Celtics

Baseline to Baseline recaps: Boston, Lakers send some messages

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What you missed while watching the Hangover 2 trailer….

Celtics 107, Spurs 97: The Celtics ultimately will go as Rajon Rondo goes. He’s been injured and slumping. He’s back, and if he is the Celtics are back with him.

You know the Celtics are going to defend well (they still need a stabilizing presence in the paint, but that’s an issue for another day and a couple rounds in to the playoffs). The question is the offense, and the offense runs through Rondo.

The Spurs defended by the book — lay off Rondo and make him beat you with a jumper. Except early in the first quarter Rondo hit two 16-foot jumpers. He shot the ball confidently all night and by the end Rondo was 6-of-9 on jump shots, which that opened up driving lanes. He took over in the third quarter during a 17-3 run that put Boston up for the rest of the night.

There are still questions about the paint. Boston got Jermaine O’Neal back but lost Nenad Krstic to injury. Maybe for a long time. Shaq is going to be back someday. But the Celtics reminded everybody that whatever happens with their big men they are capable of beating anybody.

Then there’s the slumping Spurs. San Antonio got all its big stars back — Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan all played — and they still lost lost. The Spurs defense was spotty (at best, the Celtics shot 54.8 percent and if they could have knocked down their threes this might have been a blowout).

The Spurs fell in love with the three, trying to shoot over the top of the Celtics defense, but they were just 8-of-29 from beyond the arc. Ginobili was back but looked like maybe he should have sat out another game, finishing with just nine points on 4-of-13 shooting (1-of-6 from deep).

You expect the Spurs to snap out of it, but the five straight losses are creating problems. According to ESPN, the last time the Spurs lost 5 in a row Duncan was still at Wake Forest (1996-97 season). The Lakers are now just 2.5 games back. Gregg Popovich might like to rest his stars headed into the playoffs, but now he’s going to have to use them more to hold on to that top seed. And to make sure they get their rhythm back.

Lakers 110, Mavericks 82: One game between these two veteran teams does not send a message. But combine this with a game back on March 12 when the Lakers went into Dallas and beat the Mavericks, where Los Angeles was in control of from the second quarter on, and you start to get one. You don’t want to read too much into regular season games, but a pattern has emerged.

These two teams will likely meet in the second round of the NBA playoffs and the Lakers have sent the message that the series may not last long. And this was about sending a message — Pau Gasol was in during the fourth quarter with the Lakers up more than 20. The Lakers held Dallas to 36.1 percent shooting, and Dirk Nowitzki with 27 points was the only Dallas starter in double figures.

Dallas, blown out of the game, tried to send a message by getting physical with fouls late — Jason Terry pushing Steve Blake to the ground (the Lakers Matt Barnes jumped in to defend his teammate and will get a suspension for his actions), some kind-hard fouls from Dirk Nowitzki, a play where Pau Gasol ends up sprawled on the floor. Seven technical were handed out. (And a partially-nude woman who rushed the Mavs bench was thrown out, just to make it all a little more surreal.)It’s a message sort of like a hockey team that sends a goon out to start a fight in the third period down four goals — we can’t beat you but we’ve still got fight.

Maybe so. But the second round playoff series between these two doesn’t look like much of a fight right now. Dallas just cannot match up with the Lakers front line, or Kobe.

‘It’s eating me alive:’ DeMarcus Cousins again leading Kings’ longshot playoff push

Sacramento Kings forward DeMarcus Cousins, right, drives against Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
AP Photo/Brandon Dill
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When the Kings drafted DeMarcus Cousins, he named his rookie goals: “Get to the playoffs, go for the championship.” But the NBA humbled the young player, as Sacramento went just 24-58 and missed the postseason for the fifth straight year. Cousins emerged for his second season resolute on a more-modest goal: “Playoffs. We’ve got to make the playoffs this year. It’s not even a goal. It’s basically in our contract, I believe. So, we’ve got to make the playoffs this year.”

Five seasons later, Cousins is still chasing that elusive postseason trip.

“It’s eating me alive,” Cousins said. “Every loss or every time another team wins in battling for the eighth spot, it’s eating me alive. Our only goal is to be in the playoffs this season.”

A depressing chase for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, where every team in the race is at least seven games under .500, has opened the door for the 17-27 Kings. They’re 1.5 games and three teams out of playoff position – a more daunting challenge than often realized. Not only must they play better, they must hope a couple teams ahead of them don’t also heat up. 538 gives Sacramento just a 5% chance of reaching the postseason, and ESPN is even more pessimistic at 3.8%.

Beginning his career with seven straight lottery trips would be another crushing blow to Cousins, who has built a credible case as the NBA’s best center. Greg Monroe is the only current player with more win shares who hasn’t reached the playoffs:

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Nobody nears Cousins besides Monroe, and the next-closest player, Jazz center Rudy Gobert, likely makes the playoffs this year. Monroe leads in win shares, because he entered the league more polished than Cousins and built a head start (and because this stat probably inflates’ Monroe’s contributions relative to Cousins’.) Monroe has never neared Cousins’ peak, and Monroe is now a backup for the Bucks. The only thing second-team about Cousins is his two All-NBA appearances.

