Celtics face early test in new-look Atlantic Division

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Celtics face early test in new-look Atlantic Division

The NBA season is just about a month old, and as I type, the Milwaukee Bucks are the only team in the Central Division with a winning record. This leads to the obvious question: OK, great. Who cares? But hold off on that for a second. I promise youll have another chance to ask.

Down in the Southeast, Miami and Atlanta are both above .500, while the Bobcats barely hang on after a surprising start (although if were being fair, shouldnt Mondays loss to the Thunder count for at least five? OK, good. So the Bobcats are actually 7-10). Out West, the Clippers and Warriors are the only two Pacific teams with a winning record. Same goes for the Spurs and Grizzlies in the Southwest. And in the Northwest, youve got the Thunder, Nuggets and Jazz all sitting above .500, with the Blazers and Wolves both lurking.

OK. All together now: Who cares?!

Now just the ladies: Who cares?!

Now just the seven-foot Serbians with a uniform number in the 90s: . . .

Oh, right. But seriously, who cares? Its November. Its early. Of the 30 teams in the league, only two have even played 15 games. Despite all thats happened and all weve learned since Opening Night in Miami, were still living in the Land of Small Sample Size where nothing is real. Not yet at least. So to try and draw any crazy conclusions based on the state of the current NBA standings is just stupid.

But . . . while nothings completely real at this point, in many cases, theres been enough evidence to help confirm some things that we already believed to be real.

For instance, right now Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony are the leagues Top 3 leading scorers. On one hand, no one can say for sure that those guys will finish the season in the Top 3, but on the other, that would make a lot of sense. It lines up with our pre-season expectations and leaves us feeling pretty damn confident that Kobe, Durant and Melo are going to score a ton of points this year.

That's real.

And in those terms, so is the Atlantic Division.

After just about a month, the Atlantic is currently the only division in the NBA that features four teams with a winning a record. And on one hand, once again, its early. Im not saying that its going to stay this way all season, and Im definitely not saying that the Celtics, Knicks, Nets, 76ers and Raptors comprise the most talented and dominant division in the league.

But at this point, theres no question that it is, and will be, one of the most competitive. That after five years of significant Celtic dominance, the Atlantics officially up for grabs. Of course, this doesnt come as a surprise. This is what everyone expected this season. But now its real.

Entering tonights game against the Nets, the Celtics are in fourth place in the Atlantic. And obviously, thats not a big deal when you consider that theyre also only a game and a half out of first. But at the same time, its hard to argue that theyve been any better than the divisions fourth best team.

The Knicks are 9-4 with wins over Miami, San Antonio and Philly (x2). The Nets are 9-4 with wins over the Clippers, Knicks and Celtics. The Sixers are 9-6 with wins over Denver and Utah, plus that big one a few Fridays back at the Garden.

Here in Boston, the Celtics have just been surviving. Theyre 8-6, but only two of those wins have come against teams with a winning record. One of those was last Friday against Oklahoma City, and theres still hope that that game was a sign that the Cs are finally ready to break out of their uneven, month-long funk and start looking like the team that we spent all summer talking up as a legitimate threat to Miami.

But at best, its still just a sign. Were still waiting for the actual proof. And the Celtics have real nice opportunity to provide some tonight.

Want to hear something crazy? If the Celtics lose this game to the Nets, theyll fall to 1-3 in the Atlantic Division. Thats as many division games as they lost COMBINED over the first two seasons with KG and Ray, and as many they lost in each of the two seasons after that. Back then, a divisional game was something that the Celtics had to force themselves to care about. And even though they always got the job done, it was rarely pretty.

Honestly, how many absolutely awful CelticsNets games do you think you sat through over the last five years?

And I mean awful. I mean where the Nets were unwatchable, the Celtics werent trying and the whole experience just ruined your night.

I. Mean. Awful. And it came down to the fact that the Celtics just had nothing to prove. Thats their Achilles heel. If weve learned one thing about this team over the years its that having something to prove is the motor in their engine. It starts with Rondo. Its always been that way with Pierce. When theres no challenge, theres no Celtics. And for the last five years, that was the case pretty much every time they took the floor against the Nets.

But tonight, the Celtics are looking at their new reality. A big game against the Nets, in which they not only have something to prove, but also desperately need to prove it.

OK, for the 5,000th time, its early. But its not that early. The season's slowly coming into focus, and before the Celtics can even think about the East, they've got to prove that they can handle life in the new look Atlantic.

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

Kevin Durant's future a mystery as OKC collapses

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Kevin Durant's future a mystery as OKC collapses

OAKLAND, Calif. - As Stephen Curry dribbled out the clock in a raucous Oracle Arena, Kevin Durant could only stand and watch.

The Golden State Warriors are heading back to the NBA Finals, while Durant's future in Oklahoma City is much less certain.

Two nights after blowing an opportunity to close out the defending champion Warriors at home, the Thunder got sent home for the summer when they lost Game 7 of the Western Conference finals 96-88 on Monday night.

Instead of becoming known as the team that knocked off the Warriors after their record-setting 73-win regular season, the Thunder will be remembered for a playoff collapse. They became just the 10th NBA team to lose a playoff series after taking a 3-1 lead and now head into an uncertain offseason with Durant eligible to become an unrestricted free agent in July.

If he does leave the only franchise he has played for in his nine-year career, he will do it having failed to deliver the championship to Oklahoma City. The closest the Thunder have gotten in Durant's tenure was when they lost the NBA Finals in five games to LeBron James and the Miami Heat in 2012.

They then lost in the second round the next season, in the conference finals in 2014 to San Antonio before missing the playoffs entirely because of an injury to Durant last year.

But under first-year coach Billy Donovan, Oklahoma City earned the third seed in the top-heavy Western Conference this season and then upset 67-win San Antonio in the second round. The Thunder followed that by winning three of the first four games against the Warriors, with a pair of lopsided wins at home.

But after losing Game 5 on the road, the Thunder blew an opportunity to eliminate the Warriors at home on Saturday night. Oklahoma City led by seven points with less than five minutes remaining but made only one basket and committed six turnovers down the stretch of a 108-101 loss that could haunt the franchise for years.

The Thunder responded on the road in Game 7 by taking a 13-point lead in the second quarter. But once Curry and Klay Thompson started hitting Oklahoma City with a flurry of 3-pointers, the Thunder had no answer. The Splash Brothers combined for 13 3-pointers as Golden State outscored Oklahoma City by 30 points from behind the line.

Oklahoma City's stars were no match. Russell Westbrook missed 14 of 21 from the field and shot just 36.8 percent in the three potential clinchers. Durant finished with 27 points but took only 10 shots in the first three quarters.

Durant did score seven straight points to cut an 11-point deficit to four with 1:40 remaining. But Serge Ibaka then fouled Curry on a 3-pointer with the shot clock running down, allowing Golden State to build the lead back to seven.

Durant then missed two shots and could only stare blankly when Curry ended Oklahoma City's season with a 3-pointer with 26.8 seconds left. Now the Thunder can only hope it doesn't end Durant's tenure in Oklahoma City as well.