Celtics

Replacing Thomas' and Crowder's grit and temperament won't be easy for Celtics

Replacing Thomas' and Crowder's grit and temperament won't be easy for Celtics

BOSTON -- Only a couple months separated Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas’ arrival in Boston in 2014-15. They were two solid players, but it wasn't thought they'd do anything more than help the Celtics be competitive in what everyone anticipated would be a second straight playoff-less season.

And then came Thomas’ emergence as an All-Star caliber scorer, which coincided with Crowder blossoming into a promising 3-and-D player. Not only did the Celtics make the playoffs that season but, barely two years after they joined them, the C's advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Their play was instrumental in the Celts' improvement, which made them attractive trade targets. So when the Celtics had the chance to acquire Kyrie Irving, Thomas and Crowder were part of the package they sent to Cleveland.

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Filling the void Thomas and Crowder left in terms of their statistics won’t be easy. But it's doable, what with a roster that now includes Irving, All-Star Gordon Hayward, Al Horford, and blossoming young talent like Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Not to mention Marcus Smart.

However, replacing Crowder's and Thomas’ toughness and their us-against-the-world grit and temperament will be challenging.

Their impact shortly after arriving in Boston was undeniable.

Crowder, who came via a trade from Dallas that centered around getting Rajon Rondo to the Mavericks, eventually worked his way into the starting lineup. He was a key cog in Boston’s 30-28 finish in 2014-15.

Thomas didn’t get to Boston until the middle of February via a trade with the Phoenix Suns. But his instant scoring -- first off the bench and later as a starter -- helped spark the C's to 20 wins in their last 30 games.
 
That success seemed to do more than just rejuvenate the Celtics and get them on a winning track. It also provided a major jolt to both players' careers, which up to that point had not really taken off. 

Some of the most memorable moments in Boston's rise to contender status came about because of Thomas and Crowder.

On the eve of getting swept in the first round of the playoffs by Cleveland in 2015, Crowder ratcheted up his defensive pressure on LeBron James in Game 4, endearing him to the Celtics faithful. But his night ended early at the hands of a J.R. Smith blow to the face that came after a hard pick set by former Celtic Kendrick Perkins.

And Thomas?
 
Who can forget his gutsy performances this past season, with the playoffs starting just hours after the tragic death of his younger sister?

Thomas forged ahead, delivering one memorable performance after another.

And shortly after her burial, Thomas -- playing despite having a tooth knocked out and several others needing to be fixed -- delivered a performance for the ages, scoring a playoff career-high 53 points in leading the Celtics to a Game 2 overtime win against the Washington Wizards.

Now they hope to bring that same level of toughness and grit to the Cavaliers by doing what they did in Boston -- proving their naysayers wrong.

Both recalled hearing a lot of talk when they arrived about how the Celtics were looking to “tank” games that season.

“We [were] like, ‘What’s that? Lose on purpose? That’s not going to happen,' ,” Crowder said. “So from that point on we clicked and we knew we were on the same page with basketball. And from that point, the rest is history.”
 
An underdog mindset is tough to manufacture when one of your teammates is LeBron James. But because of all the new pieces surrounding James, there's a sense the Cavs might have some early bumps in the road . . . such as Thomas’ hip injury, which is expected to keep him sidelined at the start of the season.

“I’ve been in situations before were things have been a little tough and we haven’t had the best players and we just kept fighting and worked with what we had,” Thomas said. “But, I mean, being put in this situation on the court is everything. To play with the best player in the world, play with a guy like Kevin Love, and J.R. Smith and Derrick Rose and to be coached by a guy like Tyronn Lue who’s been in this league for a long time, it’s like . . . It’s like a match made in heaven.

"It’s a scary thing if everything is able to click with the guys we have coming in and guys we have on this team. I’m excited and I can’t wait to get going.”

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Celtics thought it would be good . . . but this good?

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Celtics thought it would be good . . . but this good?

After arriving in Boston and spending some time with his new teammates, Kyrie Irving felt good about this group doing big things this season. 

But when asked about the experience thus far being what he thought it would be, Irving responded, “It’s probably exceeded that.”

He’s not alone. 

Few would have envisioned the Celtics (15-2) would have the best record in the NBA at this point, let alone be riding a 15-game winning streak which ranks as the fifth-best winning streak in franchise history. 

