Celtics-Heat preview: Defense in focus

Celtics-Heat preview: Defense in focus

BOSTON – On Thursday night, Jayson Tatum scored 12 points which included a basket in the fourth quarter that gave Boston its biggest lead of the night, 12 points, before settling in for a 96-89 win at Milwaukee.

Just 24 hours earlier, Philadelphia’s Markelle Fultz was inactive (shoulder) in the Sixers’ 105-104 home loss to Houston and will remain that way for at least two more games.

It’s still early, but the Celtics are off to a fast start when it comes to which team came out ahead in the trade prior to last June’s draft that netted the Celtics Tatum who was chosen with the third overall pick while the Sixers took Fultz with the top overall pick.

Statistically speaking, it’s not even close.


Tatum has better numbers when it comes to scoring (14.2 versus 6.0), rebounds (6.6 versus 2.3), assists (2.0 versus 1.8) and minutes played (33.0 versus 18.9).

And his defense?

That’s better in many areas as well, including defensive rating (94.5 for Tatum, 106.8 for Fultz).

But the biggest benefit more than anything else with Boston winding up with Tatum, is his impact on winning which the Celtics (3-2) are hoping to continue doing tonight at Miami.

The 6-foot-8 rookie was praised for his shooting touch that was aided by having exceptional footwork which reminded some of Celtics legend Paul Pierce, when Tatum left Duke after just one season.

But Tatum’s time on the floor with the Celtics has been largely due to what he does as a defender, something that will be once again put to the test tonight against the Heat.

Like the Celtics, the Miami Heat play a brand of position-less basketball with multiple ball-handlers who can bring the floor up and initiate the offense on their own. All of Miami’s projected starters tonight except center Bam Adebayo (he’s in for Hassan Whiteside who is out with a bruised left knee injury) fall under that category.

But unlike the Celtics, Miami’s defense has not benefited from having that kind of versatility. Of course, Whiteside being out for all but the season-opener, has been a key to the Heat’s defensive struggles.

In four games this season, the Heat has a defensive rating of 107.7 which ranks No. 23 in the NBA while the Celtics’ defensive rating of 95.9 which ranks third in the league.

Having players who can seamlessly shift from one position to another, are becoming increasingly more valuable in the NBA today.

Danny Ainge and the Boston Celtics have had their sights on adding players with a versatile skill set for years.

Leading up to the 2015 NBA draft, the Celtics were extremely eager to trade up to acquire a player like that.

His name is Justise Winslow, who wound up being selected by the Heat with the 10th overall pick.

Injuries have limited Winslow’s impact in Miami, but he has shown promise defensively due to his size (6-7, 225), strength and ability to defend multiple positions.

When it comes to defending different types of players, the play of Al Horford has really stood out this season for Boston.

They come into tonight’s game having won three in a row, with each of those wins being fueled in large part by Horford’s play defensively.  

But in Thursday’s win over Milwaukee, Horford also came up big offensively with a season-high 27 points to go with nine rebounds and four assists.

Now in his 11th NBA season, Horford has an eye for players with the potential to play at a high level at both ends of the floor.


Horford said earlier that Tatum is “as ready” a rookie as he’s ever played with.

Celtics coach Brad Stevens has echoed similar praise for the 19-year-old Tatum, which has the team’s decision to trade away the top overall pick in last June’s NBA draft to go down two spots and use the pick to get Tatum and a future first-round pick, one that has paid off already.

“He’s going to be a really good NBA player for a long time,” Stevens said of Tatum. “He brings a lot to the table, and he’s really smart. He has a savvy that I think you can tell when he’s out on the court.”


A weeks-late realization that the Celtics kind of did chase LeBron out of the East

A weeks-late realization that the Celtics kind of did chase LeBron out of the East

Jayson Tatum's Game 7 dunk did not influence LeBron James' decision to leave the Eastern Conference, no matter how much I will continue to say it daily. 

The truth, as we've all realized, is that LeBron's mind was made up long before Tatum boomed him right in the face. 

But while it wasn't about that specific play, it kind of was about Tatum dunks. And Jaylen Brown dunks. And Al Horford dunks. And these heartbreakers. 

For as much as we talk about the Celtics having a wide-open path to the NBA Finals now, the truth is they had that anyway if LeBron stayed with Cleveland. The ever-careful superstar had to know his options were to either stay in the East and get smoked by the Celtics or go out West and get smoked by the Warriors. If the results are the same, he might as well experience them in a nicer city. 

James' decision to go to the Lakers clearly wasn't about winning. If it were, he would have explored options like the Celtics, Rockets or taken the 76ers seriously.

His decision to leave the Cavaliers, however, had to at least be partially about winning. Just being home for Cleveland isn't enough; it was the fact that it could be a winner that got LeBron to return in the first place. With it no longer a title contender because of the Celtics' roster, staying in Cleveland was probably no longer worth it for James. 

What's interesting is that the Celtics knew it, too. Jaylen Brown's comments last week about wishing LeBron stayed in Cleveland were bang-on. Now that LeBron's gone, the Celtics' waltz to a Warriors matchup will be accompanied by talk from dumb people that they weren't able to do it when LeBron was in the conference. 

Here's why it's a smart move PR-wise on James' part: If LeBron stayed in the East and got beaten by the Celtics every year, people -- dumb people, but people nonetheless -- would talk about a torch being passed and how James was no longer dominant because he wasn't winning. 

The West presents a different narrative. Do you know what you're considered to be if you lose to the Warriors in the West? A victim. A victim of a super team and a victim of Kevin Durant's cowardice (the dumb people's words, not mine). 

So LeBron made an easy choice to leave Cleveland and the Celtics had to factor into it at least a little. If Kawhi Leonard eventually joins him, perhaps he can see the Celtics in the NBA Finals one of these years. That's a big "if" considering what we just saw Paul George do, but the fact of the matter is that LeBron's road to the finals was blocked whether he was in Cleveland or Los Angeles. 

Did LeBron run away from the Celtics? Not necessarily, but he clearly saw the effect the Celtics would have had on him if he stayed in Cleveland. It wasn't as pretty as L.A. 


Get to know the newest Celtic, Walt Lemon Jr.

Get to know the newest Celtic, Walt Lemon Jr.

BOSTON – Walter Lemon Jr. has agreed to a two-way contract with the Boston Celtics, becoming the third player ever with such a designation for the Celtics.

He played four years at Bradley before taking his game overseas to play in Hungary, Istanbul, Greece, Germany and later returning to the United States to play for the Ft. Wayne Mad Ants of the Gatorade League.

But what do we really know about the newest member of the Celtics family?

Here’s a look at five facts about Lemon who, as a player with a two-way contract, will spend up to 45 days with the Celtics while the rest of his time will be spent with Boston’s G-League affiliate, the Maine Red Claws:

*Despite being 6-foot-3, Lemon Jr. is comfortable playing above the rim. That’s evident by him competing in Slam Dunk contests both in college (2014 and 2015) and in the G-League (2016).

*Finished his career at Bradley ranked among the school’s top-10 in scoring, assists, and steals.

*Best scoring game in the G-League last season was a 40-point outburst against the Maine Red Claws, the team he will be playing with most of this upcoming season.

*Became the first player in school history to be named the Missouri Valley Conference Basketball Scholar-Athlete of the Year in 2014.

*On July 26 he will turn 26 years old.