Brad Stevens' leadership will be vital to end Celtics' struggles

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Brad Stevens' leadership will be vital to end Celtics' struggles

BOSTON – The wounds are still too fresh for the Boston Celtics to put their pre-All Star break play in perspective.

Boston (40-19) has lost three straight and four of its last five games, and are not exactly playing the kind of basketball that anyone with visions of a season that spills into the month of June would want.

But just like they refused to let their 16-game winning streak earlier this season define them, the same holds true for their recent skid. 

Put it this way: if you would have told Danny Ainge and the Celtics that they would have the second-best record in the East going into the break and get just five minutes of play from Gordon Hayward all season, he would gladly sign off on that and we’d chock it up to another shrewd move by Ainge.

This recent stretch has absolutely set off alarm bells that all of Brad Stevens’ talk about this team not being as good as its record, may be true.

But let’s remember the one truth in all this. Regardless of how well or woeful you play, your record at the end of the day is who you are. And the Celtics, for all the ups and downs this season, are the second-best team in the East. 

And as they hit the unofficial halfway point of the season (there’s actually more like a third of the season left for most teams), here are five key takeaways to be mindful of as they try to finish out the regular season strong.



No rookie under fifth-year coach Brad Stevens has hit the ground running like Tatum. With most first-year players, they will provide glimpses of potential greatness. Tatum’s entire season has dispelled that myth. In it’s place, we have seen a 19-year-old play with a level of poise and focus seldom seen in a player so young. He ranks among the all-time great Celtic rookies in scoring, and for a period of time was on the short list as a legit Rookie of the Year candidate. But his play the last month or so has been inconsistent, in part because of the usual rookie struggles but also because of a finger injury. Having a few days off should do wonders for the 19-year-old, both mentally and physically. 


He gets a lot of credit for his play-calling, especially is A-T-O’s (after time-outs). But this season thus far, Stevens deserves a ton of credit for keeping this team from completely falling apart following Gordon Hayward’s dislocated left ankle injury just five minutes into the season. He refused to let his play through mistakes, but instead learn from film study before and after games, in addition to leaning on the team’s veterans for on and off-the-floor guidance. And in the midst of their worst stretch of play, his leadership will be vital in Boston’s ability to regain the footing that they have lost in recent weeks.


Without a true shot blocker or an established lock-down defender in the first unit, the Boston Celtics opened the season playing elite level defense from top to bottom. Through the month of December, Boston had a league-best defensive rating of 100.8 which heavily factored in them having the best record in the East for most of this season.

Dating back to Boston’s trip to London when the Celtics played Philadelphia, there has been a clear and undeniable erosion of their defensive toughness. Boston’s post-London defense rating is 104.2 which ranks eighth in the NBA since then. Injuries have been a factor, but that doesn’t excuse what has been a precipitous fall-off. Boston’s defense has been even worst in the month of February as their defensive rating fell to 109.3 which ranks 18th in the league. Marcus Smart will be ready to go immediately after the break, as will Shane Larkin who has proven to be a surprisingly better defender than the Celtics initially thought. Their return, coupled with a renewed focus defensively should be just what the Celtics need defensively to get back on course.


One of the more consistent knocks against the Celtics has been their bench and its struggles generating offense. According to hoopsstats.com, Boston’s reserves are averaging 32.1 points per game which ranks 23rd in the NBA. Of course, joining them in the bottom-10 are high-powered offenses like Houston and Oklahoma City which rely heavily on their starting fives to carry the scoring load which is evident by both ranked among the league’s top-five in points per game from starters. Meanwhile the Celtics’ starting five ranks 14th in points per game according to hoopsstats.com. But Boston’s bench production has been on an upswing lately.

In their last five games, Boston’s bench has averaged 38.0 points per game which ranks ninth in the league during that span. Headlining Boston’s offensive resurgence has been Marcus Morris.

He has reached double figures scoring in 13 of his last 14 games which includes a personal-best of 11 straight games with 10 or more points scored.

Boston has also received a nice lift off the bench lately from Terry Rozier.

Ever since he returned to the bench after getting three starts for an injured Kyrie Irving, Rozier has become a much more aggressive scorer coming off the bench. In that span, he has averaged 14.8 points, 4.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists.  


When Boston made the trade, you knew Kyrie Irving would be looked upon as the team’s face-of-the-franchise leader. But leadership was not a known trait of Irving’s prior to his arrival in Boston. Those first few years in Cleveland, Irving was trying to establish himself as a player and like most of the league’s young players, he wasn’t able to provide the kind of leadership needed to be successful. Then came LeBron James, re-claiming his spot as the team’s leader. Irving wanted out in part to lead his own team, and to his credit he’s done a good job thus far. He has both challenged and encouraged his young teammates on several fronts and to their credit, have responded positively more often than not.

But Irving knows there’s more he has to give, well aware that the collective efforts of the Celtics has to be amplified during this end-of-the-season stretch leading into the playoffs.

Celtics finding ways to win without Kyrie Irving

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Celtics finding ways to win without Kyrie Irving

As expected, Kyrie Irving’s first regular season with the Boston Celtics is over following a procedure on his left knee Saturday that team officials described as being "minimally invasive," that will keep him sidelined until the playoffs.

Not having Irving for the final 10 games of the regular season is certainly disappointing for Boston, but it won’t have the kind of devastating impact one might expect a team to have to endure when the leading scorer is out for a significant chunk of time.

Friday’s 105-100 win over Portland was Boston’s fifth straight game without Irving, and 12th this season.


There’s no question Boston is a better team when he is in the lineup.

But when he’s not, the Celtics have continued to find ways to win games which is evident in their 8-4 record when Irving has not played.

Victories over teams like the Blazers only validates the quality depth that the Celtics players speak of when they talk about their team. 

“We know what we have,” said Boston’s Al Horford. “It is encouraging for our group. And for us it’s to make sure we keep working and understand when we commit on the defensive end, we’re a tough team to beat.”

But Horford acknowledges the challenge to be successful becomes infinity greater when key players such as Irving are out.

“We can’t dwell on the guys who are not here, the guys who are injured,” Horford said. “It’s tough, but it’s an opportunity for other guys to step up and guys have really taken advantage of that opportunity. We’re trying to move forward. It’s hard but we don’t have an option.”

Here are five takeaways from Boston’s 105-100 win at Portland on Friday night.


The ability to not just run a team but do so in an effective, steady manner is what separated Shane Larkin from most of the guys who saw action last night. He made timely shots, kept the ball moving (he had seven assists and just one turnover) while playing at a really good tempo which was apparent as he finished with a pace of 95.97 which was tops among all Celtics players.


Greg Monroe could not have picked a better time to play his best basketball of the season. Against the Blazers, he came off the bench and tallied a double-double of 10 points and 10 rebounds. The 10 boards were particularly impressive with a team-best rebounding percentage of .303 and team-best usage percentage of .316 which speaks to how Boston made a point of going to Monroe early and often when he was on the floor.


It was another big-time scoring night for Marcus Morris who led all scorers with 30 points, easily becoming a fixture as Boston’s go-to guy now that Kyrie Irving (left knee) will miss the rest of the regular season. And like Irving, Morris is doing it in an extremely efficient manner. Against the Blazers, the 6-foot-8 forward was 9-for-13 (69.2 percent) shooting from the field with an effective field goal percentage eFG% of .885.


For most of Friday’s game, Jayson Tatum was not having a good game offensively with three points through three quarters of play. But Tatum, one of the NBA’s better fourth quarter players, was once again saving his best for last. He would go on to lead the Celtics with 10 points in the fourth quarter, which was a huge factor in Boston’s comeback victory.


The Celtics’ second unit looks a little different, but the production and overall impact remains strong as ever. Boston’s backups outscored their Portland brethren 26-10. But more than the points, Boston’s backups individually came up with big plays. Greg Monroe’s 10-point, 10-rebound performance stood out for obvious reasons. But the floor leadership of Shane Larkin and timely contributions from Guerschon Yabusele was also important in the win.


Blakely: Stevens has this coaching in March stuff down

Blakely: Stevens has this coaching in March stuff down

Sometimes we forget that a big part of why Brad Stevens is in Boston is because of what he has done as a coach this time of year.

He led a pair of Butler teams to deep postseason runs before coming up short in a pair of national title games.

Well, he’s embarking on a different kind of March Madness in leading the Celtics to a string of improbable wins, the latest being a 105-100 victory at Portland on Friday night.

It was the kind of victory that when you start to roll out the reasons why Stevens should be this season’s Coach of the Year winner, folks will use the win at Portland as an example.

The Blazers are not only one of the better teams at home, but they came in having won 13 of 14 games with the lone loss coming to Houston, which has the best record in the NBA.

But what made the victory so unexpected was the cut-and-paste lineup Stevens has employed because of a long rash of injuries.

Kyrie Irving missed his fifth consecutive game and is expected to be lost for another three to six weeks after having a procedure to on Saturday to help alleviate some of the soreness in his left knee.

Jaylen Brown has missed several games with a concussion, but he has progressed to where he's now questionable for the game in Sacramento on Sunday night. 

Boston was also without Marcus Smart (right thumb) who won’t be back until sometime in the playoffs.

And that doesn’t factor in Gordon Hayward (dislocated left ankle) or Daniel Theis (torn meniscus, left knee), both out for the season.

It’s easy to chalk up Stevens’ success to great Xs and O’s work.

But he’s doing more than that.

He’s inspiring a level of confidence in players that generated results exceeding all expectations; that is, expectations outside of their locker room.

Even when this team struggled with no clear signs of hope on the horizon, they didn’t blink.

Rather than use their less-than-ideal state as a justification for poor play, they funneled that energy and focus into becoming a better team - not better players, but a better team.

Because frankly, that is what we’ve seen from this group all season. Of course, you have your star in Irving, but this team has been a get-it-done-or-else squad all year that doesn’t get too locked into the success or struggles of any one teammate.

And that has allowed Boston to withstand the kind of injuries to key players that would have crippled many other teams.

But with the lack of bodies, there has been a lack of respect for how good this team really is.

Stevens has tapped into that and used it to help focus this team on playing great and most important, giving themselves a chance to win regardless of the opponent, regardless of how dire a situation may be.

And that has created the kind of March Madness Celtics fans are absolutely lovin’ right now.