Celtics

Celtics need the Game of Atonement vs. Pacers to begin... now

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Celtics need the Game of Atonement vs. Pacers to begin... now

BOSTON -- As much as coaches and players talk about staying in the moment in the playoffs, they sure don’t waste much time going all Bill Belichick on us when it comes to moving on.

Minutes after Boston’s Game 1 win over Indiana, Celtics head coach Brad Stevens was already laying out the need-to-get-better blueprint for Game 2 on Wednesday.

A similar scene was playing out in the Pacers locker room, which is understandable considering they held Boston to just 84 points and still lost by double figures.

As much as you will hear players and coaches talk about the playoffs being a game of survival, it’s also a Game of Atonement for all involved, regardless of the outcome.

The Pacers need to make some changes.

We get that.

But the Celtics?

They too see room — lots of room — for growth.

Here’s a look at some key areas that both teams didn't do as well as they would have liked in Game 1, with the goal being to atone for those shortcomings in Game 2.

BOSTON CELTICS

AL HORFORD

Horford had a double-double of 10 points and 11 rebounds along with five assists. But there was a sense in the moments following Boston’s Game 1 win, that they probably could have utilized Horford in an even more meaningful way.

“We need to do a better job of giving him space,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens, who added, “and getting him into advantageous action as a team and as a coaching staff, and so that is what we will try to figure out.”

When Stevens talks about “advantageous action” for Horford, the one matchup that worked against the Pacers most of this season, is getting him the ball on the block when matched up against Thaddeus Young.

In the four regular-season games plus Sunday’s Game 1 matchup, Young has defended Horford for 95 possessions.

Horford’s numbers when defended by Young?

He has scored a total of 17 points on 8-for-12 shooting from the field while the Celtics as a team have scored a total of 110 points.

And the idea of putting a different defender on him doesn’t exactly make limiting Horford’s impact any less.

In Indiana’s Nov. 3 win over Boston, Myles Turner spent the most time (36 possessions) guarding Horford, who still scored nine points on 4-for-10 shooting against Turner in addition to Boston scoring a total of 27 points.

And in Boston’s Jan. 9 win, Domantas Sabonis spent a Pacers-high 30 possessions on Horford, who scored four points on 2-for-4 shooting but dished out an eye-popping eight assists.

Better utilizing Horford in Game 2 should pay off handsomely for the Celtics.

FEWER TURNOVERS

The first half of Game 1 was uncharacteristically full of mistakes by Boston, resulting in 10 first-half turnovers that led to 11 points for the Pacers. Keep in mind this Celtics team ranked third during the regular season with just 12.8 turnovers per game.

But on a night when very little went according to how Indiana wanted, their defense - particularly when it came to forcing turnovers - was on point.

That's not all that surprising when you consider Indiana ranked third in the NBA in turnovers caused (15.6) per game.

Doing a better job of limiting those turnovers will indeed be a point of emphasis for Boston between now and Wednesday night’s tip-off.

KYRIE IRVING

Going forward, the Boston Celtics need Kyrie Irving to be a more efficient scorer than what we saw in Game 1. He shared game-high scoring honors of 20 points with Marcus Morris but he did so on a less-than-efficient shooting night in which he successfully converted just 6-of-17 field goal attempts.

Despite Irving struggling to make shots he normally makes, the Celtics had to be encouraged by what the six-time All-Star was able to do from a defensive standpoint.

His defensive rating of 74.6 was third among players to log at least 30 minutes of court time, and was tops among all guards on the floor.

And while defending at such a high level is certainly a huge plus for the Irving and the Marcus Smart-less Celtics, at the end of the day Irving knows as well as anyone that his ability to score will be what ultimately puts the Celtics over the top as a team. And the more efficient he is in doing that, the better Boston’s chances become of having a deep postseason run.

INDIANA PACERS

MAKE OPEN SHOTS

It sounds simple, but a big part of Indiana’s problems in Game 1 was their inability to knock down shots. The Pacers connected on just 33.3 percent of their field goal attempts, the worst shooting percentage among NBA teams in Game 1 matchups.

No surprise that the Pacers are also at the bottom among playoff teams when it comes to offensive rating (77.0) and are among the worst when it comes to 3-point shooting (22.2 percent, 13th among 16 playoff teams).

“It wasn’t a lack of effort; it was a lack of shot-making,” said Indiana’s Wes Matthews. “Ultimately, what doomed us was that third quarter.”

In the third, Boston outscored the Pacers 26-8 as Indiana missed 17 of its 19 shot attempts.

While that was indeed an outlier for them shooting, it wasn't like they were lighting it up in the other three quarters of play, either.

