Celtics

Blakely: High expectations now make a rare blowout worse

Blakely: High expectations now make a rare blowout worse

BOSTON – As I watched the Celtics melt into a big old puddle of who-knows-what-the-hell-that-was last night at Chicago, I was angry.

This should not be happening.

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Sure, it’s just one of 82 games.

But there is no way they should be getting throttled like this to Chicago, the team with the worst record in the NBA (now 6-20) for whom, let’s be honest...losing advances the Bulls' goal this season, which is to be in the best position possible to land one of the top picks in the draft.

The more I thought about it, the loss wasn’t what upset me the most.

I was pissed off mainly because they got beat down by a bad team, which says more about my expectations for this team and the expectations of most Celtics fans, than anything else.

Those expectations are sky high these days, and for good reason.

Boston (23-6) has the best record in the Eastern Conference after owning the league’s best record overall following a historic 16 consecutive wins, which is the fourth-longest winning streak in franchise history. 

Kyrie Irving has been a one-man highlight reel all season. Jayson Tatum has been better than anyone predicted. Jaylen Brown is a more rounded offensive player, Aron Baynes has been awesome, Daniel Theis...the list of reasons why optimism for this team is so high is a long one.

That kind of success, with such a young core of players, is rare.

So, to see them get thumped 108-85 by the Bulls was jarring to say the least.

But as I skimmed the calendar to see how many more days could I blow off Christmas shopping before rush delivery wouldn’t get to places in time, I was reminded that the Celtics season is more than a third of the way complete.

And we’re talking about their first blowout loss of the season?

It was disappointing for all involved, for sure.

But the fact that we’re this far down the road in this season before having to overreact to a bad loss, speaks to the growth of this team under Brad Stevens.

Let’s put it this way.

Boston’s first beatdown this season came in Game No. 29 if you’re keeping track at home.

The latest the Celtics’ first loss by 15 or more came under Stevens prior to this season? Game No. 14 in the 2015-16 season.

They got crushed 121-97 in that game by an Atlanta Hawks team led by some dude named Al Horford.

If there’s one characteristic of Stevens teams that has carried on from one team to the next in his five seasons in Boston, it's their competitive spirit.

They may not have been the most talented teams, but you knew his guys were going to scrap and claw while suffering through a few setbacks – some worse than others - along the way.

But this season is different.

Even with Gordon Hayward going down with a season-ending (we think) left ankle injury, Boston has shown itself to be a resilient bunch by winning at a ridiculously high clip.

And in doing so, their success being undermanned has created a set of expectations that they can come back from any deficit and find victory.

But the real comeback for fans was the sobering back-to-earth reality of Monday’s loss, a game in which a team that has been as successful as the Celtics this season can lose if they’re not careful.

Still, we’re talking about the team with the best record in the East getting handed its first blowout loss of the season - in December.

Since 2008, only three other Celtics teams went this deep into the season before suffering their first loss by 15 or more points.

And of those three teams, two of them (2008 and 2010) went on to the NBA Finals.

Disappointed with the loss to the Bulls still?

I am.

But knowing how the Celtics have finished in recent years when they’ve avoided the big beatdown for as long as they have this season, it’s a little easier to move on from whatever-the-hell-that-was we saw last night in Chicago.

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Jaylen Brown plays 1-on-1 with Tracy McGrady

Jaylen Brown plays 1-on-1 with Tracy McGrady

As the Celtics continue their offseason and Summer League playoff run, Jaylen Brown has been working out with a newly inducted member of the Basketball Hall of Fame in Tracy McGrady. 

The young star is coming off a sophomore campaign where he was second on the team in scoring in both the regular season (14.5) and playoffs (18.0). On Sunday, a video sufaced of Brown and McGrady playing a game of 1-on-1 with no dribbling. 

McGrady averaged over 20 points per game from 2000-2008, and seems to still have an innate ability to score. 

Brown was a key factor in the injury-riddled Celtics coming within one win of an NBA Finals appearance. The main storyline heading into the 2018-19 season for the Celtics will be the return of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, but let's not forget about the growth of Brown and Jayson Tatum.

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Jabari Bird works hard . . . and plays well

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Jabari Bird works hard . . . and plays well

During Las Vegas Summer League play, the Celtics' Jabari Bird has been a human highlight reel-in-waiting every time he's stepped on the floor.

But while people may see Bird's breakout performances, they haven't seen what led to them: The 6 a.m. workouts near San Francisco that he would drive an hour to attend earlier this summer, and the film sessions breaking down the 400 or so shots he would take -- and make -- per workout.

There is an under-the-radar, stealth-like grind about Bird that has helped him stand out as one of the top players for Boston’s Summer League team . . . and, just as important, better secure a place for himself in the NBA next season.

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“Everybody here at Summer League has to be impressed by the way he’s playing,” Celtics assistant and Summer League coach Jay Larranaga told reporters recently.

Bird will look to continue his strong play tonight in the Celtics' Summer League playoff matchup against the Portland Trail Blazers at 8 p.m. He was given a rest and didn't play in yesterday's 74-72 win over Miami, so will take team-high averages of 16.8 point and 6.0 rebounds into tonight's game. He's also shooting 57.1 percent from the field and is second on the C's in steals (1.8 per game).

The numbers are strong, clearly. But Bird’s work ethic, more than the eye-popping moves on the floor, is what has allowed him to stand out in Las Vegas.

Player development trainer Packie Turner of Unlimited Potential Basketball has worked with Bird dating back to his junior season at Cal and has been pleased with how the 24-year-old has made the most of his opportunity this summer.

“He’s built for today’s game,” said Turner who has worked with two-time league MVP Stephen Curry, his brother Seth Curry, and Sacramento’s Skal Labissiere, among others. “[Bird] can defend, he can shoot,  he can score. Three-and-D (defense) guys are everywhere now.”

And it is that versatility that promtped Boston to take Bird with the 56th overall pick in last year’s NBA draft, and later sign him to a two-way contract.

Bird had an injury-riddled first season shuffling back and forth between the Celtics and their Gatorade League affiliate, the Maine Red Claws. But after the C' shad secured the second-best record in the East, with no shot at moving up to the top spot, Bird was among the players to see extensive playing time late in the season.

And to his credit, he didn’t disappoint.

He played so well that there was a swelling level of interest among Celtics fans who wanted to see Boston carve out a spot on the playoff roster for Bird. (However, players signed to two-way contracts are ineligible to be on their respective team’s playoff roster.)

Bird had a taste of being active on an NBA roster, and he clearly wanted more.

Turner could sense something was different with Bird shortly after his rookie season had ended and he returned to the Bay Area, setting up workouts with an earlier-than-usual start time of 6 a.m.

“He has always wanted to be in the gym,” Turner told NBC Sports Boston. “But you could tell, he could see how close he was and came in committed to doing everything he could to make it happen, now.”

Bird, a prep All-American before choosing the Cal Bears over a bevy of college suitors, was a high-flyer from the jump. But Turner wanted to see him expand that athleticism beyond playing above the rim.

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“I thought back then he used [his athleticism] vertically, but didn’t use it laterally,” Turner said. “He’s gotten a lot better laterally using his athleticism. That’s an area we can get better with as far as how he attacks side-to-side . . . just big explosive movements and not getting upright in those moments. He knows how to do it around the rim, a lot of put-backs; he’s active around the glass. I want him to use that same athleticism on a step-back, or a move to clear space.”

We have seen more of that in Summer League, which has made Bird a more versatile, more attractive target for teams. The Celtics made him a qualifying offer earlier this summer, making him a restricted free agent.
 
Bird has shrugged off talk surrounding his basketball fate beyond this summer, aware that thinking too much about it can do no good.
 
“I’m not too concerned with what’s going on as far as my future and things like that,” Bird told NBC Sports Boston near the end of the regular season when he got his first opportunity to play decent minutes. “I’m trying to control what I can control, and that’s going out and play hard every game."

Bird added: “I’m just trying to show everyone in this organization that I’m a good ballplayer.”

Jaylen Brown, a teammate of Bird’s at Cal, was among the first to put folks on alert that Bird had NBA-caliber talent.

“I’m telling you, he’s a really, really good player,” Brown told NBC Sports Boston. “When he gets his chance, and he’ll get it, he’ll show everyone. You’ll see.”

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