Kevin Love is the only other player since the NBA-ABA merger to make multiple All-NBA teams before his first playoff season. He, of course, left the Timberwolves for the Cavaliers to escape lists like these.

On the other hand, there have been indications from both sides Cousins will soon sign a veteran-designated-player contract extension projected to be worth more than $219 million over five years. Staying in Sacramento and playing for owner Vivek Ranadive seems like the surest bet to keep Cousins’ postseason drought active.

Cousins already ranks in the top 25 all-time in win shares before a player’s first playoff season (which doesn’t count this season, because playoff teams aren’t yet determined):

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Cousins has 5.2 win shares this season and counting. Missing the playoffs again would launch him into the top 10 of this dubious list – and he could keep climbing.

Not only do the Kings face daunting odds to reach the postseason this year, it’s difficult to project them into the playoffs for the foreseeable future. Years of roster mismanagement have taken a toll.

Since drafting Cousins, Sacramento has held top-10 picks every year. Those have netted on draft night: Jimmer Fredette, John Salmons, Thomas Robinson, Ben McLemore, Nik Stauskas, Willie Cauley-Stein, Georgios Papagiannis, Skal Labissiere and Bogdan Bogdanovic – who’ve combined for a measly 2.2 win shares this season. And most of those win shares come from Stauskas and Robinson, who no longer play for the Kings.

In fact, Stauskas was sent out in a disastrous trade that gives the 76ers swap rights on Sacramento’s 2017 first-rounder* and Sacramento’s unprotected 2019 first-rounder.

*The Kings’ first-round pick must fall in the top to be swap-eligible. Otherwise, it goes to the Bulls, the result of another botched trade.

Sacramento has also recently struck out on major free agents and then settled for Arron Afflalo, Kosta Koufos, Anthony Tolliver, Garrett Temple, Matt Barnes and Ty Lawson. That adds up to one mediocre supporting cast.

Meanwhile, Cousins is better than ever. He has taken a larger offensive burden, including as a distributor and suddenly dangerous 3-point shooter, while cutting down his turnover rate. Defenders are often overmatched, and they foul him more than anyone in the league. And while Cousins’ defense comes and goes, it can be quite impressive while he’s locked in.

The result is a team that plays at a 41-win pace with Cousins on the floor and a 17-win pace when he sits, continuing a disparity seen over the last few years. Hera are the Kings win paces over 82 games with Cousins on (purple) and off (black):

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Obviously, teams generally play better with their stars and starters on the court, and Cousins is a star who usually shares the court with other starters. But this gap is particularly egregious, and Cousins’ fellow starters have underwhelmed.

So, more and more falls on Cousins’ shoulders.

Playing for his sixth head coach and third general manager in seven seasons, Cousins sets the tone for the Kings, for better or worse. He plays with a unique rage, sneering resentfully at anyone who gets in his way on the court – like players trying to defend him or referees, gasp, calling a foul on him. He leads the league with 12 technical fouls and is on pace to get (at least) 16 and an automatic suspension, which he also triggered last year.

His highs are incredibly high and his lows are unnecessarily low.

That moodiness has frustrated coaches and teammates, but it also sometimes works himself and his teammates into a productive frenzy. Sacramento usually plays passionately, which is both to its credit and a sign of a talent scarcity considering the team still loses so frequently.

“I’m still confident,” Cousins said, “and I still believe we’re going to make that push for the playoffs.”

For the last few years, Cousins has looked unstoppable while the Kings have been quite easily stoppable. He’s trying to drag the franchise up with him, but optimism and desire might not be enough. At a certain point we must ask: What more can Cousins do?

Russell Westbrook keeps trying to show up Rudy Gobert

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) goes to the basket as Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) defends in the second quarter during a NBA basketball game Monday, Jan. 23, 2017, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
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Jazz center Rudy Gobert is having an awesome season, credibly putting himself in the mix with Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and Marc Gasol as the NBA’s best big men.

But that doesn’t mean Russell Westbrook respects him.

Before the Thunder’s win over Utah yesterday, Westbrook was asked how Oklahoma City would contain Gobert. Westbrook just laughed and walked off.

Fred Katz of The Norman Transcript:

Then, in the game, Westbrook tried to jump right over the 7-foot-1 Gobert and dunk on him:

I would say Gobert proved his ability by successfully protecting the paint, but I’m just too astounded by Westbrook’s leap.

Zaza Pachulia, running up court, turns back to smack Luke Babbitt in face (video)

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Is Zaza Pachulia a dirty player?

That debate can be rekindled after the Warriors center earned this flagrant foul for smacking Heat forward Luke Babbitt.

Just don’t forget: Pachulia is more than an unskilled enforcer. He brings plenty to the table as Golden State’s fifth starter, and his ability was on display earlier in the game:

Three Hawks lose uncontested rebound out of bounds (video)

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How did Mike Scott, Mike Dunleavy and Malcolm Delaney fail to secure this rebound?

No wonder the Hawks lost to a Clippers team playing without Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.