10 things about Modern Celtics-Lakers XX

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There are regular-season games, there are important regular-season games, and then there is Celtics-Lakers. On Sunday the two contenders will meet for the 20th time since the start of the 2007-2008 season, when the rivalry was truly renewed as Andrew Bynum emerged and the Lakers became good enough to justify trading for Pau Gasol, and the Celtics’ Big 3 first took the court together. It is the first meeting since the Celtics walked off the Staples Center floor in June, purple and gold confetti falling on them as the Lakers celebrated their championship after a fierce and ugly Game 7. Now the two will renew their rivalry, and although nothing in January will match the intensity of a Finals meeting, this will be as close as it gets.

So what are the factors in play Sunday? Here’s a rundown of 10 things in play when L.A. and Boston renew their historic rivalry.

1. The Old Gang

The players you know and love in this rivalry will all be on the floor. Kobe Bryant. Ray Allen. Kevin Garnett. Paul Pierce. Pau Gasol. Andrew Bynum. Kendrick Perkins. Lamar Odom. Rajon Rondo. Derek Fisher. All the relevant starters from 2008 and 2010 are starting Sunday, and all are healthy enough to play, which is good news. These players know one another, these players dislike one another, these players enjoy playing against one another. Garnett and Bryant provide fascinating contemporaries, both out of high school and legends on opposite sides of the court. The only players with relevant history in this rivalry who are missing are Sasha Vujacic, so he can get taken off the dribble by Ray Allen, and Tony Allen so he can vanish as the game continues. Part of the draw of this game is that it does feature not only the teams in the rivalry, but the full cast of players who have re-ignited it.

2. The Rondo effect

Rondo was dealing with a back injury in last year’s Finals and did not look full strength. This is no excuse, both sides had injuries to deal with, most notably Bynum playing on a torn knee tendon and Perkins out after tearing a knee up. But Rondo was not at full strength. Rondo also has dealt with injuries this season and has pretty much gone from injured list to playing brilliantly. His assist numbers have been pretty ridiculous this season, averaging 12.5 assists per game, and 50.4 percent of all assists for the Celtics, which is kind of insane.

Rondo’s best regular-season game against the Lakers was last Jan. 31, when he tallied 21 points, 12 assists, five rebounds, and two steals in a painful loss. In the playoffs, Rondo’s best game was in the ’08 series, with 21 points, seven rebounds, eight assists, and six steals in a huge win for the Celtics. He also had a triple-double in the Finals last June. When Rondo plays well, it’s a decided advantage for the Celtics, who cannot guard him with Fisher and have to adjust by putting other players on him and sending doubles. That will open up things. Rondo needs to be huge for the Celtics.

3. The New L.A. Bandstand

While the starters are mostly the same for L.A. and Boston, the reserves are wildly different. L.A. will be missing Matt Barnes for the game, but Steve Blake is in place, and Shannon Brown is a much bigger part than he was when the teams met in 2008. Brown had a nearly mute series against the Celtics in the Finals, but the three games he played the most in were all wins for the Lakers. With Nate Robinson coming off the bench on the other side, the Lakers need Brown to make his mark with his suddenly blistering outside shooting and take the pressure off the rest of the offense. Blake provides a competent backup to run the point and another perimeter shooter. Blake has been erratic this season, brilliant at times and disappointing in others.

4. The New Green Gang

But the biggest changes are on the other bench’s reserve units. The Celtics feature the deepest team they’ve had behind the Big 3. With Shaquille O’Neal, Von Wafer, the aforementioned Nate Robinson and Marquis Daniels healthy, along with Semih Erden and Luke Harangody getting minutes, the Celtics are able to make runs at different times with their bench units. If the Big 3 aren’t having a stellar game, the Celtics can still win with their bench, led in particular, by Davis.

5. The Drunken Seal Show

Davis plays a bigger and better part this season than he ever has. He’s leading the league in charges (estimated). He’s a top-notch defender in all areas, and his offense is as good as ever, hitting 37 percent from mid-range, and a career high 64 percent at the rim. Davis has brought energy and poise off the bench, and is a legit Sixth Man of the Year candidate. Countering the Lakers’ size beneath with his awkward, falling style of scoring and tough defense (as well as spittle) will be a key for the Celtics.

