NBA Season Preview: Boston Celtics

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Last season: They went 39-27 and won the Atlantic Division, which was nice but in Boston division titles are not how a team is measured. They handled the Hawks as expected in the first round of the playoffs, then in the second round ran into a plucky but inexperienced Sixers team and Boston won in 7 games.

But what really happened through the course of the season and the first two rounds is Boston found its identity — Avery Bradley starting at the two, going small with Kevin Garnett at the five, Brandon Bass at the four and playing great defense. That identity was enough to give the Celtics a 3-2 series lead over the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. They had a real chance. Then Chris Bosh returned from injury, Miami won the final two and Boston’s season ended with a feeling this core wasn’t done.

Key Departures: Ray Allen, frustrated with being the sixth man behind Bradley and not thinking Rajon Rondo was looking out for him, signed for less money in Miami. Boston is also going to miss the size and solid play off the bench that Greg Stiemsma provided. The other guys that left — Marquis Daniels, Ryan Hollins, E’Twaun Moore, Mickael Pietrus and others — can be replaced.

Key Additions: They brought in one of the better sixth men in the league in Jason Terry, who will provide both points and shot creation off the bench. They signed Courtney Lee, who will start at the two for Boston until Bradley returns from shoulder surgery, and Lee will bring good defense and three-point shooting that goes well with their style.

While technically he was around Boston last year, it’s like they add Jeff Green after he missed a season due to heart surgery. Good to see him back. I think Boston overpaid for Green, but he is a solid player off the bench. They also drafted a guy who should be solid as a rookie in Jared Sullinger (but some Boston fans seem to overvalue what he did at Summer League — he is not near the quality of Brandon Bass right now). Chris Wilcox is there and that’s a nice pickup. Jason Collin is there and… well, he’s there.

Three keys to the Celtics season:

1) The old guys all stay healthy and don’t regress too much. Yes, it’s cliché to say Boston is old and, really, they are not as old as they seem. With Allen gone and the return of guys like Green and Lee, Boston is younger overall than they were last year. They certainly are a deeper squad.

But in the end, they need Kevin Garnett (age 36) and Paul Pierce (35 when the season starts) to still be elite players. And to stay healthy. While neither are really injury prone, as players get older injuries (and the length of time they need to recover from them) become more prevalent. Pierce played through a knee injury last playoffs and it slowed him (even if he refused to admit it). Doc Rivers gets it as a coach and he is willing to lose games and sit guys to have his team ready, rested and healthy when the playoffs start. But it is still a concern.

2) They have got to improve on offense. We know Boston is going to defend like beasts — Rajon Rondo is one of the best defensive point guards in the game, Courtney Lee and Avery Bradley give them good wing defenders, and even a step slower Kevin Garnett’s defense in the paint is still quality. Boston will be a top three defensive team. But they were 24th in points per possession on offense last season (98.9 points per 100 possessions, when the league average was 101.8). One way to do that is to improve on their league-worst offensive rebound rate (they grabbed just 19.7 percent of their missed shots, the league average is 26.9 percent). Offensive rebounds are often easy buckets on put backs. Even if Boston is going small next season, they need to get more of these easy buckets.

3) Get to the free throw line more. This ties into No. 2 above. Doc Rivers has talked about this during the summer — last season Boston was 22nd in percentage of trips to the free throw line per possession. That number needs to come up for a couple reasons. It’s not Rajon Rondo’s game, but he needs to be part of the change. First, it’s easy points, just hit your free throws (and Boston is a solid free throw shooting team). Second, it lets them set their defense. Miami had success in the playoffs running off missed shots or turnovers, converting those into some easy buckets. Boston doesn’t score enough to make up for a lot of easy buckets. They need to eliminate them, and getting to the line more — meaning more guys attacking the rim and not settling just for jump shots.

What one thing should scare Celtics fans? Boston fans have let me have it on twitter when I suggested this before, but that may be because it strikes a little too close to home — even if everything goes right Boston still doesn’t beat Miami if the Heat are healthy. Boston fans point to getting to Game 7 with a host of injuries last year and a deeper team this year. Both true. But Miami had their second and third best players injured, they still won the series. Then they got better this summer. There’s a reason Rivers wants his team to hate the Heat. In the end, all the smart moves by Danny Ainge may not be enough.

How it likely works out: Boston is going to be one of the league’s better teams. They are going to defend. Jason Terry is going to have a big year (I think). The newfound depth will allow Doc Rivers to wear opponents down without wearing his own roster down. They are going to finish the season as one of the top three teams in the East… but the regular season is not how teams in Boston are judged. And in the playoffs the Celtics will be the kind of veteran threat that should scare opponents. They are going to make a run.

But in the end, their season probably ends pretty much like it did last year.

Prediction: 51-31, which I’m betting is the two or three seed in the East (the Heat will be on top and I think the Pacers will finish close to Boston in record). Come the playoffs, if they are healthy, another run to the conference finals is within their grasp. And if the Heat stumble at all, the Celtics could be right there. But don’t bet on a new banner in Boston, this team still remains a step below the league’s elite.

