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Analytics Art: Bradley, Anthony among worst shooters of week


VIDEO: Take a look back at the week that was for the Knicks

By Ben Leibowitz, Special to NBA.com

The NBA announced the 2016 All-Star reserves last week, but even those honored were not safe from criticism. John Wall of the Washington Wizards was named among the best of his peers, but he found his way onto the PointAfter team’s weekly roundup of the worst shooters.

Even the best players in the game are not immune to shooting woes. That trend continued into this week, as one of our three representatives will also represent the Eastern Conference with Wall on Feb. 14.

Note: Statistics in this article cover games between Jan. 29-Feb. 4.

Guard: Avery Bradley, Boston Celtics

The Celtics experienced a solid stretch over the past week, going 3-1 and dispatching both the New York Knicks and Detroit Pistons along the way. Combo guard Avery Bradley, however, sputtered offensively during that stretch. The culprit for his woes? Long twos.

As you can see, Bradley couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn from around 16-to-19 feet — an analytics fanatic’s nightmare. In fact, his long-range shooting abilities in general were completely out of whack. He finished the week’s four games 4 of 21 from beyond the arc (a ghastly 19 percent).

Usually a reliable asset for his tenacious defense and ability to make corner 3-pointers, Bradley had a rough go of it over the past four contests. Interestingly, in his best game out of the trailing seven days (a Feb. 3 win over Detroit in which shot 7-for-15), Bradley wound up with a team-worst -8 plus/minus.

Wing: Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks

Khris Middleton inked a five-year, $70 million deal last summer to remain with the Bucks. As one of the premier ‘three-and-D’ wing players in the league, Middleton has continued to improve his offensive output and live up to that price tag.

His scoring has increased to the point that he’s now the team leader in the category. But when your team’s best scorer isn’t shooting well, you’re going to lose games. That’s exactly what happened to the Bucks this week.

Dating back to Jan. 29, Milwaukee went 0-3 and watched Middleton shoot 15-for-53 along the way (28.3 percent).

The swingman’s inability to find his stroke from 3-point range above the break contributed to three straight losses. To date, only the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers are have a worse record in the East than the Bucks.

Forward/Center: Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks

Carmelo Anthony was voted in by the fans as an Eastern Conference All-Star starter. It’s the ninth All-Star nod of his career, and while he’s not undeserving, he definitely looked it over New York’s past four games.

Anthony mixed inefficiency with the usual shooting volume to create shameful results.

The 31-year-old could not find his rhythm, shooting 31.8 percent from the field and 26.7 percent from long range. That resulted in a 1-3 record for the Knicks, though they did have to face the mighty Golden State Warriors.

Anthony is shooting 42.8 percent this season, which is the lowest mark since his rookie year with the Denver Nuggets.

If the Knicks are going to have any hope of making the postseason in the improved Eastern Conference this year, they’ll need their superstar to bounce back to form.

Ben Leibowitz is a writer for PointAfter, a sports data aggregation and visualization website that’s part of the Graphiq network. Visit PointAfter to get all the information about NBA Players, NBA Historical Teams and dozens of other topics.

Morning shootaround — Feb. 5


VIDEO: Highlights from games played Feb. 4

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Ballmer: Griffin will face ‘consequences’ for fight | Ainge says no trades imminent | Report: Bucks willing to deal | Johnson fills in nicely for Pistons

No. 1: Ballmer says Griffin will face ‘consequences’ for scuffle — The Los Angeles Clippers are about a week into the four-to-six-week timeframe they’re looking at being without All-Star power forward Blake Griffin. He is out with a broken hand, suffered during an off-the-court fight with a team equipment manager in Toronto a few weeks ago. While the NBA is investigating the incident, team owner Steve Ballmer says there will be repercussions for Griffin, writes Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times:

In his first interview since Blake Griffin punched out the team’s assistant equipment manager, the Clippers owner sounded as if he was prepared to discipline his All-Star forward.

Asked Wednesday night if he felt it necessary for the Clippers to take the kind of action that would represent what they stand for, Ballmer didn’t hesitate.

“There needs to be consequences,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Citing a team investigation into the incident that resulted in a broken right hand for Griffin, Ballmer didn’t offer any details, so it’s not known whether the Clippers might add to whatever punishment the Kia pitchman receives from the NBA. Still, Ballmer made it clear that employee-on-employee violence would not be tolerated.

If his actions back his words, good for him.

Ballmer was measured when speaking of Griffin, condemning the player’s actions without tossing him under the proverbial bus.

“Just remember, Blake is a key part of his team,” Ballmer said.

At this moment, the courtside goofball in Ballmer emerged, as he extended his arms to mimic an embrace.

“We will welcome him back,” he said with a smile as broad as his shoulders.

This is something of a new experience for Ballmer. As the chief executive of Microsoft, he said there were times when key employees under-performed as a result of doing something stupid. However, he conceded, “We didn’t ever have a situation quite like this.”

Ballmer continued, “You know, everyone’s going to heal, and we’re going to have an opportunity to move forward. We’re going to finish our investigation, decide what needs to happen and move forward. Blake’s a key part of our team. There’s no question about that.

“He certainly has been remorseful, which is great, and we’ll find a way to move past it. That’s part of life. An important part of life is learning how to have consequences.”

***

No. 2: Ainge says no trades imminent for Celtics — Yesterday we brought you news that the Houston Rockets were reportedly not going to try and deal center Dwight Howard, who was recently linked to a trade with the Boston Celtics. Does that mean Howard is staying put for sure? Who knows. But according to Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, Boston isn’t looking to make a trade just yet — although he is (as always) in talks with other front offices about possible deals. A. Sherrod Blakely of CSNNewEngland.com has more:

Ainge, the Celtics’ president of basketball operations, spoke about the importance of trust in what was the biggest trade he has pulled off to date – landing Kevin Garnett from Minnesota in 2007.

“The biggest trade we made was with my best friend in the business, Kevin McHale,” Ainge said on 98.5 the Sports Hub’s Toucher & Rich Show.

At the time, McHale was the General Manager of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

“It wouldn’t have gotten done if not for Kevin and I, because there had to be so much trust going back and forth,” Ainge said.

But when it comes to evaluating players and their potential fit with the Celtics, Ainge leans on himself and his staff.

“The relationship is important but I don’t necessarily listen to their evaluation,” Ainge said.

That becomes quite topical now with the Celtics having had some discussions with the Houston Rockets about Dwight Howard who played for McHale in Houston prior to McHale being fired earlier this season.

While Ainge did not speak specifically about Howard and Boston’s level of interest in the former eight-time all-star and three-time Defensive Player of the Year, there’s not a team in the NBA that Ainge hasn’t had a conversation with recently.

But does that means he’s close to making a major deal.

Nope.

“Most of the time, ninety-nine percent of the things talked about and discussed, don’t happen,” Ainge said. “This time of year there’s a lot of discussions. It’s really hard to predict if there’s any deals there. Usually they happen at the very end, the very last day.”

“I do feel like we need to make improvements on our team, but not necessarily at the trade deadline,” Ainge said. “We can’t force anything. Right now, there’s nothing on the table, there’s nothing imminent. We’ve just had a lot of discussions and hope that next week come trade deadline (Feb. 18, 3 p.m. EST) we’re prepared to make the right decisions.”

***

No. 3: Report: Bucks willing to deal Carter-Williams, Monroe — The Milwaukee Bucks have been perhaps the most disappointing team of 2015-16, especially given their offseason splash. The Bucks added one of the biggest free-agent fish in the pond, center Greg Monroe, to a squad that surprised many and made the 2015 playoffs. A young core of Monroe, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker and guard Michael Carter-Williams seemed poised for at least a repeat (if not an improvement upon) last season. Yet as the trade deadline nears and the Bucks fall further and further out of the playoff race, Carter-Williams and Monroe could be dealt, writes Gery Woelfel of the Racine Journal Times:

Clearly, Bucks officials are deeply concerned. That’s reflected in their ongoing discussions with other teams about potential trades before the Feb. 18 deadline.

Based on conversations with several NBA execs from the Eastern and Western conferences, the Bucks are more than receptive to playing “Let’s Make a Deal.’’

And that includes possibly moving Michael Carter-Williams, who has been consistently inconsistent since joining the Bucks. Carter-Williams has had some dynamic games this season, like an 18-point, 13-assist outing against Sacramento and a 20-point, 12-assist showing against Chicago.

On the flip side, Carter-Williams had only two assists in 26 minutes against Portland on Wednesday night, one assist in 27 minutes against Memphis last week, and zero assists in 25 minutes against Miami two weeks ago.

But Carter-Williams isn’t the only frontline player the Bucks are apparently willing to move. A much bigger surprise is the Bucks have made it known that center Greg Monroe is available at the right price, according to some NBA officials.

Monroe has been a double-double machine, having recorded 26 this season. That ranks sixth in the league behind Detroit’s Andre Drummond (40), Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook (33), Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins (28), the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan (28) and Chicago’s Pau Gasol (27) and just ahead of Washington’s John Wall (25), Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns (25) and New Orleans’ Anthony Davis (24).

But Monroe’s man-to-man and help-defense remain suspect. And he most definitely isn’t the rim protector the Bucks sorely need. He is averaging a mere 0.9 blocks per game this season, which ties him with L.A. Lakers forward Brandon Bass for 46th in the league.

Justified or not, Monroe is being targeted as one of the primary reasons for the Bucks’ defensive deficiencies this season. After being one of the elite defensive teams in the league last season, the Bucks are now one of the worst, giving up 103.3 points per game compared to 97.4 last season.

Clearly, the pieces to the Bucks’ puzzle aren’t fitting. Several league officials said they would be surprised if the Bucks didn’t make a major trade.

“From what I’m hearing is they (the Bucks) are willing to trade anybody not named Parker, Antetokounmpo or Middleton,’’ an NBA executive said. “I even heard they’d listen (to offers) for Parker and Middleton, but it would have to be some crazy offer.

“They want to do something; they know they have to do something. That group they have isn’t working.’’

***

No. 4: Johnson fills in nicely for Pistons — A great number of folks were predicting big things for Detroit Pistons rookie Stanley Johnson after his solid showing at NBA Summer League. He was tops on our Rookie Ladder after Summer League and was a dominant force in the Orlando Summer League. Once 2015-16 got started, though, Johnson was more or less relegated to a reserve role. But an recent injury to third-year guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope opened the door for Johnson to start last night and he delivered with flying colors, writes Keith Langlois of Pistons.com:

Stan Van Gundy said earlier this week he was looking for ways to get more minutes for Stanley Johnson. Losing Caldwell-Pope to a core muscle strain that will keep him out at least until the resumption of play following the All-Star break on Feb. 19 isn’t the desired method, but Johnson at least proved more than capable of shouldering greater responsibility in the 111-105 win over the Knicks.

“I thought he was tremendous,” Van Gundy said after Johnson logged 44 minutes and led the Pistons with 22 points plus nine rebounds, five assists, two steals and a blocked shot. “Second start of his career. Thought he played real well. We were even going to him down the stretch before Reggie hit the threes. We were running plays for him. Fearless. Getting better all the time. Not afraid to make plays.”

As impressive as it is for a rookie to shoulder 44 minutes and still have enough left to make a handful of the game’s biggest plays in the fourth quarter, Johnson’s play doesn’t really come as a surprise to his teammates. They’ve seen his readiness and his confidence since the early days of training camp.

“It’s awesome. He’s a really good player,” Tolliver said. “We’ve known it the whole season. He’s getting a great opportunity now with KCP out. He’s just really still learning the game. That’s a good thing for him because he’s going to have a bright future, as long as he keeps his head on straight and continues to work hard and play hard like he does.”

Jackson said he and Reggie Johnson discussed strategy on the plane ride back from Boston. What was it? Johnson wouldn’t say, but figures that when Caldwell-Pope comes back, the Pistons now have another tool in their belt to throw at teams.

“What me and Reggie did tonight was different,” Johnson said. “I think it helped a little bit, so I think when (Caldwell-Pope) gets back, having ways for guys who can do stuff like that is going to make it tough for (opponents) to play.”

“Amazing,” Jackson said of Johnson’s contributions. “We talked about it on the plane, the game plan coming in between us two, how we were going to approach this game. He did everything that he told me he was going to do. He’s definitely somebody who has the utmost confidence in himself and he’s one of those, he says he’s going to do it then he’s going to go out and compete. He came up tremendously big.”

Van Gundy sensed some of his veterans feeling the heat as the Knicks took big chunks out of the lead, but not his youngest player.

“We were struggling. I decided to start going to him,” Van Gundy said. “I thought some of our other guys maybe tightened up a little bit and that’s not him. Pretty amazing for a 19-year-old kid.”

Somebody said to Van Gundy, “He relishes the moment.”

“Yeah, he does. He and Reggie both. It’s good to have a couple of guys like that. … I think Stanley’s going to be a really good player. And he handled huge minutes tonight on the fifth game in seven nights, played (44) minutes and played real well. Nine rebounds, made some really good passes. Just played extremely well.”

“I knew I was going to walk into heavy minutes,” Johnson said. “For me going into the game, I was like, ‘How do I keep up (Caldwell-Pope’s) defensive intensity and offensively – we don’t play the same, so I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it in his way, but I thought I could help out on both sides.”

Yeah, you could say he helped out. Just a little.


VIDEO: Balanced Pistons hold off Knicks in Detroit

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Indiana Pacers executive and Hall of Famer Larry Bird has some pointed thoughts on the lifespan of NBA big men … ICYMI, a quick rundown of everyone who will be participating in the State Farm All-Star Saturday events, which includes the Verizon Slam Dunk Contest and the Foot Locker Three-Point Contest … NBA commissioner Adam Silver says the ‘Hack-A-‘ rule will soon be changing … The San Antonio Spurs will be without Manu Ginobili after he underwent testicular surgery … President Barack Obama had a lot of fun with the Golden State Warriors yesterday … Kind of a cool photo gallery — re-drafting the 2007 NBA Draft

Warriors Trio Headlines ‘Big’ All-Star Saturday Night

VIDEO: The Inside the NBA crew gives analysis.

NEW YORK CITY — All-Star Saturday night is going to be big. Literally.

Tonight’s announcement of the participants for All-Star Saturday night revealed a lot of familiar names and faces, but also a couple of intriguing players taking part in contests they haven’t been involved with in previous years. And while the Golden State Warriors have been nearly unstoppable on the court this season, on Saturday, Feb. 13, in Toronto’s Air Canada Centre (8 p.m. ET, TNT), the Warriors’ big three will attempt to bring home several different kinds of hardware.

NBA All-Star 2016The evening will open with the Taco Bell Skills Challenge, which will be radically different this season. Last year, the event was populated entirely by point guards, with Houston’s Patrick Beverley winning over Brandon Knight. This season, Beverley is slated to return and compete against several guards, such as Portland’s CJ McCollum, Boston’s Isaiah Thomas and Jordan Clarkson from the Lakers.

But the twist here is that they will be in a field that includes several big men, including Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins and rookie Karl-Anthony Towns. It will also be interesting to see what kind of performance we get from New Orleans’ multi-talented center Anthony Davis, who played guard throughout high school before a growth spurt moved him to the post. And the leading contender among the big men participating must be Golden State’s Draymond Green, who currently leads the League in triple-doubles with 10.

VIDEO: Wolves’ Zach LaVine will defend his title.

We can also safely assume that the evening will close with a bang. Last year’s Verizon Slam Dunk was one of the most electrifying contests in years, as then-Minnesota rookie Zach LaVine completed a series of athletic jams. LaVine will return this season, and be challenged by a field that includes Denver guard Will Barton, who has had something of a breakout campaign in this his fourth NBA season.

LaVine and Barton will be joined by two big men, in a contest where big men have traditionally struggled to score highly. Second year Orlando forward Aaron Gordon has had plenty of athletic dunks in his short NBA career, and Detroit center Andre Drummond has also shown plenty of bounce and skill around the basket, as the NBA’s leading rebounder this season.

In between these events will be the Foot Locker Three-Point Contest, which in a league increasingly reliant on the three-point shot, is rapidly becoming the evening’s signature event. While last year’s three-point contest was recognized as having one of the sweetest-shooting fields in the history of the event, this year’s event appears to be equally star-studded:

VIDEO: Steph Curry will bring his sharp shooting to Foot Locker Three-Point Contest

Stephen Curry – Curry won last year’s event, then went on to win the NBA’s MVP award and an NBA title. Leads the NBA this season in three pointers made (232) by a wide margin (77 more than his Golden State teammate Klay Thompson).

James Harden – The Houston guard finished just behind Curry in last season’s MVP voting, and the Rockets have gotten off to a slow start this season. Still, Harden is third this season in total three-pointers made (140).

Klay Thompson – The other Splash Brother has a chance to outshine Curry. Thompson is making 43-percent of his three-point attempts this season.

Khris Middleton – The Bucks swingman is averaging a career-best two made three-pointers per game, and knocking them in at 41-percent clip.

Kyle Lowry – The Raptors guard will surely enjoy a home court advantage. Lowry is averaging a career-high 2.8 threes per game, and making them at a career-best 39 percent success rate.

JJ Redick – Clippers guard Reddick has always been known as a sharp-shooter, but this season has been his masterpiece. In 45 games for Los Angeles, Redick has made 120 threes, converting at a league-best 48-percent clip.

Chris Bosh – Why just have big men in the other two Saturday night contests? To be fair, the power forward Bosh has made himself into a good three-point shooter, and he’s relied on his long-range shot more than ever this season. Consider this: During Bosh’s first nine NBA seasons, he attempted a combined 228 threes; This season he’s attempted 213 threes in Miami’s first 50 games.

Devin Booker – Booker is the youngest contestant (he’s 19 years old) in the three-point shootout, but he’s already proven he’s one of the NBA’s best shooters, connecting on threes for the Phoenix Suns at a 42-percent rate this season.

State Farm NBA All-Star Saturday Night will be televised live exclusively on TNT on Saturday, Feb. 13, from the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Canada.

 

Morning shootaround — Feb. 4


VIDEO: Highlights from games played Feb. 3

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Cufrry blisters Wizards for 51 | Nowitzki disagrees with Abdul-Jabbar’s assessment | Report: Rockets unlikely to deal Howard | Report: Dunleavy to return Saturday | Caldwell-Pope injured vs. Celtics

No. 1: Curry breaks out of his ‘slump’, torches Wizards — Entering last night’s road game against the Washington Wizards, reigning MVP Stephen Curry had 21 games of 30 points or more, but hadn’t broken the 30-point barrier in three games. Is that considered a slump when you’re averaging close to 30 points per game in a season? Who knows. What is certain is Curry showed he hasn’t lost his touch, abusing the Wizards for 51 points and 11 3-pointers (one off tying the NBA single-game record) writes, Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle:

Stephen Curry just kind of left this hanging out there: “Maybe next time.”

That’s what he said after he made eight three-pointers in three quarters against the Lakers on Jan. 14, falling four shy of Kobe Bryant’s and Donyell Marshall’s single-game record.

His comment seemed innocuous until “next time” arrived.

On Wednesday at the Verizon Center, the arc opened up enough for Curry to hoist 16 three-point attempts, and because he often made the rim look the size of a hula hoop, he strutted away with 11 three-pointers in a 134-121 victory over the Wizards in front of a national TV audience.

“I missed one too many,” Curry joked. “At the end of the game, I knew I was within reach, and I was kind of searching, without trying to force it. You can’t mess around with the basketball gods, trying to chase records, if the game doesn’t call for it.”

If averaging 16.7 points on 37.9 percent three-point shooting in his previous three games constituted a slump for the MVP, his 51-point game — giving him four 50-point performances in his career — certainly constitutes a slump breaker.

“I didn’t know Steph was in a slump,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said. “Steph is never in a slump. He was just scintillating tonight.”

“I said, ‘Here he goes,’” interim head coach Don Newman said of Curry’s fast start. “I knew it, because that’s what they usually do. I mean, they come out and they just want to kill you.”

Curry thrilled the crowd, then his bench, and finally himself with a flurry of three-pointers in the first quarter. The fans got louder and louder as he made his first four three-point shots. Andre Iguodala bowed to him from the scorer’s table when he knocked down No. 5, and Curry didn’t really know how to react act following his sixth.

Curry swiped a dribble from Wall in the backcourt and corralled the ball about 25 feet from the rim on the right wing. Why not launch it? He tracked the arc of the ball like a baseball player enjoying a towering home run from the batter’s box, and then started spinning into a happy dance.

He finished the first quarter with 25 points — his seventh 20-point quarter of the season. He made 7 of 8 three-point attempts and was well on his way to his single-season record of 10 games with at least eight three-pointers. George McCloud previously held the record with six such games.

“The shots that you know feel good, they go in, and the shots that you think, ‘Oh, that’s off,’ they go in,” Curry said. “It’s a fun feeling, and you want to ride it until you can’t anymore.”

“We watch it on TV every day, and you’re like, ‘Ah, it’s not like that,’” Washington forward Otto Porter said. “But when he does it against you, it’s eye-opening for you.”

***

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Analytics Art: LaVine, Turner, Noel among best shooters of week


VIDEO: Zach LaVine finishes with authority vs. the Cavs

By Will Laws, Special to NBA.com

The announcement of 2016 NBA All-Star reserves stole most headlines Thursday, but participants for this year’s BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge were named a day before that. Two players in particular showcased their offensive skill in the week leading up to the release of those rosters.

Interactive data visualization site PointAfter will help illustrate the most efficient shooting performances of the last seven days from each position group (guard, wing, forward/center), which have a youthful flavor to them this week.

Note: All weekly statistics cover games between Jan. 22-28.

Best Guard: Zach LaVine, Minnesota Timberwolves

LaVine’s shooting stroke was icier than Winter Storm Jonas for most of January, as he reached double-digit scoring in just three of his first 12 games. After setting a Timberwolves record with 35 bench points on 14-of-17 shooting against Oklahoma City on Wednesday, it’s fair to assume the cold spell is over.

LaVine made all nine two-point attempts against the Thunder and sunk 5-of-8 shots from 3-point range to keep Minnesota close in an eventual 126-123 defeat. LaVine’s 82 percent shooting that night was the best by a Timberwolf since Kevin Garnett in 2006.

That followed a solid showing against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday, when LaVine scored 21 points on 8-of-15 shooting and had six assists.

Two impressive performances against top-tier teams, getting mentioned in the same breath as a franchise icon, and making the cut for Team USA in the Rising Stars Challenge? That’s a solid week for a 20-year-old backup guard.

Best Wing: Evan Turner, Boston Celtics

Miami Heat rookie Justise Winslow technically owns the second-best field goal percentage (63.2 percent) among wing players over the past seven days. But it would be a stretch to label Winslow the best shooter at his position with just one double-digit scoring performance to his name this month.

Instead, we’ll bestow that title upon Evan Turner, who isn’t exactly a slam-dunk choice himself. Even though he clanked his only two 3-point attempts of the week, Turner’s efficiency inside the arc was too much to ignore.

Note: You can hover over a shooting zone to see Turner’s percentages compared to the league average.

Turner averaged 13.3 points in Boston’s four games this week, all victories, and performed like a maestro from mid-range. The 27-year-old converted 22 of 38 shots overall (57.9 percent).
If you take issue with a guy who hasn’t even made 15 percent of his 3-pointers being classified as “shooter of the week,” realize Turner was agonizingly close to registering a ridiculous buzzer-beater as his first successful trey since Jan. 12.

https://platform.vine.co/static/scripts/embed.js

If Turner had just moved that foot back a couple inches, the monkey would have been off his back. At least he’s a good sport about it.

Best Forward/Center: Nerlens Noel, Philadelphia 76ers

The 76ers have won three of their last six games and produced one of the league’s hottest shooters for the second straight week. After point guard Isaiah Canaan carried the torch for Philadelphia last week, this time it’s Noel, who has matured into an efficient scorer this season.

Noel ended November with a dreadful 40.8 percent shooting percentage. He’s now in the top 10 of the field goal percentage leaderboard (52.7 percent) and is shooting 62.6 percent in January. That’d be good for second in the NBA if he maintained throughout the season.

 

The 21-year-old had to leave Philly’s Jan. 20 clash against Orlando with migraine symptoms, but he recovered shoot 20-for-27 in three games this week. That includes one savage posterization of newly crowned All-Star Andre Drummond on Wednesday night.

The absence of rookie Jahlil Okafor, who sat out two games this week with the flu, probably contributed to Noel’s improved play this week since he had more room to operate in the post. But he’s proven over the last couple months that he can be a valuable piece for the 76ers with or without Okafor on the floor.

Will Laws is a writer for PointAfter, a sports data aggregation and visualization website that’s part of the Graphiq network. Visit PointAfter to get all the information about NBA players, NBA historical teams and dozens of other topics.

Irrelevant no more: Steady Celtics guard Thomas makes All-Star turn


VIDEO: Relive great moments from Isaiah Thomas’ solid 2015-16

By Ben Leibowitz, Special to NBA.com

To say Isaiah Thomas has come a long way in his NBA journey would be an understatement. The diminutive floor general, listed at a generous 5-foot-9, was consistently overlooked in the 2011 NBA Draft and wound up being that class’ “Mr. Irrelevant” for being selected with the final pick (No. 60 overall to the Sacramento Kings).

On Thursday, it was announced Thomas was voted an Eastern Conference All-Star for the first time in his career. He’ll also be the first player ever to ascend from the last pick in the NBA Draft to All-Star status, according to Marc D’Amico of Celtics.com.

That’s an incredible point of validation for Thomas, who was selected after fellow point guards Nolan Smith, Norris Cole, Charles Jenkins and Josh Selby. Those four guys have combined for 1.6 win shares, and Cole is the only one still in the NBA.

As for Thomas? He’s collected 29.2 win shares and counting — more than Klay Thompson and the 2011 Draft’s No. 1 overall pick, Kyrie Irving.

The Los Angeles Lakers bungled four shots at drafting Thomas in the second round of 2011, taking point guards Darius Morris and Andrew Goudelock and forwards Chukwudiebere Maduabum (who they traded to Denver) and Ater Majok. The latter two never suited up in an NBA game, while Morris and Goudelock combined for negative win shares. In short, the Lakers’ passing on Thomas in favor of those unheralded prospects was a complete and utter failure.

Interestingly, scouting reports didn’t even paint Thomas in an aggressively negative light. NBADraft.net pegged Thomas as a “crafty scorer” who possessed “good speed” and “excellent quickness.”

The negatives, as you might expect, focused almost exclusively on being vertically challenged.

“Very small, even for a point guard,” the report reads. “Ability to get inside will be largely negated by the size of NBA players,” was another note followed closely by, “Will struggle to matchup (sic) with NBA guards defensively.”

And, as Matthew Kamalsky wrote for DraftExpress in 2009, “One thing that scouts won’t be questioning is what Thomas can do when he puts the ball on the floor.” He went on to praise the youngster’s “absolutely outstanding first-step” and “excellent speed in transition.”

He also proved to be an assassin in the clutch. While suiting up for the University of Washington, Thomas hit a difficult step-back fadeaway at the buzzer to beat Arizona in the Pac-10 Tournament championship.

He possessed an impressive skill set and didn’t shy away from big moments, which you’d think NBA scouts would value. Somehow, Thomas tumbled down draft boards, but once he arrived in Sacramento, he made an immediate impact … and kept on improving.

Thomas averaged 11.5 points, 4.1 assists and 2.6 rebounds while sinking 37.9 percent of his 3-pointers as a rookie. His second season was much like his first and in his third season, he blossomed with averages of 20.3 points and 6.3 assists in 72 games (54 starts).

He left Sacramento as a free agent and landed with the Phoenix Suns via a sign-and-trade deal. In Arizona, his numbers took a dip as he filled a role as the sixth man behind Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic. But a trade deadline-day deal in 2015 Boston gave him a fresh opportunity that he ultimately parlayed into his first All-Star game.

Through 47 games (44 starts), Thomas is averaging career bests in points, assists, rebounds, steals and free throw percentage. The Celtics (26-21) are No. 5 in the East thanks in large part to Thomas, who leads Boston with a 28.9 percent usage rate.

Individual and team accomplishments point to Thomas earning a nod. But the Washington product also stacks up quite well when compared to his peers.

Among NBA point guards, Thomas ranks tied for fifth in player efficiency rating behind Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry. All four of those guys are All-Stars as well (sorry, Damian Lillard).

From being passed over 59 times in the 2011 Draft, to being traded by twice to making his first All-Star team, Thomas has had to silence doubters all along the way. For those who believed in him, this moment must be pretty sweet.

Ben Leibowitz is a writer for PointAfter, a sports data aggregation and visualization website that’s part of the Graphiq network. Visit PointAfter to get all the information about NBA PlayersNBA Historical Teams and dozens of other topics.

Morning shootaround — Jan. 23


VIDEO: Top 10 Plays from Friday

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Unraveling of Cavs, James, Blatt began early | Warriors’ Kerr grateful in return | Bulls earning ‘soft’ label | Winning gives edge to All-Star reserves

No. 1: Unraveling of Cavs, James, Blatt began early — It was a hair-on-fire day for news in the NBA Friday, starting with the Josh Smith trade back to Houston and continuing through the pre-emptive weather postponement of NBA games from Saturday’s schedule in Philadelphia and Washington, right on to coach Steve Kerr’s return after a 43-game health absence to Golden State’s bench. But the whopper was Cleveland’s abrupt firing of head coach David Blatt. Not only had Blatt helped the Cavaliers reach the Finals last June, he had them atop the Eastern Conference with a 30-11 record and was in line to coach the East All-Stars in three weeks up in Toronto. Both local and national coverage blanketed the story, with ESPN.com providing the most exhaustive report courtesy of Brian Windhorst and Dave McMenamin. Here are notable excerpts:

At the very heart of the matter, this is why the Cavs fired Blatt on Friday, despite a record of 83-40 and a Finals appearance. Blatt viewed himself as a coach with numerous championships in Europe, an Olympic medal and 20-plus years on the sideline, a career that made him one of the most experienced coaches in the world.

The Cavs players, especially the veterans, saw him as a rookie.

The issues started before [LeBron] James returned to the franchise in July 2014. The Cavs were all over the place in their coaching search that summer. They offered the job to numerous big names, from John Calipari and Bill Self in the college ranks to Steve Kerr from the broadcast booth. [Cleveland GM David] Griffin also interviewed Alvin Gentry, whom he had worked alongside with the Phoenix Suns, and Tyronn Lue, a rising assistant who learned under Doc Rivers.

But team owner Dan Gilbert wanted to make a different kind of hire. He didn’t want a retread or an inexperienced coach, which is why he chased the veteran college coaches. It’s why he loved Blatt, who was a legend in Israel, something that appealed to Gilbert.

To complicate matters, the Cavs hired the runner-up for the job, Lue, to be Blatt’s assistant. To keep him away from the Clippers, the Cavs gave him a record four-year, $6.5 million deal — for an assistant. Gilbert would later call the coaching staff the best he had assembled in his time as owner.

Blatt endorsed the Lue move, which many in the league saw as an immediate undercutting of the head coach. Never before could anyone remember the runner-up for a job being hired as the lead assistant, and it was taken as an example of Blatt’s NBA inexperience. Blatt also didn’t understand that he would have to earn players’ respect; it would not be instantly given.

“It was like an 800-pound gorilla as the season moved on,” one person involved with the team said. “You could just see LeBron connecting to [Lue] and turning his back on David.”
That didn’t stay a secret. James’ and other players’ complaints about Blatt’s style got out quickly. During games, Cavs players complained about the coach to opposing players. Once, while on the road, an injured Cavs player used the home team’s therapy pool and complained about Blatt, with his thoughts literally echoing throughout the home locker room.

Those who knew Blatt from Europe, where he was known as a fire-breather with players during games, were stunned at how he had changed. When Blatt was the coach of the Russian national team, he famously once kicked two of his best players off the bench because they were talking over him in a timeout. Now, spectators watched in awe as players barked at Blatt in timeouts. That was just one of many adjustments he made to try to make this unwieldy job work.

Blatt, meanwhile, retrofitted the Cavs’ defensive system with his new players, and that helped launch the team’s midseason turnaround. He melded in the new players effectively. He showed his experience as he found a way to give James space while looking for other ways to make a positive difference. At the same time, his yielding to the players — James especially — only further reinforced that Blatt wasn’t a coach who demanded respect.

***

No. 2: Warriors’ Kerr grateful in return— While one NBA coach’s relationship with his team was getting blown up Friday, another was reuniting. Steve Kerr, after nearly four months and 43 regular-season games, was back on the Golden State bench for its game against Indiana. Kerr had taken a leave of absence on Oct. 1 to recover and rehab from two back surgeries, and while his physical health demanded and benefited from the layoff, his mental health definitely craved his return to everything Warriors. Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury-News was at Oracle Arena to chronicle Kerr’s first game back:

But on this night, one of the biggest adrenaline-rushes of the game actually came before the game, because Kerr had been gone so long after taking a leave of absence due to complications after back surgery.

And despite the Warriors’ amazing 39-4 run under interim coach Luke Walton–who happily moved aside one seat for Kerr’s re-arrival–the Warriors missed their coach.

More than that, he missed them. And was thankful to return to them.

“I felt great,” Kerr said afterwards. “Really nice reception at the beginning of the game. Our fans are amazing. Just felt good to be back in Oracle with all the energy from the crowd.

“Wasn’t our best stuff but we got the job done.”

Kerr has been at team practices for several weeks and on the last several road trips, but he’s the Warriors coach, he won a championship with them last season, and a coach needs to coach.

During the game, Kerr sat quietly through the first quarter as the Warriors got out to a big lead–what was he supposed to fret over?

Then, as the Warriors went through a flat period or two, or when Kerr protested a call or two, he got up, yelled a few things, and called a few timeouts.

He was back.
“Honestly, I didn’t think one bit about who we were playing and when,” Kerr said about the Spurs game ahead. “It was strictly about when I felt ready.

“I wanted to come back a couple weeks ago and I sort of had a target date in mind–and we got to the date and it was, ‘I’m not ready.’ I knew I wasn’t ready.

“But the last 10 days or so have been great; I’ve really felt good physically. Felt like I turned a corner. Feel like I’m ready to go, regardless of who was on the schedule.”

***

No. 3: Bulls earning ‘soft’ label — As of Friday, there wasn’t a coach in the Central Division who was happy with his team – and maybe not a fan base all that happy with its coach. Tyronn Lue is undefeated for the moment in Cleveland but the Pacers, Bucks and Pistons all have had their issues lately. And then there are the Bulls, where new head coach Fred Hoiberg is frustrated with his team’s poor starts and inconsistent efforts, while many Chicago fans are wondering if management’s designated replacement for Tom Thibodeau is the right guy for the job. Beat writer Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times suggested after Friday’s loss in Boston that the Bulls are “soft,” a four-letter word equal to any profanity around pro athletes and teams:

The first-year coach was asked if he was tired of his team looking soft in too many moments this season, and without hesitation responded, “Yeah, I am.’’

He wasn’t alone.

“Soft’’ is always a dangerous word to use about a team on any level, but also a very fitting description of what this Bulls team has become on a night-to-night basis. And they can try and dress it up with buzzwords like “communication’’ and “energy,’’ but it seems to come back to one common theme with this team: Too soft in too many key moments.

Jimmy Butler definitely wasn’t going to hide from that label.

“Yeah, especially coming out of the gates, and that’s on us starters, man,’’ Butler said, when asked about the marshmallow moments from this team. “We’re digging ourselves a huge hole a lot of these games because we know how talented we are, how well we can score the ball, but defense is all about grit. The will and the want to do-so. I don’t feel like we do-so right now.’’

Even more troubling was Butler pointing out that the coaches stress it, the players talk about it and practice it in shootaround, but once those lights turn on, well, as Butler put it, “when we get out there it’s kind of like we do what we want to do. We’re not on the same page, we’re not communicating, and then on top of everything else we don’t get to the loose ball like the other team does.

“It’s time to stop talking about it. We’ve been talking about this all year long now.’’

***

No. 4: Winning gives edge to All-Star reserves — If Charles Barkley felt confounded by the fan balloting for the 2016 All-Star starters, he probably will again find plenty with which to quibble when the conference coaches make their selections for the East and West All-Star reserves. The seven players added to each roster – to be announced Thursday as part of TNT’s doubleheader telecast – presumably represent the next-best players through the first 45-50 games of the season. But of course, there are other factors involved. Some coaches apply arbitrary filters to thin the herd of candidates. Others might indulge shameless biases or personal grudges, or game the voting so one of their guys benefits. A couple of East coaches – Toronto’s Dwane Casey and Boston’s Brad Stevensgave some insight on their criteria to Adam Himmelsbach of the Boston Globe:

“Probably the biggest criteria is looking at the team’s record,” Casey said, “because you can score 50 a game and have a losing record, and you’re not going to [be an] All-Star. That’s not only for me, but for all coaches.”

Casey was probably exaggerating just a bit, because a 50-point scorer on any team would be a lock, but you get his point. Wins matter. Stevens echoed that sentiment, saying he uses team success as an easy tiebreaker among players who otherwise appear to be equals.

“Probably a differentiating factor will be who scares me the most,” Stevens said. “That’s just kind of the way I’d look at it. Obviously, who do you have to prepare for differently? Who makes you tweak what you normally do?”

When Stevens analyzes numbers and figures, he does find some advanced statistics quite helpful.

“I look more at efficiency than anything else,” he said. “I don’t get too caught up in points per game or rebounds per game or those types of things. You get caught up in efficiency and those types of things. You get caught up in efficiency from a points standpoint. You get caught up in rebound percentages. I think that, again, you have to also factor in fourth quarter and crunch-time performance.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: One of the most popular topics related to David Blatt‘s firing Friday was speculation over the degree to which Cavaliers susperstar LeBron James was involved. Should James be thought of as a “coach killer” after his experiences with Mike Brown and now Blatt? Or does he draw that sort of criticism unfairly? … The Brooklyn Nets might find plenty to like in Blatt as they cope with a real freefall. … The Nets needed a shooting doctor, so they hired a Nurse. … Former Marquette teammates Jimmy Butler and Jae Crowder battled in Boston. … Former NBA referees are mentoring their profession’s next generation. … Re-think whatever your definition might be of a “high basketball IQ.” Introducing the smart ball. …

Numbers notes: Small Celtics, LeBron’s jumper, Spurs bench and more


VIDEO: Evaluating the NBA’s top teams

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — Usually, we think of small ball (playing one traditional big and moving a small forward to power forward) as an offensive strategy. It doesn’t only give you an extra guy who can shoot from the outside, but that, in turn, creates extra space for ball-handlers to drive or screeners to roll to the rim.

But on Tuesday, Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens went small to start the second half in New York, replacing Kelly Olynyk with Marcus Smart, who teamed with Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Amir Johnson (the lone big). And afterward, Stevens said the change was for defensive purposes.

“I thought in the first half, we didn’t have any pressure on the ball,” Stevens said. “And that’s why we went smaller and quicker in the second.”

The Celtics did play better after the change, but the improvement came on offense. That lineup that started the second half outscored the Knicks 27-23 in less than 10 minutes of action (over the first and second halves) on Tuesday.

The next night, though, the same lineup had the desired effect against the Indiana Pacers. In eight minutes on Wednesday, the Celtics outscored the Pacers 26-10 in a little over eight minutes. That included a 17-4 run over the final 5:08, where they turned four steals into four layups and turned a four-point deficit into a nine-point win.

Pacers coach Frank Vogel somewhat foreshadowed that whole sequence, as ESPN.com’s Chris Forsberg wrote

Before Wednesday’s tilt, Indiana coach Frank Vogel noted that Boston’s three-guard lineup of Crowder, Smart, and Bradley was full of “pitbulls.” Added Vogel: “The defensive pressure that their guards bring to the table is unparalleled in this NBA season. They have great defensive guards. It’s a big reason for their season.”

That Thomas-Bradley-Smart-Crowder-Johnson lineup played a few minutes in the Celtics’ first game of the season, but had been on the floor together for just a few possessions between then and Tuesday. The Celtics have a plethora of serviceable bigs on their roster and have played about 75 percent of their minutes with two of them on the floor.

20160115_bos_bigs

Those numbers follow the conventional wisdom that small equals better offense. But that small-ball lineup with Crowder at the four may be something that Stevens turns to more often when he wants to crank up the defense.

Tracking LeBron from outside

You probably saw the story where a particular stat about LeBron James‘ outside shooting found its way to the four-time MVP and motivated him to put some more work in.

“I actually saw [it] on my Instagram feed that I was the worst-shooting player in the NBA,” James said. “I actually saw that when I woke up from a nap. I remember exactly when that was. Denver. Right before the Denver game, so I answered the call.”

He was 3-of-5 from 3-point range on Sunday and hit multiple midrange shots. He’s shooting 43 percent from deep since that game in Denver. When asked if graphics like that bother him, James said, “It doesn’t bother me. It puts me back in the gym.”

James immediately started shooting better that night in Denver. And though he was just 3-for-9 from outside the paint in San Antonio on Thursday, the post-wake-up-call numbers still look much better.

20160115_james_outside

James’ jumper has seen gradual improvement over the course of his career, but still comes and goes and will always be under the microscope in the postseason, when opposing defenses are more likely to play him soft on the perimeter.


VIDEO: The Starters on LeBron’s recent shooting upswing (more…)

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 10


VIDEO: The Fast Break: January 9

NEWS OF THE MORNING

A kinder, gentler Bryant? | Lopez doesn’t regret sticking with Brooklyn | Stevens rejoins Celtics | NBA’s Australians looking forward to Rio

No. 1: A kinder, gentler Bryant? For the Los Angeles Lakers, Kobe Bryant‘s farewell tour has become the focus of their season. Which may be a good thing, since the Lakers otherwise haven’t been very good, compiling an 8-30 record thus far. Yet despite all the losses, Kobe seems to be enjoying himself as he plays out the string, and the Los Angeles Times‘ Mike Bresnahan writes, has Kobe’s legendary burning desire to win faded a bit in this his final NBA season?

It was bad to be a trash can if Kobe Bryant was mad.

This was years ago, back when there were championship expectations, but Bryant booted one clear across the Lakers’ locker room at Madison Square Garden after a rough loss.

It was also sometimes bad to be toilet paper, apparently. Bryant angrily called his teammates “soft like Charmin” during a rant at practice in which he didn’t feel challenged. This was a little over a year ago.

The smoldering Bryant is now replaced by a smiling one, even as the Lakers (8-30) pinwheel toward the worst season in their 68-year history.

They played well Friday but lost a tight one to Oklahoma City. The new, lighthearted Bryant showed up again in the interview room, just like the previous night after a close loss in Sacramento.

The losses don’t seem as devastating to him.

“I just hide it a lot better,” he said Friday.

***

No. 2: Lopez doesn’t regret sticking with Brooklyn Last summer, Brooklyn center Brook Lopez was one of the most talented big men available in free agency. He eventually re-upped with the Nets, and though the team has struggled this season, Lopez has been a bright spot, averaging 19.8 points to go with 7.8 rebounds. The Nets may face an uncertain future, but as Andy Vasquez writes for the Bergen Record, Lopez says he has no regrets about re-signing with the Nets…

The Nets are in the midst of another disappointing season, certainly far from what Lopez envisioned when he re-signed. But the 27-year-old doesn’t regret his decision.

“No, no, no. I’m happy to be here,” Lopez said Thursday at the team’s practice facility.

“Time and time again I’ve said I wanted to see something built here, I see a special opportunity, a great situation to be in.”

The current situation isn’t exactly a bright one. Brooklyn just lost starting point guard Jarrett Jack for the season with a torn ACL.

Rookie Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who showed promise, is at least another month from returning from a broken ankle that has sidelined him since early December.

While the Nets aren’t mathematically eliminated from the NBA playoffs — it’s not even halfway through the season — they may as well be.

Brooklyn is closer (seven games ahead) in the standings to the awful Sixers than to the final playoff spot in the East (nine games behind).

The Nets don’t have control of their first round draft pick until 2019 thanks to the 2013 trade for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.

So the franchise’s best chance is to hope free agents agree with Lopez about there being a special opportunity in Brooklyn.

Despite all the doom and gloom, the Nets do have some things going for them.

They should have about $40 million in cap space next summer, enough to offer two max salaries to free agents.

Barclays Center is still the league’s newest arena and the team’s state-of-the art Brooklyn practice facility opens next month. And then there’s the lure of the nation’s largest media market.

“The opportunity to play in New York, first and foremost,” Lopez said, when asked how he’d pitch the Nets. “The facilities we have. I think, for me, it’s all about potential.”

That potential starts with Lopez and Thaddeus Young, 27, two nice players with several prime years remaining in their careers. Both are having seasons worthy of All-Star consideration.

Meanwhile, Hollis-Jefferson was better than expected when he played. And the Nets have an intriguing young prospect in Chris McCullough, who has spent the season rehabbing a torn ACL he suffered at Syracuse a year ago.

Add the right pieces and the Nets could be a good team next season. And Lopez said that matters more than anything.

“At the end of the day, it’s about winning, regardless of where you are,” Lopez said.

“Whether we’re luring free agents or want people to stay or whatever it is, you’ve got to be able to show them that there’s opportunities here for that. We have to have the right product on the court.”

***

No. 3: Stevens rejoins Celtics Before joining the Boston Celtics, coach Brad Stevens led Butler University to several memorable NCAA Tournament appearances. And with his former Butler player Andrew Smith in the hospital battling cancer, Stevens recently missed a Celtics game in order to spend time with Smith. Stevens rejoined the Celtics on Saturday and, as the Boston Globe’s Gary Washburn writes, says the last few days helped put things into perspective…

Celtics coach Brad Stevens returned to the team Saturday, conducting a rather important practice at the University of Memphis in his quest to end the team’s recent doldrums.

He returned from his trip to Indiana with a heavy heart. He acknowledged visiting former player Andrew Smith, who has been suffering from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but wouldn’t offer specifics on his condition, only to say he felt compelled to visit him immediately.

Stevens left the club in Chicago on Thursday afternoon, missing the team’s 101-92 loss to the Bulls.

“It’s very tough, not as tough on me as it is certain on [Smith and his family], but certainly emotionally, very challenging,” Stevens said following practice at the Larry Finch Center. “It certainly puts things in a lot of perspective. The conditions [of Smith] were worsening. I’ll let [his family] talk about his condition. I’m glad that I went.”

Stevens returns to a team that has lost four of five games and fallen out of the top eight in the Eastern Conference.

The Celtics have been abysmal shooting from the field in their past two losses — 36.5 percent from the field, 25.5 percent from the 3-point line — and are playing with wavering confidence.

“We could have controlled things to give ourselves a little bit better chance,” Stevens said of the Chicago loss. “I told [the players] this today. We’ve got to get better in a lot of areas. But we usually play hard.

“Sometimes we play a little haphazard but we usually play hard, so we need to bottle that up and play a little more controlled at times.”

Isaiah Thomas, who has made just 11 of 37 shots in the last two games, took full responsibility for the Bulls loss, saying his poor body language and frustrations spilled over to his teammates. Stevens didn’t fully agree.

“I think it says a lot about him from an accountability standpoint,” Stevens said of Thomas. “And at the same time, that’s an overreaction too, because we don’t feel that way. He’s going to have his moments. Other guys are going to have their moments. Other guys are going to have bad moments. We just all have to be in this thing together. We need to improve.”

***

No. 4: NBA’s Australians looking forward to Rio — The NBA has become a global league, followed worldwide and played by athletes from all corners of the earth. Australia, in particular, has become a hotbed of hoops, with its own popular domestic league and several NBA players who originated Down Under. As Roy Ward writes in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australians in the NBA are looking forward to trying to find Olympic glory this summer in Rio…

The 82-game NBA season engulfs the lives of all players and Australia’s basketballers are not immune from this.

But on planes, buses or in down time, the country’s leading players admit their thoughts turn to the Rio Olympics and the glass ceiling that sits in front of a first men’s Olympic medal.

Andrew Bogut, Patty Mills, Matthew Dellavedova, Cameron Bairstow, Aron Baynes and Joe Ingles are all in thick of the action this season while Dante Exum continues to rehabilitate his reconstructed knee.

In Europe, in US college basketball and in the NBL sit the rest of the Boomers aspirants with the final 12-man squad not due to be announced until later in the year.

Since the team qualified for Rio in August last year, they have made public their goal to win the gold medal in Brazil despite Team USA’s long-running dominance in the men’s competition.

What adds credence to the Boomers’ brave stance is Bogut, Mills, Dellavedova and Bairstow are playing on NBA championship contenders while Bogut, Mills and Baynes have won NBA championship rings since 2014.

“There is a lot going on here but while it’s not the every day to day focus it’s always in your mind that it’s coming up and that all the boys are playing well, not just in the NBA but in Europe and the NBL,” Dellavedova said.

“We are all very excited and keep in regular touch through group message, we are going to catch up at All-Star break.

“We are all very excited, focused and committed to trying to do something really special at Rio and we realise the time is now for that.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Atlanta Hawks got a career night from Al Horford last night in a convincing win over the Bulls … Some changes may be in store for the D-League Showcase … Chicago is hoping to get Joakim Noah back from injury this weekRobin Lopez is starting to focus on his offensive post playIsaiah Canaan pays attention to advanced stats … Powerball fever may have been sweeping the nation the last few days, but don’t expect Dirk Nowitzki to get excited about it …

Larrañaga steps in as Celtics’ Stevens visits ailing Butler player

CHICAGO – Asked about his rare and unexpected stint as Boston’s interim head coach, working the sideline in Brad Stevens‘ absence from the Celtics’ game against the Bulls at United Center Thursday night, assistant Jay Larrañaga said yes, it was difficult.

“Difficult situation for Coach Stevens and people close to him obviously,” Larrañaga told reporters about 90 minutes before tipoff and six hours after learning he would be stepping into Stevens’ role. “So we told him, ‘Don’t worry about what’s going on here. We’ll try to keep the ship going straight.’ ”

Stevens, 39, in his third season with Boston after a successful run at Butler University, reportedly traveled back to Indiana to visit Andrew Smith, a former player in his program who has been battling cancer for two years.

Smith, a 6-foot-11 center, played for the Bulldogs in the 2010 and 2011 Final Fours and averaged 8.6 points, 4.8 rebounds and 22.1 minutes in 134 games. He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in January 2014.

Larrañaga, also in his third season in Boston, coached the Erie BayHawks in the NBA Development League for two seasons and previously had served as an assistant coach at Cornell University. He played at Bowling Green for his father, Jim Larrañaga, currently the head coach at the University of Miami.

Larrañaga had coached the Celtics entry in summer league but only once before stepped in for Stevens, taking over after his boss was ejected from a game last season against Sacramento.

He had breakfast Thursday with Stevens and was preparing to attend a coaches meeting at noon at the Celtics’ hotel when Stevens called, alerting him to his absence.

“Not a lot of time to stop and think about it once Coach called,” Larrañaga said. “I’m not going to be like Brad, he’s a very special person. I’m going to be my own person. But in terms of just their routine and what they’re used to, I’ll try to keep it as simple as possible.”

Larrañaga said he texted his father about his role. “He told me, ‘Don’t talk to the refs.’ ”

As for any Red Auerbach-type pregame or halftime speeches he’d been saving for just such an occasion, the Celtics assistant said: “I think it’ll be very brief.”

Celtics wing Evan Turner said Stevens’ decision to see Smith might provide added incentive for Boston, which had dropped three of its previous four games. It also told them something about their coach.

“That’s unreal. I think that speaks volumes in general,” Turner said. “Guys are lucky to be able to play for a coach like that. That says a lot about his character.”

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg spent five years at his alma mater, Iowa State, before being hired by Chicago last summer. So he knows about the relationships that college coaches develop with their players, even in the best of circumstances. Smith’s condition, obviously, takes that to another level.

“You do develop such a strong bond with your players,” Hoiberg said. “It’s not just the four years they’re in school with you – it really lasts a lifetime. You continue to have relationships with the guys. They become family members. You’re always going to do everything you can to look out for former players.”


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