Posts Tagged ‘Evan Turner’

Morning shootaround — June 7

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Cavs looking for their defense | Turner: Mid-range shots are ‘the future’ | Presti confident about OKC’s offseason | Chandler says he’s ‘happy’ for now in Phoenix

No. 1: Cavs looking defenseless in these Finals The Cleveland Cavaliers rumbled through the Eastern Conference portion of the 2016 playoff bracket, shielding themselves from just about every blow the Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks and Toronto Raptors could throw at them. As Chris Haynes of Cleveland.com points out, Cavs star LeBron James took that shield metaphor literally early on, giving each of his teammates a literal shield to illustrate how the team must stand strong together to reach its title goal. Yet as Cleveland faces a 2-0 series deficit in The Finals, it is left at a loss for what to do next:

Golden State is up 2-0 following a 110-77 battering of the Cavs Sunday night at Oracle Arena. After cruising through the first three rounds with a 12-2 mark, Cleveland has been outscored in this series by a staggering 48 points.

“What we’ve done these last two games doesn’t put a damper or a cloud over how we got to this point,” James argued. “We’re still here…”

Cleveland won’t be here for long if this continues.

Right now the Cavaliers, who possess the second-highest payroll in league history, are defenseless and the outcomes have shown as much. They’re absent of a shield, but most significantly they’re absent of fight. They’re going up against a Western Conference predator who’s equipped with an abundance of ammo and all the Cavaliers have done is scurried for cover.

Is home court at The Q going to make that huge of a difference come Wednesday? Cleveland had two days to prepare for Game 2, and yet still rolled up in a ball when adversity came knocking.

Before Kevin Love exited the game with concussion symptoms, he suffered from Draymond Green symptoms. The Warriors’ forward was in his head and made it a point to stay attached to Love more than he did in Game 1.

Love was 2-of-7 from the field with three boards in 20 minutes of play. He looked intimidated. It looked like he didn’t want any part of that game. Green was so glued to him that Love gave him a little shove in the first half. Green just smiled, and got right back in Love’s personal space.

Kyrie Irving struggled the most, going 5-of-14 for 10 points in 33 minutes. He’s now shooting 33 percent for the series. But the team typically goes as the leader of the team goes.

“LeBron is in a unique situation to where we all know how (bleeping) good he really is,” Channing Frye said. “The humility he has with us shows us, ‘Hey, I need you guys for all of us to succeed.’ We know he’s going to help us, but he needs everybody to be locked in.”

First and foremost, James needs to be locked in. In these two games, the four-time MVP is averaging 21.0 points on 42 percent shooting and has coughed the ball up 11 times. The Warriors have suddenly transformed into a scary defensive bunch.

The perimeter defensive mixture of Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, Klay Thompson and Green has been a nightmare for James. Whether James wants to admit it or not, he is being contained. And if he’s contained, the Cavaliers will end up being ashamed when it’s all said and done. The series is far from over, but the poor body language and the disconnect in communication is in dire need of repair.

James and the Cavaliers are being exposed before our very eyes, and there’s no shield that can hide that.

Celtics’ Bradley ‘unlikely’ for remainder of series

 


VIDEO: Avery Bradley strains his right hamstring in the fourth quarter of Game 1 against the Hawks

ATLANTA — The Boston Celtics will have to work without Avery Bradley, their best perimeter defender, for what could be the remainder of their first round series against the Atlanta Hawks.

Bradley suffered a “significant strain” to his right hamstring with 6:42 to play in Game 1 Saturday night at Philips Arena and did not return. He left Philips Arena with one crutch and was not at practice with the Celtics Sunday afternoon.

“I would say he is doubtful for any of the remainder of the series,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “And he’s certainly, very unlikely (for Game 2) Tuesday night. As of right now, I’d say he is out Tuesday night. Obviously he’ll get treatment around the clock. And we’ll go from there. But I would say he is very unlikely for the rest of the series.”

Bradley was the primary defender on Hawks point guard Jeff Teague and also scored 18 points before he “felt something pop” in his right leg and fell to the floor. His absence forces Stevens to make adjustments to his starting lineup and rotation for  Game 2 and possibly the remainder of the series.

Veteran swingman Evan Turner is the likely replacement in the starting lineup with Marcus Smart and also rookie’s R.J. Hunter and Terry Rozier in line for increased roles.

“Right now it’s all about stepping up and playing tough,” Turner said. “It’s definitely tough because Avery competes and at the end of the day he’s a teammate and we’re worried about him and his well being. We know we really have to pull together. And over the last month we’ve been shorthanded and we’ve all had to fight through some adversity, so right now it’s just taking it for what it is and fighting and competing and not making any excuses.”

The Celtics are already at a height disadvantage against the Hawks. But without Bradley in the lineup, they’ll potentially be even smaller in the backcourt.

“The biggest challenge is we’re playing small anyways and we might have to go even deeper, ” Stevens said. “And that’s okay. We might have to go with some of those young guys and play four smalls again or we could play more traditional. We’ll look at it and figure that out over the next 48 hours.”

 

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.

 

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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.”

Blogtable: Ready for an East upset?

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Spurs or Warriors out West? | Upset-minded East team? | Lasting moment of 2014-15?



VIDEOGeorge Hill lifts the Pacers to a big win over the Wizards

> The Pacers, Celtics and Nets are all battling for the last two seeds in the East. Which of those teams has the best chance to pull off a first-round upset?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Indiana, of the teams you’re offering, has the best chance of a first-round upset – and it’s itty-bitty. I like the Celtics the best of that bunch but there is no way they’re getting past Cleveland in the 2-7 showdown. If Brooklyn gets in, that’s it, they’re done – while they have some big-name players who might ordinarily give Atlanta or potentially anyone else some tough challenges, there’s a lack of spine or fortitude in that team dating back to its Game 7 loss at home to undermanned Chicago that still is an issue, in my view. That leaves Indiana, which couldn’t crack 100 in its double-overtime slog vs. Toronto Wednesday but would have to keep up with Atlanta’s high-octane attack. So yeah, Pacers, itty-bitty.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: The Pacers because of their roster loaded with veterans who have been through the playoff wars and because they are capable of playing elite level defense.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: The actual answer is “Nobody.” But if I have to pick one, it’s the Pacers. They’re playing well now, the return of Paul George has been an emotional lift as well as an additional scoring punch despite struggling with his shot, coach Frank Vogel on the sideline is always a good thing, and defense, rebounding and playoff experience is a good place to start building an upset scenario.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com: The easy answer is “none of the above” but if I must choose, then it’s the Pacers. At least their core players know what playoff basketball is about, and there’s the Paul George factor. The basketball gods could repay the Pacers for all they’ve been through with George and take it out on the Hawks, which of course would confirm Atlanta’s status as the choking dog of all sports towns.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: None of them will win more than a game from the Hawks or Cavs, but Indiana is best suited to put a scare in ’em. They’re the best defensive team of the group, so they can keep games ugly and close. They’ve been the best team of the group (in regard to point differential) since the All-Star break and have gotten a boost from the return of Paul George. That being said, I don’t know if they’re even going to be playing this weekend, because they’ll need to win in Memphis on Wednesday to edge out the Nets for the No. 8 seed.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: These teams are doing whatever they can to claw their way into the playoffs and you want to talk about upsets? Actually, the Pacers have the best roster to pull an upset. They’ve got experience and size, decent depth and a star (Paul George, even on limited minutes) capable of going on a tear in a playoff series. They appear spent physically, which is not uncommon this time of year for a team that has been fighting uphill just to stay in the playoff chase. So they’d have to find a way to rest and recharge within the framework of the playoff schedule to even think about pulling off an upset. But again, for teams crawling into the postseason, an upset tends to be more pipe dream than reality.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.comLet’s start by acknowledging that the Nets and Pacers won’t be able to run or execute with the Hawks, who went 7-0 against them this year. The Celtics are going to have problems of their own finishing close games against Cleveland, but their small lineup, quickness and ball movement could scare the Cavs for 42 minutes. What coach Brad Stevens has done with young role players over the last two months (23-12) is no fluke: He has been doing for the Celtics what he did for Butler.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: None of them? Honestly, I don’t think any of those teams really have a chance to win a first round series against Atlanta or Boston. But if I had to pick one, which I guess is what you’re saying, I’ll go with the Celtics. Boston has played Atlanta pretty well this season, even beating them once just before the All-Star break. And they beat Cleveland (resting players) twice recently. Adding Isaiah Thomas has given the Celtics another scorer and ballhandler. Is he enough to help the Celtics beat the Hawks or the Cavaliers? That’s a horse of a different color. But what the heck, let’s give them the nod.

Morning shootaround — April 11


VIDEO: Highlights from games played April 10

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Curry for MID award | Duncan hands Father Time first loss? | Cavs or not, Celtics can’t be choosy | Hawks’ Antic, NBPA talk N.Y. incident

No. 1: Curry for Most Improved Defender award — By now, most NBA observers expect Golden State’s floor leader and marvelous 3-point shooter Steph Curry to finish first or second in balloting for the league’s Most Valuable Player. But if you look closely at Curry’s performances on the other end of the court, listen to his coaches and study the Warriors’ numbers in thwarting the opposition, Curry might merit consideration for a wholly fictitious award: Most Improved Defender. Breaking down the components of good individual and team defense with Golden State assistant coach Ron Adams, ESPN.com’s Ethan Sherwood Strauss enumerated the many ways in which Curry has tightened up his game that way, and concluded:

The Warriors challenged their top player to get better, and it worked. They’re having the best regular season — in terms of point differential — we’ve witnessed since Jordan‘s Bulls.

The notion of Curry as defensive ace might be subversive, but perhaps not as subversive as the next statement: Curry got better not just because he wants to be the best player alive, but also because he thinks it’s within his reach.

“He wants to be the best,” [coach Steve] Kerr said. “He knew that to be the best he had to be better at that end.”

Even as Curry is favored to win an MVP award, the concept of a skinny, 6-3 point guard as league alpha strikes people strangely. That spot is usually reserved for physical freaks like LeBron James and Kevin Durant. It all just smacks of basketball heresy.

Curry’s star continues to rise in defiance of convention, though. He markets himself as “the patron saint of the underdog” for a reason. Curry doesn’t look like a good defensive player, but then again, he never looked like a Division I college player, he never looked like an NBA draft pick, and he never looked like an NBA superstar. But he has accomplished all of those things. If reputations are often based on appearances, Curry aims to forge a reputation as someone who transcends that expectation. And his aim is excellent.

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Morning shootaround — April 5


VIDEO: Highlights from games played April 4

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Streaking Celtics adopt ‘win now’ approach  | Grizzlies in fight for playoff positioning | Blazers must shore up their D | Dirk gives Shaun Livingston a pass for low blow

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.”

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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.

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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.

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No. 4: Dirk gives Shaun Livingston a pass for low blowDirk 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.

Morning Shootaround — March 15

 


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 14

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Celts still streaking | Five in row for Jazz | Noel likes Sixers’ future | Jackson doesn’t hustle
No. 1: Celtics closing in on playoffs — Friday night’s topic of conversation was “Cater-gate,” when Evan Turner claimed that coach Brad Stevens was so angry at halftime against the Magic that he canceled the food for the postgame flight to Indianapolis. Turns out that was not true at all, but the hungry Celtics still went out Saturday night and devoured the Pacers’ seven-game winning streak. Suddenly Boston is with in a half-game of the final playoff spot in the East and only a game behind No. 7 seed Indy. Mark Murphy of the Boston Herald says Stevens ate it all up:

Brad Stevens was in heaven.
“These are the kinds of games I’ve always loved. Just find a way,” said the Celtics coach. “It’s nice when you have a game where you’re making every shot, but that’s one of those nights, and one of those nights is called that for a reason. You’re not going to have it very often, and you just have to find a way.”

The result was the Celtics’ 93-89 win over Indiana, a team that had won its last seven games, all but one at home.

The C’s, suddenly on a four-game winning streak, thus made up ground on everyone in the chase for the seventh and eighth playoffs seeds. They moved into a tie with ninth place Miami, within a half-game of eighth place Charlotte and a game outside of the seventh place Pacers.

They suddenly feel like they should pass all of these teams.
“Winning takes care of everything,” Brandon Bass said with an especially restive smile, thinking back two months to when the Celtics didn’t have much chance of winning these games.

“We went through our struggles early on, not being able to finish games, and it’s paid off for us,” he said. “I don’t mind these grind out games. Maybe it would be better at home if we could see Gino, but we’ll win whatever we can get.”

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No. 2: Jazz getting big Favors up front — With his stature and his dominant play of late, it’s certainly been hard to overlook the play in the middle of Utah’s fabulous Frenchman Rudy Gobert. But perhaps lost in the shadow of the “Stifle Tower” has been the resurgence of Derrick Favors at power forward. He’s back to playing the position where he’s most comfortable and has been large part of what has now grown into a five-game winning streak. Aaron Falk of the Salt Lake Tribune has the details:

C “I’m just taking my time,” Favors said, “reading what the defense gives me.”
After Favors scored a game-high 26 points, helping push the Jazz to a fifth straight win, his coach put it another way.

“He’s hard to guard,” Quin Snyder said.

Rudy Gobert has garnered much of the attention in Utah’s shift from defensive ineptitude to defensive powerhouse. But Snyder has been vocal about the role Favors has played, since sliding over to the 4-spot. Favors’ size has allowed the Jazz to compete against big lineups. His speed — his ability to switch, even on point guards — has kept him on the floor against smaller lineups.

And the results have been good.

“We don’t necessarily have to go small to match up,” Snyder said. “So what ends up happening is sometimes he’s got a mismatch.”

Favors, meanwhile, is also settling into an offensive groove. Favors has topped 20 points in four of his past seven games.
“He’s just more poised,” Snyder said. “I think that’s just experience. We’ve seen him improve as the season progresses.”

Favors averaged 15.9 points per game before the All-Star break. Since then (coinciding with the Enes Kanter trade and Favors’ move to the 4), Favors has put up 18.7 points per night.

***

No. 3: Noel wants chance to play with Embiid — He was already shocked once this season when point guard Michael Carter-Williams was shipped out at the trade deadline. So Nerlens Noel is hoping to avoid more upheaval going forward next season. He told Tom Moore of The Intelligencer (Pa.) that he wants a chance to play alongside a healthy Joel Embiid next season:

And what if the Sixers end up with Duke center Jahlil Okafor or Kentucky big man Karl-Anthony Towns in the draft? They already have a core center in 7-footer Joel Embiid, who is sitting out his rookie season with a foot stress fracture.
“I really hope nothing happens,” Noel said last week. “I like this team. I like what we’re building. I hope we can stick together and continue to grow.”

Noel is confident that he and Embiid — with Embiid likely playing power forward on offense and center at the defensive end — will turn out to be a terrific tandem.

“Jo is going to get more and more healthy and more active,” Noel said. “I see things really taking shape (next season).”

Still, Noel gets that “at the end of the day, it is a business. You always have to keep that in mind. You’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do, work on your thing.”

Noel has been working and it’s been paying off. He’s moved into the league’s top 10 in blocked shots (sixth) and steals (10th) and, while he remains a work in progress on offense, he’s having a considerable impact on defense.

On Wednesday, Noel became the first NBA player since the Rockets’ Hakeem Olajuwon in November 1988 to accumulate at least 10 rebounds and four steals in four straight games. Through Friday, he was averaging 11.8 points, 12.8 rebounds, 3.1 steals and 2 blocks in his last eight games with six double-doubles.

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No. 4: Jackson benched in another Pistons loss — It was only a few weeks ago when Reggie Jackson was delighted to finally be traded out of a reserve spot in the OKC lineup and given a chance to run a team of his own in Detroit. It seems like the blink of an eye since the Pistons were happy to welcome Jackson to town as their point guard of the future. Well, you might want to put the brakes on the talk of a new contract next summer and a blissful marriage. Coach Stan Van Gundy yanked Jackson off the floor for lack of hustle in Pistons’ loss at Utah, their 10th in a row. Terry Foster of the Detroit News detailed the ugliness:

On a night the Pistons hustled for nearly everything they got it, was a non-hustle play that angered the coach.
Van Gundy can tolerate mistakes and questionable shot selection as long as there is some effort behind it. But he will not tolerate lazy play on the court.

And that is when Jackson relaxed and got burned. He came in for Spencer Dinwiddie with 5:50 remaining and play immediately bogged down.

Jackson turned the ball over and later watched as Dante Exum hustled down a loose ball and fed Rodney Hood for a layup, which gave the Jazz a 78-74 lead with 4:32 remaining.

“He (Jackson) wasn’t being very aggressive and when he didn’t chase down the loose ball and Exum got it that was a huge hoop in the game,” Van Gundy said. “As I told him when I took him out of the game, I will tolerate mistakes, but we are in a battle trying to win a fourth game in five days and you’re not going to make an effort?”

Jackson got the message loud and clear from Van Gundy.

“I just assumed the ball was going out of bounds,” Jackson said. “You can never make an assumption. You have to always complete the play.
Unfortunately that play really cost us tonight. It was a big possession. We were trying to make a comeback. Whether it is going out of bounds or not I have to be in position to make the play.”

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Stephen Curry got a birthday cake from the Warriors and a win from the Knicks…The Clippers are hoping that Blake Griffin returns to the lineup today against the Rockets….  Andre Miller is still surprised that Wizards traded him to Sacramento…Bucks plan to keep Khris Middleton….Hawks’ Scott to miss four to six weeks with broken toe.