Celtics

It's Tacko time in Maine, with Tacko Fall set to make Red Claws home debut

It's Tacko time in Maine, with Tacko Fall set to make Red Claws home debut

PORTLAND, Maine — Tacko Fall has been mobbed enough times by fans to the point where there’s very little that those who want a piece of Tacko can do that will surprise him. 

And then he came to Maine as one of the newest members of the Maine Red Claws, the Celtics’ G-League affiliate.

He hasn’t been in town too long, but he can tell that their passion for the team runs deep.

And that passion has led to some pretty unusual interactions and autograph requests for Tacko, like the fan who wanted him to sign their forehead and another wanting him to write his name on their hand.

“A lady wanted me to take a picture the other day and she just sat on my lap,” Tacko recalled. “They’re just very friendly. People in Maine, really nice people.”

Which is why tonight’s home opener for the Red Claws is arguably the most anticipated one since the franchise's inception in 2009. (Tonight's game can be seen live on NBC Sports Boston at 7:00 p.m. and it can be streamed online or via the MyTeams app.)

There was an undeniable spike in interest — and ticket sales — shortly after the Celtics signed Tacko to one of their two-way contracts.

That means Tacko will spend most of this season with the Red Claws along with fellow two-way contract signee Tremont Waters. 

But even before Tacko signed his two-way deal, Red Claws fans began inquiring about him dating back to this summer when he was a member of Boston’s summer league roster. 

At that time, he was signed to an Exhibit 10 contract, which essentially meant he would get a chance to compete for a roster spot in training camp with minimal assurances beyond that. 

But with the Celtics summer league squad, Tacko showed promise at the NBA level even though he still looked more like a player who would need some seasoning in say, you know, the G-League. 

“After his first appearance in summer league with the Celtics, we couldn’t go a day in the state of Maine without someone asking, “Is Tacko going to be in Maine?” Dajuan Eubanks, President of the Red Claws, said during a press conference last month announcing that the Celtics had taken over ownership of the team. 

Much of the interest surrounding the 7-foot-7 center is based on his eye-catching height. 

But what’s often lost in Tacko-mania is the fact that the 23-year-old big man is working towards fulfilling his dream of being a regular mainstay in the NBA. 

He has already had a taste of what it’s like to play in an NBA game. 

During a blowout win over the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden last month, Tacko saw his first regular-season action amid a chorus of Knicks fans cheering for him to enter the game. Yes, Knicks fans cheering for a Celtic. In New York. 

And to Tacko’s credit, he made the most of his four minutes of action by scoring four points to go with three rebounds in Boston’s 118-95 victory. 

“It’s just a blessing to be out there,” Tacko told NBC Sports Boston shortly after the win over the Knicks. “Not everyone gets the opportunity I have right now. Like I said, it’s definitely a blessing and I don’t take it for granted.”

And a similar approach is being taken with his time with the Red Claws. 

While the fanfare and adulation is nice, Tacko — as well as those associated with the Red Claws — are all on the same page as far as what his time in Maine is truly about. 

“He’s accommodating and he’s a very fine individual,” Eubanks said in a phone interview with NBC Sports Boston. “But he’s also there to do a job and get better and hopefully make a good name for himself in the NBA.”

And it is that latter point raised by Eubanks that far too often gets lost in the discussion as it relates to Tacko. 

“We all know that because he’s so tall that for most people, that’s what they are going to talk about,” said Celtics forward Grant Williams, who is one of Tacko’s closest friends on the Celtics roster. “But he’s a basketball player and he’s getting better and better.”

And that growth will be on display tonight for the first time in front of the Red Claw faithful at the Portland Exposition Building.

The Red Claws (1-0) opened the season with a 148-125 road win over Delaware, a game in which Tacko came off the bench and finished with a double-double of 13 points and 11 rebounds to go with three blocked shots, a steal and an assist. 

Tacko said he has heard a lot of good things about the Red Claws crowds, and is eager to give them something to cheer about as he continues along his basketball odyssey that began in Senegal as a youngster, and now has him in Portland, Maine where the says he people have been great to him. 

But the weather?

“It’s cold,” Tacko said. “I’m not used to that. Luckily I have a big jacket so I try to stay warm. But I’m gonna get used to it. It’s not going to be as bad as I thought it was gonna be.”

Because ultimately Tacko knows it’s not about the weather, fans sitting in his lap for pictures or having different body parts signed. 

It’s about basketball and how far can he take his game. 

“I just have to keep working, use my time in Maine to keep getting better,” he said. 

LISTEN & SUBSCRIBE TO THE ENES KANTER SHOW PODCAST:

Don’t miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of the Maine Red Claws vs. the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, which tips off Friday at 7:00 p.m. ET , followed by Celtics Pregame Live before the C's face the Warriors. You can also stream both games through the MyTeams App.

In quest for an Embiid stopper, Celtics best option might be what they've got

In quest for an Embiid stopper, Celtics best option might be what they've got

Joel Embiid’s dominant two-way performance Thursday night in Boston won’t do much to ease fans who remain convinced that Celtics bigs aren't stout enough to hold up in an Eastern Conference in which many of Boston’s primary rivals — including Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Indiana, and Toronto — have All-Star talent at frontcourt positions.

From this vantage point, Enes Kanter and Daniel Theis held up about as well as could be reasonably expected. Yes, Embiid put up 38 points and 13 rebounds, all while limiting his turnovers and made some a couple key defensive plays late in the game (including absolutely smothering a Theis dunk attempt). 

Still, Kanter and Theis both put up season highs for scoring while pairing up for 36 points and 14 rebounds. As coach Brad Stevens suggested after the game, " I guess I'd take 38 to 36 in that matchup.”

The lingering question is whether the Celtics, now 0-2 against Philadelphia this season, should feel confident in their ability to match up with the 76ers should the two teams cross paths in the postseason.

Two more regular-season matchups — one in Philadelphia early in the new calendar year (Jan. 9) and another in Boston on Feb. 1 — will offer more chances for the Celtics to gauge where they stand against Philly. Both sides were missing key parts — the Celtics without Marcus Smart; Sixers without Al Horford — and full-strength rosters will offer a better sense of whether Boston’s frontcourt can hold up in a seven-game series.

LIVE stream the Celtics all season and get the latest news and analysis on all of your teams from NBC Sports Boston by downloading the My Teams App.

Ultimately, the Celtics might have no other choice. A lack of tradable contracts means they can’t deal for a top-line center without sending out one of the team's core players. Theis, at 6-8, despite giving up size in matchups against players such as Embiid, has been excellent this season and the Celtics need a 5-man that is content to do the little things and take open shots when they come in the rhythm of the offense.

Looking around the league, particularly at those players that might be able to best joust with Embiid, it’s hard to find a player that the Celtics could reasonably target as an in-season addition.

In the quest to identify players that have best held up against Embiid in recent seasons, we parsed the NBA’s defensive tracking data. First, we examined every player that has defended Embiid for at least 20 partial possessions this year to find players that have had the best individual success. Ten players emerge, a snapshot of the names: 

MARC GASOL

The dreamiest of in-season additions — just ask the defending champion Raptors — Gasol has defended Embiid for a total of 14:23 this season and has allowed a measly 2 points and ZERO field goals on 12 shot attempts while creating seven turnovers. Some Celtics fans came into the season dreaming of a scenario in which the Raptors struggled early, started moving pieces, and maybe Gasol and his $25.6 million salary somehow landed on the buyout market. That’s definitely not happening now with the Raptors right on Boston’s heels and playing some incredibly inspired ball this season during a Kawhi-less defense of their title.

TAJ GIBSON

One of the more interesting names on the list, the 34-year-old Gibson has only 6 minutes of matchup minutes this season against Embiid but has limited him to 6 points on 2-of-9 shooting. Embiid’s offensive rating is just 100 in the 25 minutes that Gibson and Embiid have shared the court this season, all the more impressive given the sorry state of the Knicks. Gibson is earning $9 million this season with a nonguaranteed salary. He’s exactly the sort of piece that the Knicks should yearn to move for future assets. The question is whether Gibson’s success is a small sample and whether you get enough value out of an in-season acquisition. On the positive side, he is a 10-year veteran with eight years of playoff experience and played with Kanter in Oklahoma City.

DON’T EVEN BOTHER DREAMING ABOUT THESE GUYS

Among the top Embiid stoppers this year: Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert (pictured), All-NBA big man Nikola Jokic, and Knicks swat-happy youngster Mitchell Robinson. You’re not getting any of these guys, so let’s just move right along despite the fact that they’ve all held Embiid to 37.5 percent shooting or less.

TRISTAN THOMPSON

Slowly becoming the leader in the “If he gets bought out, the Celtics should swoop him up!” references among Boston fans. But the data isn’t quite as bullish. Thompson has defended Embiid on 50.7 partial possessions this season and allowed 31 points on 12-of-21 shooting over 14 minutes of matchup time. That’s the second-worst mark among high-volume defenders (in front of only LaMarcus Aldridge). Thompson is still an intriguing option because of his rebounding abilities, his playoff experience, and his potential to impact the offense as a fourth or fifth option. Alas, Thompson has his limitation — as seen in Boston when he went 1-for-7 at the free-throw line and committed five turnovers. He was minus-22 in a game in which he went 8-for-11 with 17 points and 11 rebounds.

STEVEN ADAMS

A popular option among Celtics fans entering the season, at least when ignoring the fact that he’s making $25.8 million this season. Boston would have to move someone like Hayward as part of a trade. That’s not happening, and especially not with the way Adams has defended Embiid this season. In nine minutes of matchup time, Embiid has put up 24 points on 9-of-16 shooting, making four triples against Adams, too. Data from 2017-18 season confirms his struggles, Embiid shooting 60 percent (12 of 20) in 19:37 of matchup time.

AND BACK TO THE CELTICS

Then, of course, there is Kanter (pictured), who has limited Embiid to 38.9 percent shooting (7 of 18) in 12 minutes of matchup time this season. Kanter held up particularly well on Thursday, especially when you consider that Embiid shot 77.8 percent against all other Celtics defenders. For all the complaints about Kanter’s defense, it’s his struggles in the pick-and-roll that fall in the spotlight and he actually does well in post-up situations.

It's fair to be skeptical about whether Kanter can hold the fort for a seven-game series. Kanter has been on the floor for 46 of Embiid’s 60 minutes against the Celtics this season and the Philadelphia big man has an offensive rating of 109.3 in that span. The thing is Embiid’s offensive rating spikes to an absurd 142.9 in the 14 minutes with Theis as primary defender instead of Kanter.

Having Smart might help, though Philadelphia’s offensive rating was still elite (114.7) in the 16 minutes that Embiid and Smart shared the court in the first matchup.

To be certain, Boston did not lose either of the first two matchups against Philadelphia because of an inability to defend Embiid. He hurt Boston not only with his scoring Thursday but with an ability to pass out of double teams that Boston sent and the Celtics simply have to be crisper when they commit extra bodies.

>CLICK HERE TO SUBSCRIBE TO THE CELTICS TALK PODCAST<

Is there anyone else out there available at a reasonable price that could help Boston’s frontcourt defense? We rolled the defensive data back to last year’s regular-season and crunched to players with around 20 Embiid field-goal attempts defended. Yet again, a who’s who of Eastern Conference bigs emerged from Horford (14-37 FG, 37.8 percent) to Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic (13-31, 41.9 percent) to Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner (a combined 25-52, 48 percent). 

Some of the names that fared well and might be available would include Cody Zeller (11-26, 42.3 percent in 21 minutes of matchup time) and Willie Cauley-Stein (8-20, 40 percent in 13 minutes). One completely random wild card to throw in here: Old friend Ante Zizic, who defended Embiid for 12:16 last season and limited him to 5-of-17 shooting (29.4 percent) with five turnovers. It was the lowest shooting percentage among any player with at least 15 shot attempts defended. A small sample size? Probably. Though, in a measly minute of defensive matchup time earlier this season, Embiid went scoreless while missing two shots.

The question becomes whether the Celtics should sacrifice future draft assets and risk tweaking the chemistry on the team in hopes of what might only be a marginal upgrade. It’s also prudent to want to see this team at full strength before declaring just how much of an issue the big-man depth could be. 

Remember, too, that Robert Williams' development could be huge here. Grant Williams’ ability to play small-ball 5 against bigs could dictate the desire for a move. Maybe Vincent Poirier gets an opportunity to show whether he can joust further out.

For now, the best option seems to be for the Celtics to stick with what they’ve got and find a longer-term plan to beef up that 5 spot, especially given the talent their primary conference rivals have in their frontcourts.


 

How Tacko Fall, Carsen Edwards, Romeo Langford and Tremont Waters fared for Red Claws on Friday

How Tacko Fall, Carsen Edwards, Romeo Langford and Tremont Waters fared for Red Claws on Friday

The Maine Red Claws had plenty of star power for Friday night's game vs. the Iowa Wolves. 

Tacko Fall, Carsen Edwards, Tremont Waters and Romeo Langford each suited up for Maine in its 127-121 victory. It marked Edwards' first game with the Red Claws, as well as both Tacko Fall and Romeo Langford's first game back from injury.

LIVE stream the Celtics all season and get the latest news and analysis on all of your teams from NBC Sports Boston by downloading the My Teams App.

Here's how the four Celtics rookies performed:

TACKO FALL

Tacko made his mark in his 14 minutes played on Friday night. The 7-foot-5 phenom contributed 13 points on 5-for-8 shooting while bringing down 5 rebounds.

CARSEN EDWARDS

Edwards was solid in his first game in a Red Claws uniform as he racked up 17 points on 6-of-11 shooting (2-for-9 from 3-pt).

ROMEO LANGFORD

Langford was slow out the gate, but picked it up in the second half to finish with 8 points, 3 assists and 3 rebounds. The Celtics' No. 14 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft will look to simply stay healthy going forward, as he's dealt with a nagging ankle injury all season.

TREMONT WATERS

Waters, the G League Player of the Month for November, was relatively quiet in this one. The LSU product dropped 8 points while adding 3 assists in 27 minutes.

Also with standout performances were Yante Maten (26 points, 16 rebounds), Kaiser Gates (17 points, 7 rebounds), Bryce Brown (15 points, 4 assists) and Justin Bibbs (12 points, 6 rebounds).

Next, the Red Claws will take on the Grand Rapids Drive on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET.