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NBA Daily: Boston Building For Championship Run

The Boston Celtics have been searching for the pieces necessary to get them back into the NBA Finals. Should they find the key ingredient, this new decade could begin with a championship battle with their legendary west coast rival. Chad Smith writes.

Chad Smith

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As one of the two most prolific franchises in the NBA, the Boston Celtics have been itching to return to the top of the mountain. The 17 championship trophies are a constant reminder of the expectations and team-first mentality required to wear the green jersey. Their core players have embodied those principles and welcome the challenge of getting the organization back to the Finals for the first time since the 2009-10 season.

That was the latest chapter in their storied rivalry with the Los Angeles Lakers, which includes 12 NBA Finals battles. Boston won the first eight showdowns, but the Lakers have won three of the last four, including that previously mentioned epic seven-game series in 2010. Another Celtics/Lakers Finals could be on the table this year, but Boston has more work to do before then.

The promise of last season was crippled with the injuries to Gordon Hayward, Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart, where they came up short in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The two seasons before that ended one step short in the Eastern Conference Finals. Boston’s last title came 12 years ago, in what was a legendary group of individuals. Guys like Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen were able to execute with precision while the role players did their jobs as well.

Led by Doc Rivers, the Celtics finished with 66 regular-season wins and were ranked first in defensive rating and second in opponents scoring. During that playoff run, they had a sensational seven-game series against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. They went through the best player in the world, and they will have to do the same thing again this year to make it to the Finals.

The Milwaukee Bucks have been steamrolling through this season. Reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo appears as though he might win the award for a second consecutive year. The Bucks have the best record in the league at 41-7 and have not really been seriously tested. Milwaukee currently ranks first in scoring, defensive rating and pace, and is second in offensive rating. This presents a major challenge for Brad Stevens and his squad.

Boston is ranked inside the top five in each of those categories with the exception of pace, where they are right in the middle. The good news is they have won six of their last seven games, which began with the 32-point beatdown over the rival Lakers on Martin Luther King Jr Day. They also have an easy stretch coming up where they will face Atlanta twice and Orlando.

Two weeks ago, Kemba Walker was named as a starter for the 2020 All-Star Game in Chicago. It is the second straight season he has been named a starter, but the first since joining the Celtics this past summer. Kemba was viewed as a player that may not have the same individual skills as Irving, but would be a much better fit within this system. Those assumptions have been proven correct, as he leads the team in scoring and assists.

Jayson Tatum has continued to blossom this season and was named as an All-Star reserve on Thursday night. The talented young forward is averaging 21.5 points per game through 43 games this season, while also leading the team in steals. Now fully healthy, Hayward has had an incredible bounce-back season. He missed some time early in the season with a broken hand, but has been flawless on the floor in all facets of the game.

Jaylen Brown signed his big contract extension this summer but has lived up to every penny so far. The 23-year old is averaging over 20 points per game while also posting career-highs in rebounds, assists, steals, free throw percentage and overall field goal percentage. Despite putting up these career numbers across the board, Brown was not selected as a reserve for the All-Star Game. The event is still two weeks away, so it is possible he could fill in for an injured player.

One of the greatest abilities that Stevens has as a coach is getting his role players to play with consistency and effectiveness. Smart has vastly improved over the past few years, but other players such as Brad Wanamaker, Javonte Green, Semi Ojeleye and Daniel Theis have been vital to their winning ways this season. The same could be said for the Lakers with their contributing role players – Danny Green, Avery Bradley, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard.

The Celtics are one of five teams vying for the No. 2 seed in the East. That is the coveted spot right now because the team who claims it will not meet the top overall seed (presumably Milwaukee) until the Eastern Conference Finals.

That’s why Friday night’s win was so telling. The Sixers have failed to live up to expectations so far, as many people thought the East would boil down to a two-horse race between them and Milwaukee. Injuries and inconsistent play have nagged them all season, as they currently sit sixth in the conference. A potential playoff matchup with Philly could be troublesome, as they don’t really have an answer for Joel Embiid.

Should Philly remain sixth or even move up to fifth place in the standings, a date with Boston could easily happen. The urgency for the Celtics to grab the second spot is real, but they will have stiff competition. Indiana just got its franchise star Victor Oladipo back, Toronto hasn’t missed a beat since its title run and Miami has been one of the biggest surprises this year with a talented roster.

