Celtics

Celtics-Knicks review: Poor late-game execution

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Celtics-Knicks review: Poor late-game execution

BOSTON With the game on the line, the Boston Celtics turned to Paul Pierce.
Turnover.
With one last chance to extend the game, the C's could not get close enough to the New York Knicks -- literally and figuratively -- as they ran out the final seconds in an 89-86 win.
The final 7.1 seconds of Thursday's loss -- Boston's fifth straight -- spoke volumes about how late-game execution has been an issue for the C's all season.
"Down the stretch, we had poor execution," said Pierce who still led the C's with 22 points. "Simple and plain. You need buckets when the game is tight. We can't turn the ball over, and that's what we did down the stretch."
Boston only had four turnovers in the fourth quarter, but two came in the game's final 1:06.
While the effort was indeed better against the Knicks, it still wasn't enough to secure a win.
"It's frustrating to lose when you give effort, because you've got to keep convincing your guys if you play that way every night, you're going to make more shots than that. And you're going to win a lot of games. But right now they're sitting there thinking, 'We lost.' So, they know it. They know with that effort you're going to win most nights."
The C's will look to bring a similar effort Friday night against a well-rested Atlanta team that hasn't played since Wednesday.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: All eyes will be on Kevin Garnett and Carmelo Anthony to see if there's any residual beef between them after the Jan. 7 incidents. Both have said it's done with and there won't be any issues. But with these two highly emotional players, what they say and what we see may not necessarily be one in the same.
WHAT WE SAW: As expected, there was no incident even remotely close to what transpired between them on Jan. 7. There were very few instances in which they were matched up with one another although Anthony (28 points, nine rebounds) clearly had the better game than Garnett (8 points, 12 rebounds and two blocked shots).

MATCHUP TO WATCH:Avery Bradley vs Iman Shumpert: Two of the best on-the-ball defenders you'll find in the NBA, it'll be interesting to see which of them will make the greatest difference in terms of impact tonight either with their defense or shot-making. Because of the players around them, chances are pretty good that both will have a decent amount of wide open to lightly contested shots for the taking.
WHAT WE SAW: Both showed on Thursday that while defense is their calling, they can occasionally get some buckets, too. Bradley hit one of the C's two 3-pointers in the first half while Shumpert's scoring helped offset an off night by a number of New York's primary shooters. Bradley had five points on 2-for-7 shooting while Shumpert finished 10 points on 4-for-10 shooting.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Paul Pierce has questioned whether some of his teammates understand the sense of urgency that the C's need to have, but the Captain has to do more than talk the talk. He is in the midst of one of his usual shooting slumps, but the sooner he can snap out of it the quicker the C's recovery -- if they are to have one this season -- will begin to take shape.
WHAT WE SAW: Pierce, who will miss his first all-star game since 2007, was on top of his game Thursday night . He scored the game's first points and continued to pour it on in a variety of ways. At the half he had 19 of his 22 points, which was more points than he had in the C's previous four games -- all losses. The lack of scoring in the second half, Pierce said, was due to others getting involved -- namely Rondo who had 14 of his team-high 23 points in the second half.

STAT TO TRACK: Free throw shooting has been a major factor in the C's last four games -- all losses. Not are the Celtics shooting a lower percentage (69.2 percent compared to opponents shooting 77.6 percent in the last four games), but they are not getting to the line nearly enough. How bad has it been? The C's last four opponents have made a total of 90 free throws (out of 116 attempts). In that same span, the Celtics have taken just 91 free throws (with 63 being made).
WHAT WE SAW: The C's were minus-4 in free throws taken at the half, but there was no mistaking that their level of aggression was raised. Boston trailed by two at the half, but had a 32-16 advantage in points in the paint that kept them within striking distance. For the game, Boston won the points in the paint battle, 50-32, and finished 21-for-28 from the line compared to New York which was 17-for-20.

Since joining Celtics, Irving has grown into complete player

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Since joining Celtics, Irving has grown into complete player

BOSTON – For most of this NBA season, the narrative surrounding the Celtics has centered around the maturity of their young players.

Well, there's a much bigger tale of growth on this team. But we're not talking about rookie Jayson Tatum or second-year wing Jaylen Brown.

We're talking about Kyrie Irving, whose desire for growth fueled his decision to want out of Cleveland this past offseason.

And that growth has in turn sparked the Celtics to what has been an unprecedented run of success.

"He's doing things that we never saw when he was in Cleveland," one league executive texted NBC Sports Boston. "He always had great talent, but could he lead a really good team? I think we got our answer now."

The Celtics (16-2) boast the best record in the NBA, which is amazing when you consider Gordon Hayward broke his ankle less than five minutes into the season opener. Not to mention they lost their first two games.

Literally all they've done since then is win.

Boston's 16 straight victories is an NBA record after losing the first two games of the season. The winning streak ranks as the fourth-longest in franchise history.

And while the pieces to Boston's success vary, the man whose growth has been at the epicenter of the Celtics' emergence as a title contender has been Irving.

You can count Mike Brown, Irving's former coach in Cleveland, among those impressed with the growth in Irving on all levels.

"To see Kyrie taking ownership of not only little things offensively, but even on the other end of the floor, leadership and all that other stuff ... I'm happy for him, I'm excited for him," Brown, now an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors, told NBC Sports Boston. 

While his numbers have taken a slight dip here in Boston, Irving seems to be better in tune with what he needs to do to positively impact the play of his teammates and the team as a whole.

In Boston's 110-102 overtime win at Dallas on Monday, Irving had 47 points, the most he's scored as a Celtic.

His scoring binge included 10 points in overtime. 

And when talking about his monster scoring night, Irving provides a clue as to how his approach to the game has changed over the years in terms of scoring.

Irving described his breakout scoring night as something that "was called upon," adding: "I don't think I needed to score over 20 or 25 in particular games. So I think if you would have asked me that question probably a few years ago, I would probably tell you that I would definitely be trying to get 40."

Earlier this season, Irving talked about developing some bad habits early in his career because his primary goal, like most high draft picks, was to get buckets. That frequently led to the ball sticking in his hands too long, or him having to force up shots and not getting his teammates involved as much as he should have.

While some chalked it up to him being a selfish player, Brown saw it differently.

"A lot of it was his youth, which is more than understandable," said Brown, who coached Irving in Cleveland during the 2013-14 season. "When he first came into the league, he had played 11 games in college. Before that with high school and AAU, for a guy that talented, it was pretty easy for him. He could go out and get 40 and win and not have to focus on anything else."

Brown recalls one of the early challenges with Irving was getting him to get his teammates involved more consistently.

"One of the things I used to always hit him with, he can score and finish in a crowd like no other, especially at his size," Brown recalled. "He draws a lot of attention. I always used to tell him, whether it's the strong-side or the weak-side, guys in the corners are wide open when you dribble-penetrate because you are such a dangerous finisher."

There would be film study to illustrate this point. It would show just how easily Irving would get to various spots on the floor by breaking his defender down or splitting an upcoming double team. But it would also show that when he made his moves in traffic, far too often his head would be down, which is why he wasn't finding teammates open.

Brown pointed this out as an area Irving needed to get better at if he were going to continue ascending up the point-guard stratosphere in the NBA.

"And you know, he got a little better at it," Brown said. 

Today?

"I tell you right now, he's a double-edged sword," Brown said. "Now, not only can he finish in traffic, now he's finding guys in the strong-corner. He's finding guys in the weak corner. And he's finding guys that are in the slots above the corner on the wing. To see him make that pass with such ease and precision right now, at least for me it's a joy. It's a joy for me because it's something I knew he could do. As a young man in high school and AAU, he's probably thinking, score, score, score. So that's not something he developed growing up, at least he didn't show to me. Now to see him do it, it's beautiful."

It certainly has been for the Celtics, who are off to their best start under fifth-year coach Brad Stevens. Stevens has found a way to blend his system, which is heavily predicated on ball movement offensively and the ability to switch frequently on defense, with Irving's immense individual talent. So far at least, has been a good fit for all involved.

"Kyrie is trying to do his role to the best of his ability," Stevens said. "Obviously, his role garners a lot of attention because he scores the ball and he has those moments where he mesmerizes everybody with his ability to score the ball and handle the ball and stuff. He's trying to do all the little things. It's a brand new system. There's going to continue to be an adjustment period for him. But he's done a good job."

Listening to Irving talk following the win over Dallas, it's clear there's a considerable amount of thought on his part given to how he'll attack defenses even though we're talking about split-second, on-the-fly decisions.

"It just happens," Irving said when asked about his best scoring night as a Celtic. "Just the flow of the game, understanding where spacing is, where the shot is going to come from, when it's time to put the foot on the gas pedal, being aggressive and take advantage of certain things I was seeing out there. But my teammates did a great job of continuing to pressure the basketball."

And he continues to provide both strong play and leadership, which have moved the needle closer to him achieving what he was seeking when he asked the Cavs to trade him during the offseason.

"This was literally a decision that I wanted to make solely based on my happiness and pushing my career forward," he said earlier this season.

Watching him inside the Celtics locker room and on the floor, it's clear that he's having a good time out there.

And his career going forward? 

Irving's impact on winning has positioned him to where a strong case can be made for him being a top-5 league MVP candidate.

Following the Dallas win, Irving was serenaded by fans chanting, "M-V-P! M-V-P'" which certainly brought a smile to his face and was somewhat unexpected considering Boston was on the road.

"It's pretty awesome," Irving said of the chants. "But we got a long way to go."

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