Celtics

Have Celtics (finally) turned the corner to become an elite team?

Have Celtics (finally) turned the corner to become an elite team?

INDIANAPOLIS -- Earlier this week, Indiana Pacers coach Nate McMillan caught a few of us off-guard when he said the Celtics are still the team to beat in the East. 

We all chuckled it off as gamesmanship; McMillan’s goal being to lather on the compliments in hopes that it’ll maybe lead to the Celtics buying into that thinking, the kind that in many ways got them in the jam they’ve been in as they continue to fight for home court in the first round of the playoffs. 

Still, after seeing how the Celtics dominated the Pacers 117-97 on Friday night, McMillan...he might be onto something. 

Because if the Celtics can play relatively close to the level we saw on Friday night, there are few teams - if any - in the Eastern Conference that can withstand that level of performance at both ends of the floor and expect to emerge victorious in a seven-game series. 

Of course, when it comes to the Celtics, every strong game has to be taken with a cautiously optimistic, skeptical eye because we have seen them show signs of greatness only to fall flat on their faces and leave their fan bases deflated. 

Still, the past couple of games, well, it seems different. 

More than anything else, the Celtics were on the road against teams that needed the win a lot more than they did. 

Those teams were playing in their buildings, with their fans cheering them on, hoping they could do what most teams do at home late in the season - find ways to win. 

And in come the Celtics, a team viewed by most as a disappointment in terms of where they are relative to where so many - including themselves - though they would be at this point in the season. 

Instead of falling into the all-too-predictive narrative of losing to teams that want to win more than they do, the Celtics have seemingly found a stride of sorts that has allowed them to play the kind of basketball we thought we would have seen months ago. 

Offensively, they come at teams like a blitzkrieg in delivering the kind of offensive damage that can overwhelm the best of defenses - ask the Pacers who saw this up close and personal on Friday night. 

Kyrie Irving is the player that most teams fear when they face the Celtics. 

But on Friday, Irving wasn’t the first or second-leading scorer for Boston. 

Carrying the torch offensively most of the game was Jayson Tatum, who led the team with 22 points to go with seven rebounds. 

And not too far behind him was Gordon Hayward, who returned to his home state of Indiana and delivered a perfect 9-for-9 shooting night to finish with 21 points. 

“We needed a game like this,” Tatum told NBC Sports Boston. 

He’s right. 

Because as much as we talk about Boston’s depth, their ability to start stringing together big games on the same night from multiple players is what makes them such a scary playoff foe.

And for putting together a game like we saw on Friday night against the team they are most likely to play in the first round, the message is clear. 

Home or away, prepare for the Green Team Takeover. 

Of course, coach Brad Stevens, while acknowledging his team played well, did his best to also remind folks that the Pacers probably didn’t play one of their best games, either. 

But here’s the thing about that. 

Why?

Why did the Pacers fail to compete in the biggest game of the season, the game that they made it abundantly clear that they were approaching as a must-win, playoff-type game?

The reason was obvious.

They didn’t have a choice. 

Boston did exactly what elite teams are supposed to do when challenged which is to put your foe on their back as soon as possible. 

The game was relatively close for a quarter and a half, but from the midway point of the second quarter until the final horn sounded, Boston owned the Pacers. 

And there was nothing they could do about it. 

While it’s easy to look ahead and say that things could be potentially different in the actual playoffs, with the Pacers likely playing better while the Celtics maybe won’t be as efficient as their 52.2 percent shooting from the field indicated. 

But Boston did more than just win the game and with it the head-to-head series. 

They came into Indiana’s house, took a game that the Pacers needed more than they did, and did so with little emotion or fanfare. 

They did what you’re supposed to do if you’re planning to be the last team standing when all is said and done, a goal that the Celtics set out to accomplish at the start of the season. 

And games like the one we saw Friday night remind us that that goal is far more attainable than Boston’s regular-season record might suggest. 

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Jayson Tatum explains what playing for Team USA is like

Jayson Tatum explains what playing for Team USA is like

The Boston Celtics are getting a chance to see some of their younger players and new talent develop ahead of the 2019-20 NBA season. The 2019 FIBA World Cup is taking place in Australia starting in September, and the Celtics are well-represented on the team.

One of the players that will be playing for the squad is Jayson Tatum. The 21-year-old is a budding star and is relishing the opportunity he has to play for Team USA and coach Gregg Popovich. He also explained how playing for Team USA was a bit different than playing in the NBA.

"Just playing with USA, you got to play in a different way," Tatum said per MassLive.com's John Karalis. "You have to sacrifice, because you are playing with 11 great other players. So, we all got to sacrifice something for the bigger goal at hand."

This could end up being a positive for Tatum. The Celtics' playing style last season sometimes became too isolated and moved away from the ball-movement system that had worked so well for Brad Stevens in the past. Tatum is a great scorer, but he possesses very good passing skills as well. So, perhaps working with Team USA will accelerate his development in that area.

Tatum also expressed excitement about getting to work alongside a few of his Celtics teammates with Team USA. He was hopeful that the quartet would have some time to learn to play together ahead of the NBA season.

"It’s pretty cool. There is four of us on this team," Tatum said per Karalis. "Four of us get to embark on this journey together and build some real good chemistry for the season. Especially with Kemba, adding him to the Celtics, so should be fun."

Overall, it seems that the Team USA experience is positively impacting Tatum. That could end up being huge for the Celtics as they look for their third-year player to truly emerge as a star alongside Kemba Walker.

Where do Tatum, Brown rank on this year's '20 under 25'?>>>

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Aron Baynes: Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are 'thirsty to go out and improve their game'

Aron Baynes: Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are 'thirsty to go out and improve their game'

Aron Baynes is no longer on the Boston Celtics, but the Australian center is still a big fan of some of his former teammates.

Ahead of Australia's exhibition series with Team USA in the lead up to the 2019 FIBA World Cup, Baynes spoke about the potential of his ex-teammates, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Brown, 22, and Tatum, 21, are viewed as big parts of the Celtics' future, and Baynes indicated that both were on the right path to becoming top-tier players in the NBA.

"Those younger guys [Tatum and Brown] are thirsty to go out and improve their game and there's no better place than the summer time playing international ball against some of the best players in the world," Baynes said per ESPN's Niall Seewang. "Those guys are still in their rookie contracts and they're looking to prove themselves over the next couple of years and they definitely have all the tools to do it."

In particular, Baynes was complimentary of Tatum's skill set and said that he was ready for superstardom. Baynes pointed to Tatum's rare combination of offensive ability and desire to play defense as the primary reason for that.

"He's so talented," Baynes said per Seewang. "Even from the first day I played with him when he was a rookie in his first preseason, you could see how talented he was offensively and he also wants to work on the defensive end which isn't common in the NBA. Some guys live on that offensive talent but he wants to develop his all-round game."

Seeing Tatum continue to develop would certainly be nice. He didn't quite live up to the lofty expectations set for him ahead of his second season, yet he still averaged 15.7 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per game, all improvements over his rookie season. If he can continue to make strides during the 2019-20 campaign and improve upon his league-average shooting percentage, he should have a chance to be a star. And that's one of the major reasons the Celtics were reluctant to include him in any trade packages this offseason.

Either way, it's nice to see Tatum and Brown earning some praise from a former teammate. Despite all of the chemistry issues the Celtics had last year, the team seems to be on the right track with their new core, and Tatum and Brown could be a big part of their retooled roster.

As for Baynes, he will be a member of the Phoenix Suns this year after the Celtics traded him on draft night. Baynes, 32, averaged 5.6 points and 4.7 rebounds for the Celtics last year while serving as a solid weapon on the defensive side of the ball.

Where do Tatum, Brown rank on this year's '20 under 25'?>>>

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.