1. Repeat Episode: C's Face Losing Home Court
Last season, the Boston Celtics ripped off a torrid 23-4 start before a patch of injuries sent them into a 27-27 tailspin. That lackluster effort landed them the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference and without home-court advantage for the final three rounds of the NBA playoffs, including the team's excruciating Game 7 loss in Los Angeles during the Finals.
Doc Rivers knew coming into this season that despite the likelihood his veteran squad would endure injuries, another low seed was simply not an option if it wanted to walk off the floor for the final time this season with the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
"What we did last season was out of necessity," Rivers said before the season. "It wasn't planned. But when we had all the injuries, we had to make a tough call. Guys were in rehab. We were resting guys in the middle of the season. We were dropping games to teams you know you can beat. That is difficult for a coach to sit there and take. I am really, really hoping we don't have to do any of that this year. Because it's no fun. It's no fun at all."
That lack of fun has continued into this regular season for Rivers' Celtics. The injuries have piled up to no end. And although Rajon Rondo returned to action following a seven-game absence in a 93-79 win over a short-handed Toronto squad Sunday night, the same question has unsurprisingly reappeared to Rivers when it comes to resting bodies. What is the importance of home court in the playoffs, if it comes at the expense of your team's health?
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge thought he had prepared for this situation in the offseason. By reloading the team's roster with numerous talented veteran additions, Ainge seemingly built a deep roster capable of withstanding a variety of injuries that could slow the team's aging core during the regular season.
Rivers was probably the first guy who vouched for that kind of additional depth during the offseason, knowing this season's new-look Eastern Conference would present bigger problems to these C's.
"You go through a lull this year like we did last year and you'll end up being a seventh seed," Rivers continued. "There simply are too many good teams. What you can say to your veterans, is that if we had won more games and taken care of business at home, then Game 7 would have been in Boston and that would have made a huge difference."
That kind of mentality from Rivers achieved its desired effect during the first two months for these Celtics. As the teams in the new-look East got comfortable with each other, the C's cruised to a 23-4 start (sound familiar?). This strong start came despite a rash of injuries to countless members of the team's rotation (Kendrick Perkins, Jermaine O'Neal, Shaquille O'Neal, Delonte West) in the early going.
Rougher waters began to arrive these past two weeks offensively without Rondo, who severely sprained his left ankle in a win over the Knicks on Dec. 15. With their floor general hobbled, the team dropped three of its last four games before Sunday's win, while going 4-3 overall during the All-Star's seven-game absence. Last season's team faced a similar lull right after Christmas, thanks to a Paul Pierce knee infection that sent the squad into a tailspin.
Compounding the problem for the Celtics was a scary sprained calf suffered by Kevin Garnett Wednesday night in Detroit. He is expected to miss at least the next two weeks.
Faced with so many recovering bodies over the next month, Rivers has an incredibly fine line to walk as he tries to avoid a similar cold winter this year. And with the surging Miami Heat nipping at Boston's heels already, just a half-game out of the top spot in the competitive East, there's no easy solution to the home-court conundrum for Doc. How hard do you push your guys to come back? And with how much vigor do you go for wins now, at the risk of leaning too heavily on healthy, but aging veterans like Paul Pierce and Ray Allen?
There's no clear answer for Rivers. Yet, as the team enters the dog days of the regular season, it's a question he shouldn't expect to go away anytime soon.
2. Gallinari's Knee Bears Watching
Exactly how wrong? That remains to be seen.
Gallinari left the game with a sprained left knee midway through the fourth quarter of the New York Knicks' 98-92 victory Sunday over the Indiana Pacers, and he will go for a precautionary MRI on Monday. X-rays at the arena came back negative.
"I felt it stretch, I felt pain and I felt a little click. That's what I felt," Gallinari said. "I feel discomfort, but I can walk."
Gallinari's injury was one of the few downers on a Sunday afternoon when the Knicks snapped a two-game losing streak they had brought back from their post-Christmas trip to Florida. Amare Stoudemire scored 26 points, eclipsing the 20-poiint mark for the 18th consecutive game, and the Knicks got big boosts off the bench from Ronny Turiaf and Toney Douglas to knock off one of the teams pursuing them in the Eastern Conference standings.
Gallinari said it was not out of the question that he'll be available for Tuesday night's home game against the San Antonio Spurs, holders of the NBA's best record (29-4).
"I think I will play. We were not talking about that after the game, because right now I still have the adrenaline going, and a lot of pain goes down when you have the adrenaline going," Gallinari said. "It was not feeling the feelings you feel when you break something."
3. Wisdom Of A Human Highlight Film
LOS ANGELES -- Dominique Wilkins was a spectacular dunker, as Blake Griffin is now. Wilkins was an older player adjusting to diminished physical abilities, as Kobe Bryant is now. And Wilkins was a star who competed in the dunk contest ... something LeBron James has yet to do.
