Chris Forsberg

Healthy Celtics offer glimpse of what's possible in dominant win over Lakers

Healthy Celtics offer glimpse of what's possible in dominant win over Lakers

BOSTON — When his night was complete, the Celtics having built a comfortable 30-point cushion over the visiting Los Angeles Lakers with five minutes to play in Monday’s tilt at TD Garden, Kemba Walker slowly made his way down the Boston sideline dapping every person along the way.

He started at Brad Stevens, visited with each assistant coach, then all of his teammates, and kept right on going when he reached the training staff. At one point it felt like he might head straight into the crowd and start shaking hands.

For the duration of the impromptu receiving line, Walker wore his trademark smile. It's something that hadn't been quite as present in the new calendar year (truth be told, he’s always smiling but not as much as Monday night).

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Walker had missed time with the flu, then knee soreness kept him out of a game. The Celtics had lost six of eight entering Monday’s visit from the rival Lakers and it was fair to wonder if much of Boston’s early-season success had been a bit of a mirage.

Then Boston went out and produced maybe its finest effort of the season. And Walker very much reveled in the 139-107 triumph on a big stage.

"This is what we should be on a nightly basis, and what we would like to be,” said Walker. "Hopefully the way we played tonight and this win will help us build in the future.”

In the same way that there’s a danger in overreacting to a short stretch of poor play, it’d be haphazard to put too much stock into a single victory — even if it involved handing one of the best teams in basketball their most lopsided loss of the year.

Still, here’s the notion that will be hard to resist: Monday’s game offered a glimpse of what a full-strength Celtics team can be.

Boston has so rarely had all of its horses this year that it’s been hard to draw firm conclusions about the team’s potential. The injury woes made their early-season success all the more startling and, while the team never really used it as a crutch during the recent rough patch, it was fair to wonder how much injuries were conspiring against Boston when it did struggle.

Walker and Brown had been questionable leading up to Monday’s game but the team got a double shot of good news. Stevens was able to trot out his preferred starting 5 for only the 13th time in 42 games and also tightened his rotation to essentially eight players, leaning heavier on the top-sub combo of Enes Kanter and Marcus Smart instead of the batch of rookies he’s had to throw darts with lately.

The results? Boston averaged 139 points per 100 possessions, according to stats site Cleaning the Glass. That’s a mark that ranked in the 99th percentile among all games this season and was Boston’s best mark of the year. Not too shabby for a team with the sixth-ranked offense in the league.

Boston’s effective field goal percentage of 65.2 was also its best of the year, as was its offensive rebound percentage after Kanter and Co. vacuumed up 14 of the team’s 41 total misses.

Even against a Lakers team gushing with length, Boston wasn’t bashful. Thirty of its 52 makes came near the rim. Some of that was Kanter’s putback but everybody attacked the rim. No one more notably than Jaylen Brown, whose early third quarter dunk on top of James left members of Boston’s bench wobbling around the parquet like clipped bowling pins.

“It’s a great reminder [of what this team is capable of],” said Brown. "We have to hold ourselves accountable to play with this type of energy and this type of effort every night. It just can’t be against the Lakers, we got to get up and play like that against Memphis in a few days. We got to be able to be resilient, humble, poised, and continue to move forward.”

What’s different about this team when they are near full health?

"Just much more dynamic,” said Tatum, who scored a game-high 27 points in 29 minutes, then declared that his dunk over James in Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference finals was still better than Brown’s jam.

"I feel like we’re tougher to guard when myself, JB, Kemba, Smart, when everybody’s out there. It makes it tougher for the other teams to guard and it makes it easier for all of us with so many guys that can do so many different things out there. Hopefully we can continue to stay healthy. Obviously, we’d love to have Rob [Williams] back, but we’ll keep it rolling until he gets back.”

For a Celtics team that sometimes let inconsistent offense affect an already slippage-filled defense, Monday was a nice reminder to stay the course. The Lakers scored the first eight points of Monday’s tilt, James tossing an alley-oop from Springfield off the opening tip, and things could have gotten out of hand in a hurry if Gordon Hayward didn’t knock down a long 3-pointer to settle the Celtics.

Hayward, whose own inconsistencies had left him in the crosshairs of frustrated fans, finished with 16 points on 6-of-12 shooting with six rebounds and five assists. He was vital in stretches, even if he won't make a highlight reel that will be dominated by Brown’s dunk, Tatum’s smooth scoring, and Walker’s tough-finish wizardry.

It’s prudent to remember that Davis was still shaking rust after missing time with a bruised backside. The Lakers certainly didn’t put their best foot forward. And, yet, the Celtics needed a game and beggars can’t be choosers.

"We needed it. We needed it. This is a really important game for us, and we treated it like it,” said Walker. "We executed. It was just one of those games to help us realize how talented we are and how good we can be and pretty much how bad we’ve really been playing.”

The Celtics learned that, when healthy, they can counteract some size issues against elite competition. That’s important considering their season-long struggles against Philadelphia. It sure feels like Monday was the best win of the season but only if the Celtics harness the positives.

"Good to be as close to full as we’ve been from a health standpoint. I’m hoping we can maintain that and build off of it,” said Stevens.

Later he added, “I want to see if we can play well with a sustained period with more bodies available and then we can gauge where we are, how good we are and all that stuff. But there’s still a lot of unknown. This is one game. Just like I think we didn’t overreact to losing the Phoenix game, we’re not going to overreact to winning this one.”

Stevens won’t overreact. The rest of us can. Like Walker, the Celtics needed something to smile about and, unlike some of the team's early-season wins, this doesn’t feel like fool’s gold.

This was a reminder of what the Celtics can do when healthy and engaged. It’s another indication that this team can hang with the NBA’s elite. Yes, a playoff series is a lot different than a random Monday night in January, but the Celtics can sweat that further down the road.

The Celtics needed something to smile about. But it won’t mean much unless they build off it.

Where Jayson Tatum stands in quest to become an NBA 'superstar'

Where Jayson Tatum stands in quest to become an NBA 'superstar'

BOSTON — Jayson Tatum had a pretty good idea his jersey was popular even before the NBA confirmed it last week. A friend was in New Zealand recently and sent Tatum videos that showed a couple Kiwis walking around in Tatum’s No. 0 jersey.

When the Celtics are on the road, Tatum admits he often scans the crowd to see if he can find any of his shirts. Even as his NBA star rises, Tatum went so far as to call it his, “favorite thing to do,” and admits it’s an incredibly rewarding feeling to see his jersey in rival arenas.

Last week, the NBA unveiled its top-selling merchandise for the first half of the 2019-20 season. Tatum landed at No. 4, trailing only LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Stephen Curry. That’s a trio with six NBA titles, seven MVP awards, and 24 All-Star appearances.

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But it’s the players that Tatum appeared ahead of that really floored him. James Harden? Kawhi Leonard?! Kevin Durant!?!?

"All the guys on that list, they’re 'superstars,' or looked at as stars,” said Tatum. "It’s great company to be in. I guess the fans like me.”

Tatum marveled that, of the roughly 500 players now on NBA rosters, fans are willing to plunk their money down for his jersey. His shirt is a big reason the Celtics ranked No. 2 in team sales, trailing only the Los Angeles Lakers, who visit TD Garden on Monday night.

We found it interesting that Tatum didn’t lump himself in the “star” category alongside the other 14 individual players that grace the list. Does he see himself as a "superstar?"

"That’s what I’m working towards,” said Tatum. “Obviously, those guys have accomplished a lot in the league and they deserve to be called superstars. I still haven't even made the All-Star game yet. Just taking it step by step, but it is something that I’m actively trying to get towards.”

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There is almost no denying that Tatum will soon check all the necessary boxes to assume the title of star. An important tick could come soon when All-Star reserves are announced. Even as Boston navigates a bit of a midseason swoon, Tatum has been one of the most impactful players on the roster and seems likely to join Kemba Walker (14th on that jersey sales list) in Chicago next month.

Still over a month shy of his 22nd birthday, Tatum has crammed an awful lot into his young NBA career. After an All-Rookie season, he nearly willed the shorthanded Celtics to the NBA Finals. His Game 7 dunk on James will be a career highlight no matter what he accomplishes. Tatum produced his first 40-point night of his career last week but is already downplaying the accomplishment.

"When I have big games, I try not to get too excited because, I say it all the time, the guys I looked up to, they do it often,” said Tatum. "I’m trying to get to that point where, when I do have a big night, it’s kinda like another night.”

Yes, that consistency is what separates borderline stars from the sure things. Tatum knows that a 40-point night against the New Orleans Pelicans doesn’t mean as much if he labors through 4-of-13 shooting against the Eastern Conference rival Philadelphia 76ers a couple days before it.

"I feel like everybody goes through it. Especially the guys that are the best and are kinda looked at that way when they first came into the league,” said Tatum, whom Boston nabbed at No. 3 in the 2017 NBA Draft after trading down from the top overall pick. "They expect more out of me and I expect a lot out of myself.”

Celtics coach Brad Stevens has often marveled at what both Tatum and fellow partner in (juvenile) crime Jaylen Brown have accomplished early in their NBA careers. Whenever the duo faces criticism for their inconsistencies, Stevens suggests reporters compare their body of work to other stars at the same age.

Stevens doesn’t put a lot of thought into jersey sales — his teenage son, Brady, has moved out of the jersey phase — but the coach understands why others would lean towards Tatum.

“It makes sense in this day and age with all of the movement: Buy a really good young player’s jersey,” said a smiling Stevens.

Yes, buying a Celtics jersey has been a dicey proposition in recent years. Even Tatum hasn’t been absolved from trade whispers (back when Lakers big man Anthony Davis was the object of Danny Ainge’s desire). Now it feels like Tatum is the key to whatever Boston accomplishes moving forward.

This summer, Tatum will be eligible — and likely receive — a maximum-salary extension of his rookie deal. It will lock Tatum and Brown in as the foundation of the team moving forward. But even while more established stars like Walker and Gordon Hayward are on the roster, what this team accomplishes likely hinges on what Tatum becomes.

In order to compete for a title, a team has to have an MVP-caliber player as its centerpiece. The current Celtics have a bunch of 1A-type players but their championship hopes strengthen if Tatum eventually ascends to the clear-cut best player on the team.

There’s strides to be made on the court. His ball-handling needs to improve so he can more consistently attack the basket, he needs to be better at finishing, his shooting percentages down this season. But the talent is obvious and it seems like only a matter of time before he puts it all together. The potential to be Boston’s No. 1 is there if he’s willing to work for it.

Everything else is lining up for him. The All-Star label is coming, and so is the contract. This past summer, Tatum signed with Jordan Brand, becoming one of the young faces of the popular shoe brand. Tatum’s also well-regarded around the league, as evidenced by how Walker sought him out for advice before joining the Celtics.

All signs point to Tatum as a superstar. Now he’s just got to prove it on the court, especially in those matchups where the surefire stars are on the other side of the court.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Lakers, which begins Monday at 6 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live. You can also stream on the MyTeams App.

On a historic night, Marcus Smart's best moment wasn't any of his 11 3-pointers

On a historic night, Marcus Smart's best moment wasn't any of his 11 3-pointers

BOSTON — The most notable sequence of Marcus Smart’s historic night came after he set a new Boston Celtics franchise record for 3-pointers in a game.

With 36.9 seconds to play and Smart at the wheel of Boston’s frenetic comeback attempt, Brad Stevens drew up an absolute gem coming out of a timeout. Smart, on the sideline opposite the Boston bench, waited patiently for the Suns’ defense to commit, then lobbed a perfect feed towards the rim for a curling Gordon Hayward.

Only Hayward got caught in between a dunk and a layup. He put it off the glass a little too strong and it caught the side rim as Devin Booker scrambled in for the rebound while the entire Garden let out an audible gasp.

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Hayward fouled Booker, then stood paralyzed, like a Fortnite player after a wifi dropout, in the charge circle. While a couple of teammates covered their mouths in disbelief on the bench, Hayward glared up at the JumboTron, hands on his hips trying to process a miss that would have made it a one-possession game.

Standing about 30 feet away, Smart started an encouraging clap. Then he walked all the way to Hayward, who wore a thousand-yard stare. When Smart got close, he offered a couple of encouraging pats on the chest before wrapping his left arm around Hayward then added a couple of backside pats as players finally made their way to the other end of the floor.

"I've been in that moment. I've been there where you miss a crucial play, a crucial bucket, or make a mistake that you think at the time cost the game for you,” said Smart, who scored a career-high 37 points while making a team-record 11 3-pointers during a 123-119 loss.

"But I told him keep your head up. You're OK. You missing that is not why we are down and, if we lose the game, it's not why we lost the game. You're going to get more opportunities and get more wide-open layups. Just knock down the next one.”

We’re admittedly guilty of reflecting too much on last season’s woes but we’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that it was a year ago this week when, after Boston missed a final shot attempt in Orlando, Kyrie Irving stalked after Hayward, arms out in exasperation, wondering why Irving hadn’t gotten the ball for the final attempt.

Smart, as competitive as anyone in the world, could have been forgiven if he reacted poorly to Hayward’s miss. An impossible late-fourth-quarter double-digit comeback would have been the perfect exclamation point on Smart’s career night. This article would have been all about Smart’s absurd shooting and how he shuffled into Boston’s top 5 in career 3-pointers if the Celtics pulled out the win.

Instead, it’s about how Smart’s greatest value is that he just gets it.

This is the part where we’re supposed to lobby for Smart to be named captain of the Celtics. Except it’s not really necessary. Stevens doesn’t love the idea of captains, yearns to empower everyone on the team, and nobody needs to add a “C” next to Smart’s name on the roster printout to know who is the primary leader of this group.

It’s Smart, warts and all. The same guy who ripped off his jersey and stomped off the floor after getting tossed from an unsightly loss to the Pistons is the same guy who knew in the moment on Saturday that he had to lift a teammate up after a stomach-punch sequence.

Smart is the same guy who stood in front of reporters after Saturday’s game, chastised the team’s recent defensive efforts, then wrapped Hayward in a giant bearhug from behind before leaving the locker room.

“[Smart] was just like, ‘Move on, it’s all good, stay with us.’ But in the moment it’s hard to let that one go,” said Hayward. "We needed that bucket for sure. We still had a chance there, but certainly needed that one.”

Hayward, riding a bit of a roller coaster of consistency since returning from a foot injury on Christmas Day, shut his eyes Saturday night with that miss undoubtedly on replay in his mind. But he’d probably be beating himself up a bit more if Smart and his teammates weren’t so eager to let him know that that one miss didn’t swing Saturday’s game.

Smart turned in the shooting performance of a lifetime on Saturday night. The Celtics were playing without Kemba Walker (sore knee) and Jaylen Brown (sprained thumb) and Smart took full advantage of the available shots. He hoisted a staggering 25 attempts, including a team-record 22 3-pointers, but made 13 shots overall including the 11 beyond the arc, besting the team’s previous record mark of nine 3-point makes.

Smart's 37 points also shattered his previous best scoring night — 27 points versus Cleveland in the 2017 playoffs — by double digits. Smart had posted a season-high 24 points in Milwaukee on Thursday night and produced the first consecutive 20+ point nights of his career with Saturday’s outburst.

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In typical Smart fashion, he wasn’t in much of a mood to celebrate after a loss.

"Right now, [the record] means nothing. I’d trade all that in for a win, especially with the way this team has been playing,” said Smart. "I’d rather have the win than the record. I mean, obviously it’s a great accomplishment. It just shows the hard work that I’ve been putting in is paying off.

"But I’d rather trade that in for the win.”

As for Hayward, he finds himself at the center of many fans' frustrations. To some, the late-game miss is only more evidence that Hayward just isn’t the same player, even further removed from his ankle injury. Despite some excellent nights this season, especially before a hand injury sidelined him for a month, some fans are eager for Boston to move on from the Hayward experience.

Frustrations are natural when a maximum-salary player struggles. Hayward certainly hasn’t played with the same aggression lately — at least not consistently — and it was fair to wonder if he was feeling 100 percent healthy.

Hayward admitted at Saturday’s morning shootaround that his foot remains an issue but not one that he believes is contributing to his inconsistencies. When multiple questions were asked whether his foot/ankle woes contributed to his key miss, Hayward bristled a bit.

“It has nothing to do with that,” said Hayward. “I missed a layup. So that’s it.”

Some will continue to scream for a Hayward deal, picking out whatever overpriced big man they think will improve Boston’s ability to compete with East rivals Milwaukee and Philadelphia. The fact is that Boston’s best chance to compete this year might hinge simply on keeping its five best players healthy and figuring out how they all work best together.

The Celtics need Hayward. Smart recognized that on Saturday.

Injuries have made everything a challenge lately. A revolving-door starting lineup has hindered chemistry and continuity. This team has needs beyond size and it wouldn’t require moving either Smart or Hayward to obtain the shooting that Boston’s bench so clearly needs. If you want to scream for Danny Ainge to make a move, start there.

A relentless schedule is forcing Boston to address its defensive slippage on the fly. Hayward doesn’t need to make that layup if Boston doesn’t allow Devin Booker and Mikal Bridges to get hot at the start of the game.

The Celtics are in a funk and it’s going to take a lot of effort to pull themselves out of this skid. The schedule remains daunting through the end of the month and the barrage of games will force the team to make tweaks on the fly.

Hayward needs to be better. He knows it. Smart knows that little good could have come from overreacting to a miscue. The Celtics will be better in the long run for the way Smart handled that situation.

It’ll mean a lot more than any of the 37 points he scored on Saturday night.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Lakers, which begins Monday at 6 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live. You can also stream on the MyTeams App.