What Heat-Celtics means to the Celtics

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“How dare they?

I mean, really, how dare they?”

That’s the attitude the Boston Celtics have had about the Miami Heat since the introduction of LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade with the smoke and the dancing and the pomp and the circumstance last July at AmericanAirlines Arena. Many neutral observers have taken up the Celtics as the hero in this little tale because they had a similar response.

How dare the Heat act so brazenly arrogant. How could they act with an air of victory without context, without results, without any semblance of humility? People want to identify with the Celtics as the counter to that kind of superiority complex. What they don’t really acknowledge is the reality of what the Celtics are actually saying:

“How dare they?! That’s our thing!”

There is no more arrogant team in the NBA than the Boston Celtics. Do not confuse this for criticism. The Celtics have converted an outright, ominipresent self-belief into the motor that propels them. They get to the defensive position before their opponent because they’re better at defense than anyone else. They get the loose ball because they want it more than their opponent. They hit the big shot because they know, with abject certainty, that they are the best damn basketball team on the planet.

Regular-season losses? Who cares? This team plays for June.

Lost the Finals? Yeah, but that was without Kendrick Perkins (guess we’ll never know how that one would have worked out). When not handcuffed, they can still claim superiority. And that drives them.

The Heat? The Heat are impostors to the greatness the Celtics feel they have earned with a championship in 2008 and, well … that’s it.

That’s all they’ve got. Which is way more than the Heat have done, but it’s also three years ago. This series? This is the first real step in the Celtics reclaiming their sense that the title is their destiny. The past two years have been foiled by injury, first Kevin Garnett’s, then Perkins. Whether those injuries simply revealed a greater weakness at the systemic or mental level will never be known, and it’s not really relevant. All that matters is that the Celtics believe that they were the victims of misfortune and not the work of greater teams. That confidence breeds what drives them in this series against the Heat. Indignation.

This series should not be “the biggest series, ever” or “the real Finals.” This Celtics core has played in 13 NBA Finals games. This Heat team has played in five NBA playoff games. The Celtics want to, need to make the point that the Heat are not in their league. They’re a fine team to watch on the highlights, but they don’t understand the sacrifice and dedication the Celtics have shown to be champions.

It goes further than that, though. It goes further than LeBron’s laughing and dancing, further than Wade’s commercials and fashion (though Wade has the most cred of any individual on the Heat, borne out of the ring he earned in 2006), further than Bosh’s ridiculous position as a legitimate superstar power forward in the NBA. The Celtics may be arrogant, but a thread of that cloth is connected to the hair shirt that comes with playing for the team with the most history in the league.

The Celtics have a keen awareness of what greatness is. They see it in the halls of the building, in the organization they play for. Red Auerbach’s victory cigar. Bill Russell, the original NBA legend. Larry Bird, and John Havlicek and Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish.

The Heat have no such connection. They have Michael Jordan’s jersey hanging in the rafters, for crying out loud. So for them to want to reach up and touch the gates of heaven? The Celtics take umbrage. You have to earn it. And if you haven’t, you had best not hold yourself up as worthy.

This series is about the Celtics proving they’re not too old. That they’re not crippled by the same chemistry that made them special in 2008, that Perkins was a brother, but he is not the family. It’s about protecting the legacy and vision of Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers, who brought them together and convinced them of a plan that was more than just “let’s all get together and throw a neat introduction and sell some T-shirts and win a title.”

It’s about defending the principles they believe to be self-evident, that defense wins championships, not highlight reels, and that the Boston Celtics defend better than anyone else. They want it more. They will do what it takes. They are great because of their play, not because of their brands.

This Celtics team is arrogant. But they are arrogant because they are good, and they are good because they are arrogant. That relationship is what makes them great.

The Lakers? That’s a series about rivalry and history, about respect, and about competing at the highest level. This series?

For the Boston Celtics, this series is about anger. The Miami Heat have dared to step on their floor.

The Celtics want to show them what that means.

Game 1 is Sunday.

(For what this means to the Heat, click here.)

Everything big and small goes right for DeMarcus Cousins in Warriors debut

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LOS ANGELES — It was the little things.

Not that DeMarcus Cousins’ overall line — he fouled out with 14 points on 5-of-11 shooting, 3-of-4 from three, six rebounds, three assists, one block, and he was +21, all in 15 minutes — was bad at all. In fact, it was pretty damn good. In his first game in nearly a year, Cousins looked like a slightly rusty version of himself. All the trademarks were there, from hitting threes to complaining about calls.

Cousins made the Warriors better from the moment he stepped on the court, and while the big things were obvious it was the little things should worry any challenger to the crown. For example:

• Cousins’ ability to not just score but to be a playmaker out of the midpost adds a new dimension to the Warriors offense.

• Cousins provides versatility to sets the Warriors already run regularly. For example, in the third quarter, he was the guy making the entry pass on the double-screen play the Warriors like, with Draymond Green in the post and Klay Thompson curing off the screens. Cousins set a hard screen that freed Thompson up for a clean look.

• He gives them another three-point shooter, one that creates matchup problems for defenses. The Clippers chose to chase Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson over picks and play on top of them, but that means the big has to drop back and protect against backcuts and drives. Do that with Cousins off the ball and he’s wide open for threes.

“I want to know what the scouting report is on me,” Cousins joked about how open he was from deep.

• Cousins is strong on the offensive glass and that’s going to lead to more kick-out threes for Golden State’s shooters.

• Cousins also gives the Warriors some defense. He’s a big body in the paint who knows how to get in the way. At one point on back-to-back plays Cousins drew a charge on Tobias Harris, then on the next trip down stripped Harris when he drove.

“Like a kid on Christmas,” Cousins said of how he felt on the night. “It’s been a long journey… this was probably one of the best days of my life, just being out on the floor again and playing the game that I love.”

Cousins was part of the Warriors picking up their seventh straight win, beating the Clippers 112-94. Curry led the way with 28 points.

Everything went Cousins’ way — he even got a standing ovation from the bench when he fouled out.

“Hopefully that’s the last time we give him a standing ovation when he fouls out, but it was great to see him out there,” Durant said.

“Probably all the fakest love I’ve received in my life,” Cousins joked.

The NBA world shook when Cousins signed with the Warriors last July. Everyone knew it was going to take him a long time to get healthy and right, but Golden State was a team that could be patient and wait for him, not rush him back, and when he did play it would be another weapon to punish switches or just use in their existing sets.

“I thought, good for him. It’s a good spot for him,” Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers said of his reaction when he read about the Cousins signing. “And then I thought, wow, that’s not right.”

Cousins started the game with Curry, Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green, which meant nobody could really double him.

“This is a first, like in my entire basketball career,” Cousins said of the lack of doubles thrown at him. “I definitely can get used to this.”

Cousins’ first bucket as a Warrior was a thunderous dunk, one created because his man had to focus on Durant (and Danilo Gallinari was late with the rotation).

“I’m just glad to know I can still dunk,” Cousins joked.

Cousins said he was nervous before the game but his girlfriend sent him a picture of himself in the hospital, sitting in a wheelchair the day after his surgery. That helped put the journey in perspective.

“It’s been a year since his injury, he’s gone through a long rehab process…” Kerr said before the game. “This is not the end of the story, this is sort of the middle of the story and it’s a milestone but there is a long way to go.”

Cousins is going to get better at things big and small as that journey continues.

Which should scare the rest of the NBA.

DeMarcus Cousins’ first bucket as a Warrior is a monster jam

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LOS ANGELES — DeMarcus Cousins sure looked his hops are back on this throw down.

Cousins started for the Warriors Friday night after missing almost a full year with a torn Achilles, and on the Warriors first possession they fed him the rock in the post. Cousins faced up on Marcin Gortat, drove baseline with a nice first step, but got caught under the basket and couldn’t power it up through the Clipper big, getting his shot blocked.

Nobody was blocking his next shot.

It was a side pick-and-roll where Gortat had to cut off Durant’s drive, but Danilo Gallinari didn’t tag into the middle to cut off Cousins’ roll (or, made the business decision not to). The result was an impressive first bucket for DeMarcus as a Warrior.

Cousins’ first shift was three minutes long. He’s on a minutes restriction for a while.

D’Angelo Russell drops 40 on Magic including shot that put Nets up for good

Associated Press
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D'Angelo Russell is playing like a guy in a contract year. And that’s just fine with Brooklyn.

Russell tied his career best with 40 points Friday night against the Magic, including hitting the shot that put the Nets up for good on the night with 27 seconds remaining. Russell was 16-of-25 shooting, including 8-of-12 from three, and he was an analytics dream — Russell took all but one of his shots either in the paint or from three.

The Nets — now 24-23 on the season and the sixth seed in the East — came from 21 back to get the win and that included their guards hitting the big shots at the end.

First up was Spencer Dinwiddie.

Then came Russell’s shot that proved to be the game winner.

With the Nets extending Dinwiddie during the season, it’s unlikely Russell returns to Brooklyn next season, but a number of teams are interested in him as a free agent (restricted, the Nets can match if the offer is low).

Report: Isaiah Thomas could return to Nuggets right before All-Star break

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The Denver Nuggets have shown off their depth this season. Three starters — Will Barton, Gary Harris, and Paul Millsap — have missed a chunk of time and yet until a few days ago the Nuggets were the top seed in the West, and they are still a clear second.

And all of that without Isaiah Thomas, their biggest name reserve. He has been recovering from hip surgery last March.

The Nuggets are hoping Thomas will make his debut next month, right before the All-Star Break, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Thomas has been gathering momentum in his rehabilitation process from hip surgery in March, and there’s hope among Thomas and the Nuggets organization he could return as soon as a Feb. 11-13 homestand against Miami and Sacramento, sources said.

There’s strong confidence that he will return no later than the first game after the All Star break on Feb. 22 in Dallas, league sources said….

The final hurdle for Thomas remains playing full 5-on-5 scrimmages. He is expected to start that process soon.

Thomas was playing well and playing through pain in Boston, becoming a fan favorite and pulling that team into the postseason, before his hip injury caught up with him. He tried to recover without surgery playing for the Cavaliers and Lakers last season, but that never really worked like he hoped. He had the surgery and signed a one-year deal with the Nuggets.

Thomas could provide a playmaking guard off the bench, although Monte Morris has filled that role for the Nuggets so well he gets mentioned as a most improved player candidate. Coach Mike Malone will need to finesse the minutes to get both of them touches and involved. How much Thomas can help the Nuggets in the playoffs depends on how he recovers (he has always been a defensive liability because of his size, which factors in as well).

If Thomas can show he would have value as a bench player he will have teams calling next July about a much bigger contract. He has motivation, and he’s popular around the league — people want to see him succeed. But is he fully healthy and does he still have the lateral explosiveness that made him so hard to stop on drives to the rim? We should find out the final couple months of the season.