Celtics

Late-game execution key in series vs. Sixers

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Late-game execution key in series vs. Sixers

BOSTON For years, the Boston Celtics always had the experience card to play in end-of-the-game situations.

As you look at their second round playoff series against Philadelphia, that has become one of a number of should-be Celtic advantages that isn't playing out quite like anyone expected.

The series is tied at 2-2, with Game 5 in Boston on Monday and Game 6 back in Philadelphia on Wednesday.

As much as talk centers around the Sixers playing good enough to potentially be up 3-1 in this series, the C's can counter with the fact that this series would have probably been a Celtics sweep had they delivered the kind of late-game execution a team with their championship pedigree is expected to have at times like this.

The first two games weren't decided until the final moments, and essentially came down to which team could make the big plays needed to win.

In Boston's 92-91 Game 1 win, Kevin Garnett had a season-high 29 points and Rajon Rondo had his eighth playoff triple-double with 13 points, 17 assists and 12 rebounds. In addition, Rondo made a slew of heady plays in the game's closing moments to secure the win.

Philadelphia bounced back with an 82-81 Game 2 win, a game in which they came up with a slew of buzzer-beating shots, second-chance points and played good enough defense that Kevin Garnett was whistled for an illegal screen in the game's final seconds that just about killed any shot of a Celtic comeback.

Boston blew out the Sixers in Game 3 and seemed on their way to a repeat in Game 4. But they allowed Philadelphia to hang around too long, stopped playing with the same kind of energy and fire they had in the first half. And to the credit of the Sixers, they made the C's pay as they closed out the game with a 9-0 run to win, 92-83, to even the series at two games apiece.

So in three of the four games, it came down to which team could do a better job of executing in crunch time.

In two of those three games, Philadelphia - not Boston - was the superior team.

If you go behind the numbers, they only further validate the Sixers in this series as being better in close, down-to-the-wire finishes.

In the final two minutes of the games in which either of these two teams were ahead or behind by five points in this series, the Sixers are shooting 75 percent (6-for-8) which is tops among second-round playoff teams under those conditions while the Celtics (6-for-12) are right behind them at 50 percent.

If you look at the playoffs as a whole, it becomes even more clear that statistically at least, Philadelphia has been the better team when it comes to closing out opponents.

Examining those same conditions - ahead or behind by five points with two minutes to play - the Sixers are 5-1 in the playoffs while the Celtics are just 4-4 according to NBA.comstats.

In addition, Philadelphia has connected on 53.3 percent of its shots under those conditions in the postseason which ranks No. 2 among playoff teams, while the C's and their 36 percent shooting come in at a distant 10th.

There's no need to dwell on the numbers because the Celtics know all too well that they can be better - they have to be better - at closing out games in this series.

Fortunately for the C's, there's still time to change all that.

It begins Monday night in Game 5 which for the Celtics, has been a good time for them.

In the Big Three era, the C's are 7-0 when hosting a playoff Game 5 matchup.

At this point, having previously won in similar situations means little.

This series has been about making the proper adjustments and finding ways to win in a series that has come down to the wire in all but one game.

Normally, that would be a good thing for the Celtics.

As the C's remind us, this is not a normal season - from the lockout-shortened regular season schedule, to the injuries, players out for the season, and yes, late-game execution which for years was a given with this team.

Not now; not in this series.

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. 

 

BROWN’S GROWTH

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.  

 

TALE OF TWO HALVES FOR TATUM

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. 

 

AL HORFORD

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. 

 

MARCUS SMART

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. 

 

SHORTENED ROTATION

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).

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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:
 
TOP 5 MASKED MEN


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.
 
TOP 5 MVP CANDIDATES


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.
 
TOP 5 ROOKIES


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.
 
TOP 5 DEFENDERS


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.
 
TOP 5 TEAMS


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.