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Three Things to Know: Boston’s defense is legit, just ask Golden State

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Celtics defense is legit, holds Warriors to 88 and gets Boston huge win. Golden State brought the best offense in the NBA into Boston, scoring more than 115 points per 100 possessions — or 120 per game, if you like your stats old-school — which would rank them with the best offenses of all time.

They scored just 88 points Thursday night, with a net rating of 89.5 points per 100. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson combined to shoot 5-of-20 from three, and Curry had a rough night all around (including a run of three fouls in three minutes in the third).

Credit the Celtics defense — they came into the game with the best defense in the NBA, but nobody expected this kind of performance against the Warriors. All season Boston has been fantastic contesting shots, taking away corner threes, and not letting teams get clean looks, and they did that so well against the Warriors you could see Golden State’s players thrown off their game and feeling uncomfortable. Golden State moved the ball and got good looks, but you tell they started to rush knowing the contest was coming — the Warriors shot 17-of-43, 39.5 percent, on uncontested shots in this game (according to NBA.com’s player tracking stats, which notoriously have issues but prove the point here). Boston’s defense does that to teams.

Boston then got just enough offense to win. Kyrie Irving struggled all night but made plays down the stretch to get buckets (and get to the line, where he put the Celtics ahead for good). An emotional Jaylen Brown, playing after the death of a friend, had a hustling and impressive 22 points to lead Boston.

This is more than just Boston’s 14th straight win (although it is that, too). This is validation — they belong at the adult table for Thanksgiving, the contender table. There’s a long season to go and the Celtics have to go through LeBron James to reach the Finals still, and in no way is a game before Thanksgiving proof of anything that could happen in June (both of these will be different teams in a lot of ways by then), but the Celtics are legitimately in the mix. This team can contend. They are not a year away and waiting for Gordon Hayward’s return, their time is now.

2) Rockets drop 90 on Suns in the first half, James Harden scores 48, Rockets cruise to win. What is there to say about this game? One of the best teams in the NBA beat up one of the worst, 142-116. The only real news was Chris Paul returned and had 11 points and 10 assists in 20 minutes — no need to send him down to the G-League for a rehab stint, just play the Suns.

Let’s make our point via videos. Here is the Rockets putting up 90 points in the first half.

And here is James Harden’s 48 points.

3) NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, players’ union executive director Michelle Roberts having serious conversations about changing one-and-done rule. Nobody likes the one-and-done rule — not NBA teams, not universities, not players — but it’s the compromise that we’ve had to live with for years.

Now, there finally seems to be some real momentum toward changing it. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and players’ union executive director Michelle Roberts met with the Commission on College Basketball — which was put in place in the wake of the recruiting/money scandal from the FBI investigation into the sport — and they discussed the one-and-done rule and what alternatives are out there, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

There is some momentum toward a change, and pushing things toward more of a baseball-style rule — players could make the leap from high school to the NBA, but if a player goes to college they must stay there at least two years (for baseball it is three). How NBA owners would react to this remains to be seen — they are not fans of scouting high school players and trying to project them to the NBA. Yes, there are guys we know worked out — LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and on down the line — but there were misses, too, and that’s what bothers owners and GMs. They don’t want to blow a high draft pick, and predicting what an 18-year-old will be like as a player and person in four or five years is very difficult.

The “baseball rule” has its flaws, but it’s better than one-and-done. The NBA needs to make the G-League a viable alternative to develop those high school players, or for players who aren’t NBA ready but don’t want to go to college. Also, what needs to come with it is a change from the NCAA that allows players who agree to go with an agent then don’t get drafted — ones who get bad advice from family and hangers-on — are allowed to still go to college and retain that eligibility. Give them a chance.

We’ll see what comes of this, but there seems to be some momentum slowly building for a change. It’s the NBA and the player’s union that would need to negotiate this.

Celtics earn validation, come from down 17 — twice — to beat Warriors

Associated Press
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Validation.

All things in the NBA this season are measured against the prohibitive favorite Golden State Warriors. There are great storylines — the rise of the Sixers, for example — but when it comes to what will happen next June, it’s all about Golden State.

Boston had won 13 games in a row, but still when Warriors came to town Thursday that was the measuring stick. It’s all about Golden State.

Validation. The Boston Celtics came from 17 points down — twice — to have Kyrie Irving make the key plays down the stretch and beat the Warriors 92-88. It was again Boston’s best in the NBA defense that kept them in it,  aided by the fact that Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson were a combined 5-of-20 from three (and they missed a lot of good looks), and then down the stretch Irving shook off the cold shooting he had all night and made plays.

It wasn’t a pretty game — both teams had a true shooting percentage under 49 percent — as befitting two of the top five defenses in the NBA. The Celtics may not want to bet Curry misses that many open threes in a game again, but he was off and having a rough night Thursday. The big difference in the score was Boston had 19 more free throw attempts, both because they were the more aggressive team attacking the rim most of the night, then in the final minutes, they got the 50/50 calls.

The best player on the court for Boston was second-year man Jaylen Brown, who finished the night with 22 points. Kyrie Irving had 16, but on 16 shots.

Kevin Durant led the Warriors with 24 points, while it was an off night from Stephen Curry — 9 points on 14 shots, and 2-of-9 from three — as well as Klay Thompson that did in the Warriors.

A Celtics win before Thanksgiving is meanless in trying to project out to a potential NBA Finals — both of these teams will evolve into something else by then. LeBron James will have his say on who is in the Finals, James Harden and Chris Paul would like to make a statement, too. We’re a long way from final answers.

Still, this Celtics’ win matters now. It’s validation for a team that now must be considered a contender for the East, and maybe the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

 

NBA Power Rankings: Celtics on top, Spurs move into top five

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The top four in our power rankings did not change this week and the teams just kept on winning — including 13 in a row for Boston, but that will be tested Thursday night when they face the Warriors. The Wizards were the big climbers this week, jumping from 16 to 8 (although I may have had them a little low the week before).

Celtics small icon 1. Celtics (13-2, Last Week No. 1). Brad Stevens is getting a lot of praise from front offices around the league because his Celtics team loses Al Horford for a couple of games, Kyrie Irving gets his face busted by Aron Baynes, and they keep on finding ways to win. Boston keeps on doing it with defense, which remains the best in the NBA. The Celtics have passed every test so far, but the Thursday one against the Warriors is the biggest yet in a young season.

Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (11-3 LW 2). They have won seven in a row and all by double digits, and during that stretch they have the best offense and second best defense in the NBA (it was the D that got off to the slow start). Here’s the scary thing, so far the Warriors have played the second toughest schedule in the NBA, and that doesn’t change Thursday with the Celtics on the docket.

Rockets small icon 3. Rockets (11-4, Last Week No. 3). The top two players in three-point attempts this season so far are James Harden and Eric Gordon (Stephan Curry is third). Harden has made at least five threes in six straight NBA games, which is a record. Chris Paul should return in the next week or two, but Mike D’Antoni has to find a way to keep using the Rockets’ starting five — Harden, Gordon, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, Clint Capela — which is outscoring opponents by 25.7 points per 100.

Pistons small icon 4. Pistons (10-3, LW 4). Tobias Harris is having the best start to his career and it all starts at the arc — he has nearly doubled the number of threes he’s taking (3.8 per game last season, 6.4 per game, and it’s hitting 50.6 percent this season. Also, Andre Drummond has grabbed at least a dozen rebounds in every Piston’s game this season, confirming he is the best rebounder in the NBA.

Spurs small icon 5. Spurs (9-5, LW 7). San Antonio went 4-2 on a recent homestand (the Warriors and Bucks were the losses), which has helped them hold on to a playoff slot while we wait for the return of Kawhi Leonard (still no timetable, but “sooner rather than later” is the new word). After a rough start to the season with more isolation than they wanted, on the homestand the Spurs got the ball moving again, averaging 313.8 passes per game (same as the Warriors in that stretch). That has sparked their offense. Even without Leonard the Spurs are fifth in defense.

6. Timberwolves (8-5, LW 5). On the surface they look like they are off to a good start to the season — winning record, great young talent — but if their 26th in the NBA defense, which is 29th if you remove garbage time (as the site Cleaning the Glass does) things will go south. The most concerning thing: Minny’s defense is 10.9 points per 100 possessions worse when Karl-Anthony Towns is on the court. He is still struggling on that end. Andrew Wiggins takes a lot of heat for his D from Timberwolves fans, but the team defense is 5 points per 100 better when he is on the court.

Raptors small icon 7. Raptors (8-5, LW 9). They are moving the ball more and isolating less, but they are still a team that scores on the drive — they average 28.2 points per game on drives, the most in the NBA. The Raptors’ five losses are the Warriors, Spurs, underrated Nuggets, Wizards, and Celtics — they had beaten the team they were supposed to but needed a marquee win, and they got it putting up 129 on the Rockets Tuesday night. OG Anunoby has been a find.

