Celtics still have much to prove


Celtics still have much to prove

By Rich Levine

MIAMI With all that the Celtics have gone through over the past four years, the city of Bostons far beyond overreacting to one bad loss. But that doesnt take away from the fact that Sundays 99-90 defeat in Miami was especially bad.

The Cs may have crawled back within single digits before the final buzzer, but the game itself was never really in question. The Heat took control from the opening tip, executed their game plan almost at will, and exposed the Celtics in ways we all feared they were capable of.

LeBron James and Dwyane Wade dominated the action and dictated the tempo, and in the process raised the game of some of their less-talented teammates (I said "some," Mr. Bosh). When the benches were injected into the mix, the Celtics still couldnt keep up.

For 48 minutes, the speed and athleticism thats become the calling card of this Heat team far surpassed the grit, guile and wisdom of the Celtics. In fact, if you were watching the two teams for the first time, youd have sworn it was Miami that had played together for so long, experienced so much and was so impervious to the insanity of playoff basketball. The toughness? That edge the Celtics have always held in the postseason? For one night, it was gone. In Miamis possession. They were the enforcers. They were the Celtics and the Heat at the same time.

Throw in the fact that Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett never really showed up, and Paul Pierce only did so sporadically before being tossed, and the Celtics never had a shot. At the end of the day, it was nine points, but it was so much more.

But then again, it was only one game. For all that happened, and all the bad vibes that came flowing out of South Beach, the Celtics are only down 1-0. Its the same place they were exactly one year ago today, the morning after dropping an eight-point decision in Cleveland in Game 1 of their second-round series with the Cavs. We all know how that worked out, so for that reason, and many, many others, no one will write the Celtics off after their most recent Game 1 debacle. To do so would be an insult to all this team has accomplished, and an oversight of all that Miami hasnt. Maybe you cant sit here and say with confidence that the Celtics will come out like gangbusters on Tuesday, but you cant rule out the possibility. For the optimist, thats still the expectation, but even the pessimist has to leave the window open. After all, these are the Celtics. Theyve made us look like fools before.

But before looking forward to Tuesday, its probably worth taking a quick look back. Not too far, either. Just to the Knicks series.

Im not sure anyone ever completely grasped what went on there, or was entirely sure what to take from it. On one hand, it was a sweep; the only sweep of the first round. What more could you ask for, right?

But there was also a weird sense of uncertainty that lingered from that series. The underlying feeling that even in winning four straight, the Celtics never looked completely in sync.

That they were unbelievably close to dropping Game 1, before Doc Rivers and Ray Allen barely saved the day. That they were unbelievably close to dropping Game 2, despite the Knicks playing without two of the three proven players on their roster. Game 3 was impressive, definitely the most promising of the four, but in that last game, against a team that had nothing left to play for, the Celtics still gave you plenty of reasons to scratch your head. They won four games, but who they beat and how they did it was never entirely satisfying. Of course, you could never complain. You dont complain about a sweep. Thats be like bitching about a few hours of rain on your vacation. Sure, its not ideal, but you still spent the day getting drunk under a cabana instead of sitting at your desk playing Angry Birds. Its still great.

But even if we werent complaining, we were certainly allowed to question how much, if anything, those wins meant to the big picture; if the Celtics were, in fact, that much better than they were at the end of the season. And Sundays loss to the Heat didnt do much to answer those questionsor at least not in the way you wanted.

Of course, I still picked the Celtics to win this series in seven. I did, and still do think that they have what it takes to get to Chicago, but no one can ignore the fact that if you take away those four whatever-they-were wins against the Knicks, the Celtics we saw on Sunday looked a hell of a lot like the team we saw lose the last time they were in Miami. Back when everything was a mess, every loss meant the end of the world, and we were convinced that, even at their best, Boston no longer had the firepower to contend with the healthier, stronger and more dynamic Heat.

Again, maybe that was just for one night.

Or in this case, now two.

Rich Levine's column runs each Monday, Wednesday and Friday on CSNNE.com. Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrlevine33

NBA Notes: League seems to be on upward surge in interest and ratings


NBA Notes: League seems to be on upward surge in interest and ratings

For so many years the NFL has had an almost impenetrable veneer in the way it has successfully pivoted away from a myriad of scandals that would have at the very least delivered a significant, noticeable blow to most professional leagues.

But that Teflon-tough image has taken a whacking of late with the league dealing with what has been for the most part an across-the-board ratings dip in its programming.

The NFL’s slide comes at a time when the NBA seems to be on a upward surge in terms of interest and ratings.

Kevin Durant’s decision to leave Oklahoma City and play for Golden State is a needle-mover across the NBA landscape. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are looking to defend their NBA title – a phrase no one thought they would ever hear even when James signed on for a second tour of duty – will certainly generate tons of interest.

The Boston Celtics added Al Horford to a team that many believe will be among Cleveland’s stiffest challengers, in addition to being a team that has played Golden State as well as anyone the last couple of years.

There are many hands responsible for the NBA having such a strong position on the professional sports landscape, chief among them being former commissioner David Stern.

He was in town last week as part of the Shamrock Foundation’s annual Gala.

Stern gave a rundown of what he’s been up to since passing the commissioner’s torch to Adam Silver.

He said he has been a senior advisor to a venture capital firm, counsels several start-up companies and of course a senior advisor to the NBA.

But it’s what he’s not doing – negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with the player’s union – that seemed to bring him the most joy.

“That’s when I got the least amount of sleep,” quipped Stern.

But those sleep-deprived marathon sessions with owners and union leaders, have helped bring the league to where it is today – thriving with its players and the profits both seem to be reaping.

That’s why the reports of the NBA and the player’s union being close to coming to terms on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, make a lot of sense. The NBA or the player’s union can opt-out of the current CBA prior to Dec. 15, although that’s looking less likely to happen because of what should be a new deal that better reflects the economic changes that currently exist in the NBA.

This past summer saw the salary cap in the NBA balloon to $94.14 million after having been $70 million for the 2015-2016 season.

With both NBA players and owners profiting significantly from the new TV deal, most of the changes to come about (paying players on the rookie scale more money; increasing the dollar amounts for veteran’s minimum and team exception contracts) are just common sense rule changes that have both sides closer to getting something done sooner rather than later.

And while he’s not directly involved in any of the current dealings, what he accomplished prior to retiring as commissioner certainly laid the groundwork for what appears to be a relatively smooth negotiation period.

“I didn’t project anything other than I was leaving it in the most spectacular of hands with an All-Star executive cast and they would just do what’s right for the league and they have,” Stern said.

And as far as the current talks that have reportedly been ongoing for months, Stern understands all too well that the last CBA talks which led to a shortened, 66-game season led to changes that has both players and owners feeling better about current negotiations.

“I’m proud to say the league has gotten to a very good place in terms of the player’s share, the owner’s share and where they can all see this is something that pays to keep going,” Stern said. “It’s fun to watch from a distance and not be involved.”



So much for that logjam in the frontcourt for the Philadelphia 76ers. The latest big man to go down with an injury is Nerlens Noel who recently had “minor” surgery on his left knee that will sideline him for reportedly three-to-five weeks. Keep in mind that the Everett, Mass. native missed his entire rookie season following left knee surgery, although the Sixers indicate this was an arthroscopic procedure and is considered minor. He joins No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons who suffered a foot injury that’s expected to keep him out until at least January. That means a lot of the trade rumors involving Noel (and Jahlil Okafor to a certain extent too) should cool off for a little bit.



Signing with Toronto during the offseason was supposed to be Jared Sullinger's chance at a fresh start. Unfortunately for him, things are looking a lot like they did in his early days in Boston. Concerns about his back dropped his draft-day stock from a likely lottery (top-14) pick, to falling in the Celtics' lap at No. 21. During his rookie season, he played well but had to have season-ending back surgery. With the Raptors, it appears he will miss some time early on due to a foot injury that occurred in the team's first preseason game which has kept him out of action ever since.  

“May be a little while before he comes back,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey told reporters recently. “He may get checked out just to see what else is going on.”

Sullinger’s weight was an issue during his time with the Celtics. It’s unclear what impact if any, it had on his current injury or whether it’s a factor in the injury keeping him out indefinitely. 



We have seen Metta World Peace (formerly known as Ron Artest) in lots of different basketball roles from hitting big shots to just hitting people.

But as a coach? That is reportedly being discussed by the Los Angeles Lakers brass as they try to trim their training camp roster down to 15 players.

MWP is likely on the outside of the 15-man roster now, but the Lakers still want him to be part of the organization. While it may seem a bit of a stretch at first, he does bring a wealth of basketball experience to the table, a player how has seen the highs and lows of the game in a way few players can fully understand or speak about with a great amount of credibility.



The LaMarcus Aldridge trade talk will be one of the storylines this NBA season. The Boston Celtics will continue to be discussed as a possibility, but the team to watch is the Phoenix Suns. They came close to convincing him when he left Portland for San Antonio. Phoenix provides him a team that can be built around him (which he wants), lots of shots (which he wants) and a team with no pressure on his back to lead them to major success (yup, he wants that too). … Michael Carter Williams’ stock seems to continue to tumble after winning the league’s rookie of the Year award. He’s going into his fourth season and he’s already on to his third team. … Multiple league executives believe Devin Booker is the best 20-and-under player in the NBA right now. He's good, but I'd probably take Minnesota's Karl-Anthony Towns.

Bradley continues adapting, improves ball-handling and court vision


Bradley continues adapting, improves ball-handling and court vision

WALTHAM, Mass. – Just like Avery Bradley comes back each season with a new element in his basketball tool box, defenses have adapted to some degree to try and counter whatever Bradley is doing a better job at.

Before it was take away the mid-range shot and make him a 3-point shooter. Now it’s run him off the 3-point line by closing out hard and fast against him.

Well, running him off the 3-point line is actually playing into the hands of two areas of Bradley’s game that have seen significant growth during the offseason: ball-handling and court vision.

Bradley’s improvement in those areas has been evident in the preseason, something the seventh-year guard hopes to continue in the regular season opener on Wednesday against the Brooklyn Nets.

“I worked on my ball-handling a lot,” Bradley said. “Instead of doing all the Kyrie (Irving) stuff that trainers have people do, I tried to focus on just one or two moves, just perfecting a few moves that I can put into my game.”

What we’ve seen from Bradley is better sense of when to attack players with his ball-handling and when to use it as a set-up to get his teammates good shots.

He attributes both to the work he has put in and just becoming an older, more wiser player on the floor.

“I’m able to make plays for my teammates because I’m a lot more confident in my ball-handling, in my play-making and my decision-making," said the 25-year-old Bradley. "I feel a lot more comfortable out there.”

While it may not seem like that big a deal that Bradley’s putting the ball on the floor more and attacking off the dribble, it’s actually really important for this Celtics team.

With Bradley now looking to attack off the dribble more, that means that the Celtics now have a starting five – Isaiah Thomas, Bradley, Jae Crowder, Amir Johnson and Al Horford – with each player comfortable and confident in their ability to take most defenders and their respective positions, off the dribble.

That makes Boston a significantly better team offensively in terms of being highly unpredictable and to a larger degree, tougher to contain.

“He’s a great defender, one of the best in the NBA,” Boston’s Amir Johnson told CSNNE.com. “But people sleep on his offensive game. He can hit the corner 3s, wing 3s, pull-up jumpers … he can pretty much do it all out there. Now that he’s looking to get to the rim more, that just makes him and our team really, much better.”

Indeed, Bradley sounds as though he plans to continue probing different ways to generate points for the Celtics.

One approach he’ll surely take is to do a better job of taking advantage of the mistakes defenses make against him, like players who try and chase him off the 3-point line.

“Me being  a better 3-point shooter should challenge me to think the game a little more,” he said. “If it’s drawing fouls … I know I should be drawing more fouls from the 3-point line. There are times when people are just running out of control at me at the 3-point line. I have to be smarter.”

Bradley added, “I worked on that this summer. It’s translated in practice, so now it needs to translate in games.”