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.

Really? Online petition started to change name of Durant, Oklahoma, to Westbrook.

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 30:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder stands on the court in Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 30, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Durant, Oklahoma, is a city of just more than 15,000 people in the southern part of the state. It is the capital of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, and it was named after its Choctaw founder, Dixon Durant.

But some people in Oklahoma are not high on the name Durant, lately. Kevin Durant decided to bolt the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors this summer, and some Thunder fans feel betrayed. Understandably. Durant was well within his rights, but if you’re a Thunder fan and you’re not hurt by this it would be strange.

Still, you have to hope what follows is satire. It reads like it.

Oklahoma’s Ryan Nazari created a Change.org petition asking the city of Durant be renamed the city of Westbrook. As in Russell Westbrook. The guy who signed a contract extension to stay in Oklahoma (for just one extra year, but still). Read the petition below and tell me it doesn’t sound like satire.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the great state of Oklahoma has been betrayed. As many of you know, Kevin Durant has left our state, torn out our hearts, and left our beloved Oklahoma City Thunder in depleted shape. All of this after even being offered a cabinet position for the State of Oklahoma. It is because of this heinous action that I believe the State of Oklahoma has a responsibility to change the name of the City of Durant to Westbrook, the man who is loyal, whom we believe in, and who will lead our team to glory. Yes, it is understood that the city Durant was not named after the evil Kevin Durant, but it is just another hideous reminder of what happened to our community.”

As of this writing, he had reached his goal of having more than 1,000 people sign on.

Maybe it’s satire, but it’s more creative than burning a jersey.

Obviously, the name of the city is not changing. If people want to live in Westbrook, they should move to Maine.

Way too early look: Who could make up USA’s 2020 Tokyo Olympic basketball team?

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 21:  Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant, DeAndre Jordan and Kyle Lowry #7 of United States stand on the podium after defeating Serbia in the Men's Gold medal game on Day 16 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Carioca Arena 1 on August 21, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Let’s start with the obvious: This is an exercise in futility. There is no way to predict accurately what the 2020 USA men’s basketball team headed to the Tokyo Olympics will look like. There will be injuries that sideline guys. There will be contract situations where key guys decide it’s in their best interest to sit out. Plus, there could be a guy just now entering his junior year of high school who we don’t know well yet but in four years will be a clear choice for the team.

Now that we’ve gotten through the tedious disclaimer, let’s have fun:

What will the 2020 USA Basketball team look like?

First, it will have a bit of a business attitude — Gregg Popovich is coaching now. Not that Mike Krzyzewski ran a college party Team USA, far from it, but with Popovich’s demeanor and the scare put into the 2016 team (and some improving world powers, such as Canada), expect the USA to be a little more focused next time around.

For the roster, who from the 2016 gold medal team in Rio returns for more gold? At the top of the list: A 31-year-old Kevin Durant will be back for one more run (and to climb on top of the USA Olympic scoring list). He will be the unquestioned team leader. The alpha. It will be his team.

After that? Young stars who want one more go at it such as Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan, and Klay Thompson will seriously consider a return. Maybe Jimmy Butler. Those guys will have a leg up having Olympic experience and a commitment to the program.

After that, some big names that passed on Rio are going to suit up in Japan. There will be far less defection of top talent this time around — the fears around Brazil will be gone, and NBA players wanting to sell more shoes in Asia will be eager to sign up. I expect you will see Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook, and maybe James Harden decide they are in for the next round. LeBron James said he felt left out and may consider a return, but he will be 35 years old with 17 NBA seasons on his body by that point, does he want to put his body through an international curtain call? Probably not.

Rounding out the roster, expect a few guys from this year’s USA Select Team — the team the Olympic squad practiced against in Las Vegas at the start of camp — to make the leap up (as Kyrie Irving and others did this year).

Who? That’s the hardest thing to predict, it depends on development. Guys to watch include Victor Olidipo, Justise Winslow, Devin Booker, Brandon Ingram, and Jabari Parker — some of them will be ready to make the leap.

One clue to the 2020 roster: Players that you see in China for the 2019 FIBA World Cup will be more likely to make the 2020 team. (Yes, the World Championships are now the year before the Olympics, welcome to more of FIBA’s wisdom, as is the fact the Cup qualifiers fall during the NBA/Euroleague seasons.) Guys from the select team now that head to China in three years and perform well in that setting will likely have the USA across their chest in Japan.

Whatever team we send will have the most talent in those games. The question is will that be enough?

Check out the Cleveland Cavaliers Top 10 plays from last season

AUBURN HILLS, MI - APRIL 24: Kyrie Irving #2 and LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers prepare for tip off against the Detroit Pistons in game four of the NBA Eastern Conference quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Palace of Auburn Hills on April 24, 2016 in Auburn Hills, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
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With athletes such as LeBron James and Kyrie Irving on the team, you know the Cleveland Cavaliers Top 10 plays of last season were going to have some special moments.

Yes, the block by LeBron and the stepback three by Irving that sealed the first Cleveland title in 52 years are on top of the list.

But there are some other ridiculous Irving handles and even a Timofey Mozgov dunk in there (a $64 million dunk, apparently).

Watch Spurs’ Dejounte Murray throw off-the-backboard alley-oop to himself in pickup game

Washington guard Dejounte Murray, center, dribbles the ball past Mount St. Mary's center Taylor Danaher (50) as Washington forward Marquese Chriss, right, watches duirng the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
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Just a suggestion for rookie Dejounte Murray: Don’t do this in front of Gregg Popovich. You may not like his reaction.

That said, the Spurs needed to get more athletic this off-season — landing Pau Gasol certainly didn’t help that cause — so enter first-round pick Murray, who pulled this off in a recent pickup game.

Murray is going to be brought along slowly in a backcourt where Tony Parker and Patty Mills will be splitting time at the point. Murray is more of a combo guard and is going to have to shoot a lot better than he did in college (28.8 percent from three) to get some run. But this is a situation where the Spurs can groom him, bring him along slowly, and see if they have another draft steal.

He’s certainly got the athleticism.