Celtics

Celtics legend Paul Pierce says Boston has NBA's 'best starting five"

Celtics legend Paul Pierce says Boston has NBA's 'best starting five"

The Boston Celtics will be one of the top contenders in the Eastern Conference when the 2019-20 NBA season resumes next month at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida.

Boston enters the league's restart as the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference -- three games behind the Toronto Raptors in second place.

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The Celtics have received plenty of praise in recent weeks since the league announced its return to play plan.

ESPN's Jalen Rose actually predicted the C's would win the Eastern Conference and reach the 2020 NBA Finals. Former Celtics center and 2008 NBA champion Kendrick Perkins also thinks the Celtics will represent the East in the Finals. FOX Sports 1's Colin Cowherd called Boston "a contender" and labeled C's forward Jayson Tatum "the second-best player in the East."

The latest national voice to give props to the Celtics came from ESPN NBA analyst Paul Pierce. The Celtics legend called his former team's starting five the best in the league during Friday night's ESPN show announcing the return schedule.

Pierce has a strong case here.

The Celtics are the only team with three players averaging 20 or more points per game. Jayson Tatum leads the team with 23.6 points per game, with Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown also averaging 20-plus points. Another starter, Gordon Hayward, is not far behind at 17.3 points per game. Boston's bench scoring has been inconsistent all season, and the team will need offensive contributions from the likes of Enes Kanter, Romeo Langford, Brad Wanamaker, Marcus Smart and other role players to make a deep playoff run. But when the starters are on the floor, the C's are capable of beating any opponent.

For the Celtics to earn as high of a seed as possible in the East, they will have to emerge from the following schedule with a good record. Here's the complete Celtics schedule for the eight seeding games. Every single matchup will be on NBC Sports Boston.

Friday, July 31, 6:30 p.m. ET: vs. Milwaukee Bucks
Sunday, Aug. 2, 3:30 p.m.: vs. Portland Trail Blazers
Tuesday, Aug. 4, 6:30 p.m.: vs. Miami Heat
Wednesday, Aug. 5, 9 p.m.: vs. Brooklyn Nets
Friday, Aug. 7, 9 p.m.: vs. Toronto Raptors
Sunday, Aug. 9, 5 p.m.: vs. Orlando Magic
Tuesday, Aug. 11, 6:30 p.m.: vs. Memphis Grizzlies
Thursday, Aug. 13, TBD: vs. Washington Wizards

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Jayson Tatum, Celtics officially playoff ready after win vs. Grizzlies

Jayson Tatum, Celtics officially playoff ready after win vs. Grizzlies

Jayson Tatum, sporting some sort of cyborg, choke-sign Reggie Miller T-shirt that Indiana native Brad Stevens would certainly approve of, plopped down in a chair for his postgame Zoom conference Tuesday night and was asked to assess Boston’s postseason preparedness.

"I think we’re ready,” Tatum declared, hammering home what Boston’s play over the past four games had already confirmed.

The Celtics can comfortably put their core players in, ahem, bubble wrap for Thursday’s seeding-game finale against the Washington Wizards. Everything has fallen into place for Boston over the past week, not the least of which is August Tatum playing like February Tatum while scoring a game-high 29 points on 10-of-13 shooting over 29 minutes as the Celtics handed a desperate Grizzlies team a 122-107 loss on Tuesday night.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Wizards, which begins Thursday at 11 a.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at noon. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

The Celtics, sluggish and rust-filled early in the bubble experience, have clicked on most cylinders the past seven days. The ball has zipped around the court, the team displaying increased ball movement and highlight-quality passing that has keyed Boston’s offensive surge, which includes owning the second best offensive rating in the bubble (120.3, trailing only playoff-pushing Portland).

When one of Boston’s usual offensive weapons has had a rough night, others have stepped forward. Case in point: As Jaylen Brown labored through a 3-for-13 shooting performance Tuesday, Gordon Hayward — his bubble alter ego Stache Gordon slowly emerging — shook off his own 3-point woes to put up 19 points behind four triples. Tatum hit some absurdly tough shots (negating his five turnovers) and Kemba Walker showed more signs of being back to the All-Star form from the start of the season.

Walker put a Grizzlies defender on skates with a ruthless jab-step pull-up late in the fourth quarter. Later he noted, "Today is probably the best I’ve felt out there. I was really comfortable making my moves and stuff like that.” The next time Walker plays, the minute restriction that caused some of Boston’s early bubble turbulence will be a thing of the past. And it’s no coincidence that, as that restriction loosened, Boston started to find its groove.

Boston’s net rating inside the bubble is now plus-10.3, second only to the undefeated Phoenix Suns. The next closest Eastern Conference team is Toronto at plus-3.7.

“We’ve definitely come a long way, and we’re gelling really well,” said Walker. "Having fun, competing at a very high level.”

Not only has Boston’s core players looked ready to go but the team has found a little something in its complementary pieces as well. Second-year big man Robert Williams, who did little to kick down the playing-time door during scrimmage work, has been a revelation the past four games. He went from not getting off the bench in Boston’s early seeding games to putting together four straight eyebrow-raising efforts. In that span, Williams has averaged 11.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks over 14.8 minutes per game. He’s made 19 of his 23 shot attempts (82.6 percent) with many of his finishes coming north of the rim.

Stevens' bench, once perilously thin, looks like it can confidently lean on at least four options in the postseason. Smart and Brad Wanamaker will handle backup guard minutes while Williams and Enes Kanter should split center reps based on matchups. Stevens can mix in the occasional doses of Semi Ojeleye or Grant Williams or Romeo Langford on nights he must go deeper.

The Celtics have proven they can hang with the best of the Eastern Conference, putting a scare into Milwaukee despite spotting them a big early lead early in scrimmage play, and taking down Toronto at the height of their bubble buzz.

A matchup with injury-battered Philadelphia seems inevitable to open the playoffs. The Sixers still have plenty of talent, including old friend Al Horford, but the absence of Ben Simmons, and some uncertainty about the health of Joel Embiid, makes Philadelphia a far more agreeable foe than maybe it seemed even a week ago.

Boston’s improved level of play has helped boost the team’s confidence as well, regardless of first-round opponent.

“Obviously, we continue to get better, and I think we have from Game 1 playing down here to now,” said Tatum. "I think we just continue to get better each and every game, and that’s what you want this time of year, to continue to get better at the right time of the season.”

Barring the bizarre during Thursday’s matinee finale, the Celtics will head into the postseason playing some inspired ball and operating with a contender’s confidence.

The last four games haven’t been perfect but the Celtics have shown their potential during them. With Stevens’ ability to hone in on an opponent and an added level of focus required by the postseason, Boston has a chance to take its play even a level higher.

The last four games have shown that the Celtics are ready for what’s next.

Stars, Studs and Duds from Celtics' impressive win over Grizzlies

Stars, Studs and Duds from Celtics' impressive win over Grizzlies

With the No. 3 spot locked up and no chance of moving up or down, there was not a ton of incentive for the Boston Celtics in their next-to-last seeding game, against the Memphis Grizzlies.

But you would have thought it was the Celtics -- not the Grizzlies -- who were playing for their postseason lives.

This Celtics team has shown itself to be more than just one of the best teams talent-wise we’ve seen since Brad Stevens took over in 2013.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Wizards, which begins Thursday at 11 a.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at noon. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Watching the way this group has grown throughout the season and even more so during the league’s restart in Orlando, Fla., the Celtics have shown a level of focus on the task at hand – winning games – that has allowed them to not just survive in the Bubble but thrive against any and all the competition.

The latest to fall by the wayside against the Celtics was the Grizzlies, who were no match for Boston as the Celtics pulled away for a comfortable 122-107 win.

It was a performance that like so many we’ve seen of late from Boston, consisted of players stepping up to contribute in a multitude of ways.

And the Grizzlies, one of the feel-good stories of the season, were unable to make it much of a game.

STARS
Jayson Tatum: Memphis became the latest team that simply had no answer on how to contain Tatum. He led all scorers with 29 points in addition to grabbing six rebounds.

Ja Morant: For most of this season, Morant has been the best first-year player in the NBA. You can chalk up Tuesday’s game as yet another strong performance by Morant who led the Grizzlies with a double-double of 26 points and 13 assists.

Kemba Walker: After a rough game against Orlando, Walker bounced back with an efficient game with 19 points coming on 7-for-10 shooting to go with four rebounds and three assists. 

STUDS
Marcus Smart: He put up a near double-double of 11 points and nine assists, but Smart’s impact was so much greater. His floor leadership, attention to detail, defense, intensity ... Smart brought it all to the floor and the Celtics were so much better off for it.

Jonas Valenciunas: If there’s one area of concern for the Celtics going forward, it has been the ability of opposing big men to put up big games with most of their work getting done around the rim. Valenciunas had a double-double of 14 points and 10 rebounds.

Robert Williams III: The days of being in and out of the lineup because of ineffective play or injuries appear to be behind Williams. He didn’t play a ton of minutes but Williams once again made his mark, finishing with 10 points, seven rebounds and three blocked shots in just 14 minutes of court time.

Brandon Clarke: The play of Clarke is one of the many reasons why the Grizzlies feel their best days are ahead of them. Clarke had 15 points on 7-for-14 shooting to go with six rebounds and a blocked shot.

DUDS
Daniel Theis
: One of the not-so-bright spots for Boston was the play of Theis who had two points on 1-for-3 shooting along with struggles defensively.