Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Closing Up Shop

For almost as long as I've had this blog, I've been thinking about how I might end it. I should clarify. I started writing RwH contemporaneous with my move to the West Coast for law school in 2008. We had just beaten the Lakers for banner number 17, we were favorites to repeat, and almost a third of our games were nationally televised. Among my friends, interest in the Celtics was at an all-time high, and I started the blog to keep the conversation going with people who were suddenly several time zones away.

I knew then that this wouldn't last forever. At that time, recall, the conventional wisdom was that Boston had a three-year window. We managed to keep that window open an extra couple of years, and the end, while not as messy as I thought it might be, was sad. But here we are: on the eve of our season opener in Toronto, Ray got his second ring, at a ceremony in Miami; Doc's debut as the Clippers coach was ruined by fourth-quarter surged from the Lakers' bench (the rare Laker victory that didn't upset me, I'm somewhat surprised to admit); and Paul and KG are getting ready to open their season in Cleveland with their new team, the Brooklyn Nets. Meanwhile, Boston is ushering in a new era with a new coach and group of players who will struggle to be competitive this year.

I really should have ended it last year, when I started my new job; as is clear from the fact that I haven't posted since last February, I didn't really have time to devote to it. In my head, though, I thought we still had a chance, and I think a part of me didn't want to let Ray Allen dictate when I decided this era was over.

So I've been thinking a lot about a perfect ending. Maybe a long, soul-baring post about what basketball and the Celtics, especially these Celtics, mean to me. Or a countdown of the most memorable moments from this era. I struggled with the composition of both of these ideas, though, and my search for the idea close to this blog continued.

Recently, though, I've come to realize that perfect endings are exceedingly rare in basketball. The Celtics certainly didn't have one. Tim Duncan didn't get his, at least not yet. Phil Jackson didn't have one. It doesn't look like Kobe Bryant will get one.

Russell got one. Red got one. MJ got one, only he didn't take it. That's about it. RwH will be no different.

So, thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read and to comment publicly and privately. Your kind words have meant a lot.

I'm going to leave this blog up for as long as I can, as a memento, and in case I decide I ever have time to start it up again. And to the extent that I continue to write about basketball, over at, I'll continue to write a disproportionate amount about the Celtics. I'll still watch all the games. But with the team less relevant and on TV far less often, the purpose -- to talk about the team with others who are following closely -- just isn't there anymore.

A final note: Every year, there are officiating "points of emphasis," rules that the league has instructed the officials to give special attention to, at least early in the season. There are five this year: 1) illegal screens, 2) contact on jump shots, 3) traveling, 4) discontinued dribble, and 5) delay of game (by touching the ball as it comes out of the net after your team scores, for example).

During the Magic-Pacers game Tuesday night, Quinn Buckner -- Indiana's color guy -- was discussing the delay of game emphasis, and singled out, among all NBA players, Kevin Garnett as the main perpetrator of this offense. Later, during the Bulls-Heat broadcast, Steve Kerr, the TNT color guy, referred to the emphasis on illegal screens as "the Kevin Garnett Rule."

Damn, I'm gonna miss that guy. And I'm gonna hate facing him.

Save us, Rondo. And thanks, again.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Boston 116, Los Angeles Lakers 95

Well, that was fun. In case you missed it, the Celtics ran away with this one in the third quarter. The lead had been double digits for most of the second period, but it got out of hand during a 49-second stretch during which Boston scored eight straight points. The spurt was highlighted by a Jeff Green dunk, followed by a Green block on the other hand that led to a fast break and a Paul Pierce three. I believe that put Boston up 21. They'd lead by at least 30 before coasting the rest of the way.

As comfortable a win as this turned out to be, it certainly didn't start the way. The Celtics were whistled for five fouls in the first two minutes, twenty-two seconds -- the fastest any team has found itself in the penalty since the Phoenix Suns on Halloween in 2000, according to the TNT broadcast. Two of those fouls were on Kevin Garnett, and by the end of the first quarter, his backups -- Jason Collins and Chris Wilcox, had five fouls between them.

