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NBA PM: Ed Davis Talks Blazers, Lakers, Kobe, Lillard

Ed Davis discusses the Blazers’ success, his stint with the Lakers and playing with Kobe Bryant and Damian Lillard.

Alex Kennedy

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Last summer, Ed Davis signed a three-year deal worth $20 million with the Portland Trail Blazers.

In August, shortly after putting pen to paper, the big man told Basketball Insiders that he wanted to finish his career in Portland. The Blazers would be his fourth different team in his six NBA seasons, so he was ready to settle down and stick with one organization for the long haul. Even though he had yet to play a game for the Blazers, his first impression of the franchise was very positive and he was sold on the team.

“That’s definitely my goal,” Davis told me in August about retiring a Blazer. “Portland is one of those organizations where they like to keep a team together – they like to build that way. I definitely feel like this is an organization I can grow with and hopefully this is my last stop in my career. I’d love to win some championships in Portland, and then I go out here.”

Now, halfway through his stint with the Blazers, he remains pleased with his situation. It has been everything he hoped for and he isn’t regretting his decision one bit.

“It’s been an easy transition for me, especially after bouncing around a little bit in the past,” Davis told Basketball Insiders recently. “There are a lot of other guys here who are also in their first year on this team, so that makes it easier too because we’re all in the same position. It’s a great organization and Coach [Terry] Stotts is probably the coolest coach who I’ve played for in my whole life. [The transition] has just been so easy.”

His teammates have welcomed him with open arms and love what he brings to the squad on and off the court.

“Ed is a crucial part of our team,” C.J. McCollum said via text message. “He holds down the paint, finishes well around the rim and has a great presence in the locker room. He doesn’t complain ever and comes to work with his hard hat on each and every day.”

When asked how his time with the Blazers compares to last year’s stint with the Los Angeles Lakers, Davis was complimentary of head coach Byron Scott and general manager Mitch Kupchak. However, he did state that Portland has a clear-cut rebuilding plan that everyone is aware of and knows where they stand. That wasn’t necessarily the case in Los Angeles, according to Davis.

“Here, we’re trying to build something,” Davis said of Portland. “I enjoyed my time with the Lakers. Coach Scott, Mitch and all those guys were good to me, so I don’t really have any complaints. But it’s just different [in Portland]. Obviously in L.A. they want those big stars and they’re not really trying to keep a core together. Now they’re starting to do it because they aren’t getting those top free agents in. Here, there’s just stability. You know that guys are going to be around for a while. You don’t have the feeling that you could get traded any minute or that they’re going to bring a superstar in [to replace you]. You can just focus on doing your job. You know [the plan] and that everything is going to be fine.”

Everything has been fine for Davis on the court, since he has been a solid fit in the Blazers’ frontcourt. He’s averaging 6.6 points and 7.4 rebounds in 21.1 minutes off the bench while shooting an insanely impressive 62.2 percent from the field (which ranks second in the NBA). When the ball is in his hands, good things happen. This is even more evident when you look at his per-100-possessions averages of 15.8 points, 17.6 rebounds and 1.7 blocks.

Advanced analytics show his enormous impact as well. He’s surprisingly ranked first among all NBA players in offensive rating (126.1) and he’s ranked third in the NBA in offensive rebounding percentage (15 percent). He has also been extremely efficient, as his 18.4 PER is second on the Blazers behind only All-Star point guard Damian Lillard.

Davis’ stint in Portland is somewhat different from his previous NBA stops. Despite being only 26 years old, he’s the third-oldest player on the roster behind only Chris Kaman (33) and Gerald Henderson (28), making him an elder statesmen to some extent. Twelve players on the team are 25 years old or younger since general manager Neil Olshey wants to surround Lillard with players in his age range. The Blazers are the third-youngest team in the NBA (behind only the Utah Jazz and Milwaukee Bucks) with an average age of 24.6 years old. The hope for Portland is that the young players will all hit their prime around the same time, allowing the group to make the transition from solid up-and-coming team to legitimate contender in several years.

One benefit of having so many young players on the same team is that they can all relate to each other and are in the same stage of their lives. Because many of the players haven’t settled down yet and started a family, they are all enjoying the NBA lifestyle together and bonding off the court. It’s not uncommon for most of the roster to hang out together – watching movies, going out to eat, playing video games, etc. This is similar to the young Oklahoma City Thunder just before they became a perennial contender, as that team was almost always spending time together and there were even rumors that the players invested in a bus so that they could all travel to off-court events together.

Talking to the players in Portland, it’s clear this is a very tight-knit group and that there’s more bonding taking place this year than in past seasons when there was a mix of young guys and veterans (who oftentimes have a family and different priorities than their younger peers). Davis loves the fact that everyone is around the same age and that the team is so close.

“It’s definitely enjoyable. That’s one thing I love about the NBA: all of the relationships you build,” Davis said. “There are some veterans like Chris Kaman, for example, who can tell us stories and talk about things that he has been through. But we do have a lot of young guys and all of us are hungry. We all still have stuff to prove and we’re all in that 23-to-27 age range. Hopefully we can keep this thing together for a long time.”

Interestingly, Portland is already a bit ahead of schedule in their rebuild. Even though they are so young, have nine new players on the roster and lost five key veterans over the summer (LaMarcus Aldridge, Wes Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez and Arron Afflalo), they are currently 17-24. That means they are only one and a half games outside of the playoff picture in the Western Conference.

Davis admits that making the playoffs wasn’t a stated goal entering this season, but that has certainly changed with how well the team has played thus far. It’s also evident that this group loves the fact that they’re silencing their preseason critics.

“Coming into the year, they had us and Philly projected as the two worst teams in the NBA and we’re proving those reporters or whoever had us ranked like that wrong,” Davis said. “We still have a lot of work to do, but I feel like we’ve had six or seven other games where we should’ve won too. And I’m not just saying that because we had a chance to win down the stretch, I’m saying there were times where we gave games away. With those wins, we could be even higher in the standings. But that happens with young, inexperienced teams. We just need to continue to play, learn from mistakes and see what happens.”

Another big difference between this season and Davis’ previous NBA campaigns is his salary. The Lakers somehow managed to sign him to a veteran’s minimum deal prior to last season, which was one of the best contracts in the NBA from a team perspective. They were paying Davis just $981,084 for last season and he easily outperformed his deal.

Now that he’s on a more lucrative three-year deal with Portland, he’s actually the second-highest paid player on the squad due to his $6,980,802 salary. Only Al-Farouq Aminu makes more this season ($8,042,895). Next year, Lillard will be the team’s highest-paid player by far because his mega extension will kick in, causing his salary to increase from $4,236,287 to $20,947,250.

While Davis is often mentioned as one of the more underrated players in the NBA, he swears he doesn’t care one bit. He says he isn’t motivated by how others perceive him or how much attention he gets. His quiet, shy demeanor suggests he’s telling the truth.

“I’ve never really cared about getting credit or being famous or anything, I just wanted to do my job,” Davis said. “I do like to prove others wrong, but I don’t care about the fame or Twitter followers or whatever it may be. I just play hard and try to help my team win. If I get noticed for it, great. If not, I’m not losing any sleep over it. I get paid well, I love my job and I love the situation I’m in, so I can’t complain about anything.”

He’s perfectly fine being a role player who does whatever is asked of him – also known as a coach’s best friend. Davis knows that the Blazers are Lillard’s team and he believes the 25-year-old point guard has earned that. Davis loves the way Lillard leads and feels Portland is in good hands with their star point guard carrying the squad.

“He leads by example,” Davis said of Lillard. “When he does talk then everybody listens, but he’s not a big ‘rah-rah’ kind of guy who is going to say this or that. But you know that he’s going to work really hard every single day and he’s going to come to play every single night. He’s even played through injuries and things like that. He’s extremely dedicated. That’s all you can ask for out of your leader. You don’t want your leader to be this big talker, but then you know he’s BSing you. He leads by example and he’s obviously a great player.”

Before teaming up with Lillard, Davis played alongside another lead-by-example star: Lakers legend Kobe Bryant. He’s thankful that he was able to play alongside Bryant before his retirement, and he says Bryant’s professionalism, intensity and work ethic definitely helped him grow as a player.

