NEWS OF THE MORNING
No. 1: Celtics make convincing playoff push — They very easily could justify missing the playoffs this season and then cashing in on their growing cache of draft picks, but the rebuilding Celtics have evidently decided to go for it. When Marcus Smart dropped a buzzer-beater Saturday night against the Raptors, it only confirmed as much. Boston entered Sunday with the No. 8 spot in the East, a half-game lead over the Heat, and to hear the players and brass, the playoffs are where this young team belongs. It’s a rather refreshing tone considering how much tanking has dominated the conversation in the NBA this season. Zach Lowe of Grantland did a study on the Celtics during this playoff push and here’s some of what he found out:
“The playoff-chasing Celtics of 2015 are a cute feel-good story — and little more. The rebuild is moving faster than expected, with a surprise run at the no. 8 seed in a dreadful conference, but there is a giant chasm separating this plucky, starless group from what it aspires to be.
“The important thing to remember about us,” coach Brad Stevens said in a sit-down with Grantland last week, “is that we have a long, long way to go.”
It says everything about the difficulty of rebuilding that Boston has absolutely nailed Phase 1 and yet has no clear path to 50 wins. Multiple rival executives described Boston’s trading spree of the last two years as “a masterpiece” in rebuilding. Contract timetables, injuries, and other variables made it impossible for Boston to deal its aging stars at peak sell-high times, and yet Danny Ainge still nabbed great value for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Rajon Rondo. The Celtics have as many as six extra first-round picks1 coming and oodles of cap space, they’ve drafted solid players across the first round, and they just acquired a dynamic young point guard — Isaiah Thomas — on the cheap.
But they have no stars and no clear path to getting one outside a major break in free agency or the trade market. The Celtics have made the leap to mediocrity so fast that they may have no easy way out. They’re still not good, but they’re not bad enough to get an early first-round pick — to get a clear shot at a star, in other words. Even if they lose this season’s slap fight for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot, they will likely pick in the late lottery — a range that looks like their draft ceiling for the next few seasons. “That’s a concern for all 30 teams,” Ainge says of being stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity. “It’s the nature of our league. You definitely need good fortune.”
The Celtics discussed holding off on the Thomas deal to deflate their win total, but decided after some debate that they could lose out — or pay a higher price — if they waited until the summer. “Ideally, he might have been someone you pick up in the summer,” Ainge says. “But someone else might trade for him. You might be in a bidding war. You have to move while the iron is hot.”
No. 2: Grizzlies in fight for playoff positioning — The most intriguing April drama in the West is about playoff positioning near the top. The Rockets now hold a half-game lead over the Grizzlies for the No. 2 spot, and why is that so important? Well, the No. 2 team will most likely get the Mavericks and avoid the suddenly-smoking Spurs in the first round. Memphis had successfully fended off all threats for the No. 2 spot until now. And while the race is hardly over, the contest between Memphis and Houston will only intensify, especially with Dwight Howard back in the mix for the Rockets (though on a minutes restriction). Here’s Michael Wallace of ESPN on the Grizzlies, who lost a tough game to the Wizards on Saturday:
“I don’t think it’s the toughest division in our league; it’s the toughest division in all major leagues,” Memphis coach Dave Joerger said. “Year in and year out, it’s ridiculous. So for our guys to get rewarded for their hard work, it would be positive.
“It’s what’s important to you. You hear about San Antonio, right? They don’t care about a division title. They don’t care about seeding. Well, we’re not them.”
While it’s all about the end game for the Spurs, who are going for their second straight championship and sixth in the past 16 years, the Grizzlies are still focused on the intermediate steps toward success. Winning an NBA championship remains the top goal for Memphis, but hanging the franchise’s first division banner in the rafters of the 10-year-old FedEx Forum along the way is a major priority.
The last time every team from an NBA division made the playoffs was in the 2005-06 season, when the Pistons, Pacers, Cavaliers, Bulls and Bucks advanced. That’s never happened in the NFL or Major League Baseball, although it’s occurred in two different divisions in the NHL over the past five seasons.
No. 3: Blazers must shore up their D or else — If you’re a Blazers fan you, must be thrilled with the way the team has hung in there in the rugged West despite missing Wesley Matthews and an inconsistent season from Damian Lillard and with LaMarcus Aldridge playing through a thumb that’ll require surgery in the offseason. Portland once again is in position to do damage in the playoffs (ask the Rockets, who are still stinging from Lillard’s series winner last spring), but not if they don’t clean up their biggest issue first: defense. Oregonian writer John Canzano, still stung by the Blazers surrendering 126 to the Clippers last week, discusses:
But on the other hand, Chris Kaman was willing to address the biggest issue that coach Terry Stotts whiffed on — atrocious team defense by the Blazers. The biggest problem for Portland if any of this should come to a Clippers-Blazers playoff series.
Decide for yourself which guy had the worse post-game peformance. I’m not up in the air. Kaman settled it when he said, “We scored 122 points. That’s not stopping anybody. And we didn’t stop them either, they had more points (126) than we did. We got hurt on transition and on threes.” He was only saying what everyone could obviously see at Moda Center.
I like Stotts. I championed his hiring. I banged the drum for his contract extension even before the end of last season. I like where he’s headed with this rig, but if he’s unable to get real about the deficiencies of this team and remains in denial, I’m concerned about the short-term prognosis for a team that has fought to this point.
No. 4: Dirk gives Shaun Livingston a pass for low blow — Dirk Nowitzki is usually a cool customer except when threatened with severe physical pain, as anyone else would (see Chris Kaman last week regarding Chris Paul). So at first, he was taken aback when he was whacked in the private area by Shaun Livingston. But when these things happen, you must take into account the history of the offending party. Livingston doesn’t exactly conjure up memories of flagrant assaults. And so, while Mark Cuban wasn’t in a forgiving mood Saturday, Dirk gave Livingston a pass. Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News has some golden quotes from Dirk:
Livingston, trying to defend Nowitzki in the post, was using his right hand to hand-check Nowitzki in the back. Somehow, his hand got in between Nowitzki’s legs and clearly caught Nowitzki in the groin area.
For the rest of the game, the AAC crowd booed Livingston every time he touched the ball and in the fourth quarter, Livingston and coach Rick Carlisle exchanged words briefly after a foul was called on J.J. Barea against Livingston.
Things escalated after the game when owner Mark Cuban talked to Golden State coach Steve Kerr and Livingston, then assistant coach Alvin Gentry, as they left the court.
Nowitzki had this to say about the play, which was reviewed and ended up with Livingston called for a flagrant foul, penalty one.
“Well, I give him the benefit of the doubt because he’s really not that type of player,” Nowitzki said. “He hasn’t been his entire career. I’m not really sure what he was trying to do there, if he was trying to get to the ball through my legs or anything. But like I said, he’s not a dirty player.
“But I really enjoyed his tight grip he got. I really enjoyed that.”
Nowitzki was laughing as he said that last line.
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Paul Millsap’s shoulder injury should be defined a bit better today. The Hawks forward suffered the injury Saturday against the Nets and did not return in that game. … Boston’s Evan Turner has joined exclusive company: One of only 5 Celtics with 3 or more triple doubles in a season … All systems go for Paul George in his return tonight.