Friday, October 26, 2018

All It Took Was Some Fun

The Celtics stormed back from a 16-point halftime deficit against the Thunder last night in a 101-95 victory.

Boston closed the game on a commanding 16-1 run. They also poured in 40 points in the third quarter after scoring just 34 in the entire first half.

Something clearly sparked a change during halftime. Who would have guessed that the adjustment was something as simple as remembering to have fun?

The Canadian Press
As Jayson Tatum told reporters after the game, “Nobody was smiling. Nobody was having fun. And that was the difference in the second half.”

He also said Brad Stevens told the Celtics they were playing well and just needed to loosen up.

Many coaches might not react that composedly to a team that missed all eleven three-point attempts in the first half while exhibiting frustrated body language and overall lack of confidence.

But their struggles gave way to renewed energy and big smiles at the start of the third quarter when the Celtics caught fire and knocked down nine three pointers in less than ten minutes.

Overall, Boston outscored Oklahoma City 67-45 in the second half. Marcus Morris played a critical role off the bench with 21 points and 10 rebounds. He also led the team in plus/minus (+16) and drilled a three-pointer with 28.7 seconds left to give Boston a 98-95 lead.

Four Celtics (Tatum, Morris, Al Horford, Kyrie Irving) finished with at least 15 points as teamwork and quick ball movement facilitated their second-half scoring barrage.

Tatum tied his season-high with 24 points, leading the Celtics in scoring for the third time in five games. The dynamic 20-year-old is already playing at an All-Star level with averages of 18.8 points and 9.6 rebounds per game.

Horford also energized the offense when he shockingly knocked down three treys in a 41-second span.

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
Horford gave credit to his point guard, saying that “Kyrie looked at me and said ‘Hey, we’ve got to set the tone. We have to be more aggressive.’”

Aggression and confidence are vital to the Celtics’ success. They have one of the most talented and versatile rosters in the NBA and a brilliant head coach.

They also currently rank atop the Association in defensive rating by a significant margin.

This is largely thanks to four players (Horford, Tatum, Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart) who could each garner consideration for Defensive Player of the Year.

Boston has not dominated opponents, but the season outlook is trending up with last night’s performance serving as a stark reminder to the rest of the NBA that the Celtics are still clearly one of the fiercest teams.

As Irving and Gordon Hayward continue working back to full health, game-changing explosive scoring runs will become more common.

According to Irving, “We’re capable of doing that any quarter, anytime… It felt good to go out there and focus on who we are as a team, and how special we can be.”

The Celtics will keep shaking off the rust and gradually improving as Stevens implements a variety of effective lineup combinations that fully access the wide range of talent on one of the Association’s deepest rosters.

It will not be long before the Celtics find their groove as they continue to grind towards ambitious postseason goals.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Lakers Roster is No Enigma

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

After an ugly 0-3 start to the 2018-19 NBA season, the Los Angeles Lakers finally picked up a win last night defeating the Phoenix Suns 131-113.

The Lakers’ struggles have raised plenty of red flags and many NBA fans and experts are still pondering the same question they had during the offseason:

Why would Magic Johnson choose to surround LeBron James with so many controversially polarizing personalities?

Rajon Rondo. JaVale McGee. Lance Stephenson. Michael Beasley.

At first glance, that looks like a squad poised to lead the league in ejections, suspensions and Shaqtin' a Fool nominations.

But according to Johnson, he “watched every [2018 NBA Playoffs] series, so I built this team based on what happened in the playoffs.”

Ultimately, he stacked the roster with excitingly volatile players who would help the Lakers captivate Twitter and dominate media headlines with their unconventional playing styles, combative personalities and flashy highlights.

Johnson sought to maximize TV ratings and jersey sales for James’ first season in Los Angeles while keeping the Lakers relevant amidst the unspoken understanding aound the Association that the Golden State Warriors are heading to their fifth consecutive NBA Finals.

But these controversial free agent signings also serve another purpose.

They protect King James.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images
There is no long-term commitment to Rondo, McGee, Stephenson, nor Beasley because they all have one-year deals. Those four guys are essentially competing for one or two roster spots on the playoff-bound 2020 Lakers.

All four players have also been scapegoated to some extent by other teams in the past, so this season marks a genuine opportunity to reenergize their careers and prove they can contribute in a meaningful role while simultaneously earning James’ respect.

James dubbed these four players as “MUD” in an Instagram post, meaning they are “misunderstood, under-appreciated, determined.” With James closely observing, they know this is their chance to earn minutes for the Lakers of the future.

They won’t compete for a championship this season, but they could as soon as next year once Los Angeles signs another All-Star free agent such as Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard or Kevin Durant.

In the meantime, the locker room is packed with talented but unpredictable players who will serve as perfect scapegoats for Johnson and James to throw under the bus whenever struggles arise.

It will be MUD's fault, not James’, when the Lakers inevitably fail to compete against Western Conference elites this season.

That scapegoating process has already begun for Rondo and Brandon Ingram, who were portrayed as the villains in the brawl with Chris Paul and the Houston Rockets which resulted in suspensions for all three players.

