Before the Celtics’ first victory of the season on Friday night, there was plenty of panic running up and down Causeway Street as Boston began the season with an 0-3 slump. Meanwhile a familiar foe was going through a similar situation out west as the Lakers lost their first two games of the season causing folks to practically crown the Clippers as the new kings of Los Angeles hoops.
Both Celtics and Lakers were missing a star player, not to mention a number of other factors contributing to their slow starts, so working with a sample size of less than five games, is it really fair to freak out just yet?
Yes and no.
No, because when you are missing a team captain in one case, and a starting center in another, the expectations should be lowered substantially. Yes, Celtics head coach Doc Rivers said there would be no excuses for his team to start slow; losing Jeff Green to heart surgery right before the season, team captain Paul Pierce out with a bruised right heel… neither was an acceptable excuse for failure according to Rivers. Obviously, a coach can’t tell his or her team, “hey listen, we’re missing some key parts, so if we suck, well, no big deal. Nobody expects us to win anyway,” but losing to the Knicks, Heat and Hornets all within four days on the road shouldn’t really come as a shock.
The Knicks looked good in the opener, the Heat were forced to fend off a furious Celtics comeback and the Hornets have some great young talent thanks to the Chris Paul trade so I don’t think there is much shame in this particular 0-3 start.
Here’s where Celtics fans have the right to worry. Jermaine O’Neal is your starting center. Yikes. The big man finally got his act together dropping 19 points on the winless Pistons in Boston’s 96-85 victory over Detroit on Friday, but one good game doesn’t give me much confidence. In his 15th NBA season, O’Neal (who missed much of last season with injuries) only scored eight points, 9 rebounds and 3 blocks in the Celtics’ first three games combined. The guy is 6’11, c’mon! O’Neal’s backups are Chris Wilcox (who has missed two games with a bruised shoulder) and rookie Greg Stiemsma.
The good news is that Stiemsma, last year’s D-League Defensive Player Of The Year has a lot of potential. The 26-year-old was a standout in an otherwise awful game against the Hornets, with 6 blocks in about 20 minutes in his NBA debut. I heard good ol’ Tommy Heinsohn compliment Stiemsma a few times during the Celtics broadcast of the Pistons game during the rookie’s 16 minutes which comprised of 2 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, one block, one steal and four fouls. While the stats seem small, Stiemsma’s presence was felt in a big way, which will only improve with time.
More good news/bad news …. Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett might be on the verge of dinosaur age by NBA standards, they all still have “it.” They are still fierce competitors with the physical abilities to win on a nightly basis. The shortened season is a double-edged sword for an older team as they benefit from playing fewer games overall, yet suffer a disadvantage of little rest between games. As a true master of this team, Rivers knows these cats well enough to pick the right games to rest each guy when they need it.
Then there’s Rajon Rondo getting ready to hit his prime, not to mention that trade rumor chip on his shoulder that will keep him intent on his proving his worth to Danny Ainge and anyone else who dares to doubt him.
Guards Marquis Daniels and Keyon Dooling will be nice role players for Boston as will forwards Brandon Bass and Sasha Pavlovic. But as with most things in life, it all comes back to the middle, or the center. Will the trio of O’Neal, Wilcox and Stiemsma be strong enough to fend off the likes of Dwight Howard, Amare Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer, Al Horford, and the entire Miami Heat throughout the whole, albeit shortened regular season? Can the Celtics rotation of Bigs truly compete with the size, strength, skill and experience of the top teams in the East at the 5 position? Time will tell, but I won’t get my hopes up.
Then there’s the defense. Losing a defensive mind Tom Thibodeau is a big deal and it showed last season. The defense is what made this team dangerous over the last few years. It is one thing to ask older players to produce offensively but it’s another to expect them to play as tenaciously on the other end of the floor. I think the younger players should do whatever they can defensively to compensate for what the Big 3 might lack at that end.
If the Celtics can find a way to stay rested and maximize the play of their big men, I think they’ll get back on track and be a legitimate factor in the East.
As for the Celtics loathed rival, I would start with expressing concern over Kobe Bryant’s health, but after doing so over the last few years of bad knees, jacked up pinkies and whatever else, I have finally learned to accept the fact that injuries rarely hamper Bryant. He says his surgically repaired right knee is “as close to 100% as it’s going to get” after an offseason procedure in Germany, and despite a torn ligament in his right wrist, Bryant is shooting a career-best 48.1% from the field. True, the Lakers have only played four games this season, but it’s impressive nonetheless.
Barring catastrophic injury, I expect Bryant to kick it up a notch on the heels of what many perceived was a “down year” for him on the court. Kobe has been less concerned with offense though as he says defense will be the bread and butter for this Lakers team. Even in L.A.’s losses to the Bulls and Kings, the team played stifling defense in stretches, but not consistently. That changed in the Lakers last two games against the Jazz and Knicks as the team really picked up its pick and roll defense and held both teams to under 33% shooting. If the Lakers can play the defense that Mike Brown and his staff have implemented on a consistent basis, their offense will come easily via the fastbreak, turnovers, and defensive rebounds.
Defensive rebounding shouldn’t be an issue for the Lakers with Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol hanging out under the hoop. If Bynum can keep his head screwed on straight, the Lakers won’t need Dwight Howard this season. Every year, Bynum is proclaimed as the “key” to the season by coaches, teammates and the media. While he has showed flashes of brilliance, a combination of injuries and mental/emotional weakness has derailed what should be an all-star career going into his sixth NBA season.
I ran into Bynum at one of L.A.’s toughest workout spots over the summer and he looked fantastic, perhaps in the best physical shape of his NBA career. If he can stay disciplined and even-tempered, playing alongside Gasol will give the Lakers a lot to work with. As for Pau, remember how he got hammered after the Lakers lost to the Celtics in the finals back in 2008? “He’s soft,” “he sucks,” etc.? How did Gasol rebound from that criticism? He kicked ass and led the Lakers to back-to-back NBA titles. Gasol is now facing the same situation, and thus far, has responded accordingly. He has to prove himself once again and Gasol is already playing with a fire he lacked last season.
Now to Lamar Odom. Without bringing in an all-star player, Odom can only be replaced by committee which is what the Lakers are looking to do. Josh McRoberts and Devin Ebanks have both played surprisingly well thus far at the 3 and 4 and will do so with less pressure once Bynum returns from a four-game suspension today against the Nuggets. New addition Jason Kapono has made the most of his little playing time behind Kobe, and Steve Blake is not only facilitating but actually hitting his shots this season! Who knew?
The X-factor here is none other than Metta World Peace. Fitting, right? The artist formally known as Ron looked HORRENDOUS in the Lakers preseason games and regular season opener, in fact, I half-joked that he might get cut before the season started. He was slow, couldn’t run, certainly couldn’t jump and was unable to make a basket if you stood on the baseline waving cash in front of his face.
But with a new name (‘Metta,’ a Buddhist term meaning loving kindness) and a new outlook on life also comes a new job on the court. World Peace is filling Odom’s old shoes as the anchor of the Lakers second unit and is actually scoring points in doing so, 12.4ppg to be exact. While the 2004 Defensive Player Of The Year is known for what he does without the ball, the Lakers need him to produce offensively as well. Like Odom in years past, I think putting World Peace in the “bench leader” niche will give him just enough responsibility to feel accountable and important without the pressure and lofty expectations that come with being a starter.
With so many new and inexperienced players on the roster, not to mention a new head coach as well as overhauled systems both offensively and defensively, there will definitely be a learning curve for this Lakers team. Having said that, this specific group of guys (a few stars and several role players) reminds me of the kind of roster the Lakers had back in the Phil Jackson 3-peat days. The real concerns for the Lakers are heath (as it is with every team), consistency and just how big the learning curve might be in this truncated season.
Thanks to the groups of lawyers representing the NBA and its players, we were given the gift of the professional basketball this Christmas. Opening day of the shortened 2011-2012 NBA season was no throw-away as each of the five games had something to positive offer as well as something to hate on. In the spirit of Christmas, we present the naughty and nice of NBA’s opening day!
The Justin Beiber/NBA Holiday Promos: Was the idea that the Beibs has the power to draw in the under 18 female viewers? Surely, the NBA’s target audience was cringing while being force-fed spoonfuls of the talented teeny-bopper throughout the day.
Rajon Rondo, But In A Good way: The Celtics guard stole the show for me (despite Carmelo Anthony’s performance) as many wondered if preseason trade rumors would distract Rondo and make his already questionable attitude worse. If anything, Rondo did what the best competitors do as he excelled among controversy (real or perceived), picking apart the Knicks defense and dropping 31 points and 13 assists while logging five steals in Madison Square Garden. While the Knicks escaped with a 106-104 win, Rondo’s performance was encouraging for a team playing without the injured Paul Pierce and boasting Jermaine O’Neal as the starting center.
Lamar Odom: Adding insult to the injury of his new team being humiliated by the Heat, Lamar Odom got himself tossed out of his first game playing for the Dallas Mavericks. Coincidently, the ejection was the second in as many games for Khloe’s husband dating back to last season when Odom was ejected in what would be the Lakers final playoff game after being swept by the Mavs in Dallas. This time around, Lamar got tossed because he barked at the referee about a foul call in the third quarter, or as my Mom explained to my Dad, “he sassed the ref.” Looks like L.O.’s track record in American Airlines Center could use a turn-around real soon.
Dallas Mavericks: The reigning NBA Champion Mavericks were god awful in their season debut leaving a sellout crowd disappointed in Dallas as last season’s finals foe, the Miami Heat trounced the home team 105-94. The game was nowhere near as close as the final score with the Heat leading by 35 points midway through the third quarter. We’ll address the Heat in the “nice” section, but the Mavs, while still reigning champs, lost several vital pieces of the title-winning team, such as J.J. Barea and Tyson Chandler. The addition of Sixth Man Of The Year Lamar Odom is fantastic, but with Vince Carter and Delonte West also new to the roster, Rick Carlisle, Dirk Nowitzki and the gang have a lot of bonding to do in order to find the right team chemistry.
Dwight Howard: The Orlando Magic big man had a less than Super performance on Sunday as the Oklahoma City Thunder held Dwight Howard to only 11 points. Thunder bigs Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed did most of the damage on Howard helping OKC to a 97-89 win. Sure, it was an ugly team effort for the Magic as only three players scored in double figures, but as the leader of your team, trade talks or not, Howard needs to shoot better than 4-12 from the field (he’s 7 feet tall, c’mon now) in 38 minutes. Howard grabbed 15 rebounds, so I’ll give him credit for that, but if nobody on the team can convert rebounds into points, why bother? Meanwhile Kevin Durant balled out, dropping 30 on Orlando in a solid overall team win by the Thunder at home. By the way, if you folks haven’t checked out Kendrick Perkins on Twitter (he recently joined), you are missing out big time. He is one of my favorite athletes I’ve covered as he is sweet, sincere and brutally honest. Follow him on twitter for some good laughs and Perky knowledge bombs at @KendrickPerkins
Drunk Santa Harassing LeBron James: A lovely man dressed as Santa Claus heckled LeBron James with an alcoholic beverage in hand as the Heatles star shot free throws during Miami’s shellacking of the Mavs. Santa, clearly a Dallas homer, shouted to James, “What do you want from Santa? A ring?” I would give this guy props if he had anything original to say to James, but not only was he boring, but his team was getting hammered which makes heckling a bit pointless.
Carmelo Anthony: On a day where the New York Knicks led by 17 points and trailed by 10 in the same game, Carmelo Anthony provided the only real consistency for the home team in MSG. Anthony scored 20 of his 37 points in the second half and sunk two free throws which proved to be the game-winning points for the Knicks. After trying to pull a Sprewell on former teammate Billy Walker after the game, Celtics big man Kevin Garnett told reporters, “They seem to have a little swag and confidence behind them. It’s good for the city. It’s good for the Knicks. I’m going to see how consistent they are with that, but for the most part Carmelo played really well.” When KG shows you love after you beat him, that is saying something.
