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Boston Celtics 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Boston Celtics.

Basketball Insiders

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Since bottoming out and winning only 25 games in 2013-14, the Boston Celtics have been slowly and steadily improving each subsequent season since. They won 40 games in 2014-15, and then jumped up to 48 wins last season.

Now, Boston fans are hoping their team will be able to make arguably the toughest leap of all, graduating from feisty and tenacious upstart into a true contender. Are the Celtics ready to challenge the Cleveland Cavaliers and other elite teams?

Basketball Insiders previews the Boston Celtics’ 2016-17 season.

FIVE GUYS THINK

I’m very high on the Celtics entering this season. I’ve stated numerous times that I believe they can be the second-best team in the Eastern Conference and perhaps present the biggest challenge to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The addition of Al Horford is huge, as he will help Boston tremendously on both offense and defense. Horford is ridiculously consistent and he’s going to be an excellent anchor for this Celtics team on both ends of the court. Isaiah Thomas should continue to be an elite point guard, especially now that he has a new toy in Horford and more familiarity with his supporting cast. And, of course, head coach Brad Stevens is a wizard who does an amazing job getting his players to buy in and play to their full potential. Oh, and I don’t think Danny Ainge is done wheeling and dealing either. This may be bold, but I’m predicting that Boston snatches the No. 2 seed in the East this year.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Alex Kennedy

Danny Ainge may not have snatched up Russell Westbrook the way that it seemed destined, but walking away from the summer with Jaylen Brown and Al Horford still presents an amazing scenario. Kris Dunn has a higher perceived ceiling than Brown, but Brown will fit right in with the Celtics, especially in the wake of Evan Turner’s departure. In Atlanta, Horford proved that he could excel with ball-dominant guards and he has improved his game each and every season. With respectable range out to the three-point line, I think he will form a potentially devastating partnership with Isaiah Thomas. As has been the case with Brad Stevens thus far, the individual pieces on the roster seem underwhelming, but so long as the team continues to abide by his philosophy, I think it’s incredibly reasonable to expect them to improve a bit from last season. I would still favor the Raptors in the division and, if the stars align, would give the Knicks a shot at supplanting Horford and his new team. In the end, though, the Celtics are the safe bet to end the season as the runner-up in the Atlantic.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Moke Hamilton

The Celtics’ ascent up the Eastern Conference ladder continued last season when the team posted 48 wins and made their second straight trip to the playoffs. Boston followed up their impressive season by landing four time All-Star center Al Horford in free agency. But the question is, even with Horford now in the fold, did the Celtics improve significantly enough to successfully make the jump into true title contention? Or will the franchise need more time to acquire additional pieces? Boston is undoubtedly headed in the right direction and the addition of Horford was huge for their program. However, the Celtics are still pretty young and sooner or later, they’ll have to wait for the younger core to truly mature.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Lang Greene

Arguably the East’s deepest team, the Celtics have no excuse not to make a leap this season now that they’ve added a bona fide All-Star to the mix in Al Horford. While he’s not the game-changing superstar that Kevin Durant would’ve been, he still injects some veteran muscle into what has been a fairly mediocre frontcourt rotation the last few seasons. He is obviously a huge upgrade over the outgoing Jared Sullinger. Meanwhile, Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley are one of the most underrated and gifted backcourt tandems in the league, and Jae Crowder just keeps getting better. Knowing they’re getting Brooklyn’s draft picks the next couple of years (one outright, the other a swap) is just suffocating. Even before adding any more firepower, the Celtics should be one of the East’s powerhouses this season.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Joel Brigham

The Celtics made one of the biggest free agent signings this offseason, signing Al Horford to a four-year, $113 million contract. Horford fills an area of need and should slot in nicely as the team’s starting center. This team thrives on aggression and chemistry, a culture Horford should fit in perfectly. Brad Stevens, one of the best all-around coaches in the NBA, has the task of taking a deep, young roster that lacks top level star power to the next level. Horford brings intelligence, defense and veteran leadership, but he doesn’t address the team’s shaky three-point shooting (and neither do any of Boston’s other acquisitions this offseason). While I like the composition of this roster, I think it’s safe to assume that general manager Danny Ainge will continue looking for potential deals for another star up until the trade deadline. If he can turn his treasure chest of assets into a high-end contributor, the Celtics could become the most dangerous team in the Eastern Conference aside from the Cleveland Cavaliers.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Isaiah Thomas

Thomas has been consistently climbed the NBA ladder, going from being an afterthought as the 60th overall pick to a role player to a starter to an All-Star. He did this by establishing himself as one of the NBA’s more creative, exciting and effective offensive weapons. In 2015-16, Thomas became just the fourth player since 2005 to average at least 22 points, six assists and two made three-pointers per game over the course of a full NBA season. The other three members of that exclusive club are Steph Curry, James Harden and Damian Lillard. Also, beginning in March and extending into April, Thomas led the Celtics in scoring in 17 consecutive games. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the 17 consecutive games as the team’s outright leading scorer broke a franchise record that was held by Larry Bird, who recorded 13 straight games as the C’s leading scorer during the 1987-88 season. Al Horford will be an important offensive weapon for the Celtics too, but don’t be surprised if Thomas remains the go-to scorer.

Top Defensive Player: Avery Bradley

Back in April, Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum, who won the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award, tweeted: “Avery Bradley [is] the best perimeter defender in the league and I don’t think it’s close.” The media pundits who vote on awards at the end of each season were more or less in agreement, giving Bradley First Team All-Defense honors for 2015-16. Having a guard who can lock down other perimeter scorers is invaluable in today’s NBA. Better yet for Boston, Bradley is only 25 years old and just now entering his prime.

Top Playmaker: Isaiah Thomas

The Celtics have very few playmakers on their roster other than Thomas. Last season, Evan Turner finished second on the team in assists and big man Jared Sullinger actually finished third. With Turner now on the Blazers and Sullinger on the Raptors, the Celtics will be even more reliant on Thomas setting the table for others. But they will also need backup point guard Marcus Smart to improve his distribution abilities, and may need to run more of the offense through the newly acquired Al Horford (who averaged 3.2 assists per game) in the post. Avery Bradley may be asked to handle the ball a bit more as well. However, Thomas will end up shouldering most of the playmaking responsibilities, as he excelled in the role last season. In 2015-16, he joined Larry Bird and John Havlicek as the only Celtics in franchise history to record at least 1,600 points and 500 assists in a single season.

Top Clutch Player: To Be Determined

Isaiah Thomas took many of the big shots late in games last season, but one of the Celtics’ issues was their offense stalling in important moments. Thomas had a tough time getting good, clean looks when the defense focused on him. For instance, he was a far less efficient as a scorer in the postseason. Will Al Horford be able to ease the burden on Thomas in clutch situations? Will Avery Bradley step up and become a reliable late-game shooter? Stay tuned.

The Unheralded Player: Jae Crowder

Crowder has become a cult hero in Beantown, but he’s not viewed with nearly the same reverence outside of New England. He’s the quintessential glue guy who contributes on both ends of the floor. However, his true calling card is being a dogged perimeter defender. Crowder finished the 2015-16 season ranked 14th in the NBA with 1.73 steals per game and finished 15th in total steals across the NBA with 126.

Top New Addition: Al Horford

Of all the free-agent additions made by teams in the East this summer, Boston adding Al Horford might be the most significant. Ainge and company are hoping Horford is a major piece to the puzzle that can help push them over the top. Horford is a terrific two-way player who contributes substantially on both ends of the floor. In fact, last year, Horford became the first player in NBA history to tally at least 60 steals, 80 three-pointers, 120 blocks and 200 assists in the same season.

– Tommy Beer

WHO WE LIKE

  1. Brad Stevens

Stevens, 39, is one of the youngest head coaches in the NBA, but he’s already one of the most respected sideline generals in the league. The Celtics have improved dramatically in each of the three seasons under Stevens’ tutelage. Stevens has quickly established a winning culture and an unselfish, defense-first mindset that has produced impressive early returns. If there was “coaches draft” where GMs and owners could select any other coach in the NBA to run their team, Stevens would go near the very top.

  1. Danny Ainge

Ainge has done a masterful job putting together this balanced Celtics roster. Each of the Celtics’ top-five scorers last season made less than $8 million, and they are set up well going forward too. Considering the insanely enormous contracts handed out this summer, Ainge has many of the C’s core players locked into bargain deals. All-Star Isaiah Thomas will make just $12.8 million combined over the next two seasons. Jae Crowder will earn an average of approximately $7 million for each of the next four seasons. Avery Bradley will earn less than $8.8 million per season through 2018.

  1. Jaylen Brown

It was assumed by many that the Celtics would take guard Kris Dunn with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. Instead, the C’s went with Jaylen Brown. Brown is extremely athletic, with an impressive wingspan and the ability to become a versatile defender. Boston’s first impression of Brown was extremely favorable, as he filled up the stat sheet at the Las Vegas Summer League, averaging 16 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.8 steals per contest. Just 19 years old, the sky’s the limit for this kid.

  1. Kelly Olynyk

Olynyk actually finished the 2015-16 season ranked second on the Celtics in total plus/minus. He was +218 this past season, which was good enough for the 16th-best mark in the entire Eastern Conference. His true value lies in his shooting accuracy. Olynyk knocked down 85 three-pointers last season, while shooting 40.4 percent from behind-the-arc. This is very impressive, especially for a big man. That ability to stretch the floor opens up plenty of space on the offensive end for his teammates. With Horford in the fold, Olynyk’s minutes may be reduced a bit, but he’ll still contribute when on the floor.

– Tommy Beer

SALARY CAP 101

The Celtics landed free agent Al Horford this summer, using cap room to sign him to a four-year, $113.3 million contract.  Now at the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap, Boston still has their $2.9 million Room Exception, but 16 players with guaranteed contracts.  Not only will invites Ben Bentil, Marcus Georges-Hunt, Jalen Jones and Damion Lee have a difficult time making the squad, a guaranteed player like James Young or R.J. Hunter could be on the outside looking in.  Boston could look to make a trade, instead of waiving outright, but before the season the team needs to get to 15 players.

Next summer, the Celtics could have $31 million in spending power, under a projected $102 million salary cap.  That assumes the team picks up the rookie-scale options on Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Young and Hunter by the end of October.  Given the roster crunch, that could increase slightly.  That number also assumes that Boston cuts non-guaranteed players Tyler Zeller, Demetrius Jackson and Jordan Mickey ahead of free agency next July.  Kelly Olynyk is eligible for an extension before November.  The Celtics have the right to swap first-round picks with the Brooklyn Nets in next year’s NBA Draft.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Boston’s defense has been the key to its recent resurgence. Brad Stevens demands defensive effort from his players, and Ainge has supplied him with a roster of spirited, versatile defenders. As a result, they have improved every season under Stevens. Per NBA.com, the Celtics finished the 2015-16 campaign tied for the fourth-ranked defense in the NBA (according to Defensive Rating) with a mark of 100.9. They were also second in the NBA in opponent turnovers per game (16.4), second in steals per game (9.2), 13th in defensive points per game (102.5), seventh in defensive field goal percentage (44.1), fourth in defensive three-point field goal percentage (33.6) and eighth in defensive effective field goal percentage (48.7).

– Tommy Beer

WEAKNESSES

The C’s were strong defensively (as noted above) and also finished 10th overall in Offensive Efficiency (scoring 106.8 point per 100 possessions) last season, so there aren’t many glaring weaknesses the Celtics need to overcome in 2016-17. However, there is obviously room for improvement. They were only middle of the pack in terms of defensive rebounding, which is an area they will need to improve on going forward. They also need to become more creative offensively, as they were often inefficient on the offensive end when the pace of the game slowed down.

– Tommy Beer

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the Celtics make the leap from scrappy, up-and-coming team to legit threat next season?

The C’s won 48 games last season, which was tied for the third-most wins the Eastern Conference. One of their flaws in the past was their lack of a reliable low-post scorer and interior defender, but they addressed that hole by reeling in one of the preeminent free agents on the open market in Al Horford. The Celtics were already one of the best defensive teams in the entire league and Horford not only improves them defensively, but also provides much-needed offensive punch. Horford’s versatility allows him to score inside and out. Isaiah Thomas is ready to build upon an All-Star campaign. Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Amir Johnson round out what is arguably the most complete and impressive starting five in the East outside of Cleveland. For all these reasons, there is understandable optimism in Boston that the Celtics can capture the Atlantic Division title and advance all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2016-17.

– Tommy Beer

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NBA Daily: Larry Nance Jr. Is Ready To Move On

At All-Star Weekend, Larry Nance Jr. talked about moving on from being traded, Dr. J and the love that Los Angeles still has for him.

Ben Nadeau

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At the end of the day, the NBA is a business and Larry Nance Jr. found that out the hard way when the Los Angeles Lakers traded him and Jordan Clarkson for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2018 first-rounder just a few weeks ago.

Naturally, Nance was due back at the Staples Center nine days later to compete in the league’s annual slam dunk contest. Although he would finish second to the Utah Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell, Nance was frequently reminded just how many fans he still has out on the West Coast.

“It’s either one of two responses,” Nance said over the weekend. “Either people don’t understand how a trade works and they ask me why I left, or, you know: ‘Larry, we miss you, come back in free agency’ and stuff like that. So, either way, they’re kinda on my side — I mean, I’m still a little bit of purple and gold.”

Over his first three seasons, Nance had become a familiar contributor for the Lakers, using his rim-rocking athleticism to carve out a steady role under two different head coaches. Before he was moved to the Cavaliers, Nance was on pace to set career-highs in points (8.6), rebounds (6.8) and steals (1.4). This statistical rise also comes in the midst of his field goal percentage jumping all the way up to 59.3 percent — a mark that would rank him fifth-highest in the NBA if he qualified.* Given the noteworthy change of scenery, his current average of 3.6 field goals per game could grow as well.

But as the Lakers prepare for a potentially crucial offseason, the front office remained committed to shedding salary ahead of free agency, where they may or may not chase the likes of LeBron James, Paul George or DeMarcus Cousins. In just three short years, Nance had quickly become a fan favorite as a jaw-dropping in-game dunker and an improving prospect on a cheap rookie contract, so his involvement at the deadline may have come as a surprise to many as it was for him.

“It’s been a week, so, no, it’s still kinda like: ‘Jeez, I gotta pick up and move right now,’” Nance said. “So, no, I’m not fully adjusted, I’m not, for a lack of a better term, over it. But it’s still fresh in my mind, it’s something that is still kind of shocking.”

Nance, for his worries, is now a key member of the James-led Cavaliers, a franchise that has won 11 more games than the Lakers and sits in third place in the Eastern Conference. While the Cavaliers will likely have to go through the Boston Celtics or Toronto Raptors to reach their fourth consecutive NBA Finals, James himself has reached the championship series every year since the 2009-10 postseason. With the Cavaliers’ maniacal mid-season reboot — which also brought in Rodney Hood, George Hill and the aforementioned Clarkson — they could be poised for an encore performance.

Since he was acquired by Cleveland, Nance and the Cavaliers are 3-0 and, just like that, much of the lingering narrative has been reversed. As the Cavaliers look to further stabilize their season, Nance figures to play a large part down the stretch, particularly so as All-Star Kevin Love continues to rehab from a broken hand.

Still, Nance knows that the Cavaliers will certainly face some speed bumps along the way.

“It’s a learning process, obviously we started out super fast, but there will be a learning process,” Nance stated. “Just like there is with every team and every new group, so we’ll figure it out and we’ll get past it [for the] playoffs.”

But before he makes his first-ever postseason appearance, Nance returned to Los Angeles in an attempt to capture a slam dunk title, something his father — Larry Nance Sr. — did in the inaugural competition way back in 1984. In that contest, the older Nance famously upset Julius Erving and Dominique Wilkins to take home the crown in a nine-person field. On Saturday, Nance paid homage by changing into a retro Phoenix Suns uniform to execute his father’s signature dunk — the rock-the-cradle throwdown that won it all 34 years ago.

“For me, [his highlights were] like normal kid Sesame Street or Barney or something. I was watching his clips when I was growing up, so, yeah, I see it all the time,” Nance recalled.

But when asked what he remembers the most about those distant memories, the second generation son decidedly kept it in the family.

“The fact that he beat Dr. J,” Nance said. “Dr. J is normally thought of as almost like the dunk inventor, kinda brought the dunk contest back — but, really, [I remember] my dad.”

Although Nance couldn’t replicate his father’s success in the contest, his emphatic, springy dunks indicated that the 6-foot-9 skywalker could be an event staple for years to come. In one of the best dunks all night, Nance pulled off the rare double tap — a jam so technically difficult, that he immediately told the judges to look at the jumbotron to make sure they understood what exactly he had just pulled off.

Nance, for his original acrobatics, earned a perfect score of 50.

Earlier that day, Nance discussed the difficulty in standing out amongst a field of explosive guards.

“I think the guys that are taller and longer have a different skill-set than smaller guys,” Nance said. “Obviously, if the smaller guys do something, it looks super impressive because they got to jump a little bit higher, or it looks like they got to jump higher.

“There are ways for bigger guys to look good and I think I’ve got that hammered out.”

For now, Nance doesn’t know if he’ll return to the dunk contest next season after his narrow two-point loss to Mitchell. Instead, Nance wants to focus on helping the Cavaliers in their hunt for the conference’s top seed and, of course, with James, anything is possible. But it’s fair to say that Nance, who nearly pulled down a double-double (13 points, nine rebounds) in his second game with Cleveland, has gone from a rebuild to a legitimate contender in a flash.

“At the same time, I can’t wait for all this to be done with so I can just get back to learning how to gel and mesh with my new team,” Nance said.

From the West Coast to the Midwest, Nance is clearly ready to make some waves once again.

* * * * * *

*To qualify, a player must be on pace for 300 made field goals. As of today, Nance is on pace for 252.6.

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Updating the Buyout Market: Who Could Still Become Available?

Shanes Rhodes examines the buyout market to see which players could soon be joining playoff contenders.

Shane Rhodes

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While it may not be as exciting as the NBA Trade Deadline, another important date is approaching for NBA teams: the Playoff Eligibility Waiver Deadline.

March 1 is the final day players can be bought out or waived and still be eligible to play in the postseason should they sign with another team. As teams continue to fine-tune their rosters, plenty of eyes will be on the waiver wire and buyout market looking for players that can make an impact.

So who could still become available?

Joakim Noah, New York Knicks

This seems almost too obvious.

The relationship between Joakim Noah and the New York Knicks hasn’t been a pleasant one. Noah, who signed a four-year, $72 million contract in 2016, has done next to nothing this season after an underwhelming debut season in New York and has averaged just 5.7 minutes per game.

After an altercation between himself and Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek at practice, Noah isn’t expected to return to the team. At this point, the best thing for both sides seems likely a clean break; there is no reason to keep that cloud over the Knicks locker room for the remainder of the season.

Noah may not help a playoff contender, but he should certainly be available come the end of the season.

Arron Afflalo, Orlando Magic

Arron Afflalo isn’t the player he once was. But he can still help any contender in need of some shooting.

Afflalo is averaging a career-low 12.9 minutes per game with the Orlando Magic this season. He is playing for just over $2 million so a buyout wouldn’t be hard to come by if he went asking and he can still shoot the basketball. A career 38.6 percent shooter from long distance, Afflalo can certainly get it done beyond the arc for a team looking to add some shooting or some depth on the wing. He doesn’t add the perimeter defense he could earlier in his career, but he could contribute in certain situations.

Vince Carter, Sacramento Kings

Vince Carter was signed by the Sacramento Kings last offseason to play limited minutes off the bench while providing a mentor for the Sacramento Kings up-and-coming players. And Carter may very well enjoy that role.

But, to a degree, the old man can still ball — certainly enough to help a contender.

Carter is 41-years-old, there is no getting around his age, but he can still provide some solid minutes off the bench. Playing 17.1 minutes per night across 38 games this season, Carter has averaged five points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.3 assists while shooting 35.3 percent from three-point range. Combining all of that with his playoff experience and the quality of leadership he brings to the table, Carter may be an ideal addition for a contender looking to make a deep playoff run.

Zach Randolph, Sacramento Kings

Like Carter, Zach Randolph was brought in by the Kings to contribute solid minutes off the bench while also filling in as a mentor to the young roster. Unlike Carter, however, Randolph has played much of the season in a starting role — something that is likely to change as the season winds down.

Randolph has averaged 14.6 points, seven rebounds and 2.1 assists in 25.6 minutes per game; quality numbers that any team would be happy to take on. But, in the midst of a rebuild, the Kings should not be taking minutes away from Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere and (eventually) Harry Giles in order to keep Randolph on the floor.

As he proved last season, Randolph can excel in a sixth-man role and would likely occupy a top bench spot with a team looking to add rebounding, scoring or just a big to their rotation down the stretch.

Wesley Matthews, Dallas Mavericks

Wesley Matthews remains one of the most underrated players in the NBA. He provides positional versatility on the floor and is a solid player on both sides of the ball.

So, with Mark Cuban all but saying the Mavericks will not be trying to win for the remainder of the season, Matthews is likely poised for a minutes dip and seems like an obvious buyout candidate. Matthews, who has a player option for next season, has averaged 12.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.2 steals this season across 34.1 minutes per game this season.

If Cuban is true to his word, both parties would be better served parting ways; the Mavericks can attempt to lose as many games as possible while Matthews can latch on to a team looking to win a title. It’s a win-win.

Isaiah Thomas, Los Angeles Lakers

Isaiah Thomas’ three-game stint with the Los Angeles Lakers before the All-Star break looked much like his short tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers: up-and-down. Thomas shined in his Laker debut, putting up 25 points and six assists in just over 30 minutes.

He then followed that up with three points and two assists, and seven points along with five assists in his second and third games with the team, respectively.

Thomas needs time to get himself right before he can start playing his best basketball. Re-establishing his value is likely his top priority.

But will he be willing to come off the bench for a team that won’t be making the postseason?

With Lonzo Ball close to returning, Thomas will likely move to the Laker bench. Adamant in recent years that he is a starting guard in the NBA, Thomas may be more inclined to take on that role for a team poised to make a deep playoff run — there is no shortage of teams that would be willing to add Thomas’ potential scoring prowess while simultaneously setting himself up for a contract and, potentially, a starting role somewhere next season.

Other Names to Look Out For: Channing Frye, Shabazz Muhammed, Kosta Koufos

There are still plenty of players that can make an impact for playoff-bound teams should they reach a buyout with their current squads. And, as the Postseason Eligibility Waiver Deadline approaches, plenty of teams out of the running will move quickly in order to provide their guys an opportunity to find their way to a contender.

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NBA Daily: Eric Gordon, The Houston Rockets’ Ex-Factor

James Harden and Chris Paul are stars that have faltered in the playoffs. Eric Gordon could be their ex-factor

Lang Greene

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The 2017-18 Houston Rockets are shaping up to be one of the league’s best regular-season teams over the past decade. The squad features a fan-friendly and fun to watch style, two legitimate superstar talents and a seemingly well-rounded contingent of role players willing to do whatever it takes to help the team get to the next level.

But as strong of a force as the Rockets appear to be developing into, there are still major question marks about how this team will perform in the playoffs when the game gets tighter, bench rotations are reduced and the spotlight glares the brightest.

All-Star guard James Harden has played in 88 career playoff games over the course of his career – 45 with the Rockets where he’s averaging 27.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 7.1 assists. The statistics look good in the aggregate, however, Harden has noticeably faded down the stretch during pivotal playoff moments in the team’s recent runs. The most recent example being Game 5 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals versus the San Antonio Spurs where Harden finished with just 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting from the floor.

The Rockets other superstar, Chris Paul, has never reached the Western Conference Finals in a career dating back to the 2005-06 season. Paul’s most memorable playoff collapse came when he was a member of the Los Angeles Clippers. His team surrendered a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference semifinals to the Harden’s Rockets back in 2015.

While there are undoubtedly questions at the top, their bench unit is anchored by 2017 Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon, once considered one of the rising shooting guards in the league while he was a member of the Clippers.

Gordon, was traded as part of a package by Los Angeles to acquire Paul from New Orleans. Since then, a combination of injuries and reported frustration in New Orleans seemingly derailed Gordon from the once promising ascent and trajectory he was projected to achieve. But Gordon has gotten his career on track. Once injury prone, Gordon suited up for 75 games in 2017 and is on pace to play 73 games this season.

“It’s almost like it is consistent to be here now,” Gordon said during All-Star weekend. “It’s been great. When I’ve been healthy, I’ve always had that chance to do some good things.

When you’re winning things come easier. You’re scoring easier [and] it’s easier to come into work and play well every single practice and game.”

Gordon believes there’s something special about this Rockets team because of how quickly they have gained cohesion since training camp. Gordon is averaging 18.5 points in 32 minutes per contest on the season. The guard will play an integral role off the Rockets’ bench and will play heavy minutes in any playoff series involving the Western Conference elite teams – namely Golden State and San Antonio. In three games versus the Warriors this season, Gordon is averaging 20 points on 43 percent shooting from the field.

“We definitely have to figure things out but we just clicked so quickly and early in the season,” Gordon said. “We just knew we had a chance to maybe win it. I’d say at this point we know what we need to do and it’s all about being consistent enough on both sides of the ball for us to have a chance.”

Golden State, as defending champs, have to be respected as the better team until proven otherwise. Many do believe the Rockets have at the very least a puncher’s chance because of how they can score the ball in bunches. The Warriors, for all of their past defensive prowess, have slipped on that side of the floor this season with declining efficiency numbers. But is that slippage enough for the Rockets to gain ground or are the Warriors’ defensive struggles a combination of regular season boredom and a lack of enthusiasm.

In a seven-game playoff series, the cream rises to the top. Are the Rockets legit? Or are they a team best suited for the regular season as in seasons past? They currently lead the season series against the Warriors 2-1 and are 2-0 versus the Spurs to date. We have witnessed regular-season dominance from Paul and Harden in the past. Is this the year both guys put it all together and finally get over the hump? Time will tell and Eric Gordon figures to play a big role in determining the outcome.

The Rockets resume play on Friday versus the Minnesota Timberwolves.

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