“He’s going to be a Hall of Famer and I’m glad that I was fortunate enough to be able to say that I played with him,” Davis said of Bryant. “I had a chance to work out with him in the summer and he really changed my perspective on what it means to work hard. I always tell stories about him. I remember one time when Julius [Randle] and I were working out with him, we had probably already worked out for two and a half hours and we might have put up 30 or 40 shots. It was basically just all conditioning. He was beating us in sprints and things like that. It was definitely a wake-up call for me. It was amazing to see a guy who is in his mid-30s and who has that many miles on his body work like that. It was just crazy.”

Now, Davis hopes to use those lessons from Bryant along with past experiences from his other NBA stops to help Portland return to the postseason this season – when just about everyone wrote the team off. Davis is used to thriving in the underdog role, so he wouldn’t want it any other way.

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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NBA Daily: Towns, Wolves Prepared To Take Next Step

Tom Thibodeau and Karl-Anthony Towns look back on a successful season and gaining meaningful experience in the postseason.

Spencer Davies

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For the first time since 2004, the Minnesota Timberwolves made the NBA Playoffs.

Sure, the exit was early and the experience was short-lived, but the way the younger players and team finished out spoke volumes to head coach Tom Thibodeau.

“I told the players, I said, ‘I’m very proud of what you did,’” he said following the Wolves’ loss to the Houston Rockets in Game 5.

“To get out of the hole that we were in, to win 47 games, to get into the playoffs after 14 years of not being in the playoffs, to do it in a very tight playoff race, to finish one game out of the fourth spot—it’s a major jump from where we were two years ago.”

It all started with the final stretch of the year and the winner-take-all matchup between the Wolves and the Denver Nuggets where it was win or go home.

“I think it’s huge,” Thibodeau said of how Minnesota closed out. “I think the last month of the season was really good for us because of how tight the race was. In many ways, it was similar to playoff experience.

“And then having the final game of the season mean so much, whether you were gonna get in or not get it in, that had a Game 7 feel to it. I thought that that helped us going in.”

For Karl-Anthony Towns, his first taste of the postseason was valuable to building his character as a professional.

“I’ve learned a lot, especially in these playoffs,” Towns said. “You understand a little bit of the difference between the regular season and postseason. We haven’t been there in like 14 years, so there’s experience that needed to be garnered and we wanted to take that next step. We came up short, but we’re very confident in ourselves leading up to next year.”

Towns was especially grateful for his teammates and their teachings throughout the season. He mentioned the likes of Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, Jamal Crawford and Taj Gibson for the advice they gave him.

“Learned a lot from them,” Towns said. “Especially going through the experiences we had to go through this year. “We went through a lot of adversity. We’ve had injuries, tough schedule, tough last stretch to get in the playoffs. Found a way to scratch out wins and put ourselves in this position.

“We’re very blessed that every single day we went to work, we got to see each other and fight. I couldn’t ask for any better teammates. To be able to be out here with these guys is a true blessing. I’m honored to be able to work with them every day and learn from them.

“It’s an amazing thing when you look back at the season to realize the narrative that was almost written for us. To get to this point is almost storybook—having to go through so many obstacles.”

Unfortunately, though, the Wolves’ playoff life only lasted five games against the league’s top-seeded Rockets. However, there is a silver lining in the grander scheme of things.

Playing against an experienced team with two of the best in the game today—James Harden and Chris Paul—Minnesota can come to understand why that brand of basketball has led to such a great product on the floor and apply it to themselves.

“I’ve been around both of those guys,” Thibodeau said. “They’re great talents. They can hurt you a lot of different ways. They hurt us with the pass [Wednesday]. With our young guys, we talk about the importance of trusting the pass.

“When you watch the veteran teams, you can see that that’s what they do. They’ll make the right play. The game will tell you who’s gonna get the shots. They’re not worried about their shots. They’re worried about the team getting good shots. We have to get to that. The defensive part of it is something that we have to continue to work on.”

Thibodeau continually pointed out the change in how the organization has handled its business top to bottom.

