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.

Kings’ rookie De’Aaron Fox commits California mortal sin, slams In-N-Out

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We Californians take a few things seriously. Surf reports, for one. Winemaking/tasting. Tech toys. Coming up with potential blockbuster movie franchise ideas, getting a star to buy in, then maybe or maybe not worrying about getting a decent script.

Also, In-N-Out Burger. If there is one thing all Californians can agree on, it’s that In-N-Out is the best burger chain in the world. It’s not up for debate.

Apparently Kings’ rookie De'Aaron Fox did not get that memo. He did a Q&A with Rolling Stone’s Seerat Sohi and crossed a sacred line.

“All I gotta say, you can tell everybody that lives in the state of California this: In-N-Out is not good.”

What’s your beef with In-N-Out Burger?
“Their burgers are overrated. They’re OK.”

Even Animal Style?
“Yes. People always say, you haven’t tried this. You haven’t tried that. I’m like, “Yeah, I looked up the secret menu. I’ve tried it all. It’s just not good.”

That’s controversial. What’s the best fast food spot then?
“Honestly, for me, I don’t count Chick-fil-A, because it’s way too good to be considered fast food. So I’m gonna say Wendy’s. Fat Burger in L.A. is better than In-N-Out.”

It’s this simple: Fox is flat-out wrong.

First off, Chick-fil-A is wildly overrated, so we know the taste of the 19-year-old point guard is off. Fat Burger is legit. But Wendy’s? Come on now, that’s just average.

If Fox had tried to argue Five Guys, I would have let it slide — I don’t think they’re as good, but I will admit a California bias. But Wendy’s? You lose the entire argument right there. It’s like saying Pixels was the best movie ever.

In-N-Out is the best. Fox needs to get on board with this.

Bulls’ Nikola Mirotic hospitalized after practice fight with Bobby Portis

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It was going to be a difficult season in Chicago if everything went right — and two days before the first game of the season things have gone horribly wrong.

Bulls’ starting forward Nikola Mirotic got into a shoving match with Bobby Portis, and Portis turned and sucker-punched him, according to multiple reports.

The Bulls have confirmed the fight and have announced Mirotic suffered a concussion and maxillary fractures in his face — the upper jaw and nasal cavity area — which likely will require surgery. He is going to miss weeks of time.

Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports had more details.

Mirotic was taken to the hospital Tuesday after their shoving altercation during practice ended with an alleged cheap shot from Portis to Mirotic’s face, league sources told The Vertical. Mirotic is undergoing tests, but is expected to be out for the foreseeable future, league sources said.

Mirotic will miss weeks, according to a source, and you can be sure severe discipline from the team is coming down for Portis.

In the short term, this likely means more run for rookie Lauri Markkanen as well as just re-signed Cristiano Felicio.

LeBron James will play in opener against Celtics

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Did we really expect anything else?

LeBron James was a game-time decision for the season opener in Cleveland against Boston and Kyrie Irving due to a sprained ankle. We expected he would go, but ankles can be tricky and are easy to re-injure once sprained, so the Cavs wanted to be careful.

He’s going to play. Coach Tyronn Lue made it official.

LeBron is the best player on the planet, but he can coast through the regular season at times. What teams try to avoid is giving him extra motivation… say bringing in a guy who left the team last summer on opening night. Expect full force LeBron tonight.

LeBron James, do you owe Cleveland anything? “I don’t owe anybody anything”

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It will be the biggest off-court topic of the NBA season: Will LeBron James stay with the Cavaliers after this season?

Right now, LeBron doesn’t know the answer to that question for sure. I’m sure he has ideas, but he wisely leaves all his options open, then can make a call next summer when the time comes.

When that time does come, does he owe his hometown Cleveland anything? LeBron answered that question in the latest issue of GQ, and he answered with an emphatic no.

“LeBron James owes nobody anything. Nobody,” he said. “When my mother told me I don’t owe her anything, from that point in time, I don’t owe anybody anything. But what I will give to the city of Cleveland is passion, commitment, and inspiration. As long as I put that jersey on, that’s what I represent. That’s why I’m there — to inspire that city. But I don’t owe anybody anything.”

That’s not what Cavs fans may want to hear, but it’s also spot on. LeBron has given this franchise everything he has, he has brought them the first title the team has had in 50 years, and nobody sane can question his passion or how hard he plays.

LeBron could well get to his eighth straight NBA Finals, feel he’s on a team that can push the Warriors, then look at his options — the Lakers and a young core that doesn’t defend well, for example — and think maybe he’s best where he’s at. Perhaps he teams up with another star in Los Angeles or somewhere else. If LeBron called up 28 teams and said “I want to come there” those teams would make whatever moves they needed to for the deal to happen. (I say 28 because the Warriors wouldn’t, and even they’d think about it.)

LeBron has the leverage, and he is always a guy who keeps his options open. He will be asked about his future in every road stop, he will dodge the questions, and we’ll try to read the tea leaves, but as of right now LeBron doesn’t know for sure what LeBron will do next summer. Neither do we.