Celtics

Celtics-Rockets review: What we saw . . .

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Celtics-Rockets review: What we saw . . .

BOSTON The Boston Celtics' 97-92 overtime win over the Houston Rockets Tuesday night was filled with missed layups, missed free throws and some untimely turnovers in ways seldom seen - and Doc Rivers couldn't have been any happier.

"We're starting to play good basketball and we're starting to win basketball games when we don't play good basketball," the Celtics coach said. "And that may be more important."

Boston appeared to have the game under control in the closing seconds of regulation, but the ball seemed to slip out of Rajon Rondo's hands as he missed an uncontested breakaway layup. Moments later, the Rockets were able to tie the game and force overtime.

The C's had more miscues that came out of nowhere in the overtime period, such as Kevin Garnett - an 84.3 percent free-throw shooter - missing a pair, and Paul Pierce turning the ball over on an eight-second violation.

"That was a crazy game," Rivers said. "The whole game - it wasn't even just the ending."

Said Rockets forward Luis Scola: "The fact that we are in overtime is very lucky. What are the chances that Rondo misses a wide open layup when nobody's close to him? The fact that we played overtime was a bonus, a present. We lost the game before that. We could have won in overtime, but the reality is that we lost before."

And now the Celtics' focus will immediately shift to an Atlantic Division matchup in Philadelphia Wednesday night with first place in the division at stake. But before we get too ahead of ourselves, let's review some of the factors highlighted prior to the Celtics' victory, which extended their winning streak to five in a row.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Although the Celtics are scoring more with Brandon Bass in the starting lineup, the increase in scoring has a lot to do with their defense. The C's are forcing more turnovers, which has allowed them to get out in transition and get easy baskets. For the season, Boston is forcing 15.1 turnovers per game. During their current four-game winning streak, the C's have increased their forced turnover number to 17.3 per game.

WHAT WE SAW: For the third straight game, Boston forced its opponent to commit 20 or more turnovers. The Celtics were able to generate 19 points off of the 20 miscues by the Rockets. Boston's defense was particularly effective in the fourth quarter, after falling behind by double-digits. "The defensive energy picked up," said Ray Allen. "When they went on a run we weren't getting any stops, they kind of dictated how the game was being played, and we changed that by pushing them away from the basket. And everything that they had was contested, and we got rebounds and were able to run and score."

MATCHUP TO WATCH: Rajon Rondo vs. Kyle Lowry: While Lowry doesn't have the kind of media sizzle of a Jeremy Lin or Deron Williams, Rondo's defense of Lowry will have to be good. Lost in the Celtics' recent run of success has been the fact that all but one of the four point guards Rondo has faced (with the exception being Cleveland's Kyrie Irving) since returning from the All-Star break, have had subpar performances against the C's. And Lowry is having arguably his best NBA season, averaging 15.8 points, 7.3 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game.

WHAT WE SAW: Lowry became the latest victim of a Celtics defense that continues to make a non-factor of one point guard after another. Lowry had 18 points, but was just 4-for-17 from the field. He grabbed seven rebounds, but his seven assists were just one more than his six turnover total. "Night-in and night-out, it's going to be a good guard you face and try to contain them as much as possible," Rondo said.

PLAYER TO WATCH: The role of Ray Allen continues to fluctuate from one game to another. Some nights, he'll be looked upon to drive more to the basket. Other nights, he'll be needed to shoot. And then there was the win over the New York Knicks on Sunday, a game in which Allen was more of a decoy who set lots of picks. It'll be interesting to see how the Rockets approach defending Allen, and how Allen and the C's respond.

WHAT WE SAW: Once again, Ray Allen answers the call when the C's needed a clutch basket. His 3-pointer late in the fourth positioned the Celtics for the victory. And in the five-minute overtime period, only Paul Pierce (7 points) scored more than Allen who had 4 of his 21 points in the overtime period. "Ray is one of the best conditioned athletes in our league," said Boston's Keyon Dooling. "He puts the time in, he still does the same routine he's had for years and obviously, he's the greatest shooter in the history of the game. We wouldn't expect anything less from him."

STAT TO TRACK: If you see a 3-pointer go in tonight, cherish the moment because there probably won't be many made 3s tonight. The Boston Celtics defend the 3-point shot better than any team in the NBA, with opponents shooting just 30.2 percent on 3s against them. The Houston Rockets are literally right behind Boston in 3-point defense, with their opponents connecting on 31 percent of their 3-point tries.
WHAT WE SAW: Indeed, 3-point shots made were few and far between for both teams. Although Houston had more made 3s than the Celtics (five to four), Boston shot a slightly higher percentage in connecting on four of its 14 attempts (28.6 percent) compared to the Rockets' 5-for-19 (26.3 percent) shooting on 3s.

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. 

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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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