Irving and his Celtics teammates will try and keep it going tonight when they take on the Dallas Mavericks.

Irving’s ability to mesh with his teammates and still find success was among the many questions out there when the Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers pulled off the blockbuster trade this offseason. 

Blending in has not been an issue for Irving, bolstered by the reality that his game stands out. 

We saw that in Boston’s 110-99 win over the Atlanta Hawks, which was a game in which Irving had 30 points on an insanely efficient 10-for-12 shooting night. 

There were many factors that went into Irving’s strong night against the Hawks, but he said it really came down to one thing above all else.

“I just made some damn shots for once,” Irving quipped. “That right there kind of made it seem better than I actually been shooting over the start of the season.  It would also contribute to being able to be in the right spots and guys being selfless in their approach driving to the basket or getting into the paint. It’s tell-tale sign of all of us getting more comfortable.”

Here are five below-the-radar story lines to keep an eye on as the Boston Celtics face the Dallas Mavericks, with Boston gunning for its 16th straight win. 

BROWN’S POSITIVE PLAY

Jaylen Brown has been on a bit of an offensive tear of late, the last being a career-high 27-point performance in Boston’s win over Atlanta. But even more telling is how well things seem to flow with him on the floor. Brown’s plus/minus this season is +146 which is tops among all players in the Eastern Conference. His closest competition in the East? That would teammate Al Horford whose plus/minus this season is +143. In addition, Horford has had a positive plus/minus in every game this season. 

YOGI FERRELL

You can count Yogi Ferrell among the ones that got away from Brad Stevens when he was coaching at Butler. Ferrell, who played at Indiana, was a player on Stevens’ radar when he was coaching at Butler. “I recruited Yogi, unsuccessfully,” Stevens told reporters in Dallas. While Ferrell came on strong as an undrafted free agent with the Mavericks last season, Stevens said there’s nothing about Ferrell’s game now that he didn’t see when he tried to woo him to Butler. “He would have been awfully good at Butler,” Stevens said.

HOMECOMING

While Marcus Smart grew up in Flower Mound, Texas (less than an hour from Dallas), tonight’s game is a homecoming of sorts for another Celtics player – Semi Ojeleye. The 6-foot-7 forward played at SMU which is located in Dallas. A second-round pick by Boston in last June’s NBA draft, Ojeleye has been among the many surprise performers for the Celtics this season. “We knew he could be a versatile defender,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “Probably has exceeded our expectations in that regard with his ability to guard one (point guard) through five (center) at certain times. And he’s been pretty consistent shooting the ball. Right now, embracing that kind of 3-and-D role is what he has to do and he’s done it well.”

DEEP DRAFT CLASS

The Boston Celtics struck gold by drafting Jayson Tatum with the third overall pick. But as you look at the teams that had lottery picks in last June’s NBA draft, few come away feeling disappointed or discouraged by the player selected. The Dallas Mavericks are among the teams pleased with their first-round pick, Dennis Smith Jr. who was selected with the ninth overall pick. He has emerged as one of the top rookies this year, averaging 14.5 points, 4.5 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game. And yes, he was a player that was on the Celtics’ radar leading up to last June’s draft. “We had Dennis in and he was really impressive,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “He’s a guy that’s going to have a great career and he’s got good veteran players around him to help kick it off.”

DIRK NOWITZKI

The numbers aren’t anywhere close to what we’ve seen for the bulk of Dirk Nowitzki’s illustrious career that’s now in Year 20. But there is a demeanor about him that seems to be at peace with where he’s at basketball-wise, even if the wins aren’t nearly as plentiful as he’s accustomed to. “I appreciate his game a ton,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “Just watching him talk on the court, cheer on the bench, sit at the scorer’s table with a smile on his face. You can’t play this long and be this good this long if you don’t’ love it. Everybody says they love it, but he’s got a different level of passion. You can feel it, you can see it. You root for guys like him to have success.”

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WATCH: Celtics vs. Mavericks

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WATCH: Celtics vs. Mavericks

Tune into NBC Sports Boston to watch the Celtics play the Mavericks in Dallas. You can also click here to watch the Celtics livestream presented by Nissan on the NBC Sports App. Coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live Presented by ACE Ticket.

- Game preview: C's need to play Smart in Dallas

- Channel Finder: Make sure you know where to watch

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