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NBA Training Camp Questions: Pacific Division

We continue our series on training camp questions and concerns with today’s look at the Pacific Division.

Jabari Davis

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We appreciate each of you that followed along with all of our 2014-15 NBA Team Previews, as we know many of you are just as eager for the start of the season as we are. Now, we take a look at the top questions, concerns and challenges facing each team as they head into training camp. We continue our camp series that started with the Central, Northwest and Southwest divisions with today’s look at the Pacific Division:

 

Los Angeles Clippers

Although the Clippers have clearly shown they are no longer the lovable butt of NBA jokes over the past few seasons, they still have yet to put everything together in order to push past the semifinal round over that stretch. They’ve been far more successful and are without a doubt one of the more exciting teams to watch, but even with a remarkable influx of talent and the addition of a highly regarded coach with the resume of Doc Rivers, they haven’t been enough to truly place the Clippers into title discussion.

Can Blake Griffin take another step forward?

Griffin took a significant step forward in terms of his overall development as a player in 2013-14. The amount of work Griffin has put into his craft has been obvious, as the supremely athletic 25-year-old has improved in just about every facet of the game over his first four years. His 24.1 PPG, 3.9 APG and 71.5 percent from the line were each career highs, and Griffin even finished third in the regular season MVP voting. While still the eye-popping athlete and eternal ‘posterization’ threat, Griffin can now attack defenders in a variety of ways. He still isn’t quite the defender his athleticism and agility might lead you to expect, but Griffin has also improved on that end of the court. For these Clippers to truly take the next step, they’ll need Griffin to also do the same.

Chris Paul is without a doubt the leader in the locker room and on the court, but the Clippers need Griffin to further develop into the type of player that can be called upon for the key basket in a crucial situation when teams swarm the point guard with size.

Will Chris Paul stay healthy enough to maintain and build upon the momentum throughout the year?

No one questions whether Chris Paul is one of the tougher, pound-for-pound players in the league at this point, but that doesn’t mean he is exactly indestructible. After missing 12 games in 2012-13, the Clippers were without Paul’s services for a whopping 20 games last season due to injury. Hometown point guard Jordan Farmar’s addition could be key, but he hasn’t exactly been the perfect picture of health, either. If healthy, Paul and Farmar could very well be the best tandem at that position. In fact, when healthy, Farmar has proven worthy enough of a starter’s role; leaving Rivers with quite the favorable “problem” as a head coach. He’ll need to find the balance between keeping Paul healthy and rested throughout the year while also keeping Farmar fully engaged and sharp.

Which small forward will play the bulk of the minutes for Rivers?

Matt Barnes is currently listed as the starting small forward, but it is clear the team is still looking for answers at the position, as evidenced by the fact that the front office recently went out and acquired journeyman swingman Chris Douglas-Roberts. Last year’s first round pick Reggie Bullock has already been the subject of trade rumors and enters his sophomore season with far from any guarantees. If neither of the three are able to provide the type of consistent effort Rivers is looking from out of the position, don’t be surprised to see these Clippers engaged in further discussions to improve in that area.

Golden State Warriors

The Warriors welcome in first-time head coach Steve Kerr and his new basketball philosophy into the fold. Golden State’s faithful fan base needn’t worry, as the Warriors should still be every bit as exciting as we move forward. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are fresh off their gold medal-winning contributions with Team USA and, like the Clippers, this team looks take the next step and compete for at least the Western Conference crown.

Will Coach Kerr run the Triangle Offense?

Kerr recently told Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News that his offensive plans would be influenced by Phil Jackson and Tex Winter’s Triangle Offense, but we shouldn’t anticipate it looking quite like those 90s Chicago Bulls teams. With as many capable and willing playmakers in their rotation, the Triangle would certainly make a great deal of sense for Golden State. That said, as comfortable and efficient as Curry is with the pick-and-roll, expect to see plenty of two-man action as well. Basically, Kerr is most likely to eliminate much of the one-on-one or isolation action while strongly encouraging ball movement and spacing. As someone that played for three absolute coaching legends in Lute Olson (University of Arizona), Phil Jackson (Bulls) and Gregg Popovich (Spurs) during his basketball career, Kerr can certainly call upon the ample basketball knowledge that has been bestowed upon him since his freshman year at the U of A back in 1983.

Will Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green take the next step?

Each of these versatile, young players have shown promise at various times over their first two seasons in Golden State. At just 6’7, Green can shift between either forward position depending upon what size lineup they prefer. He’s a hustle and effort player that also has a more refined skill set than you might initially imagine. The 6’8 Barnes is actually agile enough to play the small forward position as well as in the backcourt against some of the larger shooting guards. Although they showed flashes at times, their roles were never quite defined under the previous regime. Each are skilled enough to shine under the presumed Kerr direction, but time will tell if they are able to work themselves into being consistent contributors on both ends of the court.

Will health be a main determining factor for Golden State once again?

Although much of the focus will understandably remain with Curry’s ankles and overall well-being, the diehard Oracle Arena faithful will tell you just as much (if not more) attention must be granted to the health of both Andrew Bogut and David Lee. Overall team health is always important, but for these Warriors to finally push forward and advance beyond the first couple rounds of the postseason they’ll finally need to have a relatively healthy frontcourt by the time we reach next year’s playoff stretch. Don’t be surprised to see a guy like Marreese Speights find a way to contribute on Kerr’s team, whether in spot duty or in extended coverage for an injured big man.

Phoenix Suns

Coming off what was a surprisingly positive 48-win season in Jeff Hornacek’s inaugural season at the helm in Phoenix, the Suns find themselves attempting to actually build upon a year in which they nearly doubled their win total from the previous year (25).

How will Coach Hornacek divide the minutes in what is suddenly a crowded and talented backcourt?

No, this isn’t the reincarnation of former Timberwolves GM David Kahn, but let’s just say the Suns have an awful lot of options at the point guard position as we head into 2014-15. Sure, Eric Bledsoe is used as a combo guard, but that doesn’t account for the fact that the team had already signed free agent point guard (and previous starter in Sacramento) Isaiah Thomas and drafted a promising young point guard in Tyler Ennis over the summer. There were murmurings of reigning Most Improved Player Goran Dragic being involved in trade rumors surrounding the draft, but those whispers have since subsided, and Hornacek has quite the enviable problem of potentially having too much concentrated talent at one position moving forward. With Gerald Green coming off the best season of his career, one would also expect him to remain in Hornacek’s rotation.

Could the Suns have a future move in mind?

With all that aforementioned backcourt depth, it will be interesting to see if GM Ryan McDonough decides to see what could materialize on the trade market. Word is, the Suns are currently in favor of utilizing a three-headed attack between Dragic, Bledsoe and Thomas but the existence of the roster redundancy at least makes a mid-season move a possibility. Teams could also find themselves reaching out to Phoenix regarding some of this young talent if the Suns don’t end up having quite the success they’d like to have.

Can the Suns compete for a playoff position in a tough Western Conference?

Even though their 48 wins would have been good enough to qualify for home court advantage in the first round of last year’s Eastern Conference playoffs, the Suns know if they want to merely stay afloat in an ultra-competitive Western Conference it’s likely going to take more wins than that. If they can stay healthy enough in the backcourt and can somehow manage to keep everyone satisfied and engaged, then the Suns could approach a similar win total once again. Trouble is, will it be enough?

Los Angeles Lakers

It’s no secret that the Lakers are in a bit of a rebuilding period. Not only are they trying to welcome a returning Kobe Bryant back into the fold, they’re also simultaneously attempting to find a balance between his greatness and preferred style of play at this point in his career and their necessity to also develop and feature younger players and additional talent.

Can Byron Scott protect Bryant from himself, especially early in the year?

Aside from Scott being a capable coach, a likely reason why the Lakers ultimately elected to have him replace the departed Mike D’Antoni was due to his relationship with Bryant. The whole “he knows what it means to be a Laker” may sound nice to the loyal fans of the purple and gold (and may have even been a minor aspect of their search), but simply understanding and embracing the “Laker way” isn’t enough to warrant a position on its own. ESPNLA’s Max Kellerman often draws an interesting parallel between a boxing trainer being able to protect his fighter from his own desire to win while in the ring to how Scott needs to approach monitoring and in some cases limiting Bryant’s minutes and workload throughout the year. While anyone familiar with Bryant knows just how much easier that sounds in theory than in actual reality, if these Lakers are to have any success over his last couple years in the league, the key for Scott will be in getting the future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer to trust both in his strategy and the other players on the roster as much as he’s always trusted in his own abilities on the court.

