ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: The Boston Celtics

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Last season: For the first half of the season Boston — with veterans like Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce — looked like that team everyone wants to avoid in the first round. Remember, the year before they had taken Miami seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. Maybe this version of the Celtics wasn’t going to be a title team, but they were going to be a tough out.

Then in late January Rajon Rondo blew out his knee and all bets were off. That injury was the first domino in a rebuild that landed full force this summer. Boston went on to win 41 games but was bounced in the first round of the playoffs by the Knicks.

Signature highlight from last season: Jeff Green makes a poster with Al Jefferson in it.

Key player changes: Welcome to rebuilding Celtics fans. It’s painful and kind of sucks. As has been said the Rondo injury was the first domino, the next was Doc Rivers heading to the Los Angeles Clippers — he was replaced in a surprise move by Butler College’s Brad Stevens, a guy very well respected in coaching circles but a guy making a jump from a mid-major college to one of the most prestigious jobs in the NBA. Danny Ainge rolled the dice on that one.

Then came the big trade that officially meant end of the big three era (which really ended when Ray Allen left anyway)—Pierce, Garnett and Jason Terry to the Nets in exchange for Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, Keith Bogans, MarShon Brooks, Kris Joseph, and three future first round draft picks. (Those picks are key in a rebuild.) That trade made it clear Boston was all in for the rebuild and the only question left was how far down that “get bad to get good” rabbit hole they wanted to go. Danny Ainge and everyone in Boston says they are not tanking, but should they?

Boston also brought in Kelly Olynyk and Colton Iverson through the draft. After one season, they let Fab Melo walk.

Keys to the Celtics’ season:

1. Can Rajon Rondo be a central building block? Can everyone tune out the trade rumors? Rondo could well miss the first part of the season due to his knee injury (no timeline is set), but his return date is not the biggest question about him or the team. Put simply, is Rondo the future in Boston or not?

Rondo is now the unquestioned leader on this team, but it’s time to prove he can really lead. On the court he has been fantastic when tasked with setting up veteran star players, but his jumper has been inconsistent and a lot more pressure to score will fall on him. Off the court he can be challenging and at times abrasive — you can lead being that way at times (KG and Kobe Bryant are as well), but you can’t be that way all the time. Rondo needs to show he is ready for the leadership role in Boston.

Then he and his teammates have  to tune out the trade rumors that will fly around this team. We should expect GM Danny Ainge to shop Kris Humphries like mad and if he can find a taker for Gerald Wallace he is gone as well. Really everyone on the roster is available… except Rondo. Maybe, well probably not Rondo. Ainge has listened to offers for Rondo for a couple of years now, and I suspect that will not change. But he also never pulled the trigger and has said he wants to see if Rondo can lead. He needs to be publicly firm about this now. If Ainge thinks the rebuilding of the Celtics is better done with the pieces they can get by moving Rondo (who has a lot of value around the league) then now is the time — get the best deal you can for him this season and move on. But I think what we will see long before that is Rondo getting his chance to lead Boston into whatever is next.

2. Jeff Green needs to be consistent. There was a game last season where Jeff Green went toe-to-toe with LeBron James and held his own by and large (Miami won but Green was impressive). That is the engaged Jeff Green. But there are so many other games (and halves of games) where he is Casper — he floats around, doesn’t make an impact and is generally passive. With all their roster changes the Celtics are putting a lot more responsibility on Green’s shoulders and he needs to show up and lead every night. Garnett said last year Green needs to be more of an a******* and KG was right. That needs to start this year. Green and Avery Bradley need to step up into the void on this team following the KG/Pierce trade.

3. You’re rebuilding, so throw the kids and see who can play. The Celtics have said they are not in the tank for Wiggins, and the truth is in the East they have the talent on the roster to potentially chase a bottom playoff seed — Rondo, Humphries, Wallace, Courtney Lee and Brandon Bass can all play. We know what they can do.

