Can Pierce Turn Wizards Into a Contender?
Washington Wizards shooting guard Garrett Temple was just trying to give his veteran teammate Paul Pierce a compliment. After Pierce hit consecutive fade-away jumpers late in the Wizards’ game against the Orlando Magic to seal the victory (Washington’s first of the year), Temple was impressed, but may have used the wrong words to express that.
“It brought back memories,” Temple said of Pierce’s daggers. “I was just thinking about what he used to do with the Celtics, and that’s why we brought him in. Like he said when he hit that shot in Toronto [during last year’s playoff series], ‘That’s why they brought me here!’ That’s why he’s here. To settle us down and get us in a good spot in those situations. I’m glad he’s on our team.”
Minutes later, Pierce heard about Temple’s comments and was asked if he turned back the clock to hit those key shots.
“Turned back the clock to when?” Pierce asked, half joking and half annoyed. “I never went nowhere. I never went nowhere; I’ve still been here. I was doing that last year, the year before and the year before that.”
This 30-minute stretch shows exactly what the Wizards are getting with Pierce: poise in all situations, veteran leadership, clutch shots and unwavering confidence. The 37-year-old inked a two-year, $11 million deal with Washington over the summer because he felt they could be a contender in the Eastern Conference. Now, he’s doing everything in his power to help the Wizards take the next step and become an elite team.
Washington is a young squad that is extremely hungry after experiencing a little bit of success in last year’s postseason. Last year’s group managed to win 44 games, which was good for fifth place in the East. Washington defeated the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs, before being eliminated by the Indiana Pacers in six games.
Pierce has experienced just about everything a player can in the NBA, so he’s an amazing resource for these young Wizards. Pierce said that he’ll do his best to offer his help throughout the course of the season.
“I just try to keep everyone focused,” Pierce said. “I want them to understand what it’s going to take when you’re coming off of a loss and in a back-to-back situation. That’s what I’m going to give them all year long. If we’re going to try to take that next step from what the Wizards did a year ago, then it’s got to be mental. It’s got to be every night, consistency in practices and in games.”
Every player in the locker room has a ton of respect for Pierce and listens intently when he dispenses wisdom.
“[He brings] a lot of great leadership,” Wizards point guard John Wall said of Pierce. “He’s a veteran presence, someone who knows what it takes to win championships. He has a tough mentality. He’s someone who knows what you need to do in order to win in this league. The level he’s been on is what us [other] guys are trying to get to. It’s just that veteran leadership and presence and the humbleness to want to win and compete.”
“He’s a great leader off the court,” Temple said of Pierce. “I didn’t know what his leadership skills were like, but he’s a great leader off the court. He understands [the importance of] having a routine, being a professional, being positive, sticking together as a team and understanding it’s a long road in an 82-game season. He knows if you stick together, good things can happen.”
Wall has been picking Pierce’s brain, just as he does with his coaches, because he knows that the veteran has a lot of knowledge to offer. But Pierce isn’t just a strong locker room presence, as he remains a significant contributor on the court. Through three games, Pierce is averaging 11.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.7 steals in 26.7 minutes. He has been productive (and come up big when Washington needed him most), but he admits he is still trying to get acclimated with his new team and develop chemistry alongside his new running mates.
“As each game and each practice goes along, and as we continue to build our chemistry, I’m definitely [getting more comfortable],” Pierce said. “We have to find ways to win when we have chemistry issues at times, because we’re still getting to know each other, but [those] are the type of games we just have to grind out.”
The 10-time All-Star seems to know his role in Washington. He’s the first one to point over to Wall and describe him as “our All-Star and our best player.” He identifies the trio of Wall, Bradley Beal and Marcin Gortat as “our leading guys.” He says that he’s there to improve the Wizards’ supporting cast, and be one of several options that the team has in late-game situations.
“It’s never scripted, but that’s what I’m capable of giving this team, another guy that they can go to in crucial situations,” Pierce said. “I think we have a number of guys that they could go to, with me being one them. That’s what I can give us.”
One of the biggest things that Pierce has stressed since joining Washington is the importance of a balanced attack. Pierce has won a championship and has seen that it takes contributions – as well as sacrifices – from everyone on the team to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy. The Boston Celtics’ 2008 title team didn’t feature a single 20-points-per-game scorer. Instead, they had Pierce, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo each averaging double-digits (ranging from 10.6 points to 19.6 points) and spreading the wealth around.
“It’s got to come from a number of guys,” Pierce said. “That’s what we have to pride ourselves on this year. We have to have a great balance. Some nights it’s going to be one guy who goes off for 20 or 30 points, but on most nights we’ll try to get a balanced scoring [attack] by moving the ball around and sharing opportunities.”
Washington is 2-1 and while Pierce is happy with the wins, he has said several times that the Wizards still need to find their identity in order to realize their full potential as a team.
“We want to be a team that holds teams to like 42 percent or 41 percent on field goals, keep them under 100 points, out-rebound them by a large margin,” Pierce said. “It’s good to win, but we’re still trying to find that.”
Pierce’s toughness, leadership and production should only help the Wizards find that desired identity. Once they do that, don’t be surprised if Washington emerges as one of the East’s top teams. That’s exactly what Pierce was banking on when he inked his deal with the Wizards this summer, and he’s confident that the franchise has what it takes to go on a deep postseason run as early as this year.
Bounce Brothers Ready for Lift Off
The Minnesota Timberwolves have one of the NBA’s most athletic young tandems in rookies Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine. Both players are high flyers and have what it takes to compete in the NBA’s dunk contest. The 19-year-olds, who have dubbed themselves the Bounce Brothers, have a ton of potential and could be franchise cornerstones for Minnesota going forward.
Wiggins was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft and LaVine was the No. 13 selection. Both players are having a lot of fun as they make the transition from college to the NBA.
“It’s fun; we’re all young and we played against each other growing up, so it’s good that we get to go out now and go on this journey together,” Wiggins said. “I’m comfortable here. The teammates show nothing but love. They’re great, great to be around, and the coaches are great to be around too. They push me every day. … It’s just crazy, from my first time stepping off the plane, people were greeting me at the airport, walking [me] home, walking [me] back to the hotel that I stayed in for the first couple days. It’s all just a big excitement coming here.”
“It’s going by so fast, it’s really felt surreal,” LaVine said. “I had my dream come true within the last six months. I was just in high school, I just graduated high school, so things went fast but I’m ready to just put on for this city and do great things. I feel like I’m a hard worker, and I’m ready to get in the gym and work.”
Wiggins has been starting for the Wolves, providing solid production on both ends of the floor but his stats don’t jump off of the page. LaVine has only appeared in one game, and it was in limited minutes. It’s clear that Wiggins is more NBA-ready than LaVine, who is extremely raw and was viewed as more of a project since he needs to develop and settle into a position. However, both players have worked extremely hard and earned the respect of their teammates.
“They’re students of the game,” Kevin Martin said of Wiggins and LaVine. “They understand where this organization views them four or five years from now and they’re making the steps in that direction to get confidence of Flip and his staff to get to that point.”
LaVine watches a ton of film, even of bad games, which impressed his veteran teammates. Head coach Flip Saunders jokes that LaVine is the only player upset when practice is canceled, because he wants to be in the gym all day, every day. LaVine has also made an effort to bulk up after seeing NBA bodies and realizing how strong pro players are.
Wiggins has also been putting in work. Right after he was traded to Minnesota in the offseason, he started training at the team’s facility to learn the system and develop chemistry with his teammates. Wiggins enters the NBA with superstar expectations and his teammates are buying into the hype.
“He’s a great player and the most important thing is he wants to learn and he’s willing to learn,” Ricky Rubio said of Wiggins. “He’s going to be great in this league.”
“I put a lot of responsibility on myself,” Wiggins added. “You have to believe that you can be the best and do what you can do before anyone else can believe it for you.”
Wiggins and LaVine both find themselves in the same situation as rookies in Minnesota with a ton of potential, but their paths to the NBA were completely different. Wiggins has been hyped up for years, since a mixtape labeling him as the best 14-year-old in the world surfaced. He was one of the most famous high school players in recent memory, and was a household name before he had committed to a college.
LaVine, on the other hand, was ranked the 44th-best player in the class entering high school and very few people thought he could be a one-and-done player entering his lone collegiate season at UCLA. However, he played well for the Bruins and started to get some attention. Still, he had to perform well in workouts and interviews in order to climb into the lottery.
“[Going back to] high school, I haven’t been a highly touted player,” LaVine said. “I’ve gone through all the national camps and different things like that and I feel like I’ve proven myself, but it just seems like I always just had to get over that edge to change people’s mind. So if I got to keep changing people’s minds, I’m fine with that. I like making my doubters eat their words. From high school, I was known as a scorer; I averaged about 29 in high school my senior year. Then going to college, I had a different role – coming off the bench, being able to show a little bit more of my athleticism. Now, with Coach Saunders, I feel like I’m in the best situation out of everybody. I’m so thankful. I love that dude to death, man. I have all my trust in him, it’s just great.”
“It’s been a big learning curve,” Wiggins said. “Flip’s a great coach. Every day we practice, I’m getting better. Every day, I’m learning more stuff. He had all the rookies in before everyone else, because the vets already know the system and they know the plays. They’re very intelligent when it comes to the game of basketball, and for a rookie it’s more of a learning curve.”
Wiggins and LaVine will get more comfortable as the season progresses and we’ll get a glimpse of what the future may hold for these two. Veteran Thaddeus Young has seen them in practice every day, and was so confident in Minnesota’s talent that he told Basketball Insiders the team could compete for a playoff spot as early as this season. Whether that’s realistic remains to be seen, but the Wolves certainly seem headed in the right direction and have put their future in the hands of two exciting, high-flying teenagers who will be a lot of fun to watch develop.
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.
NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics
The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.
Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.
Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.
Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.
As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.
Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.
Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.
“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by Celtics.com.
“I’m tired of not playing.”
Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.
As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.
What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.
Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.
Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.
Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.
In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.
Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.
With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.
As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.
Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.
But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.
And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.