Celtics facing major issues as playoffs approach


Celtics facing major issues as playoffs approach

By A.Sherrod Blakely

SAN ANTONIO The Boston Celtics are in a bit of a quandary these days.

They know their past success can't do a thing for them right now in terms of keeping them from sinking any further than they have the past couple of weeks.

But those past experiences, no matter how outdated they may seem, serve as the blueprint for a rescue-and-recovery mission that is sorely needed in order to salvage a season that has taken on a Titanic-esque feel lately.

"We know what the big picture is," said Paul Pierce, easily the most frustrated member of the Celtics these days. "We know what it takes."

But knowledge can only go so far without work.

And lately, it has been the C's -- not their opponents -- that have been getting worked over.

Coach Doc Rivers has been at this long enough to know regardless of how good a team is, they're going to have stretches where they won't play well.

As far as whether the Celtics will be better when the postseason arrives, Rivers has no worries about that.

"But I don't like losing games," he said. "And I don't like the way we're losing games."

When you look at the Celtics recent slump, there are a couple of things that stick out and to a large degree, have become major issues lately.

Late game execution
There are very few teams in the NBA in recent years whose ability to make the big play at the biggest moment of the game -- we'll call it "clutch quotient" -- can rival that of the Boston Celtics.

How many times have we seen Ray Allen deliver a late-game, dagger 3-pointer from the corner, in front of the opposing team's bench?

Or Kevin Garnett grabbing a tough rebound in traffic?

Or Paul Pierce going to his right for the step-back jumper, a shot that teams seem to know is coming but can't seem to stop?

You look back at the past couple of weeks, and you'll find few of those plays being made in close games.

Instead, we see Garnett fumbling the ball or being pushed aside by the likes of Tyler Hansbrough. We see Allen in the corner, but either his teammates don't see him or when they do see him, he misses.

Pierce hasn't been much better, either.

And then there's Rajon Rondo, the man who has the ball in his hands more than anybody.

Whether it's physical or mental, one thing is clear: Aside from Monday's 22-point, 8-assist effort in a loss to the Indiana Pacers, Rondo has been off his game lately.

Those problems occur throughout games, but lately have been problematic when the game is up for grabs in the fourth quarter.

"In the fourth quarter, if you don't get the job done, you'll probably lose the game," Rondo said.

Father Time gaining ground?
A year ago, there were lots of questions surrounding this team about whether they were too old to remain a title contender.

Well, advancing to the NBA Finals proved a lot of their naysayers wrong.

But when you see what has transpired recently with the C's, many of those same questions are once again being raised.

And remember, the Celtics are even older now -- and lately, they've looked and played like it.

"It's almost like we have great energy, and then run out," Rivers said.

Take a look at their last game, a 107-100 loss to the Indiana Pacers.

They opened the game with 33 points in the first quarter, scored just 16 in the second, went back up to 36 points in the third, but could muster up 15 in the decisive fourth quarter.

Pinning the slumping numbers on the second unit isn't fair.

When you look at Boston's 16-point second quarter, at least one member of the Big 4 was in the game for all but the first 40 seconds of the quarter. And in the fourth quarter, Boston had at least two of the Big 4 in the game for the entire period.

Scoring hasn't been where it should be for the Celtics, but that's the biggest issue impacting this team.

It has been the Celtics' defense weakening at a time when it needs to be strong.

And as they go about sorting through all the different problems they're having, shoring up their defense has to be the number one priority.

"I know we're dealing with different issues here, but we're a defensive team," Garnett said. "We gotta get back to that. We gotta get back into a rhythm."

Certainly the fact that they have been essentially playing with a patchwork lineup all season is an issue, but it doesn't explain or justify how a team that's so grounded in defense, has suddenly become a team where defense has become a liability down the stretch.

"When one thing doesn't go right, it's sort of a trickle effect," Garnett added. "So now, it's like a domino effect. We're going to continue to grind. We're going to continue to work to get this thing right."

Rewriting history
It's as if they're taking a page from last season's playbook in which they stumbled down the stretch to close out the regular season, only to storm back in the playoffs and ultimately get to the NBA Finals where they came up short against the Los Angeles Lakers.

"We can't think about last year," Pierce said. "How we eased into the playoffs and got to the Finals. That's not going to work this year. There's a lot of teams hungry, playing well right now."

In addition to Chicago, which currently has the best record in the East, the surging Miami Heat, Tuesday night's loss in Cleveland aside, are starting put together a series of dominant performances -- the kind of performances many expected from them when LeBron James and Chris Bosh decided to take their talents to South Beach to team up with Dwyane Wade.

As much as those teams warrant the Celtics' attention, the C's have little choice but to keep their focus on themselves.

Because right now, what those teams do will have little consequence if the Celtics don't get their own house in order, right now.

A. Sherrod Blakely can be reached atsblakely@comcastsportsnet.com.Follow Sherrod on Twitter at http:twitter.comsherrodbcsn

Blakely's takeaways: C's put entire league on notice

Blakely's takeaways: C's put entire league on notice

BOSTON – You had to figure Golden State’s explosive offense would probably come up a little short scoring-wise against the Boston Celtics and their top-rated defense. 

But for them to score 88 points – that’s about 32 below their average – was very one of those, “where the hell did that come from?” moments. 

And it was exactly what the Celtics needed to escape with a 92-88 win that extended their winning streak to 14 in a row but maybe most important, put the entire league on notice that this streak they’re on right now … it’s real. 

“They wrote us off coming in, saying Golden State was gonna beat us, and do this and do that,” said Boston’s Jaylen Brown. “We came out and played basketball. Even though we got down, the make-up of our team is staying in; we’re resilient.”

Here are five takeaways from Boston’s signature win of the season, 92-88 over Golden State which extended Boston’s winning streak to 14 straight. 



Jaylen Brown was playing with a heavy heart less than 24 hours after the death of his best friend. But as we’ve seen in this still-young season, Brown is very much one of the league’s emerging talents. He certainly played that role on Thursday in leading Boston with 22 points with seven rebounds, two steals and two blocked shots.  



There’s something about the second half of games against elite players that brings out the best in Jayson Tatum. When Boston opened the season at Cleveland, Tatum was noticeably better in the second half than the first. And in Thursday’s win over Golden State, it was more of the same. In the first half he had just two points only to finish with a 10-point second half (7 coming in the fourth) for a 12-point game on 2-for-5 shooting. 



As well as he’s played, a strong case can be made for Horford being a league MVP instead of their leading scorer, Kyrie Irving. Horford tallied a double-double of 18 points and 11 rebounds to go with a pair of assists. Horford now has six double-doubles this season which equals his double-double total from all of last season. 



As much as you know Smart makes great effort plays consistently and does indeed make a difference when he’s on the court, his shooting woes are reaching critical mass even as Boston continues to gobble up wins. In the last five games, Smart has averaged 7.6 points. That’s not too bad, right? But then you look and see that he’s shooting 19.2 percent (10-for-52) in that span. Ouch! So far, the Celtics have been able to find success despite his shooting struggles. But you have to anticipate at some point it’ll catch up with them. 



For most of this season, pretty much everyone who suits up for the Celtics, have played. But against the Warriors, it had the feel of a playoff-like rotation with head coach Brad Stevens playing 10 guys with nine reaching double digits in minutes played. Considering how the second unit struggled to make shots (they missed 17 of their 19 shot attempts), it’s understandable why head coach Brad Stevens leaned a little heavier than usual on his second unit.

A. Sherrod Blakely’s Starting 5: Unmasking the NBA’s best

A. Sherrod Blakely’s Starting 5: Unmasking the NBA’s best

BOSTON –  The NBA has seen its share of early-season injuries, some resulting in guys out for the season (Gordon Hayward) while others missing just a couple games (Al Horford out two games with a concussion).



And then there’s Kyrie Irving, who suffered a facial fracture that kept him for one game. He was supposed to wear a plastic protective mask for a couple weeks. Instead, it lasted one game and part of another before Irving decided to ditch it.
Kyrie’s mask got me to thinking … who are the best masked men in the NBA?
Today's Starting Five will include the top 5 masked men in the annals of NBA history, in addition to the top 5 teams, MVP candidates, rookies and defenders:

1. Rip Hamilton, Detroit – Worn initially for protection, his mask became an iconic look for the three-time All-star.

2. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers – Mask worn in 2012, the last year Bryant appeared in the playoffs.

3. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City – He looked and played like a superhero in his first game with a mask in 2015, tallying 49 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists in a win over Philly.

4. LeBron James – Ever the fashion-forward one, James wore a black, carbon-fiber mask to protect his broken nose in 2014.

5. Kyrie Irving - He played with a mask for 19 games in 2013, averaging 24.5 points and 47.5 percent from the field and 39.8 percent from 3-point range.

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee – The addition of Eric Bledsoe has helped rack up some wins, strengthen Antetokounmpo’s chances atop the MVP leaderboard.

2. Kevin Durant, Golden State – Shooting better than 50 percent from the field, Durant has stepped his passing game (career-high 5.0 assists now) up this season while continuing to pile up the wins.

3. James Harden, Houston – Not having Chris Paul around most of this season and still winning, is a reminder of how Harden has played at a consistently high level against all comers.

4. LeBron James, Cleveland – Three straight wins and the Cavs are well on their way to getting back into the thick of things, with LeBron leading the way.

5. Al Horford, Boston – In his last three games, he’s shooting 76.6 percent and has been a central figure in Boston’s rise to the top of the NBA standings.

1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia - He has eight double-doubles and a pair of triple-doubles to his credit this season. He’s the rookie everyone is chasing now.

2. Dennis Smith Jr., Dallas - You have to watch this guy play. Would be getting a lot more pub if the Mavs had a better record.

3. Jayson Tatum, Boston - Had a rough start against the Warriors, but bounced back and made key plays down the stretch helping Boston get the win.

4. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers - The late first-round pick has been an absolute Godsend to the Lakers, able to contribute in a multiple of ways.

5. Lonzo Ball, Los Angeles Lakers - He has been up and down like most rookies. But his court vision alone will keep him on the floor for many years to come.

1. Al Horford, Boston - He’s the best defender on the NBA’s best team defensively. It makes sense for Horford to be the pace-setter in this category.

2. Rudy Gobert, Utah - A towering presence, this 7-foot-2 big man will once again be a top-3 finisher when it comes to the league’s highest defensive honor.

3. Draymond Green, Golden State - The reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Green is the rare player who can defend all five positions at a fairly high level.
4.  Andre Roberson, Oklahoma City - His ability to defend guards as well as switch out defensively is a huge plus to the Thunder.
5. Aron Baynes, Boston - You will be hard-pressed to find anyone who utilizes the NBA’s rule of verticality  better than Baynes.

1. Boston – Winning 14 games, that’s one thing. But to beat Golden State along the journey? That’s special.

2. Golden State – Loss to Boston be damned, the Warriors are still the team everyone emulates … even now.

3. Houston – Can score with the best of them, but until they defend at a high level their success will remain limited primarily to the regular season.

4. Minnesota – It’s still early, but it’s hard to imagine the Timberwolves going anywhere but up the Western Conference standings.

5. Detroit – Outside of Boston, there may not be a bigger surprise in the NBA thus far than Detroit.