Celtics

Celtics-Magic preview: Boston looks to improve shooting down the stretch

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Celtics-Magic preview: Boston looks to improve shooting down the stretch

BOSTON – When Celtics coach Brad Stevens was asked about what he saw in the team’s newest (10-day) addition Jarell Eddie, his response was, “shooting  . . .  shooting.”

Indeed, shot-making has been the one area of play that has been problematic for the Celtics most of this season.

Boston comes into today’s game against Orlando (13-32) shooting just 44.8 percent from the field which ranks 25th in the NBA.

In the month of January, Boston has been even worse, connecting on just 41.8 percent of their shots which ranks 29th in the league this month.

While the addition of Eddie had more to do with the recent flu bug that has made the rounds throughout the Celtics lineup and the uncertainty a couple days ago surrounding Kyrie Irving’s sore left shoulder (it has improved and he’s expected to play today), adding Eddie speaks to a greater problem -- guys making shots -- that has to be addressed in some capacity sooner or later.

Boston always has the option to pursue a trade. They also have an $8.4 million disabled player exception they can use on free agent players, with the most likely pool of talent that they will choose from consisting of players who would have been bought out by their current teams.

Or there’s raiding the G-League for talent, which is what they did in signing Eddie to a 10-day contract.

Regardless, there’s a growing sense that this team has to add more scoring punch to the mix or at a minimum, improve the overall offensive execution of the roster as it stands now.

“We have to do our stuff better,” Stevens said. “The start of the season it was predictable, losing Gordon (Hayward who suffered a dislocated left ankle injury in the season-opener) and having to adjust. The middle portion of games we were pretty darn good. And then I thought we were reasonable in London, reasonable against New Orleans. But the other three of the last five games, we weren’t very good.”

Boston’s offense should get a boost from Irving’s return to the lineup after missing Boston’s 89-80 loss to Philadelphia with a sore left shoulder.

And while it was just one game, Irving understands the challenge that lies ahead in getting Boston’s offense to play better and more consistently.

“We have very unique talents on this team,” Irving said. “When you’re trying to put that together and guys are coming back into the lineup and getting their rhythm still and guys are in and out sometimes … big picture, down the stretch, we’re going to need everyone to be on the same page.”

Marcus Morris has been one of the players who has been in and out of the Celtics lineup because of a sore left knee.

However, the schedule has eased up to where he’ll be able to play more games, for longer stretches.

He comes into today’s game having scored in double figures each of the last three games.

“I’m just trying to get healthy. I know what I can do,” Morris told NBC Sports Boston. “My confidence is always going to stay high, no matter if I miss or make shots.”

In the last three games, he has averaged 15.0 points while shooting 45.7 percent from the field.

While Morris’ play of late is promising, it doesn’t diminish the concern Boston should have for an offense that for the most part, has been sputtering this season.

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Horford: 'The reason why we were winning is defense and rebounding'

Horford: 'The reason why we were winning is defense and rebounding'

BOSTON – As Al Horford made his way into the interview room following the All-Star Game, he was all smiles, despite his team winding up with the loss.

Horford’s emotions had nothing to do with the then-completed game.

He was in on-to-the-next-one mode as his thoughts immediately shifted towards what he sees as unfinished business as the Celtics focus on finishing the regular season playing well and building some momentum heading into the playoffs.

“I’m just excited that now we can move on,” Horford said. “We did this [All-Star Game]. It was great. Now, we can shift our focus back on what we need to do. For our group, we really need to tighten up on the defensive end and refocusing and understanding the things that got us to where we were. The reason why we were winning is defense and rebounding.”

Indeed, shoddy defense and poor rebounding have been key bugaboos for the Celtics lately, the former being somewhat surprising considering Boston’s success most of this season is deeply rooted in them getting the job done at a high level at the defensive end of the floor.

Boston (40-19) has dropped four of their past five games in large part because they have become a bottom-10 team in several categories related to their defense and rebounding.

In the past five games, Boston has allowed 110.1 points per game which ranks 21st in the NBA.

Among the top three teams in defensive ranking most of this season, the past five games have led to the Celtics’ defensive rating climbing to 111.4 in that span, which ranks 22nd in the league.

That’s a sharp detour from their season numbers (100.9), which are tops among all teams in the NBA.

Similar struggles can be found in Boston’s rebounding. The numbers there are among the worst in the league after being in the top half most of this season.

The Celtics have averaged 42.0 rebounds in the past five games, good for 21st in the NBA. For the season, Boston averages 44.1 rebounds which ranks 11th in the league.

