Celtics

A. Sherrod Blakely’s Starting 5: Unmasking the NBA’s best

A. Sherrod Blakely’s Starting 5: Unmasking the NBA’s best

BOSTON –  The NBA has seen its share of early-season injuries, some resulting in guys out for the season (Gordon Hayward) while others missing just a couple games (Al Horford out two games with a concussion).

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And then there’s Kyrie Irving, who suffered a facial fracture that kept him for one game. He was supposed to wear a plastic protective mask for a couple weeks. Instead, it lasted one game and part of another before Irving decided to ditch it.
 
Kyrie’s mask got me to thinking … who are the best masked men in the NBA?
 
Today's Starting Five will include the top 5 masked men in the annals of NBA history, in addition to the top 5 teams, MVP candidates, rookies and defenders:
 
TOP 5 MASKED MEN


1. Rip Hamilton, Detroit – Worn initially for protection, his mask became an iconic look for the three-time All-star.

2. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers – Mask worn in 2012, the last year Bryant appeared in the playoffs.

3. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City – He looked and played like a superhero in his first game with a mask in 2015, tallying 49 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists in a win over Philly.

4. LeBron James – Ever the fashion-forward one, James wore a black, carbon-fiber mask to protect his broken nose in 2014.

5. Kyrie Irving - He played with a mask for 19 games in 2013, averaging 24.5 points and 47.5 percent from the field and 39.8 percent from 3-point range.
 
TOP 5 MVP CANDIDATES


1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee – The addition of Eric Bledsoe has helped rack up some wins, strengthen Antetokounmpo’s chances atop the MVP leaderboard.

2. Kevin Durant, Golden State – Shooting better than 50 percent from the field, Durant has stepped his passing game (career-high 5.0 assists now) up this season while continuing to pile up the wins.

3. James Harden, Houston – Not having Chris Paul around most of this season and still winning, is a reminder of how Harden has played at a consistently high level against all comers.

4. LeBron James, Cleveland – Three straight wins and the Cavs are well on their way to getting back into the thick of things, with LeBron leading the way.

5. Al Horford, Boston – In his last three games, he’s shooting 76.6 percent and has been a central figure in Boston’s rise to the top of the NBA standings.
 
TOP 5 ROOKIES


1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia - He has eight double-doubles and a pair of triple-doubles to his credit this season. He’s the rookie everyone is chasing now.

2. Dennis Smith Jr., Dallas - You have to watch this guy play. Would be getting a lot more pub if the Mavs had a better record.

3. Jayson Tatum, Boston - Had a rough start against the Warriors, but bounced back and made key plays down the stretch helping Boston get the win.

4. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers - The late first-round pick has been an absolute Godsend to the Lakers, able to contribute in a multiple of ways.

5. Lonzo Ball, Los Angeles Lakers - He has been up and down like most rookies. But his court vision alone will keep him on the floor for many years to come.
 
TOP 5 DEFENDERS


1. Al Horford, Boston - He’s the best defender on the NBA’s best team defensively. It makes sense for Horford to be the pace-setter in this category.

2. Rudy Gobert, Utah - A towering presence, this 7-foot-2 big man will once again be a top-3 finisher when it comes to the league’s highest defensive honor.

3. Draymond Green, Golden State - The reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Green is the rare player who can defend all five positions at a fairly high level.
 
4.  Andre Roberson, Oklahoma City - His ability to defend guards as well as switch out defensively is a huge plus to the Thunder.
 
5. Aron Baynes, Boston - You will be hard-pressed to find anyone who utilizes the NBA’s rule of verticality  better than Baynes.
 
TOP 5 TEAMS


1. Boston – Winning 14 games, that’s one thing. But to beat Golden State along the journey? That’s special.

2. Golden State – Loss to Boston be damned, the Warriors are still the team everyone emulates … even now.

3. Houston – Can score with the best of them, but until they defend at a high level their success will remain limited primarily to the regular season.

4. Minnesota – It’s still early, but it’s hard to imagine the Timberwolves going anywhere but up the Western Conference standings.

5. Detroit – Outside of Boston, there may not be a bigger surprise in the NBA thus far than Detroit.

Celtics get back to work, but are thinking ahead

Celtics get back to work, but are thinking ahead

Earlier this week, Celtics big man Al Horford referred to the matchups following the All-Star break as “rehearsal games” for what really matters – the playoffs.

As important as it is to win, it’s even more vital to start building good habits at both ends of the floor, the things that become absolutely essential to a team’s pursuit of going deep into the playoffs.

And as much as the Celtics try to stick to the “one day at a time” mantra that all teams talk about incessantly, they are no different than most teams near the top of the standings.

They want to get to the playoffs and are well aware that how they handle themselves and grow in the coming weeks will have a major impact on their postseason success or struggles.

“I believe this is the time where you start doing this now in preparation for the playoffs,” said Jaylen Brown. “I remember with the group we had last year, everybody started making sacrifices mentally, physically, and prepared themselves for the long haul. And now you can see the same thing happening with this team. Especially physically, just knowing what we have to do to be a team that plays in the long, long end part of the season.”

HOMECOMING (OF SORTS) FOR HORFORD
Al Horford is proud of his Dominican Republic roots, but often it’s forgotten that he played his prep basketball in Michigan. The big man and his family moved to Michigan in 2000 where Horford played for Grand Ledge (Mich.) High School and become a four-star recruit before taking his talents to the University of Florida where he helped lead the Gators to back-to-back national championships.

Grand Ledge is about 90 minutes northwest of Detroit.

BAYNES FACTOR
Despite playing fewer minutes than any of Boston’s starters, there’s no getting around the impact Aron Baynes has had when he plays. This season, the Celtics have a defensive rating of 96.4 when he’s on the floor. That number jumpers to 103.5 for a team-best differential of 7.1.

CLOSE CALLS
Celtics fans definitely come away feeling they got their money’s worth when the Green Team plays most nights. This season, Boston has won a league-high five games by one point. The last time they had more one-point wins in a season was the 1995-96 season when they won six games by a single point. The franchise record of one-point victories (seven) was set in the 1981-82 season.

MORE BUCKETS FOR BROWN
When Jaylen Brown scores, good things tend to happen for the Celtics. This season, Boston is 8-1 when he scores at least 18 points.

KYRIE ON THE ROAD
Kyrie Irving loves to get baskets at the TD Garden, but has shown an ability to elevate his scoring even more on the road. His numbers in several categories are indeed better on the road than they are at home. He’s averaging 23.7 points at home, but that number increases to 25.8 on the road. His shooting on the road is a strong 50.3 percent, up from 46.8 at home. And from 3-point range, Irving connects at 42.8 percent rate on the road compared to just 36.6 percent at home.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

 
 

WATCH: Boston Celtics vs. Detroit Pistons

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NBC Sports Boston illustration

WATCH: Boston Celtics vs. Detroit Pistons

Tune into NBC Sports Boston to watch the Celtics host the Clippers at TD Garden. You can also click here to watch the Celtics livestream presented by Nissan on the NBC Sports App. Coverage begins at 6:30  p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live Presented by ACE Ticket.

- Game preview: Familiar matchup, unfamiliar faces

- Channel Finder: Make sure you know where to watch

[SHOP: Gear up, Celtics fans!]