Kevin Love

Already a question, Celtics’ depth issues tested by Hayward injury

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Tonight’s game story was probably always going to be about the Boston Celtics’ wing depth. It still is, I guess, but it reads a lot different now that Gordon Hayward is likely out for the season with a fractured tibia and dislocated left ankle.

Hayward, the biggest free agent prize this offseason, signed with the Celtics over the summer as the team moved in a new direction with Kylie Irving. In doing so, the Celtics leveraged a bit of their wing depth by sending Jae Crowder to the Cleveland Cavaliers and Avery Bradley to the Detroit Pistons.

Tuesday’s opening ceremony was supposed to give us a better idea of how the Celtics depth would fare against the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart are slated to be a big part of the Boston playoff hopes this year. So too is Marcus Morris once he returns from a knee injury. Of course, that was when we were sure that Hayward would be anchoring the small forward position.

Now, Hayward is out for an undetermined period of time after suffering a catastrophic injury on that fateful alley-oop attempt against LeBron James. With Hayward went Boston’s hopes of a win as the opening matchup of the series went to the Cavaliers, 102–90, albeit with a bit of late excitement as a Irving took the potential game-tying shot as time expired with James guarding him.

Via Twitter:

So here we are, where we originally anticipated to start but with one less star player accounted for. While the Celtics mounted an impressive third quarter comeback, we still don’t have answers to our questions on the Boston depth chart.

It’s true that we saw some impressive play on Tuesday from the guys that were expected to complement Hayward on the way. Brown led the team with 25 points on 11-of-23 shooting in 40 minutes. Likewise, Smart showed some flashes of defensive brilliance even as he went 0-of-4 from 3-point range. Tatum, always expected to contribute the least in his first season, scored 14 points while grabbing 10 rebounds, an impressive double-double in his opening NBA game.

But this still doesn’t account for the fact that the Celtics were outplayed on the wing. The combination of Crowder and JR Smith for Cleveland proved to be too much for Boston to handle when put on the same floor with James. That is to say nothing of Kevin Love‘s performance, which undoubtedly benefited from the defensive rotational differences for the Celtics with Hayward out.

The Cavaliers outflanked Boston on Tuesday despite starting guards Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade combining for 22 points on 24 shots. Crowder himself shot just 3-of-10 from the field, although his contributions elsewhere were obvious. The Cavaliers were able to punch out Boston even as they suffered from subpar performances from major players. No doubt with more time together both sides will solidify, but now without Hayward the young players on the Celtics will have to do much more.

It will be easier for the likes of Crowder, Wade, and Rose to mold around the best player in the NBA than it is for Boston to find a rotation that gets them into the playoffs. And while one game in October won’t tell the story of the season, we had to get a hint of what the Celtics’ young players would look like against top competition. We still got that, and if there is an upside here for Celtics fans it’s that the development of those young players appears to have sparked a flame that should grow all season.

Make no bones about it, the Celtics still have some good players that should be able to shield the younger ones — especially Tatum — from having to shoulder too much of the load. That’s the kind of thing that can stunt the growth of a player. But that doesn’t mean that Celtics fans can’t be disappointed. It was always going to be a stretch to topple the Cavaliers and LeBron in the East, and without Hayward it will be impossible.

NBA Power Rankings: Preseason rankings for every team from Warriors to Bulls

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They’re back. The weekly NBA Power Rankings from NBC Sports have returned as the NBA season tips off. As always the defending champions start on top — and in the case of the Warriors, the question is will there be more than one week they are not ranked No. 1 this season? These first rankings are pure gut, with a little preseason influence thrown in (once we move 15+ games into the season we have a mathematical system to help guide us, then those figures get massaged by the eye test.

Quick note, these rankings come out on Tuesday to start the season, but starting next week and throughout the NBA season they will come out on Wednesday.

Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (last season 67-15). Thanks in part to Kevin Durant’s willingness to sacrifice for the team, Golden State not just brought back but also improved the best team in the NBA. They are going to spend a lot of weeks on top of these rankings. The only question to open the season is does the hangover/jet lag from the China trip still impact them the first couple weeks of the season.