Wizards small icon 8. Wizards (8-5, LW 16). The Wizards move up this week because they feasted on a soft part of their schedule, winning 3-of-4 on a homestand. It’s a good sign that they are at least taking lesser teams seriously. Now the schedule gets harder: 11-of-14 on the road with a lot of playoff teams in the mix is up next, starting with a home-and-home vs. the Heat.

Pelicans small icon 9. Pelicans (8-6 LW 13). The DeMarcus Cousins/Anthony Davis pairing continues to thrive — they are both averaging more than 26 points and 11 rebounds per game (which is a historic pace for teammates, if they can sustain it). Rajon Rondo returned to the lineup in limited minutes on Monday, as he works his way back into shape Alvin Gentry needs to find some perimeter rotations that can help out that strong front line. Darius Miller has earned some extra run with his performances.

Nuggets small icon 10. Nuggets (8-6, LW 14). Nikola Jokic is having a fast start to the season and the reason is he is trusting his three-ball. Jokic is nearly doubling the number of threes he took per game last season (1.9 up to 3.6) but the key is he is hitting 41.2 percent this season (up from 32.4 percent last season). Denver moved up the rankings going 5-1 on a homestand, but Monday’s loss at Portland is the first of 11-of-15 on the road.

Knicks small icon 11. Knicks (7-6, LW 8). The Knicks thought they had a signature win Monday night against Cleveland, only to blow a 23-point lead and take a punch to the gut. I know that coach Jeff Hornacek likes his center rotation of Enes Kanter and Kyle O’Quinn, but he played Kristaps Porzingis there at the end of the Orlando game, I’d like to see more of that.

Sixers small icon 12. 76ers (7-6, LW 11). The big news for the Sixers this week is Robert Covington can sign a new contract extension, and expect the Sixers to make him a happy man with a healthy payday in the next few days. The Sixers are 2-2 on a five-game road trip that ends in Los Angeles Wednesday (one loss was an ugly one to the Kings), then the Sixers are home for six straight.

Magic small icon 13. Magic (8-6, LW 10). It’s still a little strange to type this, but Aaron Gordon continues to kill it from three, shooting 53.7 percent this season, best in the NBA. The Magic are improved on both ends of the court this season, but are 1-2 on their current road trip, with 5-of-7 on the road still to go.

Blazers small icon 14. Trail Blazers (7-6 LW 12). Portland has the third best defense in the NBA this season, and with that should have a better record than they do so far (they have the point differential of a 9-4 team). What’s holding them back is a middle of the pack offense, and the reason is they get the fewest points out of transition in the league. The Blazers need to play a little faster and get some easy baskets.

Grizzlies small icon 15. Grizzlies (7-6, LW 6). I like the move to start Dillon Brooks over Andrew Harrison, but it does not change the momentum of a team that has lost 5-of-7, with Mike Conley and Marc Gasol struggling with their shot. The most impressive thing about Memphis this season has been the strong play of its bench, led by Tyreke Evans.

Bucks small icon 16. Bucks (7-6 LW 23). Winners of three in a row since Eric Bledsoe arrived, although none of those wins was particularly pretty. What he has brought is a willingness to push the pace more — a team with the Greek Freak and a defense designed to create turnovers shouldn’t be 26th in the league in pace. On Saturday the Bucks head out for 5-of-6 on the road.

Heat small icon 17. Heat (6-7, LW 24). The Heat had a solid 3-3 road trip, one where they played good defense, allowing less than a point per possession during the trip. Problem is they also scored less than a point per possession. Still, that road trip felt closer to the Heat team from the second half of last season than we have seen yet this season.

Cavaliers small icon 18. Cavaliers (7-7 LW 20). Kevin Love playing the five has been an experiment that has not always looked good, but Love has finished better at the rim — 70.8 in the restricted area this season — than at any point in his career. LeBron James has played more regular season games now than Michael Jordan, is in his 15th NBA season, yet leads the NBA in 38.1 minutes played per game. He’s been phenomenal in those minutes – because the Cavs need him to be — but that’s a heavy load.

Thunder small icon 19. Thunder (6-7 LW 21).. The Thunder have a couple wins in a row, which happened for two reasons. First, because Paul George went off for 42 and 37 in those games to carry a struggling offense. The other reason for the wins is the Thunder played the Clippers (six game losing streak and then a Dallas team that is last in the Western Conference. Maybe the Thunder needed a couple easy wins as slumpbusters, just any wins to turn the team around, and with Chicago up next the streak could well reach three wins.