Amidst all that controversy, James completely escaped blame and criticism despite his team’s three-game skid to open the season. Johnson’s plan is working.

Grant Goldberg/Silver Screen and Roll
Johnson is carefully constructing the narrative of James’ Lakers legacy in a manner that influences the media and fans to be patient and forgiving, thus alleviating the pressure on his best player while he simultaneously acquired several of the NBA's edgiest characters.

Having one of these guys on your roster can help you win a championship and Rondo, McGee and Stephenson have already shown early flashes of their intriguing potential as they compete for future minutes.

This is essentially a down year by design with James’ comfort in mind as he acclimates to Los Angeles and embraces his new Hollywood persona as an actor and film producer before next summer when he teams up with other elite players as the NBA landscape drastically shifts.

With Durant, Thompson, Leonard, Jimmy Butler, DeMarcus Cousins and other All-Stars ready to enter free agency, the Lakers will have every opportunity to assemble one of the best teams in the league next offseason.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

2018-2019 NBA Awards Predictions

The 2018-19 NBA Season is finally here.

Barring any season-derailing injuries, Golden State and Boston likely will face off next summer. Both teams are stacked with elite talent and selfless superstars.

But that doesn’t mean this NBA season won’t be full of surprises. Here’s a look at early predictions for the end-of-season awards.

Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images North America

Most Improved Player: Pascal Siakam (TOR)

Brandon Ingram could blossom into a premiere scorer this season with new teammate LeBron James commanding the attention of Lakers’ opponents.

But regarding individual improvement, Toronto’s Pascal Siakam will take the biggest step forward in development.

The energetic 24-year-old Cameroonian power forward with a 7’3’’ wingspan earned NBA D-League Finals MVP honors in 2017 before playing in all but one game for Toronto as a sophomore last season.

Surprising quickness for his 6’9’’ frame allows Siakam to defend multiple positions and he has proven to be a proficient passer with terrific ball-handling skills for a big man.

Like Ingram with James, Siakam will greatly benefit from Toronto’s offseason acquisition of MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard.

New Raptors head coach Nick Nurse is expected to utilize a "fluid" starting lineup. In other words, Leonard and Kyle Lowry are the only Raptors locked into starting positions.

Nurse will experiment with Siakam in various roles, including center and point forward due to his unique blend of size, athleticism and court vision.

If Siakam develops a strong rapport with Leonard, his production and playing time will flourish. With pedestrian career averages of 6.0 points and 4.0 rebounds per game, continued significant improvement may earn him MIP consideration.

* MIP Runner-ups: Julius Randle (NO), Brandon Ingram (LAL), Jamal Murray (DEN)

ESPN Expert Panel: Brandon Ingram 

CBS Expert Panel: Brandon Ingram/Markelle Fultz (PHI)

- Celtic to watch: Jaylen Brown

Stuart Cahill-Boston Herald

Sixth Man of the Year: Terry Rozier (BOS)

This one's a no-brainer for Celtics fans or anyone who beheld Terry Rozier’s transformation last season.

“Scary Terry” is too talented to come off the bench and he knows it. Regardless, he'll serve one final season as Kyrie Irving’s backup in Boston before hitting free agency in 2019.

Contract year motivation aside, Rozier is a proven playmaker on both sides of the ball.

His field goal percentage and stats across the board have climbed exponentially in each of his first three seasons.

All the while, Rozier has established an identity as one of the league’s most fearless defenders.

Rozier’s role this season will be to overwhelm opponents. Boston's powerhouse starting five will exhaust opposing defenses and Rozier (and/or Marcus Smart) will frequently check into games in one of two favorable situations:

1 – Matched up with a defender who is fatigued from having chased Kyrie Irving or bodied Jaylen Brown for the last ten minutes.
2 – Matched up with an inferior backup guard.

Each of these situations allow Rozier to instantly impact games by utilizing explosiveness, tenacity and elite playmaking ability to wreak havoc against opposing backcourts.

Rozier, like Smart, often changes the pace and flow of games with athleticism, passionate play and focused aggression.

It also doesn’t hurt that he models his offensive game after Michael Jordan.

Boston’s opponents simply have too much to worry about this season. Rozier, one of the NBA’s most aggressive guards, will reap the benefits of an offensive game plan designed to exploit opponents’ weakest links.

* 6MOY Runner-ups: JJ Redick (PHI), Lou Williams (LAC), Eric Gordon (HOU)
- ESPN: Eric Gordon
- CBS: Lou Williams
- Celtic to watch: (Also) Marcus Smart

AP Photo/Boston Herald

Defensive Player of the Year: Al Horford (BOS)

Al Horford may not record the block numbers of the last two DPOY winners, but make no mistake: Horford is an elite defender.

He finished fifth in DPOY voting last season and consistently ranked among the league leaders in defensive rating.

But this season, operating as the anchor to a dynamic lineup that will cause nightmares for opponents, Horford will be the leader and driving force behind possibly the best defensive starting unit in the NBA.

At age 32, Horford is past his prime. But don’t forget that Kevin Garnett won the award at age 31 when he led the ’08 Celtics to Banner 17. Horford gets a similar opportunity this season as the centerpiece for the East’s most promising squad.

