10 things about Modern Celtics-Lakers XX

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There are regular-season games, there are important regular-season games, and then there is Celtics-Lakers. On Sunday the two contenders will meet for the 20th time since the start of the 2007-2008 season, when the rivalry was truly renewed as Andrew Bynum emerged and the Lakers became good enough to justify trading for Pau Gasol, and the Celtics’ Big 3 first took the court together. It is the first meeting since the Celtics walked off the Staples Center floor in June, purple and gold confetti falling on them as the Lakers celebrated their championship after a fierce and ugly Game 7. Now the two will renew their rivalry, and although nothing in January will match the intensity of a Finals meeting, this will be as close as it gets.

So what are the factors in play Sunday? Here’s a rundown of 10 things in play when L.A. and Boston renew their historic rivalry.

1. The Old Gang

The players you know and love in this rivalry will all be on the floor. Kobe Bryant. Ray Allen. Kevin Garnett. Paul Pierce. Pau Gasol. Andrew Bynum. Kendrick Perkins. Lamar Odom. Rajon Rondo. Derek Fisher. All the relevant starters from 2008 and 2010 are starting Sunday, and all are healthy enough to play, which is good news. These players know one another, these players dislike one another, these players enjoy playing against one another. Garnett and Bryant provide fascinating contemporaries, both out of high school and legends on opposite sides of the court. The only players with relevant history in this rivalry who are missing are Sasha Vujacic, so he can get taken off the dribble by Ray Allen, and Tony Allen so he can vanish as the game continues. Part of the draw of this game is that it does feature not only the teams in the rivalry, but the full cast of players who have re-ignited it.

2. The Rondo effect

Rondo was dealing with a back injury in last year’s Finals and did not look full strength. This is no excuse, both sides had injuries to deal with, most notably Bynum playing on a torn knee tendon and Perkins out after tearing a knee up. But Rondo was not at full strength. Rondo also has dealt with injuries this season and has pretty much gone from injured list to playing brilliantly. His assist numbers have been pretty ridiculous this season, averaging 12.5 assists per game, and 50.4 percent of all assists for the Celtics, which is kind of insane.

Rondo’s best regular-season game against the Lakers was last Jan. 31, when he tallied 21 points, 12 assists, five rebounds, and two steals in a painful loss. In the playoffs, Rondo’s best game was in the ’08 series, with 21 points, seven rebounds, eight assists, and six steals in a huge win for the Celtics. He also had a triple-double in the Finals last June. When Rondo plays well, it’s a decided advantage for the Celtics, who cannot guard him with Fisher and have to adjust by putting other players on him and sending doubles. That will open up things. Rondo needs to be huge for the Celtics.

3. The New L.A. Bandstand

While the starters are mostly the same for L.A. and Boston, the reserves are wildly different. L.A. will be missing Matt Barnes for the game, but Steve Blake is in place, and Shannon Brown is a much bigger part than he was when the teams met in 2008. Brown had a nearly mute series against the Celtics in the Finals, but the three games he played the most in were all wins for the Lakers. With Nate Robinson coming off the bench on the other side, the Lakers need Brown to make his mark with his suddenly blistering outside shooting and take the pressure off the rest of the offense. Blake provides a competent backup to run the point and another perimeter shooter. Blake has been erratic this season, brilliant at times and disappointing in others.

4. The New Green Gang

But the biggest changes are on the other bench’s reserve units. The Celtics feature the deepest team they’ve had behind the Big 3. With Shaquille O’Neal, Von Wafer, the aforementioned Nate Robinson and Marquis Daniels healthy, along with Semih Erden and Luke Harangody getting minutes, the Celtics are able to make runs at different times with their bench units. If the Big 3 aren’t having a stellar game, the Celtics can still win with their bench, led in particular, by Davis.

5. The Drunken Seal Show

Davis plays a bigger and better part this season than he ever has. He’s leading the league in charges (estimated). He’s a top-notch defender in all areas, and his offense is as good as ever, hitting 37 percent from mid-range, and a career high 64 percent at the rim. Davis has brought energy and poise off the bench, and is a legit Sixth Man of the Year candidate. Countering the Lakers’ size beneath with his awkward, falling style of scoring and tough defense (as well as spittle) will be a key for the Celtics.

6. Finally healthy

Bynum has been a beast since coming back from his umpteenth knee surgery. He’s playing well on both sides of the ball and he makes the Lakers a wholly different, and better team, as showcased in the Finals last season. He’s the difference-maker for the Lakers. With him in the lineup, rebounds are a nightmare for L.A. opponents. He’s matched up with Perkins, who is still trying to recover in his fourth game back, and against O’Neal, who’s no spring chicken. If Bynum comes out aggressive, he could bury the Celtics.

7. Tactical artillery

The Celtics have an uncanny ability to free up Ray Allen, a constant threat from the outside, for open three-pointers. They like to run him off multiple screens, often weaving an opponent back across the same screen just to free him up for a minute. Allen’s precision is such that when his stroke is on target, it seems superhuman. He buried the Lakers last year in Game 2 of the Finals, hitting eight threes. That came two years after he nailed seven against L.A. in a clinching Game 6. When the Celtics get Allen the ball in space and he’s hot, he can drive Lakers fans to tear out their hair.

8. Best Big on the Floor?

Gasol is thought by many to be the best big in the NBA. Against the Celtics, his smooth, fancy footwork is offset by the Celtics’ brutal physicality. He has the turnaround every seven-footer dreams of and is thought of by some to be a more important part of the Lakers’ offense than even Bryant. Denying the entry pass needs to be top priority for the Celtics. Fronting Gasol won’t work because lobs lead him to tiny soft lay-ins. The only solution is to challenge on the perimeter, then bring weak-side help to get him trapped. The Celtics can block him if they get him in traffic, where they almost never get called for fouls for some reason. But in the mid-post, Gasol can do serious damage.

9. The Great One

Bryant is having an up-and-down season, at times his same brilliant self and at times looking very much the aging star. Outside of the clutch questions, he’s gone outside the boundaries of the triangle offense significantly at times, going one-on-five and putting his teammates in an offensive coma. But then, it’s still Bryant. Bryant is due for an explosive game, and after a disappointing loss to the Kings, and after the debacle on Christmas, Sunday is right up his alley for a breakout.

10. All in the system

Boston’s greatest asset, even more so than their star power, is their defensive system. They bring help at the right times, challenge all shots inside, foul when appropriate, or available, or fun, and harass their opponent on the perimeter. The triangle offense creates problems for this with quick passing, but it also creates congestion which the Celtics can capitalize on. They like to isolate Lakers and make them go into forced shots, which often the Lakers’ long shooters are primed for. Odom will need to deliver off sharp cuts, and passing has to be at a premium. A lack of ball movement against the C’s, and the Lakers’ offense will drown.

Evan Fournier says that Frank Ntilikina just ‘needs a real opportunity’

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New York Knicks fans haven’t had a lot to cheer for recently. The team traded away Kristaps Porzingis, who is thought to be the franchise cornerstone. Now they move forward with a young core, RJ Barrett, and tons of cap space.

So what does that mean for players who have been around in the Big Apple like Frank Ntilikina?

Based on how Ntilikina played in the 2019 FIBA World Cup for France this year, things might be looking up.

Ntilikina’s statistics weren’t eye-popping, but he was seen as a very solid player in a backcourt that helped propel France to the bronze medal in China.

To that end, fellow countrymen Evan Fournier thinks that all Ntilikina needs is a chance to shine.

Via Twitter:

Ntilikina’s season last year was marred by injuries, and he played in just 43 games. Still, he has the physical tools to be a useful NBA player, and he’s just 21 years old. With the surprisingly low-pressure situation in New York, it’s possible that extended time playing in the World Cup could help aid what Ntilikina is able to produce next season for the Knicks.

Report: Lakers receive DeMarcus Cousins disabled-player exception

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A chance at a championship. LeBron James. Anthony Davis. The Los Angeles market. Great weather.

The Lakers can offer plenty to anyone who gets bought out this season.

Now, the Lakers – who lost DeMarcus Cousins to a torn ACL – get a mechanism to offer post-buyout players more money.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

The exception holds little value presently. It’s worth less than a full-season minimum salary for anyone with more than four years experience.

But minimum-salary and mid-level exceptions decline throughout the season. This exception does not.

So, on March 1, a team with only a minimum slot available can offer a free agent just between $233,459 and $666,546 (depending on the player’s experience level). The Lakers can offer $1.75 million.

This means an NBA-appointed doctor ruled Cousins is “substantially more likely than not” to be out through June 15. Given that prognosis, the Lakers could open a roster spot by waiving Cousins, who’s on a one-year deal and facing a domestic-violence charge. They’d still keep the exception.

