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Preview: Celtics at Mavericks 11.08.10 at 10:11 am ET
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In 2006, the Dallas Mavericks reached the NBA finals. In 2007, they won 67 games and had the league’s MVP in Dirk Nowitzki. Those two seasons were the best in the 30-year history of the franchise and both ended in massive disappointment. The Mavs lost the finals despite winning the first two games of the series and they lost in the first round to the Golden State Warriors the following season in what still ranks as one of the greatest upsets in the history of the sport.

Since then the Mavericks have been good, winning over 50 games each season, but never great. Their best player is 32, their point guard is 37 and six of their eight rotation players are over 30.

They’ll be good again this year. Nowitzki and Jason Kidd can still play and Jason Terry can still score, but their success ultimately depends on whether the rest of the supporting cast can regain some of its past glory.

In the past year-plus, the Mavs have acquired Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood, Tyson Chandler and Shawn Marion. All four have seen better days, but how much they have left holds the key to the Mavs season because their best young player, Roddy Beaubois, had a pin inserted into his broken foot and is out indefinitely.

The Mavericks are still formidable and as the second night of yet another back-to-back, they pose a serious challenge for the Celtics. The C’s have won five straight, including an impressive win over the Thunder Sunday night. This is also their fifth game in seven nights before they get a two-day break and a return date with the Heat on Thursday.

CELTICS (6-1)

OFFENSIVE RATING: 105.4 (NBA rank: 17th)

DEFENSIVE RATING: 98.8 (3rd)

PACE: 91.6 (24th)

Probable Starters: Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jermaine O’Neal

Injuries: Kendrick Perkins (Knee, out), Avery Bradley (Ankle, out), Shaquille O’Neal (Shin, questionable)

MAVERICKS (3-2)

OFFENSIVE RATING: 104.0 (20th)

DEFENSIVE RATING: 99.7 (5th)

PACE: 93.0 (20th)

Probable Starters: Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Caron Butler, Dirk Nowitzki, Tyson Chandler

Injuries: Roddy Beaubois (Foot, out)

KEY MATCHUP: Kevin Garnett vs. Dirk Nowitzki

Of all the matchups Garnett has had throughout his career, Nowitzki has to rank alongside Tim Duncan as one of the best. Their styles are a perfect compliment to each other because few big men have ever defended the perimeter better than Garnett. Nowitzki is still a fantastic player, averaging over 25 points and 9 rebounds early in the season.

KEY NUMBER: Celtics field goal percentage

The Mavs have held teams to just 39 percent shooting in their five games. The Celtics rank near the top of the NBA at 49 percent. If they can shoot somewhere in the middle — 45 percent or better — they’ll have a good chance at getting out Dallas with a win.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

In addition to Nowitzki and Garnett, the Rajon Rondo-Jason Kidd matchup is always good theater and there’s no telling how many miles Ray Allen and Jason Terry will run chasing each over all the court. This is another big test for the Celtics who are slowly building momentum. The Heat await on Thursday, but this is a solid bout before the main event.

Read More: Celtics, Mavericks, Preview,
Fast Break: Celtics silence Thunder 11.07.10 at 10:25 pm ET
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After beating Oklahoma City, 92-83 Sunday night, the Celtics have now won five straight games and six of their first seven, but they have not played a better 24 minutes of basketball than they did in the first half. There’s a decent chance the Celtics won’t play a better 24 minutes all season.

Of course NBA games last longer than 24 minutes and the Thunder made their inevitable run late in the third quarter and into the early stages of the fourth, cutting the Celtics lead to six. But this time it was the bench that saved the day as Glen Davis knocked down a couple of shots.

Ray Allen scored 19 points. Paul Pierce had 17 and Rajon Rondo had a tidy 10 points and 10 assists. The bench outscored OKC’s, 33-12. Add it all up and it equals the Celtics best win of the season.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

Turnovers, or more specifically, the lack of turnovers: It’s really a simple equation for the Celtics. When they don’t turn the ball over they are almost impossible to stop because they shoot such a high percentage and almost everyone on the roster is a shooting threat.

The Celtics turned it over only four times in the first and that helped them build a 58-37 lead. They turned it over four times in the third quarter and that’s when OKC made its run. It’s really that simple for the Celtics right now.

The bench: Glen Davis and Marquis Daniels have been constants for the Celtics this season, but they received contributions from everyone in the rotation Sunday. Nate Robinson had nine points including a buzzer-beater 3 to the end the first half and Semih Erden also gave the Celtics quality minutes. They were even better in the second half as they helped stave off a big OKC run.

Ray Allen has his shot back: Did it ever actually leave? A handful of off shooting nights is no reason to panic when it comes to Allen and he showed again Sunday night why he is one of the best in the business.  Allen knocked down 8-of-16 shots and scored 19 points. He also made big shots. He was on the floor with the reserves in the fourth quarter when the Celtics made their last move, proving once again how valuable he is.

WHAT WENT WRONG

The third quarter: It was unlikely the Celtics would be able to keep up their first-half play for 48 minutes, but they started the second half like they were going to try, opening a 71-51 lead. But the Thunder came right back led by Westbrook and Kevin Durant, who scored 14 of his 34 points.

Second half runs are inevitable after a visiting team opens up a big second-half lead, particularly when the opponent is as good as Oklahoma City. What was encouraging for the Celtics was that they held it off and rebuild the lead.

That was really the only thing that didn’t go right. When you beat Oklahoma City by nine points in their building to start a four-game road trip, there’s not much to apologize for.

Read More: Celtics, Fast Break, Kevin Durant, Thunder
Preview: Bucks at Celtics 11.03.10 at 11:54 am ET
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As the 2009-10 season entered the final stretch, the team that none of the Eastern Conference contenders wanted to play in the first round was the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks went 10-4 in February and 11-4 in March, but on the night of April, 3 Andrew Bogut lost control during a dunk and landed with a sickening thud, injuring his right hand, elbow and wrist.

Bogut had surgery on his broken hand a week later and missed the rest of the season and the playoffs. Even without their center, who was named third-team All-NBA, the Bucks still took the Hawks to seven games in the first round. The Celtics missed matching up with Milwaukee after Miami beat New Jersey in overtime on the regular season’s final day making the Bogut injury an interesting what-if?

The Celtics didn’t really hit their stride until halfway through the Cavaliers series. Would they have even advanced that far against a healthy Bucks team? Would they be back as currently constituted if they had bombed out in the first round?

Bogut has returned, although he told the Journal-Sentinel that he doesn’t think he’ll be 100 percent this season. In four games this season, Bogut is averaging 12 points and 10 rebounds in 32 minutes a night. But Bogut isn’t the only Milwaukee player dealing with an injury. John Salmons sat out the entire preseason with a sprained knee and he has struggled early.

The Bucks were a surprisingly active player last summer, re-signing Salmons and adding Drew Gooden, while trading for Corey Maggette. Those moves suggested that the Bucks are trying to win now, and while they are off to a slow start they have the pieces to be in the East’s next tier of contenders behind Boston, Miami and Orlando.

This is the second night of a back-to-back for the Celtics as they enter a stretch of five games in seven days. They handled their business against Detroit in surprisingly easy fashion Tuesday and will look to build upon that performance tonight.

BUCKS (1-3)

Offensive Rating: 97.0 (28th)

Defensive Rating: 102.3 (8th)

Pace: 90.2 (28th)

Probable Starters: Brandon Jennings, John Salmons, Carlos Delfino, Drew Gooden, Andrew Bogut

Injuries: Michael Redd (Knee, out), Chris Douglas-Roberts (Eye, out), Darlington Hobson (Hip, out)

CELTICS (3-1)

Offensive Rating: 105.6 (15th)

Defensive Rating: 98.2 (4th)

Pace: 92.1 (25th)

Probable Starters: Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jermaine O’Neal

Injuries: Shaquille O’Neal (Knee, questionable), Avery Bradley (Ankle, out), Kendrick Perkins (Knee, out), Delonte West (Suspension)

KEY MATCHUP: Brandon Jennings vs. Rajon Rondo

Rondo has decimated the opposition in the first four games, racking up 67 assists, the best four-game start in NBA history. Jennings is among a crop of young, talented point guards trying to make their own name in the league.

While still only 24 years old, Rondo has already ascended to the top tier which also consists of Chris Paul and Deron Williams. The order depends on your perspective. The challenge for Rondo this season is to play at a high level every night because he has gone from the hunter to the hunted.

KEY NUMBER: Field goal percentage

The big problem for the Bucks is that they are shooting 40 percent in their first four games. The only perimeter player who has shot a consistently high percentage has been Carlos Delfino, who 15-for-31 from 3-point range. Jennings, Salmons and Maggette have all struggled with their shooting, although Maggette is 29-for-29 from the free throw line.

The Celtics are off to a solid defensive start in all phases. They will need to continue to clamp down on the Bucks scorers and hit the glass when the shots are off.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

This is a chance for the Celtics to build some early-season momentum. They play the Bulls Friday and then hit the road for games at Oklahoma City, Dallas, Miami and Memphis. The players have talked about reestablishing their home court advantage and the next few games would be a good time to start.

Read More: Bucks, Celtics, Preview, Rajon Rondo
Preview: Celtics at Pistons 11.02.10 at 12:53 am ET
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Strange things happened to the Celtics when they went into Detroit last year.

Desperately needing a win on March 2, the Celtics relied on Nate Robinson in the fourth quarter to pull it out instead of Rajon Rondo. The Fast Break posted that night had Rasheed Wallace as the Player of the Game for his defensive effort.

In a 92-86 loss on Jan. 20, Glen Davis swore at a heckler in a very quiet arena and was later fined $25,000.

What awaits the Celtics this season? From the looks of things a mediocre and slightly disjointed basketball team. Rondey Stuckey remains the point guard, although the Pistons just let the deadline pass to sign him to a extension. Rip Hamilton still starts at the other guard, while the younger and more talented Ben Gordon comes off the bench. Tayshaun Prince is an expiring contract and Tracy McGrady is getting minutes.

Still, the Pistons have some interesting young players such as Austin Daye who is now starting and rookie center Greg Monroe, who has yet to crack the rotation. Detroit is a team in transition, with enough proven veterans to make a run at one of the final playoff spots, but also a team with several young players to develop.

The Pistons have dropped their first three games of the season by a total of 14 points and would love to get a win. For the Celtics, this game has trap written all over it.

It’s the first night of a five games in seven days stretch with a back-to-back coming Wednesday against the Bucks at the Garden. They are not expecting to have Shaquille O’Neal and will likely insert Jermaine O’Neal into the starting center spot with rookie Semih Erden backing him up. They also struggled to close out the Cavaliers in their first road game, another also-ran Central Division team that is somewhere between rebuilding and competing.

CELTICS (2-1)

Offensive Rating: 99.6 (23rd)

Defensive Rating: 98.1 (5th)

Pace: 93.7 (21st)

Probable Starters: Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jermaine O’Neal

Injuries: Avery Bradley (ankle, out), Kendrick Perkins (ankle, out), Delonte West (suspension), Shaquille O’Neal (shin, doubtful)

PISTONS (0-3)

Offensive Rating: 103.3 (15th)

Defensive Rating: 108.3 (21st)

Pace: 94.5 (17th)

Probable Starters: Rodney Stuckey, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Austin Daye, Ben Wallace

Injuries: Will Bynum (hamstring, questionable), Chris Wilcox (hamstring, questionable), Terico White (foot, out), Jonas Jerkobo (Achilles, out).

KEY MATCHUP: Pierce vs. Prince

In 2008-09, Prince held Pierce to 15.5 points over four games. That was the lowest per-game average Pierce had against any team other than the Clippers and Grizzlies.

The year before, Pierce again scored just 15 points a night in three games against the Pistons while shooting just 37 percent. Pierce has the same effect on Prince who shot below 40 percent against him those two seasons. Their matchup cooled a bit last season while Pierce was battling injuries and Prince missed one of the games entirely, but it’s still one of the better small forward battles in the East.

Prince’s length has been a problem for Pierce over the years, but he is off to a quietly efficient start to this season, averaging 19 points a game and making 8-of-12 from 3-point range. The focus has been on Pierce’s rebounding after he grabbed 14 boards against the Knicks, but the Celtics need his shooting more while Ray Allen works out his shot (6-for-18 from 3) and Nate Robinson tries to get untracked (1-for-9).

It’s not exactly the most enjoyable matchup to watch, but it should be a good one.

KEY NUMBER: 3-point shooting

The Pistons have bee defensively-challenged in their first three games, giving up over 100 points in all three games, but they have defended the arc well, allowing only 28 percent shooting.

The Celtics, with the notable exception of Pierce, have struggled from beyond the arc and need to start making some shots to take the pressure off the inside game. Take Pierce out of the equation and they have made just 25 percent of their 3’s (8-for-32).

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

Detroit is desperate for win and the Celtics would like to get through a road game and get Jermaine O’Neal on track.

These two teams never quite renewed their rivalry for the modern era. They battled throughout the Celtics championship year of 2007-08, but the Pistons fell of quickly once they traded Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson.

Still, these two teams have history and you never know, maybe Sheed will show up.

Read More: Celtics, Pistons, Preview, Rasheed Wallace
Irish Coffee: Top 5 Tommy Moments 10.28.10 at 10:36 am ET
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Wake up with the Celtics and your daily dose of Irish Coffee ‘€¦

 The Worcester Telegram’s Bill Doyle had a nice piece on Tommy Heinsohn and Mike Gorman entering their 30th season as the Celtics‘ broadcasting team.

Get this: Tommy actually believes he’s calmed down in his tenure as the color man.

“I stopped making it World War III,” Heinsohn told Doyle.

We’ll see about that. Here’s five of Tommy’s greatest moments as an announcer caught on tape:

1. “This is getting ridiculous. This is absolutely ridiculous.”

2. “Can I say it now? I … LOVE … WALTER!”

3. “I’ve seen a lot of players, but I can say this without a moment’s hesitation: Jackie was HORRIBLE. SUCKED!”

4. “This is absolutely — NBA: It’s stupid.”

5. “Wait a minute. That’s a terrible call. That is a TERRIBLE call.”

THE LONGEST SECOND

In case you missed it, with one second remaining on the shot clock last night, Cleveland’s Anthony Parker managed to catch an inbounds pass, swing the ball left to right, set up for a 3-pointer and get it off.

I’m sure Tommy got a kick out of that call, especially considering it basically ended the C’s chances against the Cavaliers last night.

“That was the longest second in NBA history,” Doc Rivers cracked. “I wasn’t going to argue. Somebody didn’t push that button quick enough.”

“We’re at home,” Byron Scott countered. “It’s supposed to be a long one second.”

CLEVELAND REAX

The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Bill Livingston explained why Cleveland fans thanked the C’s for defeating the Heat and deserved that extra-long second …

It was a very long second. But the Cavs and their fans had waited a very long time, through the spring, the summer, and into the fall for a break. This morning, the Cavs can look down in the Eastern Conference standings on the Miami Heat, albeit by only a half-game.

It won’t last. But neither did the false savior.

The Plain Dealer’s Mary Schmitt Boyer called the Celtics Cleveland’s “archrival.” Isn’t that cute? They think C’s-Cavs is a rivalry …

By beating the archrival Eastern Conference defending champion Celtics in their first regular-season game since the departure of LeBron James, the Cavs served notice that they’re still here and they can — and will — win without James.

Jim Ingraham of Ohio’s Morning Journal reveled in the victory, taking a shot at LeBron …

No fan base has ever needed a win on opening night more than this tortured, tormented fan base, abandoned as they were by a self-absorbed tag-along, looking for a shortcut to a championship ring.

They were rewarded for their loyalty with a rousing king-cleansing opening night victory.

 SHAQ: OBAMA’S WARMUP ACT

Apparently, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton need Shaquille O’Neal‘s help ingratiating themselves to foreign diplomats. According to the New York Daily News, an autographed pair of Shaq’s shoes is among the gift items given to government leaders on overseas trips.

What else from the Celtics could Obama use in his gift package? Tommy’s headphones? Paul Pierce‘s wheelchair? Perhaps Rajon Rondo‘s headband; he doesn’t need that anymore.

(Have a question, concern or conception for tomorrow’€™s Irish Coffee? Send a message to @brohrbach on Twitter.)

Read More: Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers, NBA, Shaquille O'Neal
The NBA 30 on 30: Blogosphere Forecast (6 of 7) 10.26.10 at 1:14 pm ET
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NBA fans live a team’s ups and downs. They react to every draft pick, trade and free-agent signing. They debate the merits of the 15th man. They find significance in the most insignificant stats. They simply KNOW their team. So, too, do bloggers. That’s why we sought the opinion of the league’s best blogs — one for each of the 30 teams — to break down the team they cover and, of course, the Celtics.

We’ll move to the Eastern Conference’s Atlantic Division (sans the C’s) with the sixth of a seven-part  series (Don’t forget to check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5) …


NEW JERSEY NETS
by Mark Ginocchio, Nets Are Scorching

ON THE NETS: I think the Nets are going to surprise some people this year and be a lot better than last year.

Not Oklahoma City Thunder good, but maybe eighth seed in the East good, which could still be below .500.

I think Brook Lopez is going to go a long way in establishing himself as an All-Star, and while I’m advocating being patient with Derrick Favors, I see him being used to lure a superstar over to New Jersey this season (Carmelo Anthony?).

ON THE CELTICS: The Celtics are clearly the class of the Atlantic Division this season, and they’re once again one of the favorites to be representing the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals.

With their age, I can see them hitting some ruts during the regular season, and of course all of their core guys have to be healthy for the playoff run, but the Celtics are one of the few teams out there that I think are capable of defensively shutting down Superfriends in Miami.

With that in mind, I’ll be rooting for them if/when their paths cross.


NEW YORK KNICKS
by Tommy Dee, The Knicks Blog

ON THE KNICKS: The Knicks will be improved, assuming Amar’e Stoudemire stays healthy.

They need the trio of Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chander and Anthony Randolph to make strides on both sides of the ball to get the most out of Mike D’Antoni‘s transition offense quarterbacked by Raymond Felton.

Of course, the Carmelo Anthony situation will continue to loom, and this is a pressure-packed season for the coach, seeing that his system has taken a tremendous hit with fans over the last two years.

They still have roster flexibility, and I expect them to land Anthony, but in the meantime they have to consistently win free-throw attempt battles and out-rebound their opponents. Those are two constants for playoff teams.

If they do that — and knock down their open jumpers — they’ll be a playoff team. If they don’t, it could be another lost season in the Big Apple.

ON THE CELTICS: I actually love what the Celtics did this offseason. To this day, I think they beat the Lakers if Kendrick Perkins doesn’t get hurt.

But they’ve loaded up the front line with size, and age, with both Shaquille and Jermaine O’Neal, which is key because of the status of Perkins’ health — and it makes them deeper up front against the likes of Miami and Orlando.

The Celts owned the Magic last postseason because they chose to guard Dwight Howard 1-on-1 in the post, and it proved effective as he couldn’t kick out to open shooters. Perhaps more importantly, with the Big 3 in Miami, I believe the Heat are vulnerable up front. That’s the way to attack them.

If Rajon Rondo continues off his impressive playoff performance and the Celtics maintain health, then they should be right there in the end once again.

Off the floor, I love the addition of Lawrence Frank, one of the most prepared minds in the game today.


PHILADELPHIA 76ERS
by Brian Ward, Depressed Fan

ON THE 76ERS: The Sixers had an up-and-down summer. New general manager Rod Thorn and head coach Doug Collins are both clear upgrades.

Sending Willie Green and Jason Smith out of town was a case of addition by subtraction.

Evan Turner is taking his lumps right now, but while he may not be scoring as much as we’d hoped, he’s producing in other areas and contributing while figuring out the difference between the Big Ten and the NBA.

I’d be feeling much better about the Sixers’ prospects if it wasn’t for the Samuel Dalembert trade. Ed Stefanski pulled the trigger on a deal that basically gutted the Sixers interior defense and defensive rebounding without a thought to who would fill that void.

To make matters worse, he took back the second year on Andres Nocioni‘s contract in the deal, which submarined the Sixers’ cap space for next summer. It was a horrible trade from every angle.

If the Dalembert trade hadn’t been made, I’d feel pretty confident in predicting a 10-15 game turnaround for this team and probably a trip to the playoffs in Colllins’ first season at the helm.

As things stand, however, the Sixers’ talented perimeter players won’t be able to cover for their feeble stable of bigs, and it’s a stretch to think they’ll win 35 games. If I had to make a prediction today, I’d say 30-52.

ON THE CELTICS: From the outside, looking in, the Celtics don’t look as strong as they did last season.

Their core is a year older, and the addition of Shaq is going to open some major holes in their defense.

That being said, they have a cakewalk through the Atlantic, and they’ll probably finish somewhere between the No. 2 and 4 seed in the Eastern Conference, depending on health.

If Kendrick Perkins comes back healthy in time for the playoffs, they could make a return trip to the Finals, but I think that’s a bit of a long shot.


TORONTO RAPTORS
by Zarar Siddiqi, Raptors Republic

ON THE RAPTORS: 26 wins.

The Raptors aren’t as bad as ESPN is making them out to be. They could be on par or better than teams like Philadelphia, Indiana, New Jersey, Detroit, Washington and New York, so there will be wins to be had.

The defensive effort has been solid in training camp, and if the Raptors can get consistent offensive production out of Andrea Bargnani and the Italian improves his defensive awareness, they have enough players who can play and carry the load.

Jarrett Jack, Linas Kleiza and Leandro Barbosa can complement the youth of DeMar DeRozan, Ed Davis and Amir Johnson, but the question will be whether the Raptors can rely on their defense to keep them in games when their star-starved offense goes into a funk.

Last year, they were dead last in defensive rating. If they can become a middle-of-the-pack team, it could be a decent rebuilding year, but I don’t see the playoffs on the horizon.

ON THE CELTICS: The health of the two O’Neals and Kevin Garnett will dictate how the Celtics will fare.

The Raptors saw first-hand how volatile things can be with Jermaine O’Neal if he’s injured, and if you have to rely on Shaq giving you cover at center, then the Celtics could be in trouble in the postseason, much like they were when Perkins went down in the Finals.

From what I’ve seen of Rajon Rondo, he looks to have improved his outside game to the point where he can make a sagging defense pay.

With Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen all good mid-range shooters and passers, it will make the Celtics hard to stop, and we know the defense will be there.

Barring injury, I’d pick the Celtics to win 57 games but lose to the Bulls in the postseason (yes, I think the Bulls will be good) as Tom Thibodeau comes back to haunt you.

If injuries hit early, there will be a firesale.

Stay tuned for the final portion of this seven-part series: the Boston Celtics.

Read More: blogs, Celtics, NBA, New Jersey Nets
The NBA 30 on 30: Blogosphere Forecast (5 of 7) at 12:13 pm ET
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NBA fans live a team’s ups and downs. They react to every draft pick, trade and free-agent signing. They debate the merits of the 15th man. They find significance in the most insignificant stats. They simply KNOW their team. So, too, do bloggers. That’s why we sought the opinion of the league’s best blogs — one for each of the 30 teams — to break down the team they cover and, of course, the Celtics.

We’ll move to the Eastern Conference’s Southeast Division with the fifth of a seven-part  series (Don’t forget to check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4) …


ATLANTA HAWKS
by Jason Walker, Peachtree Hoops

ON THE HAWKS: The Hawks spent the summer, once again, reinvesting in the status quo (see Johnson, Joe), which has seen them improve on their record every season since their 13-win nadir in 2004-05.

The major changes were on the bench, where the team replaced Mike Woodson with longtime assistant Larry Drew. Gone are the constant switching defensively and the heavy reliance on iso-sets offensively in favor of a motion offense and playing it straight defensively.

Such change should result in a rise in turnovers, a stat that has always kept the Hawks’ offensive efficiency near the top of the NBA but also kept their best defenders, Josh Smith and Al Horford, in better positions to help the team defensively.

The Hawks were also very fortunate last year in terms of injuries, so their lack of depth didn’t harm them in terms of their regular-season record.

Between the adjustment to new schemes and a likely injury or two to the main core, the Hawks should see the end of their annual increase in win total, but the continued improvement in their younger players (Smith, Horford, Marvin Williams and Jeff Teague) should help balance that somewhat, giving them another 50-win season, fourth in the conference — and getting bounced again in the second round of the playoffs.

ON THE CELTICS: The Celtics have a good thing going … and going … and going with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, led by one of the most exciting players in basketball in Rajon Rondo.

The true test of whether your franchise is a contender is when the regular season predictions don’t mean jack squat, and the C’s have been in that neighborhood ever since acquiring KG and Ray. It’s a great place to be, and this season is no different.

With a plethora of big men (Shaquille O’Neal, Jermaine O’Neal and Glen Davis) to supplement the core roster in case of any injury up front due to age (and there is considerable age there), Boston should be able to capture home-court again, which makes them a very tough out come postseason time, as they proved so well last season.

I believe they’re a lock for the Eastern Conference Finals.


CHARLOTTE BOBCATS
by David Arnott, Rufus on Fire

ON THE BOBCATS: The Bobcats will have a huge hurdle to overcome this season, having lost their starting point guard and starting center (Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler).

Barring a trade, they’re looking to replace them with D.J. Augustin, a young player Larry Brown seems to despise, and Nazr Mohammed, a center whose sell-by date is long-since passed (last season’s career year notwithstanding).

Even if Gerald Wallace remains an All-Star, and Stephen Jackson and Tyrus Thomas continue playing as well as they did last season for the Cats, they’re going to struggle to get to 40 wins — and could easily finish with near 30 wins.

ON THE CELTICS: The Celtics’ window could be closed this season, given the likely continued decline of Pierce, Garnett and Allen.

There’s also no telling, really, how much Tom Thibodeau meant to the Celtics’ defensive excellence the past few years, and any kind of decline on that end of the floor might be the death knell for them as true title contenders, since no one on the team is a killer offensive threat.

So, give them 50 wins again.


MIAMI HEAT
by Benny Vargas, All U Can Heat

ON THE HEAT: After a much ballyhooed offseason, the Heat enter the 2010-11 season as legitimate title contenders.

The additions of Chris Bosh and LeBron James along with the re-signing of Dwyane Wade has caused a seismic wave throughout the league, which could signal the beginning of a new NBA dynasty on South Beach.

Miami will have to battle through glaring holes at the 1 and 5 spots, despite their newly assembled constellation of stars.

The Heat must find a way to become a cohesive unit, within an 82-game span, leading into the playoffs. Once the postseason gets underway, expect Miami to face difficult obstacles in Boston and Orlando. Both teams have been together longer and have big edges at the center and point guard positions.

Predicting Miami’s season is difficult, because so many factors come into play. Look for the Heat to make the Eastern Conference Finals vs. Boston and for the series to go seven games with the decisive contest being held in Miami.

The Heat will have a stellar regular season, earning the top seed in the East, but don’t expect them to match the record-setting 72 wins that the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls managed to get.

ON THE CELTICS: While Vegas odds-makers have listed the flashy names on the Heat lineup as favorites to win the Eastern Conference, one has to love the Celtics’ chances.

Boston solidified their roster this offseason with several free-agent signings. The additions only help to strengthen a team that was a Kendrick Perkins injury or a few more key rebounds away from winning an NBA title.

Boston has All-Stars at every position on the floor. While Allen declined a bit last year, Rondo’s emergence as an elite NBA player compensated for the slip in Allen’s game. KG and Shaq must be held back a bit during the regular season, so they can be healthy and rested for the playoffs.

Expect to see Boston easily win the Atlantic Division but to finish with the third seed for the playoffs. The Celtics showed last year that they don’t need to overexert themselves for 82 games in order to have postseason success.

No matter their seeding, the Celtics should be considered the Eastern Conference favorites once the playoffs begin. In the end, it will be Boston and Miami squaring off for a chance to dethrone the Lakers.


ORLANDO MAGIC
by Evan Dunlap, Orlando Pinstriped Post

ON THE MAGIC: I’m expecting bounce-back seasons from Vince Carter and Jameer Nelson, as well as another year of improvement for Dwight Howard.

I’ve pegged them for 62 wins, because although the East got stronger this offseason, the Magic certainly didn’t decline in talent level from the last two seasons, when they won 59 games apiece.

