Celtics

Celtics-Timberwolves preview: Coping with an injured superstar

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Celtics-Timberwolves preview: Coping with an injured superstar

MINNEAPOLIS – Similar in some ways, different in more that matter. 

That’s the only way you can look at the parallels some have tried to draw between the injuries to Boston’s Gordon Hayward and Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler.

Both are All-Star wing players who are playing with different teams this season than the one that drafted them. 

And both suffered leg-related injuries. 

But the significant difference is that Hayward’s dislocated ankle injury is expected to keep him sidelined for the entire season. 

Meanwhile, there’s a very good chance that Butler will be back in the Timberwolves lineup before the end of this month. 

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Still, that shouldn’t diminish how much Butler has meant to the Timberwolves this season, and how his absence may very well be the unplanned break the Celtics need as they face off against Minnesota tonight. 

Butler was named an All-Star this past season and prior to his meniscus injury, a case could be made that he was playing at a borderline league-MVP level.

In 56 games this year, Butler is averaging 22.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game. It’s the kind of across-the-board production that has made him one of the game’s top players, and difficult to replace.

“You can’t replace Jimmy individually,” said Minnesota head coach/president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau. “So we know we have to do it collectively. It’s an opportunity for other guys to grow. We have to play to our strengths, cover up our weaknesses and play with great tenacity.”

That’s certainly an apt description of Celtics basketball this season, which is on the doorstep of having the best record in the East despite playing all but five minutes of this season without Hayward, who suffered a dislocated left ankle injury in the season opener. 

The Timberwolves have seen from afar how the Celtics galvanized themselves in the days and weeks following Hayward’s injury, putting together a season of success that has Boston record-wise among the top teams in the NBA. 

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Minnesota’s Jamal Crawford is one of the Timberwolves who has experienced what it’s like to have to pick up the slack when a key player is out of the mix. 

While playing for the Los Angeles Clippers, Crawford went through that on two separate occasions with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, respectively. 

Another Minnesota player, Taj Gibson, went through that in Chicago with Derrick Rose. 

That experience, Crawford says, will aid him in his efforts to help his youthful teammates navigate what’s expected to be a difficult and challenging period of time. 

“The more we lean on each other, the better we are collectively and the better chance we have of winning that night,” Crawford said. 

Injuries or not, Thibodeau is doing his part to make sure his team understands how important these games leading into the playoffs are for their future. 

“We have to be ready to play from the start,” Thibodeau said. “This is the time of year where everything is ramped up.”

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Hayward (ankle) expected to return to Celtics lineup tonight vs Bulls

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Hayward (ankle) expected to return to Celtics lineup tonight vs Bulls

Gordon Hayward will be available tonight for the Boston Celtics as they try to get back on track with a road date tonight against the Chicago Bulls. 

Hayward, whom Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said would not have any restrictions, did not play in Boston’s 98-97 loss at Milwaukee after suffering a right ankle sprain near the end of the All-Star break. 

In what has been an up-and-down season for Hayward, lately he has been riding high for Boston. 

Hayward has averaged 21.0 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists in his last three games while shooting 63.3 percent from the field and 69.2 percent from 3-point range. 

Here are five factors to keep an eye on heading into tonight’s game against the Chicago Bulls:

PERFECT OPPONENT TO GET BACK ON TRACK

Thursday night’s 98-97 loss at Milwaukee certainly left a bitter taste in the mouth of the Boston Celtics. 

Up next are the Chicago Bulls who look as though they are the perfect elixir to get Boston back to enjoying the sweet taste of victory. 

Although the Bulls (15-44) have won two in a row and have played better lately, they still rank among the worst teams in the NBA. 

And while on the surface being at home would appear to be a good thing for the Bulls, reality says otherwise. They come into tonight’s game with a 6-23 record at home which is the 29th-worst home mark in the NBA. 

CAN ONLY SHOOT BETTER RIGHT?

The Celtics will look to shake off a season-worst 38.2 percent shooting performance against the Bucks, in addition to finding a way to get to the free throw line more often. 

Boston went to the line six times with five makes, season lows for Boston in both categories. 

In addition, lately Boston has made the most of teams that struggle whether it be home or on the road with the Celtics coming into tonight’s game having won four of their last five road games - all of those victories coming against teams with a losing record. 

OTTO PORTER JR.

After acquiring Otto Porter Jr. on Feb. 6 from Washington, he has appeared in five games while averaging 21.4 points and 5.6 rebounds while shooting 57.5 percent from the field and 56.1 percent on 3’s. 

Even before the trade, Porter Jr. is a player that the Celtics are indeed concerned with based upon how he has performed against them in the past. 

Playing with the Wizards last season, Porter Jr. averaged 19.3 points and 8.3 rebounds against the Celtics while connecting on 54.2 percent of his shots from the field and 61.1 percent from 3-point range. 

PLAY BOTH ENDS OF THE FLOOR

The Celtics take pride in being a team viewed by many that can play well at both ends of the floor. This is seen in their play as well as the data which shows that they are one of the select few that plays well on offense and defense.

In fact, the Celtics are just one of three teams in the NBA which rank among the league’s top 10 in both offensive rating (10th) and defensive rating (3rd). 

PICK UP THE PACE

Most NBA teams are looking to play faster these days and the Celtics are no different. In fact, Boston’s pace has often been a good indicator of how they are going to perform. This season, Boston is 24-8 when the team’s pace is 100 or better, and just 13-14 when it’s less than 100. 

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Checking in on Celtics' projected win total (with a sobering result)

Checking in on Celtics' projected win total (with a sobering result)

The Boston Celtics still have time to meet their lofty expectations for the 2018-19 regular season.

All they need to do? Win their final 23 games.

As the Action Network's John Ewing pointed out Friday, the Westgate Superbook in Las Vegas set Boston's over/under win total for this season at 59. At 37-22 entering Saturday night's game against the Chicago Bulls, the C's are 23 wins off that pace with 23 games to go.

Hey, the longest win streak in NBA history is 33 games ... Just saying ...

It's been the perception all season that the Celtics haven't lived up to expectations, and this stat quantifies that. Projected to win the East with a 59-23 record thanks to the returns of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward to a squad that reached the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals, an inconsistent Boston squad ranks fifth in the East with just a quarter of the season remaining.

Here's another sobering stat: If the C's want to match last season's win total of 55, they'll need to go 18-5 through the NBA's sixth-hardest remaining schedule that includes 13 more road games.

Of course, regular season wins aren't a precursor to playoff success. Just ask last season's Cleveland Cavaliers squad, which coasted to 50 regular season wins before LeBron James carried it to the NBA Finals.

Boston doesn't have a talent like James, but it still has time to find a winning formula for the postseason.

If you took the over on the C's this season, though, we regret to inform you it's (probably) not happening.

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