If Cousins can return more quickly than expected, he’d be eligible to play, whether or not the Lakers use the exception.

Damian Lillard says he plans to play for Team USA in 2020 Olympics

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Stephen Curry said he wants to play for Team USA in the 2020 Olympics.

He isn’t the only star point guard eager for Tokyo.

Damian Lillard, via James McKern of news.com.au:

“I plan on being a part of that. I plan on playing,” Lillard said

Though neither Curry nor Lillard played for Team USA in this year’s World Cup, there’s a potentially large difference: Curry never agreed to play. Lillard did then withdrew. USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo indicated particular scorn for players who decommitted.

Of course, Colangelo also wants to win. That might require swallowing his pride and accepting players who withdrew this year. He has talked tough in the past about players who didn’t show his desired devotion to USA Basketball. Lillard got cut in 2014 then missed the 2016 Olympics citing injury. It can be difficult to determine which absences Colangelo forgives.

One factor working against Lillard: The Americans’ point guard pool is deep. Curry rates higher. Kemba Walker earned respect by playing in the World Cup. James Harden (who also withdrew from the World Cup) and Kyrie Irving also factor.

I expect Colangelo to operate on a sliding scale: The better the player, the less prior commitment to USA Basketball necessary. Lillard is an excellent player. We’ll see how far that gets him.

And whether he’ll even want to play next year. The reasons for playing – pride of representing your country, prestige marketing opportunities – are more obvious now. The reasons not to play – injury, fatigue, personal commitments – are more likely to emerge closer to the Games.

Losing Kemba Walker would always sting. Hornets made it nearly as painful as possible

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Hornets faced a miserable choice this summer:

  • Lose not only their by far best player, but the greatest player in franchise and someone with a deep connection to the community
  • Sign a point guard to an expensive contract that will further inhibit an already-strapped team from competing at even a moderate level

Charlotte’s choice? Both.

The Hornets let Kemba Walker leave via free agency and replaced him with Terry Rozier (three years, $56.7 million). That’s a failure, not one of solely this offseason, but a failure nonetheless.

At 29, Walker would’ve likely become a negative value on a long-term deal. But at least he would’ve kept Charlotte more firmly in the Eastern Conference playoff race in the near term – not that on the fringes of that competition is a great place to be. There were reasonable arguments for and against keeping Walker.

But if the Hornets were willing to offer him only $160 million (about $62 million less than his super max), they should have traded him before it got this far. Why did they keep him past last season’s trade deadline? To have him represent Charlotte in the All-Star game there? To make a longshot run at the No. 8 seed? Without knowing exactly what other teams offered, that seems highly likely a mistake.

The Hornets weren’t good enough to make the playoffs with Walker. What makes them think they’ll be good enough with Rozier?

Losing Walker always would’ve invited a year of pain. Charlotte is too capped out, too veteran-laden to pivot in a meaningful way. But at least Bismack Biyombo‘s, Marvin Williams‘ and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist‘s contracts will expire next summer. Nicolas Batum‘s and Cody Zeller‘s will expire the following year.

Now, Rozier is on the books another year after that.

Maybe Rozier, 25, will become a key part of the Hornets’ next successful era. He has the requisite athleticism and has shown flashes of being a good starting point guard. But he’s coming off a down year. That counts, too.

It’s easy to pin Rozier’s struggles on a tough situation behind Kyrie Irving. That surely factored. Still, most players on a starting track would’ve fared better in those circumstances.

Credit Charlotte for creativity. By signing-and-trading Walker to the Celtics for a signed-and-traded Rozier, the Hornets got more spending power. But they probably would’ve been better off with a point guard in the mid-level-exception range like Tomas Satoransky, Delon Wright or Tyus Jones. It’ll take a major jump for Rozier to justify his near-$19 million-per-year salary.

Charlotte isn’t giving him much help. Jeremy Lamb left in free agency. Even though they have enough breathing room under the tax line to use the rest, the Hornets haven’t used their mid-level exception other than sliver for No. 36 pick Cody Martin.

Internal prospects look limited. Charlotte didn’t place anyone on our list of the 50 best players in 5 years. No. 12 pick P.J. Washington probably won’t change the franchise’s arc.

The Hornets didn’t reach this dismal point in one offseason. But this summer worsened the predicament.

Offseason grade: D-