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Isaiah Thomas on Horford, Durant, Celtics Contending

Isaiah Thomas discusses his recruiting skills, offseason training, excitement over Al Horford joining Boston, 2016-17 goals and more.

Alex Kennedy

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The last year has been a whirlwind for Boston Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas.

Over the past 12 months, the veteran averaged 22.2 points, 6.2 assists, three rebounds and 1.1 steals, made his first All-Star appearance and then played a major role in the recruitment of stars like Al Horford and Kevin Durant for the Celtics.

Now, entering the 2016-17 season, Thomas is hoping to form a dominant one-two punch with Horford, continue to produce at an All-Star level and turn Boston into a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference.

Basketball Insiders recently caught up with Thomas to discuss his recruiting skills, offseason training, relationship with New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, expectations for this season, desire to be great and much more.

Alex Kennedy: What have you been working on this offseason?

Isaiah Thomas: “I’ve been working on extending my range. I’m doing a lot of off-the-dribble threes just because that’s something I shot a lower percentage on and that’s something that I do a lot, where I got the ball in my hands and I’m dribbling and I need to be able to shoot better off of the dribble. I’m pretty good at catch-and-shoot and spot-ups and stuff like that. My main focus this year was extending my range, getting a quicker release on my jump shot and being able to pull-up from anywhere. When the defense has their hands down, I want to be shot-ready at all times. That was my main focus and then also just getting better at everything else. Getting better with my right hand, whether that’s finishing around the rim – different types of finishes – or right-hand passes off of the pick-and-roll. I just tried to continue to get better and also to continue to work on my one-legged shot. I pulled that out a lot of more and improved it. I’m supposed to be having a conversation with Steve Nash in a few days and just pick his brain about his one-foot shots that he used to do when he played.”

Kennedy: You ended up playing a big role in the recruitment of Al Horford, Kevin Durant and other free agents this summer. Entering the offseason, did you know you’d be in that ‘recruiter’ role and is it something you enjoy?

Thomas: “Yeah, I’ve always been a pretty good recruiter. Even back in college, I was pretty good at getting guys to come play on the teams that I was on. Danny [Ainge] actually asked me. He said just whenever he calls, pick up the phone and if they need my help, be there. I said, ‘I will!’ He wanted better players and I wanted better players as well. He’s trying to build this team to be a contending team. We went out and got a great player in Al Horford. We tried to get Kevin Durant and a few more players, but we came up short. With our team, we’re satisfied with what we have. I don’t know if those guys [in the front office] are working on getting any other players, but we’re satisfied with what we have with Al Horford, Gerald Green, the draft picks we added and our returning players; we can build with that.”

Kennedy: Take me through the process of landing Al Horford, and what was your reaction when he agreed to join the Celtics?

Thomas: “First off, with that type of money, he better be coming (laughs). Nah, just kidding. We were genuine with him. We told him what we liked in his game and what we felt he would help us at. He saw us a lot last year, so he was a fan of the style of play that we have along with the coaching staff and the players that we have. It was just the cherry on top to get in a meeting with him and sit down and tell him how interested we were in him with the skills that he brought – not just on the court, but off the court. I think he’s just going to mesh with us so well and help us take that next step in getting past the first round.”

Kennedy: How much easier does Horford make your job as a point guard?

Thomas: “He’s going to make my job very easy. He knows how to set picks, he knows how to roll and pop in certain situations, and he’s a four-time All-Star for a reason. He knows how to play the right way and he’s a winner. He’s kind of won at every level. Even though he hasn’t won an NBA championship, but he’s been a part of really good teams and he can help us out. He’s a professional and knows how to get the job done. I can’t wait to get things started with him.”

Kennedy: How did the whole Tom Brady thing come about? You guys obviously made headlines by bringing Brady to your meeting with Kevin Durant. Do you have a relationship with Tom?

Thomas: “Yeah, we text every now and then. It’s funny because I wanted to sit down and talk to him last season, but our schedules didn’t permit it as we were both busy. Then, when we were headed to the Hamptons, they said they had a surprise. We were actually on different planes going there and then when we landed, he was there. It was a great moment, not just to have him at the meeting with Kevin Durant, but for myself too because I wanted to pick his brain. We actually rode the same plane back to Boston and I got to ask him a lot of questions and we exchanged numbers. Throughout the summer, we have texted back and forth a few times and hopefully I’ll get to go to a game and watch his greatness. I’m a fan. And I want to be great, so I want to build relationships with the great players – not just in basketball, but from different sports as well.”

Kennedy: Last year, you were an All-Star for the first time and played really well. How can you build on last year’s success?

Thomas: “I’ve had a little bit of success, but that doesn’t get to me. I want to be great, like I told you. I want to be better each and every year. The great players always come back with something new and something better. I’ve had long talks with Allen Iverson this summer, just about having that killer mentality at all times and never letting up. That’s how I want to be on the court and he’s somebody that never let up. I think his career averages were about 27 points per game. I got a long way to go to get there, but I’m trying to take the right steps. That means continuing to work hard and never being satisfied and keeping my foot on the pedal. Knowing that as your career goes on, it’s a marathon. You’re going to have ups and downs, but you just keep getting better and keep staying at it and never get satisfied.

“I’m not satisfied with what I did last year. I don’t just want to be an All-Star one year. I want to make this something that’s annual. I want this to be something that happens every year, where people can count on me being in that game and winning playoff series and taking my team further and further. I’m not satisfied. I want to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, small guys to ever play the game. I know I have a long way to go and I know I have to keep working. But my confidence is at an all-time high and that’s never going to waiver. My confidence is what got me to where I am today and that’s just going to keep me going.”

Kennedy: What are the expectations within the organization entering this season? I recently ranked Boston the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference in our season preview. Is the feeling internally that it’s time to contend now?

Thomas: “It is [time to contend]. Why not? We can compete against the best teams in the NBA. We know that. We showed that. We just got to put it all together. We got a good player in Al Horford and we got a few more pieces that can help us. I think we play so hard and we play so together that it gives us a chance no matter what. Like I said, why not now? We aren’t going to put [specific] expectations on the season; we just know if we can control what we can control, we can be there in the end.”

Kennedy: Was landing Al Horford a major selling point to Kevin Durant? And how did the meeting with Kevin go?

Thomas: “We thought we had a real chance. The meeting went great. I felt like if Al had committed before that meeting and was able to go to the meeting [with Kevin], I think that would have helped even more. At the same time, Kevin Durant surprised everybody by picking the Golden State Warriors. In our meeting, he was a fan of what he had going, was a fan of Brad Stevens and Danny Ainge and those types of things. I honestly felt like we probably didn’t have enough for him in that situation. He’s trying to win a championship now. Like I said, if we had Al Horford going into that meeting, I think that would have been enough. But it is what it is. The man made his decision that he wanted to make and you can’t fault him for that. We tried.

“To say that we had a legit chance at landing Kevin Durant shows that we’re headed in the right direction.”

Kennedy: That’s a great point. Not to mention, you guys will have cap flexibility and more first-round picks coming in from the Brooklyn Nets. How confident are you that you guys can eventually land another star?

Thomas: “Oh, for sure. I know Danny Ainge and those guys in the front office aren’t done. We’re not the championship team they had in 2008. We can always add more pieces. With Coach Brad Stevens and the way he coaches, I know they’ll find somebody. And like I said before, guys like the way we play, guys like the system we play and guys like Coach Brad Stevens. I think if it’s not another star, we can land a really good player that can help us get to the next level.”

Kennedy: Which teammates have impressed you the most this summer?

Thomas: “Everybody. Honestly, guys are working hard. Guys have a bad taste left in their mouth after that Atlanta series. I think with the help of Al Horford and Gerald Green – who is really going to help us out a lot by bringing that scoring punch we need – I think we’re going to be ready. I can’t just name one guy that has gotten better. Everybody has worked hard, and the last week or two we’ve had almost everybody on the team in the training facility working out together and playing five-on-five runs. I think that says a lot itself.”

For more of our one-on-one interviews, check out our recent conversations with Indiana Pacers guard Jeff Teague, Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum, Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon, Oklahoma City Thunder guard Victor Oladipo, Atlanta Hawks swingman Kent Bazemore, New York Knicks guard Courtney Lee, Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner, Los Angeles Lakers forward Larry Nance Jr., Atlanta Hawks forward DeAndre Bembry, New Orleans Pelicans guard E’Twaun Moore and Sacramento Kings swingman Garrett Temple.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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VIDEO: Tobias Harris – 2018 NBA All-Star

New LA Clipper Tobias Harris talks about the trade from Detroit, his mindset after being traded a few times and more.

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New LA Clipper Tobias Harris talks about the trade from Detroit, his mindset after being traded a few times and more.

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Rest Assured, the 1-16 NBA Playoff Format Is Coming… Kinda

Based on Adam Silver’s comments, it’s safe to assume that the NBA will soon reformat the playoffs.

Moke Hamilton

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If there’s one thing Adam Silver has proven in his four years as the NBA’s Commissioner, it’s that he isn’t afraid to do things his way.

And if Silver has his way, the league will eventually figure out how it can implement a system that results in a more balanced playoff system. On Saturday, though, he revealed that it’s probably closer to a reality than many of us realize.

During his annual All-Star media address, Silver admitted that the league will “continue to look at” how they can reformat the playoffs to both ensure a better competitive balance throughout and pave the way for the league’s two best teams to meet up in the NBA Finals, even if both of those two teams happen to be in the same conference.

“You also would like to have a format where your two best teams are ultimately going to meet in the Finals,” the commissioner said on Saturday night.

“You could have a situation where the top two teams in the league are meeting in the conference finals or somewhere else. So we’re going to continue to look at that. It’s still my hope that we’re going to figure out ways.”

Since Silver took over the league, he’s been consistent in implementing dramatic changes to improve the overall quality of the game. Although Silver didn’t take over as the league’s commissioner until 2014, he was instrumental in getting the interested parties to buy into the notion that the “center” designation on the All-Star ballot was obsolete.

As a result, beginning with the 2013 All-Star Game, the Eastern and Western Conference teams have featured three “frontcourt” players, which essentially lumps centers in with forwards and eliminates the requirement that a center appear in the All-Star game. That wasn’t always the case.

From overhauling the league’s scheduling to reducing back-to-back games to implementing draft lottery reform to, this year, eliminating the traditional All-Star format which featured the Eastern Conference versus the Western Conference, it’s become clear that Silver simply “gets it” and isn’t afraid to make revolutionary changes if he deems them to be in the overall best interest of the league.

At this point, everyone realizes that something needs to be done about the league’s current playoff system.

Last season, for example, the Western Conference first round playoff series featured the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder squaring off against one another. Only one series—the Los Angeles Clippers versus Utah Jazz—went seven games.

Meanwhile, in the Eastern Conference, the first round series that were contested weren’t exactly compelling.

The Cleveland Cavaliers steamrolled the conference to the tune of a 12-1 run to their third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. It wasn’t the first time that the public questioned the wisdom behind separating the playoff brackets by conference, but the dominance of the Cavs and LeBron James specifically (who is expected to win the Eastern Conference for the eighth consecutive time this season) has caused renewed scrutiny.

The most common solution offered to this point has been to simply take the 16 best teams across the league, irrespective of conference, and conduct the playoffs as normal.

From afar, this solution seems simple enough, but the obvious concerns are twofold.

First, if the Celtics and Clippers, for example, were pitted against one another in a first round series, the travel would be considerable. Private charter flight or not, traveling is taxing, and the prospect of having to make five cross-country trips over the course of a two-week span would certainly leave the winner of such a series at a competitive disadvantage against the opponents they would face in subsequent rounds, especially if the future opponent enjoyed a playoff series that was contested within close proximity.

Atlanta to New Orleans, for example, is less than a one-hour flight.

Aside from the concerns about geographic proximity, the other obvious issue is competitive balancing of the schedule, which seems to be an easier issue to fix.

Using the Pelicans as an example, of the 82 games they play, 30 are played against the other conference—in this case, the Eastern Conference. The other 52 games would all be played within the conference. If playoff seedings were going to be done on a simple 1-16 basis, the scheduling would have to be realigned in a way to essentially pit all teams against one another evenly. It wouldn’t be fair for a team like the Celtics to be judged on the same standard as the Pelicans if the Celtics faced inferior teams more often.

On Saturday night, Silver revealed that the league’s brass has been thinking about this and is trying to find a solution, and in doing so, he may have tipped his hand.

* * * * * *

As a multinational conglomerate, the NBA values the inclusion of as many markets as possible. Wanting to improve the overall quality of the product, though, there are interests that may not align fully.

What’s obvious with this year’s All-Star game is that the NBA has found a way to balance the two.

Rather than eliminating the conference designations altogether and simply choosing the “best” 24 players to be in the All-Star game, the league still chose All-Stars based on their conference, but then distributed them within the pool to allow for better competition.

That’s exactly what Silver revealed the NBA is considering doing with the playoffs. It makes perfect sense, and it’s probably just a matter of time before it’s implemented.

A report from ESPN notes that the idea that the league is kicking around would essentially do exactly what the league did with the All-Star selections with the playoff teams: choose the best from each conference, then disburse them in a way that allows for competitive balance. 

The proposal would have the league’s teams compete as they normally do and would still feature the top eight teams from each conference getting into the playoffs.

Once the teams are qualified, however, they would be re-seeded on a 1-16 basis and crossmatched, on that basis.

It’s not perfect, but compromises never are. The travel issues would still persist, but the league would accomplish two goals: the less dominant conference wouldn’t be underrepresented and discouraged from competing, but the two best teams would still be on opposite ends of the bracket.

An NBA playoffs that featured 11 or 12 teams from the Western Conference would be a ratings nightmare for the league. Eastern Conference cities are less likely to stay up past midnight during the week to watch playoff games, and less competitive markets would frown at the prospect of having to compete against the other conference for a playoff spot. For many small market teams, the millions of dollars generated from a single playoff game often has a significant impact on the team’s operations, so there would naturally be discord.

This system would at least eliminate that contention.

On the positive side, it would allow for the Rockets and Warriors, for example, to meet in the NBA Finals. In both the NFL and MLB, geography hasn’t been a determining factor on which teams battle for the league’s championship.

Why does it have to be in the NBA?

* * * * * *

With the league having begun regular season play earlier this season, at the All-Star break, most teams have played about 57 games. A lot can change over the final 25 games of the season, but if the seeds were frozen today and the league took the top eight teams from each conference and then crossmatched them, the Los Angeles Clippers would be the team that got the short end o the stick.

Although the Clippers have the 16th best record in the league, they would be the ninth-seeded Western Conference team and would thus be eliminated from postseason contention by the Miami HEAT. The HEAT have the 17th best record in the league but are the eighth-best team in the Eastern Conference, so to preserve the conference weight, the HEAT would win out.

This is what the seedings and matchups would look like…

(1) Houston Rockets versus (16) Miami HEAT

(2) Golden State Warriors versus (15) New Orleans Pelicans

(3) Toronto Raptors versus (14) Philadelphia 76ers

(4) Boston Celtics versus (13) Portland Trail Blazers

(5) Cleveland Cavaliers versus (12) Denver Nuggets

(6) San Antonio Spurs versus (11) Oklahoma City Thunder

(7) Minnesota Timberwolves versus (10) Milwaukee Bucks

(8) Washington Wizards versus (9) Indiana Pacers

Here, the Celtics would face the nightmarish scenario of having to travel to and from Portland for their playoff series, while virtually every other series would feature much more friendly travel (especially the Spurs-Thunder and Raptors-Sixers).

The Cavs would have a very tough road to the Finals, having to beat the Nuggets, Celtics and Rockets if the seeds held. The Celtics would have a similarly tough road, as they’d have to get past the Blazers, Cavs and Rockets.

At the end of the day, the Rockets and Warriors would be aligned in such a way as to avoid one another until the championship, but each of the two would face daunting competition. The Rockets would have to go through the HEAT, Wizards and Celtics, while the Warriors would have to face the Pelicans, Timberwolves and Raptors—again, assuming the seeds held.

It would be a benefit to all observers.

One of the unintended consequences of implementing this system would be to make every single game count. If the Celtics were able to move up to the second seed, for example, their road to the Finals, in theory, could become much much easier, comparatively speaking.

The end result would be less resting of players during the course of the season and certainly less instances in which star players take the final week of the regular season off in other to be fresh for the postseason.

Everyone wins.

No, there’s no perfect solution, but just as the league has found a clever way to serve multiple interests as it relates to the All-Star game’s competitiveness, Silver has revealed that the league is at least considering following suit with the playoffs.

Best bet?

It’s only a matter of time before we see it actually see it happen.

It simply makes too much sense, and if there’s one thing the commissioner has already proven, it’s that he isn’t afraid of changing tradition.

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NBA All-Star Saturday Recap

Brian Slingluff recaps All-Star Saturday from Los Angeles.

Basketball Insiders

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Basketball Insiders is here to recap an eventful All-Star Saturday that led to three first-time champs in the various skills contests. Let’s get right to it.

Taco Bell Skills Challenge

In Saturday night’s Taco Bell Skills Challenge, the “Bigs” team, boasting 3 All-Stars, set out to claim a third straight title. The competition kicked off with Joel Embiid coming from behind to best Al Horford, and sharpshooter Lauri Markkanen swishing his first 3 point attempt to eliminate Andre Drummond. On the Guard side, Buddy Hield had an early lead before losing out to Spencer Dinwiddie, and Jamal Murray upset hometown favorite Lou Williams.

In the semifinals, Markkanen was able to dispatch Joel Embiid, who struggled with the pass portion of the competition, and Dinwiddie topped Jamal Murray by making his first 3 pointer for the second consecutive round.

In the Final round, Dinwiddie finally missed a 3 pointer, but it did not matter as he finished with a wire to wire victory over Lauri Markkanen. Dinwiddie, competing in front of his friends and family, was able to end the Bigs’ two year win streak in impressive fashion.

JBL Three Point Contest

The event started off with Tobias Harris scoring a solid 18 points. Wayne Ellington was next, sporting the hot new alternate Miami Vice jersey. Ellington started off cold and heated up on his last three racks, ending up with a score of 17. Devin Booker and former three-point champion Klay Thompson tied for a round-high 19 points. Paul George, Bradley Beal, and Kyle Lowry struggled from the start and never found a rhythm, falling short of making the championship round. Defending champion Eric Gordon never got it going, and would not defend the title, scoring only 12 points.

In the Championship round, Tobias Harris was on fire through the first 3 racks, but quickly got cold, scoring 17 points. Devin Booker was next and could not miss, scoring 28 points, leaving Klay Thompson a high number to match. Thompson fell just 3 points short, and Devin Booker was crowned the 2018 JBL Three Point Champion.

Verizon Slam Dunk Contest

The final and most anticipated event of the night started with Donovan Mitchell bringing out a second hoop, bouncing it off the second backboard and finishing with an impressive windmill dunk, scoring a 48. Victor Oladipo followed with a difficult look-away alley oop dunk attempt that he was unable to complete, totaling 31 points from the judges. Dennis Smith Jr. had a nice reverse double pump that got 39 points and Larry Nance Jr., in a throwback Phoenix jersey, payed homage to his father’s cradle dunk, nailing it almost exactly for a score of 44 points.

Oladipo started the next round of dunks by borrowing Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther mask, and scoring 40 points with a tomahawk windmill dunk. Smith Jr. hit a seemingly impossible reverse 360, through the legs, switching hands dunk for a perfect score of 50. Nance Jr. pulled off a Vince Carter level windmill, nearly missing a perfect score. Mitchell jumped over comedian Kevin Hart to advance to the finals against Larry Nance Jr.

In the Finals, Nance started things off with a windmill alley-oop with some help from Larry Nance Sr., garnering a score of 46. Mitchell completed the difficult one handed alley-oop he had attempted in the previous round, scoring a perfect 50. Nance Jr. answered with an incredible double pass off the backboard dunk, scoring yet another 50 points.  Mitchell ended the contest with a Vince Carter tribute dunk, coming out on top by just two points. It capped off an exciting Saturday night, setting things up for the main event on Sunday, Team LeBron versus Team Stephen.

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