Celtics

Blakely's Takeaways: C's can't close out, Brad Wanamaker earning coaching staff's trust

Blakely's Takeaways: C's can't close out, Brad Wanamaker earning coaching staff's trust

Kawhi Leonard was playing his first game with Paul George, providing the Boston Celtics with the first shot at what many - myself included - believe is the best 1-2 punch in the NBA. 

The Los Angeles Clippers’ dynamic duo did not disappoint, delivering big plays at both ends of the floor. 

But what makes the Clippers so special isn’t the fact that they have Leonard and George leading the way. 

It’s the players around them. 

And it was those players that ultimately proved to be the difference as the Clippers handed the Celtics a 107-104 overtime loss. 

Patrick Beverley, an 18.9 percent 3-point shooter coming into Wednesday’s game, was 4-for-7 on 3’s which included one that put them ahead 107-102 with less than a minute to play in overtime. He finished with a double-double of 14 points and 16 rebounds to go with seven assists, three steals and two blocked shots. 

And then there was supersub Lou Williams who led all Clippers with 27 points off the bench. The Clippers also got solid games from JaMychal Green (10 points, eight rebounds) and Montrezl Harrell (six points, six rebounds and three assists).

Boston’s bench played a solid game, but the Clippers still managed to outscore Boston’s backups 43-29. 

Here are five takeaways from the Celtics’ loss to the Clippers. 

Fourth Quarter Letdown

The Boston Celtics have shown a level of grit and toughness when the game has been on the line. But what we saw on Wednesday was a rare Celtics meltdown in the fourth quarter. Boston would pull ahead by as many as 10 points in the fourth quarter only for the Clippers to rally to take the lead in the fourth only for Boston’s Jayson Tatum to hit a 3-pointer, and send Paul George tumbling to the ground on the play, that forced overtime. 

It was a good game on many levels for Boston. They proved that they could indeed hold their own with one of the elite teams in the NBA. But this is a game that Boston should have won. After missing all but one of the 18 three-pointers they took in the first half, they connected on 7-of-10 in the third and were well-positioned going into the fourth with a six-point lead that they would push to double digits. 

Boston has shown us enough for us to know that they are a good team. But this is the kind of loss that reminds us all that as good as the Celtics are, there are still levels of play that they are not at yet and because of that, that makes them vulnerable in close, down-to-the-wire games against an elite team like the Clippers which if they’re not careful, will spell defeat more times than not. 

Patrick Beverley

He’s more than just a defender. Ask the Boston Celtics who found this out the hard way after Beverley single-handedly carried the Clippers for long stretches at both ends of the floor. He would finish with a double-double of 14 points and 16 rebounds to go with seven assists, three steals and a pair of blocked shots. 

Of course the focus after this game in Clipperland will be on Paul George (25 points, eight assists) and Kawhi Leonard (17 points, six rebounds) and Lou Williams (team-high 27 points).

But their presence affords the Clippers’ role players like Beverley, an opportunity to make plays and be a difference-maker. 

“You have to pick your poison,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens told reporters when discussing Beverley’s big game. 

And Beverley made the Celtics pay for that, whether it was scoring, rebounding, finding teammates or knocking down 3’s. 

Jayson Tatum

It seems every time Jayson Tatum steps on the court, he moves one step closer to becoming the all-star, difference-maker so many believe he will eventually evolve into for the Celtics. 

He led all players with 30 points on 12-for-24 shooting which included a game-tying 3-pointer in the fourth quarter that forced overtime. Making plays in the clutch is becoming something that Tatum is becoming more comfortable with which is great for the Celtics. We know that Kemba Walker is one of the best late-game scorers out there. But to see Tatum’s development along those lines bodes well for his future as not only a talented player in this league but potentially one of the best wings in the NBA. 

Three-point shooting

It was a tale of two halves for the Boston Celtics when it came to 3-point shooting. First half, they were as bad as we’ve ever seen them with misses on 17 of their 18 three-point attempts. In the second half they were much better with 11 makes in 27 attempts. 

There is no getting around the fact that the Los Angeles Clippers are a strong team defensively, especially on the perimeter with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard who together form the best two-way tandem in the NBA.

And to see Boston struggle so mightily on the perimeter, makes sense because of the aforementioned defensive stalwarts. 

Don’t be fooled, people. 

Boston’s struggles from 3-point range had more to do with the Celtics simply not making the most of their opportunities to take control of the game. While it’s understandable how they wanted to keep firing from 3-point range in the first half, those 3’s took away from Boston’s ability to get points around the rim which seemed to be a much easier path towards generating offense against the Clippers. 

For the game, Boston scored 52 points in the paint on 26-for-45 (57.8 percent) shooting compared to the Clippers who tallied 32 points in the paint on 16-for-34 (47.1 percent) shooting from the field. 

Finding a better balance of scoring at the rim and shooting 3’s will be key to Boston closing out their West coast trip with a win at Denver on Friday night. 

Brad Wanamaker

When I told our Boston Sports Tonight crew that the player to keep an eye on in tonight’s game against the Clippers should be Brad Wanamaker, they had a hard time buying that which I could understand. 

But here’s the thing. 

A big game from Wanamaker - relatively speaking of course - was EXACTLY what the Celtics were going to need to have a shot at beating the Clippers.

And Wanamaker delivered with a season-high 14 points to go with five assists and a plus-minus of +6 which was better than all of the Celtics starters and second only to Grant Williams (+7) among reserves to log at least 20 minutes of court time. 

With his playing time steadily on the rise (he played a career-high 30 minutes at Phoenix on Monday), it’s clear that Wanamaker has gained the trust of Brad Stevens and the coaching staff. 

And the more you watch him play, you can see why. He’s a solid backup point guard who doesn’t wow you with any one or two things, but does enough when he’s in the game for most to understand that his play more than anything else, has a positive impact on winning. 

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In quest for an Embiid stopper, Celtics best option might be what they've got

In quest for an Embiid stopper, Celtics best option might be what they've got

Joel Embiid’s dominant two-way performance Thursday night in Boston won’t do much to ease fans who remain convinced that Celtics bigs aren't stout enough to hold up in an Eastern Conference in which many of Boston’s primary rivals — including Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Indiana, and Toronto — have All-Star talent at frontcourt positions.

From this vantage point, Enes Kanter and Daniel Theis held up about as well as could be reasonably expected. Yes, Embiid put up 38 points and 13 rebounds, all while limiting his turnovers and made some a couple key defensive plays late in the game (including absolutely smothering a Theis dunk attempt). 

Still, Kanter and Theis both put up season highs for scoring while pairing up for 36 points and 14 rebounds. As coach Brad Stevens suggested after the game, " I guess I'd take 38 to 36 in that matchup.”

The lingering question is whether the Celtics, now 0-2 against Philadelphia this season, should feel confident in their ability to match up with the 76ers should the two teams cross paths in the postseason.

Two more regular-season matchups — one in Philadelphia early in the new calendar year (Jan. 9) and another in Boston on Feb. 1 — will offer more chances for the Celtics to gauge where they stand against Philly. Both sides were missing key parts — the Celtics without Marcus Smart; Sixers without Al Horford — and full-strength rosters will offer a better sense of whether Boston’s frontcourt can hold up in a seven-game series.

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Ultimately, the Celtics might have no other choice. A lack of tradable contracts means they can’t deal for a top-line center without sending out one of the team's core players. Theis, at 6-8, despite giving up size in matchups against players such as Embiid, has been excellent this season and the Celtics need a 5-man that is content to do the little things and take open shots when they come in the rhythm of the offense.

Looking around the league, particularly at those players that might be able to best joust with Embiid, it’s hard to find a player that the Celtics could reasonably target as an in-season addition.

In the quest to identify players that have best held up against Embiid in recent seasons, we parsed the NBA’s defensive tracking data. First, we examined every player that has defended Embiid for at least 20 partial possessions this year to find players that have had the best individual success. Ten players emerge, a snapshot of the names: 

MARC GASOL

The dreamiest of in-season additions — just ask the defending champion Raptors — Gasol has defended Embiid for a total of 14:23 this season and has allowed a measly 2 points and ZERO field goals on 12 shot attempts while creating seven turnovers. Some Celtics fans came into the season dreaming of a scenario in which the Raptors struggled early, started moving pieces, and maybe Gasol and his $25.6 million salary somehow landed on the buyout market. That’s definitely not happening now with the Raptors right on Boston’s heels and playing some incredibly inspired ball this season during a Kawhi-less defense of their title.

TAJ GIBSON

One of the more interesting names on the list, the 34-year-old Gibson has only 6 minutes of matchup minutes this season against Embiid but has limited him to 6 points on 2-of-9 shooting. Embiid’s offensive rating is just 100 in the 25 minutes that Gibson and Embiid have shared the court this season, all the more impressive given the sorry state of the Knicks. Gibson is earning $9 million this season with a nonguaranteed salary. He’s exactly the sort of piece that the Knicks should yearn to move for future assets. The question is whether Gibson’s success is a small sample and whether you get enough value out of an in-season acquisition. On the positive side, he is a 10-year veteran with eight years of playoff experience and played with Kanter in Oklahoma City.

DON’T EVEN BOTHER DREAMING ABOUT THESE GUYS

Among the top Embiid stoppers this year: Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert (pictured), All-NBA big man Nikola Jokic, and Knicks swat-happy youngster Mitchell Robinson. You’re not getting any of these guys, so let’s just move right along despite the fact that they’ve all held Embiid to 37.5 percent shooting or less.

TRISTAN THOMPSON

Slowly becoming the leader in the “If he gets bought out, the Celtics should swoop him up!” references among Boston fans. But the data isn’t quite as bullish. Thompson has defended Embiid on 50.7 partial possessions this season and allowed 31 points on 12-of-21 shooting over 14 minutes of matchup time. That’s the second-worst mark among high-volume defenders (in front of only LaMarcus Aldridge). Thompson is still an intriguing option because of his rebounding abilities, his playoff experience, and his potential to impact the offense as a fourth or fifth option. Alas, Thompson has his limitation — as seen in Boston when he went 1-for-7 at the free-throw line and committed five turnovers. He was minus-22 in a game in which he went 8-for-11 with 17 points and 11 rebounds.

STEVEN ADAMS

A popular option among Celtics fans entering the season, at least when ignoring the fact that he’s making $25.8 million this season. Boston would have to move someone like Hayward as part of a trade. That’s not happening, and especially not with the way Adams has defended Embiid this season. In nine minutes of matchup time, Embiid has put up 24 points on 9-of-16 shooting, making four triples against Adams, too. Data from 2017-18 season confirms his struggles, Embiid shooting 60 percent (12 of 20) in 19:37 of matchup time.

AND BACK TO THE CELTICS

Then, of course, there is Kanter (pictured), who has limited Embiid to 38.9 percent shooting (7 of 18) in 12 minutes of matchup time this season. Kanter held up particularly well on Thursday, especially when you consider that Embiid shot 77.8 percent against all other Celtics defenders. For all the complaints about Kanter’s defense, it’s his struggles in the pick-and-roll that fall in the spotlight and he actually does well in post-up situations.

It's fair to be skeptical about whether Kanter can hold the fort for a seven-game series. Kanter has been on the floor for 46 of Embiid’s 60 minutes against the Celtics this season and the Philadelphia big man has an offensive rating of 109.3 in that span. The thing is Embiid’s offensive rating spikes to an absurd 142.9 in the 14 minutes with Theis as primary defender instead of Kanter.

Having Smart might help, though Philadelphia’s offensive rating was still elite (114.7) in the 16 minutes that Embiid and Smart shared the court in the first matchup.

To be certain, Boston did not lose either of the first two matchups against Philadelphia because of an inability to defend Embiid. He hurt Boston not only with his scoring Thursday but with an ability to pass out of double teams that Boston sent and the Celtics simply have to be crisper when they commit extra bodies.

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Is there anyone else out there available at a reasonable price that could help Boston’s frontcourt defense? We rolled the defensive data back to last year’s regular-season and crunched to players with around 20 Embiid field-goal attempts defended. Yet again, a who’s who of Eastern Conference bigs emerged from Horford (14-37 FG, 37.8 percent) to Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic (13-31, 41.9 percent) to Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner (a combined 25-52, 48 percent). 

Some of the names that fared well and might be available would include Cody Zeller (11-26, 42.3 percent in 21 minutes of matchup time) and Willie Cauley-Stein (8-20, 40 percent in 13 minutes). One completely random wild card to throw in here: Old friend Ante Zizic, who defended Embiid for 12:16 last season and limited him to 5-of-17 shooting (29.4 percent) with five turnovers. It was the lowest shooting percentage among any player with at least 15 shot attempts defended. A small sample size? Probably. Though, in a measly minute of defensive matchup time earlier this season, Embiid went scoreless while missing two shots.

The question becomes whether the Celtics should sacrifice future draft assets and risk tweaking the chemistry on the team in hopes of what might only be a marginal upgrade. It’s also prudent to want to see this team at full strength before declaring just how much of an issue the big-man depth could be. 

Remember, too, that Robert Williams' development could be huge here. Grant Williams’ ability to play small-ball 5 against bigs could dictate the desire for a move. Maybe Vincent Poirier gets an opportunity to show whether he can joust further out.

For now, the best option seems to be for the Celtics to stick with what they’ve got and find a longer-term plan to beef up that 5 spot, especially given the talent their primary conference rivals have in their frontcourts.


 

How Tacko Fall, Carsen Edwards, Romeo Langford and Tremont Waters fared for Red Claws on Friday

How Tacko Fall, Carsen Edwards, Romeo Langford and Tremont Waters fared for Red Claws on Friday

The Maine Red Claws had plenty of star power for Friday night's game vs. the Iowa Wolves. 

Tacko Fall, Carsen Edwards, Tremont Waters and Romeo Langford each suited up for Maine in its 127-121 victory. It marked Edwards' first game with the Red Claws, as well as both Tacko Fall and Romeo Langford's first game back from injury.

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Here's how the four Celtics rookies performed:

TACKO FALL

Tacko made his mark in his 14 minutes played on Friday night. The 7-foot-5 phenom contributed 13 points on 5-for-8 shooting while bringing down 5 rebounds.

CARSEN EDWARDS

Edwards was solid in his first game in a Red Claws uniform as he racked up 17 points on 6-of-11 shooting (2-for-9 from 3-pt).

ROMEO LANGFORD

Langford was slow out the gate, but picked it up in the second half to finish with 8 points, 3 assists and 3 rebounds. The Celtics' No. 14 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft will look to simply stay healthy going forward, as he's dealt with a nagging ankle injury all season.

TREMONT WATERS

Waters, the G League Player of the Month for November, was relatively quiet in this one. The LSU product dropped 8 points while adding 3 assists in 27 minutes.

Also with standout performances were Yante Maten (26 points, 16 rebounds), Kaiser Gates (17 points, 7 rebounds), Bryce Brown (15 points, 4 assists) and Justin Bibbs (12 points, 6 rebounds).

Next, the Red Claws will take on the Grand Rapids Drive on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET.