Danny Ainge is still waiting for the Celtics’ identity to emerge

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This we know of the 2011-2012 Boston Celtics: They’re inconsistent as hell, and “inconsistent as hell,” doesn’t quite work against the likes of the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls. Boston has a long way to go before their championship prospects are treated with any kind of legitimacy, and the first step in that process is undoubtedly the establishment of some kind of collective identity. At the moment, it’s impossible for observers to discern exactly who these Celtics are — not because their true nature is disguised in the insanity of a lockout season, but because even the Celtics themselves are figuring out what kind of team they’re capable of becoming.

We know that the Celtics are among the league’s oldest teams. We know that Rajon Rondo’s play can be a bit erratic, that Paul Pierce is doing what he can with a slowed first step, and that Kevin Garnett doesn’t even attempt to take opponents off the dribble anymore. We know that their bench is filled with role players of varying competency, but that the Celtics as a collective unit are a bit lacking in terms of overall talent.

But we’re still determining how all of those interactive factors manifest themselves in a holistic form — how the combination of all that the Celtics are manifests itself on a day-to-day basis. We’re still waiting to see the best that these Celtics can muster, and Boston general manager Danny Ainge (per WEEI in Boston with Dennis and Callahan and via Sports Radio Interviews) is apparently waiting for that very same thing:

“Well, right now we’re, I don’t even know, we’re a seven or eight seed. That’s who we are. There’s no denying that. Every team has plunges in this sort of crazy season, so that’s who we are right now. But do I think we can be better? Yeah. We haven’t played to our capabilities yet. We haven’t been at full strength. I’m not sure who our team is honestly at this stage. So we’re waiting to see that. But we need to get to the playoffs and find out. But I’m not really afraid of who we play in the first round, or the second round. It’s going to be tough no matter who we play. And I’m not afraid of playing the best teams in the first round.”

Ainge has every reason in the world to insist that his team can play better, but in this case it’s hard to find fault in his general assessment that we haven’t seen the real Celtics just yet. Some may disagree that Boston is better than its current standing, but the flashes of truly effective basketball — which have lasted from a string of plays to entire games this season — hint at a pretty decent team that’s merely struggling to execute. That doesn’t mean that the Celtics will ever figure out a way to stabilize, but the contrast between Boston’s highs and lows has only served to accentuate both poles.

That said, I’d disagree with one particular aspect of Ainge’s assessment: we have seen the Celtics play to their capabilities thus far. It’s just been for short bursts bookended with incompetence, framed in such a way to make it more exception than rule. Boston has been both better and worse than the seventh or eighth seed this season, and though we may spend the entire campaign trying to figure out where the Celtics’ baseline really places them in the context of the Eastern Conference, prolonged inconsistency may speak more to the team’s nature than their peaks and valleys ever could.

Three Things to Know: Kawhi Leonard, Paul George’s sloppy first game shows promise

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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) Kawhi Leonard, Paul George’s first game together is both sloppy and shows moments of real promise. This was what the Clippers had been waiting for since July, what they had paid a steep price to make a reality and change the course of a franchise.

Paul George and Kawhi Leonard shared an NBA court for the first time and it was…

Sloppy.

A bit awkward, like a blind first date. Credit Boston’s active defense for some of that — it’s not a fluke Boston has the seventh-best defense in the league this season and forced 23 turnovers on the night — but through the muck there were moments of real promise. Like the first play of the game, when the Celtics trapped Leonard off an Ivica Zubac pick, Leonard fed Zubac, who quickly found Leonard for a three.

Moments later, when the Celtics trapped Leonard, and he found George for three.

For much of the game, things were not as smooth with those two on the court together — as should be expected. George missed the first 11 games of the season following double shoulder surgery this offseason. Once he returned, Leonard was out three games with a bruised knee. The pair had literally one practice together, and in the full-contact scrimmage to end that day they were on opposing sides.

This marriage going to take time. The Clippers didn’t even explore a Leonard/George pick-and-roll in this game, but you know that’s coming. As Doc Rivers put it postgame:

“We were kind of trying not to get in each other’s way at times, you could feel that…

“We need a lot of work, you can see that… part of that was we were trying to get the ball to guys instead of trying to score.”

With the game on the line in overtime against one of the NBA’s better and hotter teams in Boston, two things that make the Clippers so dangerous were evident.

One is the defense — George and Leonard each made big defensive plays late, including Leonard blocking Marcus Smart’s attempt at a game-winner.

All game long the Clippers length and defense gave Boston — which came into the game with the league’s fourth-best offense — trouble.

Second is Leonard and George have a good team around them — Patrick Beverley was the best Clipper on the floor Wednesday night and the team gave him the game ball afterward. He was intense on defense (as always), had 14 points and 16 boards, and with the Celtics making the choice to trap and double on offense guys were open, and it was Beverley who made Boston pay with the overtime dagger to seal a 107-104 win.