Irving’s 47 lead Celtics past Mavericks to maintain streak

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DALLAS (AP) — Kyrie Irving scored 10 of his season-high 47 points in overtime as the Boston Celtics rallied once again from a double-digit deficit to beat the Dallas Mavericks 110-102 on Monday night and extend their winning streak to 16 games.

The Mavericks led by as many as 13 points in the fourth quarter, but as they have several times during their winning streak, the Celtics stormed back.

The winning streak ties the fourth-longest in Celtics history.

Boston tied the game at 96 when Irving stole the ball from Dirk Nowitzki and fed Jayson Tatum for an alley-oop lay-up that hung on the rim for a full second before dropping through.

Irving scored his team’s first six points of overtime. Then after Jaylen Brown gave Boston a 104-102 lead with a jumper with 1:39 to play, Irving went to work on Yogi Ferrell, backing him down and drawing contact on a lay-up with 48.5 seconds to play. Though Irving missed the free throw to keep the score 106-102, Dallas never got closer.

Harrison Barnes scored 31 points and Wesley Matthews had 18 for Dallas, which came back from an early double-digit deficit as the Celtics went cold for much of the second and third quarters.

Irving and Barnes had chances in the final 30 seconds but both missed shots that would have given their teams the lead.

The Mavericks fell behind by as many as 15 points in the first half, outscoring the Celtics 55-35 over the second and third quarters.

Dallas took its biggest lead of the game when Yogi Ferrell fed a cutting Dwight Powell for a lay-up to make it 87-74 with 7:47 to play before the Celtics rallied.

Boston shot just 10-for-34 over the two middle quarters after building the early lead.

 

DeMarcus Cousins ejected after elbowing Russell Westbrook in head

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DeMarcus Cousins‘ history of flagrant fouls certainly didn’t help him here, but if anyone elbows a guy in the head, he’s going to get tossed.

And that’s what Cousins did here.

Midway through the third quarter in New Orleans, Cousins blocked a putback attempt by Russell Westbrook, then grabbed the rebound. Westbrook tried to reach in across Cousins’ body for the steal, and Cousins cleared out space with his elbow — right to Westbrook’s head. Cousins walked around saying “no, no, no” afterward, and he likely thinks the officials had it out for him here because he was just getting a guy off him, but we go back to the original point — elbow a guy in the head, get tossed. The league is cracking down on blows above the neck. Westbrook did not leave the game.

The Pelicans went on to come from 19 down to win the game 114-107, behind 36 points and 15 boards from Anthony Davis.

Damn, Paul George with the in-game bounce pass alley-oop to Jerami Grant

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The game has been close (as of midway through the third quarter), but that didn’t stop Oklahoma City from putting on a show in New Orleans.

Paul George had the ball on a 2-on-0 fast break and decided to throw the playground bounce-pass alley-oop, which Jerami Grant got up and finished with authority. This could be one of the dunks of the year.

We’re going to see that highlight for a while.

Jusuf Nurkic’s agent says big man wants to stay in Portland this summer

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Last season, after his trade from frustrated backup big in Denver to new starter in Portland, there was a honeymoon — the Blazers went 14-6, their defense was better, and Nurkic was a big man setting big picks for quick guards in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.

This season the honeymoon is over, things have been up and down, but far from time to say the marriage should end, as he is a free agent next summer. Nurkic is the only real starting center on the roster (even if coach Terry Stotts left him on the bench in the fourth quarter in favor of Ed Davis a few games back). Nurkic is averaging 14.6 points and 7.2 rebounds a game, and the Blazers’ defense is 1.5 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court. However, his effort level has been up and down, and his shot is off, with a true shooting percentage of just 49.4, and he is shooting just 56.6 percent in the restricted area.

Nurkic wants to stay in Portland, his agent told Ben Golliver in a story at Sports Illustrated (that story is worth the read for the Nurkic origin story, which is amazing).

“I feel like the Blazers are very happy with Jusuf and Jusuf is very happy there,” Tesch, the agent, told The Crossover by telephone this week. “We had some [extension] talks but we decided to play it out this year and engage in talks again in July. He has already proven that he can help the team. There is a fit for Jusuf in Portland and he’s looking to stay there long-term.”

The two sides talked extension before the season, but Portland understandably wanted to make sure there was more to this relationship than just a honeymoon. It gave Nurkic a chance to drive up his asking price.

Portland and Nurkic likely will find a long-term deal next summer because it just makes sense for both sides. There are not a lot of teams with max free agent money next summer (4-6, I was told by an insider), or a lot of money to spend in general, and both DeAndre Jordan and DeMarcus would be centers on the market who rank ahead of Nurkic. Portland will offer more than other free agent destinations, if not as much as Nurkic dreamed of, and they will find common ground.

But there is a lot of season to play out before then. The Blazers feel like a team that should be better than its record so far, and Nurkic is part of that untapped potential. If things change, that’s good for Nurkic — and the Blazers.