Celtics

Four burning questions for the Boston Celtics

Four burning questions for the Boston Celtics

BOSTON -- Well, the Boston Celtics’ four-game road trip did not end how they would have wanted it to as they allowed a season-high amount of points - the most in the Brad Stevens era actually (and the most since 1994) - in losing 140-115 to the Los Angeles Clippers

But the loss shouldn’t take away from what was the most important trip of the entire season for this group, a group that consists of some talented individuals who can do some pretty amazing things on the floor.

But the challenge more than any other, is whether they can play well together. 

This road trip validated on so many levels that this team can not just play well together, but beat the best of the best in their own building if it has to come to that. 

Now the Celtics certainly didn’t get the best of the Golden State Warriors who were without Klay Thompson. 

But to beat them by 33 points, in Oracle Arena? 

There ain’t enough luck in the world that’ll get you a 33-point win over the two-time defending NBA champions with a healthy Kevin Durant, Steph Curry and Draymond Green on the floor. 

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To win that game was impressive. 

And to then back it up against a scrappy, playoff-contending Sacramento club the following night speaks well of the Celtics as well. 

But as much as the team winning three of its last four games on the road looks good, that doesn’t mean this little mini-run of success puts them above being questioned going forward. 

And with that, here are four burning questions to come about following their West coast trip.

CAN WE TRUST THEM NOW?

We have been waiting for this team to play with the kind of consistency and effort that would make you feel good about them holding their own against any team. And while the three wins were all good in their own way, this team still has tendencies that pop up that makes one a little hesistant to believe that all is well right now in Celticsville. 

And the wins — each of them — have to be put in the proper perspective. 

Boston was easily the better team when it faced Golden State, a Warriors team that was missing a key player and just didn’t seem to play with the kind of fight and compete you expect from them night-in and night-out. They looked very much like a team that was playing that “flip the switch” game which, against some teams, works. When you have back-to-back titles and three in the last four years, you can do that. 

And the victory over the Kings was a good one as well, but that was one of those games when the Celtics’ big-game experience relative to Sacramento, was a major factor.

Boston played with the kind of poise that a title-contending team is supposed to when facing an up-and-coming squad like the Kings, whether it was Marcus Morris draining a clutch 3-pointer, Marcus Smart forcing a turnover, or the play of the night, Gordon Hayward’s game-winning jumper in the waning moments of regulation. 

It was a good week of basketball for sure, but that’s all it was - a good week of basketball. 

The way they played overall this week has to be the norm, not the exception, if fans are to really trust that this team is locked into playing the way it has to in order to compete at the highest level this season.

WILL GORDON HAYWARD PICK UP WHERE HE LEFT OFF?

For the Boston Celtics to have the kind of season so many — including themselves — were envisioning, the play of Gordon Hayward on this West coast trip was huge. 

Dropping 30 points on Golden State followed up by the game-winner at Sacramento bodes well for the former All-Star doing the kind of things that former All-Stars are supposed to do in big moments on the road. 

But the biggest takeaway for fans is that Hayward’s stats, while impressive, and his aggressiveness at getting to the rim continue to grow and that’s a really good thing. 

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It serves as a reminder that he’s not nearly as concerned about his ankle as he was earlier this season, bringing him closer to playing free of thought while relying more on his instincts as a player rather than his health or fitting in with his teammates or any of that other stuff that detracts from his play. 

I am very confident Hayward has turned the corner and will continue to be an impact player for the Celtics between now and the postseason, which, if he continues to play close to the level we saw out West, will mean a long postseason journey awaits him and the Celtics this year. 

WHY HAS IT TAKEN THE CELTICS SO LONG TO GET THEIR ACT TOGETHER?

If anyone tells you they know the answer to this, run away because you’re about to be lied to. There is no rhyme or reason why this group which consists mostly of players who were on the team a year ago, took as long as they have to show some semblance of a team that’s contending for a title. 

As I watch this team grow and evolve this season, it seems the deeper we get into the season, the more putting aside individual agendas and focusing on winning an NBA title becomes a clearer vision for all. 

Some thought with the trade deadline coming without any movement on Boston’s part, that would be just what this group needed in order to play up to or close to their potential. 

The deadline came and went, and the inconsistent play remained. 

A lot of credit has been given to the plane ride the Celtics took to the west coast as being that bonding experience that may very well be remembered as the turning point in their season.

While they certainly looked and played like a different kind of team once they landed out west, it’s not like we haven’t seen three- and four-game stretches in which this team plays like the best team in the NBA. 

And if they lose to Sacramento on Thursday, would that mean the good vibes from the west coast were a fluke?

There’s a strong sense that this team is closer now than they’ve been all season, judging by what they’re saying and how they are interacting with one another both on the floor and in practice

But it always comes back to winning games, and finding joy in the journey and process — something you hear players speak about in more glowing terms now than at any point in the season even when they were riding long winning streaks. 

WE DIDN’T SEE JAYSON TATUM AGAINST THE CLIPPERS. IS HE OK?

Yes, Jayson Tatum missed the Clippers loss due to some soreness in his left shoulder. He said he banged it in the win over Golden State and re-aggravated in the victory at Sacramento. 

By all accounts, it doesn’t seem like something to be overly concerned about with Tatum.

However, that doesn’t mean he’ll be suiting up to play Sacramento on Thursday. 

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Boston has been overly cautious with all of its players when it comes to injuries, often having them sit out slightly longer to best ensure they return and will be at or as close to 100 percent as possible. 

With the playoffs right around the corner, it should not come as a surprise to anyone if the Celtics decide to sit Tatum for a couple games just to make sure that the shoulder is fine, and he returns in time to get into a good rhythm with the playoffs about a month away. 

The injury does remind us all as to how durable Tatum has been since being drafted by the Celtics. 

Despite logging heavy minutes pretty much from the outset, the Clippers game was the first one he has missed due to injury.

And remember, this is a player who came into the NBA with legit concerns about whether his lithe frame could take the steady pounding that comes about with being in the league. 

“It's more just being cautious," Tatum told reporters. "Get some treatment until it feels all the way there."

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Al Horford on playing his former Celtics teammates: 'It's going to be weird for me'

Al Horford on playing his former Celtics teammates: 'It's going to be weird for me'

Al Horford spent the last three seasons of his career with the Boston Celtics, and as he prepares to face off against them as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers, he admitted it will be weird to go up against his former team. 

After a season where the typically overachieving Celtics fell disastrously short of expectations, Horford opted out of his contract with Boston to enter the free-agent market. A reported 'mystery team' was offering him far more money than the Celtics were comfortable with given the near-guarantee of Kyrie Irving's departure at the time.

That team turned out to be the Philadelphia 76ers, the Celtics' biggest rival in the Eastern Conference and a team in which Horford gave fits due to his ability to shut down Joel Embiid on both ends of the floor. The Celtics tried to pull off a miraculous three-team sign-and-trade to secure both Horford and Kemba Walker, but the veteran big man put an end to that by agreeing to a four-year, $97 million contract with Philly the night of June 30. 

The Celtics and Sixers will open their seasons in Philadelphia, so Horford's return to Boston and his reunion with the TD Garden faithful will have to wait. But it'll still feel incredibly weird to see Horford in a Sixers uniform, setting up Embiid for baskets instead of turning him away from them. 

The Celtics, meanwhile, will have to figure out a way to counteract Philly's size in the frontcourt if they have any chance of beating such a talented Sixers team this upcoming Wednesday. 

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Celtics assistant Jay Larranaga lauds Marcus Smart's defensive fundamentals

Celtics assistant Jay Larranaga lauds Marcus Smart's defensive fundamentals

Marcus Smart cemented his status as one of the NBA's best defenders after a First Team All-Defense selection last season, but he's been exceptional on that end of the floor in each of his first five seasons with the Celtics. 

We notice his sharp instincts, tenacity on and off the ball and the grittiness he shows when he guards players much taller than he is. But what probably goes most unnoticed are his fundamentals, and Celtics assistant coach Jay Larranaga detailed how fundamentally sound Smart is on the defensive end of the floor in Adam Himmelsbach's latest story on the team's heartbeat. 

Marcus is a live example of the most fundamental defense you can teach. Every year you bring in new players and you’re trying to teach them NBA defense, you have an example of a defender that has been the most fundamentally sound defender I’ve ever been around. So you can say, ‘This is how guard a corner split: Watch Marcus. This is how you get into the ball and direct it with active hands: Watch Marcus.’ You always have a guy right there to tell other players, like, just watch what he’s doing and try to emulate it.

Since Smart entered the league, Brad Stevens has had a really hard time taking him out of games. He's been a starter or a key reserve in every season of his career and has been a staple in Boston's closing lineups as well.

Here's a look at how the Celtics have ranked in defensive rating since Smart's rookie year in 2014-15:

2014-15: 12th
2015-16: 4th
2016-17: 14th
2017-18: 2nd
2018-19: 6th

Without Al Horford, who was a part of the last three Celtics defenses and Aron Baynes, who was a part of the last two, Boston will have to overcome a glaring hole in the frontcourt on defense. While Smart has expressed his confidence in playing center in the past, Stevens will have to rely on ball pressure to ensure his team stays strong on defense.

And there's a good chance Smart is leading the charge in that department. 

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