Thursday’s trade deadline would normally be a place to look for contending teams like the Celtics to improve. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski however, big deals are not likely this season for a variety of reasons. With respect to Enes Kanter, the position of need for the Celtics is clearly at center, but the right deal simply hasn’t materialized yet. Danny Ainge continues to sit on a stack of draft picks, but those have been devalued over the last couple of years with teams like Brooklyn and Memphis improving.

The next place to explore would be the buyout market, but that may be dry too. The hot name all season has been Andre Iguodala, but Memphis is not budging on their asking price, and Boston doesn’t need another wing anyway. Dion Waters is another name out there, but he simply doesn’t fit with Boston’s culture at all. Looking at the big man market, the only serviceable guys that may become available are role players like Dewayne Dedmon.

Whatever route the Celtics end up taking, they should be in good hands. Even if they don’t make any changes, the roster is oozing with enough talent that is capable of getting them back to the Finals for the first time in 10 years.

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NBA Daily: The Young, Western Conference Bubble

The race for the West’s final playoff spot may seem crowded, but the last two months make it clear that two teams are already ahead of the pack.

Douglas Farmer

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We all jump to conclusions too quickly, this space and this scribe most certainly included. Three months ago, five weeks into the NBA season, the Western Conference playoff bubble looked like it would be a race between the Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves. That has assuredly not become the reality.

While the Kings and Suns can claim to still be in the playoff race, they would have to not only make up five-game deficits, but they would also each have to jump over four other teams to reach the postseason. The Timberwolves would delight at such challenges as they initiate a not-so-subtle tank with franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns sidelined for at least a few weeks with a fractured wrist.

Instead, the race to be swept by the Los Angeles Lakers has come down to a pair of up-and-comers, a perpetual deep threat and the NBA’s most consistent organization. Of all of them, it is the youngsters who are both currently playing the best and have the most control of their playoff hopes relative to their competition.

Between the current No. 8-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, the Portland Trail Blazers (3 games back), New Orleans Pelicans (3.5) and San Antonio Spurs (4), the next six weeks will feature eight key games. Five of those will include either the Grizzlies or the Pelicans or, in two instances, both.

That pair of matchups is still a month out, but they warrant circling already, nonetheless. Memphis and New Orleans have been playing at a high level for two-plus months now, and by the time they play two games within four nights in late March — when the basketball world is largely distracted by the NCAA Tournament — the two inexperienced teams may have completely separated from Portland and San Antonio.

After starting 1-5, 5-13 and then 10-19, the Grizzlies have gone 18-9 since Dec. 21. The Pelicans have matched that record exactly, down to the date, since starting even worse than Memphis did, bottoming out at 7-23 before finding an uptick long before Zion Williamson found the court. Winning two-thirds of your games for two months is a stretch with a sample size large enough to make it clear: Neither Memphis nor New Orleans should be dismissed in this playoff chase.

Their early-season profiles were examples of young teams sliding right back into the lottery — and there was absolutely no indication a surge was coming.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 106.4 – No. 23 106.8 – No. 21
Defensive Rating 111.7 – No. 23 113.5 – No. 27

Through Dec. 20; via nba.com.

Then, for whatever reason, things changed. They changed in every way and in ways so drastically that one cannot help but wonder what could come next for the teams led by the top-two picks from last summer’s draft.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 111.9 – No. 15 115.1 – No. 4
Defensive Rating 109.3 – No. 11 110.3 – No. 13

Since Dec. 21, through Feb. 23; via nba.com.

In a further coincidence of records and timing, the Blazers and Spurs have both gone 13-16 since Dec. 21.

If all four teams in the thick of things out west continue at these two-month winning rates for another month, then Portland and San Antonio will have drifted out of the playoff conversation before Williamson and Ja Morant meet for a second time. Of course, those rates would keep New Orleans a few games back of Memphis; the latter has 14 games, compared to 12, before March 21, so the gap in the standings would actually expand to an even four games.

If the Pelicans can just pick up a game or two before then, though, they have already beaten the Grizzlies twice this season. Doing so twice more that week would just about send New Orleans into the playoffs – at which point, perhaps Williamson could steal a game from LeBron James to put a finishing coda on his rookie season.

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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southwest Division

David Yapkowitz finishes Basketball Insiders’ Stretch Run series with an overview of the Southwest Division.

David Yapkowitz

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We’ve hit that point in the NBA season approaching the final stretch of games before the playoffs roll around in April. The trade deadline has come and gone, the buyout market is wearing thin and most teams have loaded up and made their final roster moves in anticipation of the postseason.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re taking a look at each team — division by division– at what they need to do to get ready for the playoffs, or lack thereof. Looking at the Southwest Division, this was a division that used to be one of the toughest in the league.

It still is for the most part. The Texas triangle of the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs was no joke and hell for opposing teams on a road trip. Those are still a couple of formidable teams, but with the exception of the Rockets, it’s not quite near the level of yesteryear.

The Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans are a pair of young, up-and-coming teams that will give you 100 percent every night. While Memphis sits firmly in the eighth spot in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on the outside looking in. Here’s a look at how each team might fare in the stretch run.

The Houston Rockets have been the best team in the Southwest all season long, and all that remains for them is playoff positioning. They currently sit in fourth place in the West, giving them home-court advantage in the first round, but they could just as easily slip a bit with the Utah Jazz essentially tied with them record-wise in the standings and the Oklahoma City Thunder a mere two games back.

The Dallas Mavericks have taken a huge leap this season behind Luka Doncic, who is rapidly becoming one of the best players in the league. They currently sit in seventh place in the West and a return to the postseason is in the cards for the Mavericks.

The rest of the teams in the Southwest is where things get a little interesting. The Grizzlies have been one of the surprises of the season, as they’ve defied expectations and are firmly entrenched in the playoff race out West. They have a three-game lead on the Portland Trail Blazers and a four-game lead on the San Antonio Spurs.

Out of the Grizzlies’ final 26 games, 15 of them come against teams over .500, more than either the Blazers or the Spurs. 14 of those final 26 are also on the road, again, more than the Blazers or the Spurs. They also play both the Spurs and Blazers one more time this season. If the Grizzlies end up making the playoffs, it will be very well earned.

The Spurs are knocking on the door, and they have one more game against the Grizzlies which could prove to be very meaningful. This is a team that has been one of the standard-bearers in the league for success over the past decade. Their streak of playoff appearances is in serious jeopardy.

They’ve won two of their last three games, however, and out of their final 26 games, 15 of those are at home, where they are 14-12. Based on how the Grizzlies are playing though, a close to .500 record at home probably isn’t going to cut it. They’re going to need to pick it up a bit over the next month if they want to keep their playoff streak intact. A lot can happen between now and then, and the Grizzlies do have a tough remaining schedule, but it looks as if San Antonio will miss the playoffs for the first time in 22 years.

The final team in the Southwest is the Pelicans, boosted by the return of prized rookie and No.1 draft pick Zion Williamson. Prior to the start of the season, the Pelicans were looked at as a team that could possibly contend for the eighth seed in the West. Then Williamson got hurt and things changed.

But the team managed to stay afloat in his absence, and as it stands, they’re only three-and-a-half games back of the Grizzlies with 26 games left to play. Out of the bottom three teams in the division, it’s the Pelicans who have the easiest schedule.

Out of those 25 games, only seven of them come against teams over .500. They are, however, just about split with home and away games. New Orleans is 8-2 over their past 10 games, better than the Grizzlies and Spurs. If Memphis falters down the stretch due to its tough schedule, and the Pelicans start gaining a little bit of steam, things could get interesting in the final few weeks.

In all likelihood, the Pelicans probably won’t make the playoffs as not only do they have to catch up to the Grizzlies, but the Spurs and Blazers as well. But it certainly will be fun to watch them try.

There are some big storylines in the Southwest Division worth following as we begin the final run to the postseason. Can the young Grizzlies defy expectations and make a surprise return to the playoffs? Will the Spurs get their playoff streak snapped and finally look to hit the reset button after nearly two decades of excellence? Can the Pelicans, buoyed by Williamson’s return, make a strong final push?

Tune in to what should be fun final stretch in the Southwest.

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southeast Division

With the All-Star Break behind us, the final stretch of NBA games has commenced. Quinn Davis takes a look at a few teams in the Southeast Division that have a chance at making the dance.

Quinn Davis

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Well, that was fast.

With the NBA All-Star break in the rearview, there are now fewer than 30 games to play for all 30 NBA teams. In other words, time is running out for certain teams to improve their seeding in the conference.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we will be looking at a certain subset of teams that are right on the border of making or missing the playoffs. In this edition, the focus will be on the Southeast Division.

The Southeast features three teams — the Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards — operating in the lower-middle-class of the NBA. These three will be slugging it out over the next month-and-a-half for the right to meet the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs.

The two remaining teams are the Miami HEAT and Atlanta Hawks. As this is being written, the former is comfortably in the playoffs at 35-20, while the latter is comfortably gathering more ping pong balls at 16-41.

In this space, the focus will be on the three bubble teams. The Magic are currently frontrunners for the eighth seed, but the Wizards and Hornets are within striking distance if things were to go awry.

Led by head coach Steve Clifford, the Magic have ground their way to the eighth seed behind an eighth-ranked defense. Lanky wing Aaron Gordon is the standout, helping the Magic execute their scheme of walling off the paint. The Magic only allow 31.3 percent of opponent shots to come at the rim, putting them in 89th percentile in the league, per Cleaning The Glass.

Following a post-break loss to Dallas Mavericks, the Magic sit at 24-32 and three games up on the ninth-seeded Wizards. While a three-game margin doesn’t sound like much, that is a sizable cushion with only 26 games to play. Basketball-Reference gives the Magic a 97.4 percent chance to make the playoffs.

The Magic have the third-easiest remaining schedule out of Eastern Conference teams. They have very winnable games coming against the Bulls, Hornets, Cavaliers, Knicks and Pistons. They also have multiple games coming against the Brooklyn Nets, the team they trail by only 1.5 games for the seventh seed.

The Magic are prone, however, to dropping games against the league’s bottom-feeders. It can be difficult to string together wins with an offense this sluggish. The Markelle Fultz experiment has added some spark in that department, but his lack of an outside shot still leaves the floor cramped.

After a quick analysis of the schedule, the most likely scenario appears to be a 12-14 record over the last 26 games, putting the Magic at 36-46 come season’s end. A record like that should not be allowed anywhere near playoff basketball, but it would probably be enough to meet the Bucks in round one.

If the Magic go 12-14, that would leave the Wizards, fresh off a loss to J.B. Bickerstaff and the Cleveland Cavaliers, needing to go 17-11 over their last 28 games. They will need to finish one game ahead as the Magic hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.

The Wizards finishing that strong becomes even more farfetched when you consider their remaining schedule. They have the second-toughest slate from here on out, per Basketball-Reference.

The Wizards do have a trump card in Bradley Beal, who is the best player among the bubble teams in the East. He has now scored 25 points or more in 13 straight games and has been the driving force behind the Wizards staying in the race.

He has also picked up his defense a bit following his All-Star snub in an effort to silence his critics. The increased focus on that end is nice, but it would’ve been a little nicer if it had been a part of his game earlier in this season when the Wizards were by far the worst defense in the league.

Even if Beal goes bonkers, it is hard to see a path for this Wizards team to sneak in outside of a monumental collapse in Orlando. Looking at their schedule, it would take some big upsets to even get to 10 wins over their last 28. Their most likely record to finish the season is 8-20 if all games go to the likely favorites.

The Wizards’ offense has been impressive all season, but injuries and a porous defense have been too much to overcome.

The Hornets, meanwhile, trail the Wizards by 1.5 games and the Magic by 4.5 games. They have won their last three in a row to put themselves back in this race, but they still have an uphill climb.

The Hornets also may have raised the proverbial white flag by waiving two veterans in Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The goal coming into this season was never to make the playoffs, so they are likely more interested in developing young talent over these last 27 games.

If the Magic do play up to their usual levels and go 12-14, it would require the Hornets to go 18-9 to finish the season against the sixth-toughest remaining schedule in the East.

Devonte’ Graham and his three-point shooting have been a bright spot for the Hornets, but it would take some otherworldly performances from him and Terry Rozier down the stretch to put together a record like that. Basketball-Reference gives this a 0.02 percent chance of happening (cue the Jim Carrey GIF).

Barring a miracle, the eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference are locked in place. The only questions remaining are how seeds 2-6 will play out, and whether the Magic can catch the Nets for the seventh spot.

The Wizards will fight to the end, but it is unlikely they make up any ground given the level of opponents they will see over the next six weeks. The Hornets, meanwhile, are more likely to fight for lottery odds.

At least the playoffs should be exciting.

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