Horford: 'The reason why we were winning is defense and rebounding'

Horford: 'The reason why we were winning is defense and rebounding'

BOSTON – As Al Horford made his way into the interview room following the All-Star Game, he was all smiles, despite his team winding up with the loss.

Horford’s emotions had nothing to do with the then-completed game.

He was in on-to-the-next-one mode as his thoughts immediately shifted towards what he sees as unfinished business as the Celtics focus on finishing the regular season playing well and building some momentum heading into the playoffs.

“I’m just excited that now we can move on,” Horford said. “We did this [All-Star Game]. It was great. Now, we can shift our focus back on what we need to do. For our group, we really need to tighten up on the defensive end and refocusing and understanding the things that got us to where we were. The reason why we were winning is defense and rebounding.”

Indeed, shoddy defense and poor rebounding have been key bugaboos for the Celtics lately, the former being somewhat surprising considering Boston’s success most of this season is deeply rooted in them getting the job done at a high level at the defensive end of the floor.

Boston (40-19) has dropped four of their past five games in large part because they have become a bottom-10 team in several categories related to their defense and rebounding.

In the past five games, Boston has allowed 110.1 points per game which ranks 21st in the NBA.

Among the top three teams in defensive ranking most of this season, the past five games have led to the Celtics’ defensive rating climbing to 111.4 in that span, which ranks 22nd in the league.

That’s a sharp detour from their season numbers (100.9), which are tops among all teams in the NBA.

Similar struggles can be found in Boston’s rebounding. The numbers there are among the worst in the league after being in the top half most of this season.

The Celtics have averaged 42.0 rebounds in the past five games, good for 21st in the NBA. For the season, Boston averages 44.1 rebounds which ranks 11th in the league.

And Boston’s rebounding percentage in the past five games is .478, which ranks 26th in the league. For the season, their rebounding percentage (.501) is 14th in the league.

Boston’s increased emphasis on improving its offense has at times been blamed for the defensive slippage, the Celtics have been crappy in that part of the game as well recently.

In the past five games, Boston’s offensive rating is 100.1, which is 27th in the league. That’s a noticeable dip for an offense that has struggled most of this season, evident by their offensive rating this season (104.4, 21st in the NBA) also ranked among the league’s bottom-10.

While no one player by themselves will get this team back on track defensively, they will be closer to being complete this week with the expected return of Marcus Smart, who ranks among the league’s top defenders in both the eye test as well as when you crunch the numbers.

His return strengthens a defensive unit that has played at an elite level most of this season.

Of the players averaging at least 30 minutes played per game, four Celtics – Marcus Smart, Al Horford, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum – rank among the top five in defensive rating.

Kyrie Irving hasn’t been too shabby a defender himself, coming in with the 11th-best defensive rating among players logging 30 or more minutes per game.

The mindset coming back from the break is to improve in all phases of play, obviously.

But knowing how much better they are when they defend and rebound at a fairly high level and the results that such play brings, it should come as no surprise if the Celtics revert to those early-season slugfests when the points were few and far between but the end result – a Celtics win – was a common occurrence.

“Those are the things [defense and rebounding] coach [Brad Stevens] and the group are going to focus on,” Horford said. “And finish these last few games the right way.”


Kyrie Irving in a good place, mentally and physically

Kyrie Irving in a good place, mentally and physically

BOSTON — The Boston Celtics closed Day 1 of training camp with a spirited intrasquad scrimmage and, if you were wondering how Kyrie Irving is doing coming back from knee surgery, he offered visual confirmation that he feels quite a bit like his old self.

In the media’s lone glimpse of Boston’s two-a-day session, Irving helped a white-clad starting unit that featured Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Al Horford rally from a six-point deficit and hit a scrimmage-winning 3-pointer with under three seconds to play.

"Kyrie looked like Kyrie. He was really good,” said Hayward.

Whispers that Irving has been his typical dazzling self abound this summer after his return to 5-on-5 games. Horford went so far as to suggest that Irving had gone to another level with his play from what he saw during Boston’s informal workouts leading up to camp.

But Irving’s 3-pointer, dribbling to his left off a Horford screen that pinned defender Terry Rozier, was proof that Irving might truly be pain-free after two procedures on a balky left knee that cost him playoff time in two of the past four seasons.

“Just to get started, it felt good,” said Irving. "I missed it. I missed being with the guys. Ready to get started, happy we all got to be out here with one another again. It’s high-level basketball.”

There is a Zen-like state about Irving as camp gets underway. He’s got a growing clod of hair that’s being held back by a thick headwrap. With a hoodie sprouting from his practice jersey and some rope bracelets around his wrist, Irving is the picture of peacefulness, a player overjoyed to be healthy and content with his situation.

And that, maybe more than what he’s shown physically, is what has resonated with his teammates.

“We’ve seen it more mentally than anything, “ said Jaylen Brown. "Especially when you have to be away from the game, it makes you make that much more hungry. I think that Kyrie is that much more focused on his craft and the goal that he wants to achieve. We’re right there along with him.”

Irving has spent the past few days saying everything he was maybe more reluctant to reveal at the start of the summer, offering hints — some less subtle than others -- that he’s quite content with his situation in Boston.  He’s said how he daydreams about possibly having his No. 11 retired in the Garden rafters and gushed about how special the Celtics organization is, particularly after rubbing elbows with Bill Russell this summer.

Yes, Irving just keeps smiling. He smiles while talking about finally being back on the court with Hayward ("I was watching his highlights yesterday so I can’t wait to see him play. I’m so happy for him.”) He smiles about heading to North Carolina later this week and playing the team’s first exhibition game in the shadows of his beloved Duke University (" I can’t wait to get back to North Carolina and go eight miles down the road.”) And he smiles about how coach Brad Stevens overloaded the Celtics with sets on Day 1 of camp ("Brad did put in a s--- ton today, but that’s who he is. He’s a basketball genius for me.”)

Gone are the questions about why he wanted out of the shadow of LeBron James. Gone are the questions about his knee after the two surgeries removed the bothersome hardware from the original 2015 surgery that shortened a Finals appearance.

Outside of the chaos of promoting his “Uncle Drew” movie, Irving got the rare opportunity to rest this summer. And being away from basketball only seems to have heightened his appreciation for the game.

Now media sessions focus on things that make Irving light up. Like the play of Boston’s youngest players.

“[The young guys are] just so talented, man,” said Irving. "Sometimes you can just throw them the ball and they’ll get the bucket but also you just realize how smart they are as basketball players making plays, from the 2 and 3 spot, playing the 4. I’m excited to see even more of them.”

Or the chance to finally share the court with Hayward again.

“Think about how life has come full circle for me and Gordon,” said Irving. "In 2014, I was his host in Cleveland when he was a restricted free agent. I met him and [his wife] Robyn then and I think we are able to play together now, one year taken away from us. We’re just making up for lost time. 

"He’s so talented. I’m a big fan. …  I’ve been waiting to play with a two guard like Gordon. He’s even-keeled the whole game. You are able to throw it to him and he’s able to get you a bucket, but he’s smart too.”

This might just be what Irving craved so dearly when he left Cleveland. He has an ideal situation, a bright future, and is the star of a legitimate title contender.

Mentally, Irving is in a good place. And his 3-pointer at the end of that scrimmage suggests he’s just as well, physically.


Gordon Hayward reflects on a productive first day of camp

Gordon Hayward reflects on a productive first day of camp

BOSTON – A 6-foot-8 NBA player dunking the basketball off his left foot on its own merits, isn’t that big a deal.

But considering the journey Gordon Hayward has taken to get back on the floor, that moment served as one of the more tangible examples of how he continues to inch closer and closer towards returning to the form that made him such a coveted signing of the Boston Celtics in the summer of 2017.

“I’m excited to be back on the court, just to get a run in,” Hayward said on Tuesday night following his first day of practice with the Celtics after missing all but the first five minutes of last season following a left ankle injury. “I know there’s going to be some rust and stuff but I’m happy to be back out.”

With such a long layoff before returning to the court, Hayward acknowledged he had to catch his second wind sooner than usual.

“Definitely the first couple of trips up and down today I was a little winded,” he said. “I think that’s just being a little anxious to just play. Everybody’s going really fast the first day of training camp. I felt for the most part I was pretty good.”

Celtics head coach Brad Stevens was pleased with what he saw from Hayward.

“He looks fine,” Stevens said. “I’m sure there will be moments when he’s sore. There will be moments when he’s trying to regain his rhythm in playing. From the naked eye and an untrained medical eye in mind, he looks like himself.”

And as for that dunk by Hayward?

“I actually asked was that the first one,” said Stevens who coached Hayward at Butler. “The little secret is he’s never done that. He’s always been a right-foot jumper anyways. I could probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen him jump off the left and dunk, anyways. But it was obviously a big deal for him.”

That said, Hayward knows what he did on Tuesday was just one step in his journey towards returning to his old self, an All-Star in his final season in Utah which is where Hayward showed noticeable improvement every year he has been in the NBA.

During the 2016-2017 season, Hayward was named an All-Star for the first time and finished the season averaging 21.9 points and 5.4 rebounds – both career highs – while shooting 47.1 percent from the field.

One of the strengths of Hayward’s game has been his ability to explode to the basket for a strong finish at the rim or a lay-up or dunk.

That part of his game remains a work in progress.

“It’s still not there yet,” Hayward acknowledged. “That’ll be the last piece. It’ll come slowly throughout the year with more playing and just doing it. I think I just have to keep doing it.”

And he’ll continue on that path with another set of practices slated for Wednesday with his first game coming up on Friday at Charlotte.

“I’m excited about it,” Hayward said. “It is kind of weird. It seems like football just started and we’re doing preseason already.”

But you won’t hear any complaints from Hayward, relishing the opportunity to be back on the floor after months of watching the game while his body was on the mend.

“I’ve been waiting (a long time), so I’m ready,” Hayward said.