This game affirmed for me, though, that Boston's recent hot streak is due not to some improved chemistry or ball movement in the absence of Rajon Rondo, but rather to an increased intensity and focus on the part of the entire team. Paul Pierce, in particular, came out sharper than he's been in weeks, draining a handful of pull-up jumpers in the first quarter.

However, with the exception of the third quarter -- when Boston shook off a few minutes of halftime-induced torpor to make 16 of 21 shots to blow the game open -- the Celtics didn't play well enough to enjoy such an easy evening. Indeed, this game said more about the Lakers' struggles than anything else. They couldn't take advantage of Boston's early foul trouble, they shot terribly, and their defense was nonexistent most of the night. The biggest indictment was the lack of ball movement. Steve Kerr harped on it quite a bit and so I won't rehash it here, but there was far too much one-on-one for a team quarterbacked by one of the league's all-time great point guards. The third quarter actually reminded me a bit of Game 5 of the 2010 Finals. Kobe Bryant -- who had been assisting at a career-high rate recently, which coincidentally has been L.A.'s best stretch of the season -- decided to try to take over offensively. And even as he hit a dazzling array of shots, each seemingly more difficult than the last, Boston's lead remained steady -- then blew up once Bryant's shots stopped falling.

Not that this is a novel opinion, but I think you can safely stick a fork in the Lakers this year. They don't appear to be anywhere close to figuring out how to play together, Dwight Howard is ailing, and Pau Gasol is going to be out at least 6 to 8 weeks. They aren't as far out of the playoffs as you'd think, but it's hard to imagine them turning it around any time soon.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Boston 99, Toronto 95

The Celtics are making it awfully hard to write this season off.

Boston overcame a ten-point deficit at the start of the fourth quarter to hold off the Raptors in Toronto. It was the team's fifth win in a row, and they are still undefeated since Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger went down with season-ending injuries. Kevin Garnett was the offensive hero for most of the evening, leading the team with 27 points, while Leandro Barbosa sparked the team in the crucial fourth quarter.

On the other end of the court, the Raptors missed a bunch of decent looks at mid-range and perimeter jump shots in the fourth quarter. That isn't particularly unusual for Boston opponents over the past few years. In previous seasons, the Celtic D was good enough that you could automatically give it credit for an opponent's bad shooting quarter, even if it wasn't entirely apparent what we were doing to make it difficult on the opposing team. This year's defense hasn't earned that right yet, though we're undoubtedly getting better at that end of the court. If I have an overall concern right now, it's turnovers. Paul Pierce is being asked to perform too many point guard duties. I get that he needs to be a playmaker, but even without Rondo, we have plenty of guards. Let's have them bring the ball up, at least.

Boston's current surge has them tied with Milwaukee for the seventh seed in the East (the Bucks have the tiebreaker, so as it stands, we're technically eighth). We're only two games back of Atlanta for the six, however, and more importantly, we're four games clear of our closest pursuer -- Philadelphia, who, by the way, still doesn't have Andrew Bynum and just lost Thaddeus Young for three weeks with a leg injury.

Rightly or wrongly, barring some sort of collapse during these last two weeks before the trade deadline, it may be this stretch that allows Pierce and Garnett to retire as Celtics. When Rondo went down, most felt that Boston's playoff chances went down with him, and the Cs were expected to shop their extensive veterans to contenders. But now Boston has a reasonable grip on that playoff stop. Dissembling a playoff team is hard enough, from a public relations perspective -- doing it just to cash in an all-time Celtic, and one of the team's most popular players in recent memory, might cause quite an uproar among Boston's vocal fan base.

Boston is back at it Thursday night, as the Lakers come to town in a game that, due to injuries, won't have quite the same luster it has had in recent seasons. LA, of course, is having a nightmare season of its own. Having added Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, the Lakers were expected to contend for a championship. Instead, Nash got hurt, Howard and Gasol struggled to co-exist, and they fired their coach just a couple weeks into the season. Their playoff chances hanging by a thread as Nash returned, Howard injured, then re-injured, his shoulder, and has missed the last several games. To top it all off, the team found out Wednesday that Gasol would be out 4 to 6 weeks with a foot injury.

Still, it's LA-Boston, which means it's worth watching. Thursday night, TNT, 8:00 pm Eastern.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Sullinger Undergoes Back Surgery

Jared Sullinger, the rookie power forward who had forced his way into the starting lineup with his work on the glass, had apparently successful lumbar disc surgery on Friday. He's out for the year.

I'll get to the impact on this season in a minute, but the truth is, with Rajon Rondo going down with his torn ACL this week, this season is close to a lost cause. The biggest concern raised by this news is whether this surgery is the kind of thing that had doctors advising their teams to stay away from Sullinger in last summer's NBA Draft, a big part of the reason why the Ohio State sophomore fell from being a potential top overall pick and sure lottery selection all the way to Boston at 21.

Team doctors are saying that this is good for Sullinger, the idea being, I guess, that the surgery would relieve some pain or discomfort he'd been playing with for a while. That's encouraging, though I'm not sure I'd expect the team doctors to say anything different. During last night's broadcast, I also heard someone -- I think it was Doc -- say that they knew Sullinger would need the surgery, they had just hoped that it could wait until after the year.

It's not clear to me whether they knew that when they drafted him, or if that became apparent sometime during the summer, or training camp, or the season. Either way, we knew picking Sullinger was a risk, and I endorse the pick with the full understanding that his career could be over due to injuries before he could make any meaningful contribution to the team. Hopefully, we're not at that point already.

What concerns me most is that Sullinger already has what people sometimes call "old man game." The kid can barely jump, playing completely below the rim, relying completely on strength, guile, and his ample girth to hold off opponents for rebounds and score from strange angles. This could be considered a good thing, insofar as whatever athleticism this surgery may rob from him wasn't something he relied on to be effective. But looking down the road, what happens when he starts to get older and experience the natural deterioration that all players show? If he plays like he's 30 when he's 20, will he play like he's 35 when he's 25? This was a concern before the back surgery -- whether the procedure exacerbates it remains to be seen. But it was definitely the first thing that popped into my mind when I heard the news yesterday.

As for the rest of this season, the hits just keep on coming, I guess. Without Rondo, we were, at best, slight favorites to hang on to the eighth seed in the East, depending on whether Andrew Bynum comes back healthy for Philly. I honestly am not sure how much of an effect Sullinger's absence will have on Boston's postseason chances. Brandon Bass proved he could be a starting-caliber power forward year; his dropoff this season has been one of the bigger disappointments in a season that has been full of them. Bass isn't the rebounder Sullinger is, but he's adept at stepping in and taking the charge and in theory, anyway, his jumper is more consistent than the rookie's. (Though he hasn't been hitting it this year at all.) It means one fewer big body at Doc's disposal, which in turn means more "smallball" lineups with Paul Pierce, Jeff Green, and Kevin Garnett across the frontcourt. As someone who isn't a big believer in Green, that certainly concerns me, but to be fair, it's a lineup that Doc was likely committed to using more (especially in crunch-time) once Rondo went down.

What seems apparently early on here, though, is that Boston may already be in back-against-the-wall, play-as-though-your-season-depended-on-it mode. In previous seasons, Boston has sleepwalked through portions of the regular season schedule, the apparent attitude being that they'd wait until the playoffs, when the games really count, to exert themselves fully. With the current injuries putting the playoffs in doubt, that time is now. The Celtics have now won three straight without Rondo, beginning with the double overtime victory over the Heat last Sunday. True, their two most recent triumphs, Sacramento and Orlando, are bottom of the barrel squads this year, but these are the types of games that the Celtics, maddeningly, would drop all too often in recent seasons. (Heck, the Kings blew us out in Sacramento right after Christmas, a game I witnessed in person and wish I could unsee.) The last two times out, however, Boston has taken care of business, winning comfortably. The Celtics are dialed in a bit earlier this year, which means that the product is worth watching, even if the goals for the season have changed.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Boston's Last Stand

