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 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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These days, it's Celtics fans blowing kisses at Jaylen Brown

These days, it's Celtics fans blowing kisses at Jaylen Brown

BOSTON — The story of Jaylen Brown’s NBA career is always seemingly intertwined a bit with Jimmy Butler.

You know the backstory by now: Celtics fans booed when Boston used the No. 3 pick in the 2016 draft on Brown instead of dealing it for a more established veteran such as Butler. The two players shared a trainer a few years back and they held summer workouts together in Mexico. Brown yearned to extract all he could while working with the ultra-competitive Butler.

So, it seemed particularly noteworthy watching Brown cap his 31-point outburst Wednesday night at the expense of Butler. After Brown’s 15-point third-quarter explosion helped Boston separate a bit, it was Brown twice shaking Butler and hitting a pair of long jumpers over his old pal — including one lucky 27-foot banked 3-pointer — as the Celtics finished off a 112-93 triumph over Butler’s Heat at TD Garden.

Butler had a big night of his own, singlehandedly trying to keep Miami afloat while playing the second night of a back-to-back after a spirited overtime win in Toronto on Tuesday. He was sensational while putting up a game-high 37 points on 12-of-18 shooting in 37 minutes.

But the student more than held his own with the teacher. Brown shrugged off a quiet first half to score 22 second-half points. His loud third-quarter culminated with back-to-back 3-pointers in front of the Miami bench and Brown playfully suggested afterward that he blew a kiss to former teammate Kelly Olynyk after the second triple.

All those Celtics fans that grumbled when Brown was drafted are blowing kisses his way now. All those that groaned when he inked a four-year, $115 million extension in October are professing their love for the deal.

Brown nearly matched his career highs for both the regular season (32 points) and postseason scoring (34) on Wednesday night. It feels like he’ll eclipse both soon. Brown is averaging 19.9 points per game while shooting 49.4 percent from the field, 38.2 percent beyond the 3-point arc, and a career-best 71.8 percent at the free-throw line. Add in career-highs at 6.9 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 1.2 steals per game.

It all looks very similar to what Butler is doing in Miami, where he is averaging 20.1 points, 6 rebounds, 6.5 assists, and 2.4 steals per game.

Brown has undoubtedly heard his detractors and still finds motivation in them. While being playfully peppered about his kiss blowing, he was asked about similar incidents in the past.

"I guess when people like to say I’m a non-shooter and then I make it, that’s my gift to them,” said Brown.

When the Heat blitzed Kemba Walker after his early scoring exploits, it often left Boston shooters open when the Celtics swung the ball across the court. Brown feasted on open looks but sometimes it didn’t matter if he was blanketed. On the first of his two consecutive late-third-quarter 3s, Brown was being smothered in the corner by Justise Winslow (the 2015 draft desire that Boston could not pry away from the Frank Kaminsky-craving Hornets). Even after the Heat had cut their deficit to single digits in that third quarter, Brown calmly squared up to the basket, moved the ball around to create a tiny bit of space, then pulled up over Winslow’s outstretched arm for a triple.

He gazed briefly at the Miami bench but saved his air-peck for the next trip down when he made another corner 3 (this time an open look as Olynyk scrambled out). It might as well have been a curtain call on a night where Brown took center stage in the second half.

"When [Brown] has it going, he definitely gives us a lot more options,” said Walker. "He’s been playing well all year. I’m excited for him. He’s put in a lot of work each and every day, and it’s showing on the court.”

It’s not just the big scoring night but how Brown did it. He hit a lot of jump shots but also had instances where he bullied his way to the basket against quality defenders such as Bam Adebayo and muscled home tough finishes around the basket. Brown also got to the line a team-high eight times, accounting for a quarter of Boston’s total free-throw attempts.

At a time when Boston’s offense has slumped while Gordon Hayward rehabs a broken hand, Brown has tried to pick up some slack. In the 12 games without Hayward, Brown is averaging 20.4 points while shooting 48.4 percent from the floor and 41.4 percent beyond the 3-point arc. He’s adding 7.2 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 1.4 steals per game.

With the win, the Celtics took down another of their primary East rivals and shuffled into a second-place tie with Toronto. Milwaukee is three games ahead but Boston is one of their three defeats this season. With 20 games and nearly a quarter of the season in the rearview, the Celtics own a .750 winning percentage. That’s a 61.5-win pace though the level of competition ahead should reel that win total in a bit.

For now, Boston is 8-0 at home and has typically won the games it should this season. They didn’t look particularly crisp early but a bench effort led by Semi Ojeleye and Robert Williams helped crank the defensive intensity and Brown elevated his play as the Celtics surged ahead.

It’s fair to wonder how it’ll all look when Hayward is healthy enough to come back and it appears he’s trending towards a December return while already resuming a bit of contact activity this week. Can a Walker/Tatum/Brown/Hayward quartet find enough shots for one another?

If everyone buys into looking for the best shot and exploiting the biggest mismatches, there should be. Brown is feasting when teams put their energy into slowing Walker and Jayson Tatum. Hayward’s return will really force teams to pick their poison.

Brown is making teams account for him. The only thing clogging his path to All-Star consideration is Boston’s depth. Still, the strides Brown made this summer have forced the rest of the league to take notice of how far he’s advanced.

He’s come a long way since fans booed the pick. He’s come a long way since working out with Butler. The best part for Boston fans is that there’s still a lot of room for growth. And a lot more kisses to be blown in his direction.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Nuggets, which tips off Friday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Tommy have the call at 8 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Celtics use Smart's absence to lock in defensively, lock down the Miami Heat

Celtics use Smart's absence to lock in defensively, lock down the Miami Heat

BOSTON -- Marcus Smart was nowhere to be found on the floor Wednesday night for the Celtics, but make no mistake about it... 

...Smart’s presence, even when he’s not in the building, is still felt by his teammates and opponents, to a lesser extent. 

No Smart (illness) meant the rest of the Celtics had to collectively step up their game defensively. 

Did. They. Ever. 

The Celtics delivered one of their better defensive performances this season as they pulled away for a 112-93 win over the Miami Heat. 

It’s not that huge a surprise until you realize that the Celtics defense delivered on a night without Smart, a member of the NBA’s All-Defensive first team a year ago which validates his reputation as one of the league’s top defenders. 

The Celtics (15-5) began their surge defensively in the second quarter. Facing an eight-point deficit (28-20) after the first quarter, they took control over the next three quarters as they outscored the Heat, 92-65.

They were getting deflections, hustling down loose balls, diving on the floor…basically making a bunch of Marcus Smart-like plays.

Following the win, Celtics players were quick to acknowledge not having Smart forced them all to pay closer attention to their individual and team assignments defensively, well aware anything less would surely spoil their perfect home record (8-0) this season. 

“No question, no question you can’t replace Smart,” said Semi Ojeleye. “The intensity that he brings on every possession and the energy and just the plays he makes. He sees what is coming before everybody else does. So we knew we had to bring extra talk in his absence.”

Among the most vocal players was Ojeleye, who played every minute of the second and third quarters in a stretch where the Celtics outscored the Heat, 62-41. 

Placing an even higher emphasis on doing a better job at the “little things” defensively, takes on greater importance on nights such as Wednesday when the team’s defensive leader - Smart - is unable to play. 

“Smart is one of the best defensive players we have in this league,” said Kemba Walker. “He’s our defensive anchor. And when you don’t have him, you have to try your best to make up as much as possible. He is a huge part of what we do, so yeah, you have to be that much more locked in and that much more on point to try and make up for the things that he does for us.”

That involves making smarter plays defensively; the kind that their defensive anchor  Smart makes night-in and night-out. 

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Nuggets, which tips off Friday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Tommy have the call at 8 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.