Celtics look to capitalize on short, long-term gains from West coast trip

Celtics look to capitalize on short, long-term gains from West coast trip

BOSTON — The Boston Celtics are in the business of putting on an entertaining product that their fan base can’t seem to get enough of this season. 

But it’s still a business; a business that is doing quite well these days. 

And a big reason for that has been how the team’s “assets” — better known to you and I as players — have for the most part outperformed expectations. 

The most recent example of this was the now-concluded West Coast trip in which the Celtics returned with a 3-1 record. 

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And the lone loss was a two-point defeat to the Los Angeles Lakers, one of four games played during the trip without their leading scorer Kemba Walker. 

Walker’s absence was certainly felt by the Green Team, but it didn’t take away from a trip that featured a number of short and long-term gains for Boston. 

SHORT-TERM GAINS: Filling the Kemba void

This wasn’t the first stretch in which Boston played without Walker, and it won’t be the last. Much of the credit for Boston’s success in Walker’s absence will go to Jayson Tatum, whose game went into supernova drive this week with a slew of high-scoring, difference-making performances leading to wins. 

But he wasn’t the only Celtics player who stepped their game up during the road trip. 

Jaylen Brown continues to put together strong performances that often include a five-or-so minute stretch in which he is the best player in the game at both ends of the floor. In Boston’s four games out West, Brown averaged 22.3 points while shooting 47.9 percent from the field and 40.7 percent from beyond the 3-point line.

Gordon Hayward’s playmaking continues to be a below-the-radar strength of his game that becomes even more vital when Walker isn’t around.

And then there’s Marcus Smart, who consistently comes up with big shots in big moments of games, with or without Walker in the mix. 

SHORT-TERM GAINS: Confidence booster

The Celtics haven’t been a team lacking for confidence this season, but having quality wins to back it up is another story. 

The Celtics’ schedule going forward is the 12th-toughest in the NBA, which means getting wins going forward will be even more daunting than it has thus far this season. 

Boston certainly had some hiccups along the way, but for the most part they have won the games they are supposed to.

But all four of the West Coast games presented a different kind of challenge, one that the Celtics not only met but surpassed en route to victory in all but the Lakers game. 

And for a team that has relied on interchangeable parts all season, that could do nothing but bolster the confidence of a group that already thinks highly of itself as they hit a stretch of play in the coming weeks that will go far in defining who they are as a team, and where they stand in the race towards being the last team standing in the East.

SHORT-TERM GAINS: Another wing defender

Romeo Langford has not played much this season, but you get the sense he may be a player whose minutes may rise in the coming weeks.

It gives the Celtics’ first round pick from last June’s NBA draft a chance to gain some invaluable experience, while helping minimize the risk of Boston’s core wing players being worn down come playoff time. 

Even though Langford came to the NBA with the reputation of being an elite scorer, it has been his defense that has stood out thus far. 

During the road trip, he saw action in the first three games off the bench and defended a multitude of elite wing players such as LeBron James.

Collectively, players he defended were a combined 3-for-11 shooting while scoring a total of 11 points. It’s unclear if what he’s doing now will translate into minutes in the postseason.

But considering how he has played and how Boston is laser-focused on making sure their core guys stay as healthy as possible between now and the playoffs, Langford seeing more minutes in the coming weeks makes a lot of sense both the Celtics and Langford’s overall growth and development. 

LONG-TERM GAINS: Tatum’s team

I know the Celtics love to preach that everyone has ownership stake in the team’s success. 

This is true.

But what we’re seeing right now is the emergence of Jayson Tatum as the primary shareholder in this enterprise whose focus is on bringing Banner 18 to Boston this season. 

The way he’s scoring on elite defensive players, setting teammates like Daniel Theis up for easy looks, the wide open shots Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward and Marcus Smart are getting … he’s feasting off of teams while making sure his whole crew eats good, too. 

In the four games out West, Tatum averaged 34.0 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.3 blocks while shooting 56.6 percent from the field and 55.9 percent from 3-point range. 

We are witnessing in real time a talented, on-the-rise talent become an NBA superstar who is still a few weeks short of his 22nd birthday.

LONG-TERM GAINS: Beating the big boys

How Boston fares against teams with immense size is a legit concern. But this road trip showed that despite not having the kind of length and beef up front that some teams have, Boston can at a minimum compete and at times beat those teams at their own game. 

I’m speaking specifically about the Los Angeles Lakers and the Utah Jazz, two teams with an imposing frontline full all-star talent. 

In Boston’s two-point loss to the Lakers, the Celtics improved around the glass as the game wore on as they won rebounding in the second half 21-17 and outscored the Lakers 22-20 on points in the paint. 

The Celtics were even better against Utah, winning the boards 44-41 while outscoring the Jazz in the paint, 56-46. 

There are few teams that will present as big a challenge to Boston when it comes to dealing with size, like the Lakers and Jazz do. 

The fact that they at a minimum held their own against two of the beefier teams around, bodes well for them having the confidence and talent to withstand some of the talented frontlines that they will have to deal with as they head into the playoffs in a few weeks. 

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LONG-TERM GAINS: Winning, with room to grow

Boston has won 10 of its last 13 games, are within a game of the Toronto Raptors for the No. 2 spot in the East and yet it seems this team has yet to hit its stride. To have clear and undeniable areas to improve upon and still win games, says a lot about this team’s makeup and their coaching staff. 

They have been a no-excuses squad all season, even when faced with obvious explanations for why certain things didn’t go quite how they would have wanted them to.

Rather than use injuries as an excuse to struggle, they made it fuel to propel them to unexpected heights of success. 

And with the recent play of Jayson Tatum, the Celtics are no longer a feel-good team in the NBA. Tatum has made the Celtics a national talking point with a slew of dominant performances while sharing the floor - and eventually out-shining - with some of the game’s best players like LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

But if you listen to Tatum talk, he’s not satisfied with his game or where the Celtics are at when it comes to NBA powers. 

He’s quick to tell you that he just wants to keep winning games and get better,  the mantra that hangs like an umbrella over this entire organization whose window for success seems to be propped open with no signs of shutting anytime soon. 

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Rockets-Celtics, which begins Saturday at 7:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live. You can also stream on the MyTeams App.

Another Larry Bird milestone to assert his place among the all-time greats

Another Larry Bird milestone to assert his place among the all-time greats

BOSTON -- The 1986 Boston Celtics are considered one of the greatest teams of all time, having run through the regular season with ease towards a dominant postseason that ended with the team hanging Banner 16.

But weeks before the franchise’s triumphant conclusion to the season, there was another historic milestone.

Larry Bird was named the league’s MVP 34 years ago this week for the third straight season, a feat that only two others - Bill Russell (1961-1963) and Wilt Chamberlain (1966-1968) - had ever done.

It’s significant because it serves as yet another reminder of how historically great Bird was; not only for the Boston Celtics but for the entire league.

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To carve out a spot in history with such an elusive group speaks to Bird’s greatness as a player who at the very least should be in the conversation as one of the greatest power forwards in NBA history. 

And what made that season even more special was that during the playoffs, the elite level at which Bird played during the regular season did not waiver or lessen up in the games that mattered the most. 

In the playoffs that year, he averaged 25.9 points (0.1 points less than his season average) while increasing his field goal shooting (51.7 percent in the playoffs, 49.6 in the regular season), assists (9.8, from 8.2) and steals (2.1, from 2.0).

And when the game was on the line, the only thing larger than Bird’s ability to come through in the clutch, was his confidence.

“There’s no doubt I’m in control of what I do out there,” Bird said in an interview in 1986. “I can score any number of points my team wants me to if they give me the ball in the right situations.”

And he did, over and over and over again before finally calling it quits on his Hall of Fame career in 1992. 

Throughout his time in Boston, Bird had a number of stretches of brilliance as a basketball player. 

But the three-year run in which he was the league’s best player, resulting in three consecutive league MVP awards, stands out in a career that was filled with standout moments.

NBA Rumors: Celtics 'most likely' will offer Jayson Tatum max contract after season

NBA Rumors: Celtics 'most likely' will offer Jayson Tatum max contract after season

Just before the 2019-20 NBA season was suspended due to the coronavirus, Jayson Tatum was turning into a superstar before our very eyes. Now, it appears the Boston Celtics are ready to pay him like one.

Saturday on SportsCenter, ESPN's Brian Windhorst said the C's "most likely" will offer the No. 3 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft a max contract this offseason.

"If Jayson Tatum is the superstar that they envisioned when they began this whole rebuilding process when they traded Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce for all of those draft picks hoping to land a player like this, we could see 'Glory Days' for the Celtics again," Windhorst said, as transcribed by Bleacher Report.

"But it's very much up in the air, and I'm gonna tell ya, they're gonna have to pay him like it because after this season ends, he is going to get most likely a max contract. They're going to bet that he becomes that player."

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The Celtics recently have signed both Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown to four-year contract extensions, so signing Tatum to a max deal and locking up their core for the foreseeable future seems like a no-brainer. One potential hurdle for Danny Ainge and the C's front office, however, is the effect the coronavirus pandemic could have on the league's 2020-21 salary cap.

Regardless, we can expect Boston to do whatever it takes to assure their budding superstar is here to stay. This season, the 22-year-old leads the team with 23.6 points per game while averaging 7.1 rebounds and shooting 39.8 percent from 3-point range. He was named an All-Star for the first time in his promising career.

Tatum currently is set to make $9.9 million next year on his rookie contract.