ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: The Boston Celtics

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Last season: For the first half of the season Boston — with veterans like Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce — looked like that team everyone wants to avoid in the first round. Remember, the year before they had taken Miami seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. Maybe this version of the Celtics wasn’t going to be a title team, but they were going to be a tough out.

Then in late January Rajon Rondo blew out his knee and all bets were off. That injury was the first domino in a rebuild that landed full force this summer. Boston went on to win 41 games but was bounced in the first round of the playoffs by the Knicks.

Signature highlight from last season: Jeff Green makes a poster with Al Jefferson in it.

Key player changes: Welcome to rebuilding Celtics fans. It’s painful and kind of sucks. As has been said the Rondo injury was the first domino, the next was Doc Rivers heading to the Los Angeles Clippers — he was replaced in a surprise move by Butler College’s Brad Stevens, a guy very well respected in coaching circles but a guy making a jump from a mid-major college to one of the most prestigious jobs in the NBA. Danny Ainge rolled the dice on that one.

Then came the big trade that officially meant end of the big three era (which really ended when Ray Allen left anyway)—Pierce, Garnett and Jason Terry to the Nets in exchange for Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, Keith Bogans, MarShon Brooks, Kris Joseph, and three future first round draft picks. (Those picks are key in a rebuild.) That trade made it clear Boston was all in for the rebuild and the only question left was how far down that “get bad to get good” rabbit hole they wanted to go. Danny Ainge and everyone in Boston says they are not tanking, but should they?

Boston also brought in Kelly Olynyk and Colton Iverson through the draft. After one season, they let Fab Melo walk.

Keys to the Celtics’ season:

1. Can Rajon Rondo be a central building block? Can everyone tune out the trade rumors? Rondo could well miss the first part of the season due to his knee injury (no timeline is set), but his return date is not the biggest question about him or the team. Put simply, is Rondo the future in Boston or not?

Rondo is now the unquestioned leader on this team, but it’s time to prove he can really lead. On the court he has been fantastic when tasked with setting up veteran star players, but his jumper has been inconsistent and a lot more pressure to score will fall on him. Off the court he can be challenging and at times abrasive — you can lead being that way at times (KG and Kobe Bryant are as well), but you can’t be that way all the time. Rondo needs to show he is ready for the leadership role in Boston.

Then he and his teammates have  to tune out the trade rumors that will fly around this team. We should expect GM Danny Ainge to shop Kris Humphries like mad and if he can find a taker for Gerald Wallace he is gone as well. Really everyone on the roster is available… except Rondo. Maybe, well probably not Rondo. Ainge has listened to offers for Rondo for a couple of years now, and I suspect that will not change. But he also never pulled the trigger and has said he wants to see if Rondo can lead. He needs to be publicly firm about this now. If Ainge thinks the rebuilding of the Celtics is better done with the pieces they can get by moving Rondo (who has a lot of value around the league) then now is the time — get the best deal you can for him this season and move on. But I think what we will see long before that is Rondo getting his chance to lead Boston into whatever is next.

2. Jeff Green needs to be consistent. There was a game last season where Jeff Green went toe-to-toe with LeBron James and held his own by and large (Miami won but Green was impressive). That is the engaged Jeff Green. But there are so many other games (and halves of games) where he is Casper — he floats around, doesn’t make an impact and is generally passive. With all their roster changes the Celtics are putting a lot more responsibility on Green’s shoulders and he needs to show up and lead every night. Garnett said last year Green needs to be more of an a******* and KG was right. That needs to start this year. Green and Avery Bradley need to step up into the void on this team following the KG/Pierce trade.

3. You’re rebuilding, so throw the kids and see who can play. The Celtics have said they are not in the tank for Wiggins, and the truth is in the East they have the talent on the roster to potentially chase a bottom playoff seed — Rondo, Humphries, Wallace, Courtney Lee and Brandon Bass can all play. We know what they can do.

However, for the future of the franchise show me more Avery Bradley (who could have a big year), more Kelly Olynyk, more MarShon Brooks, more Jared Sullinger, more Phil Pressey. Those guys are only going to get bet better with experience on the court and this is the kind of season where you give it to them, even if that is frustrating at times.

Why you should watch the Celtics: Kelly Olynyk — the floppy haired rookie out of Gonzaga was a breath of fresh air at Summer League and one of the most fun players to watch. He showed he can rebound, scores well inside and just seems to be having fun out there. This coming season may not be a lot of fun in Boston depending on how things shake out, but Olynyk will be.

Prediction: 32-50. Honestly, that number is just a dart blindly thrown at the board — this team could be around .500 if they play their veterans and everything breaks right, or they could be the 13 seed and come apart at the seams. Teams in transition are hard to predict. If Rondo comes back healthy and can be a leader, if Avery Bradley’s offensive game takes a step forward, if Jared Sullinger is healthy, if Brad Stevens can coach at the NBA level, and most importantly if the Celtics can find a new identity then maybe they could get the eight seed. Probably not, but maybe at the bottom of the East where under .500 can get you in the dance. However, the more likely outcome is this is a pretty poor team that sees a lot of roster turnover in trades this season as the Celtics reboot and rebuild. So I’ll go with 32 wins.

Russell Westbrook goes from ‘Next question’ to ‘That’s a good question. Not sure’ (video)

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Russell Westbrook can be a pain.

Pain to his opponents. Pain to his teammates. Pain to the media.

Sometimes, it seems Westbrook even takes pride in being a jerk. Which is fine. His cutthroat attitude is part of who he is, and it has gotten him a long way.

Lately, Westbrook has clashed with Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman. For months, Westbrook has answered all Tramel’s questions with, “Next question.” Yet, Tramel keeps asking them – as he should. Westbrook has earned control over a lot of things. Tramel shouldn’t cede control of his job to Westbrook.

The back-and-forth has gotten increased prominence during the playoffs, when postgame press conferences are nationally televised. Both sides have found plenty of support. Westbrook’s fans love that his intensity never relents. Many also respect Tramel’s professionalism.

Four years ago, Westbrook infamously told Tramel, “I just don’t like you.” Westbrook got into it with Tramel again two years ago. But Tramel continues to cover the Thunder the best he can.

Likewise, Westbrook is trying to lead Oklahoma City the best he can. That means picking battles, even small ones like this, and pushing himself to win them all.

But after the Thunder’s Game 4 loss to the Trail Blazers last night, Westbrook finally gave an inch. But just an inch.

Tramel asked how the Thunder’s defense of Damian Lillard changed from the first half to the second half.

“That’s a good question,” Westbrook said. “Not sure.”

Tramel asked about the lessons learned about overcoming a 3-1 deficit to the Grizzlies in the 2014 playoffs. (Oklahoma City trailed 2-1 and 3-2 in that series, but never 3-1).

“Really don’t know,” Westbrook said.

For Westbrook, those answers were a huge breakthrough. They surprised everyone, even Tramel. Just a few days ago, the columnist predicted Westbrook wouldn’t change his two-word answers anytime soon: “He’s not going to give in this playoff series.”

Maybe this means the series is over.

Raptors coach Nick Nurse leaves mouth agape a loooong time after odd call (video)

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The Raptors got called for an extremely quick three-second violation during their Game 4 win over the Magic yesterday.

Toronto coach Nick Nurse couldn’t believe it.

Really couldn’t believe it.

Just couldn’t believe it one bit.

Bucks on brink of first playoff series win in 18 years

Associated Press
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ASSOCIATED PRESS — The Milwaukee Bucks can wipe away 18 years of frustration on Monday night.

They haven’t won a playoff series since the 2000-01 season, when they reached the Eastern Conference finals. That drought can end in Detroit if they complete a sweep of the Pistons.

The top-seeded Milwaukee cruised through the first three games, winning by an average of 24 points. If they lose in Game 4, the Bucks would have three more chances in the best-of-seven series to end their streak of eight straight first-round exits. The earlier the Bucks eliminate eighth-seeded Detroit, the more time they’ll have to prepare for the conference semifinals.

“It’s going to be nice if we can finish it here and get six days of rest,” superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo said.

In Game 3 on Saturday, Antetokounmpo had a quiet night and the Bucks still led by double digits most of the way. Antetokounmpo finished with 14 points, three assists and four turnovers and only played 27 minutes due to foul trouble. The Pistons couldn’t take advantage of his off night, though, as Milwaukee had six other players in double figures in its 119-103 victory.

“It’s good to see my team doing really well out there without me,” he said. “It means a lot to me. There’s going to be nights like this. My teammates did a great job of picking me up.”

The Bucks were up 13 points when Antetokounmpo sat early in the third quarter after getting whistled for his fourth foul. When he re-entered late in the quarter, they were leading by 22 points.

“It’s something we’ve been trying to build all year,” coach Mike Budenholzer said. “We’re a team that plays together, tries to take what the defense gives us. Guys have a lot of confidence to make plays. It’s not just all about Giannis, as amazing and great as he is. If and when we need more from other people, it’s a credit to Giannis to let his teammates carry him some nights, carry him some stretches.”

The Bucks will try match their regular-season feat against the Pistons. Their four-game sweep was the first by either team in the all-time series. They have met in the postseason four other times, with Detroit winning each time.

“We might be the number one seed and best team in the NBA (record-wise) but at the end of the day, we haven’t won a playoff series in a while,” Antetokounmpo said. “We’re hungry, everybody’s hungry.”

The Pistons’ best player, power forward Blake Griffin, made his debut in the series after sitting out the first two games with a sore left knee. Griffin toughed it out for 31 minutes and posted 27 points, seven rebounds and six assists. His teammates let him down, as Detroit shot below 40 percent for the third straight game.

“That young man is giving us everything he has,” coach Dwane Casey said. “He said he was feeling good. I was concerned about his conditioning with as much time as he’s missed. You can’t really simulate 5-on-5 basketball when you’re rehabbing. But he came in and gave us what he could. He just has a presence that we can’t replicate.”

The Pistons haven’t shown enough of a defensive presence against a team that averaged a league-high 118.1 points.

“We had some situations where we make a mistake or miss a shot, now we go down to the defensive end and don’t carry out our assignments,” Casey said. “That’s part of growth. That’s a team that makes you pay for mistakes that you make.”

Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: Not just Lillard, CJ McCollum outplaying OKC, too

Associated Press
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The NBA playoffs are in full swing and there can be a lot to unpack in a series of intense games, to help out we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) It’s not a one-man show, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum outplaying Russell Westbrook and Paul George. Coming into the series, both Portland and Oklahoma City faced a question: Could their stars help overcome weakness with their depth and support players. Through four games, one team’s stars are outplaying their counterparts.

That played out again on Sunday: Russell Westbrook was 0-of-7 shooting in the second half, 5-of-21 for the game, finishing with 14 points. Paul George was 8-of-21 shooting but at least was getting to the free throw line on his way to 32 points. Meanwhile, Damian Lillard had 15 points in the third quarter alone when Portland started to pull away, CJ McCollum hit some critical threes in the fourth (he was 5-of-9 from three for the game) to help the Trail Blazers stay ahead on his way to 27 points.

Portland went into OKC and won 111-98, taking a commanding 3-1 lead heading home for Game 5.

After the game, Jusuf Nurkic (sidelined with a leg injury) couldn’t resist taking a little shot at Westbrook and his postgame antics.

A lot of the attention this series has gone to the heads-up matchup of Westbrook vs. Lillard duel — and with good reason, it’s been bad blood and entertaining. However, that has left McCollum in the shadows and he deserves some spotlight for averaging 26.3 points, shooting 51.6 percent from three, plus having 6.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists a game against the Thunder through four. Oklahoma City has not had an answer for him.

Oklahoma City has had to play a lot of Dennis Schroder this series because he’s been efficient on offense (17 points on 6-of-12 shooting Sunday) but either Lillard or McCollum can just take him in isolation whenever they want and get buckets. It also helps Portland when Al-Farouq Aminu is giving them 19 points, as he did Sunday.

The big picture lesson in this series: Shooting matters. Oklahoma City’s stars are not finishing well enough inside, settling for more midrangers than they should, and unless it’s from the right corner the Thunder struggle from three. You’re not going to win a lot of games with the shot chart the Thunder had on Sunday.

2) Boston sweeps past Indiana to advance, East races shaping up as expected. The playoffs in the East are going to be a dynamic show, but we knew that was really going to start in the second round. One could make a case for Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia, or Boston to come out of the conference, but after those four there was a talent drop off. There was the first round to get through before the real fireworks began.

Boston advanced Sunday with a sweep of the Pacers, winning 110-106 behind 20 points from Gordon Hayward, who had himself a night.

Frankly, this series was decided back in January when Victor Oladipo went down with a ruptured right quadriceps tendon. Without him the Pacers — who played hard and smart in his absence, and were brilliantly coached by Nate McMillan — just did not have the firepower to score enough to make this series interesting.

Also in the East on Sunday, Toronto overwhelmed Orlando 107-85 to take a commanding 3-1 series lead as things head back north of the border for Game 5. That loss by the Magic all but sealed this series, which might have been a sweep if not for the rider in every Toronto player contract that they have to stink in the first game of every playoff series.

Milwaukee likely sweeps Detroit out of the playoffs on Monday night, setting up their showdown with Boston in the second round. Brooklyn has put up a fight against Philadelphia — down to their GM breaking NBA taboos and going into the referees’ locker room to discuss how they officiate Joel Embiid — but with the Sixers up 3-1 and having game 5 at home Tuesday, this series also feels inevitable.

Then we can get on to the main course in the East.

3) Klay Thompson goes for a swim, comes out of the ocean and destroys the Clippers, Warriors go up 3-1. Klay Thompson hadn’t played poorly through the first three games of the Warriors’ first-round playoff series with the Clippers, he’d played impressive defense and averaged 13.7 points on 44.4 percent shooting. But he hadn’t had a breakout game, the kind we expect from one of the game’s best shooters.

So he went for a swim (via NBC Sports Bay Area and Monte Poole).

“I told Jonas [Jerebko] yesterday when we went to the beach to play some volleyball, like, ‘Yo, I’m just going to jump in the ocean. I know that will reset my mind.’ And it worked.”

Sunday Thompson had 27 points in the first half, going on to finish with 32 on 12-of-20 shooting (6-of-9 from three). The Warriors won 113-105 to take a 3-1 series lead heading back to the Bay Area for Game 5.

“The Pacific Ocean is undefeated,” said Stephen Curry after the game (he struggled with 12 points on 14 shots, the Clippers have defended him well this series).

Golden State has a showdown with Houston coming. With all due respect to the other teams still in the dance in the West, that is your Western Conference Finals, it’s just taking place in the second round. Houston has dominated Utah and can sweep them out of the playoffs Monday night.

Houston is playing its best basketball of the season, it is defending at a high level, and the Rockets have a shot against the Warriors. They believe they can win, but we’ll find out starting next weekend (most likely, dates for the second round are not public yet).