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51 Questions: Does Al Horford change perception of Celtics?

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We are in the final days PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. For the past month we’ve tackled 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. Today:

Does Al Horford change the perception of the Celtics?

This summer, Al Horford shattered the myth that Boston couldn’t attract elite free agents.

It was always a perception that lived more in the heads of frustrated Celtics fans than it did NBA reality. The Larry Bird-era Celtics didn’t attract free agents because there wasn’t free agency until that dynasty was starting to slide (and free agency didn’t fully take hold for a few years after that). Then the Celtics struggled for a long stretch, and we know it’s hard to get players to go to a team that’s not winning. During the most-recent big three era, the Celtics did land name free agents — Rasheed Wallace, Jermaine O’Neal, Shaquille O’Neal, Jason Terry — that helped round out a roster already loaded with stars.

The past couple of summers, Celtics fans saw the potential, but the reality was the team was not yet ready to win on the big market — even as much as players raved about Brad Stevens as coach. It took the Celtics getting to 48 wins and showing real promise to get the attention of top free agents. Last summer the Celtics finally in position, and they got their man in Horford.

Now Horford should put that perception to rest.

For one thing, he will throw open the door to more wins — just through the preseason the spacing of the Celtics’ offense looks better than last season. Watching them through these games, the early high dribble-hand-off move the Celtics often use between Horford and Isaiah Thomas to initiate the offense has defenses spread out. Follow that with good ball movement off the multiple actions from that early set and defenses scramble with help coverages. Celtics are getting open looks. The Celtics pretty-good-but-defendable-in-the-playoffs offense of last season already looks far more dangerous, plus we know Horford will help on defense, too.

Horford puts the Celtics on the brink of contention, either the second or third best team in the East (depending on what you think of Toronto). If you’re worried about perception, know that other players (and their agents) notice that. They notice the ball movement, they notice the players like the coach. Another strong season will cement Boston as a team where other stars will want to go because of that coach, because of the system, because they can win, and most importantly because they can get paid (it’s always about the money).

In that sense, Horford does change the perceptions of the Celtics. Although Stevens had already started that process, opening the door for Horford.

It remains more likely that the next star the Celtics land is via trade. They have the picks, they have the young players a team losing a star and considering a rebuild likely wants, plus they have a couple interesting veterans whose contracts only have a couple of years left — Avery Bradley and Isaiah Thomas. It’s the worst-kept secret in the NBA — right up there with Rudy Gay is not loving Sacramento — that Celtics’ GM Danny Ainge is working the phones for any star player who becomes available. What’s holding those deals up is not a perception of the Celtics, it’s that trading for a star is difficult. Very difficult.

Celtics fans, enjoy what should be a very special season. Boston had the point differential of a 50-win team last season, and Horford makes them better on a number of levels. This is a team poised for a strong regular season and a deep playoff run. They are still a player away from challenging the team LeBron James is on, but so is everyone else east of Oakland. That shouldn’t diminish the joy of the ride this season.

And know the perception around the league of the Celtics is very good.

Watch Stephen Curry drop 35 in final preseason game

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It’s just preseason, it matters as much public pay phones do now, but still.

The Warriors just went 6-1 in the preseason, and they capped it off with Stephen Curry dropping 35. He was hitting three, driving to the rim, hitting shots falling out-of-bounds, and all the rest of the Stephen Curry highlight reel specials.

The guy is just fun to watch play basketball.

Clippers seeking deep playoff run to erase past failures

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Clippers’ regular-season record of 166-80 in Doc Rivers’ first three years as coach proves they’re one of the better teams in the NBA.

Their postseason results, however, suggest something else.

They’ve never gotten past the second round of the playoffs in pursuit of the franchise’s first-ever NBA championship.

Now, time is ticking on Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan, who enter their sixth year together. Griffin and Paul will be free agents at season’s end, while J.J. Redick is also in the final year of his contract.

If the Clippers don’t at least make the Western Conference finals, speculation is rife that the team could be broken up and rebuilt.

“We have the talent, leadership, tangibles and coaches,” Griffin said, “we just have to put it together.”

The Clippers went 53-29 in the regular season and lost to Portland in the first round of the playoffs, when Paul broke his right hand and Griffin reinjured his left quadriceps tendon, forcing both to miss the last two games of the series, which the Clippers lost in six.

It was the latest in a series of playoff failures for a team whose potential has yet to be fully realized.

In 2015, the Clippers lost to Houston in seven games in the Western Conference semifinals after blowing a 3-1 lead. In 2014, they bowed out in six games to Oklahoma City in the second round.

“This is the deepest, most talented group we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Rivers said. “That’s why this year should be great.”

Los Angeles opens the season on Oct. 27 at Portland in a rematch of last season’s playoff series and opens at home against Utah three days later.

Some things to watch for this season with the Clippers:

HOW GRIFFIN GOES: After missing much of last season because of a broken hand and the quad injury, he figures to have extra motivation. Griffin averaged 21.4 points, 8.4 rebounds and 4.9 assists while limited to 35 regular-season games. His hand injury was the result of a fight with a former staff member and landed him a four-game suspension and a loss of pay. Besides demonstrating greater maturity, Griffin needs to stay injury-free and boost a shooting percentage that has declined five consecutive seasons.

FIFTH STARTER: Who will join Griffin, Paul, big man Jordan and shooting guard J.J. Redick as a reliable fifth starter? The small forward options are Luc Mbah a Moute, Wesley Johnson, veteran Alan Anderson and Austin Rivers. The elder Rivers may pick one or rotate depending on the need in a particular game. Mbah a Moute started 61 games last season, Johnson shot 33 percent from 3-point range last season, and the younger Rivers can guard an opposing team’s top guard, giving Paul a chance to focus on offense.

ADDING VETERANS: Rivers, who also serves as director of basketball operations, went after veterans during the offseason to add depth. He brought in 12-year pro Dorell Wright, 11-year pros Brandon Bass and Raymond Felton, eight-year pro Marreese Speights, who left Golden State, and seven-year pro Anderson. Along with three-time sixth man of the year Jamal Crawford, they’ll comprise a talented bench. “We all understand what we’re playing for,” Crawford said. Starting the season, they all appear to have bought into the vision of Rivers, who will have to juggle minutes among veterans who might have found more playing time had they gone elsewhere.

PIERCE’S FINALE: Paul Pierce is playing his 19th and final season before retiring at season’s end. He turned 39 earlier this month and is the NBA’s only active player with 25,000-plus points, 7,000-plus rebounds and 4,500-plus assists. He and Doc Rivers won the 2008 NBA Finals together in Boston, and Rivers enjoys having him around as a veteran presence in addition to the Big Three of Griffin, Paul and Jordan. Pierce started 38 of 68 games last season and he’d like to improve his averages of 6.1 points, 2.7 rebounds and 1.0 assists before calling it a career.

D’Antoni says Rockets’ Patrick Beverley to miss about 20 games

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Patrick Beverley is going to have a key role with the Rockets — he is their best defending guard. And it’s not close. He can help space the floor as a three-point shooter, he can work off the ball on offense and serve as a backup playmaker, but mostly what he brings is fearless, physical defense.

Except he’s not going to bring it for a while.

Following rumors he might knee surgery comes this from Houston coach Mike D’Antoni, via Calvin Watkins of ESPN.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said he expects guard Pat Beverley to miss at least 20 games with a left knee injury. His absence “complicates” some roster spots.

Beverley is going to have surgery but may only miss three weeks or so, which is less than D’Antoni’s predicting, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

The Rockets are going to have one of the best offenses in the NBA but whether they finish fourth or seventh or out of the playoffs completely in the West will come down to a combination of health and how well they defend. This is a setback on both counts.

Expect to see more Eric Gordon, Tyler Ennis, and P.J. Hairston. Gordon has a real chance here. This is going to be an interesting year in Houston.

Jimmy Butler shrugs off idea he’s a “diva”

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The Chicago Bulls traded Derrick Rose to New York, in hopes that the locker room, “whose team is this?” drama would head East with him. This is Jimmy Butler‘s team, with Dwyane Wade now assisting.

But the drama isn’t gone yet.

On their way out the door, the camps around Rose and Joakim Noah tried to paint Butler as a Diva who was the real problem. When Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times asked Butler about it, he basically laughed off the idea.

“Am I a diva? I don’t call it that,’’ Butler said before Thursday’s 97-81 loss to Atlanta in their final preseason game. “My will to win rubs people the wrong way sometimes. I can blame it on that, but won’t apologize for it. Never will.

“As far as that talk goes, I don’t care. I’m going to keep working and if people don’t like it, people want to say what they want to say, that’s fine. I know, and I think these guys know, where my heart is and how I want to do right by everybody.’’

Rose and Noah thought Butler tried to jump the line to be the leader of the team, which they saw as still their right as the veterans. Butler didn’t care what they thought then, he certainly doesn’t now.

What matters more, Nicola Mirotic and Doug McDermott and Bobby Portis don’t care, and they are the guys still there.

Who will finish with the better record, Bulls or Knicks, is one of my favorite subplots of the NBA season.