As the Warriors dealt with a bit of fractured chemistry, several Western Conference teams undoubtedly felt empowered. Perhaps this is the season, they figured, that we play them on even terms.
Things will change with the passage of time. Head coach Steve Kerr’s team will restore its dominance, health permitting, and take its rightful place in the Finals. Things look entirely different for the team forecast to represent the East.
It all seemed so promising for the Boston Celtics in training camp. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward healthy again. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown rising quickly toward stardom. Al Horford anchoring the middle. High-energy guards Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier coming off the bench alongside tough-minded forward Marcus Morris. Under coach Brad Stevens, so adept at unveiling the fundamentals, what could possibly go wrong?
What happened was a reminder that as easy as the Warriors made things look over the previous four seasonss, players blending together in a swirl of good cheer, it’s not so easy when egos clash. The Celtics aren’t feuding, necessarily, but they’re confused. Irving loves to dominate the ball, and it’s one of the great shows in sports, but teammates — particularly Brown and Tatum — have lost some effectiveness in adjusting to diminished roles.
“We’re playing like punks,” Smart said Wednesday night after a 117-109 loss to the Knicks marked the Celtics’ seventh in 10 games. “We’ve got to stop sugar-coating it. … We’re OK with getting down 20 or getting down early or letting teams get hot, letting teams feel comfortable.”
Stevens certainly isn’t putting a positive spin on things. “We’re not playing with the same personality we did last year,” he said after the loss to New York. “I just don’t know that we’re that good. Maybe it’s not a wake-up call if you keep getting beat.”
The Lakers might be a year away from contention, but LeBron James, seriously apprehensive during the team’s slow start, is seeing the light. The big story in Friday night’s 90-83 win over Utah was Lonzo Ball, who played the entire fourth quarter, made smart decisions and finished with 10 rebounds.
Ball looked a bit lost in the early season, having to share the playmaking role with James, Rajon Rondo and, of all people, Lance Stephenson. But when Rondo was sidelined because of a broken hand, the Lakers put their trust in Ball. His outside shot remains a work in progress, “but just his attack” to the basket is important, James said. “When he’s aggressive, it just changes our dynamic of the team. … Sometimes he doesn’t realize how great he is.”
As for JaVale McGee, starting at center and playing 25 minutes a game, “I played against him in the last two NBA Finals and I wanted him on this team because I know what he brings,” James told the Associated Press. “It’s his energy, his energy level, his ability at the rim and his ability to protect the rim. If you don’t have that on your team, you’re not going to have much, man. You need to have people with a high IQ, which he’s got. That’s why I wanted JaVale to be a part of this.”
McGee’s reaction: “It’s just a reassuring feeling, a confidence builder I guess, knowing that you’re going into a situation wanted as an option, like you’re really wanted. That’s pretty dope.”
McGee’s mother, Pamela, won two NCAA titles as a player at USC and an Olympic gold medal in 1984. She lives in Los Angeles and has never wavered in fierce support of her son. “I used to be Pamela McGee,” she told the AP. “Now I’m JaVale McGee’s mama.”
Around the NBA
•Warriors guard Stephen Curry’s pregame routine has become the stuff of legend, at Oracle Arena and around the world, but Irving performs a ritual that seems just about impossible: Dribbling expertly with both hands, Curry-style, while balancing on a pair of basketballs. Don’t even think about trying that at home.
•Lost in the unsettling mood surrounding the Warriors’ 28-point loss to Oklahoma City Wednesday night: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in a brief but genuine embrace after the game.
•It earned him a $25,000 fine, but Durant felt no remorse after obscenely chewing out a courtside heckler in Dallas. “Grown men can’t come to games and heckle grown men. That’s corny, that’s weak,” Durant told Yahoo Sports. “You’re going to sleep as a grown man doing that to another person?” Exactly. Loudmouth idiots should be monitored by league officials throughout the league, with a warning: Tone it down, or you’re banned for life.
•Internal discord has destroyed the Wizards, and there’s no way out if the roster stays intact. Trading John Wall would ease the tension, but who wants to take on an often-injured player who doesn’t always give full effort and has a four-year, $170 million extension that kicks in next season? Bradley Beal — younger, better, classier — is a better bet to be traded, and how we’d love to see him wind up with the 76ers or Lakers. Kyle Korver, made available by the terrible Cavaliers, would be another great pickup for Philly.
•So much for blaming an injury. When Markelle Fultz double-pumps a free throw, then shuffles the ball between hands like a hot potato in attempting another, it’s clear the problems are in his head. The 76ers’ rookie is rumored to be seeking a fresh start elsewhere, but his trade value is right around zero.
•It’s been a while since the 76ers had a wing player with Jimmy Butler’s skill at shooting, creating off the dribble and playing superb defense. How long? Since Andre Iguodala, an All-Star selection in the last of his eight stellar seasons with the team (2011-12).