Tag Archives: Celtics

Preview: Celtics and 76ers head to London

The NBA makes its annual pilgrimage to London this week, as the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers come to the O2 Arena on the January 11th to compete in what is probably the highest-profile NBA game ever held on British shores.

Boston arrived with the NBA’s highest win tally this season, sitting at 33-10 and comfortably topping the Eastern Conference after their high-profile trade for Kyrie Irving in the summer turned out about as well as anybody could have imagined.

And the 76ers, despite sitting just one spot outside the play-off places at the halfway mark of the campaign, remain one of the most exciting teams in the league, due in large part to the incredible promise shown by their two young stars, Ben Simmons and the incomparable Joel Embiid.

Unicorns

As strange as it sounds, the word ‘unicorn’ is probably somewhat overused in the modern NBA, after being coined by veteran US sportswriter Bill Simmons (no relation to Ben) to describe “someone simply showing up and making you say, WOW, I’ve never seen that before”.

It can, however, be fairly applied to both Simmons and Embiid, both have which have displayed plenty of signs this season of being genuinely transcendent talents.

‘Embiid is thriving in his new found stardom, becoming one of the most engaging personalities in all of sports’

Simmons, the tallest conventional point guard the league has seen since the glory days of Magic Johnson in the 1980s, has had one of the most impressive rookie seasons in NBA history.

He is averaging 17 points, eight rebounds and eight assists per game and displaying a maturity far beyond his years to adapt to the most challenging position in basketball as quickly as he has done.

But it’s Embiid, the 7ft 1in Cameroonian, who is the true star of the show in Philadelphia. Drafted back in 2014, the 23-year-old at one point looked doomed to a career spent mostly on the treatment table (seven-footers and foot injuries have proven to be a terrifying combination in the past), but he has flourished in his first full season on the court, putting up 22 and 10 with two blocks per game.

And just as encouragingly, Embiid is thriving in his new found stardom, becoming one of the most engaging personalities in all of sports, a fountain of hilarious tweets, on-court trolling, and thoughtful quotes.

The NBA has always done a good job in marketing the personalities of its stars, but that has sometimes resulted in a certain level of corporate, cookie-cutter images for a lot of the NBA’s more high-profile players.

Embiid’s approach to social media self-marketing may not be wholly in line with the NBA’s image, but it is that level of uniqueness, as well as his willingness to take everything less seriously than most of his peers, that has translated so well with so many.

The leaders

Over in Boston, it has been something of a return to the norm for the 17-time world champions. Despite losing all-star free agent Gordon Hayward to injury in just seven minutes into his Celtics debut, coach Brad Stevens has masterfully weaved together a league-leading rotation from his cast of young, interchangeable players, and his two stars, Irving and veteran centre Al Horford.

‘The Celtics look more likely than anyone to end Cleveland’s vice-like grip on the Eastern Conference’

In his former role as LeBron James’ number two in Cleveland, Irving was required to do little more than put the ball in the basket as often as he could, while James assumed the bulk of the playmaking and leadership responsibilities.

With his new team, Irving is not only the number one scoring option, but also the Celtics’ primary playmaker, leading the motion offence that coach Stevens has implemented to great effect.

Horford’s resurgence has been a pleasant surprise, with the 31-year-old big man leading all centres in assists with 5.3 per game, and showing signs of improving his rebounding, which came in for severe criticism during the Celtics’ failed 2017 play-off run.

With promising young swingmen Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum providing far more than what was expected of them to fill the Hayward-shaped hole in the team, the Celtics look more likely than anyone to end Cleveland’s vice-like grip on the Eastern Conference, and maybe even challenge the almost inevitable Golden State triumph.

Big occasion

Casting an eye towards Thursday’s encounter, it is obviously hard to look past the team with the far superior record.

But if I was a betting man, my money would be on Philly.

The two teams’ last encounter at the beginning of December finished 108-97 in favour of the Celtics, after Boston took advantage of Embiid’s absence (he did not feature due to minor injury) to punish the 76ers in the paint.

With the Cameroonian back in the line-up on Thursday, you can expect that 11-point gap to be cancelled out, and then some.