Carter worked hard on his body this offseason and appears to be much more comfortable on the floor. His jumper has rarely even caught the rim in preseason, as he’s getting his body square and legs into the shot before firing away.

Orlando brought Quentin Richardson aboard, largely due to his 3-point shooting, which will force the Celtics to think twice about leaving him open. The Celtics exposed Orlando in the conference finals last season by utterly ignoring Matt Barnes on the perimeter, due to his unreliable outside shot, which freed them to pack the paint, stymieing Howard inside and shutting down driving lanes for Carter and Nelson. Clearly, Richardson will be one key against Boston.

Orlando will likely win far more games than the Celtics do this season, but don’t let that disparity fool you: If these teams meet for the third consecutive postseason, it’ll be anyone’s series.

ON THE CELTICS: The Celtics proved last season that they’re a tough team to peg, at least until the playoffs roll around.

Given the continuity in Boston’s locker room, at least as far as leadership is concerned, I expect another season of Doc Rivers managing his players’ minutes closely, and the players conserving their energy.

This approach worked to great effect last year, as they took the defending champion Lakers to the brink in the Finals after most basketball observers counted them out, first against the Cavaliers and then against the Magic.

Overall, I’ve pegged the Celtics for a win total in the mid-40s, likely 46-36. If that seems low, or insulting, to the Boston faithful, I think it’s instructive to point out the regular season doesn’t mean a whole lot to this team.

While I’m dubious that the Celtics can flip the switch again, so to speak, Rivers will keep that possibility open so long as he’s able to keep the veteran core fresh. And regardless of their health or engagement level, they’ll always be a tough matchup for the Magic.

The cost-effective additions of Shaquille and Jermaine O’Neal — along with Perkins — give Boston three of the top five Dwight Howard defenders in the league.


WASHINGTON WIZARDS
by Beckley Mason, Truth About It

ON THE WIZARDS: The Wizards enter the 2010-11 season with positive energy flowing out their ears.

John Wall has already proven to be a man-child not only as an ankle-breaking wunderkind, but as a steady-handed floor marshal — unafraid to put veterans in their place, literally, on the basketball court.

But however solid Wall may be this year, the squad as a whole is perforated with imperfections. Gilbert Arenas can’t guard anyone, only a couple players can hit 3s and the Wizards’ young posts have a history of weak rebounding and late help defense.

See, this is a team full of “you know, if…”s. Because, you know, if Gilbert stays healthy and embraces the off-ball responsibilities like he did in the preseason, if 30-year-old Josh Howard returns to his near All-Star levels of play, if JaVale McGee builds on his breakout summer, if Andray Blatche plays like he did down the stretch last year (21 points a game from January to March), and if Al Thornton eschews the mid-range game and focuses on becoming Count Dunkula, this could be a pretty good team.

That’s far too many ifs for the irresponsible optimism that pervades D.C. hoops fans — but an appropriate amount for a team heading into a 35-47 season.

ON THE CELTICS: Was the Celtics’ run to last year’s Finals the last violent spasm of a dying monster, or simply proof that the beast was slumbering throughout the regular season?

Rondo is superb (Hubie Brown voice) and the East’s best point guard, but the rest of the Celtics’ starting five is declining — that is, unless The Big Ticket really is bouncing back on that right knee.

Boston’s pride won 50 games last year and is replacing Perkins with the chalk outlines of the O’Neals, a significant downgrade defensively and offensively (KP is the best screener in the league). The frontcourt is deeper, but also less effective until Perk returns, and then at what level will he play?

The Celtics should also be concerned after losing Tony Allen, the East’s best perimeter defender and resident LeBron/Wade specialist. Who fills that void? Ray, Pierce, Nate Robinson, Delonte West all fall well short defensively.

On any other team, these concerns would lead one to declare, “They will be worse than last year.” But this is the Celtics, who, like the Spurs in the West, must be taken seriously until emphatically proven otherwise. Most of the East sucks yet again, so 50-plus should be in the cards once more — 55-plus if Garnett is truly “back.”

Stay tuned for Part 6 of this seven-part series: the Eastern Conference’s Atlantic Division.

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