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Can the Celtics Make a Deep Playoff Run?

Eric Saar takes a look at the Celtics to see if they have what it takes to make a deep playoff run.

Eric Saar

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The Cleveland Cavaliers, powered by LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love and the Toronto Raptors, led by Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, are the two favorites in the Eastern Conference. But could the Celtics be the sleeper, that dark horse that upsets either team and makes it to the conference finals?

For a team that prides itself on teamwork, equality, and defensive intensity, Boston relies heavily on All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas. The last overall pick in the 2011 draft has proven his doubters wrong and has put together his best season yet. In doing so, he has managed to lead the Celtics to the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.

Thomas holds the Celtics record for most consecutive games leading the team in scoring, logging 18 such games with 20 or more points. Beyond scoring, Thomas is also averaging 6.2 assists per game (tied for 14th in the NBA) and may potentially get a nod on one of the All-NBA teams. The problem for Boston is that if an opponent can shut Thomas down, it will be pretty difficult for the Celtics to manufacture points.

Another thing going for the Celtics is Brad Stevens, who has established himself as one of best coaches in the league. The Celtics benefit from his meticulous game planning and this will likely be even more important in the postseason where Stevens will be able to focus on one team. When an opponent finds a way to attack the Celtics, Stevens and his staff are as capable as just about any other coaching staff to adjust, an understated but important part of playoff basketball.

Stevens has coached Boston into a top team as the Celtics are eighth overall in total point differential and fourth in the Eastern Conference. Additionally, Stevens preaches ball-movement unselfishness and discipline. As a result, the Celtics are sixth in assists per game and rarely turn the ball over. Boston is tied for sixth in assist to turnover ratio with the Atlanta Hawks. Their 1.78 ratio is only behind the San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, Charlotte Hornets and Dallas Mavericks. This sort of discipline will be especially important in the playoffs, where electric crowds and elevated emotions can lead teams to make careless mistakes. If any team can keep its cool and take advantage of those mistakes, it’s these Celtics under the steady leadership of Stevens.

Hard, swarming defense is a staple of the current Celtics squad and another reason they could make a deep run.

They are fifth in opponent field goal percentage, holding opponents to 43.9 percent (only behind the Hawks, Clippers, Warriors and Spurs). Additionally, they are second in opponent three-point percentage, holding their opponents to only 33.3 percent behind the arc, which ranks only behind the Indiana Pacers (33.1 percent). Both of those defensive metrics are difficult to achieve and maintain over the course of a season and are quite impressive.

The Celtics are great at causing havoc and turnovers. They cause their opponents to turn the ball over a league-high 15.9 times per game. Additionally, they generate the second-most steals per game (9.3), just behind Houston (10.0). However, they don’t get many blocks, as they are 23rd in the league, averaging only 4.2 a game as they don’t have an elite rim protector on their roster. While having a great rim protector isn’t an absolute necessity in creating a strong defense, it is important. Not having a strong rim protector could hurt the Celtics in the postseason.

With an active, disciplined defense and Thomas running the offensive attack, the Celtics have their method for success, but what is their path towards the conference finals?

Path to a deep run out East

Seemingly, the Cavaliers have all but locked up the number one seed, with the Toronto Raptors securely in second. Also, the Detroit Pistons seem to be the seventh seed and the Indiana Pacers are on the verge of securing a playoff berth and keeping the Chicago Bulls out of the postseason. That just leaves the third through sixth seeds to be determined between the Celtics, Hawks, HEAT and Hornets.

As things stands, these teams can only face each other in some combination in the first round. More importantly, the four squads are still vying for only two home-court spots, which is always important in the postseason.

As of now, the Hawks and Celtics are tied (Hawks have the tiebreaker) and the HEAT and Hornets are a game back of them (HEAT have the tiebreaker).

Remaining schedules

The Celtics have a tough remaining schedule as they still have to play at Atlanta and at home against Charlotte and Miami. These are all games against opponents they are jockeying with for seeding and therefore each team has something to play for.

Meanwhile, the Hawks have that home game against Boston, then go play in Cleveland (who has nothing to play for and might rest players), then in Washington (who has nothing to play for except to play spoiler in the final game of the season).

The HEAT first host the eliminated Orlando Magic, then travel to Detroit (who will still be trying to hold off the Pacers so they don’t have to face Cleveland in the first round), then go to Boston for their final game. The Hornets have two games against eliminated teams in Washington and Orlando and a matchup with the Celtics.

Anything can happen in the final week of the regular season with so many matchups between these organizations jockeying for seeding.

How do the Celtics stack up with these teams?

Boston, of course, wants home-court. But with or without home-court advantage, they’ll be playing one of the three other teams previously mentioned in the first round. So how have they stacked up this year against the potential first-round opponents?

In the Celtics-Hawks matchup, Boston is down 1-2 with one game remaining. In November, the Celtics won by 13 at home, then 11 days later lost in Atlanta by 24 points. The other game was in December where the Celtics lost by eight at home. Unfortunately, this doesn’t tell us much about the matchup since the games were played so long ago. Each team has gone through ups-and-downs, injuries and other issues, so we may not know much about how they stack up until the next time they meet. What we do know is that the Hawks have been firing on all cylinders defensively over the last few months, which could be problematic for the Celtics’ offensive attack.

In the Celtics-HEAT matchup, Boston is up 2-0 with one game remaining. The first game, played back in November, was a 10-point victory and the second was a 12-point victory back in February. Based on this, it would seem Boston has a slight upper-hand, but Erik Spoelstra is another top-tier coach, evidenced by his ability to adapt on the fly after losing All-Star forward Chris Bosh.

In the Celtics/Hornets matchup, Boston is also up 2-0 with one game remaining. Both games were in December pre-Christmas, so there isn’t much to glean, but the Celtics won by five and 13 points.

That’s just the first round. Then logically they’ll either have to face the Cavaliers or the Raptors in the second round, depending on seeding.

The Celtics are 1-2 against the Cavaliers this season including a 12-point December loss, a one-point February victory, and a 17-point March loss. It’s not the greatest matchup for Boston, but they have to face them eventually if the hope to advance. The Cavaliers are a talented, but volatile team. In a potential matchup, the Celtics have to hope that the Cavaliers fail to maximize their huge talent, giving Boston a chance to level the playing field.

Boston is also 1-2 against the Raptors this year. These included a six-point January loss and a 16-point March loss, followed five days later by a 12-point victory. This could be a good matchup for the Celtics. They may prefer either the third (or sixth) seed in order to face the Raptors in the second round. Still, Lowry and DeRozan have been playing better than anyone reasonably expected all season and will be difficult to contain (though the Celtics’ perimeter defenders are better-equipped to handle this assignment than most teams).

Celtics can hang with anyone

The Celtics have the ability to play up to their competition. For instance, Boston almost broke the Warriors’ streak back in December. In Boston, it took 38 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists and 2 steals from reigning MVP Stephen Curry and double overtime to preserve the Warriors’ stream (24-0). Draymond Green also had to contribute 24 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists, five steals and five blocks. Notably, Klay Thompson was out with a sprained ankle for that game. The Celtics were led by Kelly Olynyk’s 28 points off the bench and five other players were in double figures scoring in a team effort.

The second game was on April 1, at Oracle Arena in Oakland on the second night of a typically brutal road back to back (following a loss in Portland to the Trail Blazers). The Celtics came away with a narrow 109-106, victory snapping the Warriors’ 54-game home winning streak, which dated back to last season. The Celtics were led by Jared Sullinger, Isaiah Thomas and Evan Turner, who all had 20 or more points. They were without probably their best defensive and most versatile player, Jae Crowder, who was out due to injury.

Other playoff teams the Celtics have beaten this season include the Atlanta Hawks, Toronto Raptors, Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets, Miami HEAT, Charlotte Hornets, Indiana Pacers, Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies, Detroit Pistons and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The list of the current playoff teams the Celtics haven’t beaten at least once this season includes only the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks. And they wouldn’t face either of those teams until a hypothetical Finals matchup.

Considering all of this, it seems fair to reason that the Celtics can be that dark horse in the East. They have a top-level coach in Stevens, an All-Star point guard that leads their offensive attack, versatile perimeter defenders, solid role players and a disciplined approach to the game. They don’t have the star power that most of the other playoff teams have, but with a steady leader in Stevens and an aggressive style of play that could fluster opponents, especially in playoff atmospheres, the Celtics seem to have a viable chance at making a deep playoff run.

Based in Arizona, Eric Saar is an analyst for Basketball Insiders. He has covered the league for several years. He loves to converse about the NBA on Twitter, so follow him at @Eric_Saar. Eric graduated with honors from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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NBA Daily: Surging HEAT Must Overcome Adversity

The Miami HEAT have been hit with a number of injuries at shooting guard. Can they stay hot?

Buddy Grizzard

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The Miami HEAT have surged to fourth in the Eastern Conference on the back of a 14-5 stretch since Dec. 9, including a seven-game win streak that ended with Monday’s 119-111 loss to the Bulls in Chicago. In the loss, shooting guard Tyler Johnson got his legs tangled with Robin Lopez and appeared to suffer a serious injury.

“I was scared,” said HEAT small forward Josh Richardson, who joined his teammates in racing down the court to check on Johnson. “You never want to see a guy, whether it’s on your team or the other team, down like that. I talked to him when he was in here [the locker room] and he said he didn’t know what was up.”

Coach Erik Spoelstra told pool reporters after the game that X-rays were negative. It was initially feared to be a knee injury, but Spoelstra said the knee is okay and the ankle is the area of concern. Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel tweeted that an MRI was not deemed necessary and Johnson will be listed as doubtful for Wednesday’s game in Milwaukee.

Meanwhile, the HEAT is facing a serious shortage at shooting guard, having lost Dion Waiters to season-ending knee surgery, Rodney McGruder to a left tibia stress fracture that will likely keep him out until February, and now Johnson. Miami has applied for a $5.5 million disabled player exception after losing Waiters, according to the Sun-Sentinel. HEAT power forward James Johnson said the team will be looking for other players to step up.

“I think it’s the next guy’s gonna step up like we always do,” said Johnson. “As we have guys going down we also have guys getting back and getting back in their groove [like] Justise Winslow. Hopefully, it’s going to give another guy a chance to emerge on this team or in this league.”

Johnson added that the loss to Chicago came against a hot team and the HEAT didn’t have the right mental approach or defensive communication to slow them down.

“Our communication was lacking tonight,” said Johnson. “I think our brains rested tonight and that’s not like us. Tilt your hat to Chicago. They’re shooting the hell out the ball. They didn’t let us come back.”

Richardson echoed the theme of communication and the inability to counter a hot-shooting team.

“We weren’t communicating very well and we were not giving them enough static on the three-point line,” said Richardson. “They’ve been the number one three-point shooting team in the league for like 20 games now. They ran some good actions that we were not reacting right to.”

Spoelstra referred to a turnover-riddled close to the first half as “disgusting” basketball and agreed that the defense let his team down.

“I don’t know what our record is in HEAT franchise history when we give up 120-plus,” said Spoelstra. “I would guess that it’s probably not pretty good.”

The good news for Miami is that it can try a combination of Richardson and Winslow at the wings, while Wayne Ellington has been shooting the leather off the ball from three this season (40.5 percent on over seven attempts per game). The HEAT is the latest team to attempt to defy history by making a serious run without a superstar player. To make that a reality and remain in the upper half of the East’s playoff bracket, Miami will have to personify the “next man up” credo.

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NBA Daily: Is It Time To Cash Out On Kemba Walker?

Should the Hornets get serious about trading Kemba Walker or risk losing him in 2019 for next to nothing?

Steve Kyler

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Is It Time To Sell?

Every professional sports team at some point has to decide when its time to cash out, especially if they have a star player heading towards free agency. The Charlotte Hornets are a team teetering on this decision with star guard Kemba Walker.

Now, let’s be honest for a moment. The Hornets are getting nothing of meaningful value in a trade for Walker if they decided to put him on the trade market—that’s something that will drive part of the decision. Check out these UK sports books with free bets!

The other part of the decision is evaluating the marketplace. This is where Charlotte may have an advantage that’s easy to overlook, which is the ability to massively overpay.

Looking ahead to the cap situations for the NBA in the summer of 2019, there doesn’t appear to be a lot worth getting excited over. While it’s possible someone unexpected goes into cap clearing mode to get space, the teams that project to have space in 2019 also project to have space in 2018, meaning some of that 2019 money could get spent in July and change the landscape even more.

But for the sake of discussion, let’s assume most of the 2019 cap space teams swing and miss on anything meaningful this summer and have flexibility the following summer. Not only will Walker be a name to watch, but guys like Boston’s Kyrie Irving, Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler, Golden State’s Klay Thompson, Dallas’ Harrison Barnes, Detroit’s Tobias Harris, San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and Cleveland’s Kevin Love can all hit unrestricted free agency.

That’s a pretty respectable free agent class.

While most of those names will likely stay where they are, especially if their teams shower them with full max contracts as most would expect, there are a few names that might make the market interesting.

The wrinkle in all of it is the teams projected to have space. Based on what’s guaranteed today, the top of the 2019 cap space board starts with the LA Clippers.

The Clippers currently have just Blake Griffin and Danilo Gallinari under contract going into 2019. They will have qualifying offers on Milos Teodosic and Sam Dekker, but that’s about it. If the Clippers play their cards right, they could be looking at what could be close to $48 million in usable cap space, making them the biggest threat to poach a player because of the LA marketplace. It should be noted, though, that DeAndre Jordan’s situation will have an impact here.

The Chicago Bulls come in second on the 2019 cap space list with just $35.77 million in cap commitments. The problem for the Bulls is they are going to have to start paying their young guys, most notably Zach LaVine. That’s won’t stop the Bulls from getting to cap space, it’s simply a variable the Bulls have to address this summer that could get expensive.

The Philadelphia 76ers could come in third on the 2019 cap space list, although it seems the 76ers may go all in this summer on re-signing guard J.J. Redick and a swing at a big fish or two. If the 76ers miss, they still have an extension for Ben Simmons to consider, but that shouldn’t impact the ability to get to meaningful space.

For the Hornets, those three situations have to be a little scary, as all of themff something Charlotte can’t offer – big markets and rosters (save maybe the Clippers) with potentially higher upside.

The next group of cap space markets might get to real salary cap room, but its more likely they spend this summer like say the Houston Rockets or are equal to less desirable situations like Sacramento (similar), Dallas (has Dennis Smith Jr), Atlanta (similar) or Phoenix (likely drafts a point guard).

That brings us back to the Hornets decision making process.

If the Hornets put Walker on the market, historically, teams get pennies on the dollar for high-level players headed to free agency. If traded, its more likely than not that Walker hits free agency and goes shopping. That’s the scary part of trading for an expiring contract unless you get the player early enough for him to grow attached to the situation, most players explore options. That tends to drive down the potential return.

The Hornets can also start extension discussions with Walker and his camp this summer and it seems more likely than not the Hornets will pay Walker the full max allowed under the collective bargaining agreement, which could be a deal north of $150 million and he could ink that in July.

It’s possible that someone offers the Hornets the moon for Walker. That has happened in the past. The Celtics gave the Cavaliers a pretty solid return for Irving, a player the Cavaliers had to trade. So it’s not out of the question real offers come in, especially with the NBA trade deadline approaching, but what’s far more likely is the Hornets wait out this season and try to extend Walker this summer.

League sources at the G-League Showcase last week, doubted that any traction could be had on Walker while admitting he’s a name to watch, despite however unlikely a trade seemed today.

The challenge for the Hornets isn’t as simple as cashing out of Walker, not just because the return will be low, but also because where would the franchise go from here?

It’s easy to say re-build through the draft, but glance around the NBA today – how many of those rebuild through the draft situations are yielding competitive teams? How many of them have been rebuilding for five years or more?

Rebuilding through the draft is a painfully slow and frustrating process that usually costs you a coach or two and typically a new front office. Rebuilding through the draft is time consuming and usually very expensive.

It’s easier to rebuild around a star already in place and the fact that Walker himself laughs off the notion of him being anywhere but Charlotte is at least a good sign and the Hornets have some time before they have to really make a decision.

At some point, Charlotte has to decide when to cash out. For the Hornets, the time to make that decision on Walker might be the February 8 trade deadline. It might also be July 1, when they’ll know whether Walker would sign a max contract extension.

If he won’t commit then, the Hornets have their answer and can use the summer to try an extract a package similar to what the Cavaliers got for Irving.

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Cavs Woes Reason For Concern, But Not Dismissal

Spencer Davies takes a look at the Cavs’ issues and why we shouldn’t count them out just yet.

Spencer Davies

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are the classic case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

When they’re on, they look like the defending three-time Eastern Conference Champions. When they’re off, they look like an old team that’s worn down and, at times, disinterested—and it gets ugly.

Take this past three weeks for example. After going on a tear of 18 wins in 19 games, the Cavs have dropped eight of 11 and are falling fast. Two of those three victories in that stretch were decided by four points or less against bottom-of-the-barrel teams in the East.

So what happened? For one, the schedule got significantly tougher. Beyond just the level of competition, Cleveland has been on the road for a long while. Nine of the games in this recent down period have been away games. The only time they’ve been home was for a quick second in mid-December and a short stay for New Years.

You’ve got to think about how that affects a psyche, not only from an on-court standpoint but also in regard to spending time with loved ones and family. LeBron James brought attention to his own homesickness on Christmas Day while he was in the Bay Area instead of in Northeast Ohio to celebrate the holidays. If it gets to him, you know it’s got to get to the other players as well. These guys are human beings with lives, and the rigors of travel can wear differently on people. Luckily for them, seven of their next nine games will be at Quicken Loans Arena.

With that being said, everybody in the NBA goes through it, so it’s no excuse for how flat the Cavs have been. Anybody on the team will tell you that, too. However, when you’re figuring out rotations and re-implementing players who had injuries, it’s not easy. This is exactly why nobody should envy Tyronn Lue.

He’s being asked to make room in his rotations and adjust on the fly as Cleveland gets guys back. When they went on that month-long run, the reason they had success was that the second unit really clicked. Dwyane Wade found his niche as the maestro of the bench bunch along with any mixture of Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman, Channing Frye, and Jae Crowder. Lue had found the perfect group to spell LeBron James and company.

But then, Tristan Thompson came back and, with all due respect, it messed with their flow. The spacing is no longer there for Wade or Green to penetrate because the paint is clogged. It makes it easier on opposing defenses to just stick to Korver because there aren’t any other threatening shooters on the floor (besides Osman, maybe). Worst of all, the change basically kicked Frye—who has a plus-14 net rating, according to Cleaning The Glass—out of the rotation completely.

Deciding who plays and when is a tough job. Derrick Rose is set to come back soon. Iman Shumpert is coming along as well. Lue likes a 10-man rotation, but there are at least 12 players who deserve to be on that court. We already know Rose is expected to commandeer the second unit in Wade’s absence on back-to-backs. As for if Shumpert remains in Cleveland, who knows? It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on how this situation is managed moving forward.

Isaiah Thomas, on the other hand, is somebody the Cavs have been waiting on to return since the season started. Despite LeBron being LeBron and Kevin Love having as great of an offensive year as he’s ever had on the team, the starting unit lacks an extra punch. Thomas can be that shot in the arm, and he proved that in his debut at home against Portland and on the road in Orlando. There are two snags that both he and the team are going to hit before the 29-year-old returns to his All-Star form: 1) He’s got to get his legs under him to regain the consistency in his game and 2) His teammates are going to have to adjust to playing with him.

These are not easy things to do. Remember, aside from Jae Crowder, there is nobody on Cleveland’s roster that has played with Thomas before. Add in that he’s trying to re-discover his own game and that makes for a pretty bumpy road, at least out of the gate.

Start here—put Thompson in the starting lineup. As poor of a fit he’s been on the bench, he has shown promising signs of a developing chemistry with Thomas. It’s only been four games, but he loves having a partner in the pick-and-roll game. That’s clearly where you’ll get the most production out of him and how he can thrive. He’ll provide hustle, second chance opportunities, and a semi-decent big that can at least bother some of the competition’s drives to the basket. Sliding Love over to the four might change his game a little bit, but you can still get him going in the post before giving him chances as a shooter to work him outside-in.

The resulting effect helps the second unit as well. They’ll get one of either J.R. Smith or Crowder, depending on who would be relegated there. Both of those guys can use a spark to get them going. Because of Crowder’s familiarity with Thomas, let’s say Smith gets kicked out. Maybe that gets him out of the funk he’s in? It also allows for Frye, who hasn’t seen more than 20 minutes in a game since December 4, to get re-acclimated to a group he truly helped on both ends of the floor earlier in the year.

Outside of the need to make a move at the deadline, the Cavs can figure this out. It’s understood that they’re the fourth-worst defensive team in the NBA, but they’ve gone through these kinds of ruts at this time of year, specifically since LeBron came back. There might not be statistical evidence backing up the claim of any improvement, but the track record speaks for itself.

The panic button is being hit, but pump the brakes a bit. This isn’t anything new. The pieces are a little different and things look as bad as they ever have, but in the end, the result will likely be the same.

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