Celtics

Here's what the Celtics have to do to start a new win streak

Here's what the Celtics have to do to start a new win streak

The Boston Celtics, player by player, weren’t trying to fool anyone Sunday afternoon following their one-point loss to Sacramento. 

Marcus Smart’s last-second runner that hung on the rim for what seemed like an eternity before rolling out of the cylinder as time expired, would have salvaged a game that they had given away time and time again earlier.

They didn’t deserve to win that game; Sacramento did.

The Kings played harder, smarter and they were the more efficient and effective team for longer stretches than the Celtics.

With the season still relatively young, it’s a good reminder of what happens when you ease into games like the Celtics have seemingly done for a good chunk of this season.

And for Boston, there just isn’t much time for reflection or to take a deeper dive into what specifically led to Sunday’s loss, which snapped a 10-game Celtics winning streak.

Up next they play the Phoenix Suns (7-4), one of the hottest teams in the NBA. 

And while there’s plenty of room for improvement, here are three must-fix areas that require immediate attention if the Celtics are to begin a new winning streak tonight against the Suns.

FIRST-HALF OFFENSE

By the time the final stats are tallied, the Celtics come out looking pretty good offensively. But that’s in large part because of how ridiculously well they play after halftime. The Celtics have become too reliant on a strong finish propelling them to victory. Simply put, they need to begin games better than what we’ve seen this season. While players point to the not-so-great start in the last couple of games as being an issue, the truth is their early game woes run much deeper.

This season, nba.com/stats shows that Boston’s offensive rating in the first half of games is 103.4, which ranks 22nd in the NBA. And yet for the season, the Celtics have the second-best offensive rating (112.0) in the league. The Phoenix Suns have a similar first-half issue with their offensive rating in the first half of games (105.9) being ranked 16th in the league. But overall, their offensive rating (111.6) ranks fifth.

Celtics players are well aware of the need to have better starts in order to have better finishes.

“We’ve started off bad the last few games,” Boston’s Jaylen Brown told reporters following Sunday’s loss. “It’s a long season. We lost the game; it happens. We just have to continue to keep moving forward. It’s not the end of the world.  We lost a game; try and win (tonight).”

REBOUND PERCENTAGE

While some pay close attention to the total number of rebounds snatched per game, a more telling indicator as to how good or bad a team is on the boards, is their rebounding percentage. And while the Celtics are middle-of-the-pack in total rebounds, they get too small a chunk of available boards, that — as we saw on Sunday — will catch up to you eventually.

Against the Kings, the Celtics finished with a respectable rebounding percentage of .518, which is actually better than their season average (.484), which ranks 26th in the league.

However, Boston’s board work was underwhelming to say the least in the fourth quarter.

That's when the Celtics were out-rebounded 14-9 and were outscored 13-4 on second-chance points.

And their rebounding percentage in the fourth quarter Sunday was just .393.

Their opponent tonight has had their share of rebounding struggles as well, with the Suns’ rebounding percentage (.492) ranked 20th in the league.

PULL-UP JUMPERS

We give the Celtics props for looking to attack more going to the rim, than we’ve seen in past years. But with the kind of offensive firepower this team possesses, pull-up jumpers have to be a part of a successful offensive attack. 

It has been that way most of this season, with the Celtics averaging 26.8 points per game on pull-up jumpers, which ranks second in the NBA. But on Sunday, Second Spectrum Data shows that the Celtics generated just 13 points from pull-up jumpers.

Tonight they face a Phoenix team that, while ranking among the league’s highest-scoring clubs, doesn’t generate a ton of offense from pull-up jumpers. For the season, they average 16.1 points from pull-up jumpers, which ranks just 26th in the NBA. 

Don’t miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Suns, which tips off Monday at 8 p.m. ET with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Scal have the call of the game at 9 p.m. You can also stream the game through the MyTeams App.

Next step for Celtics: More poise under pressure

Next step for Celtics: More poise under pressure

BOSTON — The Boston Celtics’ fourth-quarter execution the past two games can be summed up in one sequence.

After clawing their way back into Thursday night’s visit from the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston found itself down 3 with 25.7 seconds to go with the ball. But the Sixers applied full-court pressure and inbounder Jayson Tatum panicked a bit while waiting for Jaylen Brown to race back to receive the pass. Brown ultimately got tangled with Josh Richardson and fell to the floor as Tatum’s pass sailed wide and bounced out of bounds near the Sixers' bench.

Painful as it would have been, the Celtics could have burnt their final timeout. They could have simply handled Philadelphia’s pressure better and not fumbled the ball — and the game — away.

Ultimately, great teams find a way to win this sort of game. Or the one 24 hours earlier when Boston kicked away a double-digit fourth-quarter lead in Indiana.

Save the excuses about available bodies and bad calls and whatever else you want to blame. The Celtics, seemingly unflappable in the face of in-game adversity early in the year, wilted twice against primary Eastern Conference rivals the past 48 hours.

Because of that, Boston arrives at a very random five-day December break in its schedule at a respectable 17-7 overall, but with a bit of a sour taste from dropping two games against potential East playoff foes. The Celtics have slipped to fourth in the conference with Philadelphia executing a leapfrog after Thursday’s 115-109 triumph at TD Garden.

