Celtics need to be smarter, their season might depend on it

Celtics need to be smarter, their season might depend on it

PHILADELPHIA — Celtics coach Brad Stevens had already scolded Marcus Smart for an unnecessary third-quarter ejection that injected renewed energy into the Philadelphia 76ers — and maybe the Boston-Philly rivalry as a whole, considering the C's were seemingly trending towards a series sweep before the flareup — but, pressed on the matter, Stevens wanted to make one thing clear.

"Don’t get it wrong: We love all that Marcus is,” said Stevens. "And part of Marcus is his fire. As you know, a time or two a year, it gets the best of him. But this is just a reminder of how important he is. He knows how we all feel and he knows we all love him. That’s just part of it."

For a Celtics team with wild inconsistencies in its toughness, effort, and defensive intensity, Smart is seemingly one of the few known commodities on a game-to-game basis. He’s going to bring grit, intensity, and a relentless desire to make things difficult for opponents. Yes, he’s probably going to launch some questionable 3-pointers (though he’s making more of them this year) but he’s also going to take a key charge or come up with a must-have loose ball.

Losing Smart on a night the Celtics were already playing shorthanded with the absences of Gordon Hayward (concussion protocol) and Aron Baynes (second-quarter ankle sprain) put his teammates in a tough spot. Considering how the temperature of this team tends to shift with every big win or maddening loss, it might have cost the Celtics a tiny bit of their recent good vibes.

If the Celtics ultimately fended off Philadelphia’s second-half charges, Boston would have left Wells Fargo Center having:

* Swept the season series 4-0
* Won eight of the past nine meetings dating to the start of the playoffs last year
* Won 14 of the past 17 meetings overall dating to the start of the 2016-17 season

Smart’s ejection, instead, might have forced Boston to give up a tiny bit of real estate inside the Sixers’ head. It gave an East rival a bit of confidence it probably didn’t deserve. Now, Philadelphia is firmly positioned to hold onto the No. 3 seed while Boston will have to scrap just to lock in a tiny sliver of homecourt advantage.

Yes, the 2018-19 Celtics just don’t make anything easy on themselves.

Not that the loss took away any of Boston’s swagger. Like when: 

* Terry Rozier said, "I thought the confetti was going to drop,” playfully referencing Boston’s Game 3 win here in last year’s playoffs when game ops inadvertently triggered celebratory confetti in a game that was not over. Boston went on to prevail in overtime, then ended the series in 5 games.

* Marcus Morris, responding to a question about Joel Embiid’s 21 free throws in Wednesday’s game, asked, "What’s the season series?” Told it was 3-1 in Boston’s favor, Morris added, "About time. About time.” Pressed on if he was referencing how the Sixers finally got a big game for Embiid against Boston, Morris clarified, “No, about time they got a win. About time.”

Smart has to be, well, smarter. In a season of head-slapping moments, this is just another one for the long list. Still, this is no less than the third time this season where Smart has had a flareup, with Jayson Tatum having to corral him before he tried to fight J.R. Smith (preseason) and DeAndre Bembry (January) in two different instances earlier in the season.

As Stevens suggested, this is just part of the Marcus Smart Experience. The Celtics will live with these flareups — and the game(s) it costs them — if Smart produces his familiar batch of “winning plays” the other 80 games of the year and into the postseason.

The Celtics can take solace that Smart didn’t get himself tossed from a playoff game and that they hope it’s a reminder of how he needs to control his emotions when the postseason arrives.

"He knows,” said Kyrie Irving, Smart’s partner in Boston’s starting backcourt. "He took responsibility for it. He knows how much of a big piece he is for us. We need him out there, in terms of his smarts and him being out there, being aggressive on the defensive end.

"We don’t want to make any excuses. Those things can’t happen in terms of Smartie being ejected, especially when we’re in an environment like this. But we talked about it, we squashed it, and now we move on.”

It’s hard to envision a scenario in which the Celtics and Sixers cross paths again. Both teams would need to upset one of the East’s top dogs (Milwaukee and Toronto) to set up an East Finals meeting should the seedings hold firm. In some ways, that’s always seemed like Boston’s best chance to actually sneak to the NBA Finals (or at least having Philadelphia soften up an opponent in the East semis). It might still be, but Philadelphia at least hinted that any head-to-head meeting wasn’t as much of a picnic as recent history suggested.

Smart’s ejection keeps the embers of a rivalry flickering. Embiid took to Instagram to celebrate the victory, posting an action shot from the game with the location listed as “Lametown,” a playful jab at Rozier calling Embiid “lame” during a recent television appearance.

Boston is now almost certainly locked into the No. 4 or 5 seed, something that seemed impossible when this group assembled for camp in September. A beefed up East, the burden of expectations, and this team’s inconsistencies have forced it to endure a much tougher playoff path than it should have been.

Two head-to-head matchups loom with Indiana, which could essentially decide who gets home court in Round 1. The Celtics should be heavily favored against the Oladipo-less Pacers regardless of location but, for once, these Celtics could make SOMETHING easier on themselves this year by securing that No. 4 spot.

One thing is certain after Wednesday’s game. This team really needs Smart on the court to be at their best. He wasn’t supposed to be a starter this season, even after a big offseason payday, but here he is, a vital piece whenever Boston actually plays to its potential.

He has to make better decisions but, really, that goes for the Celtics as a whole. Truth be told, this team would be a lot better off if they could get everyone on the roster to play with Smart’s intensity. It’s why Stevens can live with Smart’s outburst putting his team in a bad spot for one night.

Because they don’t have a chance to reach any of their loftier goals without Smart doing Smart things when the games truly matter.

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Isaiah Thomas's night a reminder of what the 2018-19 Celtics lack

Isaiah Thomas's night a reminder of what the 2018-19 Celtics lack

BOSTON — When the Boston Celtics honored Isaiah Thomas on Monday night, it provided a jarring juxtaposition between the IT-era Celtics and the current iteration of Gang Green.

Thomas’ teams — and specifically that much-romanticized 2016-17 squad — were a gritty bunch of overachievers who only went down kicking and screaming, routinely overcoming adversity, and whatever the team lacked in overall talent, by giving every ounce of effort and fight they had. That team had Thomas endlessly professing his love of all things Boston and embracing everything about the city and the franchise.

This year’s squad oozes with talent and potential, and yet so frequently seems unable — or unwilling — to harness it all. On Monday night, a boneheaded end-of-third-quarter sequence seemed to sap the team's energy and the Celtics offered little resistance as the Nuggets kept them at arm’s length for much of the fourth quarter en route to a 114-105 triumph.

The 2018-19 Celtics have often been a maddening team to watch, not only because they so rarely harness their collective talents — particularly for 48 consistent minutes — but because they don’t often display the mental toughness that has become the hallmark of Brad Stevens’ teams.

We saw glimpses in recent weeks of this team maybe starting to show that missing resolve. The Celtics scrapped their way to a couple of quality wins over the Kings, twice rallying from a double-digit deficit in a win here last week. Then, despite kicking away a 25-point lead during a visit from the Hawks on Saturday, Boston clamped down late to ensure there wasn’t another entry into the astoundingly crowded “worst loss of the year” competition.

But, in the spirit of the 2018-19 Celtics, it was two steps forward, one step back with Monday’s loss.

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"We’ll be in that position again where something bad happens and the air gets taken out of your team a little bit, and you have to respond,” said Stevens. “Tonight, we didn’t do that.”

Later, he expanded on why that toughness is so important.

“You see it in the playoffs all the time … the circumstances of the game and the emotions of the game are hard to move past. But the great ones do. The great teams do and that’s just what you want to get to. You want to get tough enough as a group to be able to move onto what’s next. That doesn’t always happen. 

"Every game’s unique but you want to be able to do that as much of the time as possible. So I do think that, even though it is Game 70, 71, whatever it is, yeah, you remember this. You can sit back in the huddle and say, ‘When that happened last time, this ain’t happening again.’ And there can be a resolve in that, there can be a team-ness in that. But it’s going to take us to sit in there and do it for it to happen. And that’ll be — we’ll see.”

Stevens deserved a bit of the blame for Monday's game slipping away. He made a curious choice to call a timeout with 1.1 seconds remaining late in the third quarter in hopes of drawing up a play to get his team a last-gasp attempt. But the Celtics were taking the ball out beneath their own basket and Marcus Morris tried to force a long heave to Jaylen Brown that sailed out of bounds, giving the Nuggets another possession.

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That’s when Jaylen Brown fell asleep at the wheel, allowing Torrey Craig to sneak back door for an easy dunk that tied the game at 80. It was a demoralizing sequence and the Celtics’ body language at the quarter break spoke volumes about whether they were ready to respond.

The Nuggets got an easy alley-oop lob to Mason Plumlee on the first play of the fourth quarter, and the Celtics never recovered.

Stevens admitted he probably shouldn’t have called the timeout. Morris took blame for an unnecessary pass that, if it just ticks off someone’s hands, the clock at least runs out on the quarter.

But it’s these sort of moments that make you wonder just what this Celtics team is capable of. The team has essentially clung to the notion that — in an eyesore of a regular season, these sort of nights can be shrugged off now — but will they play with the effort and discipline necessary to thrive in the postseason? Is it reasonable to expect them to truly flip a switch?

"These type of games kinda wake you up and show you that you can’t be relaxed in the fourth quarter,” said Morris. "Take [the loss], we learn from it, get better.

“We just gotta do better.”

A. SHERROD BLAKELY

Listen, those Thomas-era teams had plenty of bad nights. For all their success, they also got steamrolled by the Cavaliers in the postseason. In the end, the talent disparity caught up with them.

The 2018-19 Celtics have all the necessary talent to compete for a title. The question is whether they are willing to work to be great. Can they show the sort of mental toughness and resolve that’s been so fleeting this season?

Wednesday’s visit to Philadelphia provides yet another opportunity to show what this team is capable of against elite-level competition. It’s particularly important given the jockeying for spots Nos. 3-5 in the East, with this being the final head-to-head matchup with the 76ers (and two more games with Indiana loom before the season’s end).

The No. 3 seed is there for the taking if Boston wants to work for it. That there’s uncertainty about whether they are willing to fight for that tells you a bit about where this team stands.

A lot of the frustrations of this season will be washed away if this team turns it on in the playoffs, if they reach their potential. But the regular-season wave has been tough to ride. This team remains hard for fans to wrap their arms around.

But Thomas showed it doesn’t take much. A healthy dose of toughness, effort, and heart go a long way towards endearing a team. The 2018-19 Celtics haven’t shown yet that they are willing to embrace those hallmarks and, thus, the fan base has struggled to embrace them.

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Brad Stevens-Isaiah Thomas bond as strong as ever

Brad Stevens-Isaiah Thomas bond as strong as ever

BOSTON -- As the Celtics and Nuggets locker rooms cleared out, Isaiah Thomas was doing what he has done quite a bit of when he was in Boston and since he left - talking with Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. 

The two have a connection that - even after Thomas left and is now on his third team in less than two years - is extremely tight. 

No surprise Stevens was among the biggest fans of the video tribute for Thomas following the first timeout in the first quarter of Denver's 114-105 victory on Monday night.

“Well-deserved ten times over,” said Stevens when asked about the reaction of the fans to Thomas’ video. “You know, like I can’t say enough great things about Isaiah. I could sit up here all night and certainly that video tribute was great. Our people did a great job on it; it was very  - it was emotional and it was - it could’ve lasted a lot longer. So, greatly appreciative of our time together and it was…I was glad that he got that moment.”

Celtics forward Marcus Morris echoed similar sentiments. 

“Great moment, man, for a guy like that who’s put his heart and soul into everything he did,” Morris told reporters after the game. “He deserved every second of that. Wish him nothing but the best down the road, just happy to see him out there.”

Thomas, who returned to the TD Garden for the first time healthy enough to play since being traded in 2017, described the tribute video as “special” before adding, “It was emotional. I almost cried. Yeah, almost. That was everything. That meant a lot.”

The same can be said for his relationship with Stevens, one in which the two have stayed in touch with conversations and text messages being exchanged according to Thomas, on a monthly basis. 

“He’s always somebody that sends a really nice text no matter what they’re going through or what I’m going through,” Thomas said of Stevens. “We stay in contact. He’s a big part of my career; the best coach I’ve ever been coached by.”

In Thomas’ two-plus seasons with the Celtics, he went from being a reserve who could provide an offensive lift off the bench, to becoming a two-time All-Star who evolved into the face of the franchise for his clutch shooting, particularly in the fourth quarter.

But a hip injury in the team’s 2017 playoff run sidelined him for the final two games of the Eastern Conference finals, and he was part of a blockbuster trade later that summer that shipped him off to Cleveland while Boston got six-time All-Star Kyrie Irving in return. 

Irving, who had spent his entire NBA career in Cleveland before demanding a trade in the summer of 2017 that eventually landed him in Boston, can understand the deep-rooted connections that Thomas feels with the Boston community. 

“You have a plan where you'd like to stay somewhere then the organization moves in another direction,” Irving told reporters. “We respect all those guys who are in the top positions to make those decisions but you can just see that the connection that guys have with fans that they build in the community sticks with them for the rest of their careers and the fans support them for the rest of their careers, for the most part at least. It’s just awesome. 

Irving added, “It’s well documented what he’s done here. For me, it’s a unique position because I’m the one that got traded for him. I just want to see him do well. We got drafted the same year. He’s dealt with a lot of BS in his career, just trying to be the underdog all of the time instead of getting the opportunity he deserves. Boston gave him that opportunity and he flourished. He’ll be back at the top of his game in no time. You don’t ever got to worry about a talented guy like that finding a job in the NBA and making an impact somewhere.”

And while Thomas has made it clear that his focus at the moment is doing all he can to help the Nuggets go deep as possible in the postseason (their win over Boston made them playoff-eligible for the first time since 2013), Thomas has made it clear that he’s more than open to the idea of coming back to Boston. 

“Why not? If the opportunity presents itself, that would be everything,” Thomas said. “I’m a Nugget right now. I’m happy to be here. The Nuggets organization has taken me in with open arms and given me a chance to work my way back on my time; I can’t thank them enough. But if that opportunity is there [to come back to Boston], I’m open.”

And that opportunity he speaks of includes more than just a shot at playing, but playing for Stevens, who remains an integral part of Thomas’ life.

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