6. Finally healthy

Bynum has been a beast since coming back from his umpteenth knee surgery. He’s playing well on both sides of the ball and he makes the Lakers a wholly different, and better team, as showcased in the Finals last season. He’s the difference-maker for the Lakers. With him in the lineup, rebounds are a nightmare for L.A. opponents. He’s matched up with Perkins, who is still trying to recover in his fourth game back, and against O’Neal, who’s no spring chicken. If Bynum comes out aggressive, he could bury the Celtics.

7. Tactical artillery

The Celtics have an uncanny ability to free up Ray Allen, a constant threat from the outside, for open three-pointers. They like to run him off multiple screens, often weaving an opponent back across the same screen just to free him up for a minute. Allen’s precision is such that when his stroke is on target, it seems superhuman. He buried the Lakers last year in Game 2 of the Finals, hitting eight threes. That came two years after he nailed seven against L.A. in a clinching Game 6. When the Celtics get Allen the ball in space and he’s hot, he can drive Lakers fans to tear out their hair.

8. Best Big on the Floor?

Gasol is thought by many to be the best big in the NBA. Against the Celtics, his smooth, fancy footwork is offset by the Celtics’ brutal physicality. He has the turnaround every seven-footer dreams of and is thought of by some to be a more important part of the Lakers’ offense than even Bryant. Denying the entry pass needs to be top priority for the Celtics. Fronting Gasol won’t work because lobs lead him to tiny soft lay-ins. The only solution is to challenge on the perimeter, then bring weak-side help to get him trapped. The Celtics can block him if they get him in traffic, where they almost never get called for fouls for some reason. But in the mid-post, Gasol can do serious damage.

9. The Great One

Bryant is having an up-and-down season, at times his same brilliant self and at times looking very much the aging star. Outside of the clutch questions, he’s gone outside the boundaries of the triangle offense significantly at times, going one-on-five and putting his teammates in an offensive coma. But then, it’s still Bryant. Bryant is due for an explosive game, and after a disappointing loss to the Kings, and after the debacle on Christmas, Sunday is right up his alley for a breakout.

10. All in the system

Boston’s greatest asset, even more so than their star power, is their defensive system. They bring help at the right times, challenge all shots inside, foul when appropriate, or available, or fun, and harass their opponent on the perimeter. The triangle offense creates problems for this with quick passing, but it also creates congestion which the Celtics can capitalize on. They like to isolate Lakers and make them go into forced shots, which often the Lakers’ long shooters are primed for. Odom will need to deliver off sharp cuts, and passing has to be at a premium. A lack of ball movement against the C’s, and the Lakers’ offense will drown.

Warriors’ Matt Barnes on facing Kings: ‘I’m trying to kill ’em’

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The Kings were very good to Matt Barnes.

They signed him to a two-year contract worth more than $12.5 million when it seemed he wouldn’t come close to that on the market. Then they waived him, allowing him to receive all his salary and escape basketball hell for the Warriors, who make him much happier.

Yet, he’s going into tonight’s Golden State-Sacramento game with an edge.

Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle (hat tip: CSN Bay Area):

Matt Barnes holding a grudge? Why, I never.

Surging Heat have playoffs in sight after dreadful start

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MIAMI (AP) — They have won 24 times in their last 31 games. They put together the NBA’s longest winning streak this season, a 13-game run that was beyond surprising. They are on the cusp of doing something never accomplished in NBA history.

This Miami Heat comeback tale has been an epic one.

And now comes the toughest part – finishing the job.

None of the other 125 teams in NBA history who started 11-30 or worse made the NBA playoffs. The Heat, with 10 games left on their regular-season schedule, are in position to change that. They held the second-worst record in the league in mid-January, are tied with San Antonio for the best record since, and hold a one-game lead over Chicago and Detroit for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot entering Friday’s games.

“These guys want this so bad,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra – a reluctant coach of the year candidate who cringes when players lobby on his behalf – said Thursday after a loss to the Toronto Raptors. “They want this opportunity to be in the playoffs. We’ve fought, scratched, done everything we possibly can to put ourselves into a position to fight for it.”

More fighting and scratching awaits.

Of Miami’s final 10 games, a stretch that starts Sunday in Boston, eight are against teams still battling for either a playoff spot or playoff positioning. The only two exceptions are a home-and-home next week with New York, which earlier this season was seven games ahead of the Heat in the standings and now are eight games behind Miami (35-37).

“We’ve dug ourselves out of a deep ditch,” Heat center and NBA rebounding leader Hassan Whiteside said.

True, but they’re not on firm playoff footing yet.

Under normal circumstances, Whiteside almost certainly would not have played Thursday. He needed 13 stitches to repair a cut in his right (shooting) hand on Tuesday, and a similar injury two years ago left him sidelined for three games.

Not only did he start Thursday, he led the Heat with 16 points and 14 rebounds. Afterward, he had icepacks strapped to both of his knees, covered his right hand in a clear plastic bag so the stitches wouldn’t get wet in the shower, and had his newly sprained left ankle wrapped.

“He’s a tough dude,” Heat point guard Goran Dragic said.

He hasn’t been the only one.

Factoring in that Chris Bosh‘s on-court tenure with the Heat was declared over when he failed a physical in September, Miami has had at least two players unavailable to play in every game this season because of health reasons. Since Jan. 1, it’s been at least three every game – and often more.

A huge blow came last week when shooting guard Dion Waiters sprained his left ankle. He’s at three missed games and counting, and the Heat offense has struggled since.

“This is that time of the year,” Spoelstra said. “Everybody is feeling it, so this is the mental toughness we have to get to.”

The Heat have no practice Friday, though most players will be in the training room for treatments. Practice resumes Saturday, preceding the flight to Boston. And then Sunday, the 10-game sprint to the finish begins.

“I want our guys to enjoy this,” Spoelstra said. “I don’t feel that we’re putting any undue pressure, but everybody will feel like when they lose that the world is collapsing. This playoff race is still going on. And I think we need a day to get away from it, to decompress and to get back to work on Saturday.”

Remember when Shaq started practice naked? His former Lakers teammates do

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The Lakers are unveiling a statue for Shaquille O’Neal tonight, a perfect opportunity for his former teammates to share their favorite Shaq stories.

Mark Medina of The Orange County Register:

“We had a rule you can’t be late to the center huddle,” said Lakers coach Luke Walton, who played with O’Neal as a rookie in 2003-04. “He got here where he didn’t have time to get his clothes on. So he made sure he was on time in the center circle.”

“I’m just scarred by the one where he ran out into the middle of the court naked before practice,” said former Lakers forward Rick Fox, who played with O’Neal from 1997 to 2004. “I can’t get that image out of my mind.”

“Shaq walked onto the court, put his hands up and said ‘I’m ready to practice,’ said Lakers assistant coach Mark Madsen, who was O’Neal’s teammate from 2000 to 2003. “He had not one inch of clothing on. So he was there in all of his glory.”

“He would start running around looking for guys to hug. Everybody was trying to get out of the way,” mused former Lakers guard Derek Fisher, who played with O’Neal from 1996 to 2004. “That’s’ why when I hit that shot in San Antonio in 2004, that’s why we were so good at sprinting off of the court.”

As much as he toed the line with his wardrobe choices before practice started, O’Neal always practiced with his actual uniform. Fox expressed the views of many saying he’s “not guarding him, not doubling down in the post and digging for the ball” sans uniform. As Madsen mused, “that would’ve been the day I would’ve submitted my resignation papers.”

Want to criticize Shaq for not setting a better tone of punctuality? It’s a fair argument, and you might have had Kobe Bryant on your side.

But Shaq keeping the Lakers loose was instrumental in their high-pressure pursuit of championships. Don’t discount that contribution to their three titles with him.

Florida State’s Jonathan Isaac, probable top-10 pick, declares for NBA draft

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Jonathan Isaac explored bursting through a loophole to declare for the 2016 NBA draft straight out of high school.

Instead, he went to Florida State. Now, he’ll enter the 2017 draft.

Isaac:

If he doesn’t hire an agent, Isaac can maintain college eligibility, but this message seems pretty final. Expect Isaac to remain in the draft, and expect him to go in the top 10.

What I like most about the 6-foot-11 forward: Despite being so lanky, he was an elite defensive rebounder. That shows an underlying technical proficiency and physicality that should serve him well.

And then there are the drool-inducing flashes – his ability to go up and get alley-oops above the rim and a sweet-looking jumper.

He’s still a work in progress, and he deferred a lot at Florida State. But he’s just 19, and he has the tools to do more. I’d love to get him on my team as he learns to assert himself.