boos rang out from Celtics fans in the Barclays Center when Danny Ainge opted not to address either necessity with the 16th overall pick in the draft. 

Instead of addressing specific needs, Ainge targeted rookies with great attitudes and a lot of upside in order to continue building on Boston’s intriguing foundation of scrappy, young, hardworking players.  ESPN’s Celtics reporter Chris Forsberg gave the Celtics a big “Thumbs Down” for their draft choices – but I strongly disagree.  Here’s why they deserve a “Thumbs Up.”     

(16th Pick) Terry Rozier: B+
Initially this pick floored me because I was incredulous that Ainge would select anybody other than Sam Dekker.  Most draft experts projected Dekker to be a lottery pick so it seemed like a gift from God that the former Wisconsin star forward was still available at sixteen.  Ainge then promptly slapped God in the face by passing on Dekker and selecting a point guard that could have fallen out of the first round altogether. 

But after the initial shock, and after Ainge selected a sharpshooting R.J. Hunter later in the first round, the idea of Terry Rozier running the offense for Boston’s second unit became increasingly intriguing.  The 21 year old Louisville product is an incredibly dynamic player and Ainge climbed up the draft board to select him early for a ton of good reasons.
First, Rozier plays like a pit bull, measuring in at approximately 6’2’’ and 190 pounds, most of which is muscle.  He plays with intensity, aggression, and confidence. Rozier will be able to make an immediate impact at the NBA level because of his athleticism, his raw strength, and his tenacious on-ball defensive skills.  These traits have actually caused Rozier to appear on the Celtics’ radar since his freshman year at Louisville and he has improved drastically over the past couple years.

Rozier penetrates inside both by blowing past defenders and by outmuscling them through the lane.  Furthermore his ability to make accurate passes off the drive makes him very difficult to cover.  This past season, Rozier increased his average points per game from 7 as a freshman to 17 as a sophomore.  His average steals per game also doubled and he improved in essentially every statistical category except for three-point shooting. 

His energy, quickness, and defensive intensity make him a great fit for Boston’s fast-paced style of play.  Right now he reminds me a little bit of Atlanta’s backup point guard Dennis Schröder, but in time, Rozier will grow and develop into a sort of Rajon Rondo/Marcus Smart hybrid who could find a home in almost any NBA starting lineup.      

Much like Smart, Rozier combines physical strength with speed to become a relentless force in frazzling opposing ball handlers.  Summer League play provided a chance to watch Rozier and Smart play alongside each other for the first time and the two high-energy combo guards forced a ton of turnovers that led to fast break points.  With the addition of Rozier, this team could easily average over 15 fast break points per game this season.  (Last year they averaged 13.6) 

Like Rondo, Rozier lacks height, but makes up for it with explosive quickness and a freakish 6’8’’ wingspan that helps him create chaos on defense.  He is also an extremely good rebounder for his height, pulling down nearly six rebounds per game last year.  Rozier is very comfortable inside the paint and has a graceful finishing touch at the rim. His jump shot is a bit inconsistent and needs some work, but fortunately it’s not broken like Rondo’s.  Rozier knocked down 33% of his three-point attempts and 77% of his free throws in college.

Bottom line, Rozier does not directly address any of the Celtics' most glaring needs, but he helps them significantly in several important categories as a catalyst and a playmaker.  Rozier will be able to create space for himself and others and generally make players around him better.  He will strongly contribute to Boston's high level of defensive pressure in the backcourt and absolutely will outmuscle and out-hustle opponents for loose balls.  Ainge knows the value of someone like that and jumped at the opportunity to acquire a hardworking young player who will likely make an immediate impact.  When asked if he will win the NBA Rookie of the Year award, Rozier responded “does an elevator go up and down?”  This kid will literally be a Tommy Point machine.

Despite Boston's crowded backcourt, Rozier will almost certainly carve out minutes for himself early in the season and will appear in three guard sets when the Celtics look to outrun opponents.  Rozier's new teammates are already very impressed with his work ethic and stellar play.  He is effective alongside other point guards and his own confidence is through the roof.  When asked on Twitter about the main goal for his career, he responded “GOAT.” 

Greatest of all time is certainly setting the bar high, but according to Amir Johnson and several other teammates, Rozier stands out at Celtics’ practices.  His high energy and superb athleticism speak volumes about his potential.  His unwavering confidence and great work ethic demonstrate his desire to win.  Don’t be surprised if Rozier leads the Celtics in Tommy Points this season.  He’s doing things right and will soon win over Celtics fans, coaches, and management.  He
has already won over his teammates.

(28th Pick) R.J. Hunter: A+
(33rd Pick) Jordan Mickey: A+
The Celtics have lacked a legitimate paint presence since 2011 when they traded away Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City.  It will be interesting to see if Mickey can grow into this critical role.  At 6’8’’, he is undersized for a big man, but makes up for it with terrific athleticism, high energy, and a 7’2’’ wingspan.  The former LSU power forward is a true student of the game who models his style of play after Dennis Rodman.  With a role model like that, it is no wonder that Mickey led the NCAA with 3.6 blocks per game last season. 

Mickey blocked 219 shots in two seasons at LSU and last season he averaged a double-double with 15.4 points and 9.9 rebounds per game.  Like Rodman, Mickey is intensely focused on defense and rebounding.  He harasses opponents and loves getting under their skin.  But one of my favorite things about Mickey is that he frequently works with his stepfather, studying and watching film to identify potential areas of improvement in his own game.  Together they compare rebounding and defensive tendencies from Rodman and other NBA stars such as Dwight Howard in order to constantly find new ways to ensure that Mickey’s development never ceases.  This willingness to learn from others show a great deal of maturity for such a young player in the league.

This deep work ethic and defensive commitment make Mickey one of the most intriguing players in the draft class.  Like Rozier and Hunter, his ceiling is extremely high, which might explain why Ainge signed him to the biggest rookie contract in NBA history for a second round pick.  Mickey understands his role as a rebounder and shot blocker and those are two areas where the Celtics need immediate improvement.    

In the Summer League, Mickey showed off his athleticism and impressive leaping ability, averaging 2.4 blocks, 7.9 rebounds, and even scored 12.5 points per game.  He is quicker than he looks and his athleticism and awareness make him effective for pick and roll and fast break situations.  He finished some big alley-oop slams off lob passes from Rozier and Hunter and also demonstrated an ability to knock down open midrange jumpers from seemingly any angle.

Mickey is a fantastic pick because he cares deeply about both his own development and about playing in Boston.  He has very active hands on defense, always hustles, and thoroughly understands the game.  Probably the only other player I would have considered drafting with the 33rd pick is former Kentucky center Dakari Johnson for sheer size purposes alone.  However Johnson does not possess the athleticism or basketball IQ that Mickey does, and Johnson cannot run the floor effectively with the fast paced Boston offense. 

In the opening weeks of the season, it may be difficult for Mickey to find consistent playing time in Boston’s crowded frontcourt, but he will ultimately get his chance – especially if the Celtics continue getting dominated inside the paint as they did last season.  If that happens, Mickey could well find himself patrolling the key for Stevens' small ball lineups sooner rather than later. 

(45th Pick) Marcus Thornton: N/A
Not much to say here as Thornton will play in Australia this season.  Perhaps in a couple years, the sharpshooter will find his way back to Boston after working on his game overseas.