Thursday, December 1, 2016

Jae Crowder Leads the NBA in Three-Pointers Defended

This is the three-point era. NBA teams are utilizing versatile players and small ball lineups to attempt a higher percentage of three-pointers than ever before.

Due to the sharp increase in threes, some even believe that a four-point line should be implemented. This truly is the era of Steph Curry.

As teams rely increasingly on the three-point shot, the importance of defending the three-ball increases accordingly.

But closing out on perimeter shooters requires extraneous effort. It takes a special kind of player to consistently protect the three-point line.

Jae Crowder is special. In addition to locking down opposing scorers on a nightly basis, he currently leads the league in three-pointers defended with 4.9 three-point contests per game.

Charlotte’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist ranks second in the category with 4.7, while Al Horford is a distant second-best on the Celtics with 3.3 per game.

Despite faltering against an underrated Detroit Pistons team last night, the Celtics have a 7-3 record when Crowder plays. His focus and determination facilitate defensive stops, which transition into fast break opportunities.

Furthermore, Crowder's unique blend of size, quickness and toughness makes him crucial in limiting opponents’ offensive production.

When Crowder went down with an ankle injury, the Celtics' physicality waned and they lost five out of eight games.

Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart may be relentless when it comes to harassing opposing ball handlers, but they lack the height to cover sharpshooting forwards and centers.

To overcome recurring size discrepancies, Crowder claims that the Celtics "have to get a little more nastier on the defensive end," to prevent opponents from feeling comfortable.

Crowder was understandably frustrated after the Pistons outrebounded the Celtics 52-33, while Boston uncharacteristically yielded more than 100 points for the third consecutive game.

But the energetic 6’6’’ combo forward is doing everything he can to combat the problem, utilizing his energy and versatility to defend both the perimeter and the post.

Crowder's passionate defensive play partially explains his +35 plus-minus rating for the season, which is second-best on the team. Only Horford has a better rating, with an astounding +59.

But in addition to defending three-pointers, Crowder is knocking them down.

Crowder has converted 38% of his three-point attempts this season, noticeably better than his 34% mark last year. He is astonishingly one of seven Celtics players shooting at least 37% from beyond the arc.

In contrast, only Kelly Olynyk and Jonas Jerebko accomplished that last season.

Shooting percentages typically fluctuate over the course of a long season, so while the Celtics have demonstrated flashes of brilliance, they clearly still have room to improve.

Nevertheless, fierce competitors like Crowder enable the Celtics to contend against the league's top teams.

As the Celtics continue to progress from early season injuries, they will develop into a dynamic and cohesive unit that challenges the Eastern Conference elite.

Crowder has grown into a veteran leader and a lockdown defender for this young Celtics team.

Watch for him to set the defensive tone early on Friday night, by putting the clamps on Rudy Gay, leaving DeMarcus Cousins to fend for himself when the hapless Sacramento Kings come to Boston.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Marcus Smart’s Defense is Destabilizing Opponents

The Celtics' defense has struggled mightily against both big men and sharpshooters in the absence of Jae Crowder and Al Horford. After losing three consecutive games, coach Brad Stevens shook up his temporary starting lineup by inserting Marcus Smart for Jaylen Brown.

Smart leads by example and plays with a ferocity that exemplifies Celtics basketball. The energetic three-guard starting lineup featuring Smart, Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley has scrapped together three wins in four games. During all three victories, the Celtics held their opponents under 100 points.

Smart's aggressive "KG-like" intensity exasperates opponents. It has also been crucial in reestablishing the Celtics’ reputation as a defensive-minded team that wins games through hustle and hard work.

During last Thursday’s 115-87 flogging of the New York Knicks, Smart's defense proved too overwhelming for Carmelo Anthony, who was ejected during the second quarter for excessively cursing at referee Tony Brothers.

This marked the second consecutive game that Smart’s physical play facilitated the ejection of the opposing team’s best player, after Washington’s John Wall was previously tossed for earning a flagrant 2 foul.

Had Smart started in Washington, it is unlikely that the Wizards would have battered the Celtics 34-8 in Boston’s worst first quarter in franchise history. It is even less likely that Otto Porter would have scored a career-high 34 points.

On Monday night in New Orleans, Smart drew an offensive foul against Solomon Hill, who dunked and flexed his arms to the crowd, oblivious to the fact that he was celebrating his own turnover as Smart sat on the ground laughing at him.

During last night’s 90-83 victory against Dallas, coach Brad Stevens implemented a rebounding strategy that focused on crashing the boards with Smart and Boston’s other athletic guards.

The result: the Celtics outrebounded the Mavericks 53-32, their best rebounding margin since November 5, 2014.

Crowder and Horford’s pending return will strengthen the Celtics defense even further, but in the meantime, Smart has seized a leadership role in his third season.

With elite defensive skills, awareness and unrelenting intensity, Smart could join Bradley on the All-NBA Defensive team. Both guards have blossomed into dynamic two-way playmakers and young leaders for a legitimate Eastern Conference contender.

Smart's focus and passion are infectious to his teammates. He inspires them by playing fearlessly against stronger opponents and revels in the challenge of defending taller players. As Terry Rozier told reporters in September,

"You need a guy like that... That’s one of the guys I’ll always take on my team, a guy like Marcus Smart, because he’s always going to make it tough on the opposing team and you always know he’s got your back and he’s always going to play hard."

After missing the first three games of the season, Smart has returned to form as one of the NBA’s premiere defenders. His versatility enables him to cover three different positions, sometimes even four when necessary.

Smart is constantly improving and has eagerly embraced his expanding role as an indispensable leader and a difference-maker for the young Celtics.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Gerald Green Deserves Your Respect

There is a difference between being liked and being respected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah Thomas has a similar effect for the Celtics starters.

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Celtics Should Reunite the Big Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pierce launches up the contested jump shot…

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

Or maybe, “Anything is possible.” 

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The "Upside" of Buddy Hield

The Case for Buddy

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Significance of Thomas as an All-Star

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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