The Clippers, for all their star power, look a lot like Beverley. This is a scrappy, hard-working team with guys who play their roles and bring intensity. Even their stars are that way — George and Leonard are not anointed No. 1 picks where everyone saw their stardom coming, they are lunch pail guys who had talent but came out of smaller colleges and had to work hard to get where they are. Nothing was handed to them, they had to grind it out.

This is why pairing Leonard and George was always going to take a little time to make work. They were always going to have to figure it out.

But when they do…. you can already see why the rest of the league should be worried.

2) Another night, another ridiculous Luka Doncic triple-double. This feels like a nightly thing, and I’m fast running out of ways to praise Luka Doncic, his play, and to remind everyone that he’s just 20 years old and in his second NBA season.

Age doesn’t matter, he’s been so good he’s injected himself into the way-too-early MVP conversation. His latest feat Friday night was a 35-point, 11 assists, 10 rebound triple-double against the hapless Warriors — this time he did it in just 25 minutes on the court. He sat the entire fourth of a blowout Dallas win.

Doncic is now averaging a triple-double over his last 10 games: 31.9 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 10.5 assists in that stretch. Here’s the list of other NBA players to average a 30+ point triple-double for 10 games or more: Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Oscar Robertson. That’s it.

Doncic is special, has willed the Mavericks to a 9-5 record, and has them looking like a playoff team in the West. Lifting up your team to the next level is what MVPs do, and so far in Dallas it’s what Doncic has done.

3) Do you believe in miracles… YES! Ben Simmons hits his first NBA three. That headline may overstate the excitement around Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons on Wednesday. But not by that much. Sixers fans — and coach Brett Brown — has had to wait three seasons, 193 games, and 18 attempts from three clank off the rim, if they hit anything at all. (Those numbers include his playoff stats.) It finally happened:

Ben Simmons has made his first NBA three.

We’ve all seen the videos of Simmons knocking down threes in an empty gym, but that’s the NBA equivalent of dunking on an 8-foot rim at the local elementary school. Not the same thing.

This was Simmons’ first attempt at a three all season — that’s the real concern. To create floor spacing Philly wants and needs, Simmons needs to be much more willing to uncork this shot — he’s got to take a bunch and make enough of them before teams respect him from deep.

This is at least a start. And it feels like a miracle.

There’s a mural in L.A. of Alex Caruso dunking over Harden, Leonard, Doncic

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It’s hard to overstate how popular Alex Caruso is in Los Angeles. Seriously. This isn’t just cult status popular, when he enters the game off the bench Staples Center explodes in cheers like LeBron James just fed Anthony Davis for an alley-oop.

Now Caruso has his own mural in Los Angeles.

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This is legit, it’s on the side of SportieLA, a clothing/apparel store on Melrose Ave. in the trendy heart of Los Angeles. Artist Gustavo Zermeño Jr. has done murals in the past for LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and other Los Angeles sports icons such as Vin Scully.

This one plays off a huge Caruso dunk from earlier this month when Dallas’ Maxi Kleber was the victim.

It’s good to be Alex Caruso in Los Angeles right now.

Kawhi Leonard just destroyed Boston’s Daniel Theis on dunk

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Daniel Theis‘ play as a rim protector is one of the reasons Boston has a top-10 defense this season. He has anchored the Celtics’ defense in the paint.

Kawhi Leonard is a two-time Finals MVP, and if he wants to go to the rim nobody is stopping him. Theis found out the hard way.

After the game, Leonard was asked about the dunk and he responded in about the most Kawhi way possible.

This was the first game Leonard and Paul George played together and they combined for 42 points, and they both made key play down the stretch of a 107-104 overtime win.

It took Luka Doncic 25 minutes to put together 35-point triple-double (VIDEO)

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DALLAS (AP) — Luka Doncic scored 33 of his 35 points in the first half and had yet another triple-double to help the Dallas Mavericks rout the short-handed Golden State Warriors 142-94 on Wednesday night.

Doncic fell a point short of matching Dirk Nowitzki’s team record set Nov. 3, 2009, against Utah. In just 17 minutes, Doncic was 10 for 11 from the floor, making 6 of 7 3-pointers, and hit 7 of 8 free throws.

The second-year star from Slovenia had 22 points, five assists and five rebounds in the first quarter alone. He played only 25 minutes total, but still managed 10 rebounds and 11 assists.

Doncic was coming off a 40-point triple-double Monday night against San Antonio, and has an NBA-best seven triple-doubles in 14 games this season.

The Mavericks never trailed and tied a franchise record with 22 3-pointers while sending Golden State to its worst loss since a 1973 playoff game.

The Warriors, who ended a seven-game losing streak by beating Memphis on Tuesday night, are an NBA-worst 3-13. Their five-year run of at the top of the NBA has collapsed under a weight of injuries, with Draymond Green out Wednesday because of right heel soreness.

With Green out, Golden State dressed only eight players, none of whom suited up for the team last season when it made the NBA Finals for the fifth consecutive year.

Eric Paschall led the Warriors with 22 points.

Tim Hardaway Jr. added 20 for Dallas. Kristaps Porzingis had 14 points and 10 rebounds for his fourth-straight double-double.