Will Julius Randle be able to work himself into a starting position at some point this season?

To be clear, it is far more significant for Randle to be starting by the end of the year than it would be for him to be granted a starting position from the start of their upcoming camp. Even though the roster appears to be chock-full of power forwards, it appears the tentative plan is to play both Jordan Hill and Ed Davis at the center position in order to permit plenty of room for the growth and development of Randle. Although Randle is very nimble and agile for a player with his size and build, the rumors of him actually playing some time at the small forward position may be a bit premature until we see how his game will translate at this level. Fellow incoming rookie Jordan Clarkson is also someone the Lakers appear to have high hopes for, and is also seen as someone that may have the ability to play multiple positions for these Lakers. Bryant will remain a key component to what takes place for as long as he decides to continue lacing up his Nike’s, but these Lakers are now in the rare position of having to actively pursue the future while finding a way to respectfully permit an all-time great to gracefully walk off on his own accord.

Can these Lakers establish a defensive identity?

While some of us may be tempted to insert a Drew Rosenhaus “next question” at the mere mention of defense with this group, it isn’t beyond the realm of imagination to say this team could actually improve on the defensive end. Look for Scott to attempt to reestablish a certain toughness, intensity and personal accountability that should help, but the key could be in whether he can get the team to buy in and remain dedicated to both defending and rebounding as a unit at all times. Regardless of their efforts and willingness, it should be noted this team isn’t likely to simply develop into a defensive juggernaut overnight. Much like everything else in this game, the process of expunging the team of the most recent laissez-faire attitude toward defending while incorporating some of the younger and more able-bodied talent will be a process. Scott is charged with the somewhat unenviable task of finding a way to channel his inner-Aristotle in getting the ‘whole’ to be greater than the sum of its parts when it comes to the Lakers’ defensive efforts this season.

Sacramento Kings

The Kings may have only won 28 games last season, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t any positives to take from the year. The new ownership group and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson were able to keep the team in California’s state capitol, new GM Pete D’Alessandro was able bring in a talented player like Rudy Gay and first-year head coach Mike Malone was able to help DeMarcus Cousins (22.7 PPG, 11.7 RPG, 1.3 BPG) truly establish himself as a legitimate “face of the franchise.”

Can Darren Collison fill the void left by Isaiah Thomas’ departure?

The truth is, while Thomas was absolutely fantastic for them as more of a scoring point guard, this team doesn’t really need Collison to play quite that style to have an impact. Collison may be an above-average shooter from distance and can definitely get out in transition, but these Kings need him to focus on being a playmaker and distributor as well as being able to lock in and defend at the other end. Malone is a heavy proponent of defensive intensity along the perimeter and Collison is someone that can provide the type of ball pressure he’s looking for. The addition of Ramon Sessions in a reserve role should provide a bit of the scoring punch off the bench in the event the team still needs a boost in that department, and his size (6’3) also grants Malone the ability to use him against some of the bigger point guards if necessary.

Will DeMarcus continue to develop as a leader?

That question may have been laughed at just a couple short years ago, and even though Cousins can still be a very intense player he should absolutely be praised for the progress he’s made as a professional. He’s transitioned from being a guy that was seen as volatile to someone that is learning to utilize his intensity and emotion as weapons of motivation rather than allowing them to be detrimental to the team’s progress. Having just turned 24 during his time spent with Team USA this summer, don’t be surprised to see Cousins take yet another step forward in terms of his professionalism and leadership. That may show up in the form of increased productivity on the court, but Sacramento could most use a steady and strong voice within the locker room.

Will Ben McLemore or rookie Nik Stauskas ultimately be the answer at shooting guard?

Needless to say, if the team decides to spend the eighth-overall pick on Stauskas just a year after using the seventh-overall selection 0n McLemore, it’s clear there are no guarantees for the latter. Even though McLemore showed flashes and signs of his capabilities at times for Sacramento, his inability to find any amount of consistency with his shot had to be a concern for this coaching staff. What they need is someone who will be able to provide balance to the offense. What they don’t need is another scorer that will require in excess of 15-20 shots per night simply in order to get himself going. Offensive efficiency and a willingness to participate in a concerted effort on the defensive end will probably be the determining factors for this potential position battle.

Jabari Davis is a senior NBA Writer and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the Pacific Division and NBA Social Media activity.

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NBA All-Star Friday Recap

Basketball Insiders recaps NBA All-Star Friday 2019, which featured a four-point shot and a deep pool of talent in the Rising Stars Challenge.

Matt John

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NBA All-Star Celebrity Game

The NBA All-Star Celebrity Game had a variety of big names to trot out on Friday night. This list included former NBA players such as Ray Allen and Jay Williams, current WNBA players Stefanie Dolson and A’ja Wilson, entertainers such as JB Smoove, Mike Colter, and Hassan Minhaj, and last year’s MVP, Quavo.

The Home Team was coached by WNBA legend Dawn Staley while the Away Team was coached by WNBA superstar Sue Bird.

Team Staley pulled ahead multiple times throughout the game, but every run they made was followed by a run by Team Bird. Team Bird’s comeback attempt fell short as Team Staley ultimately won 82-80.

Internet Comedian Famous Los led the way for Team Staley, scoring a team-high 22 points on 10-16 shooting while dishing out three assists in the team’s victory. Jay Williams razzled and dazzled as well, scoring 18 points on 8-15 shooting while dishing out five assists – including this beauty.

What could have been with Jay Williams…

Quavo topped his performance last year for Team Staley, scoring a game-high 27 points in total, highlighted by what may very well be the only five-point play to ever happen in an NBA-sponsored basketball game. Quavo shot 13-19 from the field while also corralling nine rebounds as well. Ray Allen also put up a vintage performance, putting up 24 points on 11-21 shooting, nine rebounds and five assists.

There were a few interesting wrinkles to this game. A four-point shot was implemented in which $4,000 would be donated to charity for each shot made from distance. Ten four-pointers were made in the game, totaling $40,000 in charity donations.

Two more fun facts: We didn’t even get a tip-off in this game. Comedian Brad Williams stole the ball from the ref to start it off. Also, just because it’s a harmless exhibition does not mean participants won’t get into it. JB Smoove and Hassan Minhaj got a little testy at the end of the first quarter.

Other participants included:

From Team Bird: Ronnie 2K (Director of influencer marketing, 2K Sports), AJ Buckley (Actor, “SEAL Team”), Bad Bunny (Singer), Marc Lasry (Milwaukee Bucks’ Co-Owner), Adam Ray (Host of About Last Night), Amanda Seales (Actor/Comedian), James Shaw Jr. (Hometown Hero), Brad Williams (Host of About Last Night)

From Team Staley: Chris Daughtry (Singer), Terrence Jenkins (TV Personality/Actor), Dr. Oz (TV Personality), Rapsody (Rapper), Bo Rinehart (Musician), Steve Smith (Former NFL Player), Jason Weissman (Hometown Hero)

MTN DEW ICE Rising Stars

If last year’s Rising Stars game had an overabundance of talent, this one may have very well topped it. That’s how loaded this year’s class was.

Let’s start with what could be a preview for what’s to come next year: Luka Doncic’s performance. More specifically, his connection with Lauri Markaanen. Throughout the first quarter, Doncic found Markaanen everywhere, either for easy alley-oops or wide open threes on the pick and pop.

Why bring this up? Because this is exactly what we could expect to see from Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis when they share the court together, as Markaanen has a similar skill set offensively to Porzingis’.

As for the game itself, Team USA jumped out to a 12-point lead at the half, thanks primarily to the likes of Jayson Tatum (16 points on 6-12 shooting) and Kyle Kuzma (21 points on 10-16 shooting).

