Celtics

Forsberg: It's not la-la-land, these Celtics can truly compete with anyone

Forsberg: It's not la-la-land, these Celtics can truly compete with anyone

LOS ANGELES — Marcus Smart took the brunt of the fall on his right hip — the same hip he bruised earlier in this west coast road trip — then practically disappeared from sight while sliding into a courtside announcer's booth.

Most players wouldn’t have even suited up with what Smart’s been dealing with lately but this game meant too much. So here he was, in minute 40 of his night, flailing on the court trying desperately to give his team one last chance to steal a victory.

With the Clippers up three and looking for a knockout punch in overtime, Smart had been hounding Leonard above the 3-point arc, thwarting the simple handoff that Lou Williams was trying to complete. The dance with Leonard eventually extended out near the midcourt logo before Smart swatted away Williams’ pass attempt. Smart took one step, toed the sideline and then leapt, somehow throwing the ball off Leonard’s leg while crashing to the ground so viciously that courtside spectators covered their mouths at the sight.

It was the quintessence of Smart. And maybe these 2019-20 Celtics, too. This Boston team seems to have dug into the archives and emerged as the scrappy us-against-the-world hoopsters that previously typified the Brad Stevens era.

Smart’s hustle got them one final gasp but Kemba Walker’s 3-point offering got blocked by Leonard at the buzzer as a finally full-strength Clippers squad emerged with a 107-104 overtime triumph at Staples Center.

Smart, an ice bucket dispatched from in front of him, had a quick huddle with trainers after the game, then slipped on a pair of basketball shorts bearing his name and number and stepped in front of the cameras to offer a declaration.

"We believe truly that we can compete with anybody in this league,” said Smart before stressing how every possession matters and lamenting how Boston let a double-digit lead slip away.

"They’re really good, and we’ve just got to be a little better.”

Rarely will we buy the oft-floated notion that a team can find positives in a loss. No, wins are the goal in this league. But lingering behind the obvious disappointment that Celtics players expressed after Wednesday’s game was an understanding that they just went toe-to-toe with the league’s title favorite and nearly toppled them.

Or, as Smart told it, “We shot the ball very poorly, our defense wasn’t great, but we still were in the game — plain and simple. Clean up a couple things and it’s probably a different outcome and we’re talking different about what happened tonight.”

The Celtics might have actually learned more about themselves in this game than most nights during their double-digit winning streak. This game had been dubbed a measuring-stick game and, downplay it as the teams tried, Boston certainly seemed to get a better gauge on where it stands with Wednesday’s tilt.

The Celtics realized that Jayson Tatum is a bonafide late-game killer. Tatum, already building an impressive resume of crunch-time heroics this season, left Paul George crumpled on the Staples Center court with a step-back move before hitting an overtime-forcing 3-pointer with 13.1 seconds remaining in regulation.

Tatum finished with a game-high 30 points despite the fact that the Clippers swarmed him with the trio of Leonard, George, and Patrick Beverley. But Tatum still nearly willed his team to a win.

"I’ve always looked up to Kawhi and PG. Especially PG, that was one of my favorite players,” said Tatum. "This is the opportunity you look for, especially the bright lights, big stage, you don’t want to back down. You want to compete and show them that you belong out here and just earn their respect.”

The Celtics learned yet again that Smart is the heart and soul of this team. He not-so-subtly hinted on Wednesday morning that the Clippers showdown was all the reason he needed to duct tape his battered body together and play through those maladies. He spent the night hounding Leonard, George, and Williams. What’s more, Smart logged 40 total minutes, seconds less than team-leader Tatum, and chipped in 15 points on 7-of-20 shooting. That he took more shots than Walker (17) is surprising and Smart’s 3-point shooting remains in a mini funk (1 for 11) but he made multiple plays in crunch time that at least gave Boston a chance to steal the win.

The Celtics learned that they can be competitive with an elite opponent even when Walker is off his game. Walker made only 4 of 17 shots for 13 points. He had nine rebounds but committed six turnovers over 38:44. Jaylen Brown had a poor shooting night as well.

"I just made a lot of bad decisions tonight,” said Walker. "I've just got to be better at the end of the day, be better for my teammates. But we played hard. We did everything we can do to still stay in the game and try to win the game but, as an individual, I definitely would love to have been better for my teammates.”

The Celtics learned that their big-man issue might not be as pressing as some make it seem. Daniel Theis continues to give this team solid minutes. He’ll land in the highlights because Leonard put him on a fourth-quarter poster but Theis grabbed 14 rebounds including seven on the offensive glass to keep possessions alive.

It was fair to be skeptical of Boston's potential before the LA visit and now it seems safe to suggest that Boston might just be a legitimate threat to top-tier East foes Milwaukee and Philadelphia.

These Celtics have heart. They have grit. They don’t have a very big margin for error but, the way they play, they won’t ever be out of a game. Yes, like Smart said, this team truly can compete with anybody in the league.

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In quest for an Embiid stopper, Celtics best option might be what they've got

In quest for an Embiid stopper, Celtics best option might be what they've got

Joel Embiid’s dominant two-way performance Thursday night in Boston won’t do much to ease fans who remain convinced that Celtics bigs aren't stout enough to hold up in an Eastern Conference in which many of Boston’s primary rivals — including Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Indiana, and Toronto — have All-Star talent at frontcourt positions.

From this vantage point, Enes Kanter and Daniel Theis held up about as well as could be reasonably expected. Yes, Embiid put up 38 points and 13 rebounds, all while limiting his turnovers and made some a couple key defensive plays late in the game (including absolutely smothering a Theis dunk attempt). 

Still, Kanter and Theis both put up season highs for scoring while pairing up for 36 points and 14 rebounds. As coach Brad Stevens suggested after the game, " I guess I'd take 38 to 36 in that matchup.”

The lingering question is whether the Celtics, now 0-2 against Philadelphia this season, should feel confident in their ability to match up with the 76ers should the two teams cross paths in the postseason.

Two more regular-season matchups — one in Philadelphia early in the new calendar year (Jan. 9) and another in Boston on Feb. 1 — will offer more chances for the Celtics to gauge where they stand against Philly. Both sides were missing key parts — the Celtics without Marcus Smart; Sixers without Al Horford — and full-strength rosters will offer a better sense of whether Boston’s frontcourt can hold up in a seven-game series.

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Ultimately, the Celtics might have no other choice. A lack of tradable contracts means they can’t deal for a top-line center without sending out one of the team's core players. Theis, at 6-8, despite giving up size in matchups against players such as Embiid, has been excellent this season and the Celtics need a 5-man that is content to do the little things and take open shots when they come in the rhythm of the offense.

Looking around the league, particularly at those players that might be able to best joust with Embiid, it’s hard to find a player that the Celtics could reasonably target as an in-season addition.

In the quest to identify players that have best held up against Embiid in recent seasons, we parsed the NBA’s defensive tracking data. First, we examined every player that has defended Embiid for at least 20 partial possessions this year to find players that have had the best individual success. Ten players emerge, a snapshot of the names: 

MARC GASOL

The dreamiest of in-season additions — just ask the defending champion Raptors — Gasol has defended Embiid for a total of 14:23 this season and has allowed a measly 2 points and ZERO field goals on 12 shot attempts while creating seven turnovers. Some Celtics fans came into the season dreaming of a scenario in which the Raptors struggled early, started moving pieces, and maybe Gasol and his $25.6 million salary somehow landed on the buyout market. That’s definitely not happening now with the Raptors right on Boston’s heels and playing some incredibly inspired ball this season during a Kawhi-less defense of their title.

TAJ GIBSON

One of the more interesting names on the list, the 34-year-old Gibson has only 6 minutes of matchup minutes this season against Embiid but has limited him to 6 points on 2-of-9 shooting. Embiid’s offensive rating is just 100 in the 25 minutes that Gibson and Embiid have shared the court this season, all the more impressive given the sorry state of the Knicks. Gibson is earning $9 million this season with a nonguaranteed salary. He’s exactly the sort of piece that the Knicks should yearn to move for future assets. The question is whether Gibson’s success is a small sample and whether you get enough value out of an in-season acquisition. On the positive side, he is a 10-year veteran with eight years of playoff experience and played with Kanter in Oklahoma City.

DON’T EVEN BOTHER DREAMING ABOUT THESE GUYS

Among the top Embiid stoppers this year: Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert (pictured), All-NBA big man Nikola Jokic, and Knicks swat-happy youngster Mitchell Robinson. You’re not getting any of these guys, so let’s just move right along despite the fact that they’ve all held Embiid to 37.5 percent shooting or less.

TRISTAN THOMPSON

Slowly becoming the leader in the “If he gets bought out, the Celtics should swoop him up!” references among Boston fans. But the data isn’t quite as bullish. Thompson has defended Embiid on 50.7 partial possessions this season and allowed 31 points on 12-of-21 shooting over 14 minutes of matchup time. That’s the second-worst mark among high-volume defenders (in front of only LaMarcus Aldridge). Thompson is still an intriguing option because of his rebounding abilities, his playoff experience, and his potential to impact the offense as a fourth or fifth option. Alas, Thompson has his limitation — as seen in Boston when he went 1-for-7 at the free-throw line and committed five turnovers. He was minus-22 in a game in which he went 8-for-11 with 17 points and 11 rebounds.

STEVEN ADAMS

A popular option among Celtics fans entering the season, at least when ignoring the fact that he’s making $25.8 million this season. Boston would have to move someone like Hayward as part of a trade. That’s not happening, and especially not with the way Adams has defended Embiid this season. In nine minutes of matchup time, Embiid has put up 24 points on 9-of-16 shooting, making four triples against Adams, too. Data from 2017-18 season confirms his struggles, Embiid shooting 60 percent (12 of 20) in 19:37 of matchup time.

AND BACK TO THE CELTICS

Then, of course, there is Kanter (pictured), who has limited Embiid to 38.9 percent shooting (7 of 18) in 12 minutes of matchup time this season. Kanter held up particularly well on Thursday, especially when you consider that Embiid shot 77.8 percent against all other Celtics defenders. For all the complaints about Kanter’s defense, it’s his struggles in the pick-and-roll that fall in the spotlight and he actually does well in post-up situations.

It's fair to be skeptical about whether Kanter can hold the fort for a seven-game series. Kanter has been on the floor for 46 of Embiid’s 60 minutes against the Celtics this season and the Philadelphia big man has an offensive rating of 109.3 in that span. The thing is Embiid’s offensive rating spikes to an absurd 142.9 in the 14 minutes with Theis as primary defender instead of Kanter.

Having Smart might help, though Philadelphia’s offensive rating was still elite (114.7) in the 16 minutes that Embiid and Smart shared the court in the first matchup.

To be certain, Boston did not lose either of the first two matchups against Philadelphia because of an inability to defend Embiid. He hurt Boston not only with his scoring Thursday but with an ability to pass out of double teams that Boston sent and the Celtics simply have to be crisper when they commit extra bodies.

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Is there anyone else out there available at a reasonable price that could help Boston’s frontcourt defense? We rolled the defensive data back to last year’s regular-season and crunched to players with around 20 Embiid field-goal attempts defended. Yet again, a who’s who of Eastern Conference bigs emerged from Horford (14-37 FG, 37.8 percent) to Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic (13-31, 41.9 percent) to Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner (a combined 25-52, 48 percent). 

Some of the names that fared well and might be available would include Cody Zeller (11-26, 42.3 percent in 21 minutes of matchup time) and Willie Cauley-Stein (8-20, 40 percent in 13 minutes). One completely random wild card to throw in here: Old friend Ante Zizic, who defended Embiid for 12:16 last season and limited him to 5-of-17 shooting (29.4 percent) with five turnovers. It was the lowest shooting percentage among any player with at least 15 shot attempts defended. A small sample size? Probably. Though, in a measly minute of defensive matchup time earlier this season, Embiid went scoreless while missing two shots.

The question becomes whether the Celtics should sacrifice future draft assets and risk tweaking the chemistry on the team in hopes of what might only be a marginal upgrade. It’s also prudent to want to see this team at full strength before declaring just how much of an issue the big-man depth could be. 

Remember, too, that Robert Williams' development could be huge here. Grant Williams’ ability to play small-ball 5 against bigs could dictate the desire for a move. Maybe Vincent Poirier gets an opportunity to show whether he can joust further out.

For now, the best option seems to be for the Celtics to stick with what they’ve got and find a longer-term plan to beef up that 5 spot, especially given the talent their primary conference rivals have in their frontcourts.


 

How Tacko Fall, Carsen Edwards, Romeo Langford and Tremont Waters fared for Red Claws on Friday

How Tacko Fall, Carsen Edwards, Romeo Langford and Tremont Waters fared for Red Claws on Friday

The Maine Red Claws had plenty of star power for Friday night's game vs. the Iowa Wolves. 

Tacko Fall, Carsen Edwards, Tremont Waters and Romeo Langford each suited up for Maine in its 127-121 victory. It marked Edwards' first game with the Red Claws, as well as both Tacko Fall and Romeo Langford's first game back from injury.

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Here's how the four Celtics rookies performed:

TACKO FALL

Tacko made his mark in his 14 minutes played on Friday night. The 7-foot-5 phenom contributed 13 points on 5-for-8 shooting while bringing down 5 rebounds.

CARSEN EDWARDS

Edwards was solid in his first game in a Red Claws uniform as he racked up 17 points on 6-of-11 shooting (2-for-9 from 3-pt).

ROMEO LANGFORD

Langford was slow out the gate, but picked it up in the second half to finish with 8 points, 3 assists and 3 rebounds. The Celtics' No. 14 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft will look to simply stay healthy going forward, as he's dealt with a nagging ankle injury all season.

TREMONT WATERS

Waters, the G League Player of the Month for November, was relatively quiet in this one. The LSU product dropped 8 points while adding 3 assists in 27 minutes.

Also with standout performances were Yante Maten (26 points, 16 rebounds), Kaiser Gates (17 points, 7 rebounds), Bryce Brown (15 points, 4 assists) and Justin Bibbs (12 points, 6 rebounds).

Next, the Red Claws will take on the Grand Rapids Drive on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET.