The Inbounds: How Danny Ainge created the FrankenCeltics monster

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Welcome to The Inbounds, touching on a big idea of the day. It could be news, it could be history, it could be a tangent, it could be love. OK, it’s probably not love. Enjoy.

As Boston entered last year’s playoffs, they were favored against the Hawks. The biggest reason for that, despite what anyone would tell you, is that they are the Celtics. That’s it. You know how in the College Football Top 25 the same teams are placed at the top and given the benefit of the doubt, traditional powers whose weaknesses are overlooked because of their historical significance? Yeah, that happens in the NBA as well, it just happens when playoff prediction time comes knocking. It’s inconceivable that the Celtics could be toppled by the Hawks, unless the Hawks had a transcendent superstar. The Hawks do not (with apologies to Nets fans who likely believe otherwise). And so the Celtics were heavily favored, based mostly on the fact that they’re the Celtics. In truth, the Hawks matched up exceptionally well at full strength. They had more depth, they had fewer weaknesses in the starting construct, and they could run, which the Celtics tend to act like they love for about a quarter, just enough to convince you not to do it anymore so their legs don’t have to sustain a full game of it.

But of course, as was the pattern for most of the playoffs, everything went wrong for the Hawks, and everything that the Celtics needed to make go right for themselves, they did.

Do not be confused. The Celtics did not beat the Hawks because they were lucky, but they were granted some things which helped, like any team that succeeds in the playoffs does. Much was made of Al Horford’s injury, but the Hawks missing Zaza Pachulia was as much of a factor. They had legitimate centers to throw at the Celtics to hurt them where they were weak: at true center. But injuries rendered that incapable. The Celtics had their own injuries. Ray Allen, Jeff Green, Paul Pierce was playing through a sprained MCL. But the specific absences for the Hawks gave Boston the strategic edges it needed, and they took full advantage of it. They advanced.

Philadelphia actually managed to push Boston to seven games. They, of course, should never have been there in the first place, but Derrick Rose tore his ACL and like the Celtics throughout the playoffs, the Sixers made the plays to take advantage of Rose’s absence and win the series. But in a Game 7, the Sixers needed a hot shooting night from a terrible offense. It just didn’t break for them. You can’t say the Sixers outplayed Boston, because when Boston was engaged like in Game 5, it wasn’t close. The Sixers played well for spurts but not nearly enough.

And then they pushed Miami. I bought it hook line and sinker after Game 5. I thought Miami had once again folded up shop, that they were through, and that Boston was going to the Finals, proving everyone wrong. That they’re not too old, they are too good, and they are a championship-worthy team, despite all evidence to the contrary from Christmas Day through Game 7 of the Sixers series.

And then LeBron James destroyed the building and took a souvenir with him.

But in that there were definitely signs that the Celtics were running out of gas. Allen’s cuts weren’t fast enough. Pierce mostly limped through that series, outside of his burst of swag in Game 5. And in Game 6 and 7, even the mighty Garnett, the playoffs MVP for two rounds, was slow to rotate, unable to get up the floor, winded, and you could tell, beaten.

So this would be the end, right? The Celtics would slide quietly into the grave, and perhaps make the playoffs next year and fade into irrelevance like Detroit did, eventually being ousted in blowouts in an empty building in the first round. Or they’d save their dignity and commit to a rebuilding project. That’s how it would end. That’s how these things end.

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And then Danny Ainge donned a white lab coat, stuck an antenna to the ceiling of TD Garden, whipped out Wyc Grousbeck’s checkbook and made himself the FrankenCeltics monster. Brought back from the dead, half alive, half dead, stitched together with loose parts and molting tissue, a beast capable of destroying the countryside or stumbling off a cliff. Make no mistake, Ainge has created a monster, and there’s little way to tell how the Celtics will fit into the NBA landscape next season.

There’s a growing sentiment of “these Celtics aren’t old anymore” from their fanbase, which is, of course, nonsense. Kevin Garnett will still be their primary weapon at both ends of the floor. Paul Pierce could recover from the MCL sprain and be fine, but that won’t change the fact that age has started to tilt his game toward the breaking point. Their biggest offseason addition, Jason Terry, will be 35 at the start of next season. This team is still old.

It’s just also young.

Well, OK. Young-er.

Rajon Rondo is 26, no longer a pup. Jeff Green is 26, and we’re still hoping to discover a moment of maturation where he becomes whatever it is that he’s supposed to be.  Courtney Lee, 26, Brandon Bass, 27, Jason Collins, 33. But there are young guys. The rooks, obviously, Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo, and Avery Bardley at just 22 at the start of next season. Ainge has tacked together a veteran team of pro’s pros with a young and versatile team, mixed with big shot makers and athletic perimeter players. It’s mixing, maybe not the best of both worlds, but on nights it will seem like it.

And it’s allowed a high level of optimism to roam Beantown about next season. The problems with last year’s team (depth, versatility, and size) have been addressed through the draft and free agency. Ray Allen was “replaced” with Jason Terry. (Note: It’s an odd thing to say they replaced Allen with Terry. Terry is capable of scoring more with the ball, but is also not as efficient of a shooter, even last season when Allen had bone spurs in his ankles and suffered with his age, Terry also seemed to head off the cliff a bit with the Mavericks. It’s maybe an upgrade, but not at the same role.) They got the guys who were out who supposedly were missing from last year’s playoff run that would have been key contributors (Green, Wilcox).

But if we look past shamrock-colored glasses, what do we actually see of this monster Ainge has brought to life?

It’s going to be scary good at times, and an abject mess at others.

More of the former than the latter.

Experience matters in the NBA, and those teams tend to win. The Heat were the first team in a while whose core isn’t necessarily “old” to win the title. Those teams can usually topple others because their execution is sharper, their will stronger, their focus more resolute. And the Celtics have that. They won’t be missing guys who know how to close out a playoff series or hit the big shot. They won’t be missing defenders who understand system and don’t have to just rely on their bodies. But they also have those other players, the ones who can get out and run. For the first time, Rajon Rondo has the wheel and an engine to motor with. Green, Lee, Bradley, even the older Wilcox all can create mayhem in transition with Rondo whipping passes. The Celtics can produce offense in different ways than just throwing their opponent into the alley puddles and hoping they land a body blow, which was their offense last season.

They have the components to absolutely wreck teams. They can rest the starters when they need to and let the kids run, they can bring back the vets if things seem to be getting out of hand. Pierce and Garnett are still going to have throwback nights. But Boston’s not dependent on them every single night.

They can win without the old guys.

But they’ll win a lot of games because of the old guys.

When Garnett gets upset at people talking about him being old, he’s confused. He is old, in NBA terms, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a top-five player in the league last season. Factoring both ends, it’s hard to say he wasn’t. But he no longer has to be that great, every single game, for Boston to win.

This team may not be better than Indiana or Chicago next season. It is not better than the Heat. Its title chances are slim. But then, they were slimmer last season, and they were one quarter away from the Finals. The run is not over for the Big th….. oops. The Big Two Plus Rondo. This monster that Ainge has put together may not be invincible. But it’s not a bit character, either, a side plot. This thing’s going to have to be dealt with.

And if you want to kill it, you better bring more than pitchforks and fire.

Watch Joel Embiid’s game-winning dunk lead 76ers past Cavaliers 98-97

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The shots weren’t falling for the Philadelphia 76ers, so they clamped down on defense.

Joel Embiid scored 27 points, including the go-ahead dunk with 13.2 seconds remaining, and Philadelphia held Cleveland without a point for the final 3 1/2 minutes in a 98-97 win over the Cavaliers on Tuesday night.

Josh Richardson added 17 points and Ben Simmons had 15 for Philadelphia, which won despite missing 30 of 38 3-point attempts. Tobias Harris missed all 11 of his 3-point tries.

“You better guard if you’re not going to make shots,” 76ers coach Brett Brown said. “We knew if we were going to do anything, we had to play defense – and defense we played.”

Jordan Clarkson and Kevin Love each had 20 points to pace Cleveland. Collin Sexton added 18 points and Tristan Thompson had 17 points and 12 rebounds for the Cavaliers.

The Cavaliers trailed for most of the contest, but took advantage of Philadelphia’s poor shooting in the fourth quarter, going up by as many as five points on three occasions.

“We gave them life and were in a fistfight,” Brown said. “You can just feel it. We had a chance to discourage them and we didn’t. Certainly a hard-fought game and we’re lucky to get away with it.”

Cleveland led 97-92 with 3:34 remaining after Sexton’s driving layup, but the Cavaliers wouldn’t score again. Harris pulled Philadelphia within 97-94 with a follow layup and then hit a 17-footer on the ensuing possession to make it a one-point game with 1:42 left.

Cleveland had chances to build the lead after that, but Love missed a close-range shot before a shot-clock violation on the Cavaliers’ next possession.

“I think our defense was pretty OK,” Embiid said. “We just didn’t make shots.”

The 76ers were having their own trouble scoring with Richardson and Embiid failing to convert on consecutive possessions.

After a timeout with 26.6 seconds left, Brown called a high-percentage play with Harris finding Embiid close to the basket. Embiid slammed it home to give the 76ers their first lead, 98-97, since early in the fourth quarter.

“It was a great play-call by coach and we did the rest,” Embiid said.

Cleveland had a chance to win it, but Love’s 3-point attempt from the top of the key rimmed out.

“Kevin is a great shooter, not a good shooter,” Cleveland coach John Beilein said. “He took his time but just didn’t nail it. It’s one of many looks I’ll take at that time.”

 

Warriors two-way guard Damion Lee breaks bone in right hand

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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) Yet another member of the Golden State Warriors is injured, with two-way guard Damion Lee now out because of a broken right hand.

The injury occurred during Golden State’s 122-108 home loss to the Jazz on Monday night. Lee underwent an MRI exam Tuesday morning that revealed a nondisplaced fracture of the fourth metacarpal. The team said he will be reevaluated in two weeks.

“Hopefully just a few weeks,” coach Steve Kerr said before the team flew to Los Angeles, where the Warriors play the Lakers on Wednesday night.

Lee joins a long list of injured players on the depleted Warriors, who are 2-9 following five straight trips to the NBA Finals.

Stephen Curry had surgery on his broken left hand, which he injured Oct. 30, and will need another procedure next month to have pins removed. He said Monday that he expects to be playing again come spring.

The two-time MVP joins Klay Thompson, who is recovering from a July 2 surgery on a torn ACL in his left knee suffered during Game 6 of the NBA Finals. Thompson could miss the entire season.

Kevon Looney, who is dealing with a nerve issue that has kept him out since a brief appearance in the season opener, is going through more extensive workouts but is still not ready to return, while guard Jacob Evans III is still dealing with a strained inner thigh muscle and also will miss Wednesday’s game. Kerr said he is likely still at least a couple of weeks from playing again.

Backup center Omari Spellman was listed as doubtful to face the Lakers because of a sprained left ankle and already sat out Monday’s loss to the Jazz.

Kerr, who took over coaching the Warriors in 2014-15 and immediately won an NBA championship, has never had this short a bench with so few healthy bodies to mix and match rotations.

“We’ll just see how it plays out,” Kerr said. “We’ll figure out who’s ready to go and we’ll go from there. It’s challenging. It’s been kind of the theme so far. It’s not exactly ideal but it’s the reality. You don’t spend a whole lot of time lamenting anything. You just keep going.”

Bulls big man Cristiano Felicio out 4-8 weeks with broken wrist

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This is not going to impact the Bulls’ rotations — Cristiano Felicio has yet to touch the court for the Bulls this season — but it’s a setback for a player trying to prove he belongs in the NBA.

Felicio fractured his wrist during the Bulls practice Monday and will be out at least a month, reports K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago.

Cristiano Felicio, who has yet to land on the active roster this season, broke his right wrist after falling in Monday’s practice, according to coach Jim Boylen. The Bulls’ coach said Felicio will miss four to eight weeks with the injury.

“We had the X-ray. It did not show up on the X-ray. Then we had the CT scan and it showed up on the CT scan,” Boylen said. “We’re going to do an MRI (Wednesday) just to let them give us a little more certainty on maybe how much separation there is in there and how much time it will be.”

The Bulls gambled on Felicio a couple of years ago and signed him to a four-year, $32 million contract. That roll of the dice has come up snake eyes so far, with Felicio playing a limited role the first two seasons — and this season no role at all.

It is expected the Bulls will try to use Felicio’s salary in any trade packages they put together closer to the deadline, this injury would not impact that.

Asked about getting stabbed in back, Chris Paul says trade from Rockets

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Chris Paul has gotten traded three times in his career.

New Orleans sent him to the Clippers – but only after David Stern nixed a deal with the Lakers – in 2011. In 2017, Paul engineered a trade to the Rockets by opting in. Then, in an unprecedented star swap, Houston dealt Paul to the Thunder for Russell Westbrook last summer.

Paul recently discussed trades with comedian Kevin Hart.

Hart:

Why is it always such a crazy time when it comes to these trades and whether they’re happening. You’ve been part of some big conversations. Is it at a point where it’s just business, or is it becoming personal?

Paul:

Every situation is different. But the team is going to do whatever they want to do. They’ll tell you one thing and do a smooth nother thing.

Hart:

That’s the business side.

Paul:

Exactly.

Hart:

Do you feel like there’s been times where, “Damn, that’s a little eye-opening. I got stabbed in the back”?

Paul:

Absolutely. This last situation was one of them. The GM there in Houston, he don’t owe me nothing. You know what I mean? He may tell me one thing but do another thing. But you just understand that that’s what it is.

Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is an easy target right now. Many people around the NBA resent him tweeting support for Hong Kong protesters (who are trying to maintain and expand their freedoms) and costing the league significant revenue in China.

But, in this case, Morey brought it upon himself. He said in June he wouldn’t trade Paul then did so, anyway.

Maybe that was to protect Paul’s feelings if he stayed in Houston. In that case, Morey could tell Paul he believed in him all along. There’d be no way to know Morey was fibbing. Now that Paul is gone, Paul being upset is someone else’s problem. It’s a common tactic by executives.

Paul reportedly requested a trade from the Rockets, but he denied it. I don’t necessarily believe Paul. There was plenty of evidence of tension between him and Harden. It’d be pretty conniving to request a trade then throw Morey under the bus for making the trade.

But Paul’s denial of a trade request is on the record. So is Morey’s declaration that he wouldn’t trade Paul.

Morey must own that.