NBA Today: June 21

  • Doc Rivers is leaning one way on whether he’ll return to coach the Celtics next season, but he’s not saying which.

Redemption, thy name is Wallace

How quickly the Boston Celtics have gone from league laughingstock to Eastern Conference superpower in their oft-doubted pursuit of an 18th career NBA title.

In impressive yet shaky fashion, the Beantown Green disposed of the Orlando Magic, previously undefeated in the playoffs and winners of every game in the last month. That’s a hell of a way to show what they are still capable of.

Rasheed Wallace was a factor in Boston's win? Really?

Not getting nearly enough credit for their series win over the coddled Cleveland Cavaliers, the Celtics are showing fans, pundits, and, most importantly, opposing teams that they can still make a successful run.

To be fair, though, the outcome was looking bleak. After middling performances during the regular season, Boston sidled up on everyone by blowing out the Miami Heat — a feat that not many perceived as very impressive. Accordingly, everyone was expecting LeBron and his pals to deliver a swift kick to the Celtics’ bum and oust them from the playoffs.

Not so fast. While the Celtics have seen dips in offensive output and field-goal percentage since the regular season, they have simultaneously rediscovered the defensive prowess that propelled them to a championship just two years ago.

During the regular campaign, Boston surrendered 95.6 points per game to their opponents, ranking them a solid fifth in the league in that category. Since the playoffs started, though, they’ve completely shut down opposing teams, giving up only 91.7 points per contest in their first two series. That ranks second to only the Orlando Magic, who did, well, magical things on defense against the Bobcats and Hawks.

Accompanying that defensive improvement for the Celtics is a drop in opponent three-point field-goal percentage and a noticeable rise in turnovers forced on defense. That successful effort on the long ball is exactly what the team needs to contend with the Magic; it is no secret Orlando shoots the triple with unmatched abundance, so if Boston can be effective in its close-outs and perimeter defense, it can hinder Orlando’s production severely.

Why do I mention all this defensive jargon about the Celtics? Well, they excelled on that end of the ball on Sunday, and that was the primary justification for the Game 1 victory.

First of all, Boston was superb in containing Dwight Howard on the inside. And that is due in large part to the play of Rasheed Wallace off the bench. Since Doc Rivers publicly criticized his play following Game 1 of the series with Cleveland, Wallace has come back with much more inspired basketball. While it hasn’t always translated into success on the offensive end (he only scored five points in Games 3, 4, and 5 of that set), he has shown a greater commitment to defense and a more evident passion to win overall.

If you watched the game Sunday, you could see how frustrating Wallace was to Howard on defense. He denied the entry pass, pushed and shoved aggressively, and forced him into turnovers and errant shots. Giving up quite a bit of weight to Superman, ‘Sheed used his length perfectly to shut down one of the league’s most dominant interior forces.

Kendrick Perkins isn’t half bad on the inside either, but he is often in foul trouble. Rivers will call upon Wallace to play key minutes on the defensive end, so if he can duplicate his Game 1 showing, he will put the Celtics in great position to advances to the NBA Finals.

On display, too, was the Celtics’ containment of the other half of Orlando’s offense — the three-point ball. After every kick out or skip pass to the open shooter there was a Boston defender already en route to close out. When they start to miss from deep, they begin to take more threes off the dribble and in traffic, which causes problems. That commitment and effort translated into a paltry 23 percent from long range for Orlando. The Magic will never win a game if Howard can’t score and they can’t hit their three-point attempts.

The one concern for Boston following the Game 1 win is Orlando’s back-court production. Jameer Nelson and Vince Carter combined for 43 points on 17-36 shooting, as both were aggressive and rewarded in driving the lane. Kevin Garnett looked more vulnerable than ever in the pick-and-roll game on defense, which is a primary reason Nelson and Carter were so successful going to the rack. That said, their scoring is a small price to pay for the fine defense on Howard and the three-point shooters.

After a month of smooth sailing, Orlando is now the team on the hot seat. With that decisive win, you have to consider Boston the favorite from here on out. The Magic will need to respond in kind by forcing the issue on the inside with Howard. If he can wreak any significant havoc near the rim, shots will start to open on the perimeter. As long as they take easy three-pointers, they will eventually fall, and that’s what they need to emerge victorious.

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Overreacting to Cleveland’s Game 2 loss

LeBron and the rest of the Cavs have nothing to worry about.

The Cavaliers were overwhelming favorites to defeat the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals before the series began.

After an expected Game 1 victory, Cleveland fell in what was not a close game in Cleveland on Monday night. Now, everyone is pointing out problems with the Cavs and all of a sudden doubting their talent.

But is the criticism warranted?

Sure, they lost the home-court advantage in an embarrassing game. But just because the Celtics play a great contest with unexpected bench production from Rasheed Wallace doesn’t mean they are prepared to knock Cleveland out of the playoffs.

In Game 2, the Cavaliers shot only 40 percent from the field. They shot a horrid 19 percent from long range. Cleveland was second in the league in three-point shooting during the regular season, shooting over 38 percent from beyond the arc. So the shooting will almost assuredly rebound for the remainder of the series.

Moreover, the Celtics’ shooting percentages were exceptionally high: they connected on 51 percent of their field goals and 49 percent of their long balls. Cleveland tied for third in the league at just above 44 percent shooting allowed, so it was an anomaly on the defensive end, as well.

Lastly, the doubters underestimate the impact LeBron will have on the remaining games this round. In Game 2, he was all over the box score with 24 points, 7 boards, 4 assists, 3 steals, and two blocks, but those numbers aren’t even that incredible by LeBron’s standards.

If he sees his team is struggling, he’s going to give his best effort to propel his team to a win. So far in Game 1, James already has 16points with over two minutes of the first quarter remaining.

Boston’s win in Game 2 was certainly an impressive feat, but it really shouldn’t be much cause for concern for Cavaliers fans. Given the oddity of the statistics for both teams in that game, it is almost definitely an isolated incident.

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Expectation Series: Part 3 (Most Disappointing Players)

Over the next four days, I’ll be writing on what I call my Expectation Series — a four-part set of rankings for the following: most disappointing teams, most surprising teams, most disappointing players, and most surprising players.

As much as that facial fracture must have hurt, Turkoglu's performance this season is what he should be drying his eyes about.

So far I’ve reviewed the bests and the worsts of the alarming teams from this season. But it’s important, too, that I take a look at the individual productions that have crippled team’s performances. While these teams have had marginal success despite unsatisfactory efforts by key players, their underperformance may play an appreciable role come playoff time. With that, here’s my top-five disappointing players.

No. 5 — Ron Artest

Ron Artest has experienced a significant reduction in his offensive output. In fact, he has lost six points off his per-game scoring average. That said, he’s also taking six fewer shots a game. And, to be honest, it’s reasonable. Going from the second offensive option in Houston behind Yao Ming (excluding Tracy McGrady, who missed most of the season with injuries) to the fourth (or fifth, if you prioritize Lamar Odom off the bench) option on a stacked Lakers team is a legitimate justification for putting up fewer shots. However, his offense isn’t the problem.

Artest has long been known as one of the premiere perimeter defenders in entire league. Unfortunately, his effort on that end of the ball has not been there as much this season, and he’s starting to lose his reputation. Opposing small forwards are no longer wetting their pants in anticipation of being matched up with Ron Artest. Chalk it up to his age or just his unwillingness to play as hard as part of a much more talented roster than he’s ever seen, but he’s not doing what Mitch Kupchak brought him in to do. Perhaps keeping Trevor Ariza would have been the better play for L.A. At least they haven’t had to deal with any of his attitudinal issues, though.

No. 4 — Richard Jefferson

When I wrote about the Spurs a few days ago, I mentioned that the acquisition of Jefferson hadn’t really panned out for the team as they expected. He has lost over seven points a game compared to last year in Milwaukee. While he, too, experienced a downgrade in offensive priority, his case is more troubling than Artest’s. He isn’t known as a defensive standout, so it is his responsibility to get on the scoreboard to help his team win. With the various injuries San Antonio has had, it is imperative that RJ increase his offensive output for the playoffs to keep them alive.

No. 3 — Josh Howard

What an awful year for a player that was well above average in the league. Howard is scoring nearly six fewer points a game this season, and he is shooting only 40 percent from the field and a staggeringly low 27 percent from long range; this inability to score has led to nearly a five-point drop in PER from last year. His failure to contribute on the hard wood coupled with his off-the-court issues and attitude problems led to his midseason ouster from Dallas to the Wizards in exchange for Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood. Now he is stuck on the Wizards, and they’re going nowhere fast. He has a potential out with an $11.8 million team option for 2010-2011, and I have to assume Washington will not exercise it given his horrid play this season. Let’s hope he can reestablish his name somewhere else next season for a lower sum of money he actually deserves.

No. 2 — Rasheed Wallace

If you want to talk about a bad influence, look no further. Well, actually, you should look further. Go read Bill Simmons’s column on the infectious Wallace and how badly he has hindered the Celtics this season. The big man who was supposed to be the boost to get the Celtics one more ring in the Big Three era has utterly failed to do so. Sheed is scoring only nine points a game on 40 percent shooting and ghastly 28 percent from three-point territory. The one bright spot? Coach Doc Rivers has realized he should only play the guy about 20 minutes a game to avoid total annihilation. But Sheed’s parasitic effect goes beyond his horrible shot selection and lack of scoring. He’s completely unathletic at this point, limiting his once stellar defense. He’s incredibly insubordinate. He can’t control his temper, which may cost the Celtics valuable points off leads from technical free throws in the playoffs. Rasheed Wallace has done exactly the opposite of what the team brought him in to do. And to think: I wanted Doc to start him over Kendrick Perkins at center before the season started.

No. 1 — Hedo Turkoglu

Hedo Turkoglu trumps the rest because of the way he will siphon the Raptors’ money for the next four (maybe five) seasons undeservedly so. He is guaranteed $41 million over the next four years, and he as a $12 million player option for a fifth year in Toronto. Quite frankly, that money would be better spent researching ways to bring Wilt Chamberlain back from the dead and forcing him to play for the team. It’s evident Hedo turned on his game in his final years in Orlando to net a good contract, and now that he is financially secure, he doesn’t give a damn anymore. He has lost five points off his per-game scoring rate from an also-subpar 2009-2010 season, and he no longer hits big shots at the end of games — his trademark quality in the playoffs in Orlando, where they had no other big-shot guy. It goes to show how a a tapped crop of free agents like the one prior to this season can really screw teams over when they have to overpay players like Turkoglu to hope to be competitive.

Look back tomorrow for the five most positive individual surprises of the season.

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