Celtics show Embiid he’s still got a long way to go

Celtics show Embiid he’s still got a long way to go

LONDON – The popular narrative leading up to the Celtics’ 114-103 comeback win over Philadelphia on Thursday centered on both teams being young and on the rise.

While there’s definitely some truth in that, there is one huge difference.


The Celtics have a superstar in Kyrie Irving who knows how to both dominate play and use his position and presence on the floor to help his teammates take over.

Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid is a great player, but a star he is not.

And this game proved once again while extremely talented, Embiid still hasn’t figured out how to “trust the process” required to be a great player in this league.

Numbers aren’t enough anymore.

There are plenty of players who can put up big numbers and still win games.

They do it by balancing their strengths with those of their teammates.

That’s how Kyrie Irving can score 20 points, but a second-year wing (Jaylen Brown had a team-high 21 points) and a rookie (Jayson Tatum, who scored 11 of his 16 points in the pivotal third quarter) wind up making just as significant an impact.

As I watched Embiid continue to come up short when the Sixers did turn to him, I was reminded up something his coach Brett Brown said the day before when asked about superstar players.

“We don’t yet have stars,” said Brown, referring to the Sixers. “We don’t have any championships, we don’t have any All-Stars. We’re very much at the foundation of trying to get to where you brought us too quickly.”

Embiid’s name was mentioned which prompted this response from Brown: “There’s a difference between popular and championships. That’s my version of a star. Are you able to get your teams to win, and win championships?

Brown added, “This is the challenge. I think Ben Simmons and Joel, that’s my mission for them; that’s my mission for all of us, to grow champions. Right now, we’re just scratching the surface.”

He’s right.

There’s no denying the Sixers have some talented players in the fold now whose biggest shortcoming is youth and inexperience, both of which will only get better in time.

But for now, the Celtics will continue to limit Embiid from having superman-like performances because their Big Three – Al Horford, Aron Baynes and coach Brad Stevens.

Horford and Baynes defend Embiid better than any defensive duo in the NBA, even if Embiid won’t admit it. And Stevens’ ability to constantly give him different looks defensively has left him dazed and confused, prone to taking forced shots or passing up good ones or just turning the ball over.

I asked him about specifically about the Celtics’ defenders after a game in which he was 6-for-17 shooting with most of his made baskets coming against Celtics backup Daniel Theis.

“I don’t think they did anything,” Embiid said. “I started off really frustrated by the way everything was set up.”

The way things were “set up” involved J.J. Redick making a ton of tightly contested shots with Ben Simmons navigating the offense to a lead that peaked at 22 points with few contributions from Embiid at that time.

“From there, if I’m not having fun…or kicking someone’s ass, also talk trash, if I’m not doing that I usually have bad games,” Embiid said. “I don’t think they did anything.”

Well, this was the second game Embiid has played against the Celtics this season, and he was limited in both, which is evident by him shooting just 30.3 percent against Boston this season – that’s his lowest field-goal percentage against any team this season.

Here are five takeaways from Boston’s 114-103 win over Philadelphia:

Boston continued the trend we saw throughout the season and that’s saving their best for the second half of games. The Celtics have the league’s top-rated defense in large part because of their ability to lock down teams over the course of the final 24 minutes of play. Against the Sixers, Boston held them to just 36 percent shooting from the field, 25 percent on 3’s while outscoring them by 20 points (66-46).

Aside from Gordon Hayward, this was about as healthy and well-rested a Celtics team as we’ve seen all season. And with that health, Boston was able to showcase its versatility at both ends of the floor at a relatively high level. Offensively, the Celtics attacked Philadelphia from various points in the second half with assassin-like precision. And the defense was in lockdown mode in the second half as the Sixers had no answer for how to handle this healthy, fully engaged Celtics squad.

The talk about Boston’s bench not being up to snuff seems to be getting quieter as the season progresses. What we’re starting to see more of from this group is guys settling into roles and not deviating too much from them. Terry Rozier is a defender, good rebounder from the guard position who can make shots. Marcus Morris is a scorer/defender at the big wing position. Daniel Theis defends, rebounds and finishes around the rim every now and then. And then there’s Marcus Smart, an elite defender who has significantly improved his playmaking game this season. Collectively, they have been a really strong unit of late.

Give Jayson Tatum credit. He has done a good job, for the most part, picking when to be aggressive and when to let the game sort of come to him. But the more you watch him and the Celtics, the clearer it becomes they need to see more of the aggressive Tatum. The Sixers got a taste of that in the third quarter, which is when the game’s momentum fully swung in Boston’s favor. It was also the quarter in which Tatum scored 11 of his 16 points. Coincidence? Nope. Boston is a better team when he’s looking to be more aggressive, more of the time. When he has taken at least 10 shots from the field, Boston has a 17-4 record. Don’t be surprised if we see the more aggressive Tatum in these last couple months leading into the postseason.

It really says a lot about a team to be down 22 points and show absolutely no signs of concern about the deep hole they find themselves in. Boston has been there, done that time and time again and consistently show not the slightest bit of concern. Victories like Thursday’s comeback win adds another brick to the sturdy foundation of this team’s ability to come back and win despite falling into some huge deficits. When Boston closed out the half with a 21-8 run and was within nine points, you kind of sensed that Boston would continue surging ahead and eventually wind up with the win. That takes talent, obviously. But more than that, it requires a Teflon-strong confidence that Boston has plenty of.


Celtics fans may see a little Pierce in Middleton's game

Celtics fans may see a little Pierce in Middleton's game

MILWAUKEE – Sitting down before a recent shoot-around, Khris Middleton looks comfortable, at ease, very chill.

And when you watch him play, he exudes similar qualities on the floor, often moving at a pace that seems slower than most and yet he still manages to get buckets – lots of buckets.

Celtics fans have had the pleasure of seeing similar skills on display for more than a decade in Paul Pierce.  

So, it’s no surprise that Middleton counts Pierce among those whose play has greatly influenced his game.

“He was a great scorer,” Middleton said of Pierce whose number 34 was retired earlier this season at the TD Garden. “He had great footwork. He knew how to use his body, angles to get his shot off. He was probably a little bit faster than me, more athletic than me but he was crafty, knowing how to create just enough space to get his shot off or get by a guy. That’s what I try to do.”

While Boston has a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series against Middleton's Milwaukee Bucks, it certainly hasn’t been because of Middleton’s scoring.

The 6-foot-8 wing is averaging 28.0 points in the first two games, along with six rebounds and 3.5 assists, while shooting 64.7 percent from the field and 69.2 percent (9-for-13) from 3-point range.

Game 3 is Friday night in Milwaukee.

“He’s a good player,” said Boston’s Marcus Morris, who has competed against Middleton dating to when they were at Kansas and Texas A&M, respectively.

Middleton’s ascension to being such a key figure in Milwaukee’s roster speaks to how he was prepared when given an opportunity to perform.

A second-round pick of the Detroit Pistons in 2012, injuries limited his chances to play there.

So they traded him in 2013 to Milwaukee as essentially a salary-cap filler as part of a deal that sent Brandon Knight to the Bucks and Brandon Jennings to Detroit.

Middleton stresses that he has no ill-will towards Detroit; in fact, he’s thankful in hindsight for them trading him to a franchise that was willing to give him a shot at playing and to Middleton’s credit, he has been healthy enough to take advantage of it.

“Growing up all your life, you’re kind of that guy,” he said. “And then to get to the next level and be told you’re not that guy...it’s humbling. But it gave me a hungry mindset to keep working and never give up. That’s why I keep working, prove that I belong in this league and I belong on that court.”

You won’t get an argument from Celtics coach Brad Stevens, who has been singing the praises of Middleton well before Boston found itself facing him and the Bucks in the first round of the playoffs.

“Middleton spaces the floor. He can run off screens and score,” Stevens said earlier. “He’s a really good scorer cutting off the ball. And he’s a knockdown shooter.”

And he’s hungry to continue adding to his offensive arsenal by learning from the league’s best players past and present, a group that includes Pierce.

“I try to take a little stuff from their game and fit it in my game,” Middleton said. “I’m not the most athletic guy, so I see how they set up some of their moves just to create a little bit of space to get their shot off; that’s what I try to do.”




Can Celtics take what worked at home on the road?

Can Celtics take what worked at home on the road?

MILWAUKEE – The Celtics are no different than most NBA teams that have successfully defended home court through the first couple playoff games.

As good as things may appear to be, taking what has worked at home on the road is easier said than done.

“We’re up 2-0, but we’ve seen teams lose [series after being up] 2-0,” said Celtics forward Marcus Morris. “So, we’ve got to go to Milwaukee and continue to take care of business.”

And while it may sound like typical coach speak, Brad Stevens has every reason to sound the alarm about this series being far from over, even with a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.

“They’ve got a lot of strengths we’ve got to do a good job against,” Stevens said. “They put you in a lot of tough positions on offense and defense.”

The biggest issue for Boston up to this point has been at the defensive end of the floor where the Celtics have allowed the Bucks to shoot 53.8 percent from the field, which is tops among all playoff teams.

Boston’s defensive rating in the playoffs (105.9) ranks ninth among the 16 teams in the postseason, a noticeable dip from their league-leading 101.5 defensive rating in the regular season.

Still, the Bucks have in many ways been their own worst enemy, averaging a league-high 17.5 turnovers per game which have led to a total of 48 points for the Celtics which is tied with Oklahoma City for the most points scored off turnovers in the playoffs thus far.

To put that in perspective, Milwaukee’s turnovers have accounted for 20.6 percent of the points scored by Boston in this playoff series.

In the regular season, points off turnovers accounted for 17.0 percent of the points scored by the Celtics.

And that doesn’t even include the hustle plays that are also going Boston's way.

According to nba.com/stats, the Celtics have 66 box-outs compared to 62 by Milwaukee. And when it comes to getting loose balls, Boston has the edge there as well, 22-19.

In the postseason, those are the little things that on many nights, is the difference between having a “good try, good effort” loss or one in which you claw and fight your way towards victory.

Boston has played with a deep understanding of this.

The Milwaukee Bucks?

Not so much.

“We just have to be more into it, got to be a more desperate and hungry team,” Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton said following the Game 2 loss.

While the cast of characters who stepped up in Games 1 and 2 varied slightly for Boston, the fundamental keys to Boston’s victories over the Bucks remained very much the same.

But there’s no telling what impact Milwaukee returning home will have on what has worked thus far for the Celtics. 

But one thing all involved know – it can't hurt the Bucks, who know a Game 3 loss would all but end any hopes of moving on to the next round.