And Boston’s rebounding percentage in the past five games is .478, which ranks 26th in the league. For the season, their rebounding percentage (.501) is 14th in the league.

Boston’s increased emphasis on improving its offense has at times been blamed for the defensive slippage, the Celtics have been crappy in that part of the game as well recently.

In the past five games, Boston’s offensive rating is 100.1, which is 27th in the league. That’s a noticeable dip for an offense that has struggled most of this season, evident by their offensive rating this season (104.4, 21st in the NBA) also ranked among the league’s bottom-10.

While no one player by themselves will get this team back on track defensively, they will be closer to being complete this week with the expected return of Marcus Smart, who ranks among the league’s top defenders in both the eye test as well as when you crunch the numbers.

His return strengthens a defensive unit that has played at an elite level most of this season.

Of the players averaging at least 30 minutes played per game, four Celtics – Marcus Smart, Al Horford, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum – rank among the top five in defensive rating.

Kyrie Irving hasn’t been too shabby a defender himself, coming in with the 11th-best defensive rating among players logging 30 or more minutes per game.

The mindset coming back from the break is to improve in all phases of play, obviously.

But knowing how much better they are when they defend and rebound at a fairly high level and the results that such play brings, it should come as no surprise if the Celtics revert to those early-season slugfests when the points were few and far between but the end result – a Celtics win – was a common occurrence.

“Those are the things [defense and rebounding] coach [Brad Stevens] and the group are going to focus on,” Horford said. “And finish these last few games the right way.”

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Blakely: It's Kyrie's time to take over

Blakely: It's Kyrie's time to take over

BOSTON – The theory surrounding why Kyrie Irving wanted out of Cleveland is the story that seemingly will never die.

That’s because the true narrative is very much like its author.

It’s complicated and consists of several layers that at its core will likely never be known to anyone other than Irving.

But one thing we do know about Irving.

He wanted to run his own shop, to be the where the buck stops, to shoulder the blame win or lose.

And that’s why right now may be the most significant period of time in his career.

Irving has been great all season. Part of that has to do with this being a great season for the Celtics (Gordon Hayward’s injury aside, of course), who have been the team most of the East has been chasing for months.

But they have fallen down and no one knows if they can get up and get back to where they were as the East’s best team.

We’ve talked about Marcus Smart’s return and how much that will help.

Jayson Tatum’s dislocated pinky from a month ago will surely benefit by having a week or so without practice or real games to be played.

And the team, by and large, should feel rejuvenated, a similar vibe most teams feel right after the break.

But when it comes to this team getting back on track to climb past Toronto, which is playing great basketball, and do so while fending off a charging Cleveland team and an on-the-come Washington Wizards, the Celtics don’t need Kyrie to be good.

He has to be special.

And yes, it’s a huge amount of pressure on him but if you listen to him talk, it’s clear as day that this is what he wants and expects.

Irving does his best Ubuntu-esque spiel when it comes to talking about the team’s leadership and how he’s just one of many leaders on this team.

While it sounds good, let’s be real.

This is Irving’s team, and they are only going to go as far as he leads them.

Yes, there have been others who have stepped up and done some great things and those players have every reason to feel empowered by their contributions to the team’s success.

But Boston’s chances of having the kind of season they believe they’re capable of – with or without Hayward's return – hinge entirely on how Irving guides this team through the next 23 games.

And the load that Irving will be counted on to carry, teammates recognize he has been literally building himself up to handle this all season.

I asked Al Horford what has impressed him the most about Irving that doesn’t necessarily involve his play.

“The way he takes care of his body, to me is very impressive,” Horford said. “Massage therapy, lifting in the weight room, to make sure he’s at the highest level to play.  He’s a younger guy, but he’s very wise. He really takes care of himself. It’s great to see that. He understands he has to take care of his body and that’s something that’s really impressed me, from him.”

Still, any conversation about Irving can’t totally ignore that the 25-year-old, five-time All-Star is a hell of a player, too.

“His ability to see the game. Just looking at him, and him being able to make reads and understand certain things, those are the things that have impressed me,” Horford said.

And that vision has guided him throughout his career, whether it’s leaving Duke after playing just a handful of games there or showing no hesitation in taking and then making the most iconic shot in Cleveland Cavaliers history to bring home an NBA title.

Irving has shown no fear when it comes to stepping up in big moments.

And with Boston (40-19) in need of a serious surge, not only in terms of better play but also leadership, this is Irving’s time to shine in what should be another page-turner from a guy whose basketball narrative seems to always keeps us on our toes guessing as to what’s coming next.

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