Celtics visit to Denver a reminder of what Isaiah Thomas helped build

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Celtics visit to Denver a reminder of what Isaiah Thomas helped build

DENVER — Isaiah Thomas won’t be on the court Monday night when the Celtics visit the Denver Nuggets. He’s still rehabbing his way back from a nagging hip injury, the one he worsened after he gave up his body for the Celtics in the team’s improbable run to the East finals in 2017. And yet Thomas' fingerprints will be all over the showdown Monday night between two of the best young teams in the NBA.

For Boston, the jaw-dropping swap that sent Thomas to Cleveland in exchange for Kyrie Irving delivered the sort of top-tier player that Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge thought necessary for the team to make the next step toward true title contention. Still, even before that it was Thomas who made Boston a destination, his tantalizing play forcing the rest of the league to take notice and helped the Celtics recruit both Al Horford and Gordon Hayward in recent summers.

Even as Thomas works his way back to game shape, now playing for his third team in little more than a year, he has emerged as a veteran voice for a Nuggets team off to an 8-1 start this season. Still, there is no certainty when he’ll be back on the court and what sort of player he’ll be then.

What is certain is that that many in the Celtics locker room are rooting for Thomas to get healthy and rekindle the magic that made him so special in Boston.

"IT is one of a kind and, for all of us that have been with him and spent time with him, we’re hopeful that this time when he comes back he feels great and is ready to roll,” said Stevens. "There’s no question his impact on an organization and a team is hard to match. He meant so much to me and the way he kind of captivated Boston and the years that he had there it’s amazing. 

"He’s an amazing guy. We obviously still keep in touch pretty regularly, but we’ll all look forward to seeing him back out on the court.”

It’s been a rough go for Thomas since his departure from Boston. He played just 15 games for Cleveland after first returning from the hip injury, then got dealt to the Lakers as part of Cleveland’s midseason overhaul. Thomas appeared in only 17 games with Los Angeles before being allowed to walk away in free agency this summer.

Thomas, who initially expressed frustration towards Ainge after being dealt, said this past summer that he reached out to Ainge as he was pondering decisions before the 2018-19 season. The Celtics were already dealing with an overstocked roster and Denver presented a better opportunity for Thomas to eventually showcase the talents that made him an All-NBA player in Boston.

His departure still resonates with Stevens, who was as shellshocked as anyone when the trade went through, even if he understood the reasons behind the move.

"These [reporters] that cover us every day know that that was a really hard time because there was never a thought that we would possibly have traded him, and then Kyrie became available,” said Stevens. "So it was a super-unique situation and that was a tough one in all the households in Boston,  but certainly the Stevens household as well. But that’s because he did so much in Boston because he was so well-liked and how much he poured his heart into the game of basketball. 

"This guy works as hard and is as dedicated as anyone I’ve been around. That’s why we all are smarter than to bet against him, because when he gets back out on that court he’s going to make a heck of a difference.”

Inside the Celtics’ locker room, there are few faces that actually played with Thomas. Only Horford, Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, and Marcus Smart remain from that 2016-17 season. Though Hayward has repeatedly noted how important Thomas was in recruiting him to the team before the trade.

And those players are rooting for Thomas as well.

"That’s a guy who put his heart and soul in every game and sacrificed a lot,” said Smart. "The passing of his sister, and he comes out and goes crazy. Anybody in their right mind would have understood him taking that time out to be with his family and then mourning of his sister, but that’s the type of person IT is — a competitor.

"He came out and he played that game for her and gave it everything he had, and in the blink of an eye it’s like, where’s he at now? He’s kind of vanished, and nobody really talks about him. And this guy was, I’m talking about, one of the best players to ever do it.”

Smart doesn’t think anyone should write Thomas off.

"Oh man, IT. Man, he’s gonna be alright,” said Smart. "I think it’s good that he’s taken [the start of the] year off to really rehab that body … Just really get his mind back right, and everything that’s going on to clear his mind and get it back focused. But I definitely think this is going to justice for him and he’s going to come back strong.”


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Can the Celtics get past their frustration and become a contender?

Can the Celtics get past their frustration and become a contender?

One of the (many) things about Kyrie Irving that I’ve found fascinating during his Boston tenure is that, most nights after losses, he seems impossibly composed by the time he steps in front of the microphones. Do not misinterpret: Losses sting Irving but he typically has a unique ability to see the bigger picture rather than get swept up in the moment.

Saturday’s loss in Orlando was an exception. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

I’d go so far as to say there have been times earlier in the year, even with Boston at full throttle on this nauseating seesaw, where Irving seemed to genuinely enjoy the peaks and valleys, maybe recognizing that no worthwhile season passes without a blend of triumph and adversity. Irving seems to savor the journey more than most.

But even Irving seemed to reach a breaking point last week in the so-called happiest place on Earth.

Irving’s postgame shooting session in Miami hinted at a player with a lot on his mind, though it should be noted that he returned from the “therapeutic” session in a notably chipper mood, playfully joking with reporters when the lights went out during his interview. Maybe we should have known something was awry in Orlando when Irving was as demonstrative as we’ve seen him after picking up a technical foul late in the third quarter.

His emotions got the best of him on the court again when he seethed about Boston’s final play. He stewed at his locker stall and eventually his frustration poured out during his postgame media session.

Maybe Irving needed a day Monday to rest both his body and mind. But he’s far from the only one on the Celtics that's let his emotions show amid a frustrating stretch. Marcus Morris and Jaylen Brown had their little flareup in Miami, Brad Stevens had the maddest of Mad Brad timeouts at the start of the game in Brooklyn, and Brown seemed to be sending a little bit of flak back at Irving when he said the team’s issues run, "not from the bottom to the top, but from the top to the bottom."

All of which delivers these red-faced Celtics to Wednesday night’s showdown with the Eastern Conference-leading Toronto Raptors. The Celtics sit 7 games back and this shouldn’t be hyped as some sort of battle for East supremacy. No, this is simply a test of the Celtics’ mental toughness.

How will the Celtics respond to their latest and maybe most pronounced bout with adversity?

We know the Celtics have the talent to be a true contender. They’ve proven that by beating all four teams sitting ahead of them in the East standings. They are one of a small handful of teams in the NBA that sits in the top 10 for both offensive and defensive rating, possessing the statistical profile of a champion. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, one of the best predictive measures in recent season, has Boston tied with the Golden State for the second best mark in the league (ahead of Toronto but behind Milwaukee). 

Alas, none of those measures mean anything if the Celtics don’t show they have the mental grit needed to truly contend.

Which is why, as frustrations boil over during this three-game losing streak, we keep coming back to something Stevens has repeated a few times in recent weeks, essentially wondering out loud if his team has the toughness that his teams so routinely displayed in recent seasons.

"I thought one of our great strengths in the last few years was our ability to move on,” Stevens said earlier this month. "I’m not sure that we were as good at that early in the season as we needed to be. This season is long, it’s hard, there’s a lot of ups and downs. You gotta be able to move on from both.”

A win Wednesday night will not solve any of Boston’s underlying issues. But it might tell us a bit about what this team is made of. As every soundbite out of the Celtics’ locker room is scrutinized, as pundits ponder if there’s a divide between the young and old, and as players of all ages find themselves under the microscope for underperformance, can the Celtics dust themselves off and play like the team they expected to be?

This is not to suggest that Wednesday’s game is some sort of make or break moment. The Celtics need to prove it and prove it consistently. But as the rest of the NBA looks to see if the wheels might come off for these Celtics, we’ll find out whether they can get past individual frustrations for the greater good of the team.

Does this team want to be great? Can it handle the growing burden of expectations? That’s sort of the gauntlet that Irving has repeatedly thrown down and we’re still waiting for a definitive answer.

A clear-minded Irving could help Boston start to answer those questions in the affirmative. So might the return of Aron Baynes, if the bruising big man can get back on the court after missing less than four weeks with a fractured hand. Boston’s defensive rating has regressed in Baynes’ absence with the team slipping to fifth in the NBA while allowing 104.6 points per 100 possessions. That number spiked to 108.7 in the 13 games since Baynes’ injury.

Baynes will bring a toughness that’s been desperately missing in recent weeks. But the bigger question mark is mental toughness. Former Celtics coach Doc Rivers used to say, “You gotta get past mad.” Frustrations have pinned the Celtics in a tough spot if they desire to climb in the seedings, something Irving lamented in Orlando

But there’s no reason this team can’t still be the team we expected. We’ve seen glimpses. Too often their frustrations have made their journey more difficult than it has to be.

No minor roster tweak is going to solve the issue. The suggestion of “too much talent” seems foolish as well as good teams figure out how to maximize all parts of their roster. 

The biggest question from this vantage is whether this team can get out of its own way. Lingering on all that’s gone wrong won’t help them. Pointing fingers isn’t going to make things better. The Celtics have to focus on what they can control. 

The Celtics gotta get past mad. 

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Celtics' Aron Baynes (hand) upgraded to questionable for Raptors game

Celtics' Aron Baynes (hand) upgraded to questionable for Raptors game

BOSTON -- The Boston Celtics’ defense has been on a downward spiral lately, but they may get a much-needed boost with the possible return of Aron Baynes tomorrow night against the Toronto Raptors. 

Out with a left fourth metacarpal fracture injury, Baynes is listed as questionable for Wednesday's game for the first time since suffering the injury in December. 

Baynes, whose defensive rating a year ago (96.6) was tops in the NBA, has once again been among the league’s better defenders this season with a defensive rating this season of 97.3 which is tops in the NBA among players who have appeared in at least 25 games and average at least 14 minutes like Baynes.


In those 25 games, Baynes has averaged 5.5 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.2 assists per game while shooting 45.2 percent from the field and 32.4 percent from 3-point range. 

Along with Baynes, Marcus Smart (illness) is also questionable for tomorrow night's game. 

Smart did not play in Boston’s 109-102 loss at Brooklyn on Monday. 

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