Celtics

Celtics winning games - and winning over Irving with late-season success

Celtics winning games - and winning over Irving with late-season success

INDIANAPOLIS -- Kyrie Irving is a six-time All-Star, one of the best late-game scorers in the NBA.

And yet there he was in the fourth quarter on Friday night, in the most important game of the Celtics season, doing the same thing you and I were doing - watching the Celtics pour on the points and in doing so, making a point in a crushing 117-97 blowout win at Indiana about a week before these two are expected to meet in a first-round playoff series. 

Not only did it all but secure home-court advantage for the Celtics when they meet the Pacers again, but it showcased both the promise and elite-level potential surrounding Irving on a night when the spotlight, for a regular0season game at least, had not been any brighter. 

And when you are the Celtics, who are trying to do their all in convincing Irving to stay long-term, these are the games that make it more difficult for him to take his talents elsewhere.

There’s no question Irving has had his share of rocky moments with the Celtics this season, whether it’s referring to “the young guys” one or two (or three or…) times too many when they screw up, or committing to re-sign with the team in October and essentially doing an about-face a few months later.

He is indeed a difficult player to figure out, for sure. 

Still, the one thing that has been constant with him during his time in Boston, is his desire to win. 

And as much as the Celtics lean on him to carry the squad on many nights, the fact that they could dominate a team as desperate as the Pacers and not need Irving to have a monster game to do so, speaks volumes about where this team is now and how far they can go. 

Boston won’t have many games in the playoffs, if any, where Irving can play just 27 minutes and that be more than enough for them to win. 

But the fact that this team has that potential and they put it together in what was easily the biggest game of the season, says a lot about this team’s growth. 

And if you sift through Irving’s comments most of the season, he has talked often about growth and its importance to this team as the season progressed. 

The way Jayson Tatum took over for stretches and maintained an elite level of aggressiveness… how Gordon Hayward is looking more like All-Star Gordon Hayward from a couple of years ago…Al Horford delivering a little bit of everything…Aron Baynes becoming Mr. Double-Double with three in his last five games...

How much all that resonates with Irving, remains to be seen. 

But if you’re the Celtics, you know for a fact it was the kind of victory that can only help their chances of keeping Irving around beyond this season, which remains Boston’s top priority. 

He is a dynamic talent who has already won an NBA title, but knows he can not win another one by himself. 

Irving knows he’ll need others to step up, step out and deliver on the biggest of stages. 

While he has caught heat at times this season for what many believe is him picking on the younger players, multiple Celtics have talked both publicly and privately about how Irving’s confidence and faith in his younger teammates have never wavered. 

“It doesn’t always come out right, what he says, but he’s got our back,” one of his teammates told NBC Sports Boston. 

It is that ultra-competitive streak in Irving that at times has made him a polarizing figure on this team, and in the eyes of opposing teams and players. 

But he desperately wants to be with a group that’s just as hungry for success and are capable of playing with that much-needed edge when it matters - a team such as the one we saw on Friday night that had him doing what we tend to do when it comes to him and the Celtics, and that’s watch it all unfold. 

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What NBA's return-to-action plan means for the Celtics

What NBA's return-to-action plan means for the Celtics

When the NBA season was put on pause in March, the timing could not have been much better for the Boston Celtics. 

Wins were getting harder to come by (they had lost three of their last five), the jacuzzi-hot play of Jayson Tatum was starting to cool off some and Kemba Walker was headed towards a stretch of “strategic rest” days off because of knee soreness. 

And just like the rest of the NBA is fired up about the potential return to play reportedly as early as the end of late July, the Celtics are an eager bunch to restart the season as well. 

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And they should be for a number of reasons. 

First and foremost, there’s a very real chance that they can move up in the standings if the league adopts the reported return-to-play model which includes eight regular season games before the playoffs. 

Currently third in the East, the Celtics would begin the postseason against Philadelphia if the league went straight into the playoffs — an idea that hasn’t garnered a ton of support from owners or players. 

An eight-game slate of games would provide Boston with enough opportunities to potentially move ahead of Toronto and secure the No. 2 seed in the East. 

The way the standings look now, the potential for movement is great for many teams. 

Boston (43-21) trails the Raptors (46-18) by three games in the standings. Behind the Celtics you find the Heat (41-24) who are 2.5 games back.

The next closest teams to Boston beyond those two are Indiana and Philadelphia (both 39-26) who each trail Boston by 4.5 games. 

For the Celtics’ sake, moving up from their current draft position and avoiding a first-round matchup with Philadelphia would be the preferred path to take this postseason. 

The Sixers, one of the bigger disappointments this season, will feature a healthy Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, making them a much tougher foe come playoff time. 

For the Celtics, the alternative if they move up would be a Brooklyn Nets team that’s expected to play this postseason without Kyrie Irving or Kevin Durant who have both been out recovering from injuries. 

There’s also a chance that Boston would face the Indiana Pacers in the first round if the C's remain as the Eastern Conference’s No. 3 seed which, similar to facing Philadelphia, would provide a tough first-round matchup. 

The reboot to the season also allows more time for the Celtics to adjust to what’s shaping up to be a new pecking order. 

While Walker is the team’s most proven, most decorated talent, there’s no escaping the inevitable rise of Tatum as the face of the franchise (if he’s not already there). 

As the season wore on, his ascension was undeniable. Tatum began the season as a player the Celtics were hoping to see blossom into a big-time talent with the departures of Irving (Brooklyn) and Al Horford (Philadelphia).

Following his first All-Star appearance in February, Tatum averaged 29.9 points, 7.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists while shooting 47.2 percent from the field and 46.8 percent on 3’s. His ability to pick up where he left off would go far in Boston’s quest to build off the successes they had this past season. 

As for Walker, he had missed some games and played limited minutes in others shortly before the season was paused thanks to knee soreness.

The extended downtime without games or practice should allow Walker to return to action revived and refreshed.

And him being healthy combined with Tatum’s improved play gives the Celtics a potent 1-2 punch as they inch closer to rebooting the system and in doing so, restarting their journey towards what they believe will be a deep postseason run. 

Updated NBA playoff picture amid reported 22-team season return plan

Updated NBA playoff picture amid reported 22-team season return plan

The NBA is on track to return and finish the 2019-20 season.

The league reportedly is set to approve a 22-team format to conclude the campaign. ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted Wednesday the breakdown of the conferences.

It's important to note this proposal includes every playoff round keeping its normal Best-of-7 format, per Marc Stein of the New York Times. There had been speculation that the first round could return to a Best-of-5 format to allow the playoffs to be done quicker.

Under the proposal noted above, eight more regular season games will be played by each of the 22 teams, so it's still possible that teams outside of a playoff spot could jump into the mix if they play well upon returning. It's also very possible, especially in the Western Conference, that the seeding could change after the eight games are played. 

Let's take an updated look at the playoff picture in both conferences.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

1. Milwaukee Bucks: 53-12, 0 games back
2. Toronto Raptors: 46-18, 6.5 GB
3. Boston Celtics: 43-21, 9.5 GB
4. Miami Heat: 41-24, 12 GB
5. Indiana Pacers: 39-26, 14 GB
6. Philadelphia 76ers: 39-26, 14 GB
7. Brooklyn Nets: 30-24, 22.5 GB
8. Orlando Magic: 30-25, 23 GB
9. Washington Wizards: 24-40, 28.5 GB

The Boston Celtics would play the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round if the league went straight to the playoffs. This would be a tough matchup for Boston given Philly's impressive roster and the fact the Sixers won three out of four games in the 2019-20 season series. 

But with eight regular season games left to be played under this proposal, it's possible the 76ers could move as high as the No. 4 or No. 5 seed. The ideal first-round opponent for the C's -- if they stay in the No. 3 seed -- would be the Indiana Pacers, who Boston swept in last year's first round. The Pacers don't have the same superstar skill, interior size or matchup problems that the Sixers would give the Celtics.

It's also possible the Celtics could fall to the No. 4 seed, or even climb to the No. 2 seed if the Toronto Raptors falter. The most likely scenario is the C's staying where they are at No. 3.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

1. Los Angeles Lakers: 49-14, 0 games back
2. Los Angeles Clippers: 44-20, 5.5 GB
3. Denver Nuggets: 43-22, 7 GB
4. Utah Jazz: 41-23, 8.5 GB
5. OKC Thunder: 40-24, 9.5 GB
6. Houston Rockets: 40-24, 9.5 GB
7. Dallas Mavericks: 40-27, 11 GB
8. Memphis Grizzlies: 32-33, 18 GB
9. Portland Trail Blazers: 29-37, 21.5 GB
10. New Orleans Pelicans: 28-36, 21.5 GB
11. Sacramento Kings: 28-36, 21.5 GB
12. San Antonio Spurs: 27-36, 22 GB
13. Phoenix Suns: 26-39, 24 GB

The regular season finish in the West could be crazy and exciting with seeds No. 4 through No. 7 separated by just 2.5 games. The Lakers would have to really collapse to lose the No. 1 seed, and the Clippers are unlikely to fall below No. 3. Aside from the two L.A. teams, much of the playoff seeding in the West remains up for grabs. 

The race for the final spot will be interesting as well. The New Orleans Pelicans, with No. 1 pick Zion Williamson healthy and in the lineup, will be among the most-watched teams. It would be awesome if the Pelicans earned the No. 8 seed and Williamson went up against LeBron James and the Lakers in the first round, but the odds aren't on New Orleans' side.

If the Grizzlies hold on and secure a postseason berth, their 2020 first-round pick will go to the Celtics.