Look for Horford to lock down the paint and help patrol the perimeter as the defensive leader for the Celtics’ starters. As with Rozier and Sixth Man, Horford’s case for DPOY will fluctuate with the overall success of the team.

* DPOY Runner-ups: Kawhi Leonard (TOR), Rudy Gobert (UTA), Anthony Davis (NO)
- ESPN: Rudy Gobert
- CBS: Kawhi Leonard (TOR)
- Celtic to watch: (Also) Marcus Smart
AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

Rookie of the Year: Deandre Ayton (PHO)

Slovenian guard Luka Doncic is considered the most NBA-ready rookie after he was named the 2017-18 EuroLeague MVP and then selected third overall in the 2018 NBA Draft.

Doncic averaged 14.7 points per game in the preseason and takes the reins of the Dallas Mavericks' franchise in what could be Dirk Nowitzki’s final year.

Nevertheless, Deandre Ayton will remind the basketball world why he was selected #1 overall, before Doncic and other talented young players, by the Phoenix Suns this summer.

Ayton has the body and talent to become the most dominant big man since Shaquille O’Neal. His stellar play at the University of Arizona (20.1 points, 11.6 rebounds, 1.9 blocks) drew frequent comparisons to David Robinson, Patrick Ewing and other Hall of Famers.

Despite most media predictions favoring Doncic, it was Ayton, the 7’1’’ Bahamian center (wingspan 7’6’’) who was voted most likely to win ROY by his peers in the 2017-18 Rookie Survey.

The modern NBA is gradually phasing out the role of the traditional big man, but Ayton battles using well-timed explosiveness and brute force in the paint. He is the best of several young centers looking to spark a resurgence at the position.

Phoenix will probably struggle against fast-paced teams, but Ayton will make the Suns into a formidably gritty team. Their offensive game plan will seek to maximize scoring production from him and Devin Booker.

Ayton will almost certainly average a double-double while producing plenty of highlights as a commanding paint presence for the rebuilding Suns.

* ROY Runner-ups: Luka Doncic (DAL), Mohamed Bamba (ORL), Kevin Knox (NYK)
- ESPN: Luka Doncic
- CBS: Luka Doncic
- Celtic to watch: Robert Williams

Brett Duke-The Times-Picayune

MVP: Anthony Davis (NO)

After quashing past injury concerns by playing in 75 games in each of the last two years, Anthony Davis will continue shouldering the load for the New Orleans Pelicans in his seventh season.

Davis, 25, was my MVP pick last year when he finished third in voting behind James Harden and LeBron James. He also finished third in DPOY voting.

Now working in a faster-paced offense, Davis can build on last season’s averages (28.1 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.6 blocks) while exerting his overall dominance on both ends of the floor.

Arguably the most dynamic big man in NBA history, Davis shot over 53% last season (and career-high 34% from three-point range) while also logging a career-best 1.5 steals per game.

With DeMarcus Cousins gone, Davis is back to operating as the sole focal point of the Pelicans’ offense. New acquisitions Elfrid Payton and Julius Randle will help New Orleans move the ball quicker, allowing Davis more opportunities to overwhelm defenders in transition.

It would only take slight improvement from last season for Davis to average 30 and 12. Those are MVP frontrunner numbers.

* MVP Runner-ups: Giannis Antetekounmpo (MIL), Russell Westbrook (OKC), LeBron James (LAL)
- ESPN: LeBron James
- CBS: Giannis Antetekounmpo/LeBron James
- Celtic to watch: Kyrie Irving

Christopher Evans-Boston Herald

Coach of the Year: Brad Stevens (BOS)

It’s unfortunate that Brad Stevens is still yet to win COY, especially after he led last year’s Celtics to a 55-27 record en route to the Eastern Conference Finals despite injuries to several key players.

Nevertheless, Stevens won’t be overlooked this season when he leads Boston to the best record in the East and their first NBA Finals appearance since 2010.

As the best coach with the most talented roster in the conference, Stevens and the Celtics are incredibly skilled at exploiting mismatches. They are the greatest immediate threat to Golden State’s dynasty.

* COY Runner-ups: Nick Nurse (TOR), Quin Snyder (UTA)
- ESPN: Brad Stevens
- CBS: Brad Stevens

Axel Koester-Orange County Register

Executive of the Year: Magic Johnson

Magic Johnson is credited with bringing LeBron James to Los Angeles.

After the Lakers floundered to a 35-47 record last season, Johnson ultimately responded with an immediate influx in talent, wins, ticket sales and overall revenue facilitated by James’ presence.

Plenty of NBA executives are deserving of this award, including Danny Ainge and Bob Myers, who assembled the teams most likely to appear in this season’s Finals.

But even if Golden State and Boston prove dominant as expected, drastic improvement within the Lakers' franchise through the acquisition of James will earn Johnson EOY honors.

* EOY Runner-ups: Bob Myers (GS), Masai Ujiri (TOR)
- ESPN: No Prediction
- CBS: Masai Ujiri
- Celtic to watch: Danny Ainge