Hornets small icon 20. Hornets (5-7, LW 15). They have played the toughest schedule in the NBA so far this season. The Hornets start fast, outscoring teams by 6.9 points per 100 in the first quarter, but they get outscored by 6.3 per 100 in the fourth, which has them blowing leads and losing ugly (like leading by 12 in the forth to Boston and losing).

Lakers small icon 21. Lakers (6-8 LW 18). What’s impressive is the Lakers have the fourth best defense in the NBA this season, which is shocking after years of horrid defense from the team. They are defending well in the half court, with Brook Lopez playing a key role in the paint, but they struggle defending in transition (20th in NBA according to Cleaning the Glass). The offense, like Lonzo Ball’s shot, needs a lot of work.

Pacers small icon 22. Pacers (6-8, LW 19). Myles Turner returned to the lineup, and since then the Pacers are 1-6 with the fifth worst defense in the NBA. Turner hasn’t seemed himself since returning from injury, but the Pacers are doing a poor job of getting him the ball in the spots he wants. It’s hard to find positives, outside of Victor Oladipo’s in-game 360 dunk.

Clippers small icon 23. Clippers (5-8 LW 17). Losers of six in a row and 7-of-8, and the key reason is their defense has fallen apart. The Clippers are allowing 113.8 points per 100 in their last six games, worst in the NBA. Injuries — games lost for Danilo Gallinari, Milos Teodosic, and Patrick Beverley — has exacerbated the problems for this team.

Jazz small icon 24. Jazz (6-8, LW 22). Rudy Gobert is out for at least a month after Dion Waiters crashed into his knee, and the Jazz could be in real trouble — in their second game without him the Timberwolves pounded Utah inside. It doesn’t get easier, Utah’s schedule for the next month is brutal. The Jazz need to find a way to get wins and not slide out of the playoff picture in the crowded West while Gobert is out.

Nets small icon 25. Nets (5-9, LW 25). After the past few seasons it’s strange to type this, but the Nets are fun to watch. This is a scrappy, if not good, team. The Nets suffered a blow when D’Angelo Russell tweaked his knee, he is now out for a while and that means more Spencer Dinwiddie at the point, and Caris LeVert doing some playmaking as well.

Suns small icon 26. Suns (5-10, LW 26). That bump the Suns got after firing Earl Watson and replacing him with Jay Triano — winning 4-of-5 — is over, Phoenix has dropped 6-of-7 since. In those seven games the Suns have a bottom 10 offense and defense, and have been outscored by 10 points per 100 possessions. Devin Booker puts up numbers, but Phoenix desperately needs a playmaker to put next to him.

Kings small icon 27. Kings (3-10, LW 28). While George Hill had a good game against the Wizards Monday, for much of this season he has struggled and rookie De’Aaron Fox has been as good or better. Fox shows real promise. A young guns lineup for the Kings — Fox, Buddy Held, Justin Jackson, Skal Labissiere, and Willie Cauley-Stein — has only played 21 minutes together this season, and it hasn’t been great (-9.8 per 100) but I would like to see more of it. This is a developmental year in Sacramento.

Bulls small icon 28. Bulls (2-9 LW 27). Since returning from suspension, Bobby Portis is averaging 19.3 points and 10 rebounds a game. It’s going to be awkward when Nicola Mirotic eventually returns to practices and the lineup, but with Portis playing this well he is going to get a lot of run. The Bulls have lost 6-of-7 and have 5 of their next six on the road.

Hawks small icon 29. Hawks (2-12, LW 29). Ersan Ilyasova is back healthy and will come off the bench for Atlanta on Wednesday against the Kings. The Hawks have gotten help from some unexpected places, for example Luke Babbitt is shooting the ball well and that is opening things up for Dennis Schroder. Also, rookie John Collins is averaging 10.4 points per game shooting 50.4 percent, is grabbing 7.2 rebounds a night, and has a PER of 18.9 that is the best on the team among regular rotation players.

Mavericks small icon 30. Mavericks (2-13 LW 30). With his second made basket Friday against Minnesota, Dirk Nowitzki will pass Hakeem Olajuwon for eighth place on the NBA’s all-time made baskets list. Nowitzki passed Olajuwon in points three seasons ago to become the all-time leading scorer among international players. Nowitzki said he will let his body — and not the Mavs record — determine if he will come back for one more season after this one.

Three Things to Know: Masked man Kyrie Irving drops 23, Celtics streak to 13

Associated Press
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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA. Here’s what you missed while trying to avoid getting a DUI on horseback.

1) Kyrie Irving doesn’t like his mask, still scores 23 and leads Celtics to 13th straight win. Celtics fans were already looking ahead to Thursday, but first Boston traveled to Brooklyn Tuesday night… although you would never know it listening to the Celtics-heavy crowd at this game. It sounded like a game at the Garden.

Celtics fans are everywhere right now and they should be proud — their team has won 13 in a row after dropping the Nets 109-102. The win was a combination of their defense once again holding the opponent down — the Nets did well shooting 40 percent from three on 35 attempts, but they didn’t get a lot of shots at the rim, and from three feet to the arc they shot 8-of-29 — and getting enough offense when they needed it.

Kyrie Irving spent the night uncomfortably touching and adjusting his mask — he’ll be wearing it for a couple of weeks due to a facial fracture… at least he’s supposed to — but found his way to 23 points. The real offensive star for the Celts was Marcus Morris, who led a 10-0 fourth quarter run and finished the night with 21 points on 12 shots. Brooklyn hung around because they are a scrappy bunch, but it was not enough on a night when Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum combined for 32 points.

@kyrieirving’s wizardry lead the @celtics break & @jaytatum0 oop!

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This sets up the measuring stick game for the Celtics: Thursday night against the Golden State Warriors. The defending champs, and the overwhelming favorites to party with Larry O’Brien again, come to the Garden. It will be the best offense in the NBA against the best defense. The Warriors have won six in a row all by double digits, they come in on a roll of their own, and it is a chance for Boston to take a measure of itself against the best.

2) James Harden: Amazing Eurostep move or travel? You decide.

The NBA rule is you get two steps after you gather the ball, so if that first step is Harden’s gather this is legal. However, if he has control as he takes that first step it’s a travel.

In practice, no call so it’s a Eurostep and a bucket.

3) Harden couldn’t Eurostep the Rockets to a win, Raptors beat them 129-113. The Rockets have been a solid, middle-of-the-pack defensive team this season — which with their offense is plenty — but they got shredded by the Raptors on Tuesday night. As a team, the Raptors had a true shooting percentage of 66.2, which will get them a win every night.

DeMar DeRozan was attacking, doing a good job being a playmaker too (especially in the first quarter) and finished with 27 points on 16 shots for the night. Kyle Lowry and C.J. Miles each added 19.

However, the real star was rookie OG Anunoby, who was thrust into the starting lineup with Norman Powell out (hip), and he shot 6-of-8 while spending much of the night guarding Harden and doing a respectable job, his energy created great defensive pressure, and he passed and shot with confidence. It may be hard for coach Dwane Casey to keep him out of the starting lineup.

Did LeBron take a shot at Kyrie Irving in praising Isaiah Thomas?

Associated Press
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LeBron James is excited about Isaiah Thomas getting healthy and joining the Cavaliers on the court, even if that is maybe a month away. He should be. Watch the Cavaliers play and it’s clear LeBron could use a little help on the offensive end (Kyle Korver provided it in New York), they need another shot creator who gets himself buckets and set up others.

That’s what LeBron said to Howard Beck of Bleacher Report… but is this a dig at Kyrie Irving, too?

“It’s been a while since I’ve had that clear-cut guy who can get guys involved but also score at the same time,” James told B/R Mag. “But it’s fine. It’s something that our team will make an adjustment to.”

LeBron is too polished and too savvy with the media now to think he does anything by accident. He knows what he’s saying and how it will be taken (most of the time, he was confused why Knicks fans didn’t get his jab at Phil Jackson).

Just to give you the numbers, last season in Boston Thomas assisted on 32.5 percent of his teammates’ baskets when he was on the court, while this season in Boston Irving is assisting on 32.7 percent of his teammates’ buckets when on the court. Last season in Cleveland, Irving was at 29.7 percent. For his career, Irving has an assist rate of 30.1 while Thomas is 29.7.

Basically, that’s the same impact as a passer. Neither of these guys are known as pass first.

There’s a lot of eyes on the Cavaliers as they have stumbled to a 7-7 start this season with the worst defense in the NBA. There are legitimate questions to ask about how this team fares this season, and what it will look like going forward. However, if you are betting against a LeBron-led team in the East, you do so at your own peril.