Celtics

Escape route: Celtics' Marcus Morris and Brad Wanamaker escape mean streets of Philly in getting to NBA

Escape route: Celtics' Marcus Morris and Brad Wanamaker escape mean streets of Philly in getting to NBA

When it comes to speaking the truth, Marcus Morris is about as straight-no-chaser as they come. 

So as Boston gears up to face his hometown Philadelphia 76ers tonight, it’s an ideal time to reflect upon how far the North Philly native has come from THE humble surroundings that could have easily derailed his promising basketball career, as it did so many young men he grew up with at that time. 

“I have a lot of friends that did time in jail at a young age; 17, 18 years old and did five, six years and came home as a grown up,” Morris told NBC Sports Boston.

Those times have helped shape Morris’ outlook on life both on and off the court, forging a level of mental toughness in him that has allowed him to easily shrug off rough basketball nights while not getting too elated over good ones. 

“Basketball has been amazing,” Morris said. “Basketball gave me a platform to go back to the youth and show that it’s possible; it’s possible.”

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He’s hoping those amazing times will only get better with the Celtics looking to close out the regular season strong.

Tonight's game would indeed be another step in that direction as they attempt to sweep the season series from Philadelphia for the third time in the last four years.

While such dominance makes talk of a rivalry difficult to palate, Boston guard Brad Wanamaker knows it's always special whenever these two Eastern Conference foes hook up. 

Like Morris, Wanamaker is also from North Philly.  And like Morris, basketball became his escape from troubled surroundings as well. 

Crime. Drugs. Violence. Wanamaker had seen it all at a young age.

“My family . . . they were heavy in the drug game,” Wanamaker told NBC Sports Boston.

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But that all changed courtesy of his older brother, James Samuel. 

“My older brother was the first one that I really saw that had a job; like a 9-5 job. That was like a positive in my life. My twin brother (Brian) and my sisters (Crystal and Latisha),  we used him as our role model in a way that . . . we don’t have to go down that other path.”

For Wanamaker, the path towards success involved playing basketball. 

After a standout career at Philadelphia’s Roman Catholic High School, Wanamaker went on to the University of Pittsburgh, where he established himself as one of the Big East's top players along with being an honorable mention All-American. 

But the NBA wasn't sold on his talent and he went undrafted in 2011. 

He would eventually take his talents overseas where he found tremendous success, racking up championships and MVP honors in the process. 

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Still clinging to his dream of playing in the NBA, the 29-year-old Wanamaker spoke about how those tough times as a youth, the prospect of not being drafted and now being on an NBA roster but playing sparingly, has tested his mental resolve in ways he would have never dreamed of before. 

“It’s the toughest [expletive] I’ve had to deal with in my life,” Wanamaker, referring to not playing much for the Celtics, told NBC Sports Boston. “Basketball is my escape from everything.”

This season, Wanamaker has appeared in 30 games for Boston, averaging 3.4 points and 1.3 assists while shooting 44.3 percent from the field and 50 percent on 3's in 8.7 minutes per game. 

However, having seen and lived through some of the many challenges that kids who grow up in North Philly endure, Wanamaker isn’t tripping at all about not playing more. 

“I’ve seen a lot worse than not playing in a basketball game,” he said. 

And whenever he’s feeling down about his lack of playing time, Morris is often the first to cheer him up or, at a minimum, reminisce about their days playing together on the same AAU team.

Back then, they were playing to win for their team and showcase what they could do as players. These days, both acknowledge that they play the game for something bigger than their own personal agenda.

"There's so few of us in the NBA from Philadelphia, every time I step on the floor I gotta represent," Morris said in a separate interview with NBC Sports Boston.

Wanamaker echoed a similar sentiment.

“Not only am I playing for myself, but I’m playing for my family back home,” Wanamaker said. “My family back home and a lot of my homies who picked up the game and didn’t make it this far. I always tell people all the time, it’s bigger than me. I put the work in day-in, day out, to try and keep working to get out on the court. But I’m doing this for more than just me; I never forget that, never.”

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Celtics to face Bucks in second round of the NBA playoffs

Celtics to face Bucks in second round of the NBA playoffs

To nobody's surprise, the Boston Celtics are going to play the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round of the NBA Playoffs.

The Bucks, the East's No. 1 seed, had the best record in the NBA last season (60-22) and faced little resistance in their first-round matchup. They easily swept the Detroit Pistons in four games. The Pistons' star player, Blake Griffin, was far from healthy, and that played a role in the Bucks' series win.

This is the second year in a row that the Celtics will play the Bucks in the playoffs. Last year, the No. 2 seeded Celtics defeated the Bucks in a series that spanned seven games. The home team won every game in that series.

The Bucks will be a tough opponent for the Celtics. Potential league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is a matchup nightmare, and he averaged 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 5.9 assists per game during the regular season. And around him, the Bucks have solid depth.

In their regular season series, the Celtics posted only a 1-2 record against the Bucks, winning their first meeting in November but coming up just short in their other two games. Antetokounmpo averaged 31 points per game against the Celtics, so slowing him down will be key to finding success in the series.

The Celtics will open on the road in this series, as the first two games will be in Milwaukee. The Celtics will have to ensure that they get off to a solid start and continue to fare well on the road, something they struggled to do last postseason (1-7 record in eight road games, 0-3 in Milwaukee).

BLAKELY: Celtics vs. Bucks playoff history>>>

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Al Horford at the center of it all in the postseason

Al Horford at the center of it all in the postseason

This probably should have been old hat for Al Horford. After all, he’s got 11 seasons of playoff experience and totaled 115 postseason games, or more than double that of ring-winning teammate Kyrie Irving.

And, yet, as Horford lounged on the scorer’s table inside BankersLife Fieldhouse, conducting a postgame radio interview after Sunday’s Game 4 triumph that completed Boston’s first-round sweep of the Pacers, he seemed to be savoring the moment. 

Behind him, Horford's family, including his father, Tito, who has been glued to Horford’s side in the infancy of this playoff journey, reveled with a “Believe in Boston” banner waving nearby.

Inside the Celtics’ locker room, after his typical postgame ice bath, Horford admitted this four-game sweep was particularly satisfying. Maybe it was the roller coaster nature of Boston’s maddening regular season. Maybe it’s all the work that has gone into simply keeping Horford upright, particularly with the knee soreness that has lingered for much of the season. Maybe it was the bad memories of losing to the Pacers twice in the first round of the playoffs during Horford’s time with the Atlanta Hawks.

Or maybe, nearing his 33rd birthday, Horford has simply learned to savor this all a bit more.

Not that age is slowing him down much. Yes, Horford endured one of the worst shooting performances of his career on Sunday, missing 15 of the 19 shots he hoisted. And, yet, in typical Horford fashion, he was still one of Boston’s most impactful players.

That’s the way it was all series. Horford shot 34 percent against the Pacers in Round 1 but you can make the case that he was the series MVP. Heck, his late-game swat of Bojan Bogdanovic in Game 2 might have singlehandedly prevented a loss, kept the momentum on Boston’s side, and allowed the Celtics to trek to Indiana oozing a confidence that helped the team make such short work of the Pacers.

The advanced numbers confirm Horford’s Round 1 impact. The Celtics owned a team-best net rating of plus-15.9 in the 138 minutes that Horford was on the floor, pairing a robust 109.7 offensive rating with an absurd 93.8 defensive rating.

But it’s the off-court numbers that scream his importance. In the 54 minutes that Horford was on the bench, Boston owned a net rating of minus-16.6. The team's offensive rating plummeted to 77.3 in that span. No other player’s off-court rating was even close (next lowest: Gordon Hayward, minus-4.3).

In easier to digest numbers, the Celtics outscored the Pacers by a team-best 46 points with Horford on the court, and were outscored by a team-high 16 without him.

It’s not necessarily surprising that Horford’s play floated quietly below the radar. It always does. And while everyone from Irving to Jaylen Brown to Terry Rozier deserved the attention for their efforts in Round 1, it’s telling that Horford can have an uncharacteristically inefficient offensive series and still have the biggest impact.

Here’s what shouldn’t float under the radar: Horford might just be the most important player when the Celtics and Bucks clash in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

It seems likely that the Celtics will lean heavy on small-ball lineups against the Bucks, this after featuring two-big lineups with Aron Baynes throughout the Pacers series. By going small, the Celtics can try to exploit situations when Brook Lopez is matched up with Horford, forcing him out towards the 3-point line if the Celtics fire away like they typically have against Milwaukee.

Horford played only 69 minutes over two games against the Bucks this season but his on/off splits looked an awful lot like his first-round playoff numbers. The Celtics were plus-16.8 with Horford on the court (110.1 offensive, 93.3 defensive), but owned a net rating of minus-19.9 in three games and 75 total minutes without him.

The Bucks’ offense gets a jolt with Lopez on the court, giving them a 3-point threat and helping space the floor for Giannis Antetokounmpo. Milwaukee’s offensive rating dipped 8 points to a team-worst 106.2 when Lopez wasn’t on the court this season. But the Celtics can force the issue a bit by knocking down perimeter shots.

Going small would also mean that Horford will be forced to match up often with Antetokounmpo, who deserves the MVP for his two-way efforts on a team that was the NBA’s best over the course of 82 regular-season games. While Boston’s success will be dictated in large part by the team’s ability to contain Milwaukee’s role players, it will still be important to make Antetokounmpo work for his points (and avoid the supernova efforts in which he can singlehandedly will his team to victory).

The Celtics could then bring Baynes off the bench to limit Horford’s grind and this might be a series where Semi Ojeleye can add another stout body to throw at Antetokounmpo, something Stevens has done often in the past.

According to the NBA’s tracking data, Horford defended Antetokounmpo on 41 possessions over two regular-season games this season. The Greek Freak was 7-of-14 shooting for 16 points but Horford did a solid job keeping him off the free-throw line. The numbers weren’t particularly glossy for any of Boston’s defenders against Giannis. Ojeleye got 40 turns, allowing 19 points on 7-of-10 shooting with three shooting fouls. It’s notable that Marcus Smart might have enjoyed the most success (7 points on 2-of-6 shooting on 21 possessions). Boston will lean on its stable of switchy forward, particularly Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, and Marcus Morris, and hope to take away the easy stuff for Antetokounmpo (which means tightening up their turnover woes from Round 1, too).

But the brunt of the load will fall on Horford. If his importance isn’t always obvious, it’ll be on the full display in this series. And the Celtics desperately need another dose of Playoff Al if they are to maintain their momentum from Round 1.

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