Embiid, ever the showman, has shown a real flair for the big occasion so far this season, and with all eyes on the much vaunted annual London game, it’s fair to expect the kind of dominant performance that he has shown himself to be capable of when the spotlight is shining on him.

Trade adds edge to Celtics-Cavs rivalry as NBA season begins

When the NBA season gets underway early on Wednesday morning (UK time), it will do so with a genuine blockbuster.

A repeat of last season’s Eastern Conference Finals would have been an entertaining spectacle under any circumstances, but after an unprecedented trade that sent the disgruntled Kyrie Irving from Cleveland to Boston in exchange for fellow All-Star Isaiah Thomas, there now exists that crucial ingredient to any stand-out rivalry: bad blood.

In a league where it has become commonplace, perhaps to the detriment of the NBA as a whole, for superstar players to join forces in an attempt to maximise their chances of glory, Irving’s decision to request a trade away from the Cleveland Cavaliers should be respected.

Ever since LeBron James returned to his hometown team in 2014, Irving has had the easy life.

James remains the best player in the NBA, and his unselfish playing style and likeable personality have drawn an outstanding ensemble cast to the Cavaliers, resulting in three back-to-back trips to the NBA finals, with an NBA Championship coming in 2016.

Ambition

But all of the success left Irving feeling somewhat marginalised. Drafted by the Cavaliers in 2011, he spent his early NBA career as the unquestioned leader and star of the team, before being firmly pushed into a number two role upon ‘King’ James’ triumphant return.

And so Irving chose to cast off on his own, saying publicly it was his best chance to develop as a player.

“It was my time to do what was best for me in terms of my intentions, and that’s going after something bigger than myself and being in an environment that was conducive to my potential,” he said.

“Now [I’m] taking that next steps as a 25-year-old evolving man and being the best basketball player I can be.”

But despite it being refreshing to see a player in Irving’s position want to lead his own team, it would be a stretch to call the news of his trade request truly shocking. The real surprise was his destination.

Loyalty

‘I want them to see how my getting traded — just like that, without any warning — by the franchise that I scratched and clawed for, and bled for, and put my everything on the line for. Loyalty – it’s just a word’

Isaiah Thomas has always been the underdog. Whereas Irving was the prized #1 draft pick when he entered the league in 2011, the 5ft 9in (yes, really) Thomas was taken with the 60th and final pick by the Sacramento Kings.

Seen by most as a talented player without the physical profile to ever grind out his place in the land of giants that is the NBA, Thomas has improved his game by leaps and bounds each season. He has defied the perceived limits of his diminutive frame to average a remarkable 29 points per game for the Celtics in the 2016-17, a tally good enough for 3rd highest in the league.

The 28-year-old point guard has always worn his emotions on his sleeve, and that passion resonated strongly with the hardcore Boston fanbase.

That connection between player and franchise has rarely ever seen a better example than April of this year, when Thomas’ sister Chyna tragically died in a car accident just one day before the start of the Celtics’ play-off series against the Chicago Bulls.

Thomas chose to suit up and play that very next day, and despite being visibly emotional throughout, managed to lead the Celtics to a 4-2 series win against the Bulls, eventually falling short against the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Injury

But in the often cold, analytics-driven world of the NBA, loyalty between player and franchise can often be a one-way street. When Irving, a younger player on a longer contract, became available, Thomas was the key asset in the Boston offer that persuaded Cleveland to do business.

Thomas, never one to disguise his feelings, has since voiced his thoughts on the trade.

“That s**t hurt. It hurt a lot… I get it: this is a business. Danny [Ainge, Celtics general manager] is a businessman, and he made a business move. I don’t agree with it, just personally, and I don’t think the Boston Celtics got better by making this trade.

“I think my trade can show people. I want them to see how my getting traded — just like that, without any warning — by the franchise that I scratched and clawed for, and bled for, and put my everything on the line for. Loyalty – it’s just a word.”

Unfortunately, Thomas is unlikely to play in the season-opener due to a nagging hip injury that many feel was a key factor in Boston’s decision to trade him.

But with Irving’s immediate return to his old stomping ground will serve as the perfect introduction to what is sure to be one of the most dramatic NBA seasons in memory.