Despite standings, Celtics see Lakers as team to beat

191544.jpg

Despite standings, Celtics see Lakers as team to beat

By A. Sherrod Blakely
CSNNE.com

LOS ANGELES When you look at the Western Conference standings, there has been at least one or two teams ahead of the Los Angeles Lakers (33-14) most of this season.

That doesn't matter to the Boston Celtics.

The Lakers are the NBA champions, two years running now.

Until that changes, they remain the team that, maybe more than any other, has the Celtics' undivided attention.

We'll certainly find out when one of the NBA's most storied rivalries is resumed Sunday afternoon at the Staples Center.

"I see them as the team to beat," Boston's Paul Pierce said of the Lakers. "I don't see them as one (of the elite teams), I see them as the (elite team in the NBA). They've proven it. I don't really care what their record looks like. In a seven game series, they're going to be tough to beat."

Sunday's matchup won't have the sizzle of an NBA Finals Game 7 matchup.

But make no mistake about it.

It's a big game, bigger than the Celtics players want to acknowledge.

For the Celtics, it will be their first time back at the Staples Center since losing Game 7 of the NBA Finals in June.

When the season ended, the Celtics had tough decisions to make.

Boston came up short with a roster full of veterans, leaving president of basketball operations Danny Ainge with a couple of clear-cut choices.

He could go young, and buy into the notion that the Celtics needed to begin the rebuilding process immediately.

Or he could add even more veterans than the Celtics had a year ago, establish an even deeper bench, and do so without locking up players to long-term deals.

Ainge picked the latter.

"I love our group," Ainge told CSNNE.com. "I feel like, we've had a really good season. We feel like we have a really good team."

Boston (35-11) boasts the best record in the Eastern conference, an astounding position for them to be in considering rarely does a day pass without someone getting hurt.

The latest member of the Green and White MASH unit is Glen Davis, who has a right hamstring injury that has him questionable for Sunday's game.

When you look at the moves made by Ainge this summer, they were made with one thing in mind - unseat the Lakers at the top of the NBA scrap heap.

"Right now, we're doing all we can to try and win a championship right now," Ainge said.

That Game 7 loss came down to the Celtics not having enough quality size in the frontcourt, a point that became quite obvious in the final five or six minutes of the game which is when the Lakers rallied to take control. A key to that lack of depth was the torn MCL and PCL injury suffered by Kendrick Perkins in Game 6.

So what did Ainge do?

He went out and signed Jermaine O'Neal, who has been a disappointment so far because of missing so many games with various injuries. He opted to not have surgery on his left knee, and is now resting it with the goal being for him to return to action in about three weeks.

Be honest.

If Jermaine O'Neal returns to action and helps the Celtics win a couple of playoff games on the road towards Banner 18, all will be forgiven just as it was a year ago when Rasheed Wallace delivered his best play of the season in the playoffs. Even to this day, a segment of Celtics Nation clammers for Wallace to go Brett Favre on us and return to the Celtics.

Boston also added Shaquille O'Neal, who, even as the oldest player in the NBA, still can take over games every now and then.

The Celtics signed Jermaine O'Neal to a two-year deal worth about 11.9 million, a similar contract to the one O'Neal turned down from the Denver Nuggets. And Shaquille O'Neal signed a two-year, 3.2 million deal for the veteran's minimum.

"Being able to get Shaq and Jermaine with what we had, was very successful for us," Ainge said. "Now the only concern you have with those guys is their health. We know they can both play. It's a matter of keeping them healthy."

Because of their injuries, it has afforded rookie center Semih Erden a chance to play more minutes than expected.

To his credit, Erden has stepped up to the challenge and has made the most of his opportunities to play.

"We feel we have a young, 7-foot kid that can play," Ainge said.

But it remains to be seen if that will be enough to beat the Lakers on Sunday, let alone in the NBA Finals if both teams manage to get that far.

Despite the hype surrounding the Miami Heat and the blockbuster trade that bolstered the Orlando Magic's title hopes, the Celtics have remained confident that they will be the last team standing at the end of the season.

And they're pretty confident the Lakers will be right there with them, even if they're not the best team in the West right now.

"They're back-to-back champs," said C's guard Rajon Rondo. "Whether they're .500 right now, they're still the team to beat. They pretty much went through the West last year. They're the team to beat, regardless of their regular season record."

