Celtics-Sixers preview: C's learning to live with a target on their back


Celtics-Sixers preview: C's learning to live with a target on their back

BOSTON – Three years ago, Al Horford was a member of the Atlanta Hawks who at that time were off to a great start, similar to how the Boston Celtics have begun this season.

Film study would be part of the preparation for Horford and his then-Atlanta teammates.

But a funny thing happened once they got on the floor.

The team that Horford and his teammates saw on film, didn’t play nearly as hard or as focused or effective as the squad they faced that night.

 “What I learned from that, we weren’t sneaking up on anyone,” Horford said. “Teams were ready for us and were going to give us their best shot.”

Such is life when you have the best record in the NBA like the Celtics (18-4) which makes them the measuring stick most teams compare themselves to including tonight’s opponent, the Philadelphia 76ers (12-8) who are coming off a 118-113 home win over Washington Wednesday night.  

Having that target on them on a night-in, night-out basis is certainly new ground for most of the Celtics players.

But does it bring about added pressure?

“I don’t feel in any pressure at all,” said second-year wing Jaylen Brown. “But as a team? Yeah, there is. We’re getting team’s best. Miami and Detroit, two teams that beat us, I think they played playoff level basketball. We have to play and have that same energy every night. If we want to win we gotta match it.”

But as they’re experiencing first-hand, that’s easier said than done.

“It requires that … we’re even more locked in from the beginning of the game,” Horford said. “To be able to sustain it throughout. Teams are coming out. They’re trying to give us their best shot. And that’s the way it is. As a group we’ll keep learning and growing from this.”

Celtics head coach Brad Stevens has been bullish when it comes to focusing on growth rather than getting bogged down with a specific opponent or the fact that his team operates now with a target on its back based upon their success thus far and will get the best effort from opponents.

“You have to expect that every night in the NBA, regardless,” Stevens said. “When you don’t play well or don’t play up to standard, you’re probably going to get beat no matter who you are. But the other night (against Detroit on Monday), we did a lot of good things. But it shows you how small the margin is still. That only gives yourself a chance to win.”

What makes Boston’s team-to-watch status even more surprising is how they have been winning with one of the youngest rosters in the NBA.

That’s why the loss to the Pistons was more than just an in-season setback. It provided proof-positive that there are going to be nights when playing a good game isn’t going to be good enough for the Celtics to win.

The way Horford sees it, everything that this team experiences only adds value to Boston's continued growth and understanding of how to play well with one another and do so with consistency.

“This is our first season,” Horford pointed out. “We’ve already been through a lot as a group. Everything is a learning experience, traveling, on the road, getting in at 3 in the morning and make sure you try to go to bed as quick as you can, getting rest, eating right … there’s a lot of things; our guys, it’s a lot to throw at them especially our rookies. It’s a learning curve and another part of it is, being able to learn and understand you have a target on your back. You have to come out fighting. If you relax or don’t come out ready to play, teams will embarrass you. That’s something we’re aware of, and we’re all learning from that.”

And this learning process has an end-game to it, and it’s pretty simple.

“For us, we’re trying to establish ourselves as a premier team in this league,” said Boston’s Kyrie Irving. “In order to do that, you have to beat some of the best teams. You have to do it consistently in order to garner respect. We understand that. It takes a lot of disciple, takes a lot of commitment, takes a lot of sacrifice in order to do that consistently and get better.”

And that desire is what drives Irving and the rest of his teammates to continue improving and stay among the elite teams record-wise in the NBA.

“That’s the beautiful thing about being on an NBA team,” Irving said. “And that’s finding out on a day-to-day basis what it actually takes to be a great team in this league. Some teams figure it out; some teams do eventually, some teams figure it out in the playoffs, some teams different points in the season. It just depends on do you have the guys that are willing to pay attention to details and have the will to do it? It takes some strong individuals to come together as a group and develop a camaraderie that you can withstand in any environment, in any situation.”


Celtics bench needs to keep improving


Celtics bench needs to keep improving

When you look at the Boston Celtics’ bench, you’re not going to find many (any?) players who are consistent shot-makers.

But defensively, in this small-ball era we live in, the potential for Boston’s second unit to put the clamps on teams defensively is apparent.

We saw that in Boston’s 102-93 win over Memphis in the fourth quarter when the Celtics opened with a 16-0 run that put them ahead for good.

During the run, the Celtics forced four turnovers along with creating seven straight misses by the Grizzlies to start the quarter.

“Shane (Larkin) and Terry (Rozier) did a great job on the ball,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “We had to change some coverages because of (Marc) Gasol. And then just kind of stayed with it.”

