Celtics

Blakely: An early look at some early exits

Blakely: An early look at some early exits

BOSTON – Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr. will undergo back surgery that’s expected to keep him out for the rest of this season, giving him a college career that will likely consist of two points in two minutes of action.
 
Projected as a potential No. 1 overall pick in next June’s NBA draft, his injury sent shock waves throughout the college basketball landscape as well as among NBA executives, who now must weigh the injury in their evaluation regardless of how well he recovers or even he aces the physical tests he’ll surely undergo leading up to the draft.

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You can count the Celtics among those to pay close attention to what’s happening with Porter Jr., a player that may be available to them in June courtesy of the first-round pick from the Los Angeles Lakers (via Philadelphia) that Boston received as part of the Markelle Fultz-Jayson Tatum trade.
 
As talented as Porter Jr. is, he won’t be the only high draft pick counted on to make an impact at the next level.
 
In this week’s Starting Five, we’ll take a look at the top five college freshman (most of whom are expected to turn pro and be in the draft in June) as well as MVP candidates; the top backcourts; the top rookies and my top five teams on the rise.

TOP 5 COLLEGE FRESHMEN
1. Marvin Bagley III, Duke: Has a double-double in four of Duke’s six games this season, averaging 19.0 points and 10.0 rebounds per game.

2. DeAndre Ayton, Arizona: Has impressive numbers, but back-to-back losses by the Wildcats? Not a good look for this future lottery pick.

3. Michael Porter Jr., Missouri: Depending on how his recovery/workouts/physicals go, no shocker if he winds up as the No. 1 pick when all is said and done.

4. Collin Sexton, Alabama: Big-time scorer, Sexton is a tough, tough cover in the half court or in transition.

5. Mohamed Bamba, Texas: 7-footer with a 7-9 wingspan, think Rudy Gobert with better athleticism.


TOP 5 NBA BACKCOURTS 
1. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, Golden State: NBA champions two of the last three seasons, Curry and Thompson are the gold standard all NBA backcourts are measured against.
 
2. Chris Paul and James Harden, Houston: The sample size is small, but the three games since Paul’s return have been by an average of 26 points per game which speaks to how well this all-star backcourt has come together.
 
3. John Wall and Bradley Beal, Washington: Wall’s end-to-end speed coupled with Beal’s elite shooting has made this one of the game’s most deadly backcourt duos.
 
4. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, Toronto: They’re the next best thing backcourt-wise to Wall/Beal in the East, but Boston’s Kyrie Irving and Jaylen Brown are right on their heels.
 
5. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, Portland: You don’t hear a ton about these two because Portland has been a good-but-not-great program that doesn’t garner a ton of attention. But don’t be fooled. Lillard and McCollum are two of the league’s most dynamic scorers.
 
 
TOP 5 MVP CANDIDATES
1. James Harden, Houston: A prolific scorer, Harden leads the NBA in scoring (31.1 points) and assists (9.8) per game while boasting the best record in the West.

2. Kyrie Irving, Boston:  The best player on the team with the best record who has been at his best in the clutch – that’s Kyrie Irving this season.

3. LeBron James, Cleveland: The Cavs are starting to roll up the wins and it is once again due to LeBron James doing LeBron James things.

4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee: The MVP front-runner the first couple of weeks of the season, the Greek Freak is still a load for teams to deal with.

5. Kristaps Porzingis, New York:  Among the NBA’s top-5 in scoring and blocked shots, Porzingis’ biggest achievement has been leading a far more competitive Knicks team than what we’ve seen the past couple of years.
 

TOP 5 ROOKIES
1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia: A triple-double in the making, his statistics combined with Philly winning make him a no-brainer if he can stay healthy.

2. Jayson Tatum, Boston: His numbers are solid, but he moves to the forefront of those being considered because of his two-way play and his team’s success.

3. Donovan Mitchell, Utah: His 14.3 points leads all rookies who average less than 30 minutes played per game.

4. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers: Only Simmons is averaging more points among rookies than Kuzma (16.8 points per game).

5. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago: The Bulls are bad, but Markkanen’s inside-outside is impressive regardless of how his team has fared this season.
 

TOP 5 TEAMS ON THE RISE
1. Cleveland: With Boston’s loss, the Cavs have the longest current winning streak which stands at six wins in a row.

2. New Orleans: Currently with the seventh-best record in the West, the Pelicans have won seven of their last 10 games.

3. Indiana: Only Cleveland has been hotter than the Pacers, winners of four in a row.

4. Philadelphia: Joel Embiid has the Sixers three games above-.500, trending towards entering league MVP conversation.

5. San Antonio: After 4-4 start, Spurs are 7-3 since and very much in the thick of things out West.

Horford knows Celtics need to take it one day at a time

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Horford knows Celtics need to take it one day at a time

LOS ANGELES – Al Horford is credited for consistently being someone whose play contributes heavily to winning games.

But it was in defeat in the playoffs nearly a decade ago to the Boston Celtics that has shaped him into the player we see before us today.

“They were a tough team,” Horford said of the eventual NBA champion Celtics. “Defensively, just as good as they come. They looked like a very together group.”

Horford added, “It helped me tremendously. It helped that team that I was with in Atlanta, a lot. To have that experience, to go against the eventual champions but at that time a veteran team like the Celtics, it really but really made me realize the level I needed to play and the things I needed to do to for the team to be successful.”

And those lessons have helped shape the 31-year-old into being a five-time all-star whose teams have been to the playoffs every year he has been in the NBA.

“That first year could not have gone any better. It was a great learning experience and I felt it helped set up the rest of my career,” Horford said.

These days, Horford finds himself as the voice of experience on a Celtics team that has been among the NBA’s best squads for most of this season.

Horford has an open-door policy when it comes to doling out advice and tips for improvement, to his younger teammates.

But he knows first-hand the greatest teacher is experience.

“You can say things but you have to live through different things,” Horford said. “The biggest thing I try to emphasize to them and coach (Brad Stevens) talks about, is embracing the now. It’s about taking advantage of what we have now. 

Horford added, "I've been in the league, this is my 11th year, you never know if you’re going to have the same teammates next year. That happened to us last year. We had a great year and I look around and it’s only four of us remaining. I just think it’s embracing and taking advantage of doing the best you can with the group you have.”

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Horford can cross skills challenge off his bucket list

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Horford can cross skills challenge off his bucket list

LOS ANGELES – After making a near-perfect pass during the early stages of the Taco Bell Skills Challenge, Al Horford was feeling good about his chances of winning.

But near the end, the final stage – knocking down a 3-pointer – proved to be Horford’s undoing as Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid eliminated Horford in the first round after Horford missed three consecutive three-pointers.

“It happens. It was fun,” Horford said.

Embiid, who was eliminated in the next round by Chicago’s Lauri Markkanen, said he was nervous before the event.

“I don’t know why. My heart was beating so fast,” Embiid told reporters. “I have no idea. But I thought it was fun.”

Although Horford has been a part of all-star weekend four times prior to tonight, this was the first time he participated in the Skills Challenge.

“It’s different. I normally come as a fan,” he said. “This time it was a little different, just getting your mind set and come out here and compete and win. It’s good to be a part of it. Now I can just scratch that off.”

When I asked him about tips or advice from teammates, he said the only thing they told him was he “had to win it.”

“I let them down so I have to make it up in the season,” said Horford, grinning.

Brooklyn’s Spencer Dinwiddie wound up winning the event, over Markkanen.

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