Joel Embiid

Horford can cross skills challenge off his bucket list

horford_celtics_allstargame_2172018.jpg
USA TODAY Sports Photo

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.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Celtics-76ers preview: Sweeping Sixers means limiting Joel Embiid

celtic_76ers_embiid.jpg

Celtics-76ers preview: Sweeping Sixers means limiting Joel Embiid

BOSTON – Joel Embiid is Philadelphia’s starting center. 

And when it comes to the team’s play, he wants to be the center of attention. 

Well big fella, you’ll get your wish tonight as the Boston Celtics (34-11) go for the season sweep against the Philadelphia. 

But for the Sixers (20-20) to win in Boston for the first time since 2014, they’ll have to do it without J.J. Redick (out with left fibula injury) who had a game-high 22 points when the Celtics and Sixers played last week in London. 

That means Embiid will have the ball in his hands quite a bit, as Philly tries to make up for the absence of Redick who is one of the best long-range shooters in the NBA. 

“We know they’ll go more inside to (Ben) Simmons and (Joel) Embiid,” said Celtics forward/center Daniel Theis. “It’s gonna be a team job to … focus on defense again.”

When the two met last week in London, defense was an afterthought for Boston in the first half, struggles that allowed Philadelphia to pull ahead by as many as 22 points before the Celtics regrouped, re-focused and played with a re-energized vigor in the second half before pulling away for a 114-103 win. 

Doing so tonight will once again require them to limit the impact of Embiid who will have the offense flow more through him, something that did not happen in the early goings of last week’s game, something Embiid didn’t mince his words about following the loss. 

“I started off really frustrated by the way everything was set up,” Embiid said following the loss in London. “And if I’m not having fun … kick someone’s ass or talking trash, if I’m not doing that, usually I have bad games.”

Embiid had a double-double of 15 points, 10 rebounds and five assists against the Celtics, but he shot just 6-for-17 from the field and turned the ball over four times.

“I didn’t do a good job of letting my teammates find me,” Embiid said at the time.

While Embiid believes his struggles in London had more to do with what he didn’t do rather than what the Celtics did, the Celtics have done a good job defensively on Embiid all season. 

In the two games Embiid has played against the Celtics this season, he is averaging 13.0 points while shooting just 30.3 percent from the field. Both serve as Embiid’s lowest scoring average and shooting percentage against teams he faced more than once this season. 

 And his career average of 16.3 points per game against Boston is his lowest career scoring average against any team that he has played against at least three times. 

One of the keys to the Celtics defensively has been Aron Baynes, whose 94.9 defensive rating is tops among all NBA players who log at least 18 minutes of action per game.

Baynes has size, strength and has better lateral quickness than one would expect for a 6-foot-10, 260-pound center. 

But preparation is also key for his success defensively. 

“We have great coaches here and watch so much film,” Baynes told NBC Sports Boston. “They tell you their tendencies, whatever you need to do for the upcoming game, they put you in great position. As long as you stay within the system, you’re usually in a pretty good spot. That’s what I try and do.”

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Blakely's 2018 All-Star Game selections

blakely_all_star.jpg

Blakely's 2018 All-Star Game selections

WALTHAM -- The NBA has tweaked the rules a bit this year for All-Star voting, including a component in which a select number of media members are included in the voting process.

I am fortunate to be among the voting media members this year. 

And while the league won’t reveal exactly who each media member voted for, I have no problem publicly announcing who my starting five in the Eastern and Western Conferences, respectively, would be this season. 

But before I do that, I need to explain my criteria for picking the starters. 

First and foremost, they have to be players who clearly impact winning and their team’s success. 

Most of the time, this is pretty apparent when you look at the numbers they post on a night-in, night-out basis. 

But every now and then, there’s a player whose numbers don’t speak to their impact on the court (yes, I have one guy in my starting five who falls under that category).

While most of the selections were relatively easy picks, the Western Conference was tricky because of the insanely elite depth in the backcourt.

Golden State’s Stephen Curry, Houston’s James Harden and Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook are all worthy of having all-star starter status. 

But because only two guards can be picked, one of them will continue to be left off until All-Star selections become position-less picks akin to the way the game is being played these days. 

 In addition, you have players like Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler, who would have been a starter on my ballot if it wasn’t for the fact that the 6-foot-8 Butler is listed as a guard and not in the frontcourt.

And with that, here are my All-Star selections for the Eastern and Western Conferences which includes my honorable mentions (aka likely all-star reserves).

EASTERN CONFERENCE

GUARDS

Kyrie Irving, Boston: A four-time All-Star, Irving has been the ultimate difference-maker for a Celtics team that has been among the NBA’s top teams most of this season. 

DeMar DeRozan, Toronto: One of the best scorers in the NBA, DeRozan’s play has elevated him to being in the league MVP conversation this season.

Honorable mentions: Victor Oladipo, Indiana. Bradley Beal, Washington. Kemba Walker, Charlotte. John Wall, Washington.

FRONTCOURT

LeBron James, Cleveland: At 34 years young, James seems to be getting better with time. Now the rest of the Cavs … that’s an entirely different story.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee: The Greek Freak train has slowed down some, but he’s still one of the best stat-stuffers in the NBA.

Joel Embiid, Philadelphia: There are a handful of players on the cusp of being named to their first All-Star team. You would be hard-pressed to find someone more deserving than Embiid this year.

Honorable mentions: Al Horford, Boston. Kevin Love, Cleveland. Kristaps Porzingis, New York.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

GUARDS

James Harden, Houston: A hamstring injury has him currently sidelined, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that he ranks among the league’s top 10 in scoring (32.3), assists (9.1) and steals (1.8) per game.

Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City: Tough call between Westbrook and Curry. But ultimately, it was Westbrook tallying 13 (and counting) double-doubles to include at least 20 points scored, and Curry missing 14 games this season that ultimately tipped – just barely – Westbrook ahead of Curry. 

Honorable mentions: Stephen Curry, Golden State. Jimmy Butler, Minnesota. Klay Thompson, Golden State. 

FRONTCOURT

Kevin Durant, Golden State: In what will be a ninth straight All-Star selection, Durant is having a pretty standard season of elite play, averaging 26.3 points, 7.0 rebounds and 5.3 assists along with a career-high 2.1 blocked shots per game. 

Anthony Davis, New Orleans: The Pelicans are winning and definitely on the rise, and part of that certainly has to do with Davis being a more efficient scorer. He averages 26.7 points per game while shooting career highs from the field (56.6 percent) and 3-point range (36.1 percent).

Draymond Green, Golden State: Easily the toughest call of all my selections, my preference was to have 6-8 Jimmy Butler of Minnesota here. His leadership, versatility and presence have been at the heart of Minnesota’s resurgence into a legitimate playoff contender this season. But Butler is listed as a guard and there’s no way I could have him start and have Westbrook or Harden come off the bench. Butler’s teammate Karl-Anthony Towns is a logical option to be the fifth starter, and I went back and forth between him and Green. There’s no question that Towns has the better statistics. And if it were only about stats, then you would have to throw New Orleans’ DeMarcus Cousins into the mix as well. I’m a big believer that every All-Star game should have at least one guy in it who is being rewarded for being an ultimate glue-guy, a player whose statistics consistently come up short when compared to his impact on winning. You can find better players talent-wise than Green, but those who impact winning? Not so much. And as much as the All-Star game is a celebration of the NBA’s most talented players, there should always be room for at least one player who significantly impacts winning. And as you look around the NBA, that talent sets Green apart from most. 

Honorable mentions: Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota. DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans. LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio. Nikola Jokic, Denver. Paul George, Oklahoma City.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE