Celtics-Timberwolves preview: Minnesota much tougher than record shows

Celtics-Timberwolves preview: Minnesota much tougher than record shows

BOSTON – The schedule says Boston’s opponent tonight is Minnesota, a team that’s currently 10 games below-.500 (28-38) which is the closest they have been to being a .500 club since the end of January.

A cushy win for the Celtics, right? 

Nope. Not even close. 

The Minnesota Timberwolves may have a horrible record this season, but their play of late has been impressive.

This 28-win squad has taken down Golden State and most recently Washington which has been playing as good or better than any team in the East recently. The Utah Jazz have the fourth-best record in the West and the Timberwolves went into Salt Lake City and smashed them by 27 points earlier this month. 

Their recent run of success now has them sniffing a potential playoff spot out West where they currently trail the eighth-seed Denver Nuggets by 3.5 games. If Boston makes the mistake of playing the team’s record and not the team that’s in front of them, it won’t just make for a tougher game.

They’ll get beat … badly. 

“What I’ve seen on film is a team that’s playing at a different level than when we played them in November,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens.

This is especially true on defense. Since the all-star break, Minnesota has a defensive rating of 99.9 which ranks second in the NBA only to San Antonio (98.6). To put that in perspective, Minnesota ranked 23rd before the break with a defensive rating of 108.3.

“(Ricky) Rubio is kind of the head of that,” Stevens said. “He’s a tough, tough guy both defensively and in leading a team.”

But it’s not all that surprising that the Timberwolves have evolved into a tough defensive club considering ex-Celtic Tom Thibodeau’s penchant for developing tough teams defensively.

“They’re just getting better and better, figuring out that end of the floor,” Stevens said.

Meanwhile, the Celtics come into tonight’s game having crushed the Chicago Bulls, 100-80, on Sunday, a game in which Boston’s defense opened the game in lockdown mode as Chicago missed its first 12 shots and 18 of 19.

No one expects the Celtics to limit teams to that extent on a night-in, night-out basis. But the effort and attitude to do so needs to be more of a constant going forward regardless of the opponent or their record.

“We have to know what our goal is, what we’re trying to reach at the end,” said Boston’s Isaiah Thomas. “It’s not about who we’re playing, but how we play. If we approach it with respect and the way that we know how to play, we’ll take care of business. If not, we’ll be up and down like we have been.”

Indeed, it has truly been “March Madness” when you consider the highs and lows the Celtics have been through this month.

There was the elation of beating Cleveland only to lose a buzzer-beater at Phoenix four days later, and follow that up with a fourth-quarter meltdown at the Los Angeles Clippers. Putting that disappointment aside, the Celtics beat the Golden State Warriors on their home floor for the second year in a row, but bounce back with a 20-point beat down at the hands of the Denver Nuggets.

“Being consistent. That’s what we have to be,” Thomas said. “If we’re consistent and play like we know how to play, we’ll take care of business with these last 15 games. If we’re not, we’ll be up and down like we’ve been the past couple of games. Everybody is realizing what’s at stake and guys are locking in.”

The Celtics are eager to finish the season with one of the top-two records in the Eastern Conference. They are currently second and trail Cleveland (43-22) by 2.0 games with Washington (41-25) just a half game behind Boston. While most coaches and players say they pay no attention to standings, Thomas readily admits to paying attention to the movement throughout the NBA.

“It’s very important, whether it’s the one or two seed,” Thomas said. “It’s important to be in that position. We have to take control of the things we can control and that’s going out there and being us. But it’s important to get that two seed. That would be good for us.”

Celtics-Thunder preview: Balancing rest and rhythm

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Celtics-Thunder preview: Balancing rest and rhythm

BOSTON – With the NBA playoffs looming, this is a tricky time of year for most of the league’s playoff-bound teams. 

Both players and coaches want to head into the postseason well-rested. 

But they also want to be in a good playing rhythm.

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Injuries have forced the Boston Celtics to sit some players who are likely to be able to play (and well-rested) when the playoffs. 

And tonight’s foe, the Oklahoma City Thunder, are in a similar situation as well. 

“It's something you're walking a tightrope on all the time, where a guy is really rested but you've taken him out of rhythm,” said Thunder head coach Billy Donovan. “The biggest thing is, there's gotta be communication between the players and the medical staff, coaches, of where guys are, what they need.

Donovan added, “I think rest this time of year would help any player, but there's a balance between maybe getting too much rest and maybe getting out of rhythm. The players are always walking that line during the course of the year, because you kind of get into a rhythm of playing every other day, you get into that, and then there's a back to back here or there, and you get three games in four nights, but yeah. You try to best as you can with your players, help them balance that the best they can.”

Thunder guard Russell Westbrook can see how some players might need to strike a balance between getting enough rest late in the season while maintaining a good playing rhythm.  

So, I asked him which is his preference?

“I prefer to play,” he said. “Rhythm and all that (expletive), it’s in your mind.”

For Westbrook, maybe so. 

But it is very real to a number of players in the NBA, among them being his teammate and fellow All-Star Paul George. 

“If you know why you’re in the gym and the work you’re getting, you lock in,” George said. “You prepare, get your work done. And you get off your legs, get off our feet and get your rest. It’s easy to balance the two when you know what exactly you’re doing and you know exactly what you need to do.”

Boston has worked to strike that balance with Kyrie Irving all season.

That’s why the five-time All-Star is averaging 24.4 points per game which is 11th in the league. However, he’s doing it in 32.2 minutes which ranks 55th in the league in minutes played per game. 

Lately, Irving has gotten more time off than he would like as he deals with a sore left knee that has kept him sidelined for the Celtics’ last three games. 

It doesn’t appear to be something that will limit him now.

However, having him sit out games now increases the likelihood that he’ll be ready to roll at or near full strength, when the playoffs arrive. 

Boston is also playing without Jaylen Brown who suffered a concussion when he fell on his back following a dunk at Houston on March 3. He is expected to return at some point between now and the end of the regular season which could be a blessing in disguise for the 6-foot-7 Brown who will be called upon to not only remain Boston’s next-best scoring option to Kyrie Irving, but also defend at a high level. 

Celtics head coach Brad Stevens acknowledged that they have given thought to how to find that happy medium between resting guys while ensuring as best they can, that players will be refreshed for the playoffs. 

“We haven’t been in that situation very often, where we choose to do rest except for that stretch in December when we rested Al (Horford),” Stevens said. “But everything else has kind of happened organically with guys being dinged up or whatever the case may be. I think that’s … we’ll probably be in a situation where we will continue to have those discussions.”


Thunder not taking shorthanded Celtics for granted

Thunder not taking shorthanded Celtics for granted

Oklahoma City All-Star Paul George knows the Boston Celtics team he and his Thunder teammates will face tomorrow night, won’t be at full strength.

But he’s wise enough to know if you focus too much on an opponent’s key losses to their roster, that same team can potentially hand you a loss which is the last thing the Thunder need right now in what’s shaping up to be a tightly contested Western Conference playoff race.

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Currently fourth in the standings, only four games separate teams No. 3-8. Only Houston (56-14) and Golden State (53-17) have secured a postseason berth. 

Which means the Celtics won’t catch Oklahoma City sleeping on them heading into tomorrow night’s game. 

“We are going to address it the same way regardless of who's in there,” George said. “We got to pick these games up. We lost the game on our floor earlier this season.”

But that was early in the season when the Thunder were still trying to figure out how its newly formed core of Russell Westbrook, George and Carmelo Anthony, could mesh.

Oklahoma City has gotten stronger as the season progressed, and are one of the hottest teams around with six straight wins, the most recent being a 132-125 victory at Eastern Conference-leading Toronto. 

Meanwhile, Boston (47-23) has lost its last two games and three of four so from a momentum standpoint, the Thunder have every reason to feel as though they’ll emerge victorious tomorrow night. 

And they also have added motivation from their Nov. 3 matchup with the Celtics in Oklahoma City that ended with a 101-94 win for Boston. 

Westbrook had 19 points and 11 assists in that game but shot 7-for-20 from the field. Carmelo Anthony had 14 points but did so on a woeful 3-for-17 shooting. And then there was George’s 25 points on 9-for-20 shooting to go with 10 rebounds. 

“We have to show who we are,” George said.

Who they are, is a team that’s fighting for home court in at least the first round of the playoffs where they are currently fourth in the West. 

And their success in the last six games has been fueled by strong play at both ends of the floor. 


In that stretch, Oklahoma City is averaging 116.2 points which ranks second in the NBA during that span. Defensively, they are allowing 104.5 points which is the 10th-fewest allowed in the last six games.

“Just making the right plays, offensively and defensively” is how Westbrook described the team’s recent run of success. 

And the Thunder have every intention of keeping it going against a beat-up Celtics squad that they know they can’t take lightly. 

“Again, we are playing really well,” George said. “A step back if we lose no matter who's in or who's out would hurt us.”