Celtics

Celtics-Magic preview: A tougher test than you may expect

magic_aaron_gordon_110417.jpg

Celtics-Magic preview: A tougher test than you may expect

NBA followers aren't sure what to make of the Orlando Magic’s surprisingly strong start to this season.

However, Celtics coach Brad Stevens isn’t the least bit surprised atvhow well the Magic (6-3) are playing.

Indeed, the Celtics (7-2) are in for what should be a much tougher matchup than most would have anticipated at the start of the season. 

Boston comes into today's game looking to extend its league-best winning streak to eight in a row against an Orlando team that has been arguably the biggest surprise in the East after the first couple weeks of the season. 

MORE: Winning is Horford's focus, not putting up big numbers

The play of Orlando is reminiscent of what Stevens remembers from the last time the Celtics faced the Magic on March 31.

After having blown out the Magic in their earlier meetings last season, the Celtics found themselves in quite the nail-biter before ultimately coming away with a 117-116 win behind Isaiah Thomas' game-high 35 points. 

Not only were most of the starters from that game back with Orlando this year, but the style of play that they implemented at that time which gave Boston problems, is similar to what’s working for the Magic right now.

“They had us beat in the Garden,” Stevens told NBC Sports Boston. “We ended up winning by a point. They started the lineup that they start now. And it’s fast; it’s skilled.”

Among the early season standouts for the Magic has been Aaron Gordon, a player who was among the handful of players on the Celtics’ radar in the 2014 draft.

The fourth-year wing is averaging career highs in just about every statistical category, including points (19.3 per game), rebounds (8.4) and assists (2.3).

But the statistic that has everyone doing a double-take is Gordon connecting on 58.1 percent of his 3-pointers this season.

“Gordon is shooting the ball ridiculously well from the four (power forward) and they’re really spreading (Nikola) Vucevic out to play a role like Al (Horford) plays for us,” Stevens said.

Horford, who is shooting a career-best 46.7 percent from 3-point range, has steadily improved his long-range shooting from the center position.

Vucevic began to make strides along those lines last year when he took 75 three-pointers after having taken just 26 total in his first five seasons.

The 7-foot center has already taken 38 three-pointers in just nine games this season, and is shooting 42.1 percent from 3-point range.

Young breakout players. A center who shoots 3’s. A team that’s off to a fast start which has exceeded the expectations of many.

Sound familiar?

“There’s a lot of similarities in how we both try to play,” Stevens said. “And they’ve done an unbelievable job starting out the gates. It’s going to be a tough game.”

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Brad Stevens looks to revitalize reeling Celtics

Brad Stevens looks to revitalize reeling Celtics

WALTHAM, Mass. – When he wasn’t hanging out with the Boston Red Sox during spring training, Brad Stevens was marinating over tweaks that the Boston Celtics need to make in the final 23 games of the regular season.

This reassessment is vital to the team’s success going forward, which makes a lot of sense considering how Boston limped into the all-star break losing three straight and four of five.

“I told the guys any time they come up short you have to evaluate, you have to learn …”

And the lesson Stevens learned going into the break?

“Our defense, it was just, it wasn’t good the last five games obviously,” he said. “Whether it’s a small sample size, whatever the case may be it just wasn’t good and I thought against the Clippers especially, it was as bad as I’ve seen. So that was a red flag.”

The return of Marcus Smart will certainly help, but Stevens knows having Smart back won’t be the one-stop elixir to all that ails his team currently.

“We just need everybody to play to their best ability,” Stevens said. “I mean, we had good games without him defensively but there’s no doubt he’s one of our best defenders.”

Smart has been one of the top on-the-ball defenders this season and has done so even while playing major minutes.

He has a defensive rating of 98.9 which is tops among all NBA players who average at least 30 minutes played per game.

And while it remains to be seen how Boston will incorporate Smart back into the regular rotation, he’s coming back with the kind of focus and motivation that should bode well for Boston’s chances of getting back on a winning track.

“I’m a competitor and I think everybody in this league, any athlete will tell you when you gotta sit on the bench, it’s one thing to sit on the bench because for something that happened you can’t control,” Smart said. “But it’s another for something you can control. I feel like I let my team down.”

Smart suffered a right hand laceration injury on Jan. 24 when he punched a picture that caused a series of cuts that required 20 stitches to close.

When speaking to the media on Wednesday night, Smart said a piece of glass came close to a pair of tendons that had the glass in his hand been an inch or so in either direction, it could have cause significant damage and likely season-ending surgery.

Having Smart back after an 11-game absence will certainly result in Stevens changing his player combinations up.

But there’s likely to be more changes than just the re-insertion of Smart into the mix.

“We’ll definitely rotate a little bit differently,” Stevens said. “I don’t know if that means changes in the starting lineup but we definitely will have some changes; certainly it will be night-to-night but tweaks from when guys enter the game.”

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Marcus Smart is fortunate to be returning this season

Marcus Smart is fortunate to be returning this season

BOSTON – When it comes to sports-related injuries, much like the games that are played, it really does become a matter of inches.

For Marcus Smart, that minuscule a distance was the difference between his right-hand laceration after punching a picture frame keeping him sidelined for a few weeks or ending his season.

Fortunately for Smart, the former proved to be his fate as he rejoined the Celtics for practice on Wednesday after missing the previous 11 games.

“I’m back. It feels good to be back with these guys and the coaching staff,” Smart said.

But after the incident which required 20 stitches, Smart said the doctors explained to him how fortunate he was that the injury wasn’t more severe and wouldn’t require season-ending surgery.

“They pulled a glass piece out of the palm of my hand,” Smart said. “And they said there two tendons that ran along the pinkie and the glass was sitting right in between them.

Smart said if the glass would have hit the tendons he would have most likely had to have season-ending surgery.

Celtics head coach Brad Stevens was aware of how close Boston was at losing Smart for the rest of the season.

“It was … I’m sure he would second this, it wasn’t a very good move,” Stevens said. “You don’t want to put yourself in that risk. Luckily, what happened, happened. His hand looks a lot better and that is encouraging.”

Said Smart: “I felt I let my team down. But I got a second chance to come back and redeem myself.”

As reported by NBC Sports Boston earlier today, Smart has been given the medical clearance to suit up for Boston’s next game which is at Detroit on Friday.

His return comes at a time when the Celtics (40-19) are looking to get back on track after what has been a rough patch of games recently.

Boston has lost three straight and four of its last five games. And the lone victory was an overtime win against the Washington Wizards.

Since Smart’s injury, the Celtics have gone 6-5 in his absence.

And within those 11 games, Boston’s numbers on several fronts have taken a slight dip.

Boston’s top-ranked defense slipped down to No. 11 with a defensive rating of 105.2 within the last 11 games missed by Smart.

And the success Boston has experienced this season has been heavily influenced by the play of Smart.

His defensive rating this season is 98.9 which stands out on several levels, the most notable one being how he stacks up against others defensively that log major minutes.

Among players that average at least 30 minutes per game, Smart’s defensive rating of 98.9 is tops among in the league with teammates Jayson Tatum (99.8, third in the league), Jaylen Brown (100.3, fifth) and Al Horford (101.0, seventh) all ranked among the league’s leaders.

Not surprisingly, Smart’s teammates are excited to have him back in the fold.

“There’s no question having Marcus back, makes our defense a lot better,” Horford said.

Boston’s Kyrie Irving echoed similar sentiments about Smart.

“He adds a very unique understanding of the game, at both ends of the floor,” Irving said. “We all know how great he is defensively, so he adds to our team … it’s great.”

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE