Celtics-Hornets preview: Boston will keep looking to next man up

Celtics-Hornets preview: Boston will keep looking to next man up

BOSTON -- When Gordon Hayward (ankle) went down, it took the Boston Celtics (10-2) about 24 hours to get from under the storm clouds of disappointment, and see his absence for what it was -- an opportunity for others to step up. 

That next-man-up mantra has become the identity of this team, a team that comes into tonight’s game against the Charlotte Hornets having won 10 straight which has them sitting atop the NBA standings. 

Their advancement in the face of adversity has been the talk of the NBA this season, and could be potentially be put to the test once again tonight against the Hornets. 

Jayson Tatum suffered a right ankle injury in the first half of Boston’s 107-96 win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday. X-Rays that night came back negative. Ditto for the MRI test Tatum had taken on Thursday. 


Still, his status for tonight’s game is questionable. 

But one thing that’s not up for debate is the resiliency that this Celtics team has shown all season. 

So the idea that they might be short a starter, doesn’t faze them . .. at all. 

“Everybody has been stepping up,” Terry Rozier III told NBC Sports Boston. “I feel like everybody has been ready and everybody has been holding each other accountable to be ready. From the coaches on down, everybody just buying in.”

They have played all but the first five minutes of the season without Hayward.

Marcus Morris (left ankle) missed the first eight games, and still hasn’t been given the green light to play in back-to-back games even with minutes restrictions still in place.

Al Horford is in the NBA’s concussion protocol program following a blow to the head in Boston’s 110-107 win at Atlanta earlier this week. He has already been ruled out for tonight’s game, with his return still up in the air.

“I don’t think this is as bad as the concussion he had last year,” Danny Ainge, Boston’s president of basketball operations, said on 98.5 the Sports Hub’s Toucher & Rich show, on Thursday. “But listen, with a concussion you have to be really cautious. The symptoms got a little worse over the course of a couple days.”

Charlotte (5-6) has had an up-and-down start to the season in part because the Hornets have had their own injury-related issues and off-the-floor personal matters to deal with. 

However, things are starting to turn up for the Hornets who are expected to welcome Michael Kidd-Gilchrist back to the lineup tonight. He had missed the Hornets’ last three games reportedly with an “excused personal absence.”

Although he’s not expected to play tonight, Charlotte’s Nicolas Batum is also near a return to action after tearing a ligament in his left elbow on Oct. 4. 

In their absence, the Hornets have leaned on former UConn guard Jeremy Lamb as well as a pair of rookies in Malik Monk and Dwayne Bacon. 

While Clifford likes a lot of what the young players have done thus far, he’s looking forward to having veteran core guys around so that all of them, the young and more experienced players, can settle into the roles required for success.

“We’ve got to get to our (planned playing) groups; we’re 11 games in,” Clifford told the Charlotte Observer. “It will take some time. But when they get back, they’re going to start.”

The same is true for Boston’s veteran players, although head coach Brad Stevens has repeatedly said that there will be a certain amount of fluidity to his starting lineup based upon matchups. 

“I’ve gone into every season thinking that’s a reasonable thing to do,” Stevens said. 


Horford and Tatum return to practice


Horford and Tatum return to practice

WALTHAM, Mass. – The extra days of practice could not have come at a better time for the Boston Celtics, with key players sitting out to rest their bumps and bruises leading up to Tuesday’s game against the New Orleans Pelicans.

Both Al Horford (left knee/calf injury) and Jayson Tatum (left knee) returned to the practice floor on Monday after missing practice on Saturday.

“It’s responding better,” said Horford who plans to play against the Pelicans on Tuesday. “I’m excited for the game tomorrow.”

Tatum echoed similar sentiments.

“It’s feeling a lot better. I just tweaked it in the game in London,” said Tatum who like Horford, confirmed he too planned to be in Boston’s lineup against New Orleans. “And on a long plane ride, it got stiff. We had a few days off from practice. They just told me to rest the other day in practice.”

Monday was Boston’s second practice since returning to town following their five-day London stay which included an 11-point win over Philadelphia last week which extended the Celtics’ winning streak to seven in a row and improved their East-leading record to 34-10.

The added time in between games will provide Boston an opportunity to tighten up a couple areas of slippage that, while haven’t factored heavily in terms of wins and losses, has made finding success tougher than needed.

In their 114-103 win over Philadelphia on Jan. 11 at The O2 Arena in London, Boston trailed by as many as 22 points before rallying in the second half in which they led by as many as 19 points.

Horford had 13 points and eight rebounds in the win over the Sixers, while Tatum had 16 points – 11 coming in the third quarter.

Both played key roles in last week’s win, and their value remains high heading into Tuesday’s game against the Pelicans.

The timing of Tatum and Horford’s injuries not being serious comes when the Celtics are just starting to become whole.

Terry Rozier is playing some of his best basketball of the season lately. Daniel Theis and Aron Baynes are steady contributors defensively as well as on the boards.

And Marcus Morris, who has spent most of this season either injured or playing with a minutes restriction, played with no limitations last week in London and delivered one of his best games of the season.

Morris came off the bench to score 19 points on 7-for-13 shooting to go with eight rebounds in helping Boston come away with the win.

“It really is about the five on the court,” Baynes told NBC Sports Boston. “No matter who they are, we all know we got a job to do and we do it well, really well, together.”


Plenty there if Celtics go the international route


Plenty there if Celtics go the international route

LONDON – While the Celtics are looking hard at the top-of-the-draft prospects they can land if they wind up with the Los Angeles Lakers’ first-round pick, Boston will also have its own first-rounder that’s likely to be near the end of the round.

And in this draft, that’s fertile ground to stockpile international talent.

The Celtics went that route in 2016 with a pair of international prospects in Guerschon Yabusele of France (16th overall) and Ante Zizic (23rd) of Croatia. 

Luka Doncic of Slovenia is far and away the top international prospect. He's under serious consideration to be the first player taken overall in June.

“I know there’s some skepticism that most folks in the states have with highly-regarded players overseas,” an NBA international scout told NBC Sports Boston. “But this Luka kid, he’s legit.”

Doncic, who will be 19 next month, has been competing at the highest level for Real Madrid since he was 16, winning several accolades while competing against players significantly older and more seasoned in the pro game.

He has shown the kind of offensive diversity that the best NBA players of this generation possess. Doncic can score off the dribble in creating his own shot, find teammates and connect on mid-range jumpers as well as from 3-point range. The one concern with him (and most prospects initially) is consistency and whether he can defend players in the NBA who may be more athletic.

And while the Celtics may seem well stocked at the wing position, it would be difficult to pass on a player like Doncic if Boston winds up with the No. 3, 4 or 5 pick.

As for the other international prospects, most of them are likely to be on the board when Boston picks in the latter stages of the first round.

Here are some of the international prospects that Boston could consider:

Dzanan Musa, 6-8, SG/SF, Bosnia & Herzegovina
While his 195-pound frame raises concerns about whether he can handle the physical toll of the NBA, there’s a lot to like about Musa’s game, which is why many believe he could wind up being a first-round selection. For starters, he has a scorer’s mentality and more important, instincts that have enabled him to be an impact player on teams filled with players significantly older and more experienced.  For him to be on the draft board would be somewhat of a surprise when Boston picks near the end of the first round. Some scouts envisioning Musa playing his way into the lottery (top 14). Similar to Doncic, what Musa does well doesn’t seem to be a natural fit for Boston’s most pressing needs in this draft. But if the Celtics stand pat with their own first-round pick and he’s available, passing on him would not be an easy decision.

Rodions Kurucs, 6-10 F, Latvia
A borderline first-round pick last year before pulling out of the draft, Kurucs’ camp is hoping another year of overseas play will be enough to solidify a spot for him in the first round. What sets him apart from a lot of prospects is his versatility to play both forward positions in addition to some at the off-guard position due to his length and above-average athleticism. He has a lot of the emerging skills NBA teams are looking for in a prospect; from the ability to catch-and-shoot, filling the lane in transition, to playing with great energy. But the concern with him remains that he has already had multiple knee surgeries. And for a player who attacks defenses as much as he does, NBA teams have every reason to worry about him re-injuring himself. If not for the injury concerns, Kurucs would be a no-brainer to be selected in the first round. While most would take a pass on him with the injury history, no one should be surprised if he’s on the board late in the first round and the Celtics take a flier on him. Where Boston’s pick will land, any player selected will have some noticeable concern about them. So, teams have to roll the dice and gamble on who they believe has the most upside, right? And at that point in the draft, it’s hard to imagine there will be that many more players still left with more potential upside than Kurucs.

Goga Bitadze, 6-11 C, Georgia
Physically speaking, he has been a man among his peers – he was 6-11, 251 pounds with a 7-1 wingspan at 16. Now 18, he has found the going a lot tougher against older, more physically imposing players. He plays with a high motor and doesn’t mind mixing it up when necessary. And with decent footwork and an improving face-the-basket game, what has intrigued NBA folks is the potential to be a stretch big who can impact both from the perimeter as well as around the rim. He’s worth monitoring on the Celtics’ part as a possible late first-round draft-and-stash candidate, which will likely be the plan for any team that drafts him.

Kostja Mushidi, 6-5 G/F, Germany
He checks off a lot of boxes you like if you’re in the market for a 3-point shooting, defensive-minded wing (aka 3-and-D guy). At 226 pounds, he has enough body mass to be able to be a physical defender. And when you realize he has a 7-foot-plus wingspan, it’s clear that his immediate impact in the NBA will in all likelihood be as a defender. And while he’s a solid athlete, he’s not an explosive player attacking defenses and beating them off the dribble. Part of that has to do with his ball-handling skills, by and large, are still very much a work in progress. Late first round seems a bit high for Mushidi, but if the Celtics trade their late first-round pick for a couple of second-rounders, Mushidi becomes a lot more attractive a player to target.

Other international players to watch: Isaac Bonga, 6-9 PG/F, Germany; Arnoldas Kulboka, 6-10 SF, Lithuania; Tryggvi Hlinason, 7-1 C, Iceland.