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).


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:

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 have shown a knack for the comeback this year

AP Photo

Celtics have shown a knack for the comeback this year

BOSTON -- As I made my way towards the Boston Celtics locker room following their 100-99 win over Oklahoma City on Tuesday night, I walked past co-owner Wyc Grousbeck, who, as you might expect, was pleased with what he had just witnessed.
“That was a good one,” he said.
That’s one way to describe it.


But explaining the Houdini-like way the Celtics seem to get out of some serious jams over and over again, and against really good teams, is indeed a head-scratcher for most.
It’s getting to the point where we’re running out of fresh adjectives to describe this team, which has a knack for the comeback.
“Improbable” doesn’t do justice to how Boston’s hit-the-lottery luck has played out so often on nights when it seemed on the doorstep of defeat.
And this town loves a good comeback story, whether it’s Tom Brady leading the Patriots to a Super Bowl win after being down by 25 points, or the Celtics spotting the NBA champ Golden State Warriors a 17-point cushion before rallying for a meaningful November win -- a rarity in the NBA.
But the obscure and unexpected have become standard in this seemingly alternate basketball universe that the Celtics play in, one that we have been bearing witness to all season.

I mean, look at their body of work:

DECEMBER 18: Down by one on the road at Indiana in the closing seconds of play in what appears to be a tough road loss, Terry Rozier steals and races down the floor looking like Deion Sanders in high-tops, for a game-winning dunk.

DECEMBER 28: Trailing the Houston Rockets by 26 points in the third quarter, they rally back and steal the win with not one, but two offensive fouls drawn in the last minute by Marcus Smart against perennial league MVP candidate James Harden.

JANUARY 11: In London, they erased a 22-point deficit and defeated Philly.

FEBRUARY 4: There was a buzzer-beater by Al Horford to beat Portland on Super Bowl Sunday.

And . . . well, you get the idea.

Boston has six wins by a single point this season, which is tied with Miami for the season lead and is one shy of tying the franchise record for one-point wins in a season. 

In addition, Boston has won 10 games this season in which it fell behind by 12 or more points. 
Winning so many games under less-than-ideal circumstances has not only padded the Celtics' win total, but also reinforced this team with a Teflon-strong mindset. They believe they're tthe ultimate practitioner of basketball necromancy, consistently finding a way to rise up from the basketball graveyard of defeat and win in dramatic fashion.

Like they did Tuesday night against the Thunder.

How can you bank on Carmelo Anthony, a career 81.2 percent free-throw shooter, missing a pair with less than nine seconds to play?
Or botching the play Brad Stevens drew up at the end of the game -- "We kind of messed [it] up," said Jayson Tatum -- but, rather than it leading to a turnover, instead becoming a game-winning 3-pointer by Marcus Morris with 1.8 seconds to spare? 


 It was another crazy ending in what has been a season filled with bizarre finishes, jaw-dropping rallies and a never-say-it’s-over brand of basketball that has kept Celtics fans on the edge of their seats all season.
“It’s great to be in a situation where you’re down six with under a minute to play or whatever it was, and you find a way to win the game,” said Stevens. “That’s going to be pretty unique, but they just kept playing the next possession and we were fortunate that that shot went down. That was a heck of a shot by Marcus."
A heck of a shot?
But in this bizarro world of Celtics basketball this season, it was predictable as the Thunder became yet another team to play Boston and leave wondering the same thing most Celtics fans do … “Did THAT just happen?


Kevin Garnett predicts Marcus Morris' game-winner right before it happens

Kevin Garnett predicts Marcus Morris' game-winner right before it happens

Kevin Garnett was paying close attention to Tuesday night's thriller between the Celtics and Thunder.

MORE - Blakely's stars, studs, and duds from C's-Thunder

On KG's Area 21, the former Celtics great watched as Boston rallied in the game's final minute to make a stunning comeback. Right before Marcus Morris drilled the game-winner, Garnett called it by saying, "The Morris twin will end up shooting this or something because he like 'yeah I'm about the moment'"

Not a bad call. Morris certainly was "about the moment" Tuesday night as he has been multiple times this season.