Celtics

Blakely: How rare is it for a conference finalist to have four returnees?

Blakely: How rare is it for a conference finalist to have four returnees?

BOSTON – One by one, we have seen the Boston Celtics, just three wins away from a trip to the NBA Finals, dismantled before our very eyes.

Just like the Celtics felt in 2013 that they had gone as far as they could with that core group, a similar sentiment was felt this offseason.

Boston returns just four players from a team that had the best record in the East (I know Cleveland rested players, but, hey, I didn’t see Toronto or Milwaukee or any other team step up and take hold of the top spot, either).

It’s not unusual to see teams try to shake things up after a deep playoff run. But a near-complete overhaul?

Looking back at teams that have advanced to their respective conference final, no team in the last decade has gutted their roster to the extent that we have seen the Celtics do this offseason. 

Now, mind you, most of the changes that the Celtics have made for the most part are seen as upgrades.

You lose Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko but in come Aron Baynes and Marcus Morris, whose defensive rating as a tandem is among the best in the NBA.

Fans will certainly miss Jae Crowder’s do-it-all defense and Isaiah Thomas’ scoring. But Crowder’s departure opens up more minutes for Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum. And the gap left by Thomas’ departure will be filled by Kyrie Irving, a 25-year-old Olympic gold medalist who has already won an NBA title and has been named to the Eastern Conference’s All-Star team four times.

And let’s not forget the Celtics also landed Gordon Hayward, who left Utah -- and about $40 million on the table -- to reunite with his college coach, Brad Stevens, here in Boston. 

Still, it’s a bit startling to see how unusual the Celtics and their overwhelming desire to look and play differently, compares to other teams after coming so close to getting to the Finals. 

Since the 2008 playoffs (Boston won it all that year, remember?), only 32.5 percent of the teams (13 out of 40) that advanced to their respective Conference final returned a single-digit total of players the following season. 

And then there’s the 2014 NBA champion San Antonio Spurs, which knocked off the Miami Heat in five games, at the opposite end of that spectrum. Following their title season, they returned a whopping 14 players.

And from among those teams that have advanced to the Finals in the last decade, the Spurs (5) are the only club to get to their respective Conference final more than Boston (4).

While there have been a decent number of teams to have rosters with single-digit returnees the following season, this Celtics team is very much in a class unto itself.

In fact, the closest team to returning so few players from a team that advanced to the NBA’s equivalent of the Final Four was the Orlando Magic after they advanced to the Eastern Conference finals in 2009.

The following season, they returned just seven players from the previous team.

To endure such a major roster reconstruction raises lots of questions about chemistry. Specifically, how long will it take to develop?

In past years, teams would meander their way through a long and oftentimes drawn out preseason. That won’t be the case this year, not with the league allowing for more practice time for teams, which has sliced Boston’s preseason schedule down to just four games.

Timing and continuity will have to be developed in practice, which could make for some not-so-stellar play early in the season as different combinations are used to figure out which ones work best against competition, without necessarily the benefit of seven or eight preseason games.

But as much as the chemistry at first may be an issue, Boston’s overall upgrade in talent isn’t in question.

They now have a Big Three of Irving, Hayward and Al Horford, who collectively have 11 All-Star appearances to their credit. The team’s depth is green, but Boston has veterans like Marcus Smart coming back along with veteran newcomers Baynes and Morris to add to a young mix of talented up-and-comers like Brown and Tatum.

While Boston dismantling its roster may seem jarring, Celtics Nation has to be mindful that the changes are geared toward doing one thing and one thing only: building a squad that can put the Green Team on a faster track to competing for Banner 18.

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Baynes in Celtics starting lineup in battle with Whiteside

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Baynes in Celtics starting lineup in battle with Whiteside

Brad Stevens has said on more than one occasion the Boston Celtics’ starting lineup may fluctuate based upon who they play which is indeed the case against the Miami Heat tonight.

Stevens said 6-foot-11 center Aron Baynes will replace Marcus Morris in the starting lineup tonight to help battle Miami 7-footer Hassan Whiteside. He will join a unit that includes Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Al Horford.

Boston defeated Miami earlier this season 96-90, but Whiteside did not play due to injury.

“We’ve mixed and matched all year with our starters,” Stevens told reporters.

Regardless of who the Celtics were playing tonight, there was a good chance that Baynes would be in the starting lineup for Morris who is having some more soreness in his left knee which sidelined him for the first eight games of the season.

Morris, who has started the last four games and seven of the last eight, is questionable to play tonight.

“We’ve been trying to manage his minutes the best that we can,” Stevens said. “But for whatever reason, he had a little bit (of soreness) in Dallas. He feels a lot better, two days later. But we want to make sure.”

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Streak reveals depth even Celtics didn't know they had

Streak reveals depth even Celtics didn't know they had

Coaches in all sports will tell you that winning is not easy.
 
Making the Celtics’ 16-game winning streak even more impressive is that a number of the victories have involved Boston turning to some unlikely sources of production.

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And that has provided a glimpse into a franchise that’s getting the best of both worlds: quality play from its core group while developing reserves who have contributed to the team reeling off 16 straight wins in a variety of ways.
 
Because coach Brad Stevens has gone deeper into his bench this season than past years, it has created a roster with minutes more evenly distributed and with that, less wear and tear on the bodies of key players.
 
And while this team is led by Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, there has been at least one other Celtic to emerge as a top-three performer every night...and often it’s not the same player.
 
“Much more unpredictable now,” a league executive texted to NBC Sports Boston. “That number three guy, is it [Jaylen] Brown? [Jayson] Tatum? Sometimes it’s Marcus [Smart]. You don’t know who it’s going to be because a lot of times, I don’t think they [Celtics] know who it will be. It’s why they’re so good, man.”
 
Here are five under-the-radar storylines heading into tonight’s game in Miami with the Celtics trying to push their winning streak to 17:

KYRIE FOR MVP
It’s one thing for the home crowd to get into the ‘M-V-P’ chants when you’re at the free-throw line. But it’s a completely different matter when those same cheers are being heard on the road. That’s where Irving was following the 110-102 overtime win at Dallas, a game in which Irving dropped 47 points, 10 in overtime. It’ll be interesting to see if another strong game by Irving will lead to another serenading of ‘M-V-P’ chants for the most dominant player on the team with the league’s best record.


 
TURNING DOWN THE HEAT
The streak is the talk of the NBA right now, but streaking was going to be part of the conversation leading up to tonight’s game regardless. The Celtics come into tonight’s game having won eight in a row over the Heat, their longest current winning streak over any team. Boston has dominated this matchup for years, posting a 70-44 record all-time against Miami in the regular season.
 

DUKE CONNECTION
College basketball just kicked off and Duke is once again among the game’s top teams, a school that consistently produces NBA talent at a relatively high level. That’ll be very apparent tonight when you consider this Boston-Miami matchup features three players (Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum for Boston, Justise Winslow for Miami) from Duke who will all be in the starting lineup and a fourth (Boston’s Semi Ojeleye) who attended Duke but later transferred to SMU.


 
JUSTISE WINSLOW
Every front-office executive has that one player they tried – and failed – to acquire that, in hindsight, not getting him was a really good thing. Winslow is that guy for the Celtics. While he hasn’t been necessarily a bust, his impact at this level hasn’t been enough to have warranted all the assets Boston was willing to part with on draft night in order to move up and select him. Still, he’s healthy now and starting to play better which is evident by his numbers in most offensive categories on the rise, while his defense has been relatively solid.
 

THREE-POINTERS
The Heat have made the 3-point shot a much bigger part of their offense this season, evident by Miami ranking seventh in the league in 3-point makes (11.2) this season. In Boston, one of the keys to their top-ranked defense has been their length, which has come in real handy defending the 3-pointer. In fact, Boston has limited opponents to just 32.1 percent shooting on 3’s this season, which ranks third in the league.

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