Sunday afternoon, the Celtics beat the Miami Heat 100-98, hanging on at home in double overtime. In so doing, they snapped a horrific six-game losing streak that involved dropping three games to sub-.500 teams (including two blowouts), two tough-luck losses to playoff squads (the Bulls and Knicks), and, most recently, a blown 27-point lead in a double overtime loss to the Hawks. This stretch, which followed a six-game winning streak, left Boston at 20-23 heading into the game with Miami, their grip on the eighth and final playoff spot seemingly loosening every day.

Given the above, the cynic would read the title of this post and chide me for being a more than a little bit late.

As I've said before, however, I refused to write off Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo, and Doc Rivers. I acknowledged that the team's chances of making any noise in the playoffs were slim, but after last season, I wasn't going to rule anything out. Even with Pierce's noticeable decline, Garnett's ever-limited minutes, Rondo's general moodiness, and the inability of the restructured supporting cast to provide any sort of consistent contribution, I thought that those four guys were capable of pulling it all together again and making a run.

The Big Three, of course, had morphed into the Big Four by the time Ray Allen left, and none of those guys is Bigger, in terms of Boston's success, than Rondo. So when news broke around halftime of the Miami game that the hyperextended knee keeping him on the sideline was actually a torn ACL, ending his season and probably ensuring that he wouldn't be ready for the start of the next one, whatever hope I had of something like last year repeating itself disappeared. Doc said after the game that he's not writing the obituary yet, but everyone outside that locker room is.

It's going to be an interesting, rumor-filled couple of weeks around the Celtics. With Rondo out, Boston probably isn't a favorite to even make the playoffs. And because of that, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce become expendable. Garnett has been terrific this year, but on even more limited minutes than last year, and Pierce has declined noticeably. (Even as Pierce, who has been mired in a terrible slump, nailed the game's biggest shot in double OT, he almost cost us the game with a late turnover and an inexplicably late contest on Lebron James' game-tying three at the end of regulation.) The revamped supporting cast, saddled with Jeff Green's albatross of a contract, has disappointed, and the lone bright spot among the new faces, Jared Sullinger, has been balanced out by the mysterious dropoff of Brandon Bass. Keeping Garnett and Pierce around makes very little basketball sense.

Whether Danny Ainge can get anything for either is an open question. Garnett apparently has a no-trade clause, and it wouldn't surprise me if he refused to be moved. (Maybe I'm being naive.) And Pierce shouldn't bring that much in a trade at his salary and level of performance, although I have been surprised at the trade ideas I have read from people I respect (perhaps I'm underestimating his value). Danny has to kick the tires on those guys, though.

Oddly, all of this made Sunday's win all the more satisfying. I've been fortunate to have learned about sports and life from a number of people who taught me to appreciate the fight as much as the success. That's why I'm as proud of Game 7 of the 2010 Finals and the whole Miami series last year as I am of the championship run in 2008. Watching those guys -- who apparently didn't know of the severity of Rondo's injury until after the game -- fight to pull out the win against a better team was made that much more important by the fact that it may be the last time we see them do exactly that.

There's a part of me -- and it's not the rational part of me -- that doesn't want to see Danny do what undoubtedly should be done. There's a part of me that wants to see Pierce and KG retire as Celtics even though it'll likely set any rebuilding we try to do back a bit.

The reality is that only a few teams each season legitimately playing for a championship. For the first time in a while, we're not one of them -- and it's likely to be a while before we are again. The stakes, undoubtedly, have changed. But it's the same game. And so if Doc and Danny and Paul and Kevin decide they want to put up the same fight, I won't be too mad.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Boston 100, Charlotte 89

Six in a row now for the Celtics, who never trailed in this one. It was a bit closer than one would have liked, as Boston coughed up all of an 18-point lead before pulling away again in the second half. Still, considering Paul Pierce was 6 for 16 (including 2 of 8 from downtown) and Kevin Garnett was 2 for 11, this was a good win.

