|NBA Power Rankings, 1/20||01.20.11 at 1:00 pm ET|
So much for the Year of the Streak, huh? After the Celtics, Mavericks, Spurs, Heat, Lakers and Hornets ripped off significant winning streaks earlier this season, everybody’s settling into midseason NBA mode (aka, “no heavy lifting”) — which makes sorting out the Power Rankings all that much more difficult.
In my mind, there are four heavy favorites to reach the two conference finals: Celtics vs. Heat, and Lakers vs. Spurs. And four other contenders: Bulls, Magic, Thunder and Jazz. Outside of that, it’s a matter of filling out the playoff picture now that we’re at the midway point, and that’s not a pretty picture at the bottom of the East. Here goes …
1. San Antonio (36-6): The Spurs are 22-2 at home and riding a 16-game winning streak at the AT&T Center. Only the Lakers are within 8.5 games of San Antonio for the West’s No. 1 seed, and even they’re six games back. If the Spurs manage to snag homecourt advantage, L.A.’s reign could be over sooner than expected. And Shaq won’t be the only guy playing for a fifth ring this spring; Tim Duncan will be, too.
2. Boston (32-9): The Celtics are 13-5 against teams with records above .500. They’ve beaten the Heat, Bulls, Magic, Spurs and Thunder already, and they play the Jazz (Friday) and Lakers (Jan. 30) over the next 10 days, so they could easily reclaim the top spot. That’s a remarkable feat for a team that’s never been fully healthy.
3. LA Lakers (31-13): The Lakers are now top-10 in points scored, points allowed, rebounds and assists, which is pretty good. They had won 8-of-9 before losing in Dallas on Wednesday night, which is also pretty good. And Lamar Odom granted Playboy an interview about basketball and marriage, which is beyond good.
4. Miami (30-13): You can’t really let the Heat slip too far down the rankings, despite their season-high four-game losing streak, considering LeBron James missed two of those contests and Chris Bosh missed another. Still, it’s midway through the season, and Miami still doesn’t have a defined rotation. That’s a problem.
5. Oklahoma City (27-15): Would you rather have the Miami Thrice on your team or the Kevin Durant-Russell Westbrook-Jeff Green triumvirate? The former, but the latter’s not far behind (Miami Thrice: 69.3 ppg, 13.3 apg; OKC Three: 65.9 ppg, 13.4 apg). Considering their respective salaries next season (Miami Thrice: $47.6 million; OKC Three: $24.6 million), it’s almost a toss-up as to who’s in better position for the future.
6. Chicago (28-14): This season, especially lately, Derrick Rose is getting a LOT of love. Charles Barkley called him the NBA’s best point guard. Yahoo’s Ball Don’t Lie gave him their midseason Most Improved Player award. There’s even some MVP chatter. Should he be crowned before he’s even won a playoff series?
7. Orlando (27-15): It’s funny how Otis Smith decided to pick this week — after losing 3-of-4, including one to the Celtics — to essentially call the C’s a bunch of posers. Because, you know, Hedo Turkoglu and J.J. Redick are essentially Randy Couture and Mickey Ward. What’s that saying about glass houses?
8. Utah (27-15): The Celtics are welcoming the Jazz to Boston on Friday, and let’s hope a stomach bug doesn’t keep Deron Williams from playing. Boston fans have already missed Durant and Carmelo Anthony in their teams’ only trips to the hub. Missing a battle between Williams and Rajon Rondo would be a shame.
9. Atlanta (28-15): It’ll be interesting to see how much attention Jamal Crawford will get in free agency after this season. Even though he’s the returning Sixth Man of the Year, he’s not a guy I’d really want on my team. Same goes for a lot of guys on the Hawks, except for Al Horford.
10. New Orleans (27-16): Welcome back to the top 10, Chris Paul. A six-game winning streak — including wins over the Magic and Nuggets — will do that for you. The Hornets accomplished it with defense, allowing fewer than 90 points in four of those six contests.