Los Angeles Clippers Swagger: There was no shortage of confidence among the Clippers starting lineup; Caron Butler, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Chauncey Billups and Chris Paul took the court at ORACLE Arena in Oakland beaming with pride and a sense of belonging as they faced the Golden State Warriors. While the Clippers performance was far from perfect and the 105-86 win over the Warriors was closer than the score indicates, the Clipps season opener was encouraging as the guys demonstrated noticeable differences from Clippers past. As an L.A. native and long time Clippers fan, I have never seen a Clippers team with this kind of swagger. There was a time when a young run & gun collection of guys like Darius Miles, Quentin Richardson and Lamar Odom got cocky after doubling their win total one year after a 15-win season. Once Blake Griffin took off last season, the Clippers showed more and more confidence with each game they played, but this season, that positive attitude is on a different level. Now watching the Clipp Joint play with legitimate energy and boldness from the opening tip (backed up by their play in the preseason and down the stretch vs. Golden State) until the final buzzer sounds is really refreshing.
Miami Heat: Yes, it was only the first game of the season but it was important for the Heat to get off to a good start this year, especially given the time and place of their 2011-2012 debut. Heat head coach Eric Spoelstra kept his team sequestered as the Mavericks unveiled their championship banner and celebrated last season’s finals win over Miami on the court before the game. It was a small gesture that sent a strong message that their finals failure was in the past and it was time for the uber-talented Heat to start anew. That they did as Miami scored at least 30 points in each of the first three quarters, and at one point, held a 35-point lead en route to smoking the Mavs 105-94. LeBron James and Dwayne Wade scored 37 and 26 points respectively as the Heat finally got the better of the Mavs; at least for one game.
NAUGHTY & NICE
The final minutes of the Bulls/Lakers game played out like a poetic Wagner opera, full of surprise, joy and heartache. My eyes began to water and butterflies took over my stomach after Chicago’s defense forced a turnover resulting in a gorgeous Derrick Rose floater good for a one point Bulls lead with 4.8 seconds to play. The beauty of DRose’s shot coupled with the anticipation of watching perhaps another Kobe Bryant game winning shot was a bit overwhelming for me on Day 1 of the NBA season.
While the home team Lakers started strong despite a torn ligament in Kobe’s shooting wrist as well as being without center Andrew Bynum (who is serving a four game suspension), L.A. let it all slip away in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. The Bulls fell flat for a good chunk of the game, seemingly unable to hit air with the basketball or play anything resembling defense. But that all changed when Chicago woke up as Rose went down with 3:34 left to play after the league MVP took a shot to the head, care of teammate Luol Deng’s elbow, as he landed a pretty up & under for two points. Rose hit the deck shortly after, and clutching his head, the Bulls took a timeout to make sure he was okay and had not received a concussion. Rose stayed in the game and from that moment on, Chicago’s offense and defense were synchronized enough to dig them out of an 11-point hole and lead them to a one-point, 88-87 win over LA.
For the Lakers, they have to be pleased with the play of Kobe as well as Pau Gasol, despite the drama surrounding a failed trade that would’ve sent the Spaniard to Houston for Chris Paul. Role players (aka guys you probably didn’t know existed) like Josh McRoberts, Devin Ebanks and Steve Blake were impressive in running Mike Brown’s new offense as well as variations of Phil Jackson’s old triangle. The Lakers defense was also spectacular until the final minutes. It is not encouraging for LA that they had the Bulls down in the dumps and couldn’t keep them there, at home, on opening day, with the Staples Center going crazy.
As for the Bulls, they struggled to shoot and rebound for much of the game, despite having scoring ability and being one of the league’s top rebounding teams last season. The defense was non-existent which was shocking as the Bulls had the top defense in the league last season. Despite a long rough patch in this one, the team managed to turn water into wine, pulling the win out of nowhere. As usual, DRose did his part but Deng was also sensational, playing stellar defense down the stretch and scoring 21 points, second only to Rose’s 22 for the Bulls. I think this young Bulls team started slow and just needed a while to realize the lockout truly is over, for real, and no, they weren’t playing in a charity game or Vegas league contest. The Bulls are incredibly talented and fun to watch, thus I wouldn’t anticipate too many more slow starts like the one we witnessed against the Lakers on Christmas.