Thinking about the Celts and Cavs

The Boston Celtics showed me something with their series victory over the Miami Heat. They showed me they aren’t completely terrible.

After a decidedly lopsided matchup with the Miami Wade, the Celtics aren’t so lucky in their next opponent; they’ll face LeBron James and the Cavaliers.

Game 1 went to the Cavs fairly easy, at least apparently so. What’s not shown in the final tally is that Boston held a double-digit lead in the third period. Cleveland escaped mostly thanks to a scorching second half from Mo Williams.

Despite that disheartening collapse, I’m starting to think Boston actually stands a chance to make the series somewhat competitive. Rajon Rondo was dazzling in the first half, and the Celtics need to embrace that style of running everything through Rondo. Let him drive all he wants and either get an open layup, kick it out to Ray Allen or Paul Pierce for a jumpshot, or hit Kevin Garnett as he dives to the rim.

One of the things that I love so much about this series has nothing to do with pure basketball. I love the ferocity these two teams bring to the table. LeBron is one of the scariest offensive players, and KG’s one of the most intimidating defenders.

The intensity is so high when these two teams play that it makes the games so much more fun to watch.

Hopefully the Celtics can pull one or two wins out during the seven-game spate.

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Mistreating the NBA’s referees

Bennett Salvatore has been the object of much criticism lately.

There has been no shortage lately of criticism for the NBA’s officials. Celtics forward Kevin Garnett, Lakers coach Phil Jackson (twice), and Mavericks center Erick Dampier are only some of the most recent figures to speak out and incur fines from the league office for detrimental comments.

In fact, it has been such a problem that Commissioner David Stern has threatened further violators with potential suspensions for verbal abuse of the referees. And I understand.

First, from a league standpoint, questioning the authority of professional officials hired to make correct calls in games reflects poorly on the league. The decisions of the referees are largely judgment-based and not cut-and-dried interpretations of rules.

From the standpoint of the officials, it is rough. Having officiated basketball for a semester at USC myself, I know firsthand how difficult it is to make split-second determinations with confidence. Viewers and analysts, who have the lofty benefit of replay, are unforgiving of the refs’ circumstances.

That said, these comments are in some ways justifiable, too. The criticisms are rarely manifestations of deep-seated anger and dissatisfaction with the officiating in the league (after all, it does not make the news when a referee gets a call right a very high percentage of the time) but instead are just outlets for the venting of frustration following a loss, and in the playoffs that becomes even more apparent. Honestly, no one ever sees a coach or player complain about poor calls after a win.

My true beef, then, comes with something incredibly abhorrent that I observed today. While partaking of Game 5 between the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat today, I picked up — over and over again — on negative remarks directed at the refs from the color commentator whenever a call or n0-call went against Boston. I found it quite nauseating.

At halftime, the studio host mentioned the commentator’s name, Tom Heinsohn, so I quickly looked him up. Reads his NBA.com bio:

Known for his hard-nosed style of play, yet possessing a superb shooting touch and good body control, Tom Heinsohn was a vital cog in the Boston Celtics’ dynasty of the 1950s and 1960s.

I forgot to tell you that the game was broadcast on NBA TV.

What an outrage. How is it that the league can put up with such clearly partisan commentating on a national network let alone its own representative TV station? I understand that many broadcasters support their respective teams. As such, if it were a local Celtics broadcast, this would all be slightly less offensive. But it wasn’t. It was a national broadcast of a playoff game.

Despite his career as a player, Heinsohn is now a journalist and an ambassador of the media. Accordingly, he is bound by the objectivity required of any other journalist.

Openly flaunting his favoritism for his former team is journalistically unethical and downright wrong. In my opinion, he shouldn’t get to call any more games. It is bad for the referees, it is bad for the league, and it is bad for the profession.

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Honoring the League’s Biggest Floppers

The playoffs are among us. LeBron is dominating, Kevin Garnett’s brawling, and the Suns aren’t playing defense (in fact, the rim played better defense on Marcus Camby’s dunk attempt than any actual person did any other time). But that’s not all that’s the same. Phil Jackson complained last week about how Kevin Durant gets way too many foul calls. Sure, he gets a lot of calls. He made the most free throws in a season this year since Michael Jordan. But …

HELLO? A Mister Kobe Bryant is on your team, right? How can you accuse any other player of getting beneficial calls from the refs when your star player is so pampered he might as well be shoving 20s into Joey Crawford, Bennett Salvatore, and the others’ pockets after the game?

In the end, though, I agree with your assertion, Phil. Durantula — whose nickname misrepresents his newborn-yellow-labrador fearsomeness — gets the whistle all the time. But it’s not fair to point the proverbial finger only in his direction. Instead, let’s throw the blame around everywhere! Let’s pay homage to the the biggest floppers in the NBA. The finest actors in the league. The guys who make us laugh, cry, and remind us why we don’t watch soccer.

Here are a couple parameters: (1) These aren’t purely the top floppers — I’ve painfully brainstormed seven categories in which flopping is most apparent; and (2) In the spirit of the exhuasting, over-two-month-long season, I’ve chosen only members of playoff teams (That says something about the success of manipulating the officials, to be honest).

(A) The Throw-Your-Hands-in-the-Air-Like-You-Just-Don’t-Care Flop — Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant

Yeah. One of those.

Bryant and Durant get their share of hard fouls and intimate moments with the hardwood. But that’s not how they get to the line, for the most part. These are the leaders of the Cookie Jar Police. They catch the ball 20 feet from the hoop, get in to a nice mind game with their counterparts — rife with pump fakes and stone-cold stares — and just when that defenders decide to reach in to get a taste …


Up they go, flailing their arms wildly with the negligible contact. Whistle. And they go to the charity stripe. And there’s the other guy, with a mean-spirited “F*** You” written all over his face.

It’s like when you bid $1400 for the dinette set on The Price is Right and the woman next to you bids $1401.

The cookie-jar bodyguards will exists for as long as the league does. And as Durant asserts himself as Kobe’s successor in the category, it looks like we’re in for a long, long period with another great one. But someone needs to butter up the NBA’s newest refs, right? Kobe hasn’t already paid them off, right?

(B) The Come-Back-with-Your-Shield-or-on-it Flop — Manu Ginobili

Manu Ginobili, widely regarded as the league’s most egregious flopper, certainly deserves a place on this list. While being a warrior in the NBA is definitely an admirable quality and all too rare (though I’m sure Manu’s withered knees are getting ready to cash in on their well-deserved pensions), looking foolish is not.

Ginobili’s the guy who heads to the rack and fully expects the hoop, the harm, or both. He gets fouled every time. No exceptions. Or at least that’s how he sees it. So forgive me if I chuckle when he looks up at refs, seemingly pleading, “Hey, ref! Leggo my Eggo!”

Maybe he should worry a bit more about actually leaving the ground on his jumper and less about the waffle robbing of the officials, because his whining is more transparent than Sammy Sosa’s skin.

(C) The You-Can-Do-it-Put-Your-Back-Into-it Flop — Dirk Nowitzki

"That's the most important meal of the day you just stole from me."

I love Dirk’s primal roars after he gets fouled while hitting a jumper with more fade than Brandon Jennings’s hair. But that’s not why the German Shepherd (I just made that up.) makes an appearance on this list.

His condemnation is a penalty for his penchant to draw the off-ball foul. Everyone knows Dirk is so soft a 6-year-old that just drank four Red Bulls could fall asleep on him. So he roams around the elbow, hoping to make a ridiculous contested jumper for two points.

But he has to get the ball first. And that comes by way of entry pass from one of those J players — Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, J.J. Barea — or whichever other player doesn’t want to touch the ball for the rest of the possession (Dirk’s passing out of double-teams is laughable, at best.).

And when Dirk’s defender is doing a good job of denying him the ball, that’s when he gets restless.

Tossing and turning like he’s dreaming about having lost a drinking contest to an Irishman, he reacts to pushes from the defender like they’re those flaming battering rams from Lord of the Rings. And the sad thing about it? He usually gets the call.

To be truthful, the refs, in all likelihood, justifiably think that a soft push to the lower back is enough to send Nowitzki to the Emergency Room.

(D) The Bruce-Willis-is-Actually-Dead Flop — Jamal Crawford

I considered naming this category after the twist in The Game, but all of you who haven’t seen it yet would have come after me angry-mob style for ruining such a great movie if I had (Read: See The Game). I figured everyone knew the Sixth Sense twist. If you didn’t, you were behind the times, so you should be thanking me for catching you up.

Anyway, one of the most unspeakable acts in basketball is fouling a jump shooter. One of the even more unspeakable acts in basketball is fouling a 3-point jump shooter. And Jamal Crawford has more 4-point plays than Lane Kiffin has enemies in Tennessee.

To be honest, though, Crawford milks a lot more out of those ticky-tack elbow fouls than the cow’s willing to give. So when the defender gives him a friendly bump after he goes up for the chuck, he goes down to the floor like somebody’s shooting. And the refs really fall for it more often than not.

Here’s one from his glory days in New York.

I’m waiting for the day he does this with no defender near him and he gets the call.

(E) The “Please! Let me in! That’s my wife!” Flop — Anderson Varejao

Anderson Varejao is only in this league because of his effort. That and his hair, actually (How cool is that mop?). But now that he’s here, he sure knows how to manipulate the guys in gray.

The Civilian Brazilian is probably the most hair-raising (Ha.) player in the NBA, and most of that frustration for other guys comes on the board. Varejao could be getting his leg taped in the locker room when a shot goes up, then run back to the court, check in, and be a viable competitor for the ball. He’s that energetic. And he uses his invasiveness to his advantage with the refs.

Picture this:

He’s jockeying for position to get an offensive rebound behind, say, Dwight Howard. He knows he’s not going to get the board. But he feels Dwight’s elbow lightly graze his chest and he reacts like he just got whacked with a frying pan. Whistle. Loose-ball foul. Dwight Howard picks up his sixth personal foul.

Sounds pretty reasonable, doesn’t it? That’s because it is. And if the Cavaliers play the Magic again this postseason, just keep an eye on the giant brown springy thing. You’ll see exactly what I’m talking about.

(F) The “I’m taking one for the team, right?” Flop — Derek Fisher

Everyone has his opinion about drawing charges in the league. Some love it, and some want to burn David Stern for it. Notwithstanding its divisive nature, it’s one of the most prominent vehicles for flopping.

And Derek Fisher, who is somehow clinging to his never-actually-that-impressive career, is still attached to the offensive foul like it’s his conjoined twin.

Sure, there are times when a charge is appropriate. Like if Robert Traylor were trucking down the lane and sent a stationary Earl Boykins flying like he was 5’5″ or something. But let’s be realistic. There are no guys that short in the NBA.

For the most part, though, it’s just a backward swan dive to coerce a turnover and foul. But I feel for Derek Fisher.

After seeing Russell Westbrook break Fisher’s ankles, knees, and mental fortitude in his unrestricted assaults to the rim on Sunday, I now know that Fisher has no other recourse on defense. He’s simply too small and too slow to defend even the measliest NBA point guard anymore. So just stand in people’s way and don’t do anything else. That’s the right idea, Derek.

(G) The “Oh, the humanity!” Flop — Paul Pierce

"Oh, you've failed me, Rasheed!"

There’s nothing worse than the guy who sprawls out on the floor in agony like his dog died or something. It almost makes me want to change the channel to that Major League Soccer game. Almost. Really, I’m not interested in watching the fake pain.

Unfortunately, it still happens. And Paul Pierce is the most prominent culprit. Then again, I kind of understand. Heck, I’d be crying, too, if my team was crowned the League’s Most Likely to Crash and Burn like this year’s Celtics was (figuratively, of course).

Hopefully Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen, the only two sane players left on that entire roster (No, Brian Scalabrine doesn’t qualify. I swear every shot he takes is a 3-pointer for the crowd.), can get them to focus and not wallow in the misery that will be this postseason.

Paints a pretty ugly picture of the league, doesn’t it? Well, that’s the reality. We’re living among a bunch of babies paid astronomical quantities of money to play basketball.

So Phil, when you decide to criticize Kevin Durant for getting fouled too much, please have some respect, for they’re all flopping. Just because Oklahoma City’s star is volumes better than yours doesn’t mean you have to be bitter about it. Spread the flopping wealth around a little bit, huh?

Questions? Comments? Criticisms? Suggestions? Anything else? Send me an e-mail at savingtheskyhook@gmail.com.

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NBA Today: April 19

  • Kevin Garnett has been suspended one game for his elbow in Game 1 of the Celtics-Heat series.
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Observations from the Playoffs thus far

With the 2010 NBA playoffs underway, here are some of the things I’ve noticed this weekend in the first games:

  • Point guards have been threats in losing efforts so far.
    1. When the Thunder were in striking distance of the Lakers, it was all thanks to Russell Westbrook. He repeatedly make the Lakers’ otherwise-solid defense look silly, diving into the lane and finishing with ease at the rim. I’ve said it all season: L.A. can’t handle the quick point guards. If Westbrook can recreate that production for the rest of the series, and Kevin Durant gets back on track, Oklahoma City has a serious chance to make some noise.
    2. In the Cleveland-Chicago series, Derrick Rose was the only semblance of offensive production for the Bulls, and although he shot a low percentage, he played decent ball against a stingy Cavaliers defense.
    3. Jameer Nelson absolutely lit up the Bobcats in the first half of their contest.
  • The underdogs are finding a way to stick around.
    1. Chicago, despite trailing to Cleveland big, made the game somewhat interesting at times.
    2. Oklahoma City gave L.A. a run for its money even into the fourth quarter.
    3. The Heat were in striking distance after Kevin Garnett’s eruption on the sidelines.
    4. Charlotte, too, was able to stay in the picture by drawing well-timed fouls on Vince Carter and Dwight Howard.
  • There probably won’t be any upsets in the first round, although San Antonio has an outside chance.
  • The stars aren’t going to be the only factors. Carmelo Anthony’s the exception for now.
    1. Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant shot for poor percentages in their first game.
    2. Dwight Howard, although a beast on defense, was shut down completely on the offensive end.
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NBA Today: April 18

  • Gregg Popovich isn’t yet sure who will start Game 1 at point guard for the Spurs, as Tony Parker is still recovering from an injury that relegated him to the backup role at the end of the regular season.
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Playoff Preview: Part 4

Eastern Conference: No. 4 Boston Celtics vs. No. 5 Miami Heat

The No. 4-No. 5 series of the first round of the playoffs is theoretically supposed to be the closest series of them all. This year, I think that matchup will meet expectations in both conferences.

Of late, Boston has played mediocre basketball at best. It’s completely clear that Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett have out-aged the skills that won them a championship two years ago. Moreover, the addition of Rasheed Wallace has been a complete and utter failure for the Celtics. The bright spot? That’s Rajon Rondo, who is one year removed from nearly averaging a triple-double in the 2009 postseason, and he’s only getting better.

They’ll be playing the Miami Heat, a team that doesn’t seem at first glance able to match up with the star-studded Celtics. That said, Miami has a star of its own in Dwyane Wade, and everyone knows what he can do in the playoffs (see 2006 NBA Finals). They also have Jermaine O’Neal, Udonis Haslem, and youngster Michael Beasley up front, which isn’t too shabby.

Aside from the roster comparison, though, Miami has the intangibles on its side. Boston has no team unity anymore — something that Garnett fiercely encouraged in the past — and they don’t have the heart to win. Heck, even Doc Rivers doesn’t want to be there. Miami is a younger team with players who are hungry for a title. Wade’s trying to give his best showing to lure one of his talented friends to South Beach next season.

In the last two years, the Celtics have nearly gone down to underdogs in the Hawks (2008) and the Bulls (2009). And those Boston teams were GREAT. This is the year the underdog finally knocks off the Celtics early. Still,

Miami wins the series in seven games, 4-3.

Western Conference: No. 4 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 5 Utah Jazz

The Utah Jazz have played well in the second half thanks to solid performances from point guard Deron Williams and power forward Carlos Boozer. The Denver Nuggets have struggled, owing to an injury to Kenyon Martin and the absence of coach George Karl for cancer treatment. They were in contention for the No. 2 seed up until the final days of the regular season.

But Utah has injuries of its own to deal with coming into the postseason. Boozer will be a game-time decision for Game 1, and Andrei Kirilenko will miss the entire series for health reasons.

Kirilenko’s absence — and he’s a great defender — opens up a hole at his position on the Nuggets filled by a guy named Carmelo Anthony. Accordingly, Melo should dominate this entire series. Hopefully Utah can come up with some makeshift plan to stop him.

The best matchup will be at the 1-guard, with Williams and Mr. Big Shot Chauncey Billups. They’ll be going at each other throughout the games, and it should be exciting to see.

In the end, I give Denver the edge with its immense, relentless toughness, thanks to Martin, Nene, J.R. Smith, and Chris Andersen off the bench. But it will be close, as Utah has the offensive fundamentals that Denver lacks.

Denver wins the series in seven games, 4-3.

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Playoff Preview: Part 3

Eastern Conference: No. 3 Atlanta Hawks vs. No. 6 Milwaukee Bucks

The Milwaukee Bucks were playing exceptional basketball during the second half of their season, establishing themselves as a team to watch come playoff time. In fact, the “Fear the Deer” catchphrase encapsulates the team’s second-half play very well.

But it all came crashing down, literally, when Andrew Bogut hit the floor, completely annihilating his arm. As a result of the injury, Bogut — who was Milwaukee’s most dominant player and its leader — will miss the entire NBA postseason.

That said, the Bucks still have some talent. Brandon Jennings, who entered the league on fire, has cooled of late but is still a reliable scorer and shooter. Moreover, John Salmons will play. He was one of the keys to Milwaukee’s post-break turnaround after his arrival via trade from the Chicago Bulls.

They will face a talented team in the Atlanta Hawks, one that would still be considered the favorite even if Bogut were slated to play. They go five deep in the starting lineup: Mike Bibby, Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams, Josh Smith, and Al Horford is quite a quintet. What’s more, though, is that they have Jamal Crawford off the bench; he became the first non-starter in a long while to score over 1400 points in a season.

Atlanta went 2-1 on the season against Milwaukee, and Joe Johnson scored 24, 27, and 31 points in those three contests. Look for him to get himself going early in the series with a big scoring game.

Atlanta wins the series in five games, 4-1.

Western Conference: No. 3 Phoenix Suns vs. No. 6 Portland Trailblazers

I guess today’s preview is going to be a tale of two injuries. While Bogut’s fall will cripple his team, Brandon Roy’s meniscus tear and subsequent surgery will seriously hinder the Blazers. But what could they have expected? They already lost centers Greg Oden and Joel Pryzbilla for the entire season, and Nicolas Batum missed a large portion of the regular campaign. Why would anyone cut them some slack

Roy, the team’s top scorer and unquestioned leader, will miss the first series and probably the entire postseason. If the team manages to advance, I expect its PR department will concoct a plan to string along the fans like Boston’s did last year with Kevin Garnett, but I don’t think he’ll play again until November.

In his absence, the other players will have to step up. LaMarcus Aldridge becomes the go-to player on offense, which is somewhat troubling, but he has shown signs of improvement lately. Furthermore, Portland will rely on standout performances from guard Andre Miller and center Marcus Camby (he showed what he could do in the final game of the regular season on the offensive end) to have any chance at winning.

Regardless, the Blazers will have their hands full with a relentless Phoenix offense. The Suns led the league in scoring and three-point shooting, as usual, thanks to stellar play from Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire. The forward’s play in the second half has dispelled most of the rumors that he is not worth a max. contract, as he has improved in nearly every category since the all-star break.

Look for the team, Nash in particular, to play markedly motivated basketball, as this could be the last year in awhile that the Suns have a chance to compete for an NBA title.

Portland took two out of three from Phoenix this year, but again, those games were with Roy, who could easily exploit the Suns’ sloth-like defense.

Phoenix wins the series in five games, 4-1.

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The Boston Celtics: what’s left?

Has the reign of the Big Three in Boston come to a close?

I remember feeling completely shocked having heard the news that the Boston Celtics had acquired Ray Allen from Seattle and Kevin Garnett from the Timberwolves prior to the 2007-2008 season. What a stacked roster, I thought. Pairing two of the league’s elite with Boston staple Paul Pierce would certainly mean great things for the Beantown Green. And that was definitely the case.

The Celtics glided by the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA finals that season in a matchup that evoked the nostalgia of the Bird-Magic 1980s showdown over 20 years prior. So Allen, Garnett, and Pierce got their championship ring, but it wasn’t destined to happen again the next season.

Boston showed grit and toughness in putting away the underdog Chicago Bulls in seven games — basically all of which went to at least one overtime. Young point guard Rajon Rondo stepped up, nearly averaging a triple double in the postseason in 2009. Nevertheless, Kevin Garnett’s absence owing to his knee injury was too much to overcome. Glen Davis filled in adequately, but it was not enough to stop Dwight Howard, Hedo Turkoglu, and the Orlando Magic in the conference semifinals.

Despite the crushing loss, fans were hopeful of a successful 2009-2010 campaign that would fulfill the promise of a healthy Garnett, a rapidly improving Rondo, and the addition of Rasheed Wallace to bolster the star-studded roster. But it has been a season of highs and lows.

With six games to play, the Celtics still lead the Atlantic Division by a whopping nine-and-a-half games over second-place Toronto. And with six-and-half games separating them and the fifth-place Miami Heat in the conference standings, they’re guaranteed to have home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. A win over the Cavaliers Sunday showed what they are still capable of.

The game’s result, however, was not exactly indicative of how the Celtics played. In fact, they nearly blew a 22-point third-quarter lead in winning by only four. Furthermore, with the Celtics up two and less than 10 seconds to play, LeBron James, in a one-on-one situation, decided to take a pull-up three-pointer for the win rather than take the ball to the rim past Tony Allen to square up the game and take it into overtime. In all likelihood, LeBron probably did this on purpose — the Cavs don’t need to win anymore; they’ve got first place locked up. So why risk an injury in an extra five minutes of play instead of just going for the win on that shot? My point is that the winner of this game could have been different if not for LeBron’s decision.

And losing to the Cavaliers wouldn’t have been a surprise to fans, even playing at TD Garden. After losing only six games at home last year, the Celtics are only 24-15 in Boston this season. Clearly, these players have lost some of their enthusiasm to win after being denied their chance to repeat.

What’s more? The acquisition of Wallace has proved to be one of the least beneficial of the last offeseason, and each of the big three is underperforming as each of them continues to age.

Still, they’ll draw a worse team in the playoffs, and they’ll have a shot to move on, but they can’t beat teams like the Magic and Cavaliers in a seven-game series. It seems their dominance of the Eastern Conference has come to an end.

Ray Allen will be a free agent next year, and Danny Ainge should seriously consider dismantling this team and building around Rondo. Garnett’s production is waning quickly, and it seems as if Pierce won’t be able to evade the injury bug for too much longer.

The Celtics got their championship win — that’s what Ainge, Doc Rivers, and the players wanted. Now you need to move on. Don’t let loyalty to aging players hinder your preparation for the future. Because as it stands, you don’t have what it takes.

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NBA Today: April 2

  • Wake Forest’s Al-Farouq Aminu has declared for the NBA draft.
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