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NBA Daily: Al Horford Is The Most Important Celtic

Al Horford’s rare skill set should be the engine to the Celtics’ success this season, which is why he’s the one player they can’t afford to miss substantial time.

Matt John

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Last month, Sports Illustrated published their list of the top 100 players in the NBA of 2019. The Boston Celtics, who are widely expected to be one of the league’s best teams this season, had six of their players named on the list.

Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, Kyrie Irving and Al Horford were all listed. That should make the Celtics very proud of the copious amounts of talent they have on their squad. The most surprising wrinkle in these rankings was that, of the six Celtics that were on the list, Horford ranked the highest at No. 16.

It should be noted that these rankings are completely subjective – Horford was ranked No. 34 on ESPN’s top 100 list – so once this season concludes, putting Horford up that high could end up being foolish in comparison to the other Celtics. There’s no telling how much better Tatum and Brown could be as they enter another year in their very promising careers. There’s also no telling how good Hayward and Irving could be since they are coming off season-ending injuries.

Should all four of those guys live up to expectations, then Horford could very well be the Celtics fifth-best player in terms of talent. However, talent is not what makes Horford such a valuable player. What makes Horford a plausible No. 16 ranking is that he is the one player that the Celtics can’t afford to lose.

The Celtics have shown adversity when losing their most talented players on paper. Shortly after Hayward went down, the Celtics ripped off a 16-game winning streak because their wing depth kept them strong. After Irving went down, they still came within a few shots of making the NBA Finals because their guard depth kept things afloat. That is not to take away from how crucial both Irving and Hayward will be to the Celtics season, but Boston demonstrated last season that they can do just fine without them. The same cannot be said about Horford.

It sounds odd because when you look at his regular numbers, they won’t blow you away. His averages of 13 points, 7.4 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.1 blocks per game have earned him the nickname “Average Al” by some of his critics. What he does on the court doesn’t exactly scream elite, either. For his size, Horford is one of the best floor spacers, dead-eye passers and all-around versatile defenders, among having other skills that he has compared to other players that play the same position.

The reason why his skill set gets overlooked across the league is that we’ve seen bigs who have some of the same skills that Horford does. What separates him from them is that there aren’t that many bigs out there who can do all the things that he can do. That’s what makes him such a special player in this league: His all-around game makes him a rare breed.

Of course, it helps that the league’s evolution in the past several years suits Horford’s game. More and more emphasis is being put on bigs who can play on both sides of the floor, defend multiple positions and shoot threes. He did not come into the league with a reliable three-ball, but always had a reliable jump shot from 15-20 feet.

His all-around game fuels his best attribute to the game of basketball. That is, he simply makes your team better. Look no further than the team’s net rating (point differential per 100 possessions) with him on the floor. Last season, the Celtics were overall a plus-9.3 with Horford, which was highest on the team. He proved himself to be even more valuable when the playoffs rolled around, as he posted a plus-16.8, which, again, was the highest on the team.

Perhaps the biggest highlight of Horford’s playoff performance was his defense. There’s a fair argument that every opponent the Celtics faced in the playoffs had the best player (or two) in the series. A big part of why the Celtics were able to stop them was because of Horford’s ability to defend their best players. Not many guys in this league can stay in front of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. Horford may not have been a “stopper,” but he made them work harder for their points.

Even if he doesn’t have high-scoring performances or intimidate as one of the league’s top rim protectors, Horford plays a huge part in his team’s success. What he does can’t just be easily replaced. When Hayward and Irving went down, Tatum, Brown, Rozier, Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris all picked up the slack as much as they could. If Horford goes down this season, the Celtics don’t have the personnel to fill the void that he would leave.

That’s not a shot at Aron Baynes or Daniel Theis. Baynes paired well with Horford as one of the league’s best defensive frontcourts after Hayward went down. Theis gradually improved to be a reliable backup before tearing his meniscus. Both of them play well in the roles that are expected of them, but – unlike the guard and wing depth that the Celtics have – those two are strictly role players with limited ceilings. They don’t have Horford’s IQ. They don’t have Horford’s footwork. They don’t have Horford’s three-point prowess (though both have shown that they’re not necessarily inept in that area). They are good at what they do, but can’t be asked to do much more.

The point of all this is that if there’s one player whose potential injury could undo everything that the Celtics hope to accomplish this season, it’s Horford. His abilities make him the jack-of-all-trades as a “tweener” power forward/center of whom the Celtics have no one to replace with.

When the Celtics agreed to give Horford a max contract back in 2016, they didn’t sign him hoping he’d give them 20/10 every night and dominate on both ends of the floor. They signed him hoping to be the perfect big for Brad Stevens’ system.

To do just that, you don’t have to be Kevin Garnett. You just have to be Al Horford.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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Underdog Teams With a Shot at the Second Round

Underdogs rarely pull-off upsets in the NBA Playoffs. Yet four underdogs stole a game on their respective opponent’s home floor. Which, if any, can succeed in advancing beyond the first round?

Drew Maresca

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The first round of the NBA Playoffs provides infrequent upsets – especially since 2003 when the first round was extended to a best-of-seven series (from a best-of-five).

Per the usual, this year has its share of favorites in the driver’s seat. For example, it’s a fair assumption that the Celtics, Rockets, Trailblazers and Bucks will advance after winning their first two home games.

All of the aforementioned teams were the higher seed in their respective series and – with the exception of the Trail Blazers vs. Thunder – none were seriously expected to end in upset. And while being down 2-0 isn’t a kiss of death, it is difficult winning four out of five with two of the remaining games on an opponent’s floor; in the 282 seven-game playoff series throughout NBA history, only 20 teams have come back to win from a 2-0 hole, which examines all rounds of the playoffs.

So then let’s focus instead on the underdogs of the 2019 NBA Playoffs who stole a game on their opponent’s floor: the Magic, Clippers, Spurs and Nets, all of whom are tied in their respective series at a game a piece.

For context, according to Westgate Las Vegas Superbook via an article written by Kaelen Jones for Sports Illustrated, the Warriors were -50,000 against the Clippers entering the series;  the Raptors were -1,400 against the Magic; the 76ers were -800 against the Nets and the Nuggets were -200 against the Spurs.

Put plainly, Vegas had no faith in the Clippers and Magic advancing. It felt strongly about the 76ers’ chances to advance past the Nets. And it was marginally confident that the Nuggets would eliminate the Spurs.

And while none of the aforementioned odds conclusively indicate that a team will advance, it speaks to the outlook of experts as of the start of the playoffs.

But experts can be wrong. And while we know all four series should still not be viewed evenly, stealing one of the first two games is the first step to upsetting a favorite.  So which of the four underdogs who stole one of the first two playoff games are most likely to advance (if any)?

From an analytics standpoint, the Spurs have played their first-round opponent the best of the four teams we’re examining. In the aggregate, the Spurs are -4 against their first-round opponent through two games, whereas the Nets and Clippers are both -13 and the Magic are -26.

After splitting the first two games, the Spurs are given a 36.6% chance to advance to the second round of the playoffs by Basketball-Reference.com, which is not the best odds of the four teams. The best odds go the Nets, who are given a 39.1% chance of success. Next up is the Clippers, who are receive a 23.1% chance of advancing. And finally, the Magic have only a 21.1% chance of advancing. Those odds are determined by 1,000 simulations of the remainder of the playoffs after two games.

But we all know that analytics and simulations aren’t 100% accurate – after all, the Warriors’ odds for success on Monday was as high as 99.9% when up 31 points against the Clippers. Players and teams get hot at unexpected times and coaching and strategy plays a bigger factor in the playoffs more than it does in the regular season.

So what else might affect the outcomes? Let’s examine three factors that could swing the results in favor of the underdogs.

Brooklyn Nets: Jared Dudley

His initial allure to the Nets was his veteran leadership. And that was valuable enough to justify his spot on the roster.

But his impact on Game 1 was profound. However, he was sorely missed in Game 2 as he was recovering from a tight right calf.

