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."