Team World wouldn’t go down without a fight. In the third quarter, they managed to cut the deficit down to a point thanks primarily to Doncic and Ben Simmons’  collective efforts, but that was as close as they got. Team USA pulled away in the fourth quarter as they went on to win 161-144.

Simmons led the way for Team World, as he finished with 30 points on 14-17 shooting on a squad where, outside of Simmons, the scoring was pretty well spread out as Doncic, Markaanen, DeAndre Ayton, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Rodney Kurucs, OG Annonuby, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Okogie all had 10 points or more.

Team USA had a few standouts, including Kuzma (35 points on 15-27 shooting), Tatum (30 points on 12-24 shooting), Donovan Mitchell (20 points, nine assists, seven rebounds), and Trae Young (25 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds). All were deserving of the MVP, but the award ultimately went to Kuzma.

Tonight, we go a little deeper into All-Star Weekend with the Dunk Contest, Three-Point Shooting Contest, and the Skills Challenge. Stay tuned!

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NBA Daily: Can Tobias Harris Put the 76ers Over the Top?

Shane Rhodes breaks down whether the addition of Tobias Harris can push the 76ers into the NBA Finals.

Shane Rhodes

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The Philadelphia 76ers made perhaps the biggest move of trade season when they acquired Tobias Harris from the Los Angeles Clippers. Harris, in the midst of a career year, was on the path to a lucrative contract come this summer. But, with an uncertain future in Los Angeles, Philadelphia capitalized and made their move to win now.

In doing so, the 76ers have put together, arguably, the most talented starting roster in the Eastern Conference. But what exactly does Harris bring to the team, and can he put them over the top of their competition in the East?

Harris has very much looked the part of an All-Star this season and has given Brett Brown and the 76ers coaching staff yet another weapon with which to attack defenses. The 26-year-old has posted career highs in points (20.7), rebounds (7.8) and assists (2.8) per game, field goal percentage (49.7) and three-point percentage (43.0) this season and should prove a significant upgrade over Wilson Chandler, who was sent to Los Angeles in the trade, on both offense and defense.

In a superior lineup, his Harris’ play should only improve as well.

His statistical values may dip with the move to Philadelphia, but, in a way, the team may look at that as a positive; with so many talents on the floor together, Brown, in theory, should be able to utilize Harris in order to reduce wear and tear on his other players — namely Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler — and keep them somewhat fresh for the postseason, if not at the expensive of some personal stats.

Harris is another player that can handle the ball and should lead to even more movement within the 76ers offense. He has shown over the years an ability to push the ball up the floor in transition and should relieve some of the pressure from Simmons in that area as well. In the event that he is the lone star on the floor, or should the ball movement stop, Harris able and willing to break out his do-it-himself kit; he may not dance a defender like Kyrie Irving, but he is more than capable of sizing up his man and either hitting a shot in their face or brute-forcing his way to the basket.

Harris is a more-than-capable shooter and, off the ball, should provide Simmons with another reliable perimeter outlet and open things up on the interior open things up inside for him and Embiid as well.

Defensively, Harris isn’t a wizard, but the effort and energy are there and should shine in the already competent 76ers defense. While it may not be ideal in all situations, Harris has the size to bang down low with some centers and the quickness to keep up with smaller players on the perimeter. Harris’ length — a near seven-foot wingspan — should also prove an asset, as he will allow the defense to switch on almost every possession. In the postseason, that could prove invaluable.

As good as this acquisition may look on paper, it isn’t without its cons or risks. Harris’ is another primary option on a team that already had three of them in Embiid, Simmons and Butler; could the presence of too many options bog things down a la the Boston Celtics earlier this season?

His contract situation, alongside the impending free agency of Butler, should give some pause as well.

The team has hedged its future on those two players and given up some good (and some great) assets to acquire them. Should Butler leave, Harris would provide the 76ers with the ultimate insurance policy but, should both players move on after the season it could set the team back years.

The 76ers have plenty of pre-existing issues to figure out as well, a losing record against their chief Eastern Conference competition — Milwaukee Bucks (0-1), Toronto Raptors (1-2) and Celtics (0-3) — most prominent among them.

But, with Harris in the fold, the 76ers seem to have all the pieces of the puzzle. If the players can put it all together, they could very well find themselves in the NBA Finals come June.

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Gordon Hayward Clearing Hurdles, Finding Joy In Comeback From Injury

Spencer Davies sits down with Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward to discuss the first half of his season, returning from a devastating injury and the team blocking out the noise.

Spencer Davies

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As his Boston Celtic teammates got some shots up to prepare for a morning practice in Cleveland, Gordon Hayward sat in a chair on the baseline watching.

Quicken Loans Arena held a particular place in his mind. Not because of a championship memory, nor for any individual accomplishment.

But because nearly five months after an emotional return and season debut, Hayward had come back to the scene where the course of his career shifted in an instant.

“It’s something that I was thinking about sitting in the hotel last night,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders before shootaround at The Q. “Like, last time I was here, my whole world changed. I’ll probably think about it, be a little anxious about it at the beginning when I first check in, but then when I get going it’ll be fine.”

If there was any trepidation, it was either short-lived or didn’t show. The 28-year-old looked as confident as ever, packing a powerful punch off the bench as a scorer and a distributor for a depleted Boston team. He finished with 18 points, six rebounds and five assists.

“I didn’t even think about that until this morning,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said of Hayward’s return to Cleveland. “I thought about it in the preseason and then for whatever reason, I probably should’ve thought about it.

“I just think he has played enough now where he’s past that initial hurdle, right? So it’s probably not fun to walk out on the court the first time and shoot around and those type of things but ultimately, I think he probably moved past that really quickly. I thought he was great tonight, both ends of the court. I thought his offensive playmaking passing the ball was as good as his scoring.”

Hayward has scored 20 points or more on just three different occasions this year. It’s a far cry from the All-Star numbers he used to put up nightly. He understands, however, that perseverance is necessary as he slowly, but surely gets re-acclimated to playing.

“Physically, I’ve felt pretty good. I think I’m definitely moving way better than I was at the beginning of the season,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders. “I’m getting more and more confident with each month, each week. There’s definitely still games where I just don’t feel like myself, but I think I’m trending in the right direction.”

When asked about those areas that don’t feel right yet Hayward pinpointed attacking the basket, specifically going at big men in the paint, taking contact and finishing.

Knowing that he can go up, get hit and be able to come down fine is a mental hurdle Hayward admittedly still has to clear—and the only way to get past that is repetition.

“You just have to do it, and do it more than one time,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders. “It’s like an experience-type thing. You’ve got to just do it and feel confident doing it, and until that happens, then you’ll just keep thinking about it.”

Once Hayward is driving and dunking on a regular basis without thinking about what happens next, he says he’ll officially be back. Until then, an appreciation of being able to play the game he loves again is the true big picture—especially after an injury that could’ve taken it all away from him.

“That’s been a mental thing as well is trying to find some joy in just the fact that I’m back out on the court,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders. “Because some people don’t return from that and a blessing that we have the technology that we do these days that they were able to fix my ankle. So I guess just being patient with the whole thing, that’s been a challenge.”

CELTICS A WORK IN PROGRESS

Coming into the 2017-18 season, the excitement in Boston was palpable. Hayward signed a four-year maximum contract with the Celtics that summer. Shortly thereafter, Danny Ainge made a blockbuster deal to acquire Kyrie Irving, creating a dynamic duo to begin a new era of C’s basketball.

The Celtics started the campaign on the road against the defending Eastern Conference Champion Cavaliers in October. Since the storyline of the night was Irving facing off against the franchise he had won a championship with on opening night, Hayward’s debut took a bit of a back seat…until the unthinkable happened.

Less than halfway into the first quarter, Irving saw a cutting Hayward with an open path to the rim and threw up a lob looking for an alley-oop finish. Cleveland’s Jae Crowder and LeBron James came to double before Boston’s pair could connect, leaving Hayward afloat in an awkward position.

Hayward came down almost horizontally, with only his left leg there to brace himself for the fall. Tragically, he dislocated his ankle and fractured his tibia simultaneously in one of the most gruesome moments in the history of sports.