Rajon Rondo led the way with his third triple double of the year, a 17-point, 10-rebound, 12-assist effort that is actually relatively modest given the way he started: he amassed nine points, six boards, and five assists in the first quarter as he scored or assisted on each of Boston's first 19 point. For what I believe is the fourth straight game, at least, the Celtic bench had a major hand in this one. Jeff Green led the reserves with 11 points, most of them coming in the second quarter; Courtney Lee had nine points and Jared Sullinger eight. Jason Collins played well in a first-half stretch after both Brandon Bass and Sullinger went to the bench with foul trouble.

This marks Boston's longest winning streak in a couple of years, and there's reason to believe it can continue. The Cs host New Orleans on Wednesday and Chicago on Friday, before traveling to Detroit on Sunday and Cleveland on Tuesday. The Bulls are the toughest opponent in that stretch, but the Celtics could easily be riding a 10-game winning streak heading into a tough three-games-in-four-nights stretch towards the end of next week that sees them hosting the Knicks, traveling to Atlanta to face the Hawks, then returning to Boston for their first showdown with the Heat since opening night.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Boston 87, Phoenix 79

This is probably what Danny Ainge had in mind this offseason, when he assembled his deepest Celtics team as a GM. After a sluggish first period that ended with the visiting Suns up one, Boston built a 12-point lead by halftime, largely on the back of reserves. (Paul Pierce left the game for Jeff Green with 1:53 remaining in the first quarter and didn't re-enter until there was 1:16 left in the second.) Then, after the first unit surrendered a 17-2 run to start the third, the bench was again there to rescue them. Jason Terry and Jared Sullinger more or less finished the game alongside Pierce, Rajon Rondo, and Kevin Garnet, making many of the key plays down the stretch.

The star of the night in my eyes was Sullinger, who played 34 minutes and recorded 12 points and 16 rebounds. Green led a balanced attack with 14 points, most of the in the second quarter, marking the one-year anniversary of his heart surgery with three powerful dunks: a one-dribble drive around Michael Beasley followed by a monster one-handed stuff over a late-arriving Jermaine O'Neal; a two-handed rim-rocker off of a lob from Avery Bradley on the fast break; and another two-hander, in the second half, off of a backdoor cut, thanks to a nifty feed from Garnett out at the top of the key. Terry had 13 points (to go along with five rebounds and five assists) and was the first bench guy to get his offense going on the night.

That means, of course, that it was a quiet night for the starters, only one of whom -- Garnett -- finished in double figures. Other than KG, the first unit really struggled. Pierce was unusually quiet, finishing with seven points (on ten shots) in just 24 minuts, though he did have a big bucket to stem the third-quarter tide, as well as a key assist to Sullinger as Phoenix appeared to be closing in on the Cs late. Bradley started the game well, but fizzled out a bit and Doc limited him to just 18 minutes. Brandon Bass went 2-for-8 and saw much of his playing time fall to Sullinger.

Rajon Rondo finished with eight points and eight assists -- including a long one to a streaking Jason Terry late that left me marveling, again, at is court vision and feel for the game -- but it was a fairly uninspiring performance from him. He had four turnovers and never really got the starting unit going. What I loved, though, was that at the end of the third quarter (or perhaps the start of the fourth quarter), Rondo was standing up on the bench, coaching the defense -- on the broadcast, you could specifically hear him talking to Terry. That's the kind of leadership you want to see from your point guard, but Rondo hasn't always shown it, particularly on nights when he's not as involved in the game on the court. (Rondo also picked up a technical during that stretch for exchanging words with P.J. Tucker, who had some words for him after scoring on a drive early in the fourth.)

Boston's now on a four-game winning streak and sits at 18-17, with the majority of a five-game homestand still in front of it. The Rockets, coached by Kevin McHale, visit on Friday.