Boston Celtics climb into Postseason Race – Even if they didn’t mean to

Danny AingeEarlier this season, the Boston Celtics dealt with all kinds of tanking allegations. Aside from trading star point guard Rajon Rondo to the Dallas Mavericks, Boston President Danny Ainge didn’t exactly made the type of offseason moves that indicated a serious postseason run. But here we are with only a handful of games left and the postseason is exactly where it looks like these young Celtics are headed.

Currently, Boston is 36-42 and sitting in the eighth and final playoff spot. Their record is identical to the seventh-seeded Brooklyn Nets and one game ahead of the chasing Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat (both 35-43). So looking at things now, it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Celtics in the postseason. The question remains, though, what does Ainge think of his overachieving Celtics.

So far, he hasn’t exactly offered ringing endorsements over Boston’s run, which severely diminishes their chances of getting a high lottery pick. However, he does support his club as they battle for one of the Eastern Conference’s final two remaining playoff spots. Here’s a look at what Ainge told the Boston Globe:

“Hopefully we can get a little better [over the next few days] because I think that both players and coaches feel like there’s things we can do better, but especially with such a young team we need more practice time together to reach our full potential. That’s why being in the playoffs would be nice from that standpoint, having a couple of weeks of hard games to prepare for and focus. I think that’s even more valuable than what we’re going through right now, which is valuable. I’m excited about the last five games of the season, to see how it turns out. I’m excited we get a couple of days off to catch our breath and we get some practice time.

[con’d later] It’s hard to manage a bunch of different agendas at once and we’re just trying to get our players better. It’s been a very positive year whatever happens in these last five difficult games ahead of us. But I believe there’s been a lot that’s been accomplished. It’s a credit to the players and the coaches. You could be the greatest coach in the world but if you got players that don’t have character to understand where the team is at and what’s happening . . . It could be tough on any coach and I think it’s a credit to Brad [Stevens] and the players that they’re playing and developing a reputation of a team that shows up to play and they’re playing hard and they’re playing to win.”

isaiah-thomas-celticsAs Ainge alluded to, there’s plenty to like about this promising young team. Isaiah Thomas (19.7 PPG) has quite possibly become the NBA’s best bench player since coming over from Phoenix. Avery Bradley (11.4 PPG) has proven to be a very effective young point guard. Jared Sullinger (13.7 PPG, 7.9 RPG) is playing a nice low-post game for the Celtics. And Kelly Olynyk (10.4 PPG) is finally realizing his potential after a highly touted college career at Gonzaga.

In fact, just about everybody on the Celtics has made contributions this season, with nine players averaging at least 9.5 PPG. And this doesn’t even include sixth-overall pick Marcus Smart (7.6 PPG, 3.3 APG), who’s steadily seen his game improve over the year.

So while Ainge’s unannounced plans to tank for another high draft pick may not have worked out this season, there is more than enough to be excited about with this young and emerging team.

Canada: A Budding International Basketball Powerhouse

andrew-wiggins-nbaThroughout the history of international basketball competitions, Canada hasn’t exactly shined. While their American neighbors to the south have won 14 Olympic gold medals, Canada has managed just one – a sliver medal in the 1936 Olympics.

Now this isn’t to say that the Great White North has been the basketball world’s doormat. After all, they did produce 2-time NBA MVP Steve Nash along with role players like Todd MacCulloch and Samuel Dalembert. However, there just haven’t been enough talented players to bring Canada to any sort of international prominence.

But it looks like Canadians might soon have something to celebrate from a basketball perspective, based on several young players. For starters, Toronto lays claim to Andrew Wiggins, who’s the most coveted pro prospect since LeBron James. The 6’8″ small forward, who’s currently playing for West Virginia’s Huntington Prep, is the biggest reason why several teams wouldn’t mind tanking the 2013-2014 NBA season.

McDonalds All American Game- Powerade JamfestThe first thing that jumps out about Wiggins is his insane athleticism, which comes naturally when you consider his parents. Mitchell Wiggins was a former NBA player while Marita was an Olympic silver medalist. So it’s no wonder why the 18-year-old can sky over other players (44-inch vertical) and blow past his opponents with unparalleled quickness. Adding his excellent on-court skills into the equation, Wiggins is all but guaranteed to be the top pick when he finishes his freshman season at Kansas next year.

Of course, you can’t experience Olympic success without a team – especially when competing against the stacked Team USA. Luckily Wiggins has a nice future sidekick in Anthony Bennett, who recently became the first Canadian-born player to go number one overall in the NBA Draft.

Now it’s worth mentioning that Bennett was a surprise number one pick who’s not guaranteed stardom. However, the Cavaliers thought enough of the 6’7″ combo forward’s outside shooting, scoring ability and rebounding to take him with the top pick.

tristan-thompsonNext up is Bennett’s Cavaliers teammate, Tristan Thompson. These two players are a very interesting story because they grew up a mile away from each other in Toronto and went to the same US-based high school, Findlay Prep (Nevada), though not at the same time. In his second NBA season, Thompson put up very solid numbers after averaging 11.7 PPG and 9.4 RPG. The 6’8″ power forward will definitely give Team Canada a strong inside presence come Olympics time.

Another player who figures to star on the international stage is Boston Celtics rookie Kelly Olynyk. The British Columbia product starred for Gonzaga after posting averages of 17.8 PPG, 7.3 RPG and 1.1 BPG last year. The 7-footer also showed some outside touch after shooting 44% and 30% from the 3-point line in his two collegiate seasons.

kelly-olynykDespite questions about how his game would translate to the NBA, Olynyk has silenced the critics thus far with a very strong summer league performance. And if he keeps playing like this, he’ll no doubt have a good career in both the NBA and on the international stage.

Cory Joseph is one more Canadian who shows a lot of promise. The 6’3″ San Antonio Spurs guard improved quite a bit from his dismal rookie season to last year’s NBA Finals run. He averaged 4.5 PPG, 1.9 APG and shot 85.7% from the free-throw line in his second year.

There’s definitely plenty of reason to get excited about Canadian basketball in the future. Sure the Olympics are three years away, but the FIBA Basketball World Cup is coming up in 2014. Canada has never won a medal in this competition, which takes place every four years. But based on all of the young talent that the Great White North has coming up through the ranks, they’re certainly ready to challenge current powerhouses like the United States, Argentina, Greece and Spain next year.

College Basketball Power Rankings for Feb. 8th, 2013

trey-burke-michiganComing up with a number one college basketball team has been extremely challenging this week. After all, most of the top 10 teams lost, so it’s not like one club shined over the others. That said, this week was all about defining potential and considering which teams have the best shot at winning the NCAA tournament. Indiana, Michigan, Duke and Florida have all been very impressive this season, so we narrowly gave the top spot in this week’s power rankings to one of these teams.

1. Michigan Wolverines (21-2) – At this point, some people might be wondering why we’d rank the Wolverines above Indiana following a recent eight-point loss to the Hoosiers. And the reasoning is two-fold: A) this game was on the road, and B) Indiana just lost to an unranked team. This being said, we think Michigan would be slightly better on a neutral court. Plus they looked good in their last game, which saw the Wolverines beat 10th-ranked Ohio State by three points.

2. Indiana Hoosiers (20-3) – Maybe not everybody will agree that the nation’s top two teams reside in the Big-10. However, we strongly think that both of these clubs are headed towards a number one seed when March Madness begins. As alluded to before, the Hoosiers lost to unranked Illinois by two points. But remember that this Fighting Illini team is 16-8 and was playing Indiana at home.

Duke v Miami3. Duke Blue Devils (20-2) – Here’s where things get even trickier. The Blue Devils could make a case for being ranked ahead of Indiana – especially based on their outstanding early season wins. However, it was only January 23rd when Duke lost to the Miami Hurricanes by 27 points. The Blue Devils appear to be righting the ship again though after four straight wins, which includes avenging an earlier loss to NC State. A February 13th home game against long-time rival North Carolina should be quite interesting.

4. Florida Gators (18-3) – Florida was in excellent position to grab the nation’s number one ranking; however, they lost to a decent 14-8 Arkansas team by 11 points. That said, we don’t think the Gators are quite THE top team, but rather at the edge of potential number one tournament seeds. It’ll be interesting to see how far senior guard Kenny Boynton (13.2 PPG) and junior center Patric Young (11.0 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 1.8 BPG) can lead this team come March.

C.J. Fair,  Lance Storrs5. Syracuse Orange (18-3) – Syracuse has really been up and down over the past few weeks. They grabbed wins over Villanova, Louisville and Cincinnati to close out January; then they followed this up with two straight losses to Villanova and Pittsburgh. However, the Orange bounced back with a dominating 63-47 victory over 25th-ranked Notre Dame. Junior forward C.J. Fair has really stepped up his production (13.9 PPG, 7.1 RPG) this season.

6. Arizona Wildcats (20-2) – The Wildcats jump several spots from last week after winning four straight games. None of their recent victories (USC, Washington, Washington State, Stanford) are extremely impressive, but they are all Pac-10 wins nonetheless. Looking ahead in the schedule, it’s difficult to see Arizona not winning their conference and grabbing at least a number two seed for the tournament.

gary-harris7. Michigan State Spartans (18-4) – Once again, Tom Izzo’s squad is back in the national title picture, despite being in the toughest conference this year. Some of the upcoming Big-10 landmines include Michigan (twice), Indiana, Ohio State and Wisconsin. Assuming Michigan State can win two or three of these games, they should remain in the top 10 throughout this year. Freshman guard Gary Harris has provided a nice spark for the Spartans with his 12.9 PPG, 1.2 SPG and 41.8% from three-point territory.

8. Kansas Jayhawks (19-3) – In our last power rankings, we were fully confident that Kansas was the top team in NCAA basketball. But back to back losses have changed this notion in a big way! First, the Jayhawks lost on the road to a respectable 16-5 Oklahoma State team. Unfortunately, they followed this up with a road loss to the lowly-TCU Horned Frogs (10-12). Coach Bill Self had nothing bad things to say about his team in quipping, “It was the worst team that Kansas ever put on the floor, since Dr. Naismith was there. I think he had some bad teams when he lost to Topeka YMCA and things like that in the first couple years. But for the first half, there hasn’t been a team play worse than that offensively.”

9. Miami Hurricanes (18-3) – An earlier 27-point win over Duke was no fluke – Miami is for real! Now this number nine power ranking isn’t based on the entire season because the Hurricanes have very ugly losses to Florida Gulf Coast and Indiana State (at home). But this Jekyll and Hyde club also has scored victories over Michigan State, North Carolina, Duke, NC State and Maryland. Throw in the fact that they’re 9-0 in the ACC right now, and Miami definitely belongs among the elite teams.

10. Gonzaga Bulldogs (21-2) – When it comes to mid-majors, we like both Gonzaga and Butler. However, with Butler losing to both Saint Louis and La Salle lately, it’s the Zags that crack our top 10 this week. Following their one-point loss on the road to Butler, Gonzaga has responded by winning five straight contests. Sure most of these were fairly easy opponents, but a 20-point win over BYU (18-7) is definitely a quality victory. 7’0″ forward Kelly Olynyk continues to improve his NBA Draft stock with another impressive year at Gonzaga (17.6 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 1.0 RPG).

College Basketball Power Rankings for Jan. 14th, 2013

Now that conference play has opened up throughout college basketball, many of the top teams have found the competition a little tougher. In fact, there are no longer any unbeaten teams left following Duke’s upset loss to NC State. And the Blue Devils weren’t the only high-ranked team to lose recently since a few other clubs were dealt their first loss as well. Following the recent shakeup, here’s a look at who’s sitting where in our power rankings.

1. Louisville Cardinals (15-1) – Louisville was ranked number four in our last power rankings, but they move up to the top spot following losses by three teams ahead of them. Junior guard Russ Smith (18.9 PPG) has led this club to recent victories over Kentucky, Providence, Seton Hall and South Florida. A couple of tough games loom ahead with Connecticut on the road and Syracuse at home.

2. Duke Blue Devils (15-1) – Following 15 wins to open the regular season, Duke finally dropped a road game against NC State. However, this eight point loss certainly doesn’t erase previous wins over Louisville, Kentucky, Wake Forest and Ohio State. Five Blue Devils are averaging double digits right now, led by senior Mason Plumlee (17.6 PPG, 11.4 RPG).

3. Indiana Hoosiers (15-1) – The Hoosiers continue to play well after a loss to in-state rival Butler last month. Their most recent conquest includes hanging the first loss on eighth-ranked Minnesota. Plenty of landmines await in the Big Ten schedule, but the prospects look good for Indiana to win their conference. G Victor Oladipo (13.8 PPG) continues to be lights out from the perimeter for Indiana (68.3 2P%, 48.0 3P%).

4. Kansas Jayhawks (14-1) – A three-point loss to Michigan State on November 13th represents the lone blemish on Kansas’ schedule. The only thing holding the Jayhawks back from a better ranking is that their lone impressive win remains beating Ohio State. Freshman G Ben McLemore has stepped up to lead this team with 16.4 PPG.

5. Michigan Wolverines (16-1) – After opening Big Ten play up with three wins, Michigan dropped a road game against Ohio State. Unfortunately, things won’t get any easier as the Wolverines travel to Minnesota this Thursday. Both Trey Burke (18 PPG) and Tim Hardaway Jr. (16.1 PPG) had off games against OSU, and they’ll look to get back on track against the Gophers.

6. Arizona Wildcats (15-1) – Arizona represents yet another top team that received its first loss in January. They dropped a four-point game on the road to a respectable 14-2 Oregon ball club. The Wildcats have another difficult upcoming game as they travel to face in-state rival Arizona State (14-3). This team does have the advantage of a hot Mark Lyons though (18.3 PPG over past four games).

7. Syracuse Orange (16-1) – While the Orange sit seventh in our power rankings now, they have an excellent chance to move up with a win at number one Louisville. Sophomore G Michael Carter-Williams had done a great job of finding teammates all season (9.4 APG), and he’ll look to tally plenty more assists against the Cardinals this Saturday.

8. Gonzaga Bulldogs (16-1) – Since losing to Illinois on December 8th, the Bulldogs have now rattled off seven straight wins – including a road victory over former #22 Oklahoma State. Looking ahead, the Zags have a very intriguing road game against 13th-ranked Butler this Saturday. Junior C Kelly Olynyk (18.7 PPG) is a huge reason why Gonzaga should win this tough contest.

9. Creighton Bluejays (16-1) – Looking at Creighton’s remaining schedule, it’s certainly not improbable that they could finish as a one-loss team heading into March Madness. Of course, going undefeated in conference play is a tall order for any club. Some of the quality victories for this team include wins over Wisconsin, Arizona State, Nebraska and California. Junior F Doug McDermott (23.6 PPG) is a strong favorite to win the Missouri Valley Conference player of the year award.

10. Minnesota Golden Gophers (15-2) – While Minnesota may have two losses on the year, dropping games to Duke and Indiana are nothing to be ashamed of. And so far, the Golden Gophers have tallied victories against Memphis, USC, Michigan State and Illinois. G Andre Hollins has really stepped up in his second year to lead this team with 14.4 PPG.