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.

A night to forget in Chicago for C's

A night to forget in Chicago for C's

BOSTON – No Kyrie Irving. The fifth game in eight nights. Chicago getting Nikola Mirotic back.
 
There’s a long list of reasons one can surmise in trying to make sense of Boston’s 108-85 loss to the woeful Chicago Bulls on Monday.

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“They came out with more energy, more purpose,” Al Horford told reporters after the loss. “We probably needed more sense of urgency.”
 
He’s right.
 
At no point in the game did the Celtics play with the kind of desperation needed to be competitive, let alone emerge with a win.
 
The loss hurts but doesn’t have much of an impact on the team’s record (23-6) or position as the best team record-wise in the East.
 
Still, it serves as a stark reminder of what can happen when even the best of teams don’t play with some semblance of desperation – they can get crushed.
 
“Chicago dictated the whole game; they played harder than we did,” Stevens said. “They played with more presence than we did; played more competitive than we did. They played with more authority than we did. You’re not going to win many games when you play like that.”
 
Here are five other takeaways from the loss:


JAYSON TATUM
The 19-year-old had one of those back-to-earth moments on Monday. He delivered the kind of sub-par performance we have not seen from him this season, which is pretty amazing considering we’re more than a third of the way through the regular season. Tatum had a season-low four points, missing six of his seven shots along with all four of his 3-point attempts.


 


LACK OF HUSTLE
For most of the game, Chicago simply outworked Boston, which again is something we have not seen much of this season. And this was noticeable at both ends of the floor. Against the Bulls, Boston had a total of seven assists via screens. To put that in perspective, Aron Baynes had eight screen assists by himself in Sunday’s win at Detroit. And with so much length, the Celtics are accustomed to getting their hands on a lot of balls via deflections. Boston’s deflection total against the Bulls? Two. It was that kind of night for the Green Team.


SCHEDULED LOSS?
No team wants to blame the schedule for a loss, but there are certain games in which the degree of difficulty to win is increased in part because of timing. Monday night's game was Boston’s fifth in eight days. No matter how talented or deep a team may be, such stretches of play eventually factor into a not-so-great performance. We’ve seen the Celtics have a few of these this season, but often found a way to muster up enough stretches of good play to escape with a win. But on Monday, they just couldn’t string together enough good plays at either end of the floor to swing the game’s momentum in their favor.


 
KYRIE IRVING
We have thought highly of Irving since he’s joined the Celtics, in large part because of what he does to impact winning. His sitting out Monday night to rest a sore quad muscle created a window of opportunity for his teammates. Instead, the game turned into a referendum on why Irving is an MVP candidate. This team without him, on Monday night at least, was horrible. If he does miss any more games, you can count on the Celtics playing much better than what we saw against Chicago. But in the meantime, they would just as soon leave the Irving-less games to hypothetical scenarios rather than being part of their reality.



BRAD STEVENS
There have been some who have debated whether Brad Stevens is the real MVP of this Celtics team and will use Monday’s loss as an example to debunk that notion. But here’s what you have to remember. A coaches’ game plan is only as good as the players are at executing it. And just like players will have a stinker game here and there over an 82-game regular season, the same goes for coaches. Stevens couldn’t find a matchup against Chicago that worked. And defensively, the players were a step slow most of the night no matter what Stevens called for them to do. Could Stevens have done a better job? Absolutely. He’ll be the first to tell you that. But this loss was more about the Celtics not playing with enough of a sense of urgency, which is a collaborative effort between Stevens and his players. They fell short of accomplishing that against the Bulls.

Celtics defense doesn't rise to occasion with Kyrie out vs. Bulls

Celtics defense doesn't rise to occasion with Kyrie out vs. Bulls

New experiences are a given when you have as many new faces as the Boston Celtics have this season.

Monday’s 108-85 loss to the Chicago Bulls?

Yup, that’s a new one.

You can rest assured the Celtics won’t dwell on this loss too long. But that doesn’t mean it’ll be forgotten quickly, either.

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As the Boston Celtics piled up the wins this season (they still lead the East with a 23-6 record), head coach Brad Stevens has tried to keep his team humble, reminding them that if they don’t play well they can be beat by anybody … even the Bulls.

Even in defeat, Boston has managed to at least give themselves a shot at winning with good energy and effort from most if not every player that steps on the court.

“We have a young group, so we usually have a lot of energy,” Boston’s Jaylen Brown told reporters afterwards. “We just couldn’t find it tonight. We start off bad, we usually find a way to come back and rally into the game. We could just never get it going.”

Boston’s Al Horford echoed similar sentiments.

“Credit to our group. We go out, we fight every night,” Horford said. “And tonight, we pushed but they answered back. We never caught a break. There were times there, we could have had a three (3-pointer) and we missed it. And then they come down and hit a three. It was kind of like … one of those nights, everything was working their way. Gotta give them credit. They came out the aggressor. They held it and we didn’t have it tonight.”

Of course, the easy way to explain away what happened was to point out the impact of not having Kyrie Irving (quads injury).

While there’s no question not having the team’s top scorer has a negative impact on the team’s overall play, the Celtics are a team that’s rooted in strong defensive play which should have been on display against Chicago.

Instead of Boston’s defense taking the lead, they were a non-factor most of the night, especially when it came to Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis who had 24 and 23 points, respectively.

“We didn’t challenge Mirotic or Portis at all,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “And they got to the rim whenever they wanted.”

Fortunately for the Celtics, they return home where they can try and get back on a winning track after losing two of their last three games.

“We have to respond against Denver (on Wednesday),” Brown said. “When we come back and play them, we should have more energy.”

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