GARY WASHBURN I SUNDAY BASKETBALL NOTES
The Celtics are entering the new year with the best record in the Eastern Conference and a real opportunity to reach the NBA Finals.
That wasn’t expected after Gordon Hayward broke his tibia and dislocated his left ankle five minutes into the season-opening game.
Because of Hayward’s injury, which is expected to sideline him for the remainder of the season, the Celtics received an $8.4 million disabled player exception they could use to bolster the roster.
The disabled player exception is not just a salary slot that allows the Celtics to acquire any player they’d prefer. That slot can only be used on players with expiring contracts and it can’t be split, meaning the Celtics could not use the $8.4 million on two players.
They can, however, use it in a deal to acquire a player on an expiring deal. So what do the Celtics exactly need to help compete with the likes of the Cavaliers and Raptors? They need a shooter, and there are some players who could be on the market that should draw their attention in the coming weeks.
Lou Williams, Clippers — Williams can score in bunches off the bench. This is exactly what the Celtics need. Williams is averaging 20.8 points and shooting 40 percent from the 3-point line. Now, the Clippers would have to become sellers for the Celtics to have an opportunity, and they likely would ask for a first-round pick knowing how valuable Williams is. Williams, 31, is on an expiring deal at $7 million per season, so the Celtics have the salary slot to accommodate him without sacrificing a player.
Tyreke Evans, Grizzlies — Evans is having his best year since being named Rookie of the Year in 2010. He has been a prolific scorer for the Grizzlies, who are headed for the draft lottery and have little reason to hold onto the combo guard. There could be two ways of acquiring Evans — a trade, or hope Memphis buys out his contract. The Grizzlies are likely going to offer Evans to a contending team for a first-round pick in hopes of rebuilding their roster.
Nerlens Noel, Mavericks — The Everett native is recovering from thumb surgery but he’s an impending free agent with little future with the Mavericks. Dallas wants draft picks, so acquiring Noel would likely require a first-rounder because of his age (23) and defensive potential. Noel can be a difference-maker for the Celtics in the paint.
Greg Monroe, Suns — Monroe is an unrestricted free agent and is an above-average post player. Monroe may not play the up-tempo style the Celtics prefer, but he would give them a polished post scorer who would likely relish the opportunity to play for a title. Monroe chose to sign with the improving Bucks but they traded him to Phoenix to get Eric Bledsoe, leaving Monroe in a tough situation.
Jared Sullinger, China — This may be a bit far-fetched considering his departure from the Celtics, but Sullinger will be available after the Chinese Basketball Association season is over in March, and the Celtics do need rebounding. Sullinger had his contract rescinded by the Celtics in 2016 when they were pursuing Al Horford. Sullinger’s lone year in Toronto was filled with injuries and he was traded to Phoenix for P.J. Tucker and the Suns then waived him. Sullinger has been trying to get back into the league and accepted a Chinese offer to boost his marketability.
Marco Belinelli, Hawks — The Celtics need a shooter and Belinelli is one of the better perimeter shooters in the NBA. He was traded to Atlanta in the Dwight Howard deal and the rebuilding Hawks really have no use for a 31-year-old impending free agent. Belinelli likely wouldn’t be worth a first-round pick, but perhaps a pair of second-rounders. It would not be a major transaction, but acquiring a player who can stretch the floor with the second unit could help Boston in its quest to overcome Cleveland.
There is still a Silas walking the sidelines of NBA games, and it’s not Paul Silas.
Stephen Silas is the acting head coach of the Hornets while Steve Clifford is out with a medical issue. Silas, 44, was born in Boston during his father’s stint with the Celtics and he’s been in the coaching game for nearly two decades as a scout and assistant coach.
He served under his father in Charlotte, New Orleans, and Cleveland and was an assistant under Don Nelson with the Warriors before returning to Charlotte in 2010.
Silas took over the Hornets on Dec. 4 when the team announced Clifford would take a leave of absence.
“It’s been tough because obviously it starts with Coach Cliff and hoping that he comes back soon and wishing he felt better because to be in a position where you’re not feeling good enough to coach, that’s not a good spot to be in,” Silas said. “So dealing with that with my friend and my boss is something that’s hard to deal with.”
Stephen Silas doesn’t carry the tough, intimidating style of his father. Paul Silas was a hard-nosed coached who used interesting language with his players. Stephen is more laid-back and uses his experience to communicate more like a big brother with the younger players.
“I listen to everything he says,” Stephen Silas said of his father. “He did it in a different way than I do it, obviously. He’s an intense, four-letter-word user and he coaches the way that he played when he was with the Celtics. He’s always about giving guys confidence and letting them know that you care about them. You need their production and they have to be confident in the way that they play and know that you have confidence in them. That’s what he’s been telling me lately, as well as a bunch of other things.”
Stephen Silas has tried to establish his own personality and voice from Clifford. He has tried to take what he has learned from the veteran coach as well as his own experience to keep the Hornets competitive. The injury-riddled team is off to a disappointing start.
“The coaching, I just try to do it day to day. I don’t know how long it’s going to last, I really am enjoying coaching the team,” Silas said. “The team has been great to me as far as responding to coaching and not treating me like a substitute teacher. I’m looking forward to Coach Cliff coming back and I’m going to take advantage of every day while I’m doing it.”
The Knicks have been one of the league’s most surprising teams considering they traded Carmelo Anthony and were expected to completely rebuild for the future. Nearly halfway into the season, the Knicks have a legitimate chance to reach the playoffs.
But the Knicks have to be a better road team. New York played 21 of its first 35 games at Madison Square Garden and have won 15 of those games. Yet, after their loss at San Antonio on Thursday, the Knicks are 2-12 on the road, tied for the worst record in the league with the Hornets.
Coach Jeff Hornacek, who seems to have renewed life after being on the hot seat during the Phil Jackson administration, said the team has to be more consistent under adverse circumstances.
Their home/road splits are staggering. The Knicks are averaging 107.3 points at home, 98 on the road. They are shooting 47.9 percent at home, 44.7 percent on the road. They are allowing 101 points per game at the Garden, and 107.8 away from home.
“I think we still have our ups and downs,” Hornacek said. “We’ve been good at home. We haven’t been able to do that on the road very often. The biggest thing for us is defensively. We’ve been pretty good in the halfcourt; we have to take care of the ball.”
What general manager Scott Perry did this offseason was sign a stop-gap player who could contribute to the team while understanding that competing for a title isn’t realistic. Michael Beasley has averaged 11.1 points off the bench, and he burned the Celtics for 32 points in the Knicks’ Dec. 21 win at Madison Square Garden.
On that night, Hornacek benched the struggling Kristaps Porzingis, allowing Beasley to flourish in the second half with 28 points. It seems Beasley’s role depends on Porzingis’s health and production.
“Mike knows his role. If KP is out that means he gets the bigger minutes,” Hornacek said. “He’s definitely a rotation guy for us. He’s played well. It gives us the opportunity to play KP and Mike together. A lot of these teams are going small with more active fives. That gives us that opportunity. We’ve done it a couple of times. Mike’s proved he’s deserved some minutes.”
The Knicks acquired Enes Kanter in the Anthony trade and he has produced one of his better seasons with an expanded role. The knock against Kanter has always been his defense and rim protection. He has improved in that category and he has become a menace on the offensive boards.
Hornacek said he appreciates Kanter’s improvement and work ethic defensively.
“Kanter may not block them all but he’s got the length where guys always have to know where he’s at,” Hornacek said. “Enes has done a great job of moving his feet. He’s trying to get better defensively in blocking the shots. [Aron] Baynes for Boston is a great example, he’s not going to block a lot of shots but he uses his verticality very well. That keeps you from scoring in there.”
Meanwhile, Tim Hardaway Jr., the team’s second-leading scorer and biggest offseason acquisition, has missed the past 15 games with a stress reaction in his left leg. He is expected to return sometime in January, but in his absence the Knicks have become a slower tempo team.
“Tim is one of those guys who can fly up and down the court and get into the open court,” Hornacek said. “We’re not as fast a team and our fast-break opportunities are less. We’ve had to do it even more with execution.”
The NBA saw no reason to address the issue with the officials in the Rockets-Celtics game, despite the game being limited to two officials because of a late back injury to Mark Lindsay. Since Lindsay was injured in the hours before the game, the league did not have enough time to send a replacement.
There was speculation by players that a fourth, alternate official always travels with the three assigned officials, but that only occurs in the playoffs. There was no third official available Thursday night. The NBA began assigning a third official to games prior to the 1988-89 season. These new generations of players aren’t accustomed to dealing with only two officials, which meant there would be an increased number of missed calls.
In the two-minute report detailing the officiating decisions in the Rockets-Celtics game, there were 36 plays that were described and the Celtics benefited greatly, as the report stated five traveling calls and a lane violation were missed in the final 52.2 seconds of Boston’s 99-98 comeback win.
Of course, there has been increased dissatisfaction with the officiating from players, so much so that the NBA Players Association and the NBA Referees Association met recently to discuss those differences. The Rockets’ James Harden said after Thursday’s game that it was “unacceptable” for an NBA game to have two officials, but the league feels it was just a rare situation to have an official injured before game time.
“We’re 10 athletes on the floor at one time, a lot of space, so it’s going to make a difference,” Celtics guard Kyrie Irving said. “Both teams had to play within that realm. At times it went in their favor, at times it went in our favor. The best way to combat that is to adjust, and I think both teams did a great job of that.”
Irving described the conversation he had with the remaining two officials, Tony Brothers and Gediminas Petraitis.
“When I saw both of them out there at halfcourt, [I said], ‘There’s just two of y’all?’ ” Irving said. “They said somebody’s hurt and I said, ‘Where’s the backup?’ I asked a legit question because I thought usually they have four refs. I don’t know the dynamic but once the ref was hurt I was like, ‘Both you guys are going to do this?’ I was like, ‘All right, we’ll adjust.’
“I told my teammates that we only have two refs out here. You can use that to your advantage.”
When asked if that was the first time he had played a game with two officials, Irving said: “I think, I can’t be certain of it. I don’t know if somebody got hurt one game.”
For those who think games may be overofficiated, the Rockets-Celtics game was an example that three officials are definitely required, and despite their issues with calls overall, the players appreciate how the game is officiated.
Vince Carter’s 24-point performance against the Cavaliers last Wednesday not only gained the Kings a stunning win against an elite team, it likely boosted his trade value as the 40-year-old showed he’s still capable of playing at a high level. Carter signed with the Kings for an opportunity to play often, but that hasn’t been the case, as he has appeared in just 21 of the team’s 34 games. Carter’s value as a leader and locker room sage is considerable and he may have an opportunity to join an elite team and make one final run at an NBA title . . . The sinking Lakers, who have lost seven of eight games, are suddenly of major interest to the Celtics. Boston will receive the Lakers’ first-round pick if it lands between Nos. 2-5, perhaps giving the club an opportunity to land the coveted “center of the future” they have desired for years. The Lakers now have the league’s fifth-worst record, which did not seem conceivable when the season began because of the presence of Lonzo Ball, Julius Randle, Brook Lopez, and Brandon Ingram. But the Lakers are now banged up with Ball and Lopez out with injuries and are losing games to poor teams, such as Wednesday’s home loss to the Grizzlies. After playing the Clippers on Friday, the Lakers’ next three games are at Houston, and Minnesota and Oklahoma City at home. Beginning in mid-January, the Lakers play a stretch of eight of 11 games on the road, meaning they could be out of contention in the coming weeks, and the Celtics are definitely keeping tabs.
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