“We just have to learn how to win,” said Kemba Walker, who scored a team-high 29 points against Philadelphia but got limited to 8 points with only one field goal after the intermission. All this one day after Boston wasted a 44-point outburst when Indiana rallied for a 122-117 victory.

"We have a lot of lapses during these games. We have stretches where we’re playing super well. And then we have lapses,” said Walker. “We just have times where we’re just — it’s bad. It just looks really bad. So we just have to tone that down a little bit, just try our best to put a 48-minute games together. And that’s going to take everybody.”

Maybe it’s greedy to suggest the Celtics should win these sort of games. After an opening-night loss in Philadelphia, Boston ripped off 10 straight wins and had won six of seven entering this week’s back-to-back. These young Celtics had been so cool under pressure that it’s been a bit jarring to see them get sloppy and shoot themselves in the foot with mental miscues.

"I think, going in, when you look at the schedule you know this is going to be a tough one but, once you’re in the heat of the moment, you’re not really feeling those effects,” said Gordon Hayward, who departed Wednesday’s game in Indiana after getting hit in the nose but didn’t look overly hindered against Philadelphia.

"I think two emotional losses for us. Certainly, it’s tough in games that go down to the wire. I felt like we had chances in both. But it is what it is. It’s a long season, it’s part of it. We’ve got to try to learn from it and move on but we can’t blame it on legs. We’re professional athletes. We should be able to handle that.”

Yes, Marcus Smart would help in these situations. But the Pacers were playing without Victor Oladipo, and the Sixers didn’t have Al Horford, who got a standing ovation when shown on the Philadelphia bench at the start of the second quarter.

The Celtics, if they want to be honest-to-goodness contenders, need to win these sort of games. It was one thing to find a silver lining when they took the Clippers to overtime last month on the road but the last two games have lacked the defensive focus displayed during much of Boston’s early-season success.

To be sure, there are positives to pluck from these two games. Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter held up surprisingly well while jousting with Joel Embiid. Philadelphia’s All-Star big man finished with 38 points on 12-of-21 shooting with 13 rebounds and 6 assists. He did a nice job dominating in 1-on-1 matchups and showcased his passing skills while generating open looks for teammates when Boston sent multiple bodies at him.

Kanter turned in his best game of the year and Theis played well for much of the night. The duo combined for 36 points and14 rebounds, essentially negating Embiid’s output (though his impact went far beyond those two stat categories).

The next step for these Celtics is consistently staying poised in high-pressure moments. Players have to avoid careless turnovers, they have to be willing to work for good looks on the offensive end, and they can’t lose focus on the defensive side.

While it’s obvious the Celtics never consider themselves out of a game, they’ve got to be better when things get tense.

"One thing I love about us is that we’re not quitting. We’re still fighting through adversity,” said Walker. "When things are getting rough we’re not putting our heads down, man. We’re competing at a very high level. So it can only go up from here.”

Unfortunately for Stevens, it’s plays like the inbounds turnover that will gnaw at him until the Celtics get back on the practice court next week. Boston doesn’t play another game until Wednesday night in Dallas.

That’s a lot of time to ponder how Thursday’s game got away. And Wednesday’s before it.

“We didn’t get the ball [inbounds],” Stevens said after Thursday’s loss. "I think that’s obviously -- you gotta be able to do those things in the biggest moments and we didn’t get that done.”

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Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Mavericks, which tips off Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Scal have the call at 9:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Joel Embiid pays Celtics fans the ultimate compliment ... but still loves silencing them

Joel Embiid pays Celtics fans the ultimate compliment ... but still loves silencing them

BOSTON -- Few professional athletes embrace hate like Joel Embiid.

The Philadelphia 76ers big man channeled recent criticism from Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal into a tour de force performance at TD Garden on Thursday night, tallying a season-high 38 points, 13 rebounds and six assists to hand the Boston Celtics their first home loss, 115-109.

Embiid also fed off the Garden crowd, which booed the big man heartily throughout the night.

The 25-year-old tipped his cap to the Boston faithful after the game, admitting the loudest crowd he's ever dealt with in an NBA game was the Garden during a second-round playoff game in 2018.

"They've got great fans. They're loud," Embiid said. "The loudest (game) I've ever been a part of was actually here in Game 2, two years ago in the playoffs.

"We were up by 20 and they made their run. It was loud and my ears were popping. That's the loudest (it's) ever been (for me) in an arena."

The Celtics stormed back to win that game 108-103, taking a 2-0 series lead over Philly en route to a five-game series win.

A year and a half later, Boston wasn't so lucky.

Embiid had been in a bit of funk over his last few games but seemed revitalized by the hostile Garden environment, relishing in making big plays like this dagger 3-pointer in the fourth quarter:

"They talk a lot of trash, and I like that," Embiid said. "It gets me going. I had that fun mentality about me tonight. Just reacting to them and playing off it."

Boston and Philly will meet twice more this season, with the Sixers coming to the Garden again on Feb. 1. Celtics fans can boo Embiid all they want, but they should be warned that it may not have the desired effect.

"Joel really set the tone of how we were going to play today," Sixers teammate Tobias Harris added. "His energy, his interactions at timeouts and dead balls: He was the man today."

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Mavericks, which tips off Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Scal have the call at 9:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.