After this latest stretch, and with lineup tweaks, these Celtics pass the eye test

After this latest stretch, and with lineup tweaks, these Celtics pass the eye test

It’s probably not a stretch to suggest that the Celtics have produced their most encouraging basketball of the season the past two weeks, particularly with two quality wins over an Indiana Pacers team they are likely to play in the opening round of the playoffs.

And, yet, if you’re slightly skeptical about whether this team can bottle up their quality play and carry it into the postseason, it’s understandable. Fans are Charlie Brown and the 2018-19 Celtics are Lucy, repeatedly pulling the good basketball away. Good grief.

Maybe we’re getting duped again but it’s hard to shake the feeling that these Celtics — maybe just maybe — might be peaking at the right time. For the first time all season, this team passes the eye test.

Make no mistake, the Celtics have had these encouraging stretches of play throughout the year. Heck, we’re getting deja vu just typing these words out. And, yet, even in those good stretches, this team was prone to maddening lulls and it was hard to know on a night-to-night basis who, outside of Kyrie Irving, was going to deliver a consistent performance.

While still far from perfect, things feel a little different the past few weeks. Brad Stevens (finally) shuffled an underperforming starting lineup, inserting Aron Baynes into a two-big lineup alongside Al Horford. Poof! Boston’s two-month defensive regression reversed almost immediately.

The Horford/Baynes combo has paired with Irving, Marcus Smart, and Jayson Tatum to start four of Boston’s last seven games. In that span, that five-man unit has played 45 minutes together, outscoring opponents by 21 points per 100 possessions in that span.

The Baynes/Horford pairing has played 76 minutes together over those seven games and Boston owns a net rating of plus-17.2 in that span, which includes a sizzling defensive rating of 98.1. More encouraging, the Celtics have deployed that two-big lineup against Indiana and found success in matching the Pacers’ physicality.

A chess match could loom in the postseason but Baynes has helped restore Boston’s defensive identity. The Celtics seemed particularly energized after Friday’s win in Indiana having held the Pacers under the century mark, maybe recognizing that much of Boston’s postseason success will hinge on its ability to ratchet up the defense.

It’s telling that Horford declared after Friday’s win that, “This was one of our better games this season by far.”

Horford continues to quietly be the glue that holds everything together for these Celtics. His on/off splits since the All-Star break are absurd, with Boston owning a team-best plus-9.0 rating in Horford’s 577 minutes of floor time. That number plummets to a team-worst minus-12.5 in the 479 minutes Horford has been off the court.

It happened again Friday night. Boston had a net rating of plus-34.6 in Horford’s 27 minutes, and it dipped to minus-2.2 in the 21 minutes he was on the bench. Only Gordon Hayward (plus-37.9 on, minus-11.0 off had more jarring splits in Friday’s game). 

Hayward, of course, is maybe the biggest difference in these Celtics recently. Since returning from a concussion, Hayward’s stat lines jump off the page. He’s averaging 16.4 points on 58.8 percent shooting to go with 6.1 rebounds and 2.9 assists over 28.8 minutes per game. On Friday night, Hayward didn’t miss on nine attempts and continued to attack the basket with a confidence that escaped him for much of the season.

Even before he harnessed this confidence and aggression, the numbers suggested that Boston was simply a different team when Hayward is something better than average. Consider this: The Celtics are …

* 17-3 when Hayward scores 15 points or more
* 25-3 when Hayward shoots 50 percent or better in a game
* 17-3 when Hayward has a Game Score better than 13

Game Score is a noisy metric that attempts to condense a player’s box score data into one easy to digest number. Here’s all you need to know: Hayward didn’t miss on Friday night and it was only his sixth highest Game Score of the season (20.9). More encouraging: Some of his best Game Scores have come against top competition, including Golden State (30.5) and Philadelphia (23.0). Hayward also had one of his top 5 Game Scores in Miami earlier this week (25.0). 

Hayward so frequently makes the right play when he’s out on the court and, when you pair him with another right-play-maker in Horford, good things consistently happen. It’s unfair to expect that Hayward can be a dominant force every night in the postseason, there’s still going to be times when his body balks or his shot doesn’t fall. But he’s making things easier on himself by attacking the basket and not settling for long jumpers. He’s getting to the free-throw line even more regularly with a renewed confidence and fearlessness to absorb contact.

And it feels as if Stevens is just waiting to crank the knob on his minutes in the postseason. Whether he’s in the current bench role or maybe elevates to a starter role in small-ball lineups deeper into a potential postseason run, it feels like 30+ minutes of Hayward could really make Boston a different team.

Like Hayward, the Celtics simply pass the eye test right now. They’ve less frequently allowed teams to go on runs, they more consistently look for good shots. They don’t crumble at the first hint of adversity anymore.

The Celtics have done all this while still dealing with minor maladies and maybe the biggest challenge for Stevens is simply figuring out how to keep all his guys playing at a high level, particularly when minutes become scarcer as the playoffs arrive.

This is not to suggest that the Celtics are going to storm the playoffs. While they are clearly a more talented team than Indiana, it seems fair to suggest that wins won’t come quite as easy as they did Friday night when the playoffs start. The Pacers are still going to make Boston work, particularly with their physicality.

Even if the Celtics advance, things get daunting in a hurry with a likely second-round matchup opening on the road against Giannis and the Bucks. But if fans were leery of a quick postseason stay a few weeks ago based on how the Celtics looked, then maybe there’s a bit more optimism about whether this team can push the East’s elite.

Lucy could still pull that football. Nothing about the Celtics’ 2018-19 season suggests that anything is a given. But we’ve seen more encouraging stretches of good basketball lately than at any other point in the season.

A month ago, when the Celtics were clinging to a “flip the switch” possibility, it was fair to laugh and suggest they didn’t even know where that switch was. Now, it at least feels like they have a floor plan and a general idea of where they need to get to.

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Kemba Walker ready to adjust his role and share the scoring with his new Celtics teammates

Kemba Walker ready to adjust his role and share the scoring with his new Celtics teammates

Celtics point guard Kemba Walker admits that, in order for his new team to maximize its potential, he needs to alter his offensive approach. Fresh off inking his max contract, the eight-year veteran said he’s on board with deferring to the new talent that now surrounds him.

“[My role] does [need to change], and I’m looking forward to it,” Walker said on the latest Celtics Talk Podcast. "It’s something new. It’s not as big of a burden, I feel like, on my back. It’s like, I had to be perfect every night in Charlotte. Had to be. I had to have a great game, offensively, if not, it will be a struggle for us to win. Like I said, with the personnel, we have on this team and the way these guys can score, it’ll be different.”

The Celtics landed Walker on a four-year, $141 million deal. With the Hornets, Walker was forced to shoulder much of the scoring burden and sometimes even big outputs weren’t enough to will Charlotte to wins (Walker had seven games of 40-plus points last season and Charlotte lost six of them, the only win coming against Boston).

Walker ranked ninth in the NBA in usage rate last season at 30.8 percent. That was one spot ahead of ball-dominant Russell Westbrook and two spots ahead of Kawhi Leonard. Which is to say that Walker is used to finishing possessions but seems on board with giving it up more. Kyrie Irving ranked 17th in the NBA in usage at 28.6 last year.

Walker cited young players Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown as reasons he wanted to come to Boston and he’s eager to use his talents to get them scoring opportunities. A healthier Gordon Hayward is going to demand more possessions as well and the team can lean on his ball-handling skills, especially when Walker isn’t on the court.

Walker said he’s excited about the potential. 

"I think there will be a lot of space. I’m a willing passer as well. I’m very unselfish,” said Walker. "I love to score, don’t get it twisted. Whenever I have an opportunity to score, I’m going to score. But, when I draw defenders and see open guys, I’m going to get rid of that thing. I’m excited. I’m looking forward to kinda changing my game as well, just giving the ball up a lot more.”

Coming off a season in which Irving’s missteps as a leader contributed to friction with younger players, Walker’s arrival begs the question of whether he can maximize their talents. While he’s expressed a desire to help those players grow — while also suggesting that he yearns to learn from them and their playoff experiences -- Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge remains staunch that Walker simply needs to be the best version of himself.

"I don't really look for other people to draw out anything from anybody,” said Ainge. "I expect him to be at his best, that's all. Work hard and be who he is. He doesn't have to try to draw anything out from any of the other guys...It's not anybody's responsibility to draw the best out in every other player.”

Added Ainge: "I see Kemba as a good fit with anybody. He's a really good player. He's smart and is experienced and wants to win. He's accomplished a lot of things individually and he just really hasn't been able to accomplish the team goals since winning the national championship in college. But I think that's what he is hoping for. He's at the stage of his life where that's all that matters.”

Walker landed on the All-NBA third team this past season. He averaged a career-best 25.6 points per game but has shot just 41.8 percent from the floor from his career and 35.7 percent beyond the arc. The Celtics are hoping that with more skill around him, Walker can ratchet up his overall efficiency. He averaged 5.9 assists per game last season and that number could spike if Tatum, Brown, and Hayward elevate their offensive output this season.

It is, of course, easier to say you want to morph your game in July than it is to actually do it on the court in October. But Walker has repeatedly stressed a desire to win after limited playoff exposure in Charlotte. Given some of the losses on the defensive side of the ball, particularly in the frontcourt, it’s imperative that the Celtics play with high efficiency on the offensive end. Walker’s ability to maximize opportunities for himself and his teammates could be key in Boston’s success in the 2019-20 season.

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NBA Rumors: Clippers offered Marcus Morris large contract at start of free agency

NBA Rumors: Clippers offered Marcus Morris large contract at start of free agency

It's been a tumultuous offseason for Marcus Morris.

The former Celtics forward stirred up some controversy when he backed out of his agreement with the Spurs to sign with the Knicks in free agency. San Antonio offered Morris a two-year, $20 million deal, but he ultimately chose New York's one-year, $15 million offer instead.

That decision led to Morris parting ways with his agent, Rich Paul, and the Spurs reportedly being "pissed" about the 29-year-old's change of heart.

Apparently, San Antonio's offer wasn't the only one Morris turned down. According to Frank Isola of The Athletic, he also declined a three-year, $41 million offer from the Clippers at the start of free agency.

Isola writes:

Morris, however, lost out on a much more lucrative contract with the LA Clippers, who were prepared to pay him $41 million over three seasons. A Clippers source said the three-year deal included a provision for Morris to receive 50 percent of his salary on Oct. 1.

Morris was hoping to earn $40 million over two years but the Clippers couldn’t offer that deal if they wanted to sign Kawhi Leonard to a max contract. Once Morris took that stance, the Clippers moved on and acquired Portland’s Maurice Harkless in a four-team trade that included Jimmy Butler signing with the Miami Heat. Harkless will earn $11 million next season, or $2 million less than what Morris would have made with the Clippers.

The Clippers certainly aren't losing sleep over Morris declining their offer. They went on to sign superstar Kawhi Leonard and trade for another star in Paul George.

As for Morris, he might regret overestimating his market value early in the offseason. Fortunately for him, he'll get another shot at it next July with a new agent.