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Three Things to Know: Celtics project confidence after fourth straight loss… should they?

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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) Celtics continue to project confidence as defense falls apart weeks before playoffs. The Boston Celtics have eight games left before the playoffs begin — playoffs that almost certainly will start on the road in Indiana. This is when Boston should be building momentum and confidence for a deep playoff run…

The Boston Celtics have lost four games in a row. In that stretch their defense is fourth worst in the NBA, clustered around Memphis and Washington and other teams missing the postseason. In their last 10 games, their defense is bottom 10 in the NBA.

So much for building momentum.

Yet even after LaMarcus Aldridge dropped 48 on them and the Spurs beat the shorthanded Celtics (no Al Horford or Jayson Tatum) on Sunday, Boston was projecting confidence. Marcus Smart, Kyrie Irving, and Brad Stevens all were. (Via A. Sherrod Blakely of NBC Sports Boston).

“I know we’ve been here plenty of times before saying the exact same thing — ‘We’re gonna get it, we’re not worried about it’ — but we can’t put extra extra extra stress and more weight on ourselves,” Smart said… “”We got to take a deep breath, breathe, just relax — and then go out there and have fun and play basketball.”

“I never worry about how we’ll respond,” said Irving. “We’ve proven that. We just have to be consistent with that and be committed to it, that’s all. We have a lot of great guys in this locker room and they are committed to winning. We have winners in this locker room as well, so I’m never worried about trying to go back and respond with these guys. They are a resilient group who have proven that for the last year and a half we’ve been together.”

“I don’t think we’ve given any reason to suggest that [Boston can figure it out] right now,” said Stevens “But I think, ultimately, we’ll see how the rest of this story plays itself out.”

It’s better the Celtics are confident than panicking… but if Celtics fans wanted to panic, I wouldn’t blame them.

When Boston made it’s unexpected run to the Eastern Conference Finals last season (despite no Irving or Gordon Hayward) it was on the back of an elite defense. Tatum and Terry Rozier got deserved credit for stepping up and taking on the offensive load, but what kept the Celtics going through all of that was a defense that could slow any team down, anchored by Al Horford playing elite ball in the paint. That was the foundation of their success. It should have been again this season.

Now, that Celtics foundation seems built on sand. Boston was up 18 on Charlotte with less than nine minutes to go Saturday then gave up 30 more points the rest of the way and lost. The Celtics’ four straight losses are to three playoff teams and a Hornets team playing with the desperation of a team trying to hang on to its playoff hopes (keep reading down to item No. 2). Give those teams credit —  and give

the Spurs credit for doing what they do and executing the game plan, and for LaMarcus Aldridge for just going off.

I can envision a scenario where Boston, playing a shorthanded Pacers team in the first round, gets pushed six or seven games but starts to find its groove and by the end is playing with the confidence and teamwork we saw last season. Those kinds of leaps can happen in the playoffs. Then the Celtics bring that increased level of play up against a Bucks team without that playoff experience (and maybe without Malcolm Brogdon) and suddenly Boston is dominating like the team we expected preseason. That absolutely could happen.

But watch the Celtics the past week or so and it’s hard to envision that scenario. We’re 74 games into the season and it feels a little late for “We’re gonna get it, we’re not worried about it.”

2) Charlotte will not let its playoff dreams die, even if it takes a Jeremy Lamb prayer to keep them alive. Saturday night the Hornets came from 18 points down to the Celtics to stay within two games of the Miami Heat and the playoffs.

Then on Sunday, Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard looked like the closer the Raptors need him to be. Toronto was down 13 midway through fourth but went on 18-3 run to take lead, with Pascal Siakam (10 points in fourth) making plays Leonard hitting the shots when it mattered, including the apparent game-winner.

Then Jeremy Lamb did this from 48 feet.

Unreal. Siakam even made a good defensive play to tip the ball into the backcourt.

Watch Kemba Walker’s reaction in the last angle of that video — he had popped out from the far side and the hope was likely he would get the ball, but he was well defended. When Lamb took his shot Walker turns his back and throws down his arms in disgust. That was never going to go in… until it did.

Charlotte is still two games back of Brooklyn and Miami, who are tied for the 7/8 seeds in the East, and fivethirtyeight.com gives the Hornets just a 14 percent chance of making the playoffs. It’s still a longshot. But so was Lamb’s shot. Sometimes desperation heaves work out.

3) LeBron James drops triple-double, “I will not cheat the game.” The Lakers are out of the playoffs. There is more interest in who will coach the team next season (and who will be on the roster) than there is in the remaining games. For the sixth straight year, the Lakers are just playing out the string.

That didn’t stop LeBron from dropping a 29-11-11 triple-double on the Suns in a Lakers’ win Sunday night (Kyle Kuzma had 29, too).

LeBron is not going to cheat the game. He would never anger the game gods like that.

 

Team USA keeps top spot in FIBA men’s world rankings, Spain No. 2

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USA Basketball has kept its No. 1 spot in the FIBA world men’s rankings, even after a disappointing seventh-place showing in the World Cup that ended earlier this week.

It’s now nine-years-and-counting in the top spot for the U.S., which has held the No. 1 ranking since winning the 2010 world championship. World Cup champion Spain stayed No. 2, Australia leaped eight spots to No. 3, World Cup finalist Argentina rose one spot to No. 4 and World Cup bronze-medalist France fell two slots to No. 5.

FIBA’s rankings take results from the most recent eight years into account – which means the U.S. is still reaping point benefits from the 2012 and 2016 Olympic gold medals and the 2014 World Cup title.

“In this day and age, basketball in other countries is not a secret,” U.S. coach Gregg Popovich said after the Americans completed their run in the World Cup. “So it’s not like there’s an epiphany or a revelation to be made. There are wonderful teams and wonderful coaches all over the world. You go compete and the best teams win.”

It’s now expected that the U.S. will retain the No. 1 ranking going into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Several top NBA players, including Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Damian Lillard have said in recent days that they intend to play for the U.S. in Tokyo, where the Americans will try to win a fourth consecutive gold medal.

Most top U.S. players declined to be part of the World Cup team.

“I’m expecting them to be so strong next year,” Spain coach Sergio Scariolo said.

OLYMPIC UPDATE

The new rankings confirmed that European champion Slovenia, which didn’t earn a spot in the World Cup field after many of its top players couldn’t take part in qualifying since those games conflicted with the NBA and Euroleague schedules, will still have a chance to compete in the Olympics – as will seven other teams that found out they’re headed to playoffs next year.

Angola, Senegal, Mexico, Uruguay, China, Korea and Croatia also still have Olympic hopes. Those last eight playoff spots awarded Thursday went to the top two teams from Africa, Europe, Asia-Oceania and the Americas regions who hadn’t either already clinched Olympic berths or spots in the last-chance playoffs.

Japan is automatically qualified for the 12-team Olympic tournament as the host country. The U.S., Argentina, Nigeria, Spain, France, Iran and Australia clinched Olympic spots at the World Cup by finishing as the best teams in their respective FIBA regions – the Americas, Africa, Europe, Asia and Oceania.

That leaves four unclaimed Olympic berths, and 24 teams to compete for them in playoffs next year. There will be four six-team tournaments held from June 23-28, 2020 – winner-take-all, all in this case meaning an Olympic berth. Bidding for sites is expected to begin shortly, FIBA said.

The other 16 playoff spots were awarded based on World Cup placing. They went to Serbia, Lithuania, Greece, Russia, Brazil, Italy, Puerto Rico, Turkey, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Germany, Canada, the Czech Republic, Poland, New Zealand and Tunisia.

MOVING UP

Belize was the top mover in the new rankings, climbing 50 spots to No. 118. Kosovo rose 21 spots to No. 69, Togo went up 21 spots to No. 136, Tunisia climbed 18 spots to No. 33 and Ivory Coast went up 16 spots to No. 48.

STILL SWEEPING

FIBA has four sets of rankings – for men, women, boys and girls. The U.S. holds the No. 1 spot in all four of those rankings, though the race is tightest among the men.

The U.S. men hold a lead of 54.9 points over Spain in those rankings, while the rankings margins held by the U.S. women (310 points over No. 2 Spain), boys (291 points over No. 2 Canada) and girls (155 points over No. 2 Spain) are far more comfortable.

Report: NBA won’t allow Rockets to use Nene’s contract as $10M trade chip

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Update: Shams Charania of The Athletic:

This is a huge blow to Houston. The Rockets are now stuck with an over-the-hill center they can’t trade for value and can’t play much without triggering bonuses that’ll make him way overpaid.

If they had known how this would turn out, they would’ve signed Nene to a one-year minimum contract at most. At least that’d be partially subsidized by the league. Because this is is a two-year deal, Houston is on the hook for the full base salary.

 

 

The Rockets got a valuable trade chip with Nene’s contract.

At least if the deal goes through.

Bobby Marks of ESPN:

Although Nene signed with the Houston Rockets on Sept. 6, the NBA has yet to officially approve the deal. The 10-day delay is a result of the NBA discussing internally whether it should disapprove details in the contract, according to multiple sources.

Nene’s contract includes a low base salary with a massive amount of likely incentives. Houston could count Nene’s full $10 million salary (base plus likely incentives) in a trade. The acquiring team would then owe Nene his base salary plus only the bonuses he actually triggers.

It’s a workaround to the typical salary-matching rules.

The bonuses are tied to individual games played and team games won. Because Nene played 42 games for the 53-win Rockets last season, the bonuses are qualified as likely. Last year’s performance is the default way to determine whether incentives are likely or unlikely.

You can read more about the contract’s structure here.

The NBA’s apprehension is interesting. The Collective Bargaining Agreement specifies a procedure for challenging incentive classification when the league or union believes the prior season is not a fair predictor. Essentially, that side makes a case to an arbiter that the default assumption is “very likely” to be wrong.

However, in a funny quirk here, that challenge system lays out only how the NBA can challenge to turn unlikely incentives into likely incentives and how the union can challenge to turn likely incentives into unlikely incentives. There’s nothing about the NBA turning likely incentives into unlikely incentives, which the league is apparently considering here (and would make Nene’s contract invalid, as there’s a limit on unlikely incentives).

The CBA also prohibits circumventing the spirit of the rules. The league could rule Houston did that here. However, that’s a tough case considering not only does Nene’s contract meet all stated technicalities, there’s a section specifically on challenging these types of details. It just doesn’t apply.

The Heat opened the door for likely/unlikely-incentive shenanigans a couple years ago. We didn’t hear then about the NBA challenging those contracts, and that’s where the official challenge system would’ve applied.

It seems unfair to punish the Rockets’ creativity now.

Doc Rivers: I told Steve Ballmer, if Kawhi Leonard signed with Lakers, Clippers moving to Seattle

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We know what happened: The Clippers traded for Paul George, signed Kawhi Leonard and became championship favorite.

But at one point, Clippers coach Doc Rivers thought the George trade with the Thunder would fall through and Leonard could sign with the Lakers.

Rivers, via Arash Markazi of the Los Angeles Times:

“The day of the trade at 12 noon the deal was off,” Rivers said. “I was at home in Malibu and Lawrence called me and told me, ‘It looks like he’s either going to Toronto or the Lakers.’ The Lakers part just threw me over. I told him that can’t happen. … I remember I kept telling him, ‘We cannot allow that to happen!’

“I actually told Steve jokingly that if that happens, we’re moving the team to Seattle. It was a joke, but I was actually serious about it. I really believed that.”

Kawhi Leonard cost us the SuperSonics returning!

I don’t know how serious Rivers really was. Leonard joining LeBron James and Anthony Davis on their cross-arena rival would’ve been disastrous for the Clippers.

I’m convinced Ballmer will keep the franchise in Los Angeles. Ballmer’s ties to Seattle through Microsoft are well-established, and he previously tried to buy the Kings to move them to Seattle. But I can’t see him moving the Clippers from such a prime market, especially after going so far to get a new arena built in L.A. At every turn, he has maintained he’ll keep the team in Los Angeles.

Then again, Ballmer also phrased that guarantee as, “I will die owning the L.A. Clippers.” Now, he’s open to changing the nickname. Hmmm…

To be clearer than Rivers: That’s a joke I’m not actually serious about don’t really believe.

Stephen Curry responds to Kevin Durant: We all want to iso, but I’d rather win titles

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After the Warriors lost to the Jazz in December, Steve Kerr said his team didn’t move the ball enough. Kevin Durant said Golden State passed too much.

That public disagreement sure looks more significant now. Not only did Durant leave for the Warriors, he cited offensive style as a reason.

Durant, via J.R. Moehringer of the Wall Street Journal:

“The motion offense we run in Golden State, it only works to a certain point,” he says. “We can totally rely on only our system for maybe the first two rounds. Then the next two rounds we’re going to have to mix in individual play. We’ve got to throw teams off, because they’re smarter in that round of playoffs. So now I had to dive into my bag, deep, to create stuff on my own, off the dribble, isos, pick-and-rolls, more so than let the offense create my points for me.” He wanted to go someplace where he’d be free to hone that sort of improvisational game throughout the regular season.

Stephen Curry clearly viewed things differently.

Curry, via ESPN:

“Well, I don’t really care what plays we ran,” Curry said. “We won two championships. And at the end of the day, we had a lotta talent and there was an expectation of us figuring out how to balance all that. And we talked a lot about it throughout the three-year run. It wasn’t always perfect, but I think in terms of, you know, the results and what we were able to do on the floor, that kinda speaks for itself. We all wanna play iso-ball at the end of the day in some way, shape or form. But I’d rather have some championships, too.”

There’s truth to what Durant said. Defenses tighten deep in the playoffs, both because good defensive teams are more likely to advance and scouting committed to a single opponent tends to favor the defense. At that level, elite isolation scorers like Durant are particularly valuable. They can render schemes moot.

The Warriors learned that the hard way in the 2016 NBA Finals. They lost to the Cavaliers, who turned up their defense that postseason. Golden State scored fewer points per possession in its series against Cleveland than the Pistons did in the first round against the Cavs.

Adding Durant made the Warriors’ offense nearly unstoppable in every round. They leaned on their movement-heavy system when possible then turned to Durant isolations in moments of need.

Assessing playoff output is tricky because of varying opponents. But in three years with Durant, Golden State faced nine teams that played multiple postseason series. Eight of those teams had their worst defensive series against the Warriors, each by at least 2.6 points per 100 possessions. Only the 2019 Trail Blazers fared worse defensively against another team. They allowed just 0.2 more points per 100 possessions against the Nuggets than against Golden State.

Of course, Durant missed last season’s Western Conference finals against Portland. His absence was a big reason the Warriors’ didn’t meet their usual offensive standards.

Still, Golden State’s base offense was elite. Infallible? No. But it won multiple big playoff series before Durant arrived. He just took the Warriors to an even higher level.

Though he sometimes chafed at how the Warriors played, Durant also did his part to fit with them. He played his part in running Kerr’s preferred style.

It just seems Durant no longer wanted that safety-valve role. He holds immense respect for individual scoring as a skill. He’ll have a better chance to spread his wings in Brooklyn.

Durant will have a harder time winning a title without the incredible supporting cast he left behind. Curry might have wanted to point that out.

But everyone did their part in Golden State the last few years. That’s why they won those championships.