Celtics

Monroe, Larkin are thrust into big spots with Celtics

Monroe, Larkin are thrust into big spots with Celtics

BOSTON – When the Celtics signed Greg Monroe, they were adding a guy who was joining his third team...this season!

And in the offseason, they added Shane Larkin to a roster that already had four guards (Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier) ahead of him.

And yet as the Celtics’ postseason journey begins Sunday against Milwaukee, Monroe and Larkin will play prominent roles in Boston’s quest to advance past seventh-seed Milwaukee.

Monroe and Larkin arriving in Boston under less-than-ideal circumstances only to thrive once in town is not unusual since Brad Stevens took over as Celtics coach in 2013.

Evan Turner parlayed a strong two-year run in Boston into a four-year, $70 million deal with the Portland Trail Blazers.

Kris Humphries, a throw-in to the Celtics blockbuster trade with Brooklyn in 2013, would wind up with the Washington Wizards on a three-year, $13.32 million deal.

And more recently, Gerald Green waited for his chance to be a significant contributor last season in his second stint with Boston and made the most of it in the playoffs as an unexpected starter. His play helped lift Boston to a 4-2 first-round series win over Chicago after falling into a 0-2 series hole. He parlayed that into a deal with the Houston Rockets this season. 

Monroe's role has increased significantly since Daniel Theis’ season-ending torn meniscus injury to his left knee.

With Theis in the lineup, Monroe appeared in 11 games while averaging 7.8 points and five rebounds in 15.2 minutes per game.

In the 15 games since Theis’ season-ending injury, Monroe has increased his scoring average to 11.9 points per game to go with 7.3 rebounds while playing 21.9 minutes per game.

And Monroe’s usage rate has also increased from 21.5 prior to Theis’ injury, to 25.9.

While increased opportunity has certainly weighed into Monroe’s improved productivity.

But he acknowledges that the culture that exists here in Boston has also helped foster an environment that he says has made for a very comfortable situation now that he’s acclimated to the franchise and his teammates.

“The thing that’s most important here that people learn, are habits,” Monroe told NBC Sports Boston. “They’ve done everything they could to help put me in the best position possible. I totally understand why guys come here. You learn better habits.”

Larkin echoed similar thoughts on his time in Boston, which came as a surprise to many considering the former first-round pick of the Atlanta Hawks in 2013 left millions on the table by not re-signing with a team overseas.

“I believe in myself. I always believed in myself,” Larkin said. “I knew that if I was given an opportunity whether it was 10 games, 15 games, I would be able to show that I can help a winning situation. I always believed I could be a great player in this league. And it’s been a rocky road. Injuries, broken ankles, just a bunch of ankles, knee problems...It’s been a lot of stuff. I’m going to continue to work, continue to try and get better every single game, every day of practice so when my opportunities do come, I’m going to try and make the best of it. I feel I’ve done a lot of that this season. Hopefully, I can continue to grow and continue to grow and be that player I want to be.”

Larkin credits Danny Ainge, the Celtics president of basketball operations, and the scouting staff for recognizing the importance of finding the best players who are more than just talented but also an ideal fit.

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“He [Ainge] sees maybe what other people don’t see,” Larkin said. “He sees where guys can come in and help the roster. Coming into the season, I remember the first conversation I had with him, he was like, ‘I don’t know what your role will be this season. I don’t know if you’re gonna play 15 minutes, 20 minutes, five minutes, two minutes, I don’t know. But I do know you fit on our roster. You fit in with what we do here, off the court, on the court. I think you can help us.’ So when you hear that from such a great player and great general manager, you have to take that risk and take that opportunity to come here. And once you get here, Coach Stevens is so great at putting you in position to be successful. He sees what your strengths are, your weaknesses are, he makes everybody play well. That’s a testament to him. They work together and find the right guys that fit the system. That’s why every single year it’s kind of gone in the right direction. Brad’s first year they won 20-something games and every year since they’ve taken a step up.”

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Celtics injury report: Kyrie Irving out for Tuesday vs. Cavaliers

Celtics injury report: Kyrie Irving out for Tuesday vs. Cavaliers

The Celtics will be without Kyrie Irving on Tuesday when they visit the Cavaliers.

According to the C's injury report released Monday afternoon, Irving will be held out due to loan management. Robert Williams is listed as doubtful with a low back contusion, and both Al Horford (left knee soreness) and Jayson Tatum (right low back contusion) are questionable.

Irving was asked following Sunday night's loss to the Spurs if going back to Cleveland meant anything to him, to which he responded, "No, not at all." Tuesday night's matchup marks the Celtics’ seventh game in Cleveland since Irving was dealt to Boston (1 preseason, 3 regular season, 3 playoff). He’s played in one game there: Opening night 2017.

The Celtics ride a four-game losing skid into Cleveland as they hope to get back on track vs. the lowly Cavs, who sit in 14th place in the Eastern Conference.

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No simple fix for Celtics but clear something has to change

No simple fix for Celtics but clear something has to change

BOSTON — One of the more curious aspects of the Boston Celtics’ maddening 2018-19 season has been Brad Stevens’ penchant for letting his team play through its struggles.

That’s long been Stevens’ philosophy but it’s been amplified by Boston’s inconsistent ways, both in the micro (in-game, when opponents go on big runs) and macro (sticking with lineups, rotations despite underwhelming recent returns). 

It reflects the unwavering confidence that Stevens has in his players but, in the absence of results, it’s fair to wonder if this team simply needs a shorter leash than those past teams that Stevens could let fight through what ailed them.

We’ve seen instances of Stevens being more aggressive with his timeouts lately in hopes of quelling the staggering amount of 12-0 type runs that opponents seem to routinely launch. But Stevens has remained reluctant to alter his starting lineup (outside of injuries and rest, at least) and it’s fair to wonder if time is running out on any potential experimentation that could have been done before the postseason arrives.

After Sunday’s latest eyesore of a loss to the San Antonio Spurs, Stevens was asked directly about the lineup and maintained that it’s something he thinks about often but also suggested that any lineups he’d like to explore are further limited by player availability.

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Stevens was asked if there had been any thought to going back to the original starting 5 — Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, and Al Horford — which would offer Boston its most skilled and versatile five-man group, albeit one that struggled mightily out of the gates of the season.

"I think about that every day. But I don’t know if it’s the original starting lineup,” said Stevens. "I don’t know if it’s better rotations. I think you’re always thinking about [lineup tweaks]. And, inevitably, you can make a case for everything. And you could go through every game this year and make a case and look at it because we have a lot of guys that are fairly alike. 

"The one thing as we move forward, we are going to need, based on our matchup, to settle on the best things for each series. I don’t know that that will be our starting lineup that we’ve been starting. But I’m more worried about the last 42 minutes than the first 6, so I do think that’s another factor in that.”

There’s a lot to digest there. Let’s start with Boston’s current preferred stating 5 that features Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris with Irving, Tatum, and Horford. That original lineup flip in late November spurred some of Boston’s best basketball of the year and, especially as Hayward and Brown started to thrive in bench roles, seemed to offer the sort of great potential that encouraged Stevens to endure these bumps.

But as the Celtics have fizzled since early February, so too has that starting group. Boston’s starting 5 has logged 162 minutes together in 12 appearances since the All-Star break — no other lineup has played more than 26 minutes together in that span — and own a gruesome net rating of minus-6.7 in that span, which includes a defensive rating of 112.1 (or 5.2 points per 100 possessions worse than Boston’s season rating). The Celtics are 5-7 in those games.

Stevens has routinely noted that the first six minutes of games are not a concern for him. Maybe they should be. Since the All-Star break, the starting 5’s net rating in first quarters is minus-7.9 over 70 total minutes, which includes an anemic offensive rating of 96.8. While it’s undeniable that decent starts don’t always ensure Celtics success — see all the double-digit leads the team has kicked away recently — it simply feels like this team is overdue to explore tweaks that might force it outside the malaise that exists now and potentially restore the level of defensive intensity that’s gone missing.

The notion of shuffling Morris and/or Smart back to a bench role shouldn’t suggest they are at fault for the team’s inconsistencies, in much the same way that Brown and Hayward shouldn’t have been the fall guys earlier in the year. Morris is marred in an obvious shooting slump that, much like many of his teammates, has bled into his defensive consistency. They need him playing at a high level in the postseason, regardless of role. But as Brown and Hayward make strides with their own play — particularly with a much-needed dash of aggression towards the basket — it’s simply interesting to wonder how the team might respond to a re-infusion.

As Stevens is quick to point out, we all obsess too much over who starts games. What matters is how it all works together. But it’s clear, right now, that this current iteration has sputtered and something needs to give.

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Sometimes teams just need a change. There seems little harm in experimenting when you consider the wheels have already come off and this team is grinding down the Mass Pike with sparks flying from both axles. What complicates matters is that there are only eight games remaining and Stevens must balance finding rest for his players before the postseason grind starts. 

True as ever, this team never quite makes anything easy on itself.

It was interesting to hear Stevens acknowledge that he’s likely to tweak lineups when the postseason arrives. This isn’t all that unexpected, not from a coach who famously deployed the likes of Gerald Green and Semi Ojeleye in must-win playoff games in recent seasons.

Some of Boston’s best basketball recently has come with two-big lineups. It’s a tiny sample size but, since the All-Star break, Horford and Aron Baynes own a net rating together of plus-39.7 in 26 minutes of floor time, with a glitzy defensive rating of 93.1. 

It speaks again to Baynes’ impact, particularly for a Boston team that has lost a bit of its defensive identity while Baynes has navigated an injury-plagued season.  It feels like Baynes is going to be quite important to Boston in the postseason, particularly considering the bigs they might encounter.

Finding other two-man units that inspire confidence recently is tricky, though it’s worth noting that the Hayward-Tatum (plus-19.7, 176 minutes since Feb. 1) and Hayward-Irving (plus-13.6, 191 minutes since Feb. 1) pairings have both been stellar during Boston’s funk. It seems to scream for Hayward to rejoin the first unit to see how that group reacts to his presence.

Based on his play, Brown deserves to elevate as well but, if considering his bench impact at the moment, it’s understandable if he stays in a backup role.

Ultimately, there are no easy answers here. It’s fair to wonder if Boston’s problems are more mental than necessarily who’s on the court. As Stevens pointed out after Sunday’s loss, he’s never coached a team that’s solely reliant on whether it makes shots to dictate its intensity level. 

“I don’t want to be a team, and I’ve never been a part of a team, that was solely reliant on whether you make shots or not,” said Stevens. “And, right now, in the last month, that’s our deal. We’re just relying on whether we make shots. 

"Instead of being a buckle-down, get stops, find a way to win. Nothing better than winning when you’re 5 for 35 or 7 for 35 from 3. That means you’ve figured out what’s important and you’re going to play to that every night.”

Stevens needs to figure out what groups give this team the best chance to restore its identity and play consistent two-way basketball. There’s no obvious, quick-fix solution but this team cannot continue to hope that the arrival of the postseason will trigger the urgency that the regular season has so clearly lacked.

Something needs to change, or the results will stay the same.

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