“Everything matters and that’s how you improve,” he said. “That’s why I felt that I was very proud of this team.

“When you come out of the hole that we were in, when you have to change the entire culture of an organization—there’s gonna be steps that you have to take along the way. It’s a tough league. The Western Conference is loaded. It’s hard to get wins in this league and I think you have to understand that, so you also have to understand the commitment that needs to be made to be a great team.”

So taking the lessons learned from this series, what is the next step for the Wolves?

“Just continue to build,” Thibodeau said. “We need to have another strong summer, have to have a strong fall. We need to have everyone make a commitment to continue to improve and learn.

“It never ends. That’s the thing about this league. You’re always gonna be challenged. If you have the good fortune to win it, when the next season starts, you start at zero again. You’ve got to prove yourself again. That’s why it’s so important to work every day. You have to prepare yourself for this.”

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NBA Daily: Is The NBA Heading Towards An Epic Off-Season?

With so many elite players heading towards less than expected post-season exits, is the NBA heading towards an epically chaotic off-season? Steve Kyler looks at some of the situations to watch.

Steve Kyler

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Heading Towards An Epic Off-Season?

With the first round of the 2018 NBA Playoff teeing up what could be some early exits for some of the bigger names in basketball, there is a growing sense that major change could be heading towards the NBA this offseason. While the odds that everyone that might be unhappy or exiting early are really moved is pretty slim, it does present some interesting options to watch.

Here are a few of them:

LeBron and the Cavaliers

With LeBron James reminding the basketball world to stop underestimating him, the specter of his future in Cleveland still isn’t any clearer. The prevailing thought among NBA insiders and executives is that LeBron will be gone at season’s end unless the Cavs get to and compete in the NBA Finals. Seeing how the Cavs support players are playing against the Pacers, it’s hard to imagine they can get to the Finals, but LeBron is LeBron, and he has been beyond special (again).

There have been so many reports suggesting that LeBron would meet with this team or has interest in that team that it seems redundant to talk about any of them with any seriousness.

Sources close to the situation in Cleveland have been really adamant all year that unlike previous points in LeBron’s career when he could exit, he genuinely won’t entertain the ideas. He dismisses his teammates when they might talk about it, he dismisses and thanks fans and media when they bring it up, but there is a real sense that LeBron is singularly focused on the task at hand and won’t consider his future until the season is over.

There are some realities to the situation, too. LeBron’s kids are entering the AAU world and building foundational relationships that LeBron is deeply committed to. There are a hundred reasons not related to basketball for LeBron to remain in Cleveland beyond this season. However, almost no one in the NBA world believes that going to happen without a championship run (win or lose).

The prevailing thought from outside the Cavaliers is that LeBron forces a trade rather than walking away. Much like his good friend Chris Paul, LeBron can choose to opt into his final contract year and push his way to a team with existing stars – like Houston. The fact that teams like the Lakers and even the Philadelphia 76ers could sign him outright in free agency gives him some leverage. The question remains would the notoriously icy relationship with Cavs ownership, block any chance at an amicable divorce as the Clippers got with Paul?

There is little doubt the direction and focus of the Cavaliers change pretty dramatically if LeBron exits the team, meaning inflated cap-killing deals wouldn’t get it done. But, as we saw last season in the Paul situation, there are creative ways to meet the salary cap requirements of a trade that might not need to include big ugly contracts that linger on the books long after LeBron is gone.

All of this may be a bit premature, especially considering how consistent and adamant the talk from LeBron’s world has been, and if he can get his team where he wants to be it could all be moot. However, if there was ever a game-to-game pendulum hanging over a franchise, the future of LeBron James is a very real one in Cleveland.

Paul George and the Thunder

When the agent for Paul George notified the Indiana Pacers that his client would not be signing a new deal in Indiana, it was a foregone conclusion George would eventually end up in Los Angeles with the Lakers. Then the unexpected happens, and George was traded to Oklahoma City.

At the time of the trade, no one believed the move was anything more than a rental for the Thunder and a “dare to be great” move meant to lock up Russell Westbrook to a long-term deal. The idea that George would stay was at best laughable, but then he started to tell people publicly and privately how much he liked the situation. He would talk about how much fun it was to have two other star-level players to share the season with and how the Thunder organization was so impressive.

There was a stretch of several months where the sense in NBA circles was that George would seriously consider staying for another season and allow Carmelo Anthony to finish his deal and the Thunder to add more players in free agency and build a real contender. While that remains a possibility, the way the Thunder season has played out over the last couple of months and how funky things have gotten is pointing toward George moving on.

There is still a window of hope that the Thunder can advance and make some noise, but most in NBA circles see George heading to his personal dream situation in L.A. with the Lakers or looking at the Philadelphia 76ers.

It’s far from decided, but it seems more likely than not that this postseason run turns out to be exactly what it looked like when the trade was consummated, a one-season dare to be great rental.

Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs

The San Antonio Spurs season is officially in the books, and the focus of the team is shifting toward fixing the painfully obvious rift between the team and its very best player, Kawhi Leonard.

Leonard has been away from the team rehabbing what is actually a pretty serious injury. While some have tried to be dismissive of whether or not Leonard could have played, medical experts all over the sports world have weighed in on exactly what quadriceps tendinopathy means (you should read this one). It is a pretty scary injury for a player facing the possibility of missing out on a $219 million contract extension.

Knowing exactly how the injury could play out, there is zero reason for anyone to have expectations that Leonard should have played, regardless of what the team’s medical staff may have determined. The risk to Leonard’s future was too great, especially if he was still having pain and discomfort.

The big issue was the disconnection between Leonard and the team. While it is easy to say Leonard wants out or that he wants a new team because the optics of all of this were and are so bad.

However, in a recent conversation with a former NBA player who went through something similar as Leonard, we posed the rather insightful questions: “What drove Leonard a normally tight knit team guy away?”

Was it the medical and coaching staff pushing him to play? Was it his veteran teammates that were in the swan song days of their Spurs career? Was he embarrassed that he couldn’t get right physically?

This particular player went through something similar where he had a pretty serious injury, and his veterans would give him grief about not wanting to play through pain. So, the story with Leonard resonated with him. This player was absolutely clear that he didn’t have any insight into what was going on, just wondered why no one was asking that question – What drove Kawhi away?

Sources around the situation have been pretty clear that the Spurs feel like they can repair the relationship, mainly because they can offer the so-called Super Max contract extension.

They plan to meet with Leonard and see where his head really is and will make decisions from there. There is no doubt that NBA teams would line up for the chance to get Leonard in trade. There is also a reality that Leonard is eligible for free agency in July 2019 and wouldn’t gain any real benefit from extending with a new team, especially considering the Super Max extension isn’t available from any team other than the Spurs.

There is no doubt that the Spurs and Leonard will be front and center in the rumor mill, right up until they either extend him or trade him.

There is a risk for any team obtaining him in trade, but given what he has become as a player, there is surely a title contender willing to take the risk.

The HEAT and Hassan Whiteside

It seems the marriage between the Miami HEAT and center Hassan Whiteside is on the rocks in a pretty significant way. The HEAT explored their options at the trade deadline and entertained a deal with the Milwaukee Bucks, but the teams stayed their respective courses.

With Whiteside’s role diminishing in favor of rookie Bam Adebayo and veteran big man Kelly Olynyk, there is a growing sense that not only are the HEAT looking for an exit, so is Whiteside.

The challenge for the HEAT is Whiteside has regressed a lot since inking his max deal, a deal that including his player option has two years and some $52.5 million remaining on it.

The HEAT faces some additional pressures by way of the Tyler Johnson contract. The HEAT matched the offer sheet the Brooklyn Nets gave Johnson back in July 2016, and that deal balloons from $5.8 million this season to $19.24 million next season. As things stand today, the HEAT have $119.9 million in guaranteed salaries, putting them a few million under that expected $123 million 2018-19 luxury tax line.

Finding a new home for all of Whiteside’s contract may be a tough deal to make, but it seems as the HEAT season comes to an end, he is more likely to be moved than not.

The Trail Blazers

The Portland Trail Blazers had a pretty impressive run after the All-Star break in February. However, all that magic came to crashing halt after being swept out of the Playoffs at the hands of the streaking hot New Orleans Pelicans.