11. Dallas (27-14): After Dirk Nowitzki missed nine games, he returned against the Grizzlies, only to be tossed by the referees midway through the third quarter. And then the Mavericks lost their sixth straight to the lowly Pistons. Good times. Mark Cuban was probably sticking forks in light sockets before they beat the Lakers.
12. Denver (24-17): I hate the fact that Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov called off the ‘Melo trade discussion for two reasons: 1) he robbed us of a meeting between them and Jay-Z, which may have been the greatest meeting of all-time; and 2) now we have to listen to another few weeks of people speculating where he’ll go.
13. New York (22-19): How does the NBA’s top scoring team produce 83 points at home against the Kings? Seriously. It’s the Kings!?!? Since winning 13-of-14 from mid-November to mid-December, the Knicks are 6-10. There’s a lot less optimism around them since they played the C’s tough and were in the ‘Melo sweepstakes.
14. Portland (23-20): Another Trail Blazers player (Marcus Camby) injured his knee. In other news: The sky is blue. At this point, should opposing teams just rest their stars when they visit, for fear that their knees might disintegrate into the Portland air?
15. Houston (20-23): Rockets GM Daryl Morey is on Twitter and gives insightful comments about his team, like: “Our shot making disguised issues in our transition offense.” Can we lobby to get Danny Ainge on Twitter?
16. Memphis (19-23): When Zach Randolph is the one saying, “We’ve got to get some heart,” you’ve got problems. The Grizzlies still have an outside shot at a playoff berth, but Randolph’s words aren’t a good sign.
17. Phoenix (19-21): The only two players that have scored 20,000 points, are eligible for the Hall of Fame and haven’t been inducted are Mitch Richmond and Tom Chambers. Now that Vince Carter has joined the 20,000-point club, will he be the third to fall short of the Hall?
18. Indiana (16-23): Pacers wing Mike Dunleavey has been in the league since 2002 and never sniffed the playoffs, but this could be his year — even if Indiana doesn’t make the postseason. The Pacers are shopping him, and he’d be a nice pickup for any team looking to deepen their rotation.
19. LA Clippers (16-25): When Blake Griffin scored 47 points on 24 shots, he became just the 13th player in the last 20 seasons to score such a high figure on so few shots. TrueHoop did a nice job of breaking it down.
20. Golden State (18-23): According to the Contra Costa Times, over the last 13 games, Dorell Wright has averaged 20.4 points and 5.2 rebounds. Think the Miami Heat could use him in their rotation now?
21. Philadelphia (17-24): The 76ers might be the most confusing team in the NBA. They’ll lose to the Raptors twice in one week, and then play the Celtics tough. They’ll lose to the Bulls by 45 points one night, and then beat them by six another. Chalk that up to youth and the fact Andre Iguadola is their leader.
22. Milwaukee (15-24): A back injury has flared up for Bucks center Andrew Bogut. You wonder if the issue is something that will plague him for a while, considering that nasty fall he took last April. You know what they say: the bigger they are, the harder they fall … and the tougher it is to come back from it.
23. Charlotte (16-24): A Bobcats player was suspended for elbowing Hornets center Emeka Okafor in the head, and it wasn’t Stephen Jackson?!?! That must be a typo.
24. Detroit (15-27): Good thing the Pistons benched Richard Hamilton against the Celtics amid the trade rumors that would’ve sent him to New Jersey as part of a three-team ‘Melo trade — now that there’s no way the Nets are going to take on Rip’s contract without landing the big fish, too.
25. Washington (12-28): I saw this headline: “Lewis provides a steady influence for young Wizards.” Are we talking about Rashard Lewis? Well, I guess the headline didn’t distinguish whether it was a good or bad influence.
26. Toronto (13-29): The Raptors and Cavaliers have a combined 21 wins after the departures of Bosh and James. The Heat have 30 victories. Those guys were kind of important to their teams. Just a little.
27. New Jersey (11-31): Is anybody shocked by the fact that Prokhorov is pursuing Andrei Kirilenko. Next up: Timofey Mozgov. Let’s just hope they don’t turn out to be like Angelina Jolie‘s character in “Salt”.
28. Minnesota (10-33): I had to steal this line from Canis Hoopus: “Wesley Johnson: DNP (coach’s decision); Jonny Flynn: 15 minutes, 2 points; Ricky Rubio: tanning. What an awesome use of top lotto picks.”
29. Sacramento (9-31): The Maloofs could move to Anaheim. Sounds like a bad CBS comedy. Unfortunately, it could be a reality for Sacramento fans. If there are any of those.
30. Cleveland (8-33): Anderson Verajao out for the season. Mo Williams out for a couple weeks. Believe it or not, those are the Cavalier’s two best players. Now Cleveland fans literally have nothing to root for but a potential No. 1 pick in the lottery. Knowing their luck, though, that won’t happen.
|Irish Coffee: Celtics midseason report card||at 10:53 am ET|
Wake up with the Celtics and your daily dose of Irish Coffee …
After Wednesday night’s game against the Pistons , the Celtics have played 41 games and are exactly halfway through the NBA regular season. It’s time for a report card (you can check out the first-quarter grades here) …
- Grade: A
- Comments: Among the NBA’s small forwards, Pierce ranks second in free-throw percentage, third in field-goal percentage and ninth in 3-point percentage. That’s efficient. He’s also ran the offense in Rondo’s absence and rebounded in Garnett’s absence. Save for Allen, the Celtics have struggled to stay healthy, but Pierce has played all 41 games, remaining the constant he’s been for this team since his selection in the 1998 draft.
- Grade: A
- Comments: Allen’s numbers are pretty much up across the board from last season, while his field-goal percentage (51.3 percent) and 3-point percentage (46.8!) are the highest of his career. And that’s saying something for a guy who’s 28 treys away from breaking the all-time record. Allen ranks second on the team in minutes and first (unofficially) in clutch shots down the stretch.
- Grade: A–
- Comments: When he’s on the court, he’s an A-plus. Easily the leading candidate for a second Defensive Player of the Year honor in the last four years, Garnett is averaging 15.0 points and 9.3 boards — but those numbers don’t demonstrate the rejuvenation he’s enjoyed, the lift in his legs or the bite to go with his bark. His calf strain struck a scare into Celtics fans, though, and he’ll have to prove he can stay healthy to cement his A.
- Grade: A–
- Comments: Averaging 29.7 minutes in 32 games off the bench, Davis has established himself as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate, shooting 48.4 percent from the field and grabbing 5.7 rebounds per game. Averaging 34.6 minutes in nine games as a starter, he’s shot 41.1 percent from the field and grabbed 4.4 boards a game. The former is precisely what the Celtics need. The latter? Not so much.
- Grade: B+
- Comments: Rondo averages a league-leading 13.2 assists per game, and only one other guy (Steve Nash) is averaging double-digits in that category. He’s also second in the league in steals. But to the naked eye he simply hasn’t had the same impact he had in the first few weeks of the season. His turnovers (3.9 per game) are too high, and he’s shooting worse from the free-throw line (46.0) than Allen is from 3-point range.
|Shaq on Celtics’ effort: ‘Blame it on the sleet’||at 1:00 am ET|
I’ve heard of “Blame It on the Rain” before, but “blame it on the sleet”? That’s a new one.
But Shaquille O’Neal has made a living off coming up with new slogans, and Wednesday night was no different. In a span of about five minutes after an ugly 86-82 Celtics victory against the Pistons, he blamed the Celtics’ sluggishness on the weather, invented a nickname for himself and Rajon Rondo, explained his team’s need to step on the Pistons’ throats, vowed to make free throws in the clutch and described how he got on Semih Erden‘s ass. Not bad.
O’Neal produced on the floor, too, for all 25 minutes. One of few Celtics to play inspired basketball throughout the game, he recorded a season-high 12 rebounds — including five on the offensive end — to go along with 12 points, three steals and a pair of blocks. He did miss a pair of free throws with three minutes to play that would’ve tied the game, but his effort sparked the comeback that eventually resulted in a four-point win.
It was all in a day’s work for Shaq. We’ll let him explain:
- On the effort: “It was just a flat game. Blame it on one of those days. I’m going to blame it on the sleet. Is that the right word — rain and snow combined? Yeah, I’m going to blame it on the sleet.”
- On the starters: “You got any one of the Big Three and ‘La Odda Dos’ — me and Rondo — that can take over a game at any time. We’ve just got to continue to play hard. We’ve got to learn to get up for everybody.” (I think Shaq actually meant “La Otra Dos,” the Spanish translation for “The Other Two”)
- More on the effort: “We don’t make excuses. We’ve just got to get it done. … We just have to learn to put our foot on people’s necks and kill them right away. We can’t keep playing with people.”
- On Erden: “I had to get on his ass tonight. He was out there messing around. We have a pretty great relationship. He listens to me, and after I got on his ass, he had a couple dunks and a couple rebounds.”
- Even more on the effort: “We knew that we were out there messing around … and not really as focused. It’s kind of hard getting up for teams like that, but if we want to win the whole thing we’ve got to get up for everybody. We have to realize that teams are going to come in here and play way above their heads.”
- On his free throws: “If we had lost the game, I would’ve been really upset. Keep in mind, when we really, really, really need them, I’ll be there, and you won’t have to worry about it — studies show.”
- On his effort: “The whole team was flat. I just had to pick it up. I haven’t been playing that many minutes, so I’m not really tired. I really haven’t been rebounding all that well, so I just wanted to try to grab every loose ball, every rebound.”
|Danny Ainge is still counting on Jermaine O’Neal||at 12:19 am ET|
Danny Ainge made this much clear after meeting with Jermaine O’Neal at halftime Wednesday night – he’s not giving up on the center to make an important contribution this season.
Ainge said the 32-year-old O’Neal and the team met and decided not to have the chronic left knee scoped to be “cleaned out.”
Instead, O’Neal will put off having knee surgery and will undergo four weeks of rehab to strengthen the area around the knee.
“We haven’t really known what we are going to do,” Ainge said. “We had a discussion at halftime, Jermaine, and myself, and our medical staff, and have decided that we are not doing surgery. The surgery that we were considering by the way, was just a cleaning out.
Surgery could have kept him out for two months but Ainge said surgery or not, O’Neal would’ve been back this season or in time for the playoffs.
“That’s always a guess, but probably closer to eight weeks. And you know again, Jermaine had a lot to do with the decision. And Dr. [Brian] McKeon was fine with it, and it’s not an easy decision, and I think that Jermaine feels like he overdid it a little bit. He’s got some bruising from the bone on bone that he has in his knee. He just needs to let that calm down, and build up the strength in it.”
The reason the Celtics and O’Neal are hopeful for a return is the fact that he isn’t dealing with serious ligament or cartilage tears.
“There’s not ligament or cartilage damage that was going to be prepared, it was a cleaning out process,” Ainge said. “We decided against that, we’ll take the next four weeks to do nothing, but work to build up his glutes and quads, with the sole purpose of that. So he’ll be rehabbing to build strength in his leg to get ready for the end of the season.”
The ailing left knee has limited O’Neal to 17 games and 18 minutes per contest this season, during which he is averaging just over five points and 3.8 rebounds.
“This is a good option,” Ainge added. “I mean, we felt – either way we thought he might be back for the playoffs. If he had it cleaned out or if he didn’t. You know, again, it’s just he’s got a lot of wear-and-tear on the knee. But this is a good option. I think he feels like if he gets himself in better shape and the strength then he’ll be ready to give us an effort that we haven’t seen this year out of him.
“I would say the purpose is to get him ready to play in late-season and postseason play, with no restrictions. I mean his first night there might be, but the purpose is to get him back 100 percent.”
The Celtics signed O’Neal last July to a two-year, $12 million deal, with O’Neal being paid the full midlevel exception of about $5.76 million this season.
|Ray Allen never thinks about the misses, neither do Doc Rivers or his teammates||01.19.11 at 11:38 pm ET|
Ray Allen is a future hall-of-famer so when shots aren’t falling he doesn’t panic. After drilling the game-winning jumper with 24.5 seconds remaining in an 86-82 win over the Pistons, he said that approach helped him again Wednesday night when he missed two fourth-quarter free throws and was just 1-for-7 before hitting the decisive jumper.
With 31.8 seconds remaining, Rajon Rondo grabbed a loose-ball rebound and Doc Rivers called timeout. He drew up a play that had Allen coming off a screen and Paul Pierce, with a game-high 22 points – available as a second-option.
“It was more than him as the option,” Rivers said. “He was the first option on the play. And then Paul was the second, on the flare. Ray just makes shots, you know? He’s one of those guys, he can go 0-for-10; you know the one guy that believes he’s going to make it is Ray. And the second group is our team. When we drew it up, you could tell, they thought it would work and they went with it. It was great.”
“I wasn’t surprised,” Allen said of being given another chance on a pass from Rondo. “Anytime the situation comes down to the end of the game, we’ve been in these situations enough to know that it’s going to be either me, Paul [Pierce], Kevin [Garnett] or Rondo if he gets in the gaps.
“If he didn’t throw it to me, it would’ve went somewhere else and somebody would’ve been able to make the shot. I’ve said this before, I wasn’t shooting the ball particularly well and I didn’t really think I had a great rhythm but I always think the next one is going to go in. So, I was never worried about it.”
The second-most prolific 3-point shooter in NBA history, Allen also wasn’t worried about missing all four of his 3-point shots on the night before getting a chance to drill the game-winner – which ironically was ruled a trey before officials reviewed it during a timeout and changed it to a two-pointer.
“It wasn’t odd at all because I was kind of replaying in my mind the shots I had tonight,” Allen said. “Early, I had two threes and one of them was a ’911′ shot trying to beat the buzzer. Offensively, we weren’t in a great rhythm , a bad rhythm overall for the team and that translated into how we were playing.”
If Allen had no hesitation about taking the shot, Rivers certainly didn’t. “Not with Ray,” Rivers answered without any hesitation. “No, No. Ray is a shooter. Shooters make shots. So, no.”
|Fast Break: Celtics not pretty, but squeak by Pistons||at 10:13 pm ET|
Well, that was just about the ugliest game of basketball the Celtics have played this season. Or at least one of them. But the Celtics prevailed against the Pistons at the TD Garden, 86-82, thanks to a Ray Allen (who else?) jump shot that gave the C’s the lead in the final minute.
Paul Pierce led the Celtics (32-9) with 22 points, while Shaquille O’Neal chipped in with a double-double (12 points, 12 rebounds) in an ugly victory that saw the C’s shoot 44.7 percent from the field. Rodney Stuckey (15 points) led five players in double figures for the Pistons, who fell to 15-27.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
Even when he’s poor, he’s money: Through 47-plus minutes of basketball — about 37 of which he was on the floor — Allen was just 1-of-7 from the field, but that doesn’t bother great shooters. And Allen is a great one. No doubt about it. Coming off a screen, he nailed a 23-foot jumper with 24.5 seconds remaining that gave the Celtics the lead for good. The shot was originally ruled a 3-pointer but rescinded upon replay.
Shaq provides diesel fuel: Of all the Celtics to show the most determination, it was 38-year-old Shaquille O’Neal — the oldest player in the league. On back-to-back plays, O’Neal chased an offensive rebound and got to the foul line on one end, and then blocked a Rodney Stuckey shot before chasing it into the stands on the other end. He finished with 12 points and 12 rebounds in 25 minutes of hustle-filled basketball.