However, for the future of the franchise show me more Avery Bradley (who could have a big year), more Kelly Olynyk, more MarShon Brooks, more Jared Sullinger, more Phil Pressey. Those guys are only going to get bet better with experience on the court and this is the kind of season where you give it to them, even if that is frustrating at times.

Why you should watch the Celtics: Kelly Olynyk — the floppy haired rookie out of Gonzaga was a breath of fresh air at Summer League and one of the most fun players to watch. He showed he can rebound, scores well inside and just seems to be having fun out there. This coming season may not be a lot of fun in Boston depending on how things shake out, but Olynyk will be.

Prediction: 32-50. Honestly, that number is just a dart blindly thrown at the board — this team could be around .500 if they play their veterans and everything breaks right, or they could be the 13 seed and come apart at the seams. Teams in transition are hard to predict. If Rondo comes back healthy and can be a leader, if Avery Bradley’s offensive game takes a step forward, if Jared Sullinger is healthy, if Brad Stevens can coach at the NBA level, and most importantly if the Celtics can find a new identity then maybe they could get the eight seed. Probably not, but maybe at the bottom of the East where under .500 can get you in the dance. However, the more likely outcome is this is a pretty poor team that sees a lot of roster turnover in trades this season as the Celtics reboot and rebuild. So I’ll go with 32 wins.

Report: Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer no longer considering Suns job

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There’s been a lot of talk as the coaching carousel ramps up, long before the NBA season is even over. Now, we know one coach won’t be heading to the Phoenix Suns: Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer.

Budenholzer was reportedly among one of the candidates for the Suns job, but according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowksi the Hawks coach has decided not to pursue the position after being given the opportunity to do so.

The Suns coaching search still includes current interim coach Jay Triano and former Memphis Grizzlies head man David Fizdale.

Via ESPN:

Budenholzer met with Suns general manager Ryan McDonough and owner Robert Sarver early this week, but there was never traction on reaching a contract agreement as the week wore on, league sources said.

As the Suns kept interviewing candidates — including David Fizdale and interim coach Jay Triano — Budenholzer informed the Suns on Thursday that he would no longer be a candidate for the job, sources said.

Phoenix fired Earl Watson just three games into the season. Budenholzer had a hefty resume to consider — he won 60 games in Atlanta in 2014-15, heading to the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Suns need someone to guide their young star in Devin Booker. Who they choose will influence the direction of their franchise for longer than the next coach may even be around.

Warriors beat Spurs in glum Game 3

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The Spurs were playing with heavy hearts following the death of Gregg Popovich’s wife, Erin. Kevin Durant and Shaun Livingston appeared to injure their left ankles on back-to-back plays late.

Everyone seemed ready for the Warriors’ 110-97 Game 3 win Thursday to end well before it did.

Soon enough, the first-round series will. Golden State is up 3-0, and all 127 teams to win the first three games of a best-of-seven series won it – most of them via sweep. Game 4 is Saturday in San Antonio.

There’s hope neither Durant’s nor Livingston’s injury is serious. Durant walked off on his own, though gingerly. Livingston shot his free throws before exiting.

Durant (26 points) and Klay Thompson (19 points) have carried the Warriors’ offense with Stephen Curry sidelined by his own injury. If Durant isn’t at full strength for Game 4, Golden State could really struggle to score.

But it still might not matter, as the Spurs are overmatched against the Warriors’ dialed-in defense. Draymond Green (10 points, seven assists, six rebounds, four blocks and two steals) led tonight’s effort.

After two losses in Oakland to start the series, returning to San Antonio didn’t do much for the Spurs, who were 33-8 at home and 14-27 on the road this season – the NBA’s largest home-road disparity in a half decade. It’s just had to see San Antonio – whether Popovich returns or Ettore Messina remains acting coach – finding enough sources of offense.

Pelicans move one game away from sweep after bashing Blazers in Game 3

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But for a moment, the Portland Trail Blazers felt as though they could turn the series. For half a quarter, the Blazers had hope. Then, Nikola Mirotic dropped a career-high 30 points, Anthony Davis added a double-double of 28 points and 11 rebounds, and the New Orleans Pelicans moved one game away from completing a sweep of the third seed after a big win on Thursday night, 119-102.