BOJAN BOGDANOVIC

Bojan Bogdanovic has been the Indiana Pacers’ best scorer, but the Celtics have been able to keep him under wraps in recent games.

In Game 1, the Celtics used nine different defenders on Bogdanovic, although Jaylen Brown spent the lion’s share of the game defending him.

Bogdanovic would score just 12 points, with just two of points coming while Brown defended him for what was 31 of 68 possessions.

“They did a pretty good job,” Bogdanovic said. “It’s playoff basketball; they’re grabbing, holding. At the end of the day I have to do a better job to get open.”

And that means doing a better job of utilizing his teammates when it comes to setting screens. From there, he also sees the need for him to better utilize switches to his advantage.

“Overall I have to be more aggressive,” he said.

And impactful. Because if he's struggling to score, the Pacers are in deep trouble just being able to compete, let alone win a game in this series.

FREE THROWS

On the road, any chance to get easy points has to be maximized. In addition to a ton of missed shots from the field, the Pacers also came away feeling as though they also shot themselves in the foot with one brick after another from the free throw line.

In Game 1, the Pacers were just 12-for-21 from the line, or 57.1 percent.

Now the Pacers have not been a great free throw shooting team all season, so to see them struggle in Game 1 wasn’t a total shock.

But as much as they have had their free throw issues of the past, those issues weren’t nearly as problematic as what we saw in Game 1.

During the regular season, Indiana shot 75.1 percent from the free throw line, which ranked 22nd in the NBA.

Looking at the number of free throw attempts (23.4) Indiana averages this season relative to how many they took in Game 1 (21), the Pacers probably missed about four more than they normally would.

But the problem wasn’t just that they were missing them, but the critical timing of those misses.

Four of those misses (on six attempts) came in the second quarter when Indiana was in control of the game and had the potential to extend their double-digit lead even more.

Those misses allowed Boston to hang around long enough to get their act together, go on a run and leave the Pacers playing the “What if …” game as they lick their wounds from a 10-point loss in Game 1 that was fueled in part by their inability to make easy shots… like free throws.

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Celtics Exit Interviews: How did it all change with Kyrie Irving?

Celtics Exit Interviews: How did it all change with Kyrie Irving?

What’s going to happen with Kyrie?

I’ve heard the question probably a thousand times since the Boston Celtics’ season ended with a whimper earlier this month in Milwaukee. I’ve heard it from family, friends, mailmen, random Celtics fans at the airport, and baristas at Starbucks. I’ve heard it from people around the NBA and I’ve heard it from people that couldn’t name another player on the Celtics roster.

The answer, if we’re being honest, is that your guess is as good as mine. We spent the season adamant that, at the end of the year, Irving would survey his options and realize he has a pretty good situation in Boston. But, certainly, the way it ended — Kyrie in full “let it fly” mode as the Celtics got steamrolled four straight games by the Bucks, then not exactly owning his playoff struggles — wasn’t a particularly inspiring look. So usually I’ll volley the question.

Do you want Irving back?

Most of the time there’s a hesitation, a sign of the internal debate that a lot of Celtics fans seem to be having having while weighing the All-NBA talent against Irving’s leadership flaws. Maybe it’s simply a very vocal minority but we’ve been surprised by the amount of fans that have suggested that maybe it would be best for both sides to move on.

We’ve already told you why you should be careful what you wish for. From the standpoint of Boston remaining a legitimate title contender, it’s almost certainly best that Irving is back. Maybe it’s just an overly emotional aftermath to a maddening season, one in which Irving might be catching too much of the flak for Boston’s overall struggles. But a lot of fans remain conflicted.

All of which made us think: How exactly did we get here? Fans were downright giddy about the possibility of a long-term future for Irving here and he put up the best statistical season of his NBA career. But Boston’s struggles left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth.

We begin our postseason Exit Interviews series with a spotlight on Irving.

"If you’ll have me back, I plan on re-signing here"

When Irving stood before fans at the team’s season-ticket holder event before the season and verbally declared his intent to return, it took almost everyone by surprise. And, even if all parties involved were quick to stress that nothing could be truly agreed upon until the summer, Celtics fans were elated — and eager to rub the news in the faces of Knicks fans. 

Over the past seven months, however, things got weird. The Celtics struggled out of the gates and Irving compounded matters with missteps in his quest to be the team’s vocal leader. Even when he was well-intentioned — like publicly declaring how he called LeBron James for advice — the effect was sometimes more bad than good. When the Celtics’ struggles continued, and Irving’s future was deemed more uncertain than his preseason declaration might have suggested, Irving brooded and it further impacted the team negatively.

If you’re looking for a point where the tide of public opinion swung, it’s probably Feb. 1. Irving’s future had been dragged into the public spotlight in the aftermath of Anthony Davis requesting a trade. While it became rather obvious that Irving was merely a pawn in the quest of some to get Davis to Los Angeles (by planting seeds of doubt about whether Boston might still be player in the Davis sweepstakes this summer), Irving didn’t help matters with his angry reaction to the rumors.

“Somebody else is asking for a trade and I’m throw into that,” Irving fumed at a shootaround before Boston’s visit to the Knicks that day. “Uncertainty comes back on me.”

But Irving didn’t flat out deny the suggestion that he might be having second thoughts. He said simply that, “Boston’s still at the head of that race,” but that suggested, for the first time since before his October declaration, that it was still a race.

Two soundbites in particular went into heavy rotation: “Ask me July 1,” and “I don’t owe anybody s---.”

Maybe if the Celtics were sitting atop the East at that point, then all the noise would have gone away. But Boston could never quite get things right. When Irving and Kevin Durant were taped talking outside the locker room at the All-Star Game in Charlotte — the same All-Star Fame that Irving played in despite missing two games before the break with a knee sprain — the speculation only snowballed about whether the two would join forces in New York.

By the end of February, Irving began suggesting that his focus was on the playoffs. Asked why the postseason would be different than the regular season, Irving brashly suggested because he was here.

Then he endured one of the worst shooting slumps of his career and the Celtics got unceremoniously bounced from the Eastern Conference semifinals in five games. When he dismissively stated, “Who cares?” when asked about his shooting woes after Game 4, it drew the ire of already frustrated Celtics fans who screamed at their TV that they, most certainly, cared.

There is little debate about Irving’s talents. He averaged 23.8 points while shooting 48.7 percent from the floor and 40.1 percent beyond the 3-point arc this season. The Celtics owned an offensive rating of 112.8 when Irving was on the court, and it plummeted by 7.7 points per 100 possessions when he was on the bench.

Irving remains one of the most spellbinding ball-handlers and finishers in the NBA. His room-for-growth checklist would focus more on leadership and accountability than anything on the court (though his defensive intensity and focus could improve, as highlighted in the Milwaukee series).

Ultimately, the question is whether Irving desires to be back. Does he yearn to make amends for his own missteps? Does he want another crack at getting this thing right (albeit, with a cast that could be very different)? 

If Irving does elect to return and the Celtics continue to build around him, how can he win back the fan base? He could show the self-awareness that often evaded him last season. He can own his failures and express a desire for redemption. He can stress again his appreciation for the franchise and the opportunity to wear Celtics green. The city will embrace him; Boston loves nothing better than a redemption story.

You know what else would help? Winning. Winning cures all. irving and the Celtics didn’t do enough of it this year to mask their issues.

And it’s ultimately the reason why the offseason begins with so much uncertainty about Irving and his future. It’s in Irving’s best financial interest to return, with Boston able to offer him a five-year, $190 million maximum salary extension, or about $50 million more than any other suitor.

What’s going to happen with Kyrie? Nothing would surprise us. But it’s hard to imagine just how much has changed in seven months.

It feels a lot like "Game of Thrones": It’s a tantalizing journey that deserves a better ending than what we’ve got at the moment.

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NBA Rumors: Celtics to host two defensive studs for pre-draft workouts

NBA Rumors: Celtics to host two defensive studs for pre-draft workouts

If Brandon Clarke is on the board at pick No. 14 or later in the 2019 NBA Draft, it sounds like the Boston Celtics might be interested.

The Celtics are one of four teams set to host the Gonzaga product for a pre-draft workout, the Charlotte Observer's Rick Bonnell reported Sunday.

Boston also will bring in Penn State guard Josh Reaves for a workout, Bryan Kalbrosky of USA TODAY's Celtics Wire reported Sunday.

Clarke was a highly productive two-way forward for the Zags last season, averaging 16.9 points per game while leading the NCAA's Division I in blocks (117 in 37 games) to win West Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year.

He's projected as a first-round pick and has been tied to the Celtics -- who own the 14th, 20th and 22nd picks -- in several mock drafts, including the latest from NBC Sports Boston's A. Sherrod Blakely.

Reaves also is a defensive standout who won Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors this past season after averaging 2.5 steals and 1.0 blocks per game for the Nittany Lions. The 21-year-old is expected to go in the second round, where Boston has No. 51 pick.

Defense clearly is a priority for head coach Brad Stevens' club, which has drafted athletic stoppers like Robert Williams, Semi Ojeleye and Jaylen Brown in recent years. With three selections in the first round, Boston has the capital to target another defensive-minded player with one those picks.

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