They’ve got intimate knowledge of the place, both of having been in the building when it’s an emotional power keg, when the hometown fans are cranked up and caught up in the atmosphere of a big game.
They’ll be on the other side this time, though, wearing the wrong colored jerseys for Game 3 Thursday night (7 ET, TNT). But that doesn’t change the fact that these games serve as a homecoming of sorts for these Heat stars whose careers took off in “Brew City.”
Wade came to town as an unheralded Marquette recruit and left a lottery pick, beloved by the locals as the star who helped restore a once proud program to national prominence. His college jersey hangs in the rafters of the arena, one of the retired numbers of the greats to have called the city home at some point.
Allen’s future Hall of Fame career started in Milwaukee, he played the first six and a half seasons of his career with the Bucks, helped them to the Eastern Conference finals in 2001 and earned three trips to the All-Star game as a Buck before being traded to Seattle in February of 2003.
“I went to Milwaukee with not a lot of expectations and I came out of Milwaukee the fifth pick of the Draft,” Wade said. “Milwaukee has been special to me. It has helped me get to this point. Going back there in the playoffs is a cool thing. It’s very humbling (having his jersey retired). Every time I look up there, I think about how far I have come. It’s special to be able to play in an arena where your jersey hangs.” (more…)
The Celtics certainly seem outmatched in this series. They’ve had their moments in the first two games, but they just haven’t had the offense to keep pace with the potent Knicks for a full game. New York deserves some credit for the way it has defended in the second half, both on Saturday and on Tuesday. But the Celtics’ offense has been largely responsible for turning a below-average defensive team in the regular season into the best defensive team of the playoffs thus far.
Is this the time they don’t come back? Is this the first time this group loses in the first round?
Maybe Rajon Rondo‘s absence has finally caught up to them. The lack of a real point guard has been dreadfully apparent as the Celtics have struggled to get into their offense whenever the Knicks have applied any kind of perimeter pressure.
“We let them get inside our plays and it was to their advantage,” Avery Bradley, point guard by default, said. “We were getting shots up like three seconds into the shot clock every time down the floor.”
Maybe Garnett and Paul Pierce just can’t carry a team like they used to. Pierce has been defended by smaller players all series, but he’s still had to force a lot of contested shots. Garnett has had better looks at the basket, but has shot 8-for-21 (38 percent) in the two games. There shouldn’t be any doubt now that the Knicks have the two best offensive players in the series.
Maybe Boston’s supporting cast just isn’t good enough to support their two remaining (and aging) stars. Their back-up guards have shot a combined 7-for-26 (27 percent) and their back-up bigs have played a combined nine minutes. While Mike Woodson can call on Sixth Man of the Year J.R. Smith and dependable veterans Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martinoff his bench, Doc Rivers has no one he can count on beyond his starters.
We believe the Celtics are too proud, too tough and too defensive-minded to go down without a fight. But in these last six seasons, this is the lowest they’ve finished in the standings, this is the worst they’ve been defensively, and this is the best team they’ve faced in the first round.
Ask Rivers a question about how his team has responded to adversity over the last six years, and he’ll be quick to point out that “This is not that group. This is not the group we’ve had. This is a bunch of new guys, with two guys [who've been there before].”
Game 2, an 87-71 defeat, was somewhat of a carbon copy of Game 1, except that the Knicks’ second-half storm was much worse and the game was essentially over midway through the third quarter, after New York scored 23 points in a stretch of 11 possessions.
“They just attacked us,” Rivers said, “and we didn’t handle it very well.”
Anthony was more efficient and Raymond Felton was more aggressive in the pick-and-roll, ultimately creating better ball movement for the Knicks.
Now, the Celtics must find a way to win Game 3 at home on Friday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN). They must hope that their regular season home-road discrepancy (second largest in the league) applies to the postseason. Over the last two years, they’ve been a much better defensive team at the TD Garden than they’ve been away from it.
Of course, defense isn’t enough. The Celtics must find a way to score … for more than two quarters.
“We can defend this team,” Garnett said Tuesday. “If we’re able to put some points up on the board, I like our chances.”
Right now, that looks like a huge “if.” These just aren’t the same Celtics … right?
“We are who we are,” Rivers said. “We can’t apologize for that. That’s what we’ve been left with. I think it’s enough to win.”
NEW YORK – They say that every game in a playoff series has its own personality. And a couple of rotation changes should give Game 2 of the Knicks-Celtics’ series (Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET, TNT) a new look.
The Knicks hope to have Pablo Prigioni back from a sprained ankle for Game 2. And if they do, he will start and join Raymond Felton in the backcourt. The Knicks went 15-1 with the two point guards starting together in the final month of the regular season.
The Knicks have been incredibly efficient offensively, scoring almost 120 points per 100 possessions in 298 minutes, with Felton and Prigioni on the floor together. And after a game in which they scored 85 points on 88 possessions, they could certainly use an offensive boost. After assisting on just 13 of their 32 buckets in Game 1, the team hopes that Prigioni will bring better ball movement.
But the lineup change could have an adverse effect on the other end of the floor. Woodson said Sunday that if Prigioni is back, Felton will guard Paul Pierce to start the game (the original plan had Prigioni been healthy in Game 1), with Iman Shumpert defending Jeff Green.
Shumpert was guarding Pierce to start Game 1, and the Celtics posted Pierce on three of the first four possessions. When the Knicks doubled the post, the Celtics got a jumper for Kevin Garnett and a layup for Avery Bradley.
Mismatches on Pierce were a big part of the Celtics’ offense all day Saturday. Later in the first quarter, they ran the same play several times to get J.R. Smith switched onto Pierce at the foul line. And they had some more success with Pierce posting Jason Kidd on a few possessions midway through the second.
With their lineup change, the Knicks will be handing the Celtics a mismatch from the start. And Boston will obviously go to Pierce in the post early and often. New York will send double-teams, and it will be up to Pierce’s teammates to make them pay.
Green was a pretty good corner 3-point shooter (45.7 percent) in the regular season, but didn’t attempt any shots from the corners on Saturday. As a team, Boston was just 1-for-5 from the corners, an obvious area for improvement in Game 2.
Doc Rivers plans on making some rotation changes of his own. He went only eight deep in Game 1, using just three guards — Jordan Crawford, Courtney Lee and Jason Terry — off the bench. The trio combined to shoot 0-for-7.
Rivers said Sunday that we could see a big man off the bench — presumably Chris Wilcox or Shavlik Randolph — on Tuesday. If it’s Wilcox, it will be the first playoff appearance of his 11-year career.
We’ll have to see if that results in less minutes for Brandon Bass or if Rivers plans on playing with two bigs more than he did in Game 1. The Celtics were a plus-1 (and particularly strong on the defensive glass) in 21 minutes with both Bass and Garnett on the floor on Saturday, and a minus-8 in 27 minutes with one of the two on the bench.
The Celtics weren’t very good defensively, allowing 104.7 points per 100 possessions, in 396 regular season minutes with Bass and Wilcox on the floor together. And the Garnett-Wilcox pair played just 73 minutes.
Rivers also wants to see a bigger role for Crawford. Amazingly, Crawford didn’t take a single shot in his 10:46 on Saturday. And it surely goes without saying that it was the first time in the gunner’s career that he’s played at least 10 minutes without taking a shot.
The Celtics probably don’t want to get to the point where Crawford’s shooting determines the outcome of any particular game, but he can help make the Knicks pay for double-teams on Pierce if he’s aggressive and looking to make plays for his teammates as well as himself. He can also take some of the ball-handling duties from Bradley.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS –Kevin Durant has all but handed Carmelo Anthony the scoring title this season to chase a bigger, more team-oriented goal.
Durant wants that No. 1 seed in the Western Conference playoff chase and he wants the road to The Finals to run directly through Oklahoma City this year. He could have those goals wrapped up this evening if the Thunder can handle the Sacramento Kings (8 ET, League Pass).
I understand the need for a team, particularly one led by young superstars, to achieve certain things. That top overall seed is a status symbol, an indicator that the Thunder organization is interested in being dominant in every facet of their operation.
But that top spot also comes with a few thorns this season, namely a potential first-round date with the one team that could prove to be the biggest wildcard in the playoff field.
Should L.A. hang on to their ever-so-slim lead on Utah for the No. 8 spot, they’ll get a date with OKC (provided the Thunder can topple the Kings and Bucks) in the opening round. The Thunder have no reason to fear the Los Angeles Lakers or the Utah Jazz … none at all.
That doesn’t mean they don’t have to be wary of what an unpredictable Lakers team without Kobe Bryant looks like in a playoff setting. There are things the Lakers do without Bryant (move the ball more freely, work deeper into the shot clock and play through Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol inside and then out) that no one in the league has had much time to prepare for.
A dangerous Lakers team battled a hobbled San Antonio Spurs team, the same Spurs we’ll see this weekend, and won an emotionally charged game to move one step closer to locking up that No. 8 seed.
If the Lakers can keep up the same sort of intensity for another week and a half, that first-round matchup in the playoffs will be considerably more difficult than it might have with Bryant in the mix and the rest of his teammates taking their usual backseat.
The Thunder have every reason to be confident, if they do indeed match up with the Lakers in this weekend. They still have decided advantage on the perimeter with Durant and Russell Westbrook leading the charge. And Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins are more than capable of dealing with Howard and Gasol inside.
Every step of the process that any team is supposed to take to become a championship team the Thunder have gone through it, one painstaking step at a time. Remember, it was a Bryant and Gasol-led Lakers crew that dispatched a youthful OKC crew in the 2010 playoffs that was the postseason debut of Durant, Westbrook and Co.
OKC has yet to enter the playoffs with the pressure that comes along with that No. 1 seed. In order to achieve their ultimate goal, they’d have to carry that extra weight from wire to wire in the postseason.
That hasn’t been done by a team in either conference since the Boston Celtics did it five years ago. That Celtics team, with the way it was put together, was hardened by a season-long grind that carried them through both the regular season and playoffs.
There were veterans like Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, and of course, coach Doc Rivers, around to help guide youngsters like Rajon Rondo and Perkins through that journey. Those Celtics faced their own wild card in the first round of the 2008 playoffs in the Atlanta Hawks. And they needed seven games and everything that home court advantage brings to get through that series, the first of two seven-game series (and the only ones of that postseason, mind you) that Boston had to endure.
On paper, the Celtics had nothing to worry about with the Hawks. They were the superior team in every way. The Hawks backed into the playoffs that year with a sub-.500 record, something the Lakers won’t have to do this season. Boston got past a solid LeBron James-led Cavs team in the East semifinals in the next round, too, with the help of home court. But it was another opponent waiting to test the mettle of the conference’s No. 1 seed.
And that’s why the Thunder need to study the recent history of No. 1 seeds and be mindful of the responsibility that comes along with No. 1.
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Oklahoma City, Memphis and Miami, feel fortunate, very fortunate, and proceed with caution.
As the regular season churns down to a handful of games over these final 16 days, the three teams above are the only ones of the 16 current playoff teams, plus the desperately-trying-to-get-in Los Angeles Lakers, currently unaffected by injury — or injuries.
Playoff seeding, and ultimately playoff series, could tilt on an injury report that seems to grow with each passing game.
The Grizzlies caught a break with the quick return of center Marc Gasol from an abdomen injury. Initially the team listed him as out “indefinitely.” Later, Gasol said he’d be back for the playoffs. Next thing you know he’s back after missing just two games and right back on his game.
The Heat missed Dwyane Wade for a couple games during their win streak and, of course, he, LeBron James and Mario Chalmers came down with those, ahem, previously unreported injuries prior to Sunday’s game at San Antonio. Speaking of the Spurs, Manu Ginobili‘s most recent ill-timed injury (hamstring) has put the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed firmly in play Thursday night when San Antonio visits a Thunder team as healthy as any can be 70-something games in.
Few are so fortunate, and let’s start with the carousel of injuries that have beset the Lakers. Kobe Bryant continues to play through a sprained ankle and whatever else, Dwight Howard still deals with the sporadic shooting pain from the torn labrum in his shoulder and Pau Gasol is finally back. But Metta World Peace (knee) won’t be back and Steve Nash (hip) is “doubtful” for tonight’s big showdown against the never-say-die Dallas Mavericks (10:30 p.m. ET, TNT).
The Lakers won’t receive sympathy cards from Denver, which could be without spark plug point guard Ty Lawson (heel) until the playoffs. As soon as Chauncey Billups (groin) finally returned he was gone again, and couldn’t the sinking Clippers use him right about now?
Houston’s All-Star James Harden can’t seem to shake a sprained right ankle. Jazz reserve big man Enes Kanter (shoulder), whose March was his biggest month of the season, is out indefinitely. Golden State is essentially healthy, having lost Brandon Rush way back in the opening days of the season.
Over in the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics, New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls shake their heads at any team ruffled by a single injury, or two. The Celtics, having adjusted to life without Rajon Rondo, plus rookie Jared Sullinger are without Kevin Garnett (ankle) and Paul Pierce missed Monday’s loss at Minnesota for “personal reasons,” according to coach Doc Rivers. Meanwhile, Boston is dangerously close to slipping into eighth place and a first-round matchup against the Heat.
In the Big Apple, the injury list goes on and on: Tyson Chandler (neck) remains wait-and-see, Amar’e Stoudemire (knee) and Kurt Thomas (foot), very likely could join Rasheed Wallace (foot) as being shut down for the season. The Knicks, busting through it all with an eight-game win streak, continue to battle for the No. 2 seed with the Indiana Pacers, who have five straight and learned last week that Danny Granger (knee) won’t be making the late-season comeback they had expected just days earlier.
And those scrappy, scrappy Bulls by now must be resigned to a full season without Derrick Rose (knee), and they may have lost Rip Hamilton (back) for the season. They hope to soon get center Joakim Noah (foot) back in uniform, as well as Marco Belinelli (abdomen).
Meanwhile, the Brooklyn Nets, finally with Deron Williams healthy and playing like an All-Star again, would love to say the same about Joe Johnson (heel).
As the playoffs quickly approach, time is running short for players and teams to get healthy.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS –Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks could win 48 straight games and Anthony would still have critics who could find something wrong with his game.
That’s just the world we live in and the one Anthony has had to survive in since he came into the league with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and others in the celebrated NBA Draft class of 2003.
A league-best eight-game win streak, in the wake of the Miami Heat’s 27-game streak and the Denver Nuggets’ 15-game streak, would normally be plenty to be excited about. Anthony and the Knicks, however, are taking it all in stride. A rugged playoff road lies ahead and they know it. But the potential to dispel notions about who and what this team is about, to redefine who Anthony is as a player, in relation to his Draft class peers as well as the larger scope of the league, could be on the horizon.
With his contemporaries enjoying loads more playoff success than he had during his career, this Knicks team in particular offers Anthony an opportunity to close that gap a little.
For years, Anthony’s critics have made their case … that Anthony’s not an elite leader, he’s not a big-time playoff performer (as the Prime Minister likes to remind me regularly) and that he wasn’t willing to sacrifice what he does best (score) for the greater good. I’ve always argued the other side, that those teams he led in Denver were never quite as stout as they appeared on paper.
The one time they had all of the required parts healthy and ready to go in the playoffs, they made their run to the 2009 Western Conference finals, where they fell to Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers in six games. The Lakers, of course, went on to win the first of back-to-back titles that year.
Those championships, sans Shaquille O’Neal, helped redefine Kobe’s legacy.
Might Anthony be on a somewhat familiar path to redefining his own legacy this season? At least one observer thinks so. Harvey Araton of The New York Times makes the case for Anthony following in the transformative footsteps of Boston Celtics enigma-turned-superstar Paul Pierce, whose image and reputation changed dramatically after the Celtics broke through and won a championship in 2008 with Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen:
With the Knicks poised to displace the Celtics as Atlantic Division champions after beating them, 108-89, on Sunday night at Madison Square Garden, this would be a propitious time to present Pierce as Exhibit A in the case for Anthony’s potential growth into no-questions-asked superstardom.
Anthony’s critics, including me, have never underestimated his combustible package of size, strength and first-step speed. But his teams in Denver and in New York have produced poor playoff results, and he has admitted to failing to fully grasp the essence of collective elegance until last summer’s Olympics.
Isn’t it fair to say that when it comes to winning at the highest level, Anthony is still an undergraduate student trying to complete a master’s program?
Pierce captured his championship in 2008 after he sacrificed more than 5 points off his scoring average from the previous season to accommodate Allen and Garnett. He also embraced the defensive tenacity brought by Garnett and preached by Tom Thibodeau, who then was an assistant to Doc Rivers.
“You may need that one person in someone’s life, or something to happen off the floor in that person’s life, family-wise, or something,” Rivers said before Pierce gave him 24 points, 15 rebounds and 5 assists, not enough against the streaking Knicks, winners of eight straight. “You just never know what triggers a player to play and do all the right things.”
Before their title season, the Celtics’ best playoff run with Pierce was in 2002, when they were beaten by Jason Kidd and the Nets in the Eastern Conference finals. Pierce was 24, the same age Anthony was when his Nuggets lost in the Western Conference finals to Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers in 2009.
A coincidence, for sure, but the Pierce-Anthony comparison of 20-something high-octane, low-team-grade forwards is no novel concept. While Anthony was contriving his endgame in Denver two and a half years ago, reporters and bloggers noted the same crossroads that Pierce had reached in Boston after the 2006-7 season, and how he had warned the Celtics to improve the roster, or else.
The Celtics delivered and, to his everlasting credit, Pierce responded. Although Anthony chose a different path, forcing a trade, he is approaching his 29th birthday, on May 29, with still much to prove, and gain, similar to Pierce at that age.
Unlike Pierce and the Celtics, there is an Eastern Conference and NBA juggernaut standing in the path of Anthony and the Knicks. The Heat aren’t going anywhere any time soon. And much like those Bryant-led Lakers teams that were always blocking the way for Anthony’s Nuggets teams, these LeBron-led Heat teams will likely be in the way now and for at least the foreseeable future.
That will make things substantially tougher for the Anthony to complete his career rewrite, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible …
DALLAS – The Celtics were in no mood to hear about a Heat hangover as an excuse for never leading in Friday’s 104-94 loss, their second straight road disappointment since letting Miami off the hook Monday night in Boston.
While the Heat pushed their win streak, one that the Celtics fail to view as particularly impressive, to 25 in a row on Friday, Boston took another step in the wrong direction. The Celtics lost for the third consecutive time to the Dallas Mavericks and the fifth time in seven games — a southerly drift that could ultimately lead to a first-round matchup with guess who?
“It’s a tough losing streak right now, three games, but we’re going to try to bounce back,” said Paul Pierce, who had a tough night with 16 points, but just seven through three quarters. “We’ve been through it before. This team is mentally tough and we’ll weather through the storm.”
Boston (36-32) moves on to a tough back-to-back at Memphis Saturday night with just two games separating it from the eighth-place Milwaukee Bucks. The Celtics will hope to have available starting point guard Courtney Lee, who sprained his left ankle late in the fourth quarter. After reaching the bench he was able to apply pressure and walk to the locker room on his own. He’s hopeful any swelling will be limited and that he’ll be ready to play.
No one would be foolhardy enough to count this stubborn, old Celtics team out. But at some point the emotional and physical toll of battling shorthanded night-in and night-out has to come home to roost. In consecutive games, they’ve fallen at New Orleans (the West’s last-place team) on a last-second tip-in, and on Friday they were out-hustled to loose balls and beaten on the boards by the light-rebounding Mavs, a team that’s played better of late but still sits 10th in the West.
“I just think we gave one away the other night in New Orleans, that was self-inflicted, and tonight they took it,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “They won the game. We didn’t play great. We missed a lot of open shots, we missed layups, but overall I’ll take those. I thought we played pretty hard. I wasn’t real happy with our defense and we’re going to have to clean that up.”
Dallas center Brandan Wright, in and out of the rotation all season, although playing more and quite well of late, lit up Boston’s interior defense for a season-high 23 points and a season-high-tying eight rebounds. Shawn Marion, back after missing eight games with a calf strain, had 11 points and 13 rebounds.
“I can’t wait to watch the film. I think we got crushed in the 50-50 game today,” Rivers said, referencing the loose balls that could go to either team, but mostly wind up in the hands of the players with more jump. “Some of those rebounds will count as rebounds, the long ones that were way out to the free throw line, we didn’t get any of those. They got them all. Shawn Marion, I don’t know what his numbers are, but he hurt us with his effort.”
Pierce played 40 minutes Monday against Miami, 33 at New Orleans and another 35 at Dallas. Kevin Garnett (16 points, 12 rebounds) logged 29 minutes in each of the last two games after sitting out two with a thigh injury, but Boston could have used him for 39. Off the bench, Jeff Green had 10 points, giving him 23 in the last two games after hitting Miami for 43. Jason Terry, in his return to Dallas, had little to say after scoring eight points on 3-for-9 shooting.
“All I was worried about was the win,” Terry said. “We have to end this road trip on a good note. Right now we’re just not getting it done.”
Resolve can be a powerful tool to beat back adversity, but eventually the absence of All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo — and even rookie Jared Sullinger to help on the boards –will wear down the older Celtics team. When Lee went down looking like he, too, could become a casualty, it had to be nothing short of disheartening.
“Since I’ve been here, we’ve had so many ups and downs and always were able to find a way,” said third-year guard Avery Bradley, who missed the first half of this season recovering from shoulder surgery last May. “Last year we had a lot of issues that people didn’t know about, a lot of injuries and we still were able to find a way, and still had an opportunity. It just shows what kind of organization we have.”
Finding a way this time will be an even tougher dig than a year ago when the Celtics clawed all the way to Game 7 at Miami in the East finals.
Still, nobody’s counting out the Celtics just yet. No, not even the Heat.
DALLAS –Dirk Nowitzki‘s beard grows thicker and more unruly with each passing day. Losses like Wednesday’s at home to the Brooklyn Nets decrease the odds that he’ll reach for a razor any time soon. The pact he and a group of teammates made some six weeks ago was that no one shaves until they reach .500.
The Dallas Mavericks were 21-28 on Feb. 8 when the motivational ploy came to light. Nowitzki had little more than the scruff he typically wears. But look at him now. The Mavs are 32-36, barely hanging on to playoff hope, and Nowitzki’s bearded face is proof, untamed, grizzly and rivaling the one he grew for weeks in the Outback six summers ago after his lone MVP season ended dismally in a first-round flop.
“Only then I didn’t even trim this part,” Nowitzki said, pointing to the lower portion of his bushy moustache creeping over his upper lip. “It came all the way down here.”
After Wednesday’s loss when Nowitzki shot 80 percent from the field, but took only 10 shots and none in the final half of the fourth quarter when Deron Williams – the co-star Dallas failed to obtain last summer — took over, the 34-year-old Nowitzki stroked his prickly-chin and scratched the back of his fur-covered neck where clumps of hair forcibly trail downward like a thicket of overgrown vines.
He said his mom told him he looks 45. Judging by his heavy eyes after the 113-96 disappointment to start a crucial six-game homestand, he might feel that old, too.
Nowitzki missed the first 27 games of the season after having arthroscopic surgery on his right knee on Oct. 19. His recovery was slow and painful, as was his game upon his return. And now, after missing his first All-Star Game in 12 seasons, he is on the verge of sitting out the playoffs for the first time in 13.
His team hasn’t been at .500 since it was 11-11 on Dec. 12. They were 12-16 when he returned two days before Christmas.
He was asked Wednesday why point guards Mike James and Darren Collison can’t seem to get him the ball in key situations, particularly on nights when he isn’t missing. In Dallas’ last two losses, both at home, Nowitzki was 8-for-10 in both, yet was a non-factor late.
“They [defenders] don’t leave me much anymore,” Nowitzki said. “It’s up to other guys to make plays. It’s as simple as that.”
There was zero talk of the future Hall of Famer reaching yet another remarkable milestone. Nowitzki surpassed 9,000 career rebounds, making him the 10th player in NBA history with 24,000 points and 9,000 boards, joining Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elvin Hayes, Moses Malone, Karl Malone, Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing and the only other active player, Kevin Garnett.
Nowitzki has scored and shot the ball better lately (18.1 ppg, 50.9 percent from the field, 48.8 percent on 3s), but he’s still set for his worst statistical season since he was a rookie, averaging 16.4 ppg and shooting 45.9 percent.
Mavs owner Mark Cuban doesn’t believe age is catching up to his star. In fact, Cuban said he expects Nowitzki to regain his All-Star status next season, the last on Nowitzki’s current contract, and “at least” a season or two after that. (more…)
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — The list of current coaches with an NBA championship on their resume is a short one.
Half of that crew will be working the sidelines tonight in Boston, where Erik Spoelstra‘s streaking Miami Heat (22 straight wins and counting) will take on Doc Rivers and his never-say-die Celtics at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN.
Have two coaches anywhere done a better job this season, under their own set of unique circumstances?
Heat upcoming schedule
No one questions the coaching abilities or prowess of Rivers, whose ability to manage egos, inspire and scheme with the best of them has pushed him to the top of the coaching heap. Rivers is either right next to (or right behind) San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and ahead of Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle (the fourth member of the championship coaching short list).
The Celtics are 16-6 since All-Star point guard and catalyst Rajon Rondo went down with a season-ending ACL injury. While others were ready to write the Celtics off, Rivers warned that his team should not be dismissed so easily. And he was right, bolstering his credibility as one of the best of the very best in his field.
Of the four coaches on that short list, Spoelstra is the only one that wouldn’t garner any first place votes for Coach of the Year. For whatever reason, he seems to be the only lacking universal respect. And it makes no sense, given all that he’s accomplished in such a short period of time. His teams before LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh joined forces averaged 45 wins a season, respectable for any coach, let alone a first-time one.
It’s extremely difficult to coach superstars and what has always been a superstar-driven league. Spoelstra had a rocky start, from the infamous shoulder to the chest James laid on him two years ago to the back-and-forth with Wade to his time spent on the hot seat the summer after the Heat fell to Carlisle’s Mavericks in The Finals loss two years ago.
Plenty of folks were calling for Heat boss Pat Riley to come down from the luxury suite and replace his protegé throughout the course of his first two seasons with the Big 3.
Spoelstra, to his credit, persevered through it all, holding steady to his beliefs in the advanced metrics he studies relentlessly and the respect and admiration of his entire locker room. He’s a coach who knows who he is and understands exactly what he brings to the mix for a team made up of so many different ingredients.
ESPN analyst and Hall of Fame Lakers point guard Magic Johnson has nothing but praise for the job Spoelstra has done.
“The Heat have been awesome on defense and on offense,” Johnson said on the air last week. “Coach Spoelstra is pulling out all the stops making sure this team is focused and ready. He should probably be Coach of the Year. And then, when I think about the time of the year they are doing it, it’s the right time. They are really getting ready for playoff basketball and they sent a message to everybody. They beat the Knicks when they had to beat the Knicks. They just beat the Pacers when they had to beat the Pacers.”
They’ve beaten everyone in their path when they had to recently. This 22-game win streak is the culmination of a process Spoelstra studies tirelessly, a complex grind that makes perfect sense to a man completely immersed in its mechanics.
“We have been managing our games very intelligently,” Spoelstra said. “Last month, we were very proactive in getting our guys rest. They have been doing their jobs in keeping their bodies ready and we are not forgetting about our preparation. We want to continue to get better. Guys are playing career low minutes and we are fortunate for that.”
Spoelstra has not only become a master at managing his superstars, he’s learned how to cultivate roles and personalities up and down the roster. That’s critical for any team set on the complete domination we’ve seen from the Heat.
“There are guys that are not even breaking the rotation right now that are proven and have to be in the right mindset, which they do,” Spoelstra said. “But when you put together a veteran team like this, you must have the right guys. If you don’t and guys are unhappy with the roles then your versatility and your depth doesn’t mean anything.”
The Heat have all the ingredients needed to chase whatever history they desire. They have the superstar talent, the depth, the versatility and understanding of what’s at stake every night as well as the bigger picture.
They also an elite coach in Spoelstra to go along with all that.
Sooner or later, someone will actually give him credit, too.
Because to date there are only two coaches in this current Big 3 era to see the process through all the way to The Finals and into that championship parade.
Like I said, these elite lists tend to be short … only Doc Rivers and Erik Spoelstra make the cut on this one.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Now it’s time to get serious about this streak.
The players in the Miami Heat locker room can downplay it all they want, but the pressure is on now. They’ve captured win No. 22, tying the Houston Rockets for the second-longest win streak in NBA history and the Los Angeles Lakers’ record 33-game streak is within their grasp, theoretically.
There is that little business to handle in Boston Monday night, against the same team that ended the Rockets’ streak five years ago to the day. And this is the same Boston team that has served as the nemesis for the Heat (the past two years) and LeBron James (for years before that while he was in Cleveland), before the guys in green got their AARP cards and lost Rajon Rondo for the season.
Heat upcoming schedule
They don’t pen scripts this rich in Hollywood these days — reigning champs show up on hated rival’s doorstep with a chance to continue their dominance and continue their historical chase with all the world watching (on ESPN). But that’s exactly what we’ll have to feast on Monday night, thanks to the Heat’s disposal of the Raptors in Toronto this afternoon for win No. 22 in their championship march.
A week ago, fresh off of their pounding of the Indiana Pacers at American Airlines Arena, man after man in the Miami locker room stressed that the streak was not on their minds. It wasn’t an issue, not for a team focused on bigger things.
“We’re just in a good place right now,” said Heat veteran Ray Allen then. “For me personally, it doesn’t really play into our conscience.
“Our goal day-to-day is to continually get better. Every team we play gets tougher. There is an emphasis right now on the small things. We know our weaknesses and strengths and we try to play to our strengths as much as we can. We know if we take care of the small things we give ourselves a great chance to win every night. And that’s the most important thing. We don’t want to have a mishap and start looking too far ahead, focusing on ourselves and what a great team we have. Our goal is to stay focused and keep grinding it out.”
Sure, of course it is. But that was before they crossed the 20-game threshold; before Allen shredded the Raptors for 16 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter of a hotly contested game (for a while) for win No. 22; before they peaked ahead and realized that No. 23 could come at the expense of the Celtics, one of the few teams that would have this game circled and highlighted the same way the Heat would (if they were completely honest with us about what it means to be in the midst of such a historic run).
There will be not shortage of reminders of not only what’s at stake Monday night, but also who can prevent the Heat from moving another step closer to that record — the Celtics, of all teams. Allen’s old teammates. The same crew that served as the Heat’s biggest hurdle last season on their way to the Finals and that Larry O’Brien trophy.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers can get his team riled up on a regular Monday, with just a few choice words and just the right poke at a particular player. The Heat coming to town under these circumstances is motivational gold, the fire starter any Eastern Conference playoff outfit worth it’s spit in the pecking order lives for.
Allen knows this better than anyone, having won 19 in a row with the Celtics during the 2008-09 season alongside Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Rondo.
You’re either the hunter or the hunted in this situation. And both offer a certain level of excitement for all involved. Toss in the fact that there isn’t a city, franchise or team that appreciates the rich history of this game more than the Boston, the Celtics and this particular crew, and you can see why they are so eager for their crack at the Heat.
“What does [a win Monday] get you when you play Atlanta in the first round?” Rivers told ESPNBoston.com. “It doesn’t do anything that you beat Miami. [Another opponent] could care less. If you caught Miami later [in the postseason]? I guess, for us, knowing that you can beat them, but we already know that. We’ve beaten them earlier in the year. But you still want to beat them, they are the world champs, they are playing great — you don’t need any extra reason to want to beat them. At least we don’t. They face this every night, though. And it’s what we faced in 2008-09 [as defending champions], every night. That’s what makes their streak so impressive to me, they are getting the best from teams and still winning.”
The Heat certainly won’t get the Celtics’ very best, even though they’ve been a revelation without Rondo, piling up a 16-6 record since they lost him to that season-ending ACL tear.
Garnett is supposed to be “50/50 at best” for Monday night’s game. He’s battling an adductor muscle strain that kept him out of a Saturday night win over the Charlotte Bobcats.
But you can imagine how that Monday morning assessment of his readiness will go? As long as everything is connected …
“When you go on a 10-game winning streak it’s always commendable because of the way the schedule goes,” Allen said. “You play on the road and at home, Western Conference and Eastern Conference. Some teams there are just bad matchups. You’re just learning how to win. For us, we’ve been in situations where it looked like we should have lost the game, but we put ourselves in situations to make plays down the stretch. We’ve learned how to play the game down the stretch — starting quarters and finishing quarters — those are the little things that help you win games. And then doing it on someone else’s floor, winning that many in a row, it’s always great.
“But you don’t always get a prize for it. We know what our prize is and it’s waiting for us.”
The Celtics are waiting for them, too, Monday night in Boston.