Celtics

Celtics welcome Al Horford with special touch outside Sixers' visiting locker room

Celtics welcome Al Horford with special touch outside Sixers' visiting locker room

BOSTON -- Want proof the Celtics harbor no ill will toward Al Horford after he signed with the rival Philadelphia 76ers last offseason?

That proof was taped up just outside the visitors' locker room at TD Garden: a green and white sign welcoming Horford back to Boston.

It was a small but telling gesture from the Celtics to Horford in his first trip back to Boston -- and one not many former players get.

The photo, taken during the 2017-18 season, features Horford with Abdel Nader to the left and Jayson Tatum to the right.

Horford seemed pleasantly surprised when reporters pointed the sign out to him about 45 minutes before the game.

"That's pretty cool. That's really nice," Horford said. "Those are my boys over there. JT and, is that Nader? That's Nader. That's funny."

Horford was a team favorite during his three seasons in Boston from 2016 to 2018, providing consistent play on the court and veteran leadership off it.

The 33-year-old signed a four-year, $97 million contract with the Celtics' direct rival over the summer, though, and was unclear how fans at TD Garden would receive him Thursday night.

"I’m not really sure," Horford said. "But regardless, I've got no hard feelings here. It’s all love.”

The feeling clearly is mutual.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Mavericks, which tips off Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Scal have the call at 9:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

What's ailing the Celtics' defense? Here are some theories

What's ailing the Celtics' defense? Here are some theories

BOSTON — Having clawed their way back from 16 points down to make it a one-possession game with a minute to play, the Boston Celtics needed against Phoenix on Saturday what used to be a given in these stressful moments: a defensive stop.

As Phoenix’s Mikal Bridges’ fadeaway jumper in the paint left his fingertips and hung on the rim’s lip for what seemed like an eternity, there was a moment in time when the chances of that ball dropping through the net were just as good as they were for it to roll out. 

It eventually fell through the net, the Celtics went on to lose 123-119, and the team’s defense once again came up short when they were most needed.

In that possession, like so many lately, the Celtics did most of what was necessary. But this team isn’t built to be successful by just doing a pretty good job. 

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The margin for error to be one of the NBA's best teams is razor thin. That's partly why many of their losses of late fall into the good, but not good enough to win, category. 

“I mean, there’s 50 things to do on a possession,” said head coach Brad Stevens. “Right now we’re doing about 46 on our best ones, and we need to do 50.”

Of course, that’s easier said than done. 

It’s not like it’s one or two of the same things that are problematic for their defense — which, by the way, not so long ago was considered one of the league's best. 

The Celtics' defensive rating of 105.6 still puts them at the fifth-best in the NBA this season.  But over the last eight games, that shot up to 111.8, which ranks 16th in the league during that span. 

It hasn’t helped that most of the teams Boston has faced lately, have come into the game playing some of their best basketball of the season. The Suns for example, have struggled for most of the season but won three of four headed into Saturday. 

That may be a factor. But players are quick to point out that the bigger issues defensively stem from a lack of the consistency we'd seen earlier this season. 

“Just not really running our system on the defensive end,” Marcus Smart said. “You know we gave up a lot of easy, easy, easy lay-ups at the rim. Guys are supposed to be pulled in and it’s like we don’t know what we are doing out there and that’s a problem. 

"We’re not really holding guys accountable on the defensive end. We can score the ball with the best of them but for some reason we are allowing, when we go in those rolls, we’re missing (shots) to affect our defense.”

Gordon Hayward added, “For whatever reason guys are scoring on us at a high clip so we have to figure what we have to do to shut that down.”

There are ample factors contributing to the team’s defensive struggles of late. Stevens knows what has to get better for his team at that end of the floor. 

“Everything,” he said. “I just … everything. Just every … every single angle you take on a pick-and-roll, how much you get into the body, how much do you chase, how, when do you switch, how high are you as a big, when do you step back, how you guard the down-screen, do you trail it? Do you go under it? Do you meet them on a catch? What do you do?”

For Boston to get back on that track, the jobs to be done lie on the defensive side of the ball. 

“It takes everybody, you know, and it’s not easy,” Smart said. “You know, coming in you’ve got a team that’s really talented. They’re coming in to play and beat you so we got to be on top of our games and we just got to understand that we’re going to have nights where we don’t shoot the ball well but we can’t have nights where we just don’t bring it on the defensive end.”

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Lakers, which begins Monday at 6 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live. You can also stream on the MyTeams App.

Marcus Smart tweets encouraging message about Gordon Hayward after key miss

Marcus Smart tweets encouraging message about Gordon Hayward after key miss

Gordon Hayward had a solid game for the Boston Celtics against the Phoenix Suns. He didn't have his best shooting performance but he was aggressive en route to scoring 22 points and keeping the Celtics in the game late.

However, Hayward had one of the key misses of the night for the C's. Trailing by five, Brad Stevens drew up a beautiful inbounds pass that got the ball to Hayward wide open at the rim. Hayward caught the ball mid-air but failed to put it through the hoop.

LIVE stream the Celtics all season and get the latest news and analysis on all of your teams from NBC Sports Boston by downloading the My Teams App.

A make would've brought the Celtics to within three with less than a minute left. But alas, it wasn't meant to be and the Celtics lost by a score of 123-119.

Right after Hayward missed the shot, Marcus Smart was seen on the court encouraging him and saying that things would be okay. And on Twitter after the game, Smart took it one step further and continued to defend Hayward and his spot on the team.

This is a great move by Smart and represents the impact he has on the locker room. He's the longest-tenured Celtic, he plays hard, and he's always there to support his teammates. He's a key glue guy whose impact can't be measured purely by box score stats, even when he puts up a career-high 37 points and sets a Celtics record for most 3-point shots made in a game.

As for Hayward, he has drawn the ire of Celtics fans amid the team's recent struggles, but he's still averaging 14.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 4.1 assists per game in the team's past eight games. Those numbers are all a bit lower than his season averages, but he alone is not the main reason for the team's struggles.

The Celtics clearly have some issues to iron out and Brad Stevens is aware of that. But if the members of the team continue to support each other, they should eventually work their way out of this extended slump.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Lakers, which begins Monday at 6 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live. You can also stream on the MyTeams App.