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.

Damain Lillard outduels Russell Westbrook again, Blazers go up 3-1

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) Damian Lillard scored 15 of his 24 points in the third quarter, and the Portland Trail Blazers held Russell Westbrook without a basket in the second half in beating the Oklahoma City Thunder 111-98 on Sunday night to take a 3-1 lead in their series.

Lillard had another big third quarter after scoring 25 points in the period in a Game 3 loss Friday. In this game, the All-Star point guard was 5 of 7 in the third to help Portland take control for good.

Lillard made his first basket with 1:14 left in the first half after missing his first six shots, but he still had seven assists before the break.

“We’ve kind of come to expect it,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “He manages the game. He senses the moment when we need him to do different things. He’s an ultimate competitor. He is going to give it his all.”

C.J. McCollum scored 27 points, Al-Farouq Aminu had 19 points and nine rebounds and Maurice Harkless added 15 points and 10 rebounds for the Trail Blazers. Portland can close out the series Tuesday at home.

Paul George had 32 points and 10 rebounds for Oklahoma City. Dennis Schroder added 17 points.

Westbrook scored 14 points on 5-for-21 shooting. He missed his final 10 shots and was 0 for 7 for one point in the second half.

George missed most of the second quarter with three fouls, but the Thunder hung tough and led for much of the period. Lillard hit a 3-pointer in the final minute of the first half to give Portland the lead, then Aminu hit a 3 with 3.9 seconds left as the Trail Blazers took a 50-46 edge into the break.

“I thought in the first half, we weathered the storm a little bit with Paul picking up fouls,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “We didn’t close the half very well and gave them momentum going into the locker room.”

Lillard hit deep back-to-back 3s 27 seconds apart to give Portland a 66-54 lead. The Trail Blazers stretched the lead to 19 in the third quarter before the Thunder closed the gap. George hit a 3-pointer from the corner in the closing seconds to cut Portland’s lead to 79-68.

A 3-pointer by Schroder cut Portland’s lead to 97-87 with 3:35 remaining, but the Trail Blazers maintained control.

TIP-INS

Trail Blazers: Lillard was just 2 of 8 in the first half and scored seven points. … Made 22 of 23 free throws. … Outrebounded the Thunder 41-38.

Thunder: Donovan was called for a technical in the first quarter for a no-call against Steven Adams. … Shot 37.5 percent from the field. … Westbrook had nine rebounds and seven assists.

Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Kawhi Leonard scores 34 as Raptors take 3-1 lead over Magic

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) Kawhi Leonard missed the NBA playoffs last season, in multiple ways.

He wasn’t playing the games.

He wasn’t feeling the games, either.

That’s not a problem this season for the 2014 NBA Finals MVP. Healthy and happy, Leonard has the Toronto Raptors one win away from the second round. He scored 34 points and the Raptors beat the Orlando Magic 107-85 on Sunday night to take a 3-1 lead in their Eastern Conference first-round series.

“You just want to be out there on the floor, with your teammates and just feel that team spirit and chemistry, just trying to focus on one goal,” said Leonard, who was out for almost all of last season, his last with San Antonio before an offseason trade to Toronto. “That’s something I was missing, just being out, sitting out. That’s why it’s a blessing this year just to be able to play and be on the floor, regardless of what the outcome is.”

Pascal Siakam and Norman Powell each scored 16 for the Raptors, who can advance with a home win in Game 5 on Tuesday. Toronto has now won three consecutive postseason games, only the third time that’s happened in franchise history.

Aaron Gordon scored 25 for the Magic, making his first seven shots of the second half. Evan Fournier scored 19 and Nikola Vucevic added 11 for the Magic, who committed 17 turnovers that became 21 Toronto points.

“We’re better than what we’ve shown,” Gordon said.

And now the Magic’s season is squarely on the brink. There have been 11 teams to successfully rally from a 3-1 series deficit in a best-of-seven NBA series, and of those, only three pulled it off by winning a Game 7 on the road.

So it’s not impossible – just highly improbable.

“Our guys have fought hard all year,” Magic coach Steve Clifford said.

He liked the fight on Sunday, too.

Leonard just always had the better counterpunch.

He made 12 of 20 shots, added six rebounds and scored his 34 points in 35 minutes. He was in total control on both ends, and the Raptors shot 53 percent – a franchise record for a road playoff game. Serge Ibaka scored 13 and Kyle Lowry had nine assists for the Raptors.

“Road wins are the best, especially in the playoffs,” Leonard said. “And obviously, we all know the job isn’t done yet.”

A flurry at the end of the first half, led by Leonard and Siakam, put Toronto up by double digits and the margin stayed there the rest of the way.

Vucevic missed from close range – the Magic argued that Leonard was guilty of goaltending, the referees disagreed – with about 2:45 left in the half, a disputed play that could have gotten Orlando within seven.

Instead, the Magic went into the break down by 16.

Toronto closed the half on an 11-1 run, with Leonard scoring the first five and Siakam hitting a pair of 3s for the final six. The last of those 3s by Siakam came with 4.5 seconds left, and the Raptors headed into intermission with a 58-42 cushion.

“These series, and the games in the series, are a lot about imposing your will on a team,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said.

Whenever Orlando flashed some hope in the third quarter, Leonard immediately snuffed it out.

A dunk by Gordon cut the lead to 13? Leonard made a 3.

A 3-pointer by Fournier to get within 12? Leonard made a pullup.

A stepback by Gordon to get within 12 again? Leonard split defenders, absorbed contact and laid the ball in to start a three-point play.”

“He’s a Finals MVP,” Gordon said. “He’s doing what he’s supposed to do. That’s what they pay the man for, to come down here and be Kawhi Leonard.”

And before long, there was no more doubt about the outcome. Magic fans started leaving midway through the fourth quarter. The team’s dancers gathered for a group photo at midcourt not long after the final buzzer, as if they knew the last home game of the season had just ended.

TIP-INS

Raptors: Toronto is 28-2 this season (and 16-0 on the road) when leading by at least 10 points at the half. … Leonard’s teams are 60-31 when he plays in the postseason. Among players in this year’s playoffs with at least 60 postseason wins, only Draymond Green, Shaun Livingston, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry – all Golden State Warriors – have a better winning percentage.

Magic: Orlando, which fell behind 11-0 in Game 2 and 10-0 in Game 3, started Game 4 on a 7-0 run. The Magic started 6 for 6 from the field, and then missed 26 of their next 38 shots – going 1 for 13 from 3-point range during that drought. … Terrence Ross beat the buzzer for the second straight game; it was a midcourt shot to close the first half of Game 2, and this time it was a 35-footer to end the third quarter.

VIRAL MOMENT

Nurse was trending on social media for much of the game, after a fairly nondescript 3-second call on Fred VanVleet with 2:12 left in the opening quarter elicited quite the reaction from him. Nurse stood almost perfectly still on the sideline after the call, his mouth agape for about 15 seconds in some sort of disbelief. “Is that a good thing?” Nurse asked afterward, when told he was a social-media phenomenon.

UNTIMELY

Orlando has dropped three straight, its longest slide since losing four in a row from Jan. 23-29. The Magic have also been held under 100 points in three straight games for the first time since Jan. 6-9.

UP NEXT

Game 5 is Tuesday in Toronto.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Kyle Korver: ‘I have never been around a young player like Donovan Mitchell’ (VIDEO)

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Utah Jazz wing Kyle Korver has played with some good point yards in his career. Deron Williams, Allen Iverson, Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving, Jeff Teague, Dennis Schroder… the list is long.

That’s why what Korver said on Sunday impacted so many people.

Speaking to reporters this week, Korver said that he had never seen a young player like Donovan Mitchell take over a team and take responsibility for leadership the way the second-year Jazz player had.

Via Twitter:

Those are some pretty strong words of support by Korver, and Mitchell is going to need them. The Jazz are now down, 3-0, to the Houston Rockets in their first round series.

Draymond Green leaves arena wearing brace on right wrist (PHOTO)

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The Golden State Warriors have a 3-1 lead over the Los Angeles Clippers in their first-round series. But as it often happens in the playoffs, it appears the Warriors could be starting to get banged up.

After the game on Sunday, Draymond Green was seen wearing a brace on his right hand. NBC Sports Bay Area’s Logan Murdock published a photo after the game of Green sporting his new supporting wrap.

According to Green, it’s nothing to worry about.

Via NBC Sports Bay Area:

The next game in the series isn’t for a couple of days, so Green has a chance to rest up. Still, the idea that Warriors could lose some production value out of one of their most important playoff performers isn’t great.

Hopefully Green will be able to get healthy and the athletic staff will get him some treatment that works so he can play effectively moving forward.