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NBA Saturday: Blazers Have Puncher’s Chance Against Clippers

The Clippers are favored in the first round, but the Trail Blazers have a puncher’s chance.

Jesse Blancarte

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Entering each NBA season, fans, media members and analysts make their predictions for which teams will make the playoffs. This year, there are a few teams that beat the odds and proved their doubters wrong by making the postseason. Probably the biggest surprise is the Portland Trail Blazers, a team many predicted would be one of the worst teams in the Western Conference this season.

It’s not hard to understand why there was so much doubt surrounding the team’s competitiveness entering this year. During the offseason, the Blazers lost four of their five starters from the previous season, including Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez. It’s tough when a team loses a few starters. It’s devastating when a team loses four starters, and each player is uniquely talented and very valuable.

Portland general manager Neil Olshey rebuilt his roster with young players with upside that could grow and develop alongside the Trail Blazers’ franchise point guard, Damian Lillard. The results have been very impressive. Portland finished the regular season 44-38 and is now set to face the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round of the playoffs.

The general consensus is that the Clippers are the favorites, but these Blazers have proven us wrong before. Let’s take a look at both teams and see what advantages the Blazers may have and the Clippers’ potential weaknesses that Portland can try to exploit in this series.

Battle of the Backcourts

Portland’s offensive attack is powered by its backcourt duo of Lillard and C.J. McCollum, who is in the running for this year’s Most Improved Player Award. Lillard is one of the most explosive offensive players in the league and has more range on his jumper than anyone not named Stephen Curry. On the season, Lillard is averaging 25.1 points, 6.8 assists and four rebounds, while shooting 41.9 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from three-point range.

McCollum has established himself as one of the most dynamic young guards in the NBA. He went from playing 15.7 minutes per game last season, to 34.8 this season and has made the most of his increased role. He is averaging 20.8 points, 4.3 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 1.2 steals, while shooting 44.8 percent from the field and 41.7 percent from distance. McCollum is crafty with the ball, he has good change of pace, he can attack the rim, he makes plays for others and he is a knock down shooter, even off the dribble. Combined, Lillard and McCollum make up one of the most dangerous scoring duos in the league.

However, if either guard is limited, or contained by an opponent, the Blazers become very vulnerable. Over four matchups this season, the Clippers managed to stifle both guards, which helped propel Los Angeles to a 3-1 record against Portland this season (though McCollum missed one game due to a technicality). Chris Paul is still one of the stingiest defensive point guards in the NBA and he has managed to make things difficult for Lillard in their previous meetings. Against the Clippers this season, Lillard is averaging just 18 points per game on 32.4 percent shooting from the field and 35.5 percent shooting from beyond the arc. Similarly, McCollum has played below his season averages against the Clippers this season. McCollum is averaging 15.7 points per game, while shooting 38.6 percent from the field and 25 percent from distance.

This level of production won’t get it done for the Blazers in the postseason. The chances that Paul, J.J. Redick and the Clippers’ other wing-defenders can continue holding Lillard and McCollum to these numbers are low, but any sustained period of play like this could be disastrous for the Blazers. The Clippers will look to hound and trap Lillard and McCollum when the ball is in their hands, hoping to force Portland’s other players to beat them. After four matchups and with time to prep, it’s likely that Lillard and McCollum will perform closer to their season averages, though they will have to overcome the Clippers’ stingy defense each time they touch the ball.

On the flip side, the Clippers’ starting backcourt features Paul and Redick. Redick is dealing with a heel injury suffered in the Clippers’ final regular season game, so this could be an issue for the Clippers. Redick’s shooting and off-ball movement are two major weapons for the Clippers’ offense, especially early in games. It will be a huge break for the Blazers if Redick isn’t able to move well off the ball and provide his usual production. If he is good to go, Lillard and McCollum will likely split time chasing Redick through screens, which may wear them down over time.

Paul had two bad games against the Blazers this season and only made one three-pointer in four games. However, he still racked up his usual assists and stifled Portland’s guards. He is the engine that powers the Clippers’ offense. If he puts together his usual offensive production, while putting the clamps on Lillard, the Clippers will be in great position to take this series. But, considering how explosive Lillard and McCollum are, the likelihood is that the dynamic duo will go off at least a few times this series.

Portland’s Rebounding Advantage

Despite having one of the best rebounders in the NBA in DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers are a surprisingly bad rebounding team. The Clippers ranked 25th in the league in rebounds per game, whereas the Blazers ranked fifth overall.

Ed Davis and Mason Plumlee have been especially effective rebounding the ball against the Clippers this season. In 25.5 minutes per game, Davis averaged 13.5 points and 11.3 rebounds against the Clippers this season. In their November matchup, Davis played 31 minutes and produced 17 points and 15 rebounds. In addition, Plumlee, in 25.8 minutes per game, has averaged 14.5 points and 9.5 rebounds against the Clippers this season.

The Clippers now have Blake Griffin back from injury, so he may help keep the Blazers’ rebounding advantage in check. However, Griffin is still dealing with a lingering quad injury, so his ability to control the glass may be limited. Fortunately for the Clippers, Jordan has been a monster against the Blazers this season. In 33.9 minutes per game, Jordan is averaging 14 points and 16.5 rebounds. Blazers head coach Terry Stotts has tried to neutralize Jordan in the past by hacking him and sending him to the foul line. That strategy will almost certainly be in play throughout this series.

Stotts has recently turned to Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless at the starting forward positions. Aminu in particular has been a nice fit at power forward, providing solid defense, strong rebounding and spacing. A few weeks ago, Stotts explained why he likes putting Aminu at the four.

“First of all, defensively, he’s very good at the four. He defends the post well. He rebounds well,” Stotts said. “It allows us to switch with a spacing four-man. Defensively, we’ve been very solid with him. Offensively, he’s enough of a three-point threat that he does space the court. That threat makes it easier for everybody.”

Aminu and Harkless switch defensive assignments at times based on matchups, but it’s very likely that Aminu will be the one guarding Griffin in this series. This matchup between Griffin and Aminu will be one to keep an eye on. If Aminu is able to successfully guard Griffin, he can provide spacing for the Blazers’ offense that Davis simply can’t. If Aminu is overmatched, that could slow down the Blazers’ offense, which would make them even more reliant on their rebounding advantage.

Blake Griffin’s Injury

Early in the season, Griffin was putting together some impressive performances, picking up right where he left off from last year’s playoffs. In 30 games before going down with a quad injury, Griffin averaged 23 points, eight rebounds and five assists per game. Since returning, Griffin is averaging just 10 points, seven rebounds and four assists per game. While those numbers are below his early season averages, the good news for the Clippers is that Griffin has looked more comfortable in each subsequent game that he has played in.

Griffin may not get back to his usual self during the postseason, but the team managed quite well without him offensively and he still can contribute with his playmaking and rebounding (at the very least). His midrange shot has looked shaky at best, which could prove problematic, especially if defenses give him that shot while taking away the Clippers’ other offensive options.

Griffin will have his work cut out for him against the Blazers’ active big men. If he can play solid defense, be a facilitator on offense and crash the boards, the Clippers will be in great shape. If he is hampered by his lingering injury, the Clippers will need Jordan to be dominant defensively and on the boards.

Battle of the Benches

In the postseason, coaches tend to tighten up their rotations. Nevertheless, depth is important and will certainly be a factor in this series. The Blazers have some nice players to turn to off the bench, including Davis, Gerald Henderson, Noah Vonleh and Allen Crabbe. Meyers Leonard is out for the season, but between Plumlee, Aminu, Harkless, Davis and Vonleh, the Blazers should manage in the frontcourt. The Blazers aren’t exactly the Golden State Warriors when it comes to depth, but Stotts has his players executing within their roles.

The Clippers’ bench has been a problem for years, and there are still question marks this season. They have gotten surprisingly nice production from players like Pablo Prigioni and Cole Aldrich, but they may be squeezed out of the playoff rotation. The Clippers will need solid production from Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers, Jeff Green, Wesley Johnson and perhaps even Paul Pierce. Rivers, Crawford, Green and Johnson are all streaky players who can disappear for extended periods. Crawford has been on a tear lately and Green seems to be settling into his reserve role over the last few weeks. Rivers is inconsistent on offense, but always provides energetic perimeter defense. Johnson can knock down corner threes and adds length on the perimeter defensively, but he struggles when he extends himself outside of his limited role. Pierce has struggled all season and can’t be counted on, unless he shows early signs that he managed to flip the switch and go into playoff mode, which he has done in recent seasons.

Coach Rivers has opted to go with all-bench lineups for extended periods this season, which has often backfired. If this trend continues, he should explore staggering his starters more to avoid costly extended lulls.

Clippers’ Superior Defense

Since the middle of February, the Clippers have been the fourth-best defensive team in the league, holding teams to 100.7 points per 100 possessions. In addition, the Clippers managed to hold the Blazers to 95.3 points per game in four contests, which is almost 10 points below their season average. The Clippers also managed to hold the Blazers to just 28.6 percent shooting from distance, which is huge considering how much Portland relies on the long-ball. This may be the biggest single factor in this series. If Portland can’t manufacture open looks from beyond the arc, or simply can’t knock down it’s open looks from distance, the Blazers will be in trouble.

Over that same stretch, the Blazers have ranked 22nd in defensive efficiency, giving up 109.4 points per 100 possessions. The Blazers have improved somewhat since turning the starting forward position to Harkless, but Portland’s defense is still spotty at best. Fortunately for the Blazers, they have managed to hold the Clippers below their season averages in scoring, shooting percentages and fast break points. Those trends will need to continue for Portland to have a realistic chance in this series.

The Clippers may be able to survive this series even if their offense isn’t firing on all cylinders. The same cannot be said the Blazers based on their defensive performance this season.

*****

This is going to be an interesting first-round series and perhaps the only seriously competitive one in the Western Conference. The Blazers have a clear advantage on the boards and have the combined firepower of Lillard and McCollum to lean on. Aside from that, it isn’t clear that Portland has any overwhelming advantages over the Clippers that they can exploit. Griffin may be rusty early on as he works himself back into shape, but the Clippers have managed without him for much of the season, so it’s unclear how much Portland can exploit that. Additionally, the Clippers have the offensive firepower that Portland has, along with a top-level defense. Paul and Jordan have put together impressive seasons and enter the playoffs with a level of health and cohesion that was missing in past seasons.

Portland has a puncher’s chance in this series, but they’ll need to exploit every advantage they have to prevail over seven games.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and 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.

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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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