7:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Nets -2, Over/Under: 233
A pair of eastern contenders look to build momentum following the All-Star Break, as the Brooklyn Nets play host to the Boston Celtics from Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. There is no doubt that the Celtics (19-17, 4th in Eastern Conference) will be looking at the second half of the season as an opportunity to collect themselves and right the proverbial ship, for the first half of the schedule did NOT go as planned, to say the least. Despite advancing to three of the last four Eastern Conference Finals, Boston hasn’t come close to reaching that level for a variety of reasons thus far. First, this is a side that enjoyed a much shorter turnaround from one season to another, and as a result have looked fatigued throughout the first few months of action. Second, in the offseason they lost (All-Star Swingman) Gordon Hayward in Free Agency, and while receiving a hefty trade exception (roughly $23 million) in the process, they’ve yet to adequately replace him. Third, injuries and COVID-19 have wrecked havoc on what remained of their roster, with (tough as nails Guard) Marcus Smart (13.1 PTS, 39.4% FG, 2.8 REB, 6.1 AST, 1.8 STL, 0.5 BLK, 14.6 PER), (All-Star Point Guard) Kemba Walker (18.5 PTS, 38.8% FG, 36.6% 3FG, 3.6 REB, 4.6 AST, 1.1 STL, 16.5 PER), and (All-Star Forward) Jayson Tatum (24.9 PTS, 43.7% FG, 36.8% 3FG, 7.1 REB, 4.5 AST, 1.4 STL, 0.5 BLK, 19.7 PER) each missing time with a plethora of maladies. Smart suffered a strained calf muscle back on February 3rd and has since missed the last eighteen games, while Walker underwent offseason knee surgery and missed the first eleven entries of the campaign rehabbing from said surgery and has been slow to return to full strength, shooting just 38.8% from the field which is his lowest such percentage since the 2014-2015 season. And then there is Tatum, who after scratching the realm of superstardom while in the Bubble contracted COVID-19 earlier in the season missing four contests and has been quoted as still dealing with the effects of the virus two months later. Ironically, the absence of Smart has been the most profound, for watching this team and it’s become abundantly clear that they lack ball-movement on the offensive end, and while the 26-year old veteran is far from a dynamic scoring threat, he’s a selfless facilitator of the basketball, making life easier for the likes of Tatum and (fellow All-Star Forward) Jaylen Brown (24.7 PTS, 49.5% FG, 38.8% 3FG, 5.6 REB, 3.9 AST, 1.1 STL, 0.5 BLK, 21.0 PER), who is in the midst of a career campaign in Beantown. As a team, the Celtics average just 22.4 assists per game (27th Overall), with Smart accounting for a team-high 6.1 dimes. Add it all up, and (Head Coach) Brad Stevens has seen both the depth and overall talent of his rotation severely depleted, which is how they managed to suffer fourteen losses in a 21-game stretch between late-January and February. With all that said, Boston has managed to gut out four consecutive victories heading into the All-Star Break, vaulting them back above .500 and into fourth place in the East. Those four wins came by a cumulative margin of nineteen points, with the offense heating up on 51.7% shooting, including 42.5% from beyond the arc, while planting a flag at the charity stripe where they’ve knocked down 22.0 of their 29.0 free-throw attempts, and dishing out an improved 24.8 assists. There is no question that this group needed the rest offered by the All-Star Break, and now that they’ve received it it should be interesting to see if they can in fact bolster their ranks before the March 25th Trade Deadline. Simply put, they need to use that Trade Exception, and there are rumors circling that they’re in search of another ball-handler who can keep the offense from becoming too stagnant. (General Manager) Danny Ainge has rarely added talent midseason, but has publicly stated the desire to add another playmaker to the rotation, with the Houston Rockets’ Victor Oladipo being the subject of the NBA rumor mill. They could also use another Big who could at the very least contribute on the glass, with (German international) Daniel Theis (9.3 PTS, 56.4% FG, 37.0% 3FG, 5.0 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.6 STL, 1.1 BLK, 15.1 PER) and (Offseason acquisition) Tristan Thompson (7.9 PTS, 53.1% FG, 8.3 REB, 1.0 AST, 15.6 PER) outmanned against larger teams. Perhaps someone like Andre Drummond would be a good fit? Be it by trade or buyout, it’s only a matter of time before the two-time All-Star Center leaves the Cavaliers, who have chosen to sit him for the last nine games before the Break, and his gaudy rebounding numbers (he’s led the league in that particular category in each of the last three seasons) would be a welcome sight in Boston. Armed with that Trade Exception, the Celtics are one of the few contenders that can add him before any buyout were to happen, which gives them an advantage over the competition.
“Any of these four games could have gone the other way. We have a lot to improve on if we want to be the kind of team we want to be.”Brad Stevens on the Celtics narrow 132-125 victory over the Raptors, their fourth in a row heading into the All-Star Break and their fourth straight close call
When we last saw the Celtics, they managed to close out the first half of the regular season with a fourth consecutive victory, topping the depleted Toronto Raptors 132-125 from TD Garden. Against an opponent playing without three starters along with another two members of the rotation, this was a golden opportunity for Boston to keep building their momentum and to the relief of their faithful in the Northeast they kept the proverbial ball rolling. Despite being short on numbers, Toronto managed to keep this one close throughout, though in hindsight the affair was ultimately decided in the Third Quarter. Here is where Boston really pressed their advantage, shooting a scorching 12-of-19 from the field (63.2%), including 4-of-6 from beyond the arc (66.7%), and 7-of-10 from the free-throw line (70.0%), assisting on a healthy seven of said twelve field goals. The visitors on the other hand, were very sluggish following intermission, shooting 9-of-24 from the floor (37.5%), including 4-of-14 from downtown (28.6%), and zero attempts from the charity stripe. As a result, Stevens’ charges led by as many as twelve in the final period, though the Raptors would rally back on the strength of a 10-1 run to cut the lead to three points. However, the hosts would stop the bleeding as the aforementioned Brown sank a free-throw, which was followed by a Tatum jumper, and a floater courtesy of (veteran Point Guard) Jeff Teague (6.4 PTS, 37.3% FG, 42.2% 3FG, 1.6 REB, 2.1 AST, 0.8 STL, 10.1 PER) capped off the win. In the end, it was a total team effort for the Celtics, who had eight different players score in double-figures, with Tatum leading the way with twenty-seven points on 9-of-15 shooting (60.0%), a dozen rebounds and five assists, while Brown added another twenty-one points, seven rebounds, and four assists. Walker chipped in wit fifteen points, though he and Brown only shot 4-of-11 overall (36.4%). The Bench was a big deal for both sides, as Boston’s reserves accounted for fifty-one points, with Teague totaling fourteen and the triumvirate of youngsters, including Payton Pritchard (7.7 PTS, 45.7% FG, 40.2% 3FG, 2.3 REB, 2.3 AST, 0.6 STL, 11.3 PER), Robert Williams (6.9 PTS, 72.1% FG, 5.9 REB, 1.1 AST, 0.9 STL, 1.4 BLK, 25.6 PER), and Grant Williams (5.3 PTS, 47.0% FG, 43.3% 3FG, 2.9 REB, 0.9 AST, 8.5 PER), totaling ten, ten, and seventeen. Toronto sank a ridiculous twenty-one three-pointers, though the home side would make up for that by getting to the stripe for FORTY free-throw attempts, making twenty-nine, and outscoring them 54-44 in the paint. Now it’s on to Brooklyn where they will sure to receive quite the litmus test from the Nets, who will look quite different than when they met back on Christmas Day when they were blown out in a 123-95 affair. That was before Brooklyn acquired (2017-2018 MVP) James Harden in a blockbuster trade since becoming the hottest team in the Eastern Conference, winning ten of eleven heading into the All-Star Break.
Meanwhile, the talk of the NBA over the past two months has been none other than the Nets (24-13, 2nd in Eastern Conference), who have cemented themselves as a bonafide contender in not just the East, but the National Basketball Association as a whole. As we’ve stated over and over again in this column, if the past decade has taught us anything about this league, it’s that the most successful way of building a championship team is by amassing multiple stars, with Brooklyn proving to be the latest advocate of that method. A year after signing not one, but two, All-NBA talents in the form of (2013-2014 MVP) Kevin Durant (29.0 PTS, 54.0% FG, 43.4% 3FG, 7.3 REB, 5.3 AST, 0.7 STL, 1.4 BLK, 25.1 PER) and (2016 NBA Champion) Kyrie Irving (27.2 PTS, 51.0% FG, 41.1% 3FG, 4.8 REB, 6.0 AST, 1.1 STL, 0.6 BLK, 24.1 PER) in Free Agency, the club proved even more ambitious in engineering a blockbuster four-team trade with the Rockets, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Indiana Pacers in exchange for James Harden (25.5 PTS, 49.7% FG, 42.2% 3FG, 8.7 REB, 11.4 AST, 1.3 STL, 0.7 BLK, 25.5 PER). Of course, Brooklyn paid a HEAVY price for the services of the three-time reigning scoring champion; Houston alone recouped a whopping four First Round Picks and four pick swaps from the Nets, who also shipped away much of their supporting cast, including (young Swingman) Caris LeVert and (promising Center) Jarrett Allen, along with the likes of (reserves) Taurean Prince and Rodions Kurucs. Did the franchise gut it’s roster to get Harden? Absolutely. But did they pair him with Durant and Irving in an effort to create arguably the most prolific attack in the NBA? You bet your ass they did. Since the trade (Head Coach) Steve Nash’s charges have exploded on the offensive end of the court, averaging a league-high 122.5 points per game on 50.7% shooting from the field, including 41.4% from beyond the arc, along with 27.8 assists in comparison to just 13.2 turnovers, en route to amassing a 17-7 record over that span, including ten of their last eleven. Furthermore, they’ve managed to top 120 points on FIFTEEN occasions, including in each their last two outings. What’s been remarkable though is that this eruption has occurred with the league’s latest Big Three all on the hardwood at the same time for just eight of those twenty-four contests. Durant has missed twelve of the last thirteen games alone, including each of the last nine with a tender hamstring. Needless to say, Nash is taking no chances with health of his biggest gun, particularly after he missed all of last season, proclaiming that the 32-year old will be reevaluated after the All-Star Break. But then again, why would he when his troops have continued to play so well in his absence? Nine of their last ten wins have come without Durant on the hardwood, with the Nets hammering their opponents by an average margin of 10.5 points per game on 50.6% shooting overall and 42.4% from three. Harden has really proved his value as the reigning three-time scoring champion has acclimated himself to his new team quicker than anyone could have predicted, seamlessly shifting between being a prolific scorer and teeing up his teammates; over the last nine games without KD he has averaged 29.3 points on 51.4% shooting, including 47.0% from downtown, with 9.7 rebounds and 11.0 assists. However, in addition to Harden’s exploits, Brooklyn has received excellent contributions from a Supporting Cast that many wrote off as decimated following the trade, with (sharpshooting Forward) Joe Harris (14.8 PTS, 53.0% FG, 50.6% 3FG, 3.5 REB, 1.8 AST, 15.1 PER) relishing all the attention that his teammates have drawn, while the unheralded Bruce Brown (8.6 PTS, 59.0% FG, 27.3% 3FG, 4.7 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.8 STL, 16.2 PER) has emerged as a pleasant surprise for the Coaching Staff to boot. (General Manager) Bobby Marks continues to add to the rotation, though with news over the All-Star Break coming out that none other than Blake Griffin will be joining the fold after reaching a buyout with the Detroit Pistons. While nowhere near the athletic wrecking ball that he was in his prime, the six-time All-Star still offers playmaking nous on the offensive end, and alongside (former teammate) DeAndre Jordan (7.4 PTSs, 76.2% FG, 7.5 REB, 1.9 AST, 1.5 BLK, 16.4 PER), should provide some much-needed size and muscle to Frontcourt.
“A lot of mixed emotions from the fans but I knew that was going to happen. I just wanted to come out here and give them a show. Once I get on that court I’m just trying to win. So that was kind of my feeling. I wasn’t trying to show off. I wasn’t trying to do anything out of the ordinary that I haven’t been doing. Just playing my brand of basketball.”James Harden on his performance in his first return to Houston since being traded, posting a Triple-Double in Brooklyn’s 132-114 route of the Rockets
When we last saw the Nets, they ran their recent string of play to ten victories in eleven outings to close out the first half of the regular season as they embarrassed the Rockets in a 132-114 affair that was notable for the return of a certain MVP to his former stomping grounds. This was the aforementioned Harden’s first trip back to Houston since that blockbuster trade, and for all intents and purposes his departure from his former franchise was anything but smooth. The nine-time All-Star demanded a trade in the offseason following the departure of (General Manager) Daryl Morey and (Head Coach) Mike D’Antoni, showed up to Training Camp overweight and out of shape, and publicly criticized his teammates on a number of occasions before finally being traded in Mid-January. Needless to say, if there were more than the limited 3,615 fans filling the seats at Toyota Center then we sincerely doubt that the affair would have sounded as amicable as it was. Brooklyn’s offensive juggernaut continued to devastate against a flat-out inferior opponent, shooting a blistering 57.6% from the field, including 17-of-35 from beyond the arc (48.6%), with thirty-three assists in comparison to just fourteen turnovers, while outrebounding the home side 53-37. Even without Durant out of the lineup seven different players scored in double-figures, led by Harden, who logged his eighth Triple-Double of the campaign and second straight, totaling twenty-nine points, ten rebounds, and fourteen assists, shooting an efficient 10-of-15 from the field (66.7%), including 4-of-8 from downtown (50.0%). The aforementioned Irving added twenty-four points on 9-of-21 shooting (42.9%), while Harris and Browns chipped in with nineteen and seventeen respectively. Jordan posted ten points and rebounds, while (young reserve) Nicholas Claxton (10.0 PTS, 69.0% FG, 3.4 REB, 1.0 AST, 1.0 STL, 1.4 BLK, 29.7 PER) scored sixteen points off the Bench. And with this reunion in the books, it will be Irving’s turn to face his former employers, as the Nets welcome the Celtics to Barcalys tonight. The seven-time All-Star spent two full season in Boston after being traded there back in the Summer of 2017, though his time there was marred by injuries and controversy as he wasn’t necessarily the seamless of fits. When Irving returned to Boston for the first time earlier this season, he went OFF against his former team with thirty-seven points, six rebounds, and eight assists in a rather one-sided 123-95 affair on Christmas Day.