As he was consoled by trainers and wheeled away on a stretcher with an air cast, the whole arena was dead silent. Players from both teams were praying in disbelief of what they’d just witnessed. Just like that, Hayward’s season was over, and even perhaps his career.

Following multiple successful surgeries and going through rehabilitation programs over the course of a year, Hayward was able to make a miraculous return to the court on October 16, 2018. He’s been on the floor for 26 minutes per night, playing in 53 of 58 total games.

Just as Hayward has tirelessly ground away to get back to form, so have the Celtics. With a healthy Irving and returning Hayward, along with the group that unexpectedly went seven games into the conference finals last year, they were supposed to be the top dog in the East.

It’s no secret that the Celtics boast an abundance of young talent. Jaylen Brown has shown plenty of growth after a shaky start to the season. Terry Rozier is on track to get paid in the offseason by a team in need of a starting point guard. Jayson Tatum is Boston’s second-best scorer (16.5 points per game) and rebounder (6.3 boards per game) at just 20 years old.

That goes without mentioning rookie center Robert Williams. Daniel Theis and Brad Wanamaker, while not quite as young, are two inexperienced NBA players who have overseas experience. The Celtics’ depth is a quality that is necessary for a deep run in the postseason.

“I think anytime they have an opportunity, they seem to make the most of it. That’s at every position,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders.

At the halfway mark headed into the All-Star break, Boston holds fifth place, locked in a battle with the likes of the Philadelphia 76ers and Indiana Pacers for the three seed. The Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors each have 43 wins with over five games separating them from the trio of teams behind them.

Despite back-to-back blown leads and losses to both Los Angeles franchises at the TD Garden, the Celtics have won 12 of their last 15 contests.

“I think when we all play with energy and when we’re connected defensively – and offensively, for that matter, but especially on the defensive end – we give ourselves a chance to win the game,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders. “Then, when we are able to move the ball and put together games where we have 30-plus assists, that’s when we’re really tough (to beat).”

TUSSLING WITH THE MEDIA

It hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows, though. Early in the season, there were many things said by multiple players on the record, including some pointed words from Irving in more than one instance. These comments can be twisted and turned easily.

Add in an example: the day he told reporters, “Ask me July 1,” regarding his free agency plans, it turned into a big mess of speculation. What many people didn’t hear was Irving’s thoughts regarding the media’s spin on what was actually going on.

“This is like college recruitment for me all over again. I don’t know. This is just weird,” Irving said to the scrum of reporters in New York. “It’s a new position to be in answering all these questions, seeing all this stuff that I’m trying to avoid, and it’s just a distraction. It’s crazy how stories and things and storyline can seep into a locker room. You guys are part of the destruction of locker rooms. That’s just what it is….”

Hayward had plenty of his own thoughts on the matter.

“I mean, I think certainly all outside noise has an opportunity to put a wedge between people and between teammates,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders. “I think especially in today’s age where there’s social media and information is right now, all-the-time, like everybody sees what everybody says. There’s guys that are paid to give their opinions on things and, if you read into all that stuff, can definitely put a wedge in between guys.

“More than anything, just talking to people,” Hayward said of the proper remedy. “If you have an issue with somebody, just tell ’em, talk to ’em. But I think for the most part if you block all that stuff out and really just focus on yourself as a group and what the coaching staff is saying and what your teammates are saying, it’s usually better.”

FATHERHOOD IS A BLESSING

We talked about the youth Boston has already, but Hayward isn’t in that same category anymore. While it’s not that he’s old, per se, he is a nine-year man in the NBA.

Hayward considers it “weird” that he’s the veteran now. Yet, at the same time, he doesn’t mind that time has flown by because of the gift of fatherhood. The injury he sustained was absolutely devastating.

But it put things in perspective for him, and no matter what happens from here on out with his career, Hayward will always be grateful for the most important thing in his life—family.

“No doubt. I think no matter what happens on the court, my girls don’t care,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders. “They just care that dad’s home and they want to play hot lava and play picnic and all that stuff. Like having three healthy kids and a wife at home, those things are good.”

If Hayward’s recent play is an indication of what we’re going to see from him moving forward, he might just get the best of both worlds.

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