One early concern in the nascent rivalry of Eastern contenders is that Miami needs to do something about Boston's Ray Allen. This is like realizing all of a sudden that Peyton Manning will dismantle your secondary if you don't pressure him in the pocket, or that you shouldn't hang a slider to Albert Pujols. You'd think everyone should know by now what Allen can do: He is a nine-time All-Star who is 89 makes away from surpassing Reggie Miller as the NBA's all-time leader in threes.
So far, Dwyane Wade and other Heat defenders have consistently lost track of Allen in transition, while their teammates in the vicinity have failed to obstruct his lengthy figure-eight sprints without the ball. Last week, Allen scorched Miami seven times in nine attempts from beyond the arc and scored 35 points in the Celtics' 112-107 win in Miami. Combine that with his opening-night 5-of-8 performance from deep, and Allen has punished Miami for 55 points overall in two stunning victories against the newest challengers.
Allen is averaging 39.7 minutes (second in Boston only to Rajon Rondo, the youngest Celtic starter) and 18.8 points (second to Paul Pierce's 21.0) while converting threes at a convincing 45.9 percent -- a stubborn demonstration that he is not yesterday's news. At 35, he remains one of the league's most dangerous sniper, though Allen refuses -- publicly, at least -- to view his age as an infirmity to be overcome.
"I know how to manage being part of the team and being productive," he said. "You can never let it slip. Like you can't say, 'OK, I'm going to just take it by the wayside [and relax].' You've still got to get your shots up and take care of your body and make sure you're eating right and sleeping right. The minute you start thinking, 'Well, I don't want to do this anymore,' or you start slowing down, then that's when your game slows down and people start giving you less responsibility."
The Celtics considered moving Allen's expiring contract at the trading deadline last season with the idea of reinvesting in a younger perimeter talent such as Caron Butler, though no deal for Butler or another scorer ever materialized. (It is highly difficult to exchange talent for talent in the league today, as most trades involve salary dumps of one kind or another.) Thereafter, Boston's dependence on Allen appeared in sharper focus: When healthy, he was able to help lead the Celtics to the NBA Finals; when he was effectively grounded by a thigh contusion inflicted in Game 3 (thanks to the knee of Ron Artest), their half-court offense was hamstrung.
So it was a no-brainer for the Celtics to re-sign Allen last summer to a two-year deal worth $20 million, because his catch-and-shoot abilities in both transition and the half-court can't be replaced. The East-leading Celtics went 3-1 on a recent trip that included wins over Oklahoma City and Miami, along with a last-minute loss to Dirk Nowitzki's Mavericks. Allen looks as young as ever, 34-year-old Kevin Garnett is once again lunging in traffic for lobs from Rondo without concern for his surgically repaired knee, and Pierce makes defenders miss with an efficiency of subtle moves. While Miami's stars are struggling to complement one another, the Celtics' elders play together seamlessly.
"We don't have any angst or animosity toward each other," Allen said. "I love to see Paul be successful out there because he's doing it for me, he's doing it for the team. Even with Rondo, we don't fight or fuss with anything that Rondo says. We just let him be who he is."
That dynamic is good for the Celtics and bad for everyone else, especially the Heat. When they next meet, at Boston in February, Miami better have an improved plan to deal with Allen.
Luol Deng is not modeling himself after Allen. Instead, the Bulls' small forward is following the path of another former Connecticut star, Rip Hamilton, who spent his early career developing a mid-range game before extending himself out to the three-point line.
Deng leads the Bulls in threes attempted (34) and made (15) -- more than teammate Kyle Korver, a renowned sharpshooter who is 12-of-21 from that distance in limited minutes -- while converting at an impressive 44.1 percent. This amounts to a new phase in the career of a player who attempted seven threes the entire 2006-07 season.
As a 19-year-old rookie, Deng shot 117 threes in 2004-05, but he converted less than 27 percent over his first two NBA seasons. That's when Bulls coach Scott Skiles asked him to move inside the arc in order to establish his mid-range game. It turned out to be a terrific idea: By 2006-07, Deng was averaging 22.2 points and shooting 52.4 percent overall in the playoffs while leading Chicago to a sweep of the defending champion Heat in the first round.
But times have changed. That Bulls team collapsed, leading to the departure of Skiles and the arrival of point guard Derrick Rose and power forward Carlos Boozer, who is expected to return in the next few weeks after suffering a broken right hand. They need the threat of deep shooting to create space in the paint, which is why new coach Tom Thibodeau asked Deng to extend his range.
"But I also don't want him getting away from what his strengths are," Thibodeau said. "I want him attacking the basket -- his slashing is important in getting the opponent into foul trouble."
Deng's extended absences -- he was sidelined for 52 games over the two seasons following his '07 playoff breakthrough -- have damaged his reputation, even though he averaged 17.6 points and a career-best 7.3 rebounds last season. Rumors of a potential trade that would bring Carmelo Anthony to Chicago are unlikely to be consummated, as the Nuggets don't appear interested in taking on Deng's remaining four years at $51 million.
He is only 25, and from where he stands it wasn't so long ago that he was viewed as one of the NBA's most promising young players.
"It's so crazy to me that I've been in the league seven years now -- there have been a lot of changes and I'm the only one who's still here [with the Bulls]," he said. "But when I look back, it doesn't seem like it's that far back. It really doesn't. We went through ups and downs, but I feel like the [clinching] Miami game was yesterday."
Deng declared his ascendancy with 40 points in a Nov. 1 win against Portland (in which he made 3-of-5 threes). He is averaging 20.3 points, a career-high pace, while helping the Bulls to a strong 5-3 start during Boozer's absence, and now he looks forward to a full season with the most talented group of teammates he's had as well as a promising new coach. In 2012, Deng will be playing for Britain in the Olympics at London, where his extended shooting range could make a huge difference.
"I remember the highs more than my lows," Deng said. "I just really want to focus on how good I can be besides everything that's going on -- the trade rumors, the people saying I can't do this, I can't do that. I'm not going to play this game forever, so I really want to put in the effort. And I feel like with this team and this coaching staff everybody's going to see my ability again."
Advice to realtors in the greater Milwaukee area: Don't try to sell a house to Drew Gooden. Yes, he signed a five-year, $32 million contract last summer with the Bucks, providing him with the long-term security he never had while being swapped among seven teams over the previous three seasons.
"My house-buying days are done for right now," he said. "I live in Florida for the offseason, but I rent out a condo here [in downtown Milwaukee]. I'm by myself -- I'm not married, I don't have any kids -- so it doesn't make sense for me to have a huge house and pay a note when I'm only here six or seven months out of the year."
Gooden has overcome a slow start to help the 5-5 Bucks win three in a row, averaging 13 points and 9.3 rebounds in 26.3 minutes during the winning streak. The Bucks needed a productive power forward to complement Andrew Bogut and the 29-year-old Gooden is filling that role.
"This team is a great group of guys who are unselfish and want to win," he said. "Watching them last year, I saw how well they played together and how everybody emerged and became a better player -- [Carlos] Delfino, Luke Ridnour, [Luc] Mbah a Moute. [John] Salmons came here at the trade deadline and put up some outstanding numbers. So you can come here and flourish."
Not to be the bearer of bad news, but if Gooden himself emerges as a double-double big man at his current salary of $5.8 million, then he may attract trade offers that could put him on the move again. That will be the price of his success, and it won't come as a surprise to him. The last few years of changing house time after time have taught him not to invest long term in any NBA city.
"A residential property is not good for me," he said. "I'm squared away residentially. Now if it's something commercial that pops up, maybe I'm in for it."