Celtics

Celtics end trip against one of the NBA’s best at home

Celtics end trip against one of the NBA’s best at home

The more you watch this Celtics team, the clearer it becomes they love a good challenge.

Despite having defeated the Denver Nuggets earlier this season, emerging with a win tonight will not be easy.

Denver (26-23) has won three in a row and currently takes up residence in the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot, while the Celtics (35-15) are tops in the East despite having lost five of their past six.

And the Nuggets’ three-game winning streak, all at home, aligns perfectly with their season, which has featured them being dominant at home (19-6), and a doormat on the road.

The only teams with a better home record are Minnesota (20-6) and San Antonio (21-4).

Here are five under-the-radar storylines heading into tonight’s game:

SUPER SOPHOMORES
Jaylen Brown has played well in his second NBA season for the Celtics. But Denver’s Jamal Murray has put together a strong second season as well. He’s averaging 16.3 points and 5.8 assists per game.

This season, he has scored 30 or more points on six occasions, more than any Denver player or any player in the league under the age of 21.

And the Celtics are well-versed on how explosive a scorer Murray can be. In Boston’s six-point win over Denver earlier this season, Murray had 28 points on 9-for-17 shooting from the field, along with a career-high 11 rebounds.

CELTICS DEFENSE
Defense has been the one constant with the Celtics this season. But it was hard to find the last time they faced Denver. Although Boston won by six points, they allowed the Nuggets to score 118 points, which was the highest point total allowed by the Celtics in a victory this season. The Celtics are second in the NBA in points allowed per game (98.1). Meanwhile, Denver is averaging 105.1 points per game, which ranks 11th in the NBA.

NIKOLA JOKIC
The name may not roll off the tongue, but not to worry. It will in due time because Nikola Jokic (pronounced KNEE-coe-lah yo-kitch) is well on his way to becoming a big deal in this league. The 6-foot-10 Serbian is averaging a double-double of 16.1 points and 10.5 rebounds per game to go with 5.3 assists. He did not play in the earlier meeting because of a left ankle sprain. But he’s good to go tonight, evident by the triple-double he tallied in Denver’s 91-89 win over Dallas on Saturday night. In that game, he had 11 points, 16 rebounds and 11 assists.

REBOUNDING PERCENTAGE
When these two met earlier this season, the Nuggets absolutely owned the Celtics on the boards with a decisive 48-30 advantage. Crashing the boards is something the Nuggets have been consistently good at all season. They come in with a rebounding percentage of .524, which ranks second in the NBA to the Philadelphia 76ers (.529). Meanwhile, the Celtics are 14th in the league with a rebounding percentage of .502.

AFTER THREE PERIODS …
Of course, we’ll keep an eye on the action throughout each quarter of play tonight. But where they stand going into the fourth quarter, that will likely determine the game’s outcome. This season, the Celtics have a 17-2 record when they lead after three quarters. The Nuggets aren’t too far behind, with a record of 20-4.

CORNER 3’S
Boston’s defense has been elite most of this season. But like any unit, they have a weakness – defending corner 3’s. While Boston’s defense has limited opponents to shooting a league-low 43.3 percent from the field this season, they have really been burned by teams when it comes to shooting corner 3’s. This season, Boston ranks 25th in defending corner 3s, with opponents connecting on 41.9 percent of their shots from that part of the floor. And in facing Denver, the Celtics will have to contend with one of the league’s best at making them. Denver comes in ranked fourth in the NBA when it comes to shooting percentage (.418) on corner 3’s this season.

Stevens facing scrutiny for first time after two losses in Cleveland

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Stevens facing scrutiny for first time after two losses in Cleveland

BOSTON -- Brad Stevens is a genius.

Brad Stevens is overrated.

Brad Stevens gets the most out of the least amount of talent.

On the brightest of stages, Brad Stevens can't get it done.

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The views on Celtics coach Brad Stevens are all over the map right now, based on Boston being in a 2-2 series tie with Cleveland after the Cavs held serve at home with a pair of wins.

The Celts' losing at Cleveland didn't spark the questions about Stevens. It's how they lost those games.

Cleveland didn't do anything fancy or all that complicated in getting back in this series after the Celtics raced out to a 2-0 series lead.

The Cavs are targeting Terry Rozier -- similar, in many ways, to how they went after Isaiah Thomas last year -- and are forcing defensive switches that leaves Rozier in a bad spot.

Rozier is a solidly built point guard (6-foot-2, 190 pounds) but he's no physical match for LeBron James or Kevin Love or Tristan Thompson -- players the Cavs have tried their best to get Rozier to defend via switches. For the most part, they've have had success doing so.

"Hope they miss" seems to be Rozier's best-case scenario when this happens.

Watching Rozier get bounced into the paint by the James-Love-Thompson trio has left many Celtics fans wondering W.W.B.D. -- What Will Brad Do?

So far, not much.

He considered a lineup change before deciding to keep Marcus Morris with the first unit and Aron Baynes coming off the bench in Game 4.

In the first quarter of Game 4 Boston fell behind 34-18, similar to how their 30-point Game 3 shellacking started.

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But Boston got better as the game progressed, showing glimpses of the team that finished with the second-best record in the East and had the best road record of any team in the Eastern Conference.

And as Kyle Korver came off screens and knocked down shots, or George Hill finished at the rim, or Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love treated the offensive glass like property and they were the time share owners of it, Celtics fans waited for that moment, when Stevens would make a tweak/adjustment and -- bam! -- everything changed.

