Celtics

Can Brad Stevens fix all that ails the Celtics?

Can Brad Stevens fix all that ails the Celtics?

Maybe Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens could sense the frustration in his team’s locker room following Saturday’s embarrassing loss to the Los Angeles Clippers because, before the room opened to reporters, Stevens did all he could to direct the criticism for his team’s 28-point collapse to himself.

"I think I need to look at myself first and figure out what I can do to help [Boston giving away big leads] not happen,” said Stevens, whose team fumbled away double-digit leads in consecutive games with disappointing losses to both Los Angeles teams. "If that means we need to play different rotations, call different things, start differently in quarters than we are, whatever the case may be, there’s an answer out there and we just have to find it.”

Where should Stevens start his search for answers? A few thoughts: 

GET SOME MORE JUICE

Stevens noted how Boston’s defense in the middle quarters has been bad all season, particularly compared to the first and fourth quarters. He wondered out loud if he has to manage those minutes better, hinting as possible rotation tweaks.

A look at what Stevens is referring to:

Celtics defensive rating by quarter (with league rank): 
1st          99.2 (1st)
2nd        109.3 (13th)
3rd        109.5 (15th)
4th        104.5 (4th)
Total     105.5 (5th)

The second-quarter woes can be explained away, in part, due to the the way Boston leans on reserve-heavy units early in the second frame. The Celtics’ bench players have struggled with consistency this year, explaining some of the slippage. The third-quarter struggles are a bit more confounding, particularly given how good Boston’s starters have been at the start and end of games. 

The starting 5 that Boston has had in place since Nov. 26, the day Marcus Morris and Marcus Smart shuffled into starting roles, has been one of the best five-man groups in the NBA this season. Among the 23 high-volume lineups with 250+ minutes of floor time this season, Boston’s starting 5 ranks eighth in the NBA with a net rating of plus-11.9.

Slightly more concerning is that Boston’s starting group has a net rating of minus-2.4 over the past five games, a big dropoff from the numbers that had them lingering next to Golden State’s most-common 5-man lineup before diving a bit recently.

Morris went so far as to suggest that the team could shuffle him to a reserve role if it would help.

"We have to genuinely want to win, that has to be the first goal, whatever that change is, I’m with it,” said Morris. "They want to take me out of the starting lineup, get some juice in there, I’m with it, man. But I’m trying to win.”

Morris might have been suggesting that it was time for Jaylen Brown, whose nicknames include Juice, to elevate back to the starting group. 

A better compromise for Stevens might be sticking with the current starting group but examining whether the team needs to tweak lineups at the start of the second half. Stevens often modified his lineups to open the second half in past seasons while searching for certain matchups, advantages, or just a jolt of energy.

TIME(OUT) FOR A CHANGE

Stevens is a card-carrying member of the Gregg Popovich Early Timeout Fan Club. Stevens routinely calls timeouts early in quarters when his team’s execution or focus is suspect. It feels like there’s been an awful lot of early third-quarter timeouts this season, including one just 2:02 into second half on Saturday night after the Clippers chipped a 21-point halftime deficit to 17.

But Stevens noticeably didn’t call a timeout the rest of the third quarter Saturday as Boston’s lead whittled to five. His next timeout didn’t come until there was 3:19 remaining and Boston had fallen behind by four points.

"My err is always on the side of letting us play through it and having to find ways, so you can save those going into the fourth [quarter],” said Stevens. “Ultimately, maybe that’s one of the things I need to do differently with this group. Maybe that’ll help.”

Stevens has often noted how his team needs to be better able to able to stem runs, pointing out the differences between an 11-0 run and, say, a 9-4 burst. 

Stevens likes to stash timeouts for crunch time but he might have to be more willing to call timeout when runs get uncomfortable, regardless of when they happen. Simply being able to draw up a play might help his team stunt a run.

COACHING THROUGH EXPECTATIONS 

Stevens hasn’t been perfect this season and he’d be the first to admit it. But his biggest challenge might be right in front of him now, and it might not be as easy to fix as a rotation change.

On the heels of Morris’ comments about a joyless team, Stevens has to make sure his team rallies in the aftermath of the critique, and doesn’t crumble.

Clearly, the Celtics have struggled with the burden of expectations this season. The team’s identity for much of the Stevens era has been a spunky bunch of overachievers who spit in the face of adversity and play their best basketball when everyone else counts them out.

This year’s team hasn’t routinely displayed the sort of mental toughness that past teams routinely oozed. The uneven start to the season led to frustrations (Marcus Smart venting in Portland) and some finger-pointing (Kyrie Irving calling out the younger players in Orlando, then admitting his missteps as a leader in the aftermath). It’s all contributed to a weird dynamic in the Celtics’ locker room this year, one in which it feels like Boston younger players might be walking on eggshells at times. The speculation about Irving’s future and Boston’s not-so-subtle planned pursuit of Anthony Davis this summer has maybe only added some awkwardness to it all. 

Stevens’ challenge now is getting his players to simply focus on playing basketball. As frustrating as the last two games have been, the Celtics were rolling before that, sandwiching two five-game winning streaks around a competitive loss to the Golden State Warriors.

The Celtics need to get past their lingering issues and simply embrace the championship pursuit. This team is clearly capable of competing with the league’s elite, but Boston has put itself in a tough position by playing down to lesser competition and letting their issues fester this far into the season.

While Stevens and the Celtics have had minor issues in past seasons, this simply feels like a key moment for this year’s group. How the Celtics respond could dictate just how the rest of the season plays out. Stevens has to get his players to rally around the notion of just playing basketball and leaving all the other drama and distractions behind them.

Stevens has to help his team find the joy that Morris says has been fleeting this season.

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If Jayson Tatum wants to play for Celtics his entire career, he can force the issue

If Jayson Tatum wants to play for Celtics his entire career, he can force the issue

For someone who didn’t play in Sunday night's main event, Jayson Tatum sure made the most of All-Star Weekend. 

He left us aww-ing when he brought his young son onto the court after the Rising Stars practice (with Danny Ainge joking he’s looking for an extra 2035 pick to select Deuce) and Tatum left us ooh-ing after his midcourt heave won the Skills Challenge. He erupted for 30 points in the Rising Stars game, playfully lobbied for a Taco Bell sponsorship after winning the skills competition, then boldly suggested the Celtics will deliver Banner 18 in June.

Alas, the Anthony Davis drama dominated the news cycle yet again. And Tatum’s name is never far from that conversation with the belief that Boston can put together the best package for Davis’ services this summer if it’s willing to include Tatum in a deal. For his part, Tatum has routinely shrugged off the trade chatter, stressing he can only control what he can control.

But Tatum did offer one other bold decree.

"I love being on the Celtics. I want to play there my whole career,” Tatum told ESPN during an on-camera interview at All-Star Weekend.

MORE CELTICS

Tatum has at least 28 games to force that issue. If he truly wants to be with Boston deep into the future, he could potentially play himself into the “off limits” category with a strong performance over the final 24 regular-season games and into the postseason.

Ever since Jan. 30, when Tatum first got asked about being dragged into Davis trade rumors, Tatum has played like someone with extra motivation. Over Boston’s last eight games, Tatum is averaging 18.3 points per game on 48.2 percent shooting while adding 7 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.1 steals, and 1.1 blocks per game. Tatum is plus-54 in plus/minus in that span (second best on the team, trailing only Gordon Hayward at plus-86).

Tatum put up 20 points and 10 rebounds in Boston’s win over the Philadelphia 76ers in the final week of the first half and has scored 20 points or more in four of his last eight games.

These glimpses leave Celtics fans leery of whether the team should include him in any deal for Davis, though most recognize it might simply be the cost to acquire an elite NBA talent. There’s a line of thought, though, that the steep price tag that will be required for Davis’ services might not be worth it if the Celtics put together another long playoff run, particularly with Tatum on the books at team-friendly money for the next couple years.

Tatum can make Ainge think harder about any Davis pursuit, and just how much the team would be willing to give up for him, by emerging an impact player during Boston’s stretch run and into the postseason. The more success the Celtics have in the playoffs, the more likely the team might be to simply allow this young core to develop together (and the team could still seek outside help with its other assets, including a bevy of future first-round picks).

MORE CHRIS FORSBERG

Tatum hasn’t made the sort of leap that many expected in Year 2, in part because of the absurd expectations established from the very moment he dunked on LeBron James in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. In the absence of that sophomore surge, it’s been easy for some Celtics fans to justify including Tatum in a deal that would land a certified top-5 talent like Davis.

But Tatum continues to show flashes of his future potential, all while Davis’ camp postured like the player didn’t envision a long-term future in Boston (even if that was just spin in hopes of forcing a deal to the Lakers before the deadline).

Tatum is having a solid season and it can be argued that he was Boston’s best option for an All-Star behind Kyrie Irving. Yes, he had a propensity for ill-advised long 2s early in the season — and Celtics fans are still blaming his offseason sessions with Kobe Bryant for his poor shot selection — but he’s attacking more often now and getting the charity stripe more frequently. His 3-point shot has defied him after a brilliant rookie season behind the arc and his scoring averages would pop a bit more if that shot became a more consistent weapon moving forward.

The Celtics have leaned heavily on Irving to carry them at times this season but their postseason success might hinge on the likes of Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward being able to shoulder the load when teams try to bottle up Irving.

It’s not hard to see a correlation between Tatum’s success and that of the team. The Celtics are 23-0 when Tatum is +9 or better in plus/minus, and 29-2 when he’s +6 or better. They are 2-14 when Tatum is in the negative for plus-minus. This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise considering Tatum plays the second most minutes on the team (31.2) but it’s still reflective that, if Boston wins his floor time, they put themselves in position to win the game.

A. SHERROD BLAKELY

For the season, Irving owns the best net rating on the team among all high-volume players (700+ minutes) at plus-8.9. Tatum sits right beside him at plus-8.8. Tatum has the best defensive rating among all of Boston’s starters at 103.2, or 2.5 points lower than Boston’s season average (which ranks fifth overall in the NBA). Tatum still has strides to make as an individual defender and must make defense a priority on every possession, but he clearly has the length to consistently disrupt on that end of the floor.

Tatum’s future is tantalizing to think about and the Celtics will certainly do all they can to make a Davis deal without having to include him. It’s simply hard to see any path to that possibility. Even if Brown has a great postseason, Boston’s pick stash might not be quite bountiful enough to sway the Pelicans without the inclusion of Tatum. The team must hope there’s only a small market of bidders to force New Orleans’ hand a bit.

What the team does might also hinge on the desires of Irving, who can opt out of his deal and explore free agency. If dealing for Davis could secure a commitment from Irving, the team has to consider it harder, despite the pain point in dealing a young talent like Tatum. Complicating matters: Tatum and Irving share an agent and have a strong relationship (Irving’s demands for more from the young players, notwithstanding). 

As Tatum admitted: He can only control what he can control. A strong finish to the season gives Ainge more to think about. If Tatum wants to be here for his entire career, he has to play like a player that Ainge can’t deal.

 

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Report: Anthony Davis still doesn't see Boston as "a long term destination"

anthony-davis.jpg
USA Today Sports

Report: Anthony Davis still doesn't see Boston as "a long term destination"

Anthony Davis has been all over the map when it comes to talking about his future plans.

After declaring that all of the other 29 teams in the NBA are on his "list" of destinations—despite the fact it is widely believed Davis is merely eyeing a rendezvous on the Lakers with LeBron James, a report suggests that despite the fanfare, the Celtics are simply not regarded as a destination by Davis.

According to Shams Charania of Stadium:

“There are a couple other teams right now undisclosed that he would also consider,” Charania said. “The Celtics, I’m told, are still not a long-term destination for him of preference in his mind. Where the Celtics stand has not changed despite what Anthony Davis said over the weekend. Sources told me the Celtics are not in it as far as the long-term play, but listen, it’s going to depend exactly on where the Pelicans want to trade him.”

Davis' approach is political as much as anything else. It makes sense that Davis does not want to turn off or anger the team the New Orleans Pelicans will trade him to, while the superstar Power Forward and Center still would have time remaining on his contract regardless of where he ends up.

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