Celtics

Blakely: Work in progress, but oh, what progress

Blakely: Work in progress, but oh, what progress

BOSTON – The words of Stephen Curry following the Celtics’ 92-88 win over his Golden State Warriors had an off-handed, end-of-the-night throwaway feel to them, a statement that would soon be forgotten after the Warriors reel off what should be a long string of victories going forward.
 
“They’re playing the best right now in the East,” Curry said of the Celtics, who now have a 3-2 edge in their past five meetings following Thursday night’s thriller. “And obviously until they beat Cleveland, who's done it three years in a row … so we’ll see.”

CELTICS 92, WARRIORS 88

We already have, folks.
 
The Celtics and the Warriors are both quick to remind us all that we are only a month into the season and that there’s still lots of basketball to be played.
 
But the big takeaway from Thursday was that the Celtics’ ascension to the top of the NBA mountain is a matter of when, not if, it’ll happen.
 
Because what we’re seeing now is a team that is very much a work in progress, yet one that still manages to win games on a lot of nights that they have no business winning.
 
Think about it.
 
They shot 32.9 percent against the Warriors, the best team in the NBA, and still managed to get the win. According to NBA stats guru Dick Lipe, it was only the second time in the past 35 years that the Celtics shot less than 33 percent from the field and still managed to win.
 
That speaks to how well Boston defended the Warriors, who came in averaging a league-best 119.6 points per game.
 
But more than that, it shows this team has a will to win that’s almost unheard of for a group whose pieces are so relatively new to one another.
 
Of the 14 Celtics with guaranteed contracts on the roster, all but four are in their first season in Boston.
 
But even with the new guys coming together quicker than anticipated, Boston should not all of a sudden be considered the favorites in the NBA.
 
Even with the victory, Boston still has some ground to make up if they are to be on the same level as Golden State, a franchise that has been to the NBA Finals each of the past three seasons and has emerged a champion twice.
 
“It takes a lot of basketball to get there,” said Warriors guard Klay Thompson. “They have a good, young, hungry team. You have to give them credit. They have a better record than us, so you can say they’re better now.”
 
And while Thompson didn’t place an emphasis on it, the last word in his comments, “now,” is why Thursday’s victory leaves the Celtics cautiously optimistic.
 
Because as we’ve seen time and time, regular-season success does not always travel well beyond that and into the playoffs.
 
Still, Thursday’s win provides something for Boston beyond hope and optimism.
 
They now have results to go with the work they’ve put in to be a better team and compete with the league’s best.
 
And they’ve done it under less-than-ideal circumstances.
 
Gordon Hayward went down with an ankle injury less than five minutes into the season and he’s expected to be lost for the rest of the season. Al Horford missed two games while recovering from a concussion while Kyrie Irving missed a game after suffering a facial fracture.
 
So in other words, the Big Three that Boston was set on unleashing to the rest of the world has logged less than five minutes together all season.
 
And yet there are the Celtics (14-2), tops in the NBA while riding a historic 14-game winning streak, and there's reason to believe that maybe, just maybe, these two will be the last teams standing when all is said and done and some of those customary throwaway lines uttered by Curry might have some value after all if these two wind up meeting in the NBA Finals.

“I hear the weather is great here in June,” Curry said.

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Celtics bench needs to keep improving

celtics_grizzlies_takeaways_121717.jpg

Celtics bench needs to keep improving

When you look at the Boston Celtics’ bench, you’re not going to find many (any?) players who are consistent shot-makers.

But defensively, in this small-ball era we live in, the potential for Boston’s second unit to put the clamps on teams defensively is apparent.

We saw that in Boston’s 102-93 win over Memphis in the fourth quarter when the Celtics opened with a 16-0 run that put them ahead for good.

During the run, the Celtics forced four turnovers along with creating seven straight misses by the Grizzlies to start the quarter.

“Shane (Larkin) and Terry (Rozier) did a great job on the ball,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “We had to change some coverages because of (Marc) Gasol. And then just kind of stayed with it.”

The Grizzlies wound up shooting 33.3 percent (6-for-18) in the fourth quarter which was heavily impacted by Boston's fourth quarter defensive rating being an impressive 90.1.

And while the play of starters Jayson Tatum (19 points, seven in the fourth quarter), Kyrie Irving (team-high 20 points) and Al Horford (15 points, seven rebounds, six assists) was key to the victory, the second unit’s play defensively to start the fourth was ultimately what paved the way for Boston to improve its East-leading record to 25-7.

In a interview with NBC Sports Boston prior to Saturday’s game, Rozier discussed the need for the bench to step up in every aspect of the game.

“When the starters are doing good, we have to keep it going and when they struggle a little bit, we have change the game up, get the momentum back on our side,” said Rozier who in addition to playing good defense on Saturday, also had 10 points and four rebounds.

Here are five takeaways from Boston’s 102-93 win at Memphis on Saturday.

FAST START

This was one of the more dominant starts to a game we’ve seen from the Celtics all season. They had 31 points in the first quarter, which was one of the higher scoring starts for them this season. But more telling was that they allowed just 12 points, the fewest given up by the Celtics in the first quarter of play this season.

TERRY ROZIER/MARCUS SMART TANDEM

 When it comes to the Boston’s bench being effective, Rozier and Smart are often the barometers for that success. They had their ups and downs against Memphis, but really locked in at both ends of the floor in the second half. And maybe most significant, they provided some much-needed bench scoring as they combined for 21 of Boston’s 26 points off the bench.

JAYSON TATUM

Like the Boston Celtics, back-to-back bad games doesn’t seem to be part of his DNA. Against the Grizzlies, he had 19 points – seven of which in the fourth quarter – which was a major improvement upon the seven points he scored against Utah on Friday while missing five of his six shot attempts.

MARC GASOL

This has been a horrible, injury-riddled season for the Memphis Grizzlies. And while Marc Gasol doesn’t dominate games as consistently as he did a couple years ago, he’s still an extremely talented big man who would plenty of potential suitors if the Grizzlies ever felt inclined to put him on the trading block which is not the case currently. The Celtics had major problems limiting him on Saturday before Gasol finished with a double-double of 30 points and 10 rebounds.

CELTICS DOMINATE THE WEST

Beating the Grizzlies in itself isn’t all that impressive. But it continues what has been a season-long trend for the Celtics in being able to beat on teams from the Western Conference. This season, Boston has a 10-2 record against the West. And Boston’s .833 winning percentage against Western Conference foes is tops among Eastern Conference teams.

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Increased usage of starters helps fuel Celtics victory over Grizzlies

Increased usage of starters helps fuel Celtics victory over Grizzlies

The Boston Celtics got the win over Memphis, with the team’s second unit chipping in for the victory.

But they still have too many offensive lulls, something head coach Brad Stevens recognizes and to his credit, is continuing to search for ways to address appropriately.

We’ve seen him utilize a starter playing with the backups.

But in Saturday’s 102-93 win at Memphis, Stevens elected to play a pair of starters with the second unit for longer stretches which on this night at least, helped them get the victory to extend their East-leading record to 25-7.

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In fact, Boston had at least two starters on the floor in the fourth quarter for all but the final 28.4 seconds of play.

“It’s one of those things, it’s probably going to go back and forth,” Stevens said. “Based on who’s available.”

A key missing part of the Celtics’ bench rotation is Marcus Morris who continues with rehab on his sore left knee.

Morris, who did not make the trip with the team, is out indefinitely although the Celtics maintain that he’s close to resuming action.

Stevens was asked about his use of Jayson Tatum and Al Horford together, with a trio of reserves.

“If Marcus Morris is here, maybe you don’t play either of them with that group,” Stevens said.

Morris has appeared in 16 games (nine starts) for the Celtics this season, averaging 12.1 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game.

Indeed, bench production has been an issue for the Boston Celtics all season.

According to hoopsstats.com, the Celtics bench came into tonight’s game averaging 30.5 points per game which ranked 23rd in the NBA. However, Boston’s defense has limited second units to 32.6 points per game which ranks 8th in the league.

Against the Grizzlies, Boston only had three players off the bench score (Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier and Daniel Theis) who combined for 26 points.

But as limited as they were scoring the ball, Memphis was even worse with a second unit scoring total of just 15 points.

Of course, rotations are a season-long, always-evolving process that is dependent heavily on not just who is available, but how those who are available to play are performing.

The Celtics’ second unit has had their moments this season, but by and large the team’s success has been heavily fueled by the play of the starters.

Stevens has made it clear, he’ll continue to find ways for those guys to be put in the best positions to succeed individually as well as for the Celtics.

And as long as Morris remains out, you can expect Stevens will continue to find ways to fill that void with increased usage from his starters.

“As long as Marcus Morris isn’t playing,” Stevens said, “We need to be alert to that and guys are going to have to play different rotations.”

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