That moment, however, never came. And it's opened Stevens to a level of second-guessing he hasn't experienced since maybe his rookie season in the league.

Stevens is a wonderful coach, easily top-five in the NBA. The reason he's so widely regarded is his ability to recognize his own team's weaknesses and mask them.

That hasn't happened in this series and there are questions, legitimate questions, if it will happen at all.

Better team communication? More touches for Al Horford? Limiting the isolations on Rozier with a bigger scorer? Will any or all of these things happen?

The bottom line is clear: Boston has to be better than we what we saw in Cleveland. That not only applies to the players, but also to Stevens.

The one thing about Brad Stevens that you always have to respect is his willingness to take ownership when things aren't going right.

He'll be the first to tell you that everyone needs to improve . . . himself included. And while that acknowledgment may not seem like that big a deal, it's huge.

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Because his willingness to take some of the blame for what we've seen of late trickles down to the rest of his players, who know they too have a role in Boston losing its last two games.

With that ownership comes an understanding that for this series to shift back in their favor, it's going to take the entire group to step their games up.

And as we've seen with this group, they have seemingly been at their best when adversity strikes. They've shown an ability to thrive under pressure, rather than be totally thrown off course.

Which is why despite losing two straight to the Cavs, the Celtics return home feeling pretty good about themselves.

They lost Game 4 but did a number of positive things that I imagine they'll look to do more of on Wednesday.

Boston managed to get Horford defended by Love more in Game 4 and had a good bit of success with that matchup. Rozier was better at handling screens and switches in the second half than we saw in the first, which allowed Boston's defense to collectively play better.

The Celtics were doing more of the things that fans have come to expect. The kind of plays that reflect positively on the players as well as their leader, Brad Stevens.

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Five takeaways: When Celtics fall, they can't get up

Five takeaways: When Celtics fall, they can't get up

BOSTON -- All season the Celtics have seemingly been digging basketball graves for themselves, only to rise up and bury their foes.

It worked in the regular season.

In the playoffs?

Not so much.

Those huge deficits early in games have been a big problem for Boston, to the point where it has to be among the chief concerns for the Celtics heading into a pivotal Game 5 matchup on Wednesday.

Cleveland’s 111-102 Game 4 win, which evened the series at two games apiece, was due in large part to the Celtics falling 19 points behind in the first half.

To get down big early provides plenty of time for a comeback, of course. But it also requires a significant amount of energy, effort and timely breaks. And on the road? Against a LeBron James-led team?

That’s not likely to happen.

“We just dug ourselves in a hole in the first half,” said Jaylen Brown. “We came back from 15 and I think the closest we got it to was maybe seven or six. We fought. We played a better game than last time.”

Brown, who had a team-high 25 points in the Game 4 loss, was referring to Boston’s 116-86 beatdown in Game 3.

Certainly disappointed they didn’t get one or both games in Cleveland, coach Brad Stevens anticipated this series would be filled with ups and downs for both teams.

“Anybody that didn’t think this was going to be tough . . . I mean, everything is tough,” Stevens said. “In this deal, it’s a blast to have to grit your teeth, get up off the mat and go after it again. That’s part of it. That’s what makes these guys on both sides special.”

Here are five takeaways from Boston’s 111-102 Game 4 loss.

FIRST QUARTER ROAD WOES

Game 4 was the latest example in the Celtics-get-off-to-bad-starts-on-the-road narrative. They scored just 18 points on 7-for-26 shooting (26.9 percent) in the first quarter, when they missed six of their seven 3-point attemots. Getting off to a better start will go far in Boston’s attempts at regaining the series lead on Wednesday.

TERRY ROZIER

He seems to have exorcised some basketball road demons with a 16-point, 11-assist, 0-turnover performance in Game 4. But Cleveland’s ability to get him switched out on guarding a bigger frontcourt player is a problem. The Celtics has to become more creative scheme-wise to avoid their smallest starter (Rozier) consistently being paired with players several inches taller and several pounds heavier. Part of the problem is Rozier who hasn’t been fighting through those screens as hard he is capable of. It may result in an extra foul or two for Rozier, but two games away from a trip to the NBA Finals? Whatever sacrifice is required, you make it.

JAYSON TATUM

While his numbers in the Eastern Conference Finals have been decent, Tatum hasn't had anything close to the impact against the Cavs that he had in the first two rounds of the playoffs. The biggest missing ingredient is his 3-point shooting. He's averaging 2.5 attempts from 3-point range in this series, but only took two attempts total in Games 3 and 4 -- and missed them both. The Cavs have done a better job defensively, but there are seemingly more possessions in which he’s passing up a good 3-point look to instead attack a team defense whose strength lies in ability to contest shots at the rim. Don’t be surprised to see Tatum freed up more for 3’s in Game 5.

REBOUNDING

The Celtics aren’t expected to win the rebounding fight, but they at least have to keep it closer than they did in Games 3 and 4. In Game 4, Cleveland was a plus-10 (47-37) on the boards, which heavily factored into their decisive 16-7 advantage in second-chance points. Closing this gap will pivotal to Boston’s chances at success on Wednesday.

CELTICS OFFENSE

There’s a lot of talk about Boston’s defense and how it needs to improve going forward. But the Celtics have to do a better job offensively as well; specifically, they need to create more open or lightly contested shot attempts. Cleveland has contested more than 75 percent of Boston’s shot attempts in each of the last two games, compared to contesting less than 70 percent in the first two. Figuring out how to free up more shooters has to be a priority for the Celtics heading into Game 5.

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