The Grizzlies wound up shooting 33.3 percent (6-for-18) in the fourth quarter which was heavily impacted by Boston's fourth quarter defensive rating being an impressive 90.1.

And while the play of starters Jayson Tatum (19 points, seven in the fourth quarter), Kyrie Irving (team-high 20 points) and Al Horford (15 points, seven rebounds, six assists) was key to the victory, the second unit’s play defensively to start the fourth was ultimately what paved the way for Boston to improve its East-leading record to 25-7.

In a interview with NBC Sports Boston prior to Saturday’s game, Rozier discussed the need for the bench to step up in every aspect of the game.

“When the starters are doing good, we have to keep it going and when they struggle a little bit, we have change the game up, get the momentum back on our side,” said Rozier who in addition to playing good defense on Saturday, also had 10 points and four rebounds.

Here are five takeaways from Boston’s 102-93 win at Memphis on Saturday.


This was one of the more dominant starts to a game we’ve seen from the Celtics all season. They had 31 points in the first quarter, which was one of the higher scoring starts for them this season. But more telling was that they allowed just 12 points, the fewest given up by the Celtics in the first quarter of play this season.


 When it comes to the Boston’s bench being effective, Rozier and Smart are often the barometers for that success. They had their ups and downs against Memphis, but really locked in at both ends of the floor in the second half. And maybe most significant, they provided some much-needed bench scoring as they combined for 21 of Boston’s 26 points off the bench.


Like the Boston Celtics, back-to-back bad games doesn’t seem to be part of his DNA. Against the Grizzlies, he had 19 points – seven of which in the fourth quarter – which was a major improvement upon the seven points he scored against Utah on Friday while missing five of his six shot attempts.


This has been a horrible, injury-riddled season for the Memphis Grizzlies. And while Marc Gasol doesn’t dominate games as consistently as he did a couple years ago, he’s still an extremely talented big man who would plenty of potential suitors if the Grizzlies ever felt inclined to put him on the trading block which is not the case currently. The Celtics had major problems limiting him on Saturday before Gasol finished with a double-double of 30 points and 10 rebounds.


Beating the Grizzlies in itself isn’t all that impressive. But it continues what has been a season-long trend for the Celtics in being able to beat on teams from the Western Conference. This season, Boston has a 10-2 record against the West. And Boston’s .833 winning percentage against Western Conference foes is tops among Eastern Conference teams.


Increased usage of starters helps fuel Celtics victory over Grizzlies

Increased usage of starters helps fuel Celtics victory over Grizzlies

The Boston Celtics got the win over Memphis, with the team’s second unit chipping in for the victory.

But they still have too many offensive lulls, something head coach Brad Stevens recognizes and to his credit, is continuing to search for ways to address appropriately.

We’ve seen him utilize a starter playing with the backups.

But in Saturday’s 102-93 win at Memphis, Stevens elected to play a pair of starters with the second unit for longer stretches which on this night at least, helped them get the victory to extend their East-leading record to 25-7.


In fact, Boston had at least two starters on the floor in the fourth quarter for all but the final 28.4 seconds of play.

“It’s one of those things, it’s probably going to go back and forth,” Stevens said. “Based on who’s available.”

A key missing part of the Celtics’ bench rotation is Marcus Morris who continues with rehab on his sore left knee.

Morris, who did not make the trip with the team, is out indefinitely although the Celtics maintain that he’s close to resuming action.

Stevens was asked about his use of Jayson Tatum and Al Horford together, with a trio of reserves.

“If Marcus Morris is here, maybe you don’t play either of them with that group,” Stevens said.

Morris has appeared in 16 games (nine starts) for the Celtics this season, averaging 12.1 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game.

Indeed, bench production has been an issue for the Boston Celtics all season.

According to hoopsstats.com, the Celtics bench came into tonight’s game averaging 30.5 points per game which ranked 23rd in the NBA. However, Boston’s defense has limited second units to 32.6 points per game which ranks 8th in the league.

Against the Grizzlies, Boston only had three players off the bench score (Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier and Daniel Theis) who combined for 26 points.

But as limited as they were scoring the ball, Memphis was even worse with a second unit scoring total of just 15 points.

Of course, rotations are a season-long, always-evolving process that is dependent heavily on not just who is available, but how those who are available to play are performing.

The Celtics’ second unit has had their moments this season, but by and large the team’s success has been heavily fueled by the play of the starters.

Stevens has made it clear, he’ll continue to find ways for those guys to be put in the best positions to succeed individually as well as for the Celtics.

And as long as Morris remains out, you can expect Stevens will continue to find ways to fill that void with increased usage from his starters.

“As long as Marcus Morris isn’t playing,” Stevens said, “We need to be alert to that and guys are going to have to play different rotations.”