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Morning shootaround — March 29


VIDEO: Highlights from Monday’s games

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Westbrook nearing stats history | Scott blasts Lakers’ youngsters | Pierce suffers knee, ankle injuries | Warriors aim to tighten up defense

No. 1: Westbrook on brink of NBA history — Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook picked up his 16th triple-double last night and OKC improved to 16-0 in those games. What’s more amazing than that perfect mark? How about this: that’s Westbrook’s seventh triple-double in March, the most in a single month since Michael Jordan in 1989. The 16 triple-doubles is two off the all-time mark (held by Magic Johnson) for the most in a season over the last 30 years … and Westbrook still has eight games to play. Oh, and entering this season, Westbrook had 19 career triple-doubles. Ethan Strauss of ESPN.com was on hand for Westbrook’s amazing performance in Toronto and has more on his play this season:

Kevin Durant is asked about Russell Westbrook a lot — about the triple-doubles, about the absurd athletic displays and about the punishing dunks. He sticks to pretty much the same line: He’s not surprised. He has seen that for the past seven years.

After Westbrook followed his own missed free throw in the fourth quarter Monday with a one-handed putback layup in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 119-100 win over the Toronto Raptors, Durant put both hands on his head. Even he was stunned this time.

“That was unreal,” Durant said. “You’ve got to time that right, and you’ve just got to be as athletic as him. There’s only a few … ”

Durant stopped himself.

“Well, I don’t know if there’s anybody in the league that can do that,” he said. “You’ve got to make the free throw, but I’ll take the two points and the acrobatic play instead. But yeah, he’s a freak of nature, man.”

There aren’t many ways to describe Westbrook anymore. “Freak of nature” seems to do just fine, but that might not be adequate.

The putback was the standout play for Westbrook in what has become a nightly crescendo of highlights for the supernova point guard. He notched his 16th triple-double of the season — 26 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists — which ties him with Fat Lever for second most in a season over the past 30 years. With eight games to go, Westbrook is just one off Magic Johnson’s record of 17.

It’s an amazing thing for a triple-double to seem routine, but that’s what Westbrook has done. For some guys, it’s a career accomplishment to get one — remember Andray Blatche running all over the court chasing rebounds a few years ago? — so is it even meaningful to Westbrook anymore?

“It’s something I never take for granted,” he said, “but I like winning.”

That’s what the Thunder do when Westbrook notches a triple-double. They’re now 16-0 in such games this season. They have also ripped off eight straight wins by an average margin of 17.1 points, with seven of those wins coming against playoff teams. The Thunder are hitting their stride as they gear up for the playoffs and are peaking with eight games left in the regular season. It has been the goal all season under coach Billy Donovan to work toward a bigger picture, a “better brand of basketball,” as everyone in the organization likes to say.

Just a few weeks ago, the Thunder hit rock bottom when they lost eight of 12 coming out of the All-Star break. That streak was punctuated by blown fourth-quarter leads and head-shaking losses to bad teams. The message internally was to stick with it, to believe they were playing well, despite the results, and trust it would pay off. It appears that it has.

“I tried to tell you guys that when we were going through it, but it was kind of blinded with the fourth-quarter losses and back-to-back losses. But I tried to tell you guys,” Durant said. “Glad you see it now. It was good to kind of figure ourselves out and what we need to do. It was kind of like a splash of water on your face — just knowing you’ve got to wake up and know the second half of the season is important.”

Donovan also offered his take.

“I think sometimes you’ve got to go through some wounds and some scars and some hurt,” the coach said. “You’ve got to get calloused a little bit. I think as you go through a season, you’ve got to get calloused. Sometimes, the harder and the more difficult the struggle, the more calloused you get, the more hardened you get. I think the more you have a chance to learn and grow — I’ve said this about this team — I don’t think it ever needs to be easy for them. It’s got to be hard.”

Confidence is dripping off the Thunder right now, as evidenced by the 48 minutes of swagger they dropped on the Raptors on Monday.


VIDEO: Best plays from Russell Westbrook’s 16th triple-double this season

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Morning shootaround — March 19


VIDEO: Top 10 Plays from Friday’s action

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Wade at another career crossroads | Crowder’s absence costing Celtics | Portland avoids “sickening” loss | Frye shows value, quietly and from distance

No. 1: Wade at another career crossroads — You can find plenty of advance coverage on this site to whet your appetite for Saturday night’s Big Game. But there’s another big game that starts an hour earlier pitting two rivals from the other conference – Cleveland at Miami (7:30 p.m. ET, League Pass) – and the Miami Herald’s Ethan Skolnick provides a window into that one with his column on Heat veteran Dwyane Wade and his team’s need for a Wade resurgence during this March Madness portion of their schedule:

“I haven’t been into the best rhythm since the All-Star break that I want to be in,” said Wade, who shot 45.8 percent before the break, and 39.4 percent since. “I’ve had some good games scoring, but I haven’t been into a great rhythm.”

He cited some initial rust, and the need to adapt to all of the team’s iterations. He noted how this is the fourth incarnation of the Heat this season. First, Wade and Chris Bosh and Goran Dragic were the primary ball-handlers. Then Dragic got hurt, and it was Wade and Bosh.

“Chris goes out, now it’s a different kind of team,” Wade said. “Joe [Johnson] comes in, and Chris is out, and Goran is in, and now it’s a different kind of team. These are all the different kind of adjustments you’ve got to make.”

He doesn’t intend these as excuses, but explanations. “Just got to figure it out,” Wade said. “Me and Coach [Erik Spoelstra] talked about some things and areas on the floor that I can get to, that can put me in a better rhythm. The biggest thing is early.”

As in him attacking earlier in possessions.

However he finds his rhythm this late in the season, it’s a requirement that he does.

No matter how many other options have emerged on this revamped roster, the Heat won’t be winning anything of significance this postseason (whether games or rounds) if its most battle-tested playoff performer is off.

It certainly wouldn’t be capable of seriously challenging Saturday’s opponent, LeBron James and the Cavaliers, without an efficient, dynamic Wade, not when Bosh will likely be watching, and not even as the Cavaliers continue to constantly challenge themselves, with a never-ending series of self-inflicted controversies.

It has seemed like the Heat’s stealth strategy has been to wait in the weeds, steel itself amid adversity and position itself to steal the conference crown if the Cavaliers — through ball-hogging, eye-rolling and sub-tweeting — start coming apart.

Certainly, that could still occur, with James seeming at a career crossroads of sorts himself, if more as a leader than a player. Through photos and comments on social media, the four-time MVP has come off as forlorn and frustrated, making no secret that he misses sharing the court and the locker room with a peer of Wade’s status and strength.

Miami probably won’t get Wade from early in James’ time here either, not at age 34. But the one from before the All-Star break will suffice. Wade has already proven plenty this season, starting with his increased availability; he will play his 63rd game Saturday, one more than last season. He insisted his thigh, recently bruised, isn’t bothering him.

“Just got to play the game, man, and continue to do what you’ve always done,” Wade said. “And eventually it will turn.”

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 No. 2: Crowder’s absence costing Celtics — It’s not likely to earn Celtics forward Jae Crowder many votes on NBA Most Valuable Player ballots, but Boston’s 0-3 slump since the Marquette product suffered a high ankle sprain last week has highlighted Crowder’s individual value within his team’s ensemble approach. Chris Forsberg of ESPNBoston.com examined that after the Celtics’ loss to Eastern Conference rival Toronto:

The Celtics, who held a comfy lead on the third seed two weeks ago, have slipped all the way to No. 6 in the East, a half-game behind both the Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat and a game back of the Atlanta Hawks. What Stevens said two weeks ago is actually true now: Boston is four games away from ninth place.

With only 13 games left in the regular season, it remains highly unlikely that the Celtics could fall much further, but given the injuries they’re battling and the poor brand of basketball they are playing, it’s understandable why some might be leery.

“We have to change something up,” Celtics All-Star Isaiah Thomas told reporters in Toronto. “We got ourselves back into [Friday’s] game, so we showed signs of playing like we know how, but a good team like the Raptors you can’t just play one good quarter.”

Make no mistake, the Celtics are in the midst of a brutally tough stretch, exacerbated by the fact that they lost Jae Crowder to a high ankle sprain last Friday, and one of the players expected to help fill his shoes, Jonas Jerebko, missed the past two games with a left foot injury

Despite visiting a Raptors team that was playing its fourth game in five nights and was coming off an overtime win in Indiana on Thursday, the Celtics let Toronto build a big first-half lead, then didn’t have enough energy themselves to sustain a second-half rally.

The Celtics miss Crowder more than most expected, in part because Boston’s depth at the swingman spot is so thin. What’s more, with Crowder starting the first 66 games of the season, it was not obvious just how much of a drop-off there would be without him.

And while Crowder might be Boston’s best two-way player, the team really seems to miss his swagger and intensity. Boston simply looks tentative, and that may be why there’s an uneasiness in playing with a makeshift rotation in which players called upon to fill larger roles have struggled to rise to the challenge.

Second-year guard Marcus Smart initially elevated to Crowder’s starting small forward role, but with Smart stuck in a bit of a shooting slump, Stevens elected to shake things up a bit on Friday by moving Evan Turner into the starting lineup.

The Raptors — and Luis Scola in particular — shot so well at the start of the game that Boston’s starters were minus-13 in six minutes of floor time. The Celtics, tied for the fourth-best defensive rating in the league while allowing 100.7 points per 100 possessions, saw their first unit allow an offensive rating of 210 over the first six minutes of the first quarter.

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No. 3:  Portland avoids “sickening” loss — Fans of the Portland Trail Blazers understandably were upset about Kendrick Perkins‘ dangerous clotheslining foul on guard Damian Lillard early in the fourth quarter Friday, a play that got Perkins ejected and put Lillard down hard in New Orleans. But Lillard himself and his teammates were grateful afterward to escape with a victory that, had the Pelicans completed their comeback, might have left the Blazers feeling like they’d left the French Quarter having had way too much to drink and eat. Mike Richman of The Oregonian was there:

As Damian Lillard walked back out on to the court with 1:23 left in the game he glanced up at the scoreboard and started to feel an uneasiness deep in his gut.

“I remember walking out of a timeout and thinking, ‘Man if we lose this game, I am going to be sick. I’m going to be sick about this,'” Lillard said. “After I had that thought, I decided we wasn’t going to lose this game.”

The Blazers flirted with a devastating collapse against the New Orleans Pelicans on Friday night, blowing a 20-point lead and falling behind late in the fourth quarter, before pulling out a crucial, 117-112, win at Smoothie King Center.

It wasn’t just that the Blazers almost coughed up a huge lead. The Pelicans played the entire second half without All-Star forward Anthony Davis and the Blazers were in danger of losing three straight games to open a four-game trip. With all that in the background, dropping this game would have rightfully made Lillard ill

“It was truly a test,” Lillard said. “I think that’s the best word to describe it. Coming off two tough losses against OKC and San Antonio and then coming out tonight we played with urgency for most of the game. We were locked in.”

Portland’s offense struggled in the fourth quarter and New Orleans first took the lead on back-to-back three-pointers from guard Jrue Holiday, putting the Pelicans up 105-102 with just over three minutes remaining.

Then after the Blazers knocked down three free throws to go back up one, former Blazer Tim Frazier hit a pull-up jumper to give New Orleans a 107-106 edge with 2:13 left.

“They started really believing and playing with a lot of pace and confidence,” Lillard said. “I think we were down by two with under a minute and it was like, ‘It’s really gut check time'”

After the teams traded empty possessions, the Blazers took a timeout with just under 90 seconds left. Lillard told himself in the huddle he wouldn’t let the Blazers lose and then the star point guard made good on his declaration.

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No. 4: Frye shows value, quietly and from distance — Might as well lick your index finger and hold it up to the sky to know which way the wind is blowing for the Cleveland Cavaliers, who change directions and shift moods as if with the weather. But in the wake of their victory over Orlando, veteran forward Channing Frye – Cleveland’s notable trade-deadline acquisition – looked to have found a helpful role, whether it lasts or not. Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com chronicled Frye’s satisfying performance (14 points) against his former team in the Magic Kingdom and its meaning for Cleveland:

The Frye acquisition has been fruitful for the Cavs, who gave up two future second-round picks for Frye, and also took on the $15 million left on his contract. After drilling 4-for-6 3-pointers Friday, Frye is 25-for-50 from 3-point range in 12 games with the Cavs. It’s the sort of catch-and-shoot big man play that is extremely effective with the team’s other personnel.

“I know he feels good about that,” said LeBron James, who scored 18 points and didn’t keep up the ruse either. “This was definitely for him. He showed up and showed why he’s a valuable part to our team now.”

Frye’s reputation defensively is not strong, but the numbers don’t totally bear that out. Frye ranks No. 4 among all power forwards in real plus-minus, just behind teammate Kevin Love. And Cavs coach Tyronn Lue went with Frye over Love in the fourth quarter as the Cavs executed a comeback.

Truth be told, the Cavs sort of acted as if they knew they could beat a ragtag Magic team with just a half effort, [Victor] Oladipo‘s performance notwithstanding, and move on to a more appetizing game in Miami on Saturday night. This essentially played out as they had dominant shifts during the second quarter and the fourth and it was all that was needed to beat the Magic, who are 10-26 since Jan. 1.

It’s equally a mystery as to whether Fyre’s growing role is real and lasting or just a blip. It was just a few weeks ago that Lue played Frye only 10 minutes over the course of four games. Making a proclamation on anything with this Cavs team is a path to folly, at least to this point.

But Frye will always have this one. The team that signed him to a four-year, $32 million deal in 2014 — and started looking to trade him just a year into it — had to watch him play the role they once envisioned for him.

“When I came [to Orlando], I thought we could kind of resemble the Phoenix style, not necessarily score 120 points, but fast-paced, spread you out and move the rock around. It just didn’t work out like that,” Frye said.

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Memphis, despite suffering significant blowouts (2-9 in games decided by 18 points or more), has managed to stay afloat in the grueling West. How? Our John Schuhmann breaks down numbers that reveal the Grizzlies’ resiliency in close games. … ICYMI: Scott Howard-Cooper from right here at NBA.com, in advance of the big Warriors-Spurs game, analyzed Golden State’s end game and how getting whole might conflict with the pursuit of 73 victories. … Carmelo Anthony says he has no idea yet what will happen this summer with his New York Knicks and, naturally, that generates headlines for a tabloid. … If you’re going to feel sorry for Melo in his current Knicks plight, save a little sympathy for Brooklyn’s Thaddeus Young, who has endured more than his share of losing in nine NBA seasons. … John Wall is turning over the ball too often and the Wizards point guard knows it. … Lakers coach Byron Scott would love to see Brandon Bass stick with the team next season for his veteran influence and timely contributions, but the ball most definitely will be in Bass’ court. … Russell Westbrook, in one fell swoop, has done something that surpasses both Oscar Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain. … Trey Schwab spent six years working with the Minnesota Timberwolves and, before that, grew tight with former NBA coaches Flip Saunders and Eric Musselman during their time together in the CBA. Those NBA roots are enough to merit inclusion here of a story, long on NCAA tournament flavor, about Schwab’s special relationship with Indiana University coach Tom Crean. Get well, Trey. … And finally, this shout-out to the NBA’s senior “Professor” …

OKC’s Durant oblivious to Celtics fans’ ‘Come to Boston’ chants

VIDEO: Celtics fans chants to Kevin Durant

If only it were so easy. Fill an arena with enthusiastic fans of the home team who nonetheless appreciate the value of a talented and lethal opponent, then pitch woo en masse in an orchestrated thundering chant.

That does it every time, right?

Wrong.

Kevin Durant‘s reaction to Celtics fans’ “Come to Boston!” chants Wednesday night were the equivalent of a homecoming queen’s “Who?” when asked about a classmate’s crush on her.

“I didn’t even hear that, man,” the Oklahoma City All-Star forward said after scoring 28 points with nine assists and seven rebounds in the Thunder’s 130-109 beatdown of the Celtics. “Promise.”

Durant had thrown a few niceties Boston’s way after shootaround Wednesday morning, telling reporters at TD Garden “I like the city a lot.” It was the usual stuff a high-profile free-agent-to-be says when visiting a road city, regardless of his actual interest in relocating there. But because the Celtics are one of the league’s legacy franchises, will have sufficient funds to spend this summer and appear to be long on supporting cast but short on cornerstone superstar, Durant’s comments generated more buzz than usual.

In Boston, anyway.

Thunder fans might feel a little skittish or even aggravated after a long season of speculation, rumors conjecture and guessing. Coach Billy Donovan has dealt with it everywhere OKC has played and chalked up Durant’s response Wednesday as the expected words of a friendly fellow.

“I think Kevin has always been respectful,” Donovan told reporters before the game. “He’s a great guy. I don’t think Kevin would ever say anything derogatory about another team or player or things like that. That’s just not who he is. And I think when he gets put into those situations, he’s only going to say positive things because that’s who he is.”

The Garden loyalists doing the chanting at the game, however, need to understand that Durant gets that stuff everywhere he goes. Imagine the question in the postgame video getting dubbed with one of those obviously-different, deeper dubbed voices saying “New York” or “Washington” or “Miami” rather than “Boston.”

And no, the game operations staff couldn’t help by playing that Dave Loggins song on the videoboard in place of dancing Gino for the night. Tampering rules, y’know.

Boston’s Crowder out ‘couple of weeks’

HANG TIME BIG CITY — The Boston Celtics’ efforts to hang on to the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race may have just encountered a bump in the road. Speaking to the media Sunday, Celtics coach Brad Stevens said starting forward Jae Crowder will likely miss time due to a right ankle injury…

Crowder suffered the injury in the second half of Boston’s 102-98 loss to the Houston Rockets on Friday. Crowder had played in all of Boston’s 66 games this season, averaging a career high 14.4 points and 5.1 rebounds. The Celtics have 16 games remaining, and are currently one loss ahead of Miami and Charlotte for third place in the Eastern Conference.

Analytics Art: The three hottest shooters in the NBA this week


VIDEO: Andrew Wiggins runs wild in a win over Brooklyn

By Will Laws, Special to NBA.com

The dog days of the NBA season are upon us. With just over a month remaining in the regular season, the mileage on players’ legs is piling up, and coaches are trying to give their starters a bit more rest as the playoffs near.

Of PointAfter’s three hottest shooters of the week, the two who suit up for teams currently in postseason position come off the bench. Those guys will become more important as the season winds down and playoff rotations tighten up, leaving little time for the indispensable starters to catch their breath.

Note: All weekly statistics cover games between March 4-10.

Guard: Evan Turner, Boston Celtics

Evan Turner is slogging through his worst shooting season from 3-point range in 2015-16, which has caused him to rely more heavily on the mid-range game. In fact, Turner has taken more shots from within four feet than he has from beyond the arc, an incredibly rare happening for a guard.

That uncommon strategy means Turner is bound to streaks of sweet shooting and equally poor slumps. This week marked one of the good runs for Boston’s bench guard.

He sank at least half his attempts in all three of the Celtics’ contests, including a 21-point outburst on 10-of-19 shooting in a 105-104 nailbiter over the Knicks. Overall, he was 21-of-38 (55.3 percent) from the floor on the week.

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

Turner might not adhere to the preferred style of contemporary NBA offenses that favor long-distance shots, but he’s mostly making it work for the Celtics.

Wing: Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves

Timberwolves coach Sam Mitchell criticized his starters after Friday’s loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, with one statement that seemed pointed in Andrew Wiggins‘ direction: “Every single night you’ve got to earn it, you don’t get to sleepwalk your way through 20, 25 minutes of the game and then decide you’ve got to play.”

(Wiggins was held to 21 minutes that night, a season low.)

The former No. 1 overall pick showed his mettle the next night against Brooklyn by logging his most efficient shooting performance of the season. Wiggins canned 10-of-14 shots, including both of his 3-point attempts, to total 26 points and six assists, which tied a season high and helped Minnesota score a season-best 132 points in the reassuring triumph.

The Wolves couldn’t nab victories in the team’s other two contests against Charlotte and San Antonio this week, but Wiggins was 20-for-38 overall to complete an encouraging seven-day stretch that didn’t start off that way.

Forward/Center: Enes Kanter, Oklahoma City Thunder

Enes Kanter did his part on offense this week, acting as a center who can spread the floor and open up the lane for Oklahoma City’s stars. He knocked down the shots that needed to be made in wins over the Bucks and Clippers, posting a hyper-efficient conversion rate of 70.8 percent on 14-of-19 shooting.

This is his role, and everyone knows it — he just fulfilled it better this week.

Problem is, his infamous defensive shortcomings negate whatever spacing he provides Oklahoma City on offense. The Thunder’s defensive rating worsens by more than six points per 100 possessions with Kanter on the floor, which explains why Steven Adams has taken over the lion’s share of court time in their center platoon. Kanter played just 37 minutes in OKC’s two games this week, and has averaged 16.3 minutes in four March matchups.

The Thunder have uncharacteristically struggled in the fourth quarter this season, often blowing leads when Kanter’s out there ole’ing big men like a matador. He’ll have to keep shooting the lights out to justify more minutes in crunch time.

This story was published by PointAfter, a partner of NBA.com.

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.

 

Report: Johnson, Nets talk buyout

It was earlier this month when famous groundhog Punxsutawney Phil predicted the arrival of an early spring. Now the first sign of an NBA thaw might be showing in Joe Johnson’s resolve to remain with the Nets.

The 34-year-old swingman has begun talks with new Brooklyn general manager Sean Marks about buying out the rest of his $24.9 million contract this season, according to Marc Stein of ESPN.com:

As long as Johnson is released by new Nets general manager Sean Marks by Tuesday, he’ll be playoff eligible for his next team.

“I think he’s deserved the right to (play on a playoff team if that’s what he wants),” Marks said of Johnson during an appearance on WFAN on Thursday.

Johnson, 34, is earning $24.9 million this season in the final year of a mammoth six-year, $124 million deal that was the league’s largest at the time when he signed it with the Hawks in 2010. Brooklyn absorbed the remaining four years and $89.3 million left on Johnson’s deal — soon followed by the acquisitions of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett — in a bid to first convince then-franchise point guard Deron Williams to stay with the Nets and then to make a run at the NBA championship that Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov vowed to win within the space of five years.

But the Nets have only won one playoff series after acquiring Johnson and don’t have control of their own first-round pick until June 2019.

For the new GM Marks, moving on from Johnson would be the second step in what promises to be a tremendous undertaking to turn the Nets around. He had released forward Andrea Bargnani.

Despite averaging just 11.8 points per game on 40.6 percent shooting this season — his lowest numbers in more than a dozen years — Johnson will have no shortage of would-be contending teams lining up to add him to their playoff rosters. Stein reports Atlanta, Boston, Cleveland, Houston, Miami, Oklahoma City and Toronto have already made contact.

Thomas-less minutes key to Celtics’ surge up East standings


VIDEO: Isaiah Thomas’ top plays from mid-February

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — On the morning of Jan. 13, the Boston Celtics sat in 10th place in the Eastern Conference at 19-19, having lost four straight games.

The last loss in that streak came against the New York Knicks, who have since gone 3-12. The Boston defense, which ranked in the top five, allowed the Knicks to shoot 53 percent and score 120 points in that game.

The Celtics scored 114 points themselves, 65 in a second half they started with a small lineup. At the time, coach Brad Stevens said that small ball was about defense, but it’s been the Celtics’ offense that has improved since then.

The Celtics were a bottom-10 offensive team through that loss in New York. Since then, they’ve been a top-10 offensive team and have gone 13-4 to go from 10th in the East to third.

20160219_bos_eff

Isaiah Thomas has averaged 21.8 points and 6.2 assists over these last 17 games, leading the team in usage rate by a wide margin. But it’s been the minutes with Thomas off the floor that have been more critical to the Celtics’ improvement.

Through Jan. 12, the Celtics were downright awful offensively when Thomas sat down, scoring 94.3 points per 100 possessions, which is worse than the Sixers have been this season. Since Jan. 13, they’ve jumped to 107.9 points per 100 possessions with Thomas off the floor.

20160219_thomas_on-off

Improved shooting from Jonas Jerebko, Marcus Smart and Tyler Zeller has been critical. But another key has been Stevens settling on a rotation.

Through Jan. 12 (38 games), no lineup that didn’t include Thomas played more than 31 minutes. But in the 17 games since then, the Celtics have a no-Thomas lineup — Smart, Avery Bradley, Evan Turner, Jerebko and Kelly Olynyk — that has played 113 minutes and outscored its opponents by 16.0 points per 100 possessions. Neither Turner nor Smart can shoot very well, but their playmaking is complemented by two shooting bigs. David Lee had played 41 percent of the no-Thomas minutes before Jan. 12, but hasn’t played at all since then.

Some context: Only four of the Celtics’ 17 games in that stretch before the All-Star break were played against teams that currently rank in the top 10 defensively. They’ll face 10 top-10 defenses in their final 27 games, and that doesn’t include two meetings against the Utah Jazz, who rank 14th for the season, but fifth in the six weeks since Rudy Gobert returned from injury.

The first of those two meetings is Friday (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). The game is more important for the ninth-place Jazz, but it will also be a test of the Celtics’ improved, second-unit offense.

Morning shootaround — Feb. 19


VIDEO: Highlights from Thursday’s games

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: Rockets had steep asking price for Howard | Forman: Gasol a ‘core’ part of Bulls | Celtics may soon buyout Lee | Grizzlies gamble at deadline

No. 1: Report: Rockets were asking for a lot for Howard — Trade deadline day has come and gone without any of the bigger names — Dwight HowardKevin LoveBlake Griffin, et al — going anywhere. Howard’s name was thrown around a bunch as the deadline grew closer and closer, but him actually leaving Houston was held up by the Rockets’ steep asking price for him, writes Marc Stein of ESPN.com:

League sources told ESPN.com that the Rockets engaged in trade talks with numerous teams once they began aggressively shopping Howard right before the start of the All-Star break.

Sources said that the Rockets talked about potential Howard deals in recent days with a list of teams including Atlanta, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, Miami and, most recently, Milwaukee. Sources say Houston, however, told several teams that it wasn’t prepared to trade Howard without receiving at least one frontline player and a future first-round draft pick in return.

The Rockets took a similar approach with young power forward Donatas Motiejunas and managed to extricate a first-round pick from the Detroit Pistons for Motiejunas in the one trade they did complete on deadline day.

But interested teams were unwilling to pay such a premium for Howard, at least in part because Howard, who turned 30 in December, can become a free agent July 1.

“Many teams called expressing great interest in trading for Dwight,” Howard’s agent, Dan Fegan, told ESPN.com on Thursday night. “The obvious stumbling block to a trade was how could a team justify giving up important assets for a player who was about to become a free agent in a few short months?

“Not surprisingly, as the deadline approached, several teams called stating they had worked out the trade parameters with Houston for a Dwight deal but were not prepared to give up their assets unless Dwight agreed to opt into the last year of his contract and forego free agency. Dwight declined.”

Fegan refused to discuss specific teams that made pitches for Howard, but sources told ESPN.com that the Bucks were one of those teams.

The Bucks and Rockets did exchange some trade proposals, sources said, but Milwaukee made it clear that it wouldn’t go through with any deal for Howard unless he opted into the final season of his contract, which is scheduled to pay him $23.3 million in 2016-17.

Howard earns $22.3 million this season in the third year of his four-year, $88 million contract with the Rockets and has made it clear he intends to bypass Year 4 to return to the open market.


VIDEO: Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff talks after Thursday’s practice

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2016 Trade Deadline live blog

From NBA.com staff reports

One of the busiest days in terms of NBA roster chatter and speculation is here: trade deadline day. As we close in on the 3 p.m. ET deadline for all NBA teams to make trades, we’ll keep you in the know about any rumblings and reported deals as they happen. While you’re keeping up, don’t forget to check out our Trade Tracker and other 2016 Trade Deadline coverage.

Live blog — Part II | Live blog — Part III

UPDATE, 10:14 a.m. ET — Gasol/Kings chatter

A Wednesday-night report had the Sacramento Kings “pushing hard” to get Pau Gasol from the Chicago Bulls. Sam Amick has an update…

UPDATE, 10:05 a.m. ET — Celtics holding strong

No team has the ability to trade for a star more than the Boston Celtics. Al Horford and Dwight Howard are two impact players on the market, but both could be free agents this summer. Horford is on an expiring contract and Howard has a player option for next season that he could decline.

UPDATE, 9:48 a.m. ET — Suns forwards on the market

Could Mirza Teletovic reunite with head coach Jason Kidd? From ESPN’s Marc Stein

Among the many things Phoenix is discussing today, sources say, is dealing Mirza Teletovic to Milwaukee. But the Bucks’ largest trade exception is agonizingly too small ($5.2 million) to absorb Teletovic’s $5.5 million salary, so any deal would have to involve players from both teams.

Teletovic is on an expiring contract and the Bucks don’t have much of a shot at the playoffs, so it’s hard to see much motivation for Milwaukee to get a deal done there.

UPDATE, 9:09 a.m. ET — The buyout list

Once the deadline passes, some players with expiring contracts could get waived by non-contenders so that they could sign with teams heading to the playoffs.

In order to be eligible for the playoffs, a player would have to be waived by March 1 (and doesn’t necessarily have to sign until the last day of the regular season).

UPDATE, 8:49 a.m. ET — Lawson may be done in Houston

When the Rockets play in Phoenix on Friday, Ty Lawson might not be with them, whether they’ve traded him or not.

Lawson played less than nine minutes in the Rockets’ last game before the All-Star break and has shot a career-low 39 percent this season.

UPDATE, 7:58 a.m. ET — Teams interested in Knicks’ prospect

New York doesn’t have many assets with which to trade, but according to Orazio Cauchi of Sportando.net, former 2015 Draft pick Guillermo “Willy” Hernangomez is drawing some interest.

UPDATE, 7:37 a.m. ET — Rockets turned down one Dwight deal

Frank Isola of the New York Daily News reported this morning that the Houston Rockets are working hard to trade Dwight Howard. The Charlotte Hornets offered up Al Jefferson and Spencer Hawes for Howard, Isola reports, but that deal was dismissed.

UPDATE, 6:51 a.m. ET — New overnight (and what you might have missed)


VIDEO: David Aldridge breaks down the Cavs’ trade chatter

Kings pushing hard to acquire Bulls’ Gasol — The Sacramento Kings find themselves on the perimeter of the Western Conference playoff picture, a manageable 4 1/2 games behind the Utah Jazz for No. 8. Trade talks have swirled around some members of the team (Ben McLemore, Kosta Koufos, Rudy Gay and others), but it seems they are potentially eyeing a massive deal with the Chicago Bulls. The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Chris Mannix report the Kings are trying to pry All-Star big man Pau Gasol from Chicago in a deal that would send he and Tony Snell to Sacramento for Koufos, McLemore and an adjustment on the 2016 first-round pick the Kings owe the Bulls.

Adding on to this, K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune confirms Gasol is indeed available, but the Bulls want “a rotation player who can make an immediate impact and a first-round pick”. Additionally, Snell and forward Taj Gibson are also on the market as the Bulls’ front office is trying to determine how to manage the futures of Gasol (who will likely opt out this summer and become an unrestricted free agent) and injured center Joakim Noah (also a free agent this summer). Gibson, for his part, would be surprised at being dealt, Johnson reports. “I would be surprised, but I understand that it’s a part of the business,” he said. “An offer could be made and things could be shaken up. It doesn’t mean they don’t like you or don’t appreciate you. It’s just that it’s a business. I totally understand it. I’ve been in (rumors) my whole career.”

Report: Jazz, Rockets discuss guard swap — If the season ended today, the Utah Jazz would be in the playoffs for the first time in four seasons. However, point guard play has been an issue for Utah all season long and according to Tony Jones of The Salt Lake Tribune, the Jazz are looking to send point guard Trey Burke to the No. 9 team in the Western Conference, the Houston Rockets, for troubled point guard Ty Lawson. Burke is the Jazz’s fifth-leading scorer this season and has played his entire career with Utah. He was an All-Rookie first team pick in 2013-14 but has become more of a backup since then, playing behind rookie Raul Neto this season.

Howard, Lawson tune out trade chatter — Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard was mentioned in a possible trades with the Charlotte Hornets and has been in and out of trade rumors all season long. Point guard Ty Lawson found himself tied into a potential deal last night with the Utah Jazz. Yet neither player is sweating what happens next, writes Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. Said Howard: “You always put it out of your mind. There’s always going to be rumors. People are always going to say stuff. At the end of the day, none of that stuff matters.”

Cavs reportedly offer Varejao to Magic for Frye — If nothing else this season, the Cleveland Cavaliers have made it clear this season that it’s championship-or-bust time in Ohio. That being said, it’s not surprising to see Cleveland in the mix for several trades today, including a deal that would send Anderson Varejao back to the team that originally drafted him. According to ESPN.com’s Marc Stein, the Cavs approached the Orlando Magic — who selected Varejao with the 30th pick in the 2004 Draft — for sharp-shooting big man Channing Frye. However, the likelihood of Orlando accepting the deal is in question, reports Sam Amick of USA Today Sports.

Love, Shumpert likely staying put with Cavaliers — As much as Cleveland is in win-now mode, though, it isn’t about to part with two key starters as the season winds down. Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal reports that Kevin Love and Iman Shumpert are expected to be with the team after the deadline (and Anderson Varejao may not get moved either). But even if the big names on this roster are staying put, don’t be surprised if smaller contracts/names on the roster — those of Richard Jefferson, Mo Williams and Jared Cunningham — are used in a possible deal.

Report: Celtics willing to part with Nets’ pick … for right priceKevin Love has been on the wish list. So, have Blake Griffin, Al Horford and other marquee big men. The Boston Celtics have plenty of assets with which to swing a trade — the foremost being the Brooklyn Nets’ No. 1 pick in the 2016 Draft. Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald writes that the Celtics would be willing to trade away that sought-after pick for the right suitor, but they wouldn’t deal the pick in a trade for Griffin or Horford.

Thunder unlikely to make deal, but may mine buyouts — Oklahoma City is in a comfortable position in the Western Conference as the post-All-Star break portion of the schedule approaches. Yet should they be thinking about a trade as today’s deadline — and star Kevin Durant‘s offseason free agency — draws closer? Royce Young of ESPN.com digs into that issue and posits that the Thunder would be better off seeing who if a useful veteran (like Joe Johnson or Kevin Martin) is bought out at the trade deadline and perhaps swinging for them instead of a big-time trade.

Kupchack doesn’t expect Lakers to be busy today — The Los Angeles Lakers have a lot of potential talent on their roster in the form of Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and D’Angelo Russell. The Lakers are still waiting to see what all that potential becomes and, as such, are not expected to be involved in trades today, writes Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News. General manager Mitch Kupchak said as much in his address to the media yesterday and while the team has veterans on expiring deals (Roy Hibbert, Ryan Kelly, Metta World Peace) and others on somewhat reasonable contracts (Brandon Bass, Lou Williams), interest around them has been nil.

 

 

Morning shootaround — Feb. 13


VIDEO: All the highlights from All-Star Friday Night

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Redick ready to rack it | Trade season takes no All-Star break | Warriors open to chasing 73 | Shaw might be next ex-Laker on Knicks bench

No. 1: Redick ready to rack it — J.J. Redick is one competitive cuss, which is why he took so seriously his failure to advance in last year’s Foot Locker Three-Point Contest on All-Star Saturday and why he ramped up his preparation this time around. Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News looked at Redick’s determination to win or at least push deeper into the shootout this time around:

The rack will just represent the mechanism that holds the basketballs J.J. Redick will shoot. The money balls will just represent the extra points the Clippers’ guard hopes to accumulate.

But when Redick participates in the NBA’s 3-point contest as part of All-Star festivities on Saturday at Air Canada Centre, the rack and moneyballs will also represent something else.

It will mark the key part of Redick’s preparation in hopes to rectify last season’s finish, in which he did not advance out of the contest’s first round.

So, Redick completed shooting workouts on Thursday and Friday that included using racks and moneyballs in his routine.

Redick sounded optimistic that could help him win, which would prompt him to celebrate Saturday evening enjoying a bottle of Pinot Noir.

“Last year I grabbed the balls from the wrong side, so I feel like I’m already ahead of where I was last year,” Redick said. “I’ll try to maintain somewhat of a routine that I would have if I was playing a game.”

When Redick plays in a game, that usually means one thing: He will make outside shots with deadly accuracy. Redick has averaged a career-high 47.6 percent clip from 3-point range to help the Clippers (35-18) go 18-5 without Blake Griffin, who has an injured quadriceps and broken right hand, the latter ailment happening after punching team assistant equipment manager Matias Testi at a local restaurant here.

But Redick could not stop Golden State’s Stephen Curry from winning last season’s contest for reasons beyond Curry seemingly making every shot he takes.

Redick did not advance out of the first round amid two startling developments: A few of Redick’s shots did not count since he could not keep his feet behind the 3-point line.

“I shot a lot of long twos last year,” Redick joked.

Redick also struggled transitioning from catch-and-shoot opportunities toward hoisting 3-pointers after grabbing the ball from the rack.

“I didn’t really have an issue with the timing last year, it was more the rhythm,” Redick said. “Depending on which side of the rack you grab the ball from, your footwork is a little different.

“Not that shooting 3s off a rack is an exact science or anything. Ultimately the ball just needs to go through the net.”

And they need to go into the net more than Curry, Golden State’s Klay Thompson, Houston’s James Harden, Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton, Phoenix’s Devin Booker and Portland’s CJ McCollum will also be in the contest

Redick predicted Curry and Thompson will “shoot the ball really well and be relaxed.” Redick also considered Booker a “darkhorse.”

***

 No. 2: Trade season takes no All-Star break — Just because the NBA’s regular season gets put on hold each year over the longer-than-ever All-Star break, that doesn’t stop league business for chugging along. And with the annual February trade deadline fast approaching – it’s Thursday, before the schedule actually resumes for anyone that evening – rumors and speculation were flying in Toronto, including an alleged three-team, multiple-star blockbuster if it were to come to fruition. Always keep your eye on the big “if,” of course, but this one between Cleveland, New York and Boston was reported by Frank Isola of the New York Daily News:

The Daily News has learned that the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers have discussed a blockbuster trade centered around Kevin Love. There were very preliminary discussions with the Knicks about expanding the deal to include [Carmelo] Anthony, who would have to waive his no trade clause in order to facilitate a deal to the Cavs.

The Knicks would receive draft picks and players in return. One of those players is believed to be Timofey Mozgov, who five years ago was traded by the Knicks to Denver in the Anthony deal.

Those talks have not progressed. Plus Anthony reiterated on Friday that he has no plans to seek a trade. However, when asked if he’s thought about his future with a losing organization, Anthony gave a cryptic answer.

“Not yet. I’m pretty sure I’ll have that conversation with myself and my family and my team,” he said. “But it’s not a conversation for right now.”

The NBA trading deadline is Thursday and Knicks president Phil Jackson is exploring ways to upgrade the 23-32 Knicks and get them back in the playoff race. Trading Anthony would signal a complete rebuild centered around 20-year-old Kristaps Porzingis.

On Friday, Anthony bemoaned not having a proven star as a teammate and revealed that he’s had talks with fellow All-Stars about joining forces.

“I think everybody kind of dreams and hopes that they can play with another great player, another star player. It’s a star player’s league,” Anthony said. “I think that’s what we talk about when we all get together — ‘I want to play with you, I want to play with you.’ Even here different guys say, ‘Come play with me, come play with me.’ So that’s always the mindset. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it don’t. But I think everybody that’s in my situation, that’s in my position, they all want the load off especially the older they get. Because you realize you just can’t do it all by yourself. Everybody knows that.”

The Cavaliers are in first place in the Eastern Conference and the odds-on favorites to return to the NBA Finals for a second straight year. The Cavs and LeBron James, however, are not convinced they have enough to beat the top teams in the West, in particular Golden State and San Antonio.

The Cavs are 1-3 against those clubs with the one win coming against San Antonio one week after Tyronn Lue replaced David Blatt as coach. Anthony would give Cleveland a proven scorer to join LeBron and Kyrie Irving.

For every trade rumor that pops up, there usually is one or more reports poking holes in the scenario. Some in response to this Cavaliers-Knicks-Celtics scenario popped up on Twitter:

***

No. 3:  Warriors open to chasing 73 — It has become de rigueur these days for NBA coaches and teams to seek the path of least resistance to a championship run, with special attention paid to rest and limited exposures to injuries and physical or mental fatigue. But the Golden State Warriors remain refreshing that way – they didn’t shy away from the winning streak with which they began the season, chasing after the old 1971-72 Lakers’ 33-game mark with enthusiasm. And from their remarks during interviews Friday at All-Star Weekend, including Marc Stein‘s report for ESPN radio, it’s clear they’ll tackle the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ all-time record (72-10) the same way if they get close:

The Golden State Warriors need a 25-5 finish after the All-Star Game to break the NBA’s all-time single-season record of 72 wins. And at least one Warrior says they will indeed be going for it.

“Oh, we will,” Warriors guard Klay Thompson told ESPN Radio on Friday.

In an interview that will air in full on Saturday night’s “Meet The All-Stars” show on ESPN Radio at 5:30 p.m., Thompson acknowledged that the Warriors, who are 48-4, will likely rest some of their players as the season winds down.

“We’ll probably rest guys down the stretch,” Thompson said. “But we’re so deep of a team that we should have a chance to win every night.

“Just to be in the conversation of ‘You guys can do it’ is crazy. It’s great. I would have never imagined this. Growing up, I always thought that record was untouchable. Obviously we’re playing for more than just 73 wins — we’re playing for a championship — but if it’s right there for us, we might as well try and take it.”

Both Thompson and teammate Draymond Green, however, made it clear that even surpassing the Chicago Bulls’ record 72 wins from the 1995-96 season would feel somewhat hollow if the Warriors don’t also repeat as NBA champions.

“It wouldn’t matter,” Green told ESPN Radio. “I don’t think anyone will care. It’ll be talked about initially, like, ‘Oh, they broke the record.’ But it’ll fade away so quick.

“I think it’s one of those things where obviously we don’t talk about it at all. It’ll come up every now and then, but it’s more so, ‘Man, could you imagine if that happened?’ But it’s never like, ‘Hey, let’s focus on getting 72.’ Our focus is always to get better each and every time we step on the floor. And I think if we do that, we get to 72. But if we win 72 or 73 games or 74 and we don’t win a championship, nobody will ever care about the 70-whatever wins in the regular season. Everybody cares about the Bulls because they won a championship while winning 72. So it’s more important to win the championship than winning 72 games.”

Said Thompson: “73 wins doesn’t mean a thing without the ring.”

Golden State’s ringleader, Steph Curry, also chimed in on the topic:

“There’s not many opportunities that you probably have to go after that record,” Curry said Friday to CNN’s Andy Scholes. “Obviously, going to win a championship, that’s the main goal. But there’s a reason that we’re still talking about that ’95-’96 Bulls team that was able to accomplish the 72-and-10 record. They were on a mission that year and ended up winning the championship as well. So that’s kind of where we want to be.

“But when you have a shot at history and being the best regular-season team in the history of the NBA, I think you’ve got to go for it.”

And at least one very-interested rival, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, spoke about how avidly he’ll be tracking the Warriors’ progress. Which apparently is nothing new:

“I’ve spent more time thinking about Golden State than I have any other team I’ve ever thought about in my whole career,” Popovich told ESPN Radio on Friday. “Because they are really fun. I’d go buy a ticket and go watch them play. And when I see them move the ball, I get very envious. When I see them shoot uncontested shots more than anybody else in the league, it’s inspiring. It’s just great basketball.

“So I’m actually enjoying them very much. You try to solve them, but they’re in a sense unsolvable because it’s a particular mix of talent that they have. It’s not just that Steph [Curry] can make shots or that Klay can make shots or that Draymond Green is versatile. Everybody on the court can pass, catch and shoot. And they all get it. They’re for real.”

***

No. 4: Shaw might be next ex-Laker on Knicks benchBrian Shaw‘s reputation as a basketball mind and solid approach to dealing with today’s players didn’t spare him from being fired during the 2014-15 season by the Denver Nuggets. But Shaw remains a legitimate candidate for vacancies that invariably crop up and the one that will get filled in New York by Knicks boss Phil Jackson will be no different. Marc Berman of the New York Post kicked around the idea of Shaw taking over for interim coach Kurt Rambis, who has taken over for fired Derek Fisher:

Brian Shaw didn’t run the triangle offense in Denver, but he hasn’t forgotten any of it.

Shaw is expected to be a Knicks head-coaching candidate in the offseason if Phil Jackson doesn’t retain interim coach Kurt Rambis. Fired by Denver midway through last season, Shaw, a former Lakers player and assistant coach, was at All-Star weekend, helping the NBA with skills competitions for fans.

“I was 12 years involved in it as a player and coach,’’ Shaw told The Post. “The funny thing about it is everybody makes a big deal about the triangle. Almost every team in the league runs different aspects. They’re not dedicated solely to the triangle. It’s something that will always be ingrained in me — the fundamentals of that offense. In Denver, I didn’t run the triangle. I could adapt to any style the personnel dictates.’’

Shaw said he speaks to Jackson periodically, last talking to him about five weeks ago.

Shaw became the scapegoat of a daffy situation in Denver marred by player unrest and a serious injury to Danilo Gallinari.

“It was a situation I don’t really feel I was able to succeed in,’’ Shaw said. “I don’t think anyone placed in that situation could’ve succeeded. I hope I’m not judged on the year-and-a-half I was there more so than the 27 years prior to that I’ve been involved in the NBA.’’

Shaw said he’s hoping to dive into interviews, but didn’t want to talk specifically about the Knicks’ job until it’s open. He did praise Kristaps Porzingis and said he feels Carmelo Anthony is running the offense better this season than last.

“I have to wait until this season is over and see what opens up,” Shaw said. “If the right situation presents itself, definitely. I think I’d be more careful what I jumped into.’’

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: One moment Chris Bosh was talking like a healthy and happy All-Star Weekend featured player, the next he was a surprising scratch, his spots to be filled by Atlanta’s Al Horford (in Sunday’s game) and Portland’s C.J. McCollum (in the 3-point contest). … With everyone talking about Kevin Durant potentially leaving Oklahoma City, it’s a little surprising Durant hasn’t made his intentions known to Thunder management, just in case GM Sam Presti were to consider a pre-emptive strike by the trade deadline. … The firing of Derek Fisher hit New York rookie forward Kristaps Porzingis a little hard. … If it were up to the L.A. Clippers, point guard Chris Paul would be lying flat on his back this weekend, probably in a protective plastic bubble. … ICYMI, the Indiana Pacers had a closed-door meeting to address their pre-break tailspin and it was said to have been led by Monta Ellis. … Jimmy Butler is as hobbled these days as his Chicago Bulls’ championship dreams, but that didn’t stop the sidelined All-Star wing (who came to Toronto anyway) from talking about a bunch of topics. …


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