Celtics

Celtics-Rockets preview: It's crunch time

Celtics-Rockets preview: It's crunch time

HOUSTON – The sun was just starting to call it a day as darker shadows along the Houston skyline began to set in Friday evening, as Celtics players made their way towards the Toyota Center.

The players and Celtics assistant coaches exchanged a few pleasantries with the NBC Sports Boston reporters before entering the arena, but let’s be clear. 

Their focus at this moment isn’t all that different than their focus this season which has been to find ways to steadily improve their game so that when it’s game time, they would be prepared to do what matters most – find a way to win. 

MORE CELTICS

That approach should serve them well heading into tonight’s game against the Houston Rockets (48-13) who currently have a share of the best record in the NBA with Golden State (49-14) courtesy of their current winning streak which now stands at 14 in a row. 

While the winning streak has drawn added attention to the Rockets and their quest to dethrone Golden State as the team to beat in the West, Houston star Chris Paul said the streak is something that he and his teammates don’t talk about. 

“For us it’s all about the next game and preparing,” Paul said. “We don’t talk about the streak or anything like that. Even after watching film … we’re just thinking about practice now and getting ready for the game.”

MORE CELTICS

And while the wins have steadily piled up, Houston head coach Mike D’Antoni said it’s still easy to find areas the Rockets can improve upon. 

“We still got some … Golden State has set a pretty high bar for the rest of the league,” D’Antoni said. “We still have to get better defensively. We still have to get the rotations down a little bit better.  But things are obviously going pretty good.”

Their current winning streak of 14 in a row, is the second time this season they have won 14 straight games – the only team in the league to do so this year. 

To beat Houston for a second time this season, it will take the Celtics delivering an effort akin to what we saw in the second half of their first matchup this season on Dec. 28, a game in which Boston trailed by 26 points early in the third quarter before rallying for a 99-98 win capped off with a pair of late-game charges drawn by Marcus Smart against James Harden. 

Both sides have tried to move on from the epic Celtics comeback, preferring to instead focus on the key factors in tonight’s matchup. 

And for Boston, it means continuing to play with a high sense of urgency.

“Right now it's crunch time,” said Boston’s Aron Baynes. “You know we got to get better every single time we step on to the court. There's not many days left so every team's stepping up … every team's trying to lock in and get better. This is when time really counts and we're trying to get ready for playoffs and we want to make a long run, so we know every time we step on to the court we got to get better as a group.”

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Brad Stevens on Kyrie Irving: 'He looks pretty good'

Brad Stevens on Kyrie Irving: 'He looks pretty good'

PLYMOUTH, Mass. –  The last time we saw Kyrie Irving, he was in street clothes as the Celtics navigated their way through the playoffs without him and advanced all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Fast forward to this month, one in which Stevens has seen Irving working out with his teammates in pickup games doing what can be best described as Irving-like things.

When asked if Irving had the cutting moves we’ve seen him display in splicing up defenders on a nightly basis, Stevens, with a mischievous smile, said, “he’s got ‘em. He looks pretty good."

And that bodes well for a Boston team that’s expected by many to advance to the NBA Finals this season.

“He’s worked really hard,” Stevens said of Irving. “I think he’s excited … it’s good to see that.”

Irving has established himself as one of the top guards in the NBA and has shown himself capable of stepping up in the playoffs when needed.

A career 22.0 points per game scorer, Irving has averaged 23.9 points in the postseason, putting up at least 25.2 points per game in his last two playoff appearances (2016 and 2017).

But injuries and an infection in his left knee have led to him missing all or most of the postseason in two of the last four seasons.

“The one last year with us was such a shock,” Stevens said. “Just because of the unfortunate event with the infection.”

He won’t be the only Celtic who will be watched closely in training camp.

Gordon Hayward, who missed most of last season with a left ankle injury suffered in the season opener, has also looked good in workouts according to Stevens.

“He’s been really diligent all the way through his rehab and progressing to each step,” Stevens said of Hayward. “I watched him go all the way through the steps of working out to 1-on-1, 2-on-2, 3-on-3 and now he can play some of the open gyms some of the guys are having.”

Irving and Hayward, like most of the Celtics, won’t play major minutes in the preseason.

“I don’t think anyone will play a ton in the first week,” Stevens said. “That’s too quick. Usually you have five or six days before your first game. But to have three days and we play the second one right after that. We’re basically breaking our camp down from a staffing standpoint into two separate camps. The first one is, getting back together, making sure we’re fluid in what we’re trying to accomplish for the most part on offense and defense playing as a team through those first ten days when we have four games. And after that, we have a full eight-day period. We’ll basically treat it like another camp, as we get ready for the regular season. I don’t anticipate anybody hitting the 25-minute mark in any of those early games.”

Stevens knows not to put too much stock in what he sees early on from his players. This is especially true for Irving and Hayward.

 “I think like anything there’s going to be a period of adjustment,” Stevens said.

But that reality has to be balanced with an earlier-than-usual preseason schedule which will present its own unique sets of challenges.

The days of easing into the preseason, at least this year, are gone.

“If we’re not ready for the competitive side, that’ll smack us in the face pretty quick,” Stevens said. “But that’s part of getting ready for a season.”

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

What makes Wanamaker, a 29-year-old rookie, a good fit for Boston?

What makes Wanamaker, a 29-year-old rookie, a good fit for Boston?

BOSTON – Brad Wanamaker is one of the few new faces on the Boston Celtics roster, but that’s OK. Unlike most rookies, Wanamaker is familiar with a couple of his new Celtics teammates (Marcus Morris from their days in Philadelphia, Daniel Theis from their time as teammates in Germany) which should help his acclimation to the team.

Familiarity helps, but ultimately it comes down to how well he plays on the floor.

So what should Celtics expect from this 29-year-old rookie?

GOOD DEFENSE

Because of his 6-foot-4, 210-pound frame, Wanamaker has good size defensively at both guard positions. There will be comparisons made between him and Marcus Smart in part because they both have a similar build, but let’s be clear: Wanamaker is a good defender, but he’s not in the same class defensively as Smart (at least not yet).

SHOT MAKER

Wanamaker is not considered an elite shooter, but he doesn’t suck, either. He shot 36.3 percent from three-point range in Euroleague play which isn’t that far off from what he shot (34.4 percent) during his four years at Pittsburgh. Shooting in the mid-30s from 3-point range would put him behind the likes of Marcus Morris (36.8 percent) and Terry Rozier (38.1 percent), but ahead of Guerschon Yabusele (32.4 percent), Semi Ojeleye (32.0 percent), Daniel Theis (31.0 percent) and Marcus Smart (30.1 percent). Regardless, Wanamaker is good enough to knock down lightly contested threes.

CLUTCH PERFORMER

Wanamaker seems to be at his best when the stakes are high. As a then-rookie in a Euroleague game, Wanamaker rallied his Brose Bamberg team – a team in which he played with current Celtic Daniel Theis – to a comeback win with 18 of his 25 points coming in the final four minutes of play. It was the kind of performance that set the tone for what was an international basketball career full of awards and accolades.

WINNER

Undrafted in 2011, it didn’t take long for Wanamaker to prove his worth against international competition. He has been among the best players in Europe for quite some time, evident by the amount of hardware he has received. The honors for Wanamaker include All-Euroleague Second team (2017); Turkish League champion (2018); Turkish League Finals MVP (2018);  two-time Turkish League All-Star (2017-2018);  two-time German BBL champion (2015-2016) and German BBL Finals MVP (2015). He even found success in his short D-League (now Gatorade League) stint, winning a title with the Austin Toros in 2012.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE