Celtics

Celtics Mailbag: Resetting expectations and the importance of seeding

Celtics Mailbag: Resetting expectations and the importance of seeding

The Boston Celtics had their seven-game winning streak snapped Tuesday night in Houston during an eyesore of a game filled with whistles and free throws.

In the bigger picture, the Celtics remain on a 57-win pace and are positioned to challenge the Raptors for the coveted No. 2 spot in the Eastern Conference — assuming Toronto ever loses again. 

We start this week’s Celtics Mailbag by resetting expectations for Boston’s hoopsters with nearly two-thirds of the season in the rearview mirror and the All-Star break approaching.

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Earlier in the season, it felt like the Celtics' bar was set at the conference semifinals. Lately it seems more like conference finals, if not the NBA Finals. Do games like Tuesday’s loss in Houston change that?

We’ll dive a little deeper into that Rockets mess later, but let’s just say that we look at that contest a lot like opening night in Philadelphia in the sense that it was much too jagged of a game to truly pull any hard conclusions. 

Zoom out, and the Celtics rank fifth in the NBA in offensive rating and third in defensive rating 53 games into the 2019-20 season. Boston is third in both net rating (plus-6.8) and point differential (plus-6.9), trailing only the conference-leading Bucks and Lakers in both categories. 

ESPN’s Basketball Power Index ranks Boston fourth overall, and behind only the Bucks in the East. That computer model gives Boston a 37 percent chance of making the East finals and a 9.4 percent chance of making the NBA Finals.

Essentially, despite all their injuries, the Celtics project as a legitimate contender out of the East. Despite only scratching the surface of their potential, Boston lingers among the league’s elite.

Much of Boston’s postseason success, however, could ultimately hinge on seeding.

If the playoffs started Wednesday, Boston would be the No. 3 in the East and draw a first-round matchup with an Indiana team that could be especially dangerous once Victor Oladipo shakes his rust and the Pacers start playing to their own potential.

Even a first-round victory would still send Boston to Toronto for a second-round matchup against the defending champs, who are currently riding a 15-game wining streak. That’s a daunting path just to get to the East finals, where a potentially 70+ win Bucks team could be waiting.

All of which makes Boston's final 29 games of the season particularly important. Not only do the Celtics need a good run of health to identify roles and figure out how their pieces work best together, they'll also be jockeying for seeding. 

Boston currently sits 2.5 games behind No .2 seed Toronto and two games ahead of No. 4 seed Miami. BPI projections have the Raptors finishing second in the East but the Heat a distant fourth, though it's fair to wonder if their trade deadline activity could help push their win total a little higher.

Working against Boston: The Celtics have the eighth-hardest remaining schedule in the NBA. The Raptors have the 20th-hardest, while the Heat have the 28th-hardest.

A trip to Toronto in late March and a couple games versus Miami in April will go a long way to sorting out the seeding, and that could go a long way towards deciding how the East shakes out.

Now, to the mailbag.

THE ROCKETS GAME 

I would have preferred to not watch players shoot free throws for three hours. — @Jate57

Thank goodness I only have to watch them play the Rockets one more time this year. — @BSolomonsHood

I usually roll my eyes when people complain about watching the Rockets, but Tuesday night was BRUTAL. We’re admittedly curious to see if Houston’s super-small-ball approach is sustainable — we think it is in the regular season but are less bullish about the playoffs — but if it means watching James Harden and Russell Westbrook live at the charity stripe, we’ll be content to monitor this experiment from the postgame box score.

Refs were never gonna let Boston win that game … period. — @KG10247201

It’s too easy to look at a 42-25 disparity in free throws and suggest the referees dictated this game. We’d make the case that Boston’s putrid half-court offense hindered this team far more than the whistles. So did the team’s propensity for biting on pump fakes and stumbling into shooters.

The Celtics actually got a fair amount of fourth-quarter whistles and nearly fouled out Harden but he’d already done his damage during that third-quarter scoring barrage. The Rockets shot 28.9 percent beyond the 3-point arc and the Celtics bailed them out with their fouling ways. Yes, some calls were ticky-tack and we get Marcus Smart’s frustrations, but the Celtics rank 24th in the NBA in opponent free-throw attempt rate so this isn’t a one-off issue.

Why do we keep playing guys that are not 100% healthy and then watch them re-injure themselves? — @cabdulmassih

We can’t sit here and lament Boston never having all of its horses and then stomp our feet when guys try to tough it out. Brown looked plenty spry knocking down a barrage of corner 3s that helped the Celtics hang around. What’s more, the calf bruise he suffered late wasn’t connected to his ankle ailments. That said, the All-Star break undoubtedly will be helpful in letting many of these bumps and bruises heal. 

THE BUYOUT MARKET

Just heard your soundbite on Felger and Mazz and I want whatever drugs you're on. Come on, dude, to say that the Celtics couldn’t get Marvin Williams because of Vincent Poirier's roster spot is so ridiculous. — @Aperez8261

Are you an idiot? We couldn’t get Marvin Williams because we didn’t want to part with Carsen Edwards or Poirier? What a joke! Felger is right about Danny Ainge, and all of you who cover the team. God forbid we get rid of those suck bags. Keep drinking the green Kool-Aid, you moron. — @ogduckboy

Twitter has to be the only place where you can routinely start a conversation with a stranger with, “Are you an idiot?” A couple of things this idiot would note:

1) I didn’t hear the bite they played but I’m guessing it’s from the conversation we had Monday on Boston Sports Tonight, when I was asked who the Celtics would most likely waive if they desired to add a buyout player. While identifying Poirier and Edwards as likely candidates, I made the point that you'd better be convinced that the player you’re adding is going to be part of your rotation before you go giving up on young players. We fully admit  the jury is still very much out on what Edwards or Poirier will develop into, but if you’re going to trash all the time and energy you’ve already invested, you should at least make sure the rental player you add is going to contribute. We were fully on board with moving a depth piece at the deadline to add to this bench so we are far from anti-buyout -- but only if it’s for an impact pickup.

2) Marvin Williams chose to the go to the Bucks because Milwaukee might win 70+ games and is the clear favorite in the East. He went to Milwaukee despite Kemba Walker’s recruitment. His decision had nothing to do with Boston’s willingness to cut from the end of their roster and had everything to do with wanting to play for a surefire contender.

EVERYTHING ELSE

Why hasn’t anyone told Tatum that he needs to shave?  The worst looking beard in the NBA. — @peteroneilma

Woah, woah. There’s some terrible facial hair in the NBA. The poor guy just got his beard to connect this summer. Can we let him grow it out a bit and figure out what’s next? I’m guessing he’ll be plenty cleaned up for his closeups at All-Star weekend.

Brad Wanamaker reminds me of Eddie House. — @priley212

Wanamaker is to transition buckets what House was to open 3-pointers. But steady bench players are always a luxury, particularly given the youth at the end of Boston’s roster.

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

Have Danny Ainge's NBA Draft day trades worked out for Celtics?

Have Danny Ainge's NBA Draft day trades worked out for Celtics?

Another NBA draft, another bevy of first-round picks for the Boston Celtics. Been there, done that, I know. 

If the NBA draft were today, the Celtics would be on the clock three times with picks No. 17, No. 26 and No. 30.

Having so many first-round picks seems like a good thing, right?

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Not so much when your roster already has a large share of players relatively new to the NBA like the Celtics. 

More than half of the Celtics current roster (eight players) are still on their rookie deals, and that doesn’t include two-way players Tremont Waters and Tacko Fall. That’s why the likelihood of Boston trading at least one of their three first-round picks this year seems very likely. 

And while trading first-round picks is always on the Danny Ainge à la carte menu of draft-day options, the results have been mixed in recent years.

2019 NBA DRAFT

The Celtics traded the No. 20 pick (Matisse Thybulle) to Philadelphia in exchange for two picks: No. 24 (used to select Ty Jerome) and No. 33 (Carsen Edwards). 

Jerome was immediately shipped out to Phoenix as part of the trade package which also sent Aron Baynes to the Suns. So this trade was essentially Thybulle for Edwards.

It’s still early, but Thybulle has been the best player involved in this trade. 

He has elite, All-NBA defensive potential, the kind of player who would have formed a hellacious backcourt defensively if you paired him up with Marcus Smart. 

NBA.com stats show that Thybulle limited opponents to just 37.4 percent on shots at least 15 feet from the rim. 

To put that in perspective, Smart, who was named to the NBA’s All-Defensive First Team last season, held opponents to 38.4 percent shooting from 15 or more feet away from the rim. 

Meanwhile, Jerome and Edwards played limited minutes and struggled for the most part when they got on the floor. 

2017 NBA DRAFT

The Boston Celtics finally got the number one overall pick in the draft … only to trade it away!

Boston traded the top overall pick (Markelle Fultz) to the Sixers in exchange for moving down two spots to select Jayson Tatum along with adding a future first-round pick that was used in 2019 to select Romeo Langford. 

While not much time has passed since this draft went down, it has clearly been one that the Celtics won by a decisive margin. 

And remember, the Celtics didn’t have to be bad in order to wind up with the top overall pick.

It was part of the team’s blockbuster deal in 2013 with Brooklyn that allowed the Celtics the right to swap first-round picks in 2017. 

