Celtics

Popovich remains standard, but Stevens heading towards coaching greatness

Popovich remains standard, but Stevens heading towards coaching greatness

BOSTON – Gregg Popovich was in a playful mood prior Monday’s game, especially when asked about Brad Stevens.

“I don’t think that much of him,” quipped Popovich.

Of course, everyone within earshot knew Popovich was joking, but just for good measure, Popovich clarified his thoughts.

“He is a special person,” Popovich said of Stevens. “And that’s on and off the court. He’s very intelligent. Intelligence is fine. But if it doesn’t come along with incisiveness and judgment and emotional maturity, it doesn’t do you much good. He’s got all those things and that’s large; not many people have that. It shows the way he handles people, the way he coaches. He’s going to be a great one before it’s all over with and he’s already a hell of a coach.”

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Popovich is the standard every NBA coach is measured against.

And Stevens?

He’s measuring up quite nicely, leading the Celtics to more wins every year he has been an NBA head coach while showing signs that he may be the coach-in-waiting to become an uber elite-like coach akin to Popovich.

Of course, Stevens has to continue to elevate the Celtics among the NBA’s elite, which means at some point sooner rather than later he has to bring home Banner 18.

But between now and then, Stevens will continue to help foster a winning culture that in many ways, resembles what San Antonio has done for years.

That’s how the Spurs can lose a player as important as Tim Duncan was to their franchise a couple years ago, and still bang out 61 wins in the first year after he retired.

And that’s why regardless of who plays for them, there’s a feeling the Spurs will consistently be in the hunt to win an NBA title.

The Celtics aren’t there yet, but it’s clear that Boston is gradually putting together the pieces to have a franchise that can compete at the highest levels in both the short and long-term.

Kyrie Irving and Al Horford are proven All-Stars, and will be joined by Gordon Hayward next season when he’s back in the mix after suffering a severe ankle injury in the season-opener.

Boston has the kind of youth that has Celtics Nation giddy when they think about the future which will be led by Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown who have both shown signs of being potential All-Stars in the future.

The Celtics’ present and future were on display in Boston’s 108-94 win over the Popovich-led Spurs, a first for Stevens and a first for the Celtics since 2011.

Irving had 24 points to lead all scorers. Horford had his second double-double of the season with 14 points and 13 rebounds.

Brown had 18 points while Tatum grabbed 11 rebounds.

And the man bringing all that talent together in a cohesive fashion, is Stevens.

He often downplays his impact and his role in the team’s success, but players know all too well how important Stevens is to the Celtics.

Every year has been a milestone of sorts for him, a road marker pointing towards coaching greatness at a time when there really is no clear heir apparent to Popovich, the standard by which every coach is measured against and truthfully, fall short of being on that level.

One thing Stevens has been adamant about is that while he loves coaching, he has no plans of being around coaching for as long as Popovich who is now in his 22nd season coaching the Spurs.

“That would be smart on his part,” Popovich said, grinning. “I would advise him to do that. He’s got many more capabilities than me.”

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Celtics' weaknesses exposed during two-game losing skid

Celtics' weaknesses exposed during two-game losing skid

BOSTON –  The first two-game losing streak suffered by the Boston Celtics this season came within hours following Gordon Hayward’s gruesome dislocated left ankle injury.

The second, two-game losing streak involved ex-Celtic Kelly Olynyk (now in Miami) having the best game of his NBA life, and was followed by Michael Beasley delivering an “M-V-P, M-V-P” chant-inspiring performance for the New York Knicks.

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Fast forward to the present with the Celtics (34-12) hours removed from an 89-80 loss to Philadelphia that was preceded by an overtime loss to New Orleans on Tuesday.

While suffering a two-game setback is nothing new to the Celtics, the most recent back-to-back losses have a very different feel about them.

The two previous sets of back-to-back losses involved an extraordinary occurrence to the Celtics’ detriment, factor into their defeats.

And while Anthony Davis (46 points, 16 rebounds) for New Orleans and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid (26 points, 16 rebounds, six assists) each had exceptional games for their respective teams, both rank among the league’s best players (both were named starters in next month’s all-star game) – so no one should have been blown away by them having big games against Boston.

But Kelly Olynyk and Michael Beasley each dropping 32 points, on back-to-back nights?  

More than anything, the two most recent losses exposed what are arguably some of the biggest weaknesses and concerns for a Celtics squad that boasts the best record in the Eastern Conference (34-12) and is on pace to eclipse the 60-win mark for the first time since 2009.

Here’s a look at the four biggest issues brought to light during Boston’s most recent two-game losing streak.

 

DEFENDING DOMINANT BIG MEN

The issue for the Celtics when it comes to their frontcourt, has to do with a lack of talented bodies and not a lack of talent.

Al Horford and Aron Baynes have been a good 1-2 defensive punch for Boston in the frontcourt this season. And Daniel Theis on many nights has done a solid job of providing some much-needed production at both ends of the floor off Boston’s bench. But beyond those three, there’s little to no production from any one else among Boston’s big men. And while a rotation of three big men works for the most part in the playoffs, the last two games exposed Boston’s lack of depth at the center position. Between now and the playoffs, the Celtics are expected to vigorously explore the buyout market with an eye towards using some or all of the disabled player exception they received for Gordon Hayward’s injury.

 

INCONSISTENT OFFENSE

Boston’s offense has been pretty much hit or miss most of this season. Because of that inconsistency, figuring out a solution has been among the more daunting tasks for this coaching staff.

But the last two games have really been rough for the Celtics. And yes, not having Kyrie Irving (left shoulder soreness) certainly didn’t help matters in Boston’s 89-80 loss to Philadelphia. But with or without Irving, there have been fundamental shortcomings with the offense that exist regardless of who’s playing. 

  • Ball movement: Boston makes 301.3 passes per game which ranks 15th in the NBA. A year ago, they averaged 324.8 passes per game which ranked third in the NBA.
  • Drives: Boston averages 38.2 drives per game which ranks 22nd in the NBA. A year ago, they were 16th in the league with 37.5 drives per game.
  • According to nba.com, the Celtics average a league-low 14.7 paint touch points this season, compared to last season when they averaged 18.7.

 

KYRIE IRVING FACTOR

The Boston Celtics didn’t need to see Kyrie Irving in street clothes to appreciate the impact he makes on games. His shifty, ankle-breaking dribbling skills are what separates him from his peers both on the Celtics roster and in the NBA, which is why the 25-year-old was chosen as a starter in next month’s all-star game which will be his fifth all-star selection. And while Irving has shown a greater willingness to defend consistently, Boston’s defense is generally better when he’s not on the floor. When he has been on the floor in games this year, the team’s defensive rating has been a solid 101.2. But when he’s off, it improves to 96.5. Naturally there’s an offensive dip in the team’s efficiency when he’s on the bench. On the floor, Boston has an offensive rating of 108.1 but falls to 97.5 when he’s off. Finding a way to stay engaged and effective offensively when Irving gets a breather, is one of the many challenges Boston faces.

 

NUMBER TWO SCORER NEEDED

 You knew there would come a time in the season when not having Gordon Hayward around would be a major bummer. Now is that time. The last two games made it abundantly clear that after Irving, there really isn’t that one player the Celtics can turn to who provides a consistent scoring presence.

Jayson Tatum has been winning over fans all season long. He has the range, the ability to take over but lacks experience to do so consistently. We’ll keep an eye out for him to start becoming more aggressive, more assertive which benefits both him and the Celtics. Marcus Morris has a nice inside-outside game and seems to be getting better.

Jaylen Brown has shown flashes of being capable of producing offensive explosions, but the second-year wing isn’t quite ready to take on that next-in-command load full-time. He averages 14.2 points per game which is second on the Celtics in scoring. Only three teams (Atlanta, Sacramento and Indiana) have a second-leading scorer who averages fewer points than Brown. Boston hopes the coming weeks will bring about someone, anyone to help fill the void that we all know would have been manned by Hayward.

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CELTICS TALK PODCAST: Conversation with Celtics fan and New York Times culture writer Sopan Deb

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CELTICS TALK PODCAST: Conversation with Celtics fan and New York Times culture writer Sopan Deb

A conversation with Celtics fan and culture writer for the New York Times, Sopan Deb

10:00 -- Celtics struggling since returning home, lack of a second scorer. Should the Celtics make a move. Is a trade more likely than using the DPE on a buyout?

16:40 -- New York Times culture writer Sopan Deb -- follow him on Twitter -- joins the Celtics Talk Podcast to talk about how he became a big fan, going back to the Antoine Walker/Paul Pierce years.

20:20 -- Deb talks about whether he feels the Celtics have over achieved this season, plus he weighs-in on whether the C’s should look to make a deal.

22:15 -- Would he go all-in on Anthony Davis if he ever became available?

26:40 -- Speaking of New Orleans . .. we talk about how they could be a tough match-up in the playoffs for any team, including the Warriors.

29:30 -- Sopan discusses the drama and “fighting” the NBA went through this week.

31:25 -- Finally, as we do with all of our guests, we ask Sopan: Will Gordon Hayward return this season?

Also, Brian Scalabrine sits down with  Brad Stevens to discuss what he might do when his coaching career is over.

LISTEN TO THE EPISODE HERE