NBA Playoffs: Celtics still have championship recipe, even if they have to improvise on ingredients

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Garnette_Game.jpgThe Celtics won it all two years ago, you know.

They were hungrier then, and healthier, too. James Posey-er, even. But that team, with a Rajon Rondo that wasn’t quite this impressive and absolutely depressing depth at center. Paul Pierce was more prolific then, Kevin Garnett was more productive then, Ray Allen was more consistent then. But for all the talk of how far this team has fallen since their championship season, would you like to guess how many spots they’ve dropped in defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions)?

Four. The Celtics went from the most intimidating defense in the league to simply being the fifth best, regardless of how their season numbers may be distorted by KG’s injuries.

There’s absolutely, positively no way that this team should be considered the favorite to win the title. In all honesty, their odds shouldn’t even be handicapped. That doesn’t mean that under the right conditions and with a few lucky breaks they couldn’t stumble their way to the top of the Eastern Conference and will themselves to the title.

The Celtics struggles this season are distinctly different from the Lakers, if only because L.A.’s problems seem rather self-imposed. They’re mental mistakes, effort issues, and admittedly a few injuries to go along with them. In Boston, there’s a lot of natural decline, but these guys still care. Paul Pierce still thinks he’s the best in the world, and this is his chance to prove it. Garnett still thinks that every piece of hardwood in the United States belongs to him, and you shouldn’t be able to set foot on it without him working you. Ray Allen is still be a brutally efficient three-point shooter, and can go white-hot for stretches at a time.

Boston’s season doesn’t speak for itself, because when the sample size is reduced (like it is in the playoffs, from 82 to, at most, 28), all kinds of odd results may unfold. All Boston needs to do is have a few productive stretches at the right times, and exploit their match-up advantages as they unfold. Doc Rivers never got enough credit for his coaching with the 2008 Celtics, but if Boston goes on any kind of extended run it will be a testament to not only his motivational ability, but his knowledge of the game’s X’s and O’s as well.

Then there’s Rajon Rondo. Rondo’s PER has jumped from 15.6 to 19.4 since the title run, and last year in the playoffs Rondo proved that regardless of his competition, he’s consistently one of the best players on the floor. He’s a defender capable of stopping a defense at its point of attack, and developed some impressive versatility in his ability to both score and set up his teammates. His drastic improvement since 2008 is something that’s largely overlooked, but making the jump from decent young point guard to legit All-Star is nothing to scoff at. Rondo can make a huge difference in any series on both ends of the court, and if he takes another step up like he did against Chicago in the playoffs last year? That’s fearsome.

Boston’s competition in the East is better than ever, but they’ll waltz into the postseason with zero external expectations. Don’t think for a second that they won’t be using that to their advantage. All Boston needs is to refine their focus, catch a few (insanely) lucky breaks, and show that they’re still capable of playing championship-caliber defense. All any team can ask for is a shot at this thing, and even though the Celtics may be taking a shot in the dark, it’s something.

Lou Williams hits halfcourt buzzer-beater (video)

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Yeah, the Lakers lost to the Rockets, 134-95, Wednesday. But consider how lopsided that margin would’ve been without Lou Williams‘ halfcourt buzzer-beater.

And if this headline looks familiar, it is.

LeBron James, Cavaliers do water-bottle challenge on bench during blowout win over Knicks (video)

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James, left, and Cavaliers forward Richard Jefferson entertain themselves by flipping a water bottle trying to get it to land on it's flat bottom during the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden in New York, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016. The Cavaliers defeated the Knicks 126-94, and most starters left the game for the bench at the end of the fourth quarter. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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LeBron James did his part – scoring 25 points (on just 10 shots!), dishing seven assists and grabbing six rebounds – to give the Cavaliers an insurmountable lead over the Knicks through three quarters. So, he didn’t even play in the fourth quarter.

As Cleveland put the finishing touches on its 126-94 win, boredom set it. LeBron and a few of his teammates tried to flip a water bottle and have it land upright on the floor. LeBron even dove onto the court to pull the bottle back in after an errant flip!

No, Phil Jackson should not have used the word “posse” to describe LeBron’s business associates and friends. But this is the most disrespectful thing I’ve ever seen – and I love it.

DeMarcus Cousins says Mavericks’ rumored interest flatters him, but he loves Kings

Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins (15) receives a blow to the head from Dallas Mavericks' Dwight Powell as Cousins works to get to the basket in the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
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The Mavericks’ long-rumored interest in DeMarcus Cousins took its most direct public turn before the season, when Dallas signed Cousins’ brother, Jaleel Cousins. Jaleel is now on the Mavericks’ D-League affiliate, and I bet he will remain there as DeMarcus approaches 2018 free agency.

Brad Townsend of The Dallas Morning News:

So, DeMarcus Cousins, what do you think about the Mavericks’ long-rumored interest in acquiring you?

“It’s flattering,” Cousins told me, with a laugh, after the Kings’ Wednesday shootaround at AAC. Then, turning serious, he added of the Mavericks, “I respect them.”

“But,” I said, “I’ve also heard that you like it in Sacramento.”

“No,” Cousins corrected, “I love Sacramento.”

Cousins is getting good at this, toeing the line between appreciating another team’s interest and expressing his satisfaction with the Kings.

And give Cousins credit. He keeps producing at a star level for a team that hasn’t provided him with the proper support. Sacramento again appears headed toward the lottery, even as Cousins averages 29-10.

Questions remain, though: How much of Cousins’ attitude is him trying to make the best of an inescapable situation, and will expanded options in the summer of 2018 test his loyalty?

LeBron James dunks, struts past camerapeople and toward crowd, spooks fan (video)

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LeBron James is dominating, and the Cavaliers are rolling over the Knicks.

It’s almost as if something has LeBron particularly riled up. But maybe ease up a little? That cowering fan isn’t Phil Jackson.