The questions surrounding the Blazers is what’s next?

The narrative out of Portland is no one is going to panic and overreact, but it seems fair to question the security of president Neil Olshey and even head coach Terry Stotts.

Equally, it’s fair to wonder what the roster will look like at the draft and into free agency.

Will the Blazers, who have historically been very aggressive around the draft, look to cash out roster players for picks? Will owner Paul Allen green light buying more picks, especially in the second round when cash can get you additional draft assets?

The Blazers have done a pretty good and consistent job of downplaying the idea of trading either of the Blazers cornerstone guys in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. There is no doubting that one of those guys could net a king’s ransom in trade, as both are elite level guards that are under long-term contract as both have three more fully guaranteed years remaining on their deals.

There is no question change is coming in Portland, the question becomes how significantly. Like the HEAT, the Blazers are facing some tough cap decisions, especially with guard Shabazz Napier and big man Jusuf Nurkic hitting free agency and the Blazers sitting on $110.4 million in salary commitments for next season.

The fact that no one has been fired (as of this morning) bodes well for the leadership remaining intact; the question is how aggressively will the roster change for a team that failed pretty miserably in the postseason?

The Wizards

The Washington Wizards are not done yet, but after last night’s loss, the inevitable seems to be getting closer.

There is a growing sense in NBA circles that however special Wizards guards John Wall and Brad Beal can be together (they have their moments), the team isn’t nearly as dominant as many have hoped.

Maybe that’s a result of Wall’s injuries, or maybe the match just isn’t going to work.

The narrative around the team is that they are not going to consider breaking up the duo, but that won’t stop some teams from testing the Wizards resolve. The fact that both Wall and Beal are locked up long-term makes them fairly desirable in trade because of the security and team control that comes with their deals.

As things stand today, the Wizards have $115 million in committed salary for next season, giving them almost no wiggle room to be aggressive in free agency.

Unless the Wizards can find a home for some of their money, they may be handcuffed to this roster, which makes the idea of trading off one of their alpha guards at least something to entertain.

Without a trade, it seems unlikely the Wizards can do much to reshape who they are, and with a first round playoff exit, how soon will it be before the personality issues bubbling below the surface erupt into something difficult to come back from?

Over the coming weeks we’ll be digging more into the various NBA trade and free agency situations on the horizon, so stay tuned.

In case you missed it…

The latest Basketball Insiders Podcast covers a lot of this and more, so if you missed out, take a listen.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, @mike_yaffe, @MattJohnNBA, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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Boston’s Young Trio Rises to the Occasion

The Boston Celtics accelerated their youth movement to compete in the first round of the 2017-18 NBA playoffs, writes Mike Yaffe.

Mike Yaffe

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With a stifling 92-87 victory in game five of the NBA Playoffs, the Boston Celtics are one victory away from advancing to the second round. In that contest, they held the Milwaukee Bucks to 36.8 percent shooting from the field and out-rebounded them by a substantial 50-37 margin.

It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.

The Celtics entered the campaign with veteran acquisitions Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward expected to lead them to the conference finals and beyond. After Hayward’s gruesome injury in the season opener, Irving proved that he was more than capable of being productive outside of LeBron James’ shadow. But then Irving himself was sent to IR with a knee issue, and the team ultimately settled into the playoff bracket as a two-seed behind the Toronto Raptors.

Due to his extended absence, Hayward had already become an afterthought as the team seemed to be dominant enough with Kyrie running the point. But without (arguably) their two best players, a potential upset was in the making for the Milwaukee Bucks.

Instead, the Celtics have a 3-2 series lead, with the home team winning each time. And if that trend continues, Game 7 would be played at the friendly confines of TD Garden and Boston would advance to play the Philadelphia Sixers, who have already eliminated the Miami HEAT themselves.

The upper echelon of the 2017-18 NBA Playoffs has been comprised of teams that have been primarily built through either the draft (Golden State, Philadelphia) or via free agency and trades (Houston, Cleveland), but the Celtics have discovered through attrition that they have been well-stocked via both channels.

Here’s a look at the three rising stars who have stepped up their game for the Boston Celtics, both down the stretch and in the first round of the 2017-18 NBA Playoffs:

Terry Rozier

Rozier was taken 16th in the 2015 NBA Draft. In similar fashion to mid-round picks Kelly Oubre Jr. (Washington Wizards) and Delon Wright (Toronto Raptors), the former Louisville Cardinal was expected to provide organizational depth behind a backcourt rotation that already included Avery Bradley, Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Smart.

Buried on the roster, Rozier started zero games his first two seasons and averaged just 1.8 PPG as a rookie, which marginally improved to 5.5 PPG as an NBA sophomore.

After the Celtics traded Bradley to the Detroit Pistons, Rozier was given the opportunity to earn additional minutes since Kyrie Irving was taking IT’s spot in the starting lineup. He rewarded Boston’s confidence by averaging 10.1 PPG in 64 games as a reserve this season, which was well above his previous contributions. But when thrust into a starting role, Rozier’s potential was unleashed, as his scoring rose to 15.1 PPG in 16 such games while adding 5.1 assists per contest (up from 2.3 per game off the bench).

In the opening playoff series, Rozier has continued to improve upon his regular season numbers, averaging 16.1 PPG and 6.6 APG to date. While it probably helped his cause that he’s been facing a Bucks team that was bottom-third in the regular season in both field goal and three-point percentages allowed, his confidence may also have been buoyed by an ongoing feud with veteran Eric Bledsoe.

Jaylen Brown

As one of the spoils from the blockbuster trade with the Brooklyn Nets that unloaded the contracts of aging vets Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, the Celtics selected Brown with the number three pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. As a one-and-done player at Cal, he averaged 14.6 PPG as a freshman and was viewed as a potential franchise cornerstone that could help the team rebuild.

To their dismay, Brown’s rookie numbers (6.6 PPG) weren’t much better than what Rozier produced that season, and the pundits were left to wonder whether the freshman phenom would ever live up to his draft status.

Like Rozier, Brown’s promise came to fruition this season, as he averaged 14.5 PPG in 70 starts in a swingman-like role; his defensive rating of 100.3 was among the league’s best as well.  In the playoffs he too has stepped up his play, thanks to a 30-point outburst in game two and 21.8 PPG overall in this series.

The return of Marcus Smart for game five provided a nice boost, but the Celtics would not be ahead in this series without Brown’s stellar play on both ends of the court.

Jayson Tatum

The aforementioned Nets deal continued its lopsided return for the Celtics, as they had the top overall selection in the 2017 NBA Draft. But instead of taking Markelle Fultz (the consensus top player at the time), they traded down with the Philadelphia Sixers and opted for Tatum at number three instead.

While Fultz was expected to be a can’t-miss prospect, the Celts’ selection of Tatum was also called into question with the likes of De’Aaron Fox and Josh Jackson still available.

As we now know, Fultz is finally showing signs of life after spending his rookie season dealing with a shoulder injury and correcting a shooting flaw. While both Jackson and Fox have had their moments for their respective lottery-bound teams, it’s debatable whether either of them would’ve had a similar impact to what Tatum has done.

Without Gordon Hayward, Tatum’s development timeline was shifted into overdrive, and unlike his aforementioned teammates, he didn’t have an opportunity to watch from the bench. Thrust into the first five, the former Blue Devil produced 13.9 PPG in 80 starts and finished eighth overall in three-point percentage (.434).

As important as his offensive production has been, the Celtics may have profited even more from Tatum’s prowess on defense. He finished the regular season fourth overall in Defensive Win Shares thanks to a 100.3 defensive rating (tied with Brown). His ability was on display in game five, as the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo was limited to only 16 points, which was well below his season average of 26.9 PPG.

The Boston Celtics entered the 2017-2018 season with a “win now” roster that was comprised of proven veterans. But with Al Horford as the last man standing from that group, the team has ridden their draft-day trifecta of Rozier, Brown and Tatum to the precipice of a first-round series win. Time will tell if the team is capable of advancing much further, but they are poised for a bright future regardless of how it plays out in the short-term.

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