Rockets small icon 2. Rockets (55-27). Adding Chris Paul to the James Harden show was a brilliant move, the Rockets will have one of the top three offenses in the NBA this season. However, what may really get this to the conference Finals is the additions of defenders such as Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker on the wing. They Rockets outscored teams by 21.9 points per 100 possessions in the preseason, an NBA best number (don’t read much into it, but it’s interesting).

Thunder small icon 3. Thunder (47-35).. I think they may be second in this ranking by the end of the season, I like their defense (which should be Top 5), but I’m going to need to see Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony do more than just talk about sacrifices to fully buy in (they looked good together in limited preseason minutes). With Westbrook committed to OKC, George will be asked about his free agency at every turn this season, how will he handle that pressure?

Cavaliers small icon 4. Cavaliers (51-31). By the end of the season I think they will be the team best positioned to knock off Golden State — Isaiah Thomas will be healthy (*knocking on wood*), the Cavs still have LeBron James, and they will get to come out of a soft East while the Warriors will have to battle their way out of a deep West. That said, they are not healthy now and will be experimenting with Kevin Love at center.

Spurs small icon 5. Spurs (61-21). No Kawhi Leonard in the opener and the question is now much more time will he miss with a lingering quad injury. While the Spurs looked like a mess in the playoffs without Leonard that was against the Warriors, in the regular season they are 14-4 the past two seasons with him sitting. LaMarcus Aldridge is the go-to guy while Leonard is out and he can handle the role.

Celtics small icon 6. Celtics (53-29). It’s going to be a circus — one with lots of boos — with Kyrie Irving and company opening on the road in Cleveland. No Marcus Morris the first week of the season with a knee injury, that means rookie Jayson Tatum likely gets the starts. That could add to the one big question about the Celtics — can they get enough stops?

Wizards small icon 7. Wizards (49-33). The Wizards looked good and their bench improved during the preseason, which is a nice sign but now they have to do it when it matters. That bench will be tested more early with Markieff Morris missing time due to a sports hernia (the Wizards lost very little time from their starters due to injury last season, that has changed already).

Raptors small icon 8. Raptors (51-31). The Raptors are trying to change who they are on offense, with less isolation and more threes — and it worked in the preseason, they scored 110.1 points per 100 possessions. Can they sustain that when the defenses get serious? And how much will they miss the depth that DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph, and Patrick Patterson provided?

timberwolves small icon 9. Timberwolves (31-51). They added Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague Taj Gibson, and Jamal Crawford to an already promising young team led by Karl-Anthony Towns — Minnesota is ready to make a leap. Well, if they can defend. They were 27th in defensive rating last season, and they need to get up to the middle of the NBA pack at least. Butler helps, but it’s Towns and Andrew Wiggins learning what to do and putting in the effort night in and night out that will make the biggest difference on that end.

Bucks small icon 10. Bucks (42-40). Is this too high a ranking for the Bucks? Maybe. I am betting on a lot of internal improvement with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Thon Maker, Kris Middleton, and Malcolm Brogdon. However, the real key to the Bucks season is if Jason Kidd tweaks his gambling defensive system so the Bucks don’t get torched every time the ball swings sides, do that and this team can move into East’s top four.

Nuggets small icon 11. Nuggets (40-42). Denver looked good this preseason in the minutes that both Nicola Jokic and Paul Millsap shared the floor, but the questions are everyone around them. Gary Harris needs to live up to his lofty new contract, and Jamal Murray needs to start looking like the point guard the Nuggets thought they had at the end of last season. Also, is Denver going to defend well enough to make the playoffs?

Clippers small icon 12. Clippers (51-31). Talk about a changed roster, new to the Clippers are Danilo Gallinari, Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Willie Reed, Sam Dekker, and Montrezl Harrell. Everything still flows through Blake Griffin, and his three-point shot looks improved. The Clippers should be solid on both ends and play faster than they did in the Chris Paul era. This is a playoff team if they can stay healthy, but with this roster it’s a big if (they had their share of minor injuries in the preseason).

Blazers small icon 13. Trail Blazers (41-41). It’s just the preseason, but the facts that Portland went 5-0 and Evan Turner found his shooting stroke are both good signs. C.J. McCollum is suspended for the opener (you can’t leave the bench during an altercation, this isn’t a new rule) so look for Pat Connaughton to get the start.

Grizzlies small icon 14. Grizzlies (43-39). The Grizzlies are trying to change their style of play — they played at the fourth fastest pace of any team in the preseason (they were 19th overall in the NBA last season, which was up from previous years). We’ll see if the pace sticks. We’ll see how much the Grizzlies can get out of Chandler Parsons as well (he averaged 14 minutes a game and shot 33 percent in the preseason).

Heat small icon 15. Heat (41-41, LW 15). Erik Spoelstra will spend the first part of the season figuring out his rotations (Kelly Olynyk is starting now, James Johnson is coming off the bench), and he needs more of Goran Dragic than the two preseason games he played, but this is a deeper team that should get off to a faster start than last season (but not close the season as fast, either).

Jazz small icon 16. Jazz (51-31, LW 7). Utah went 5-0 in the preseason and its offense was the fifth most efficient in the NBA. That’s not going to last, but it’s a good sign that maybe the offense will be somewhat better than projected with Rodney Hood as the playmaker. The defense will be elite with DPOY candidate Rudy Gobert.

Pelicans small icon 17. Pelicans (34-48). They have their big two — DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis — plus Jrue Holiday at the point, but the supporting cast is already banged up. Rajon Rondo will miss time with a sports hernia, and Solomon Hill may miss the entire season with a torn hamstring. This team remains one of the big question marks heading into the season, but if it goes sideways things could get ugly fast.

Sixers small icon 18. 76ers (28-54). Joel Embiid will start the season on a minutes restriction — Brett Brown said in the teens — and the big man doesn’t like it. Expect the Sixers to be cautious with him all season, we’ll see if he even gets to 55 games. My big question is how good the defense is with him off the court? After a strong preseason, Ben Simmons has moved to the top off everyone’s Rookie of the Year award prediction list.

Hornets small icon 19. Hornets (36-46). The Nicolas Batum injury to start the season is a blow. First, they were already thin on the wing and needed his defense, and second the Hornets toughest stretch of the schedule is the first month, so they could get in a hole that’s tough to dig out of. No Batum means rookie Malik Monk gets more run. A lot of people will tune in to see the Dwight Howard redemption project version 3.0, but stay to watch Kemba Walker — he is one of the most entertaining players to watch in the NBA.

Pistons small icon 20. Pistons (37-45. . How did the Pistons’ starting five look in the preseason? Don’t know, they didn’t play a minute together. What we do know is Reggie Jackson — the lynchpin for this team’s playoff chances this season — struggled, like he did much of last season. One thing of note, Andre Drummond was 16-of-20 on free throws in the preseason, if he is knocking those down he just got a lot more dangerous at the end of games.

Mavericks small icon 21. Mavericks (33-49). We need to savor having another season of Dirk Nowitzki in the NBA, he remains an all-time great. This season is about developing Dennis Smith Jr. and have him develop chemistry with Harrison Barnes (who was underrated as an isolation scorer last season but now needs to learn to be a playmaker. The Mavericks start out with a tough schedule the first couple of months that puts them in a hole they can’t dig out of.

Lakers small icon 22. Lakers (26-56, LW 29). It’s the Lonzo Ball show in Los Angeles, as he brings a buzz on and off the court to this team. Well, unless Kyle Kuzma steals the show again (the Lakers are overloaded at the four thanks to him). Ball will get a boost playing with Brook Lopez on offense. The bigger concern is Brandon Ingram, who shot 37.7 percent in preseason (25 percent from three) and likes to face up in isolation but doesn’t execute that well yet.

Kings small icon 23. Kings (32-50). So much to watch development wise with this team. How does De’Aaron Fox come along running the offense (he will come off the bench behind George Hill to start the season)? Can Skal Labissiere and Willie Cauley-Stein form an impressive front line? Is Buddy Hield going to be a starting two guard in the NBA or is he a future gunner sixth man? Also, how will coach Dave Joerger balance minutes for the young players and the veterans on his roster such as Zach Randolph?

