Tuesday, November 11, 2008

NBA Atlantic: No championship hangover in Boston

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Conventional wisdom had the Boston Celtics taking a step back in 2008-09.

Maybe not a large step in the wrong direction since the Celtics are far too talented to languish but let's face it, the 'Boston Three Party' of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen finally reached the top of the NBA mountain last year so the sense of urgency for the veteran trio is gone.

Human nature and the loss of super-sub James Posey almost guaranteed the Celtics would falter a bit compared to last year, especially early on. But, give coach Doc Rivers credit, he has found a way to motivate his veteran laden team and keep them focused on a great opportunity to repeat.

Doc Rivers has found a way to motivate his veteran laden team and keep them focused on a great opportunity to repeat.
The Celtics are off to a brilliant 7-1 start and are a perfect 4-0 at TD Banknorth Garden. Garnett, Pierce and Allen have been buoyed by the continued development of center Kendrick Perkins and point guard Rajon Rondo along with a deep bench that now features Tony Allen as its main component.

Rivers mentioned in the preseason that he expected big things from Tony Allen and the Oklahoma State product has delivered, averaging 9.9 points and 1.5 steals in just under 21 minutes per game.

"The last three or four games, our bench has been the reason we have won," Rivers said before the Celtics beat division rival Toronto on Monday. "The energy off our bench has been absolutely terrific. They play together. They share the ball. They do all the little things that make them as a group a good group."

The Boston bench also includes sharp-shooting guard Eddie House and young bigs Leon Powe and Glen Davis but the team would like a veteran presence in the frontcourt that can handle himself on the boards and knock down a jumper in a big situation.


On paper the Philadelphia 76ers look impressive. On the court, they have looked anything but.

When Sixers basketball guru Ed Stefanski added power forward Elton Brand and sharp-shooting role players Kareem Rush and Donyell Marshall to a nucleus that included star swingman Andre Iguodala, underrated point guard Andre Miller and rising second-year star Thaddeus Young, it looked like a winning combination.

So why are the Sixers just 2-4 early in the season?

A couple of reasons. Sixers coach Maurice Cheeks has struggled with his rotation, leaving Rush and Marshall on the bench in favor of mediocre outside shooters like Willie Green and Royal Ivey. That has allowed opposing teams to double-down on the talented Brand without worrying about the weak-side three.

The far bigger problem, however, has been Iguodala, who hasn't been able to settle into his role as a supporting piece to Brand. A.I. version 2.0 is shooting just 37.7 percent from the floor and averaging 11.0 points per game. As the team's second offensive option, Iguodala is playing with little confidence, forcing far too many awkward shots and turning the ball over at an alarming rate.

"We just need to keep working and play better as a team," Iguodala told me last week. "I don't think I am having trouble fitting in (with Brand). It's (chemistry) just something that has to develop over time."

If Iguodala can't fit in around Brand and Cheeks doesn't find a way to better utilize his role players, it could be a long year in the City of Brotherly Love.


Much has been made of Danny Ainge bringing Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to Boston to team with Paul Pierce. When a championship ensued, you knew other league executives would follow suit and play copycat.

In Toronto, general manager Bryan Colangelo brought in multi-time All-Star Jermaine O'Neal from Indiana to team with Olympian Chris Bosh and rising star Jose Calderon at the point.

Things have been a little uneven during a 4-3 start but the Raptors have quickly established themselves as the chief rival to the Celtics in the division.

Pierce torched them for 22 points in the fourth quarter as Boston rallied to win on Monday in Beantown but Toronto outplayed the Celtics for most of the game and served notice that they will be a tough team to deal with.

To take that next step, the Raptors need to develop more chemistry, learn how to finish games and find a defensive option to handle a player like Pierce.

"In the fourth quarter, they did a good job of making shots," O'Neal said after the loss in Boston. "Ray, Paul and the others have an incredible comfort level with each other. We've got to figure a way to keep those guys down, especially when we're up 15 or 16 points in a game, especially in the second half."


I first wrote about "changing the culture" in reference to a sports team during the early '90s when covering football in Minneapolis. Since that time, the phrase has turned into a sports cliche.

When a struggling team turns the page of a bad coach or an overmatched general manager, some front office exec inevitably talks about how the new guy is about to "change the culture" in town.

It rarely comes to fruition at least until the roster turns over but in the case of the New York Knicks, the team's new mentor, Mike D'Antoni, is actually "changing the culture" with the same flotsam that made Isiah Thomas and Larry Brown miserable.

D'Antoni brought his seven-seconds-or-less offense from Phoenix to Madison Square Garden and gave malcontents Stephon Marbury and Eddy Curry some pretty sweet season tickets at the end of the bench.

The result has been three straight wins and a 4-2 record with branded losers like Jamal Crawford and Nate Robinson showing they could be actual contributors in a winning equation.

Most recently Crawford poured in a game-high 32 points to lead New York in a comeback win over the previously unbeaten Utah Jazz, 107-99, at Madison Square Garden on Sunday.

Zach Randolph added 25 points and 14 rebounds for D'Antoni's club, while Robinson ended with 10 points and four steals.

Offseason acquisition Chris Duhon, the underrated quarterback of the team, chipped in 16 points and nine assists in the win.

Crawford was so pumped up after the game, he broke out our favorite cliche. "We're changing the culture around here," Crawford said. "Guys are really competing, we're playing together and coach believes in us. He's positive and upbeat all the time."


Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson are long gone but the Nets still have eight- time All-Star Vince Carter on hand. And, there's no doubt Vince can still fill it up when motivated but it has become abundantly clear that Devin Harris has turned into Lawrence Frank's most indispensable player.

It's got to be tough taking over a team from one of the best point guards of all-time but that's exactly what Harris was asked to do when he arrived in North Jersey as the replacement for the aging Kidd.

The former Wisconsin star has flashed his gaudy skills at times and poured in a career-high 38 points during the Nets' upset of the Detroit Pistons last week. But, Harris sprained his left ankle during that contest and was forced to sit out losses at Indiana and Miami.

Harris is listed as day-to-day for the 2-4 Nets and may miss a third straight game when the team faces the Pacers again on Wednesday.

New Jersey will continue to struggle as long as Harris stays on the bench.

Keyon Dooling is a competent replacement but Harris can really break down a defense off the dribble and take over a game. He still needs to become more consistent, improve his shooting (39.6 percent) and take better care of the basketball, but a big year from Harris is about the only thing that will save the Nets from the Atlantic Division basement this season.

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