In Game 1, Dudley guarded Ben Simmons on 22 possessions, Joel Embiid on three possession, Boban Marjanovic on seven possessions and Mike Scott on 11, in which time they scored a combined two points (Simmons). Drilling down to the All-Stars (Simmons and Embiid), that’s two points on 25 possessions. Not bad for a veteran leader.

And after examining game film from the first game, his value is even more clear. His defensive instincts are incredibly sound. Dudley makes the right choices far more often than not, as evidenced by his discipline in transition when picking up Simmons. He regularly correctly sagged off of Simmons, resisted the urge to bite on fakes and forced Simmons to take less-than-ideal shots or pass the ball.

And Dudley is a willing passer and screener, too, rarely shooting the ball unless open. He provides the Nets with energy, focus and wisdom. If the Nets are to advance, they will need everything they can get from Dudley, who is listed as probable for Thursday night’s game in Brooklyn.

Orland Magic: Point guard play and three-point shooting

The Magic have a few kinks to iron out that could sway their fortunes.

The first of the two comes from D.J. Augustin. They’ll need Augustin to play like the capable floor general he proved he can be in Game 1 when he dropped 25 points and six assists on the Raptors and shot 80% from three-point range, including a game-winning shot with 3.5 seconds remaining.

On the contrary, when he plays like he did in Game 2 – 9 points, 0 assists and 0-1 from three-point range – the Magic will struggle.

Augustin has the ability to be his team’s best three-point shooter and most capable playmaker with the ball in his hands. He must summon his best play if they are to stand a chance against the Raptors.

But Augustin’s strong play and improved shooting won’t do it alone. The Magic must must shoot better as a team, notably on three-point field goals. In Game 1, the Magic seized that opportunity, shooting a scorching 48% from deep on 29 attempts – that adds up to 42 points on three-pointers. Compare that to Game 2, in which they shot only 26.5% from three-point territory, which resulted in only 27 points.

Hitting the three-ball has residual benefits that are arguably as important as the points. It opens up driving lanes and forces the defense to either close-out aggressively on shooters or deny them the basketball – either way, the result is a better-spaced floor. While it will be a dog fight for the Magic, they’ll have a shot if they can shoot the three at an above average clip and get elite level play from their point guard and floor general.

San Antonio: Home court advantage

San Antonio isn’t typically mentioned among the elite home crowds by the mainstream media. We hear about Denver and Golden State regularly, and rightfully so. Madison Square Garden gets props despite not playing host to a competitive team in some years. Philly has a reputation for being aggressive, too. But the Spurs home record hints that its home court should get more props than it does.

The Spurs were tied for the third-best home record during the regular season (32-9). Add in the fact that the Nuggets had a sub-.500 winning percentage on the road in 2018-19 and we have a recipe for an upset. Interestingly, the inverse is also true – the Spurs were a sub-par road team and the Nuggets a superb home team – so it’s far from guaranteed that the Spurs win the next two. But if they can, the Spurs will go back to Denver up 3-1 with three opportunities to close out the series.

The NBA Playoffs is less about early-round upsets than it is about seeing giants go head-to-head in the conference semifinals and beyond. The first round and its victors is mostly an afterthought. But maybe not this year. There is potential for more than one underdog to advance, which would shake-up the playoff landscape moving forward. The next step in that journey begins tonight, as the Nets, Spurs and Clippers all look to defend their respective home courts.

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NBA Daily: Who Is Headed To The Lakers Next?

With the recent departure of both Magic Johnson and Luke Walton, Jordan Hicks takes a look at where the Lakers stand and who they may end up hiring.

Jordan Hicks

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It is hard to pinpoint exactly how the Los Angeles Lakers organization is feeling at the moment. They’ve now missed the playoffs six seasons in a row, their sole star player – although playing really well – is aging and their young core of high-draft picks still hasn’t found any form of consistency – not to mention a fair share of injury problems.

Flashback to the summer of 2018 and things were going great. Magic Johnson – then president of the organization – had just inked the best player in the NBA to a four-year deal. What followed next was certainly interesting.

Instead of pairing LeBron James with a second superstar-caliber player, the Lakers decided to ink the likes of JaVale McGee, Michael Beasley, Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson. A lineup of players so diverse and flashy that most couldn’t help but dub them the Meme Team. The nickname, although silly, was absolutely fitting.

By the end of the season, Rondo and McGee were the only players from that group who were making any sort of an impact. Stephenson found himself injured and Beasley found himself out of the NBA altogether.

To the surprise of no one, those players never really meshed well with the young core of Lonzo Ball, Kyla Kuzma, Josh Hart and Brandon Ingram. Their impact wasn’t much better when sharing the court with James.

By the end of it all, the Lakers found themselves 11 games out of the playoffs. LeBron missed 17 crucial games midseason. The Lakers could have very well gone 11-6 during that stretch, but blaming their omission from the playoffs on James’ slightly-more-than-minor injury just masks the real issues.

Yes, the members of the Meme Team were all on expiring deals, but to think the Lakers left all their problems behind is egregious.

Perhaps the worst thing that happened all season was the myriad of rumors during the trade deadline that involved their entire young core and Anthony Davis. Regardless of what you think, the fact of the matter is that the same agent that represents LeBron also represents Davis. The trade never went down, but there were many solidified rumors that the entire young core of the Lakers was offered for Davis.

This clearly had an impact on the roster, as the Lakers post-All-Star break looked like a completely different team. And LeBron returning to the roster didn’t really make a major impact at all.

The reason for all this build up is to really illustrate the issues both the new president of basketball operations, as well as the new head coach, will come into. Recently, Magic Johnson resigned from his position and a few days later Luke Walton was fired. Reports have also surfaced that current general manager Rob Pelinka is the man that now controls most, if not all, of what goes on within the organization.

On Tuesday morning, Colin Cowherd of Fox Sports reported that Los Angeles already has their replacement for team president. Other reports have suggested that Monty Williams and Tyronn Lue are their two preferred options at Head Coach.

With Lue, you basically have an idea of what you’re going to get. Lue and James found success in Cleveland, making the NBA Finals every year they were together, as well as winning one championship. Shortly after James’ departure, Lue was fired.

This isn’t to say Ty Lue is a bad coach. But what you get with Lue is a very LeBronp-focused team. Lue has no problem taking the backseat – in a sense of the word – to James. They seemed to work really well together, and the Lakers surely would be hoping to regenerate the same sort of success the duo found in Cleveland.

Monty Williams, on the other hand, brings with him a rich history in the league and much more experience than Lue. He has served as a head coach with the New Orleans Pelicans, president of the San Antonio Spurs, an assistant on the U.S. National Team and is currently the assistant to Brett Brown in Philadelphia.

It is hard to say who exactly the Lakers favor, but in the same report highlighted previously, Williams could be offered the head coaching job with the 76ers if they don’t make it to the Eastern Conference Finals. That scenario seems very realistic.

Hiring Lue may be the preferred choice of LeBron James. They have a history, LeBron is comfortable with his coaching style, and his LeBron’s career clock is certainly ticking away. He really doesn’t have a season to waste adapting to the coaching style of someone he isn’t familiar with.

Regardless of who the Lakers hire, even Greg Poppovich himself likely couldn’t take the current roster, as-is, to the NBA Finals. They will certainly need to acquire a second star in free agency or, at worst, a slew of high-level role players.

Whomever they decide to go with at head coach – or whoever chooses to accept the job offer – will have a lot on their plate.

But the one glaring positive in all of this? There isn’t – at least arguably – a franchise in the NBA with a deeper history of success than the Los Angeles Lakers. Regardless of the current state of the franchise, the position alone should be coveted by many potential coaching prospects and candidates around the league.

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NBA Daily: Garrett Temple Fitting In With Clippers

David Yapkowitz sits down with Los Angeles Clippers swingman Garrett Temple to discuss his niche with the team and the culture they’ve established under Doc Rivers.

David Yapkowitz

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It’s been a season of silencing the doubters for the Los Angeles Clippers. Back in October when the NBA season began, you’d be hard pressed to have found anyone that would’ve given them a chance at making the playoffs.

Flash forward to the present, and they not only have made the postseason, but they’re currently tied 1-1 in the first round with the defending champion Golden State Warriors – and with the next two games on their home-court.

Even as recently as the trade deadline, there were people and pundits who doubted them when they traded away Tobias Harris, who was having an All-Star caliber season. But the new guys who arrived in February have been a huge reason why the Clippers continued to win, especially Garrett Temple.

The nine-year veteran began this season in Memphis after having spent the last two years with the Sacramento Kings. When the Clippers dealt Avery Bradley at the deadline, Temple – along with JaMychal Green – was one of the two pieces the Grizzlies sent back.

Temple had been a bit of journeyman prior to his time with the Kings and the four years before with the Washington Wizards. From his rookie season in 2009-10 to 2012-13, he had stints with the Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, Milwaukee Bucks and Charlotte Hornets. When he first arrived in LA, he could tell right away the locker room dynamic.

“It’s great, we have a team where everybody knows their roles, everybody wants to win,” Temple told Basketball Insiders. “Winning is most important here, there’s no egos. We have a team like this where guys are coming together to do whatever coach [Doc Rivers] says. When it’s all about winning, good things can happen.”

And good things did happen. Following the trade deadline, the Clippers went 17-7, including win streaks of five and six games, to finish the season. They were two wins short of winning 50 games.

Temple had a big hand in that, sort of taking over the role Bradley played as the defensive-minded guard, who can stretch the floor and knock down the three.

“Coming off the bench, I give them some defensive energy. I give energy on the offensive end too, in transition, pushing the ball, make my open shots when I’m open,” Temple told Basketball Insiders. “When I get the chance, I make sure I push the pace. But just bringing that energy on the defensive side.”

Defense has been Temple’s strong suit since he’s been in the NBA. At 6-foot-6, he’s got the size to defend both guard positions as well as some small forwards. In this playoff series, he’s got the daunting task of being matched up against Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson.

But defense is something he prides himself on. He isn’t going to back down no matter who is standing across from him. Even as the oldest player in the Clippers locker room, he remains one of their best defenders.

“No question, I’ve prided myself on that since I got in the NBA. It’s part of the reason why I’ve been able to stay in the league,” Temple told Basketball Insiders. “A lot of guys in this league come off the bench and try to score. I pride myself on being that guy on the bench unit that can defend any three positions on the court.”

Since coming over to the Clippers, Temple has been averaging 4.7 points in 19.7 minutes per game. Normally a reliable three-point threat, his shooting numbers have dipped a bit. He’s down to 29.6 percent from three.

None of the team played well enough to mention in Game 1. But in the Game 2 thrilling comeback, Temple gave solid contributions of seven points, knocking down both his free throws and knocking down one of his two attempts from three-point range.

“You don’t fix what’s not broken, you continue to do what you do, whatever’s your strength,” Temple told Basketball Insiders. “Obviously there’s different transitions and different lingo, but at the end of the day, it’s just basketball. I find myself getting comfortable with what our coaches like us to do on the defensive end and offensive end, and trying to fit in well.”

It remains to be seen what happens in this series against the Warriors, but one thing is for sure – the Clippers definitely have Golden State’s attention. To this group, though, the fact that they were able to pull off a historic comeback probably isn’t surprising to them. They’ve prided themselves all season on having this tough mentality.

Temple recognized it right away before the playoffs even began. When he was in Memphis, he experienced the ‘Grit and Grind’ culture of hard-nosed basketball that the team had embraced. He noticed a similar time vibe with the Clippers, a vibe he knew would make them scary come playoff time.

“Just the fact that everybody is hungry, everybody understands their role. There’s no question from anybody what they’re supposed to do when they get on the court. It’s tough when you have a team that just got together,” Temple told Basketball Insiders.

“I think the biggest thing is we know what everybody does. We have enough firepower offensively, we have enough defensive pieces, and we have a Hall-of-Fame coach. We have a good recipe to be somebody to be reckoned with.”

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