Magic small icon 24. Magic (29-53). This may be too low for the Magic, who have a lot of talent on paper. Aaron Gordon is back at the four, where he should be, and he looked good this preseason. Jonathon Simmons also looked good and helped the team’s defense this preseason. The pieces still are an odd fit on this team, but Frank Vogel is trying to find rotations that work.

Knicks small icon 25. Knicks (31-51 LW 26). Carmelo Anthony is gone but the Knicks biggest problem persists — this is going to be a bad defensive team. With the full triangle offense having been exiled with Phil Jackson, coach Jeff Hornacek wants to run, but to run well a team has to get stops. Is Kristaps Porzingis ready for the load about to be put on his shoulders?

Pacers small icon 26. Pacers (42-40, LW 16). This is Myles Turner’s team now, but he will miss having Glenn Robinson III’s floor spacing around him (Robinson’s ankle injury has him out until 2018). On the bright side T.J. Leaf looked better in preseason than he did in Summer League, he will get some run. This team will put the ball in Lance Stephenson’s hands, which is always entertaining.

Nets small icon 27. Nets (20-62). They have an interesting backcourt with Jeremy Lin — the undrafted guard who has worked hard on his game and scrapped his way to a solid NBA career — and D’Angelo Russell, the No. 2 pick whose work ethic frustrated the Lakers and they were willing to move on from (he was the sweetener in dumping Timofey Mozgov’s salary). Soft start to the schedule gives them the chance at a decent start.

Hawks small icon 28. Hawks (43-39). It’s all about Dennis Schroder and Kent Bazemore creating shots and Mike Budenholzer’s team playing solid defense. This is a rebuilding team (Al Horford and Paul Millsap left in successive summers) and their string of making the playoffs 10 years in a row will end, but they should play hard and be in games, just not able to close them out. They start the season with a five-game road trip.

Suns small icon 29. Suns (24-58). They have some interesting young talent in Phoenix with Devin Booker and now rookie Josh Jackson (14 points per game and shot 42 percent from three in the preseason). With Eric Bledsoe running the point the Suns should be able to put up some points, but will the young team get enough stops?

Bulls small icon 30. Bulls (41-41, LW 13). Chicago has finally, fully embraced the rebuild. Lauri Markkanen will be the guy to watch this season, he was up-and-down during preseason (1-of-9 in debut, good game against Toronto to close it out) but how does he develop over the course of the season. Rough first week of the season with the Raptors, Spurs, and Cavaliers.

Kevin Love with awesome goodbye to Richard Jefferson

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There’s a reason the Cavaliers kept bringing Richard Jefferson back — he was beloved in the locker room. He made some plays, too (you can’t have enough wing defenders if the target is Golden State), but it was chemistry that mattered most. Eventually, the finances caught up with the Cavaliers — they traded Jefferson to the Hawks in a salary dump — but if there was a way they would have kept him.

You could get a sense of that locker room love Kevin Love‘s goodbye to RJ, put on Instagram.

That is awesome.

It’s that locker room leadership that has the Bucks chasing Jefferson hard.

Who takes the last shot for the Oklahoma City Thunder?

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Last season, it wasn’t even a question worth asking.

This season, things are going to be different in Oklahoma City. Picture the situation: Thunder down one, :12 seconds left in the fourth quarter, and the ball is being inbounded on the side. Who gets the shot? Russell Westbrook took them all last year, and he knows how to close out games with the best of them. Last season in Indiana Paul George was ticked when he didn’t get the last shot even though it was the right basketball playCarmelo Anthony has hit more than his share of game-winners, too.

So who takes that shot?

Royce Young explored this at ESPN, and that included asking coach Billy Donovan, who said exactly what you expect a coach to say.

“Carmelo’s been a closeout guy the places he’s been, the same thing with Paul. But any time you have a team you have to do it by finding the open man,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “Clearly for us last year, somebody creating and generating a shot for himself or someone else, it was Russell. But obviously now with Carmelo and Paul being here, I think it’s about making the right play and right decision.”