A. Sherrod Blakely can be reached at sblakely@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Sherrod on Twitter at http:twitter.comsherrodbcsn

Avery Bradley hopes to take next step on D: Defensive Player of the Year

Avery Bradley hopes to take next step on D: Defensive Player of the Year

WALTHAM, Mass. – Prior to Friday night’s Green and White Scrimmage, Celtics coach Brad Stevens made a point of having Avery Bradley honored for being named to the NBA’s All-Defensive First Team.
 
It was a good feeling and an award that Bradley is extremely proud of accomplishing.
 
But he wants more.
 
First-team All-Defense is nice.
 
Defensive Player of the Year?
 
Even better.
 
Prior to Saturday’s practice, Bradley’s case for being in contention for such a lofty award stems from him consistently being among the better perimeter defenders in the NBA.
 
On most game nights, Bradley is usually assigned whichever guard is the more potent scorer.
 
And in that role, Bradley has been able to establish himself as one of the toughest matchups players will face from a defender, all season.

But as good as Bradley may be as an individual defender, he knows any praise or accolades for what he does has to come with the knowledge that his teammates have also elevated their play defensively, too.
 
“Like I said, it’s hand-in-hand with how you play as an individual and your team success,” Bradley said. “How far we can go this year, hopefully I can show and the rest of my teammates can show how good we are on defense.”
 
One of the reasons Bradley was able to garner enough votes to be named to the league’s First-team defense, is due to the ringing endorsements he received from various players throughout the league.
 
Two of Bradley’s biggest supporters are Portland’s explosive backcourt tandem of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.

After Boston’s 116-109 loss at Portland on March 31, McCollum tweeted out that Avery Bradley was “the best perimeter defender in the league” and added, “I don’t think it’s close.”
 
In Boston’s loss to Portland, Lillard had 14 points on 3-for-16 shooting while McCollum had 17 points on 8-for-19 shooting.
 
“Hopefully the entire NBA can believe that I’m one of the best defenders,” Bradley said.
 
 

Young one of the 'tough decisions' facing Celtics

Young one of the 'tough decisions' facing Celtics

BOSTON – Brad Stevens and Danny Ainge have conversations all the time on a wide range of topics which includes but is certainly not limited to, the Celtics players.
 
On Saturday morning the two were discussing James Young, one of the players whose future with the Green team is anything but a certainty at this point.
 
Part of the challenge in evaluating Young is that unlike most first-round picks, getting on the floor to play – big minutes in the D-League don’t count – has not been easy.
 
“He hasn’t gotten a chance to play as much as other guys and that’s hard,” Stevens said prior to Saturday’s practice.  “We see the progress here, we see the growth here. We’ll just keep chipping away.”
 
Young, drafted with the 17th overall pick in 2014, has appeared in 60 games while averaging 2.2 points, 1.1 rebounds while shooting 34.1 percent from the field and 25 percent on 3s in 8.9 minutes per game.
 
Of the 13 players drafted after Young in the first round of 2014 draft, seven have appeared in more games with nine having a higher minutes played per game average.  
 
But here’s where Young’s situation sets himself apart from the others. Five of the seven players drafted after him who have appeared in more games have never seen action in the postseason  compared to Young, who has played for nothing but playoff teams in Boston.
 
That distinction speaks volumes as to why the Celtics will be hard-pressed to make the right call when it comes to deciding Young’s fate.

“We’ve got some tough decisions at the end of the month,” Ainge, Boston’s president of basketball operations, told Mike Gorman and Tommy Heinsohn at the Celtics' Green and White scrimmage, which was livestreamed on CSNNE.com. “We have about five guys fighting for two spots.”
 
Young is well aware of the precarious position he’s in at camp.
 
“I haven’t been thinking much about it,” he told CSNNE.com. “I know the system very well. It’s just about playing basketball. That’s the main thing; just try to contribute.”

To Young’s credit, he did a lot of nice things on Friday that didn’t show up in the final stats but were instrumental in him being a positive contributor while on the floor. There were the deflected passes which slowed the White team down from getting into their offense quickly. He had a steal, attacked the paint and made the right pass in one sequence which led to another good pass and then a lay-up for a teammate aka the “hockey assist.” And defensively, he was solid throughout his time on the floor.
 
Said Young: “I’m just playing for the team and be myself and not let things weigh on my head; just go out and play basketball, do what I need to.”
 
In doing so, Young would create more than just a spot on the roster for himself but potentially a role off the bench.
 
And doing that would lead Ainge and Stevens into having a very different kind of conversation when it comes to Young.