Celtics

Celtics-Heat preview: Defense in focus

Celtics-Heat preview: Defense in focus

BOSTON – On Thursday night, Jayson Tatum scored 12 points which included a basket in the fourth quarter that gave Boston its biggest lead of the night, 12 points, before settling in for a 96-89 win at Milwaukee.

Just 24 hours earlier, Philadelphia’s Markelle Fultz was inactive (shoulder) in the Sixers’ 105-104 home loss to Houston and will remain that way for at least two more games.

It’s still early, but the Celtics are off to a fast start when it comes to which team came out ahead in the trade prior to last June’s draft that netted the Celtics Tatum who was chosen with the third overall pick while the Sixers took Fultz with the top overall pick.

Statistically speaking, it’s not even close.

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Tatum has better numbers when it comes to scoring (14.2 versus 6.0), rebounds (6.6 versus 2.3), assists (2.0 versus 1.8) and minutes played (33.0 versus 18.9).

And his defense?

That’s better in many areas as well, including defensive rating (94.5 for Tatum, 106.8 for Fultz).

But the biggest benefit more than anything else with Boston winding up with Tatum, is his impact on winning which the Celtics (3-2) are hoping to continue doing tonight at Miami.

The 6-foot-8 rookie was praised for his shooting touch that was aided by having exceptional footwork which reminded some of Celtics legend Paul Pierce, when Tatum left Duke after just one season.

But Tatum’s time on the floor with the Celtics has been largely due to what he does as a defender, something that will be once again put to the test tonight against the Heat.

Like the Celtics, the Miami Heat play a brand of position-less basketball with multiple ball-handlers who can bring the floor up and initiate the offense on their own. All of Miami’s projected starters tonight except center Bam Adebayo (he’s in for Hassan Whiteside who is out with a bruised left knee injury) fall under that category.

But unlike the Celtics, Miami’s defense has not benefited from having that kind of versatility. Of course, Whiteside being out for all but the season-opener, has been a key to the Heat’s defensive struggles.

In four games this season, the Heat has a defensive rating of 107.7 which ranks No. 23 in the NBA while the Celtics’ defensive rating of 95.9 which ranks third in the league.

Having players who can seamlessly shift from one position to another, are becoming increasingly more valuable in the NBA today.

Danny Ainge and the Boston Celtics have had their sights on adding players with a versatile skill set for years.

Leading up to the 2015 NBA draft, the Celtics were extremely eager to trade up to acquire a player like that.

His name is Justise Winslow, who wound up being selected by the Heat with the 10th overall pick.

Injuries have limited Winslow’s impact in Miami, but he has shown promise defensively due to his size (6-7, 225), strength and ability to defend multiple positions.

When it comes to defending different types of players, the play of Al Horford has really stood out this season for Boston.

They come into tonight’s game having won three in a row, with each of those wins being fueled in large part by Horford’s play defensively.  

But in Thursday’s win over Milwaukee, Horford also came up big offensively with a season-high 27 points to go with nine rebounds and four assists.

Now in his 11th NBA season, Horford has an eye for players with the potential to play at a high level at both ends of the floor.

Tatum?

Horford said earlier that Tatum is “as ready” a rookie as he’s ever played with.

Celtics coach Brad Stevens has echoed similar praise for the 19-year-old Tatum, which has the team’s decision to trade away the top overall pick in last June’s NBA draft to go down two spots and use the pick to get Tatum and a future first-round pick, one that has paid off already.

“He’s going to be a really good NBA player for a long time,” Stevens said of Tatum. “He brings a lot to the table, and he’s really smart. He has a savvy that I think you can tell when he’s out on the court.”

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Blakely: An early look at some early exits

Blakely: An early look at some early exits

BOSTON – Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr. will undergo back surgery that’s expected to keep him out for the rest of this season, giving him a college career that will likely consist of two points in two minutes of action.
 
Projected as a potential No. 1 overall pick in next June’s NBA draft, his injury sent shock waves throughout the college basketball landscape as well as among NBA executives, who now must weigh the injury in their evaluation regardless of how well he recovers or even he aces the physical tests he’ll surely undergo leading up to the draft.

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You can count the Celtics among those to pay close attention to what’s happening with Porter Jr., a player that may be available to them in June courtesy of the first-round pick from the Los Angeles Lakers (via Philadelphia) that Boston received as part of the Markelle Fultz-Jayson Tatum trade.
 
As talented as Porter Jr. is, he won’t be the only high draft pick counted on to make an impact at the next level.
 
In this week’s Starting Five, we’ll take a look at the top five college freshman (most of whom are expected to turn pro and be in the draft in June) as well as MVP candidates; the top backcourts; the top rookies and my top five teams on the rise.

TOP 5 COLLEGE FRESHMEN
1. Marvin Bagley III, Duke: Has a double-double in four of Duke’s six games this season, averaging 19.0 points and 10.0 rebounds per game.

2. DeAndre Ayton, Arizona: Has impressive numbers, but back-to-back losses by the Wildcats? Not a good look for this future lottery pick.

3. Michael Porter Jr., Missouri: Depending on how his recovery/workouts/physicals go, no shocker if he winds up as the No. 1 pick when all is said and done.

4. Collin Sexton, Alabama: Big-time scorer, Sexton is a tough, tough cover in the half court or in transition.

5. Mohamed Bamba, Texas: 7-footer with a 7-9 wingspan, think Rudy Gobert with better athleticism.


TOP 5 NBA BACKCOURTS 
1. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, Golden State: NBA champions two of the last three seasons, Curry and Thompson are the gold standard all NBA backcourts are measured against.
 
2. Chris Paul and James Harden, Houston: The sample size is small, but the three games since Paul’s return have been by an average of 26 points per game which speaks to how well this all-star backcourt has come together.
 
3. John Wall and Bradley Beal, Washington: Wall’s end-to-end speed coupled with Beal’s elite shooting has made this one of the game’s most deadly backcourt duos.
 
4. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, Toronto: They’re the next best thing backcourt-wise to Wall/Beal in the East, but Boston’s Kyrie Irving and Jaylen Brown are right on their heels.
 
5. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, Portland: You don’t hear a ton about these two because Portland has been a good-but-not-great program that doesn’t garner a ton of attention. But don’t be fooled. Lillard and McCollum are two of the league’s most dynamic scorers.
 
 
TOP 5 MVP CANDIDATES
1. James Harden, Houston: A prolific scorer, Harden leads the NBA in scoring (31.1 points) and assists (9.8) per game while boasting the best record in the West.

2. Kyrie Irving, Boston:  The best player on the team with the best record who has been at his best in the clutch – that’s Kyrie Irving this season.

3. LeBron James, Cleveland: The Cavs are starting to roll up the wins and it is once again due to LeBron James doing LeBron James things.

4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee: The MVP front-runner the first couple of weeks of the season, the Greek Freak is still a load for teams to deal with.

5. Kristaps Porzingis, New York:  Among the NBA’s top-5 in scoring and blocked shots, Porzingis’ biggest achievement has been leading a far more competitive Knicks team than what we’ve seen the past couple of years.
 

TOP 5 ROOKIES
1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia: A triple-double in the making, his statistics combined with Philly winning make him a no-brainer if he can stay healthy.

2. Jayson Tatum, Boston: His numbers are solid, but he moves to the forefront of those being considered because of his two-way play and his team’s success.

3. Donovan Mitchell, Utah: His 14.3 points leads all rookies who average less than 30 minutes played per game.

4. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers: Only Simmons is averaging more points among rookies than Kuzma (16.8 points per game).

5. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago: The Bulls are bad, but Markkanen’s inside-outside is impressive regardless of how his team has fared this season.
 

TOP 5 TEAMS ON THE RISE
1. Cleveland: With Boston’s loss, the Cavs have the longest current winning streak which stands at six wins in a row.

2. New Orleans: Currently with the seventh-best record in the West, the Pelicans have won seven of their last 10 games.

3. Indiana: Only Cleveland has been hotter than the Pacers, winners of four in a row.

4. Philadelphia: Joel Embiid has the Sixers three games above-.500, trending towards entering league MVP conversation.

5. San Antonio: After 4-4 start, Spurs are 7-3 since and very much in the thick of things out West.

WATCH: Boston Celtics vs. Orlando Magic

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WATCH: Boston Celtics vs. Orlando Magic

Tune into NBC Sports Boston to watch the Celtics host the Magic at TD Garden. You can also click here to watch the Celtics livestream presented by Nissan on the NBC Sports App. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live Presented by ACE Ticket.

- Game preview: Time for Streak 2.0?

- Channel Finder: Make sure you know where to watch

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