Under the guidance of Mirotic, the Pelicans unleashed a barrage of 3-pointers starting midway through the first quarter. The game was close to being a contest, but Jrue Holiday and Mirotic started to pour it in after being uncorked, with New Orleans taking a 16-point lead going into the second period.

Running up and down the court in a panic, Portland looked nervous in the spotlight. The Blazers racked up 12 turnovers by halftime, all while rattling 3-pointers off the back iron. Portland rushed its offense in the face of unlikely success by the Pelicans, who continued to rain down from deep. New Orleans hit four big shots in the final 1:47 of the half, including three from beyond-the-arc.

Never one to back down, Blazers star Damian Lillard tried to force the issue. He would finish with 20 points on 5-of-14 shooting, but most evidentiary of his night was Lillard lobbing up a wild 28-footer with 24 seconds left in the half as he tried to answer a gutshot 3-pointer from E'Twaun Moore from a moment before. It didn’t work, and the Pelicans took commanding 64-45 lead to start the third quarter.

So went the story of the rest of the game, as Portland couldn’t fully tamp down the New Orleans offensive attack for longer than a few minutes at a time. Even after one 10-0 run for the Blazers in the third, the Pelicans ended it in the most deflating way possible — a wide open dunk for Mirotic on a cut after Portland’s defense fell asleep.

It was an electric atmosphere at Smoothie King, and the sellout crowd that gave us a glimpse of what kind of homecourt advantage the Pelicans could have in the second round. The New Orleans fans were in a back-and-forth with the players, with Smoothie King working to such a fever pitch it felt as though every shot hoisted by the team in red and gold was destined for the nylon.

Demoralized, Portland battled — flailed, really — but the Blazers couldn’t make up any ground as the momentum continued for New Orleans. Finally Blazers coach Terry Stotts relented and waived the white flag for Portland with 7:55 left in the fourth quarter as he subbed in his bench.

Even with a 49-win season under its belt, the questions surrounding the Blazers become more serious. The team that had a 13-game win streak this season now will face rumblings about whether Stotts will remain with the team. An exit for Stotts would be unwise for Portland — he did wonders with a team that didn’t play up to its potential most of the year — but it’s not out of the ordinary for a team looking to break through to look elsewhere, especially after Lillard’s meeting with owner Paul Allen.

Although their work isn’t done yet, New Orleans looks as though it’s a team to be feared in the playoffs. What it needs to do is concentrate on sweeping the Blazers, not only to give themselves confidence heading into the second round but to show their second-round opponent (likely the Warriors) that they aren’t to be taken lightly.

How Porltand can counter in the deciding Game 4 isn’t clear. The Pelicans have looked like the better team for nearly every quarter of the series, and the Blazers clearly don’t have an answer for them on either side of the ball.

Happy New Orleans fans will pack Smoothie King on Saturday for Game 4 at 2:00 PM PST in Louisiana. Davis will look to win his first playoff series, and Portland will try to avoid their most embarrassing sweep since they lost to the San Antonio Spurs in the 1999 Western Conference Finals.

Steve Kerr, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili celebrate the life of Erin Popovich (VIDEO)

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The NBA community has been effuse in their thoughts and condolences to San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich over the past 24 hours. Erin Popovich, 67, passed away on April 18, leaving behind her husband, Gregg.

Many were taken aback at the news, including players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant, both of whom were emotional when they first heard the news of Erin’s passing.

Gregg Popovich was not with the team to coach them in their Thursday night matchup against the Golden State Warriors, as Ettore Messina took the reins for Game 3.

Meanwhile, those close to the Popoviches spoke about Erin, her influence on Gregg, and how much both mean to them. Steve Kerr, who played for Popovich in San Antonio for four seasons, told reporters that Erin was, “The sort of balance that Pop needed.”

Current Spurs Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker also voiced their support for the Popovich family.

Via Twitter:

Here’s hoping Popovich finds some solace in the support he’s received over the past day.