Big Baby being Big Baby: With the Celtics trailing 56-50 midway through the third quarter, Glen Davis drew his 27,653rd charge of the season, or at least it seemed that way. Settling back into his Sixth Man role with Garnett returning to the starting lineup, Davis put together a typically efficient night off the bench: 11 points, six rebounds and three assists in 24 minutes.
WHAT WENT WRONG
Celtics play “hero ball” in the first half: Where was the passing that had made the Celtics the No. 1 passing team in the NBA? The team’s two leading assist distributors — Rajon Rondo and Pierce — had just three assists at the half (they finished with 11 combined). Meanwhile, Tracy McGrady had six assists himself running the show for the Pistons in the opening 24 minutes (he finished with just seven). The Celtics looked sluggish in the opening half, hoping perhaps that the talent gap alone would carry them past the Pistons. It did, eventually.
Boston becomes brick city: Fans have become accustomed to 50 percent shooting nights from the field from the Celtics — not to mention a few 60 percent shooting nights — but the Celtics shot just 44.7 percent, and most of the night it was worst than that. Not to mention the 14-for-25 effort fromt the free-throw line. For the season, the Pistons had been allowing opponents to shoot 48.0 percent (27th out of 30 teams) from the field.
Charlie Villanueva played Kevin Garnett tough: Ever since the whole “cancer patient” vs. “cancer to your team” ordeal between Villanueva and Garnett, the former had the edge over the latter. Their last meeting wasn’t really fair, since that’s when Garnett went down with his strained calf, but there weren’t any excuses for Wednesday night.
For the large majority of the night, until the final minutes, Villanueva had the edge. He finished with 11 points and eight boards. More spirited play from Garnett down the stretch gave him 11 points (on 5-of-14 shooting) and six boards on the night.
|Irish Coffee: Magic president claims Celtics ‘act tough’||at 12:51 pm ET|
Wake up with the Celtics and your daily dose of Irish Coffee …
The Orlando Sentinel executed a midseason Q&A session with the Magic’s version of Danny Ainge — president of basketball operations Otis Smith — and he essentially called the Celtics a bunch of what singer Everlast called “fake tough guys, trying to act hard.” Here’s the exchange:
- Sentinel: One could argue the Celtics are tough.
- Smith: They act tough. They’re not really tough. They act tough.
The Celtics are just 5-8 against the Magic during the regular season since the arrival of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, but they own a 7-6 advantage against Orlando in the postseason — and that’s without Garnett in the lineup for a 4-3 Eastern Conference semifinals loss during the 2008-09 playoffs. The C’s ousted the Magic 4-2 in the conference finals last season, when many critics questioned the Magic’s toughness (rightfully so).
JERMAINE O’NEAL HAS A FASHION LINE?
The future of Jermaine O’Neal‘s basketball career remains in limbo, as we await a decision Wednesday on how he’ll treat his knee moving forward this season, but he may already be setting himself up for his next venture as a fashion mogul.
O’Neal will be rolling out a new fashion line of casual sportswear, Le Jaunty, over the course of the 2011 calendar year.
“I’ve always been into fashion,” O’Neal told WWD.com. “I’m from Columbia, S.C., and my family is very religious. We’d go to church and Sunday school and we always had to dress up. I enjoyed that.”
Just when you thought O’Neal’s season couldn’t get less interesting …
THE ASSOCIATION: EPISODE 2
Eipsode 2 of the behind-the-scenes documentary “The Association: Boston Celtics” airs on Friday night at 7 p.m. on ESPN. Episode 1 was a must-see for any Celtics fan. Here’s the remaining schedule:
- Episode 2: Friday, 7 p.m.
- Episode 3: Feb. 25, 7 p.m.
- Episode 4: March 16, 7 p.m.
- Episode 5: April 15, 8 p.m.