Are we sleeping on an improved, top four in the East Boston Celtics team?


The Boston Celtics entered last season with high expectations: A top-four finish in the East and a trip to the Conference Finals was a realistic prediction.

Reality was much uglier. Kemba Walker was never quite healthy, missing 29 games and only looking like his vintage self for stretches. The team defense — once a point of pride for Brad Stevens teams — was pedestrian. COVID hit the team hard, with star Jayson Tatum missing time and then needing an inhaler the rest of the season to breathe right during games. The results were a .500 team that ended up in the play-in, made the playoffs but were summarily bounced by the Nets in the first round.

All of that has some looking past the 2021-22 Celtics.

But are those people sleeping on a team ready for a bounce-back season? Is this version of the Celtics closer to the one who could make the Eastern Conference Finals than one barely scraping into the playoffs?


Potentially. But a few things need to go their way, starting simply with luck: Boston had a +1.6 net rating last season and should have been three or four games over .500, but teams shot lights out from three against them and a few other things didn’t fall their way, and they were 36-36. If luck normalizes, this is a better team already.

The Celtics core is still elite wing play, and the team will go as far as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown can take them. Expect Tatum to show an Olympics bounce — he raised his game spending the summer In Tokyo winning gold with champions such as Kevin Durant and Draymond Green. Tatum is ready for the jump from All-Star to top-10 player in the league — and he expects that of himself.

Brown should not be in Tatum’s shadow— he made a leap last season and it got lost in the Celtics’ overall struggles. He scored 24.7 points a game and shot 39.7% from 3 — he became a dangerous offensive player to go with his elite defense.

Having two elite wings — Tatum and Brown — has long been a recipe for playoff success. Boston is as strong on the wing as any team in the league.

The most meaningful change from a season ago is Stevens being out as coach — he bounced up to the front office to replace the reitiring Danny Ainge — and Ime Udoka taking over in the big chair.

The big question for the new coach: Can Udoka bring the Celtics’ defense back to a top-10 level? A lot of that may depend on the Time Lord — Robert Williams got a four years, $48 million contract extension and now will have to anchor that defense. The defense should bet better with Evan Fournier being out and Josh Richardson taking his place — combine that with Tatum, Brown, and Marcus Smart at the point and the Celtics have a strong perimeter defense. If Williams can do his part inside, and Udoka can get them all on the same page, this should be a good defensive team. Maybe very good.

There are a lot of other things to like about these Celtics. Dennis Schroder struggled to fit in with the Lakers, but returning to a sixth-man role he could thrive in Boston. So could Richardson, who was asked to do too much shot creation in recent years but will fill a more familiar role this season.

The Celtics are going to be an elite team at the guard and wing spots, the question can the Celtics’ bigs keep up. Williams will start at center, veteran Enes Kanter will play behind him, get buckets and boards, but not help much defensively. Veteran Al Horford is in the mix, and he can play some four, but while he is a high IQ player he is not a difference maker any more. Is that enough up front?

This is going to be a bounce-back season in Boston, the only question is how high is that bounce?

Our partners at PointsBet have the Celtics’ win total at 46.5 — I’d take the over. But I wouldn’t bet the kids’ college funds on this one, I see a 47-49 win Celtics team that finishes fourth or fifth in the East. This is a good team, but not one that is a threat to a healthy Nets or Bucks team.

Just don’t sleep on these Celtics.

Lakers’ LeBron James says he could need offseason foot surgery


LeBron James wanted back on the court. He saw the glimpses of what this current roster can do when healthy and focused — the same glimpses that have Laker exceptionalism running strong in Los Angeles — and he sees a West without a dominant team. Together those things mean opportunity.

LeBron could have shut it down when he felt something pop in his foot last month, admitting that two doctors told him to get surgery. However, the “LeBron James of foot doctors” told him he could be back this season — and he made that return Sunday. Still, LeBron admitted he could need off-season surgery.

“I don’t know. Right now, I don’t need it, so we’ll see what happens. I’ll probably get another MRI at the end of the season and go from there. But if I end up having to get surgery after the season, you guys won’t know. I don’t talk to you guys in the offseason, and by the time next season starts, I’ll be fine. I’ll be ready to go.”

As for what motivated him to get back on the court this season and not shut it down.

“Now we sitting at a chance to be able to… to hell with the play-in, we actually can be a top-[six] seed. That definitely changed my mindset on me coming back and trying to be a part of this, obviously, so — well, I don’t really want to say changed my mindset, it just enhanced what I was trying to do as far as my workouts, as far as my treatment and everything”

The Lakers sit tied for 9/10 in the West, one game below .500. While LeBron can say, “to hell with the play-in,” his Lakers would need help from the Clippers or Warriors to climb into the top six even though they are only 1.5 games back (time is short for L.A., if the Warriors or Clippers go 4-3 the rest of the way, the Lakers need to go 6-2 over their last eight). Los Angeles also is just a game up on Dallas for the 11 seed, and if the losses pile up they could fall out of the play-in completely.

With LeBron back, missing the play-in is unlikely. But having him back (and eventually a healthy D'Angelo Russell, who was out Sunday with a hip issue) also is no guarantee of wins — the Lakers still need peak Anthony Davis to compete. When he has a solid game of 15 points, nine rebounds and five assists (as he did Sunday), they lose. The Lakers need bubble Davis every night, or even if they make the postseason it will be short-lived.

Dončić dodges suspension, NBA rescinds 16th technical

Dallas Mavericks v Charlotte Hornets
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This was unexpected, especially after crew chief Kevin Scott said after the game last night: “Doncic was assessed a technical foul for his use of profanity directed at the officials in protest to a no-call that was correctly judged in postgame video review.”

The NBA league office reviewed the incident (as it does with all technicals) and rescinded what would have been Luka Doncic’s 16th technical.

That 16th technical would have triggered an automatic one game suspension. With it rescinded, Dončić is clear to play Monday night when the Mavericks take on the Pacers.

Sunday night in Charlotte, Dončić was given a technical when he didn’t get a call on a leaning baseline jumper and said something to the nearby official.

This incident comes days after Dončić was fined $35,000  for making a money gesture towards a referee in frustration after a  Mavericks loss.

Through all this the Mavericks have lost four straight, 7-of-9, and have slid back to 11th in the West, outside even the play-in. Their team is disintegrating and if they don’t pick up some wins fast they have less than two weeks until they are on summer vacation.

MVP showdown off: 76ers to sit Joel Embiid due to calf tightness

Philadelphia 76ers v Phoenix Suns
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Recently Joel Embiid said,” ‘If I win MVP, good. If I don’t, it’s fine with me.” Today’s news plays right into that narrative.

Embiid has been playing through calf tightness for a few games now — he only played a half against the Bulls last Wednesday — but still putting up numbers (46 points against the Warriors, 28 and 10 against the Suns). However, there had been some concern in the organization about not pushing things and making sure Embiid is healthy for the playoffs. Which is why they will rest him on Monday night, short-circuiting an MVP-race showdown against Nikola Jokić and the Nuggets. Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN broke the news and John Clarke of NBC Sports Philadelphia has confirmed it.

Embiid did go through part of the 76ers’ shootaround this morning. The decision was made after that point.

Undoubtedly this will spark the load management discussion around the league again, and Embiid is going to take heat for this — but this is a situation where the team’s medical staff made the call, likely over Embiid’s objection.

From the 76ers perspective what matters is having Embiid healthy during the playoffs — they are going nowhere without him — and there is no reason to take undue risks with the team all but locked into the No. 3 seed in the East.

James Harden is still expected to make his return to action Monday from a three-game absence.

But it robs fans — including those who bought tickets in Denver — of one of the great showdowns in the league, and one of the more anticipated games of the season’s final weeks. The NBA has to find a way to balance player health with having their best players on the court for the biggest games. Keep telling fans the regular season doesn’t matter and they will start treating it like that.

Joel Embiid not stressing about MVP: ‘If I win MVP, good. If I don’t, it’s fine with me.’

Philadelphia 76ers v Phoenix Suns
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Joel Embiid is the MVP betting favorite — -160 at our partner PointsBet — heading into Monday’s showdown with the reigning two-time MVP Nikola Jokić (+180 at PointsBet).

Embiid campaigned for the MVP award the past couple of years but came up second to Jokić. This season, Embiid is not stressing about it. Or at least trying not to stress about it. Here is what Embiid told Shams Charania of The Athletic.

What matters — it’s just about winning, winning, winning. I’ve been focused on that. We’ve been doing that. Whatever happens, happens. If I win MVP, good. If I don’t, it’s fine with me.

Why hasn’t Embiid won the MVP? Outside of Jokić also being deserving and the complaints of Antetokounmpo and others that the criteria for the award are constantly changing (which suggests there are criteria for the award, but there are none officially), Embiid thinks it’s because he is not well-liked.

People always thought that I was crazy when I said this — I really believe that I’m not well-liked. And it’s cool with me, that’s fine. I’ll be the bad guy. I like being the a–hole anyway. I like being the underdog. So that’s fine with me. My thing is … when I leave the game, I want to make sure that they say: No one was stopping him offensively and defensively, and he was a monster.

There’s no doubt he will leave the game remembered as one of the great 76ers and a “monster” on both ends when healthy. However, resume matters with legacy and an MVP award helps with that. Just not as much as being the best player on a championship team, something more difficult to pull off because it requires a lot of help (it’s up for debate whether Embiid has the help he needs around him to win it all, and if they can stay healthy enough to make that run).

This season the MVP race is a tight three-way contest between Embiid, Jokić and Giannis Antetokounmpo (+450 at PointsBet). There are legitimate cases to be made for each member of this trio. However, with the Sixers surging (and the Nuggets stumbling a little), things may break his way this season.

Another dominant performance against Jokić with just a couple of weeks left in the season would stick in voters’ minds and help his cause.