On Pro Basketball
By SCOTT CACCIOLA
BOSTON — Isaiah Thomas, the starting point guard for the Boston Celtics, was ice skating with his young children on Monday when he learned that he had been named the N.B.A.’s Eastern Conference player of the week. His father, he said, had texted him to share the news.
Thomas, who is 5 feet 9 inches of hyperkinetic energy, was asked if the award meant anything to him. Was it another sign that he was becoming an elite player?
“I’m there already in my mind,” he said. “But I’m just going to keep going.”
On Tuesday night, Thomas had a starring role in a game that featured two good teams. He helped guide the Celtics to a 113-103 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies, who were undermanned without point guard Mike Conley and were playing their second game in two nights. The win was Boston’s sixth in its last seven games.
Barring meltdowns, the Celtics (19-13) and the Grizzlies (20-14) are bound for the playoffs. Whether either team is capable of vying for a championship — well, that is another issue.
In fairness to them, how many teams are legitimate threats when the Golden State Warriors, the Cleveland Cavaliers and maybe — just maybe — a couple of other teams are so much better than everyone else?
Entering Wednesday, five teams had winning percentages above .700: the Warriors (27-5), the San Antonio Spurs (25-6) and the Houston Rockets (24-9) in the Western Conference and the Cavaliers (23-7) and the Toronto Raptors (22-8) in the East, although the gulf between the Cavaliers and everyone else in that conference may be greater than it looks. Consider that Cleveland has defeated Toronto in all three of their meetings this season.
The Raptors’ problem is shared by other respectable teams like the Celtics and the Grizzlies, who seem condemned for now, if not forever, to being good rather than great in a league dominated by superpowers. There is only so much they can control.
Brad Stevens, the coach of the Celtics, said he would continue to seek improvement.
“I’m not even thinking about any other team,” he said. “We’re trying to be the best version of ourselves.”
David Fizdale, the first-year coach of the Grizzlies, said he took the job with one goal: winning a championship. He learned that lesson as an assistant with the Miami Heat, and the Grizzlies seemed to play with that mentality when they defeated the Warriors by 21 points on Dec. 10. Besides, anything can happen in the playoffs. At least, that is the hope.
“Every day you prepare, no matter who’s on your team — you’re going after the title,” Fizdale said. “Don’t sell a team short and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to try to make the playoffs,’ or anything like that. They’ve done that already in Memphis. So I wanted to try to take them to another level and get them thinking bigger.”
Thinking bigger is no small challenge now. The N.B.A. is top-heavy this season, but it is worth remembering that this is not all that new. The Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers spent much of the 1980s passing the championship trophy back and forth.
The Warriors and the Cavaliers appear determined to re-establish that sort of rivalry. When they met in Cleveland on Sunday, many people watched — an average of 10.2 million viewers, according to Nielsen figures released by the N.B.A. That huge audience was treated to an intense game narrowly won by the Cavaliers, the defending champions.
It is up for debate whether the league is suffering or benefiting from a competitive imbalance. In any case, Kevin Durant did his part to contribute when he spurned the Oklahoma City Thunder in free agency over the summer so he could join the Warriors’ all-galaxy ensemble — essentially the same team that had come up one win short of a second consecutive championship.
In July, Commissioner Adam Silver said he did not think that Durant’s move to the Warriors was “ideal” for the league.
“For me,” Silver told reporters at the time, “part of it is designing a collective bargaining agreement that encourages the distribution of great players throughout the league.”
The new collective bargaining agreement, which was ratified by the league’s players and owners last week, tries to address that issue, in part by providing greater financial incentive for elite players like Durant to remain with the teams that drafted them. But the provision came too late to prevent the Warriors from luring Durant away and becoming more fearsome, more stocked with scorers, more primed for another title run. The rest of the league is coping with that reality.
If the Warriors are a Ferrari, the Grizzlies are a midsize sedan: sturdy and reliable. Memphis has made six straight trips to the postseason, reaching the conference finals in 2013. While that is the closest the Grizzlies have come to catching a glimpse of the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy, they continue to invest in the dream.
Over the past two summers, the Grizzlies committed more than $260 million to re-sign Conley and Marc Gasol, two cornerstone pieces, to max contracts. Still, Zach Randolph, another longtime member of the team’s core, is 35. And Gasol, 31, and Conley, 29, have dealt with injuries in recent seasons.
“We got the tools,” the swingman Tony Allen said, “and if we can just be healthy for a full season — or be healthy around playoff time — it will be a scary sight for a lot of teams.”
Much the same could be said of the Celtics, who have made first-round exits from the playoffs the last two seasons. They would love to move forward this season behind Thomas, one of the smallest players in the history of the league. He is averaging 26.8 points and 6.3 assists a game, and his acrobatic layup late in the fourth quarter against the Grizzlies helped seal the win.
If Thomas wants to measure himself against the very best, he will have another opportunity soon. The Celtics visit the Cavaliers on Thursday.
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