The 22-year-old Tatum is already an All-Star, displaying the kind of game that will soon have him in the league MVP conversation based upon the rate at which his game has been improving. 

He is averaging a team-best 23.6 points per game this season, along with 7.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.4 steals — all career highs for the third-year forward. 

Not only has Fultz not played anywhere close to the level of Tatum, but Philly’s top pick in 2017 has already been moved on to another team after being acquired via trade by Orlando. 

Fultz has fared better with the Magic with career highs this season in points per game (12.1), assists (5.2) and shooting (47.3 percent). 

But his improved play still lags behind the overall impact made by Tatum. 

As for Langford, he saw limited time as a rookie primarily because of injuries. But as the season progressed, Langford’s defense earned him increased playing time and maybe just as important, more trust from head coach Brad Stevens. He has appeared in 26 games while averaging 2.6 points and 1.2 rebounds per game. 

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2013 NBA DRAFT

When the Boston Celtics moved up three spots to the No. 13 spot via trade while sending the No. 16 pick to the Dallas Mavericks, there was some talk that the move was being made to make a run at Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Instead, the Celtics picked Kelly Olynyk while Antetokounmpo, now the reigning league MVP, was Milwaukee’s pick at No. 15 — one spot before Boston’s slot prior to flipping picks with the Mavericks.

The Mavericks used the 16th overall pick from Boston to acquire Lucas Noguiera, who wound up being traded by Dallas to Atlanta (Dallas was focused on creating additional cap space by flipping the pick), before eventually landing in Toronto where he played four seasons. The 7-foot Brazilian center has returned to playing internationally, having not been on an NBA roster since 2018.

Boston was among the teams that whiffed on taking Antetokounmpo, obviously. 

But considering who the Celtics made the trade with to acquire Olynyk, this would qualify as a trade that worked out better for Boston than their trading partner. 

2011 NBA DRAFT

Coming off a second-round playoff loss to the Miami Heat, the Celtics looked very much like a veteran team in desperate need of an influx of young talent — particularly in the frontcourt.

Picking near the end of the first round, the Celtics swapped the No. 25 pick (MarShon Brooks from nearby Providence College) for Brooklyn’s No. 27 selection which was used on JaJuan Johnson. 

This trade didn’t work out for either team, although Brooks enjoyed a much more fruitful NBA career. 

Making matters worse, the Celtics were one of the many teams that whiffed on Jimmy Butler in this draft, as the five-time All-Star wound up being selected by Chicago with the 30th overall pick of the first round. 

Johnson played just 36 games in the NBA, all with Boston, before being traded to Houston (and waived before the start of the 2012-2013 season) as part of a three-team trade.

The 6-foot-10 forward has spent the bulk of his career playing internationally with his most recent stint coming with Bahçeşehir Koleji of the Turkish Super Basketball League. 

Brooks has played five seasons in the NBA for five different teams, including a 10-game stint with the Celtics. 

After averaging a career-high 12.6 points per game as a rookie with the Nets, Brooks struggled to latch on with any team beyond a season or so before ultimately taking his talents overseas. 

Like Johnson, his best years professionally have come while playing internationally. He spent this past season with the Guangdong Southern Tigers of the Chinese Basketball Association.

Sports Uncovered: Inside Michael Jordan's two-word fax that altered NBA history

Sports Uncovered: Inside Michael Jordan's two-word fax that altered NBA history

"I'm back."

On March 18, 1995, Michael Jordan sent those words via fax to announce his return to the NBA after his stunning retirement in 1993.

But there's much more to the story of Jordan's comeback than a two-word fax.

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In the debut episode of NBC Sports' "Sports Uncovered" podcast series, NBC Sports Chicago will take fans behind the scenes to tell some never-before-heard stories about Jordan returning to the Bulls in 1995.

One example: Jordan's comeback actually didn't start in Chicago. The star forward secretly worked out with the Golden State Warriors over a span of two to three days to test whether he was ready to return after a year away from the game.

The short answer: Yes.

"We knew he was coming back then," former Warriors star Tim Hardaway said on the podcast. "He just took over our practice. He got five guys (who weren't) playing that much, and he said, 'Us seven will play you all’s seven in a scrimmage,' and it was like he never left."

Those workouts are only the beginning of the story. Through interviews with Jordan's agent, David Falk, former teammates Steve Kerr and Toni Kukoc and many more NBA stars, "Sports Uncovered" reveals the full narrative behind Jordan's NBA-altering return to Chicago.

The episode drops Thursday, May 28, and you can listen by subscribing to "Sports Uncovered" for free wherever you listen to podcasts. Check out the trailer below, narrated by host Mike Tirico: