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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Celtics' Semi Ojeleye gives positive reaction to reported NBA return proposal

Celtics' Semi Ojeleye gives positive reaction to reported NBA return proposal

The NBA's Board of Governors reportedly is expected to approve a 22-team return plan during Thursday's meeting, which would pave the way for the 2019-20 season to resume later in the summer.

Under the reported proposal, each of the remaining 22 teams would play eight more regular season games before a 16-team playoff commences. 

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The Boston Celtics currently are the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race. They also are one of three teams in the East that's already clinched a postseason berth. It's not a perfect plan, but it does allow players some regular season games to get ready for the grind of the playoffs. The proposal gives teams on the playoff bubble a chance to earn a postseason berth as well.

Boston Celtics forward Semi Ojeleye joined Wednesday night's "Arbella Early Edition" to discuss the proposed return plan and the challenge players will have in getting ready to restart the season.

"I think it's a good plan," Ojeleye said. "Obviously, the entire pandemic we've been focused on keeping people healthy, and keeping the players and the fans healthy, that's why we shut (the season) down. I think what we're doing now, easing back into workouts with a few people in the gym is a good plan. Hopefully, going forward we keep people healthy as well."

What has Ojeleye been doing to stay in shape?

"I've been blessed to have a little outdoor space," he said. "I got my hands on some indoor equipment -- some bikes and weights. From there, it's really just about not skipping days. There have been a lot of days where I'm like -- I can't hoop, but I knew I could try to get my cardio in and try get my lifts in. That's what I've been focused on, and hopefully it pays off."

There's been a lot of debate over how much time players need to get into game shape. Some people think a month or even a few weeks is too much, but the long layoff hasn't been like a normal offseason where players are able to play pickup games and train however they choose. Many players have had limited access to workout equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic as gyms and team facilities have been closed.

Ojeleye explained why players need plenty of time to prepare their body and mind for the remainder of the regular season and the ensuing playoffs.

'It's going to be tough. Different guys have different access to weights and facilities," Ojeleye said. "And guys are at different stages of their careers. Some guys are coming off injuries, some guys have had nagging injuries during the year and they've taken a break. Everyone is going to need a little bit more time. I'd say, at least a few weeks at minimum for everyone to get back in shape and to get that feel. As a team, we need our chemistry, and that's going to take time as well."

The Celtics, despite making several roster changes before the 2019-20 season, quickly developed a strong chemistry. While there are reasons to be optimistic the C's will find this chemistry again soon, the process doesn't happen overnight, especially when these players have been unable to play basketball with their teammates during this pandemic.

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.