NBA Season Preview: The Boston Celtics

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Thumbnail image for Pierce_celebrate.jpgLast season: 50-32 during the regular season, but 17-17 down the stretch as key players got rest and healthy for the playoffs. Then they played like the 2008 Celtics in the postseason and advanced all the way to Game 7 of the NBA Finals before falling.

Head Coach: Doc Rivers, back for what may well be his final season. That may come up in motivational speeches by team members.

Key Departures: Tony Allen will be missed; Rasheed Wallace will only be missed by sports talk radio hosts on a slow day looking to piss off Celtics faithful by bringing him up.

Key Additions: Jermaine O’Neal and Shaquille O’Neal, who will bring some scoring to the Celtics front line that Kendrick Perkins could not. They will not bring his defense, however. Also added were DeLonte West and Von Wafer, the former of which will make good contributions.

We also need to note under additions that they kept the core of this team together. Boston could have let Paul Pierce and Ray Allen go and started to rebuild this team around Rajon Rondo, but they brought everybody back for a couple years and a couple more runs at it. Then the rebuilding will start.

Best case scenario: An NBA Championship. They were within one game of it last year and may have pulled it off if Kendrick Perkins had been healthy for Game 7 in Los Angeles. (But the Lakers dealt with injuries, too, so it’s a slippery slope.) This team is poised to make two more runs at a title, then the rebuilding will start in Boston.

For that to happen: Two key things will have to take place. First, this team has to stay healthy. That is true of the contenders in Miami and Los Angeles and everywhere else, too, but it is particularly key for a Celtics squad just slightly younger than Dick Bavetta.

The health thing starts with Kevin Garnett coming back healthy enough to be 90 percent of his 2008 self. He is still the heart and soul of this team, he is the guy who makes the defense work, who can get some easy buckets in the halfcourt. Along with that, Kendrick Perkins needs to come back and by the playoffs be close to the defensive force that he was before Game 6 of the finals last season. And, of course, no other key players can go down with big injuries.

The other key thing is that the Celtics defense has to remain as good as any in the league. It is going to have to do that with Lawrence Frank in charge of it, not Tom Thibodeau. It is going to have to be that way with Shaquille O’Neal and his defensive freelancing, his terrible pick-and-roll defense, getting key minutes. It’s going to have to be that good with Jermaine O’Neal as the starting center. It’s going to need that healthy Garnett we talked about before.

If the defense slips, so does Boston. It’s that simple.

More likely the Celtics will: Be right in there for an NBA title run. Just like in the paragraphs above. This team is one of your handful that is a legitimate title contender. There are questions to be answered, things that need to go their way, but they are in the mix. That is all you can ask to start the season.

I expect Rajon Rondo to continue is upward climb, to become more of the key cog of this team on offense.

Boston is going to need to work on integrating those additions. Particularly the two O’Neals along the front line — those two will bring more offense out of the five spot than the Celtics have seen in the Big 3 era. But neither of them are defensively focused. DeLonte West again is a good fit but will need to blend in. When Perkins comes back the front line rotations will need to be figured out and stabilized.

Still this is the core of a team that went to Game 7 of the NBA finals last season and won a title a couple years ago. This team knows how to answer the questions that are out there. If they can hold up physically, they will be able to answer them. They will be contenders.

There will come a time this season when the Celtics play .500 ball or below for 20 games or so. And we will all put our short memories on display. We will say they don’t look like contenders and this is different than last season, different than 2008. And Rivers will ignore everyone and work on getting guys rested and healthy for the playoffs. He knows if they are, they will be right there, knocking on the door of another banner for the crowded rafters.

Prediction: 50 wins. Same as last year. Certainly, the Celtics could easily win more, but like last season the focus by the Celtics will be less on the regular season and more on being healthy and rested come the playoffs. The depth up front could give them more wins, but the East is deeper too so there will be fewer nights when they win by just walking on the court. I think it all balances itself out.

Basically the same team as last year. One capable of winning a title if things go right.

Rumor: Indiana coach Nate McMillan is on hot seat

Indiana coach hot seat
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Last season, Indiana’s Nate McMillan finished fourth in Coach of the Year voting, taking a team that lost star Victor Oladipo after just 36 games and still got them into the playoffs. McMillan is going to get COY votes again this year for much the same reason — his teams play good defense and overachieve.

Indiana coach Nate McMillan is also on the hot seat.

It’s surprising, and it’s just a rumor, but ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy and Zach Lowe had this conversation on a recent episode of The Lowe Post podcast (hat tip PacersTalk.net).

Van Gundy: “I had two people come up to me since I’ve been here [in the NBA restart bubble] and say, ‘Nate McMillan’s in trouble.’”

Lowe: “It’s been the hottest rumor all season… What you’ve heard in Orlando’s been going around all season…

“Let me be clear: It’s just a rumor. I don’t know if it’s true. When you talk to people around the Pacers, they say, ‘It’s not true’ or ‘Where you’d hear that from?’”

Maybe management wants a more modern offense, the Pacers are bottom eight in both three pointers attempted and pace. Overall, Indiana’s offense is middle of the pack (18th in the league), which is not bad considering it was without Oladipo for most of the season (and he was playing his way into shape when he returned and was not at an All-NBA level).

It’s hard to imagine that the Pacers would make a change this offseason, which will be short and give a new coach less time to ramp up a program. Plus, does owner Herb Simon want to pay two coaches? The finances of the league are helping other coaches keep their jobs.

More than all that, McMillan doesn’t deserve to be fired.

Not that “deserved” has had much to do with NBA coaches keeping their jobs in the past.

 

Phoenix Suns, a perfect 4-0 in the bubble, are growing and thinking playoffs

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The last time Devin Booker walked off the court as a winner in four consecutive games, these were the opponents: Hampton, Cincinnati, West Virginia and Notre Dame.

That is, until now.

Booker and the Phoenix Suns – the team that came to the NBA restart at Walt Disney World with the worst record in the Western Conference and the second-worst record of the 22 teams in the field – are perhaps the best story of the bubble.

They’re 4-0 at Disney, breathing real life into playoff hopes that basically were nonexistent when the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic on March 11. It’s the team’s first four-game winning streak since December 2018; Booker missed one of those games, so it’s his first run of four wins in a row since helping Kentucky make its Final Four run in 2015.

“It definitely feels like a tournament, a big AAU tournament, the March Madness tournament,” Phoenix’s Cameron Payne said Friday. “That’s something I never even got a chance to be in, but hey, I’ll take this.”

The Suns started their bubble run with a win over Washington and followed that with victories against three playoff-bound teams – first Dallas, then the Los Angeles Clippers (both of those games being 117-115 finals, the win over the Clippers sealed by a Booker buzzer-beater) and next a 114-99 victory Thursday over Indiana.

A team that had a stretch of four wins in 20 games during November and December, then a run of four wins in 15 games during January and February, got to the bubble and are now 4-for-4.

The Suns are riding a 10-year playoff drought, the second-longest current one in the NBA, but now they’re thinking big and for good reason.

“Well, you know, this is in the fledgling stages, for sure,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “We’ve got a lot more work to do. And there’s a process that we’ve kind of gotten ourselves involved in and we’re going to stick to that. So, fun? I don’t have time to have fun right now. It’s always good to win, but I’m working right now. And I want guys to understand, it’s fun when you win – but then you’ve got to turn the page and get right back to work.”

Williams understands the reality for the Suns right now. They entered Friday 1-1/2 games out of ninth place and the play-in series that will decide the last postseason berth in the West. And while the 4-0 start has been noteworthy, even an 8-0 mark in the seeding games wouldn’t guarantee the Suns a trip to that play-in round.

The Suns play Miami on Saturday, then finish the regular season against Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and Dallas.

“I’ve been in five years now and haven’t had that much success,” Booker said. “But, you know, I’m working hard every day to turn that narrative and change that narrative. We have a good bunch in here to do it. A lot of young players mixed with some veteran presence and it’s a good look for us. So, we’re going to keep our head down, keep working.

“I don’t think anybody here is worried about 4-0. We still have plans and goals for this team to reach and 4-0 wasn’t it.”

Booker is averaging 28 points in the four games. Deandre Ayton, another big piece of the young Suns’ core, is averaging 18.3 points and 9.3 rebounds. There are six players averaging double figures in all, including Payne, who is shooting 53% from 3-point range in his first four games with the Suns.

“We definitely feel good,” Payne said. “We’re not here for no reason.”

Report: NBA players bypassing ‘snitch’ hotline to call Adam Silver directly

NBA commissioner Adam Silver
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No NBA players have been diagnosed with coronavirus in the bubble. And they want to keep it that way. A championship and a lot of money are on the line.

That means preventing players from having close contact with anyone outside the bubble. And, in case someone contracts coronavirus, wearing masks (intact masks) to prevent a wider outbreak.

The NBA set up a hotline – quickly dubbed the “snitch” hotline – for players to report violations.

Chris Haynes of TNT:

Players have been circumventing that process. Sources informed me that multiple players are personally calling commissioner Adam Silver to issue their complaints with things they’re seeing in the bubble.

Adam Silver is accessible to players – particularly the president of the union.

I’m not sure about tattling straight to the top boss when there are other protocols in place. Are hotline calls not resulting in changed behavior?

Either way, it’s important for the NBA to keep players safe – both for their health and the league’s revenue (about half of which goes to players in salary). So, cut Chris Paul anyone calling Silver a break. They’re at least trying to help. And so far, violations inside the bubble have led to reminders, not harsher discipline.

Zion Williamson sitting out Pelicans-Wizards (rest)

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The Pelicans have been one of the NBA’s most disappointing teams in the bubble. New Orleans has gone 1-3 at Disney World and fallen to 13th in the Western Conference.

Still (barely) hanging in the race to make the play-in, the Pelicans must face the Wizards without Zion Williamson.

Pelicans:

The Pelicans are treating Williamson carefully – and they should. He’s their 20-year-old franchise player with major health concerns.

But New Orleans still has its highest ceiling now with Williamson on the floor. He’s an offensive force. His interior scoring and gravity create efficient looks for himself and teammates.

Williamson has been woeful defensively, and the Pelicans have bigs – Derrick Favors and Jaxson Hayes – to take Williamson’s minutes. New Orleans can go small, too.

The Pelicans should still beat Washington, even without Williamson. Ideally, this will have Williamson ready for a closing stretch against the Spurs, Kings and Magic without sacrificing today’s game.

Yet, this is really just proof New Orleans isn’t as ready to launch as it appears during Williamson’s most exciting moments. His availability remains murky. His team has run hot and cold. I wouldn’t assume a win over the Wizards – though it’s a game the Pelicans need to preserve their fading playoff hopes.