This gets into the central question about the Thunder, the one that will define just how good they are this season — are Westbrook, George, and Anthony really willing to make the sacrifices to their games needed to push for a title? Of course, the guys are saying all the right things.

“All three of us are comfortable with whoever has that shot,” George said a couple of weeks ago. “… I trust Russ, I trust Carmelo, that they are going to do whatever is best for the team. I trust they are going to knock that shot down. Really I have no concern when it comes to that. I know with those guys, they are going to give us a chance to win. That’s ultimately what we want.”

“Whoever’s open. It’s simple,” Anthony said. “We’ll run the play, and whoever gets open will take the shot. It’s not like I’m coming and saying, ‘I want the last shot,’ or Russ is saying he wants the last shot, or Paul. Whoever’s open will take the shot. We all feel comfortable in those situations and those moments, so no need for any one of us to demand it at that point.”

Part of the challenge is that all three of them — Westbrook, George, and Anthony — get a lot of buckets out of isolation sets. They are all comfortable in that spot. Last season Westbrook isolations were the go-to end of game call for OKC (and first quarter call, and second quarter, and…) but now does Donovan call another number? Does he want a pick-and-roll action between George and Westbrook, with Anthony spacing the floor on the weakside?

ABC/ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy was on Zach Lowe’s podcast recently and had a great line (which I paraphrase here): Stars always say the right thing about sacrificing for the team, but they don’t think that applies to them. I’d say that changes over time, but look at how much Chris Bosh and then Kevin Love had to change their games to fit with LeBron James, and it took both more than a season to do it.

Westbrook had the ultimate green light last season, will be comfortable doing more playmaking for others and not taking those key shots? Will we see Olympic ‘Melo or Knicks’ ‘Melo? Will George be good with fewer touches and points heading into a contract year (not that it impacts his value much) for the betterment of the team?

I think eventually OKC’s big three will figure it out — I predicted Oklahoma City will reach the conference finals — but not until after some bumps at the start of the season. How the stars will handle end-of-game situations is a fair question to ask. Much like the Warriors last season, where Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry took a while to figure clutch situations, the Thunder have some hard questions to answer that will take some time.

And in the end, my money is still on Westbrook creating, he’s just got better passing options now.

J.R. Smith owns up to it, “I was hurt” when Dwyane Wade given starters’ role

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You don’t get to be an NBA player without some level of ego — there has to be a little “me first” in there push players to drive players to excel at their craft and excel at their craft on the level needed in the NBA.

So when you’re a starter on a team that goes to the NBA Finals, and that job is taken away from you, yes you should be a little ticked.

That’s what happened to J.R. Smith in Cleveland, but up until Friday he had only said he was “frustrated” but understood the decision. Friday on a new episode of the Road Trippin’ podcast with Channing Frye and Richard Jefferson (RIP) Smith admitted it was more than just frustration, via Dave McMenamin at ESPN.

“Honestly, I was hurt, man,” Smith said on the podcast, which posted Friday. “I was really emotionally drained at that point. I got wind of it that it was going to go down, but I didn’t know. I was told he’s going to be great for the second unit. … It would be a great fit for the team, whatever, whatever. I’m like, ‘Awesome, let’s do it. One hundred percent. Out of all people, another person we’re going to just grab for damn-near nothing? For sure. Let’s do it.'”

Don’t be shocked if Smith ends back up in the starting lineup again. Wade is too big a name, and there is too much pressure for him to instantly accept a bench role (especially since his best buddy is LeBron James). In theory, Kevin Love and Jae Crowder starting at the four and five provide the spacing needed for LeBron to make magic on offense. But what about the other end of the court? Starting Derrick Rose, Wade, and Love does not seem like something bound to get stops.

Smith as a starter provides more defense, floor-spacing shooting, and is someone LeBron is comfortable with. Wade with the second unit makes sense, he can be the shot creator and have the ball in his hands. But the Cavaliers need to find the mentally to make that happen. Maybe it evolves over the course of the season, but for now nothing changes. Wade starts.

Smith will be the good soldier. No matter what he’s really thinking