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.”


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.



Blakely: Why Celtics should feel pretty lucky on St. Pat's

Blakely: Why Celtics should feel pretty lucky on St. Pat's

It’s hard being an NBA fan and not thinking about the Celtics on St. Patrick’s Day.

All that green, the shamrocks and the libations that so many of us enjoy even more today than most days, it’s pretty cool and certainly something – well, for me at least – to be thankful for.

The Celtics, yeah, they got a few – quite a few - things to be thankful for as well.

So what better day to point a few of them out than the unofficial holiday of the Celtics, St. Patrick’s Day.


When Danny Ainge drafted Terry Rozier three years ago, I admit I wasn’t a believer. You had guards, Danny Ainge. What do you need another one for? Draft Sam Dekker from Wisconsin, or UVA’s Justin Anderson. Hey, that kid Bobby Portis from Arkansas looks pretty good, too.

Ainge and the Celtics took a look at all those guys and came away convinced that Rozier was the best fit for what the wanted both in the short and long-term from that draft.

While Rozier has not emerged as a star, he has shown us all more than enough to know that he’s a pretty damn good player.

And throw in the fact that the dude was born on St. Patrick’s Day - as was Ainge - how can this guy not have a little bit of luck on his side?


LeBron James’ timing has been impeccable when it comes to leaving for greener pastures. So, when Kyrie Irving let the Cavs know he wanted out of Cleveland, it took a minute to sink that they were about to be LeBron’d by someone other than LeBron. But in making his desire to be traded, Irving was giving the Cavs an opportunity to get something in return for shipping him out to who knows where. The Cavs eventually wound up with a couple of draft picks, with one being a coveted first-rounder via Brooklyn in June’s NBA draft along with a trio of players headlined by Isaiah Thomas who was still on the mend from a hip injury.

The injury took longer to heal and the Cavs wound up trading Thomas and ex-Celtic Jae Crowder to teams out West.

Today, Cleveland is treading water as a middle-of-the-pack club that has shown very few signs of late that they will be nothing more than first-round fodder for some team with deep playoff aspirations and a roster ready to make that happen.

And Irving?

He was named to his fifth All-Star team and has spent most of this season playing for a Boston team that until recently held down best record in the East and currently sits in the No. 2 spot.

Irving is dealing with a sore left knee that has limited him recently to not playing, but it doesn’t appear to be an injury that will significantly impact what he does in the postseason for a Celtics team that, despite all their injuries, still holds out hope of making a strong postseason run.


Whenever you ask Brad Stevens about his decision to leave Butler for the Celtics in the NBA, he makes it clear from the outset how difficult a decision it was for him and his family.

Just imagine if Stevens had won a national title instead of having a pair of national runner-up finishes to his name? Leading a mid-major like Butler to an NCAA title, which would have meant slaying UConn or Duke in the process? Stevens would have been more than just a big deal on the Butler campus. He would have been seen as a basketball god who would have had an even tougher time walking away from what he had helped build at Butler.

So Celtics fans, be thankful for Duke and UConn because without their national title game wins over Butler, there’s a very good chance that Brad Stevens would not be coaching the Celtics now.


Remember back in 2013 when Danny Ainge had the serious basketball man crush on Duke’s Justise Winslow, a player that he was willing to trade plenty of draft picks (reportedly as many as four first-round picks) to acquire the rights to draft?

Ainge suspected the Miami Heat would select him with the No. 10 pick, so Ainge tried to swing a deal with the Charlotte Hornets who were in the No. 9 slot.

Charlotte liked Winslow, but they were more smitten with Frank Kaminsky. Because of that, they wouldn’t do a deal with the Celtics.

Not doing that deal allowed Boston to have the kind of assets to eventually acquire Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Irving, moves that have collectively led to Boston’s surge towards the top of the NBA standings despite having the fifth-youngest team in the NBA.

Winslow, selected by the Heat with the 10th overall pick, has come nowhere close to being the impact player Miami was hoping they would get. And while Kaminsky has had some decent stretches, he too has been a bit underwhelming. Meanwhile, Boston kept its 16th overall pick and used it to select Rozier who as it turns out, has arguably been the best player among the trio.

Having a good scouting staff is important, of course.

But a little luck every now and then doesn’t hurt, either.




Against Magic, C's do what they're supposed to

Against Magic, C's do what they're supposed to

Beating one of the few teams already eliminated from the playoff race is in itself not that big a deal.

It’s called doing what you’re supposed to do.

But for these Celtics, their 92-83 victory over the Orlando Magic on Friday night was more than just another victory.

It was the latest installment in a season filled with teachable moments and lessons that can bolster in some fashion their chances at a deep playoff run.

While there’s no way they’re going to go far without their core guys Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown, getting guys to fill in for them and still manage to win, is important in this team’s overall development in both the present and future.

No one on the Celtics’ roster can score like Irving, the league’s 11th-ranked scorer at 24.4 points per game.

Still, getting his fill-ins Terry Rozier and Shane Larkin to go for 17 and 10 points certainly helps.

And Jaylen Brown’s ability to play both ends of the floor at a high level is huge, but rookie Abdel Nader has shown he too has some potential to be a solid two-way talent.

Smart’s defense sets him apart from others, but the Celtics collectively were able to make up for that with an impressive defensive rating of 83.1 against the Orlando.

And their collective efforts serve as yet another teachable moment for the Celtics.

Here are five takeaways from a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score might lead one to believe: 

There may not be another Celtic whose stock has risen more than Terry Rozier’s this season. He has become a reliable two-way talent off the bench whose capable of giving you starter-like production when needed. He had 17 points against the Magic along with seven rebounds and five assists.

With Marcus Smart (right thumb) out for the rest of the regular season, Terry Rozier in the starting lineup along with Marcus Morris, those are three really big chunks of Boston’s second unit no longer coming off the bench. The second unit players might have been different, but that didn’t affect the Celtics’ bench from impacting the game in a significant way. Against the Magic, they outscored Orlando’s backups, 39-28. 

He signed with the Boston Celtics at a time when a role for him was far from defined. His patience and Boston’s faith in him has paid for both as Larkin continues to be that utility player that Brad Stevens has leaned on at times. Larkin was solid off the bench, scoring 10 points.

This may be one of the closest Coach of the Year votes we have ever had in the NBA. Regardless how short the list may be, you can bet Brad Stevens will be on it. The way he has been positioning the Celtics to be among the last teams standing despite all the injuries they have endured this season, speaks to his ability to not just draw up X's and O’s but also his ability to develop players who when called upon to play, are more than ready for the challenge.

It’s fair to expect the Celtics are going to be short-handed for the rest of the season, which means those still around have to step their game up – Horford included.

For Horford, stepping up involves being more assertive as a scorer and not rely as much on his skills as a play-maker. We saw that from Horford on Friday, as he tallied a near double-double of 15 points and nine rebounds but more important, he took a game-high 18 shot attempts.