Celtics

With the game on the line, Celtics' Kyrie Irving shifts into clutch mode

With the game on the line, Celtics' Kyrie Irving shifts into clutch mode

INDIANAPOLIS -- When the Boston Celtics are in a jam and need a basket down the stretch, chances are high that Kyrie Irving will either take the shot or be the set-up man (or even a decoy) for who does get a shot at being the team’s closer.

It is a responsibility Irving has always embraced but you wouldn’t know that because as much as he loves clutch moments, one of his old teammates back in Cleveland was kind of greedy when it came to gobbling up those make-or-break moments.

But in Boston Irving has the green light to take any and all shots when the game is up for grabs.

It is a role we have seen him play out during the regular season for the Celtics as well as in the playoffs, a role he hopes to continue living in tonight when the Celtics take on the Indiana Pacers in Game 3.  

“The object of the game is to outscore the other team,” Irving said. “You have to put points on the board as best you can, get everyone involved as best you can, get defensive stops, be in the right position. Down the stretch it’s just reading and reacting, instinctual things, using your basketball IQ and making the little plays out there in order to guarantee a win.”

Down the stretch in clutch moments (games within five points with five minutes or less), Irving has proven himself over time to be among the game’s best scorers.

Last season, Irving averaged 4.3 points in clutch moments which ranked fourth in the NBA, and his 0.8 assists per game was second.

“He’s a special player, especially in those end-of-game situations,” Boston’s Aron Baynes told NBC Sports Boston. “You absolutely love having a guy with that talent in those moments, on your team.”

During the 2017-2018 season, Irving’s first with the Celtics, he averaged 4.2 points in the clutch which ranked fourth in the league and 0.6 assists which ranked 10th.

When asked about what changes for him down the stretch in close games, Irving responded, “I’ve just always been really good it. Being down Being down the stretch, running middle pick and roll, being able to get my own shot, get other guy’s shots. My style of play down the stretch has evolved since I was a rookie until now, just understanding when a three-pointer is needed or an easy 2 just to stop a run and just answering the call.

He added, “That’s what it’s really all about, when it gets down to those waning minutes down the stretch. It’s not so much worrying about what can possibly happen it’s about going out and doing it and being fearless about it.”

And as consumed as Irving may at times come off as being, he knows all too well how important it is for this franchise going forward to have other players with the talent and capability to come up with big shots in crunch moments.

We saw one of those players emerge in Boston’s 99-91 Game 2 win on Wednesday.

Jayson Tatum finished the game with 26 points, scoring or assisting on eight of Boston’s last 10 points as Boston rallied from as many as 12 points down in the fourth, to get the win.

“He draws a lot of attention. He’s special; he does some amazing things out there,” Tatum said following Boston’s Game 2 win. “It’s good for us to have a leader, someone who has been there, done that before.”

Irving talks fondly about the back-breaking 3-pointer he hit a couple years ago with the Cleveland Cavaliers against Golden State on the road in Game 5 of the NBA Finals.

“It’s definitely one of those memories and experiences that sticks with me; it’ll stick with me for the rest of my career,” Irving said. “Just the circumstances we were under. We really didn’t have anything to lose at that point. We were down 3-1 and just went on to accomplish something bigger than ourselves.  Here, I try to take that experience and give it to my teammates; of what Indiana is going to be like, what the road is going to be like especially in a playoff atmosphere. I’m gonna make some mistakes. We’re all gonna make some mistakes. But it’s always about the most important thing and that’s staying together. I’ve talked about it throughout the season, but a 14-point lead can be erased in a matter of three minutes just waiting for the other team to become undisciplined or they get comfortable; they think the game is over. You’re always in the game if you stay together.”

Which is the kind of clutch temperament needed to successfully navigate through the postseason, particularly in those moments when the game is on the line and someone - OK, Kyrie Irving - needs to step up.

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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. 

According to The Athletic's Shams Charania, a play-in tournament could decide the No. 8 seed in each conference. Here's how that would work:

If the ninth seed is more than four games behind the eighth seed, the eighth seed earns the playoff spot; if the ninth seed is four or fewer games behind, then the eighth and ninth seed will enter a play-in tournament that is double-elimination for the eighth seed and single-elimination for ninth.

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.