A. Sherrod Blakely

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.

Celtics-Magic preview: Time for Streak 2.0?

Celtics-Magic preview: Time for Streak 2.0?

BOSTON – The last time the Celtics were coming off a loss, they bounced back and won their next 16 games.
 
Could tonight trigger winning streak 2.0?

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If so, Boston’s defense will once again lead the way because the Orlando Magic (8-6) have been one of the better offensive teams in the NBA this season.
 
They come into tonight’s game shooting 46.7 percent from the field, which ranks seventh in the NBA. They also average 11.6 made three-pointers per game, which ranks fourth in the league.
 
One of the keys to Orlando’s offense is to play with a pace (103.16) that ranks among the league’s best.

Still, the Celtics have seen their share of elite offenses this season and more often than not, they have been up to the challenge.
 
For Boston, their defensive success begins with a starting unit that has been among the best in the league most of this season.
 
Boston has utilized a number of different starting lineups, but the one that has logged the most minutes (79) together – Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford and Aron Baynes – has a defensive rating of 85.8, which is tops in the league among all five-man lineups which have logged as many or more minutes than Boston’s five-man group.
 
But as well as the Celtics played defensively as the wins piled up, there were clear and undeniable signs that a game such as Wednesday night's 104-98 loss at Miami was on the horizon.
 
Of the 16 wins, the Celtics were down by double digits in each of the past three victories and five overall in the streak.
 
But getting behind consistently and finding a way to rally spoke volumes about this team’s ability to handle adversity.
 
“Obviously winning is good,” said rookie Jayson Tatum. “Just the fashion that we did it in and the adversity that we had to overcome. It brought us closer together and made us a tougher team.”
 
But it seemed self-inflicted adversity by way of slow starts, which was starting to become part of the narrative to this Celtics team.
 
The past three wins - games in which the Celtics trailed by 13 at Dallas, 16 at Atlanta and 17 at home against Golden State - collectively they were a clear indicator that Boston still had room to improve despite finding ways to win.
 
 “We have to get better, we have to get better at what we’re trying to do,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “It’s a little bit, looking at the 16 straight [wins], as I said, it was a little bit of a mirage. We know we have to get better.”
 

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Streak reveals depth even Celtics didn't know they had

Streak reveals depth even Celtics didn't know they had

Coaches in all sports will tell you that winning is not easy.
 
Making the Celtics’ 16-game winning streak even more impressive is that a number of the victories have involved Boston turning to some unlikely sources of production.

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And that has provided a glimpse into a franchise that’s getting the best of both worlds: quality play from its core group while developing reserves who have contributed to the team reeling off 16 straight wins in a variety of ways.
 
Because coach Brad Stevens has gone deeper into his bench this season than past years, it has created a roster with minutes more evenly distributed and with that, less wear and tear on the bodies of key players.
 
And while this team is led by Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, there has been at least one other Celtic to emerge as a top-three performer every night...and often it’s not the same player.
 
“Much more unpredictable now,” a league executive texted to NBC Sports Boston. “That number three guy, is it [Jaylen] Brown? [Jayson] Tatum? Sometimes it’s Marcus [Smart]. You don’t know who it’s going to be because a lot of times, I don’t think they [Celtics] know who it will be. It’s why they’re so good, man.”
 
Here are five under-the-radar storylines heading into tonight’s game in Miami with the Celtics trying to push their winning streak to 17:

KYRIE FOR MVP
It’s one thing for the home crowd to get into the ‘M-V-P’ chants when you’re at the free-throw line. But it’s a completely different matter when those same cheers are being heard on the road. That’s where Irving was following the 110-102 overtime win at Dallas, a game in which Irving dropped 47 points, 10 in overtime. It’ll be interesting to see if another strong game by Irving will lead to another serenading of ‘M-V-P’ chants for the most dominant player on the team with the league’s best record.


 
TURNING DOWN THE HEAT
The streak is the talk of the NBA right now, but streaking was going to be part of the conversation leading up to tonight’s game regardless. The Celtics come into tonight’s game having won eight in a row over the Heat, their longest current winning streak over any team. Boston has dominated this matchup for years, posting a 70-44 record all-time against Miami in the regular season.
 

DUKE CONNECTION
College basketball just kicked off and Duke is once again among the game’s top teams, a school that consistently produces NBA talent at a relatively high level. That’ll be very apparent tonight when you consider this Boston-Miami matchup features three players (Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum for Boston, Justise Winslow for Miami) from Duke who will all be in the starting lineup and a fourth (Boston’s Semi Ojeleye) who attended Duke but later transferred to SMU.


 
JUSTISE WINSLOW
Every front-office executive has that one player they tried – and failed – to acquire that, in hindsight, not getting him was a really good thing. Winslow is that guy for the Celtics. While he hasn’t been necessarily a bust, his impact at this level hasn’t been enough to have warranted all the assets Boston was willing to part with on draft night in order to move up and select him. Still, he’s healthy now and starting to play better which is evident by his numbers in most offensive categories on the rise, while his defense has been relatively solid.
 

THREE-POINTERS
The Heat have made the 3-point shot a much bigger part of their offense this season, evident by Miami ranking seventh in the league in 3-point makes (11.2) this season. In Boston, one of the keys to their top-ranked defense has been their length, which has come in real handy defending the 3-pointer. In fact, Boston has limited opponents to just 32.1 percent shooting on 3’s this season, which ranks third in the league.

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