Wilkins was a five-time participant in the dunk contest, beginning with the inaugural contest in 1984 and going out by winning for the second time in 1990. He squared off against the likes of Michael Jordan and Julius Erving, back when the sport's biggest names had no problems battling for slam supremacy.
Today's players "don't want to know who the best is," Wilkins said at Staples Center before his color commentating duties on the Hawks-Clippers broadcast Sunday afternoon. "Simple as that. They don't want to know who the best is. We always wanted to know. It's that competition thing, where guys don't want to compete on that level, in a one-on-one situation. It's not just for you as an individual, it's for the fans. That's what we did it for. Yeah, we wanted to win, but it's for the fans. Guys just don't want to do it anymore."
Entering the dunk contest would be a great opportunity for LeBron to win back some of the public relations points he lost with "The Decision" and add some luster to an All-Star Weekend event that felt so flat in Dallas last year that some called for it to be eliminated. Some believe there's too much downside, that if he lost the contest it would be another setback for him. The man who once lost to 5-foot-6 Spud Webb doesn't want to hear it.
"Even if you lose the dunk contest ... so what?" Wilkins said. "'He lost. It doesn't hurt his potential legacy later in life. It's a dunk contest for a weekend for his fans."
4. New Kings On The Block
DeMarcus Cousins isn't the only young Sacramento King generating trade interest.
Stein Line HQ favorite Omri Casspi is also the subject of trade calls Sacramento is fielding, sources close to the situation say.
The major difference, of course, is that Cousins has been deemed an untouchable by the Kings while Casspi -- depending on the quality of the offers -- is a legit candidate to be moved before the Feb. 24 trading deadline.
Among the teams that have registered interest in the NBA's first-ever Israeli: Chicago and New York.
The Bulls, in particular, like Casspi not only for his ability to shoot but also his experience in pressure situations after playing at the highest levels of the Euroleague with Maccabi Tel-Aviv as well as his defensive potential, believing that the energetic swingman would develop nicely on D under the guidance of Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau. The bonus: Casspi is shooting 40 percent from 3-point range this season -- up from 36.9 percent as a rookie -- to further squelch his pre-draft rep as a nonshooter.
Yet there are obstacles for interested parties. Casspi is also a favorite of Kings co-owners Joe and Gavin Maloof. Sources say Sacramento, furthermore, would likely insist on attaching a long-term contract from the Kings' roster (such as Francisco Garcia's) for the right to acquire Casspi, who's earning a bargain $1.25 million this season. That could dissuade both the Bulls and the Knicks, with New York especially mindful of preserving salary-cap space for the summer.
5. Extreme Behavior
Rudy Gay, Grizzles: One night after missing the Jazz game due to illness, Gay savored the final moments of a 104-85 win over the champs from the bench. Gay tipped, slammed and shot down L.A. on its own court with 27 points.
Ron Artest, Lakers: This could be the nadir for the Game 7 Finals hero. Highest number on his stat sheet? Three turnovers. Lowest? Zero points. Maybe Phil Jackson needs to invoke "Queensbridge" more often.
TWEET OF THE NIGHT
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
"Every time I wake up, it's 'Dad, come here. Let me show you this Blake Griffin dunk from last night.' And it's really kind of neat, because it's been a long time since the Clippers have had a fun, exciting player that appeals to the whole league."
-- Former Clipper Michael Cage, whose record for consecutive double-doubles by a Clippers player was broken by Griffin last Wednesday.
6. New Year's Dissolution
7. Flatter Than Flat
LOS ANGELES -- The bad news for the Lakers is that Kobe Bryant showed he still has it. If the situation were different, if the No. 1 question hanging over the team was whether Kobe's best days were long behind him, their problems would be easy to resolve: just trust he could find his way. Because if Kobe can't be Kobe they might as well call off the championship quest.
On this Sunday night, though, Kobe reached back into 2006 and produced a 17-point third quarter. Only the Lakers still lost ground to the Grizzlies in the quarter. And they lost to the game to the Grizzlies, 104-85.
Phil Jackson is befuddled. Pau Gasol is looking tired and grouchy. Kobe is so over it that all he could do was laugh, rather than repeat his angry Christmas day news conference.
"It's being out of sync," Bryant said. "That's kind of what happened."
They're even out of sync on why they're out of sync.
Jackson said the problem is the team always loses focus when it has a day off (as the Lakers did Saturday). "That's bull----," Bryant said with a laugh.
Bryant, who has always been big on self-motivation, said, "It starts individually. You have to look at some things to try to get you going."
8. NBA Video Channel
9. Ronny Rocks Indy
Ronny Turiaf blocked six shots and grabbed 10 rebounds in 28 minutes of playing time as a sub in the Knicks' 98-92 win over the Pacers. Only two other Knicks players have ever come off the bench to record at least 10 rebounds and five blocks in the same game: Marcus Camby twice in 1999 and Jawann Oldham in 1987. (Blocks have been compiled since the 1973-1974 season.)