Next Man Up: Celtics Playoff Edition, 2.0

Next Man Up: Celtics Playoff Edition, 2.0

BOSTON -- For the second year in a row, the Celtics will begin their postseason journey with at least one key player out with an injury. 

A year ago both Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward were out for the entire postseason due to injuries. 

This year, it’s Marcus Smart, whose recent MRI results revealed a torn oblique that’s expected to keep him out for at least a month.

But if there’s a silver lining to Smart’s injury, it’s that his absence will create greater opportunities for Boston’s other players to step up and make an impact, which we've seen them do so often when at less than full strength. 

And when you look at their roster, a good chunk of the pressure to perform at a high level will fall upon the shoulders of the team’s Big Three - Kyrie Irving, Al Horford and Gordon Hayward - who are collectively playing some of their best basketball right now. 

Irving has averaged 24.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and 7.0 assists since the All-Star Break. 

In April, Horford has averaged 17.3 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.8 assists while shooting 59.2 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3-point range. 

Following his return to the lineup after being in the concussion protocol beginning March 17, Hayward has strung together eight consecutive double-digit scoring games (and counting) - his longest such streak since becoming a Celtic. 

Irving, speaking prior to the Celtics announcing Smart would be out for four to six weeks with his oblique injury, said the pressure to step up should not be placed upon the shoulders of any select group of Celtics players. 

“I've always hated the whole title-driven idea of separating the most talented guys on the team,” Irving said before adding, “Just call them the ‘Big Three’ and they're all relied on and they're all depended on …  that recipe has never worked for us in terms of just being realistic or just how great we are as a team made up of collective individuals. We all really bring something special to the table out there, any moment in the game it could change. We all have that impact in our DNA.”

Still, there’s no getting around the fact that Irving, Horford and Hayward were all brought to Boston with the purpose of leading what the Celtics brass was hoping would be a three-headed monster that could power the franchise towards Banner 18.

And while Irving is spot-on when he asserts that it’ll take a strong collective effort for this team to achieve its goal of getting to the NBA Finals, that challenge increased significantly with Smart’s injury, which could potentially keep him out for the first and second rounds. 

“Whoever steps out there, has to play their best for us to be our best,” Horford told NBC Sports Boston. “It doesn’t matter who we play. We have to play at our best or as close as we can, to our best to win in the playoffs.”

It will certainly fall upon the shoulders of many to help pick up the slack left behind by Smart’s injury. 

Ultimately, the Celtics will do what most teams do in these instances and that's lean on their best players. For this team, that's the talented triumvirate of Irving, Hayward and Horford.  

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Celtics' Kemba Walker 'not thinking about' Kyrie Irving comparisons

Celtics' Kemba Walker 'not thinking about' Kyrie Irving comparisons

The Kemba Walker-Kyrie Irving comparisons are unavoidable, and they're something the new Celtics guard will have to hear about throughout his first season in Boston.

But Walker certainly doesn't seem all that concerned. During the former Charlotte Hornets star's media availability on Thursday, he was asked about replacing Irving while possessing a playing style and skillset eerily similar to the Brooklyn Nets guard's.

“I don’t think about it,” Walker said, as transcribed by WEEI. “That’s not something that I really care about. Kyrie, he’s a hell of a player. He’s one of the best in the world.

“We are pretty similar in playing style and stuff like that. That’s not something I think about. Of course, I see everybody . . . it just is what it is. It’s just obvious. It’s going to come up.”

While Walker and Irving's playing styles share plenty of similarities, their personalities and leadership qualities couldn't be much more different. It's no secret Irving's presence played a role in the Celtics' lack of chemistry during their disappointing 2018-19 campaign. That's exactly why the C's brought in a guy like Walker, whose character is held in high regard by his former coaches as well as both his former and current teammates.

Will that change in leadership make all the difference for the new-look Celtics as they turn the page on the Irving era? We'll find out soon enough. The season tips off Oct. 23 at 7:30 p.m. vs. the 76ers in Philadelphia.

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The key to Jayson Tatum's breakout season that's not being talked about

The key to Jayson Tatum's breakout season that's not being talked about

BOSTON — Practice was over and Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum was nowhere in sight. 

The 6-foot-9 forward headed straight to the weight room immediately after the team’s post-practice huddle broke up. 

Trying to bulk up a little bit, huh? 

“Something like that,” Tatum said with a grin. 

It makes sense for Tatum to try and get bigger in what many anticipate will be a really big, breakout-type season for the third-year forward. 

And while much of the attention Tatum has drawn in the past often focused on his scoring, Tatum’s improvement defensively may be what takes his overall game to another level this season. 

While no one expects Tatum’s defensive rating in the preseason (69.1) to hold up once the regular season starts, it is clear that he’s focused on elevating his play at that end of the floor akin to what we saw during his rookie season. 

Acquired via trade with the Sixers on draft night in 2017, Tatum’s penchant for scoring was evident from Day One. 

But with a roster that included Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford in addition to Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart, Tatum wisely figured out early that scoring was not going to get him on the floor as a rookie. 

So the only way he would see time, was to prove his worth to head coach Brad Stevens as a defender, which Tatum readily admits was a bit of an adjustment for a variety of reasons. 

“It’s a lot of things you have to learn,” Tatum said in an exclusive interview with NBC Sports Boston. “It’s a whole new system, new terminology, a whole new way to guard …  everybody in the NBA is so much more talented, so you have to pay attention to the scouting report. It’s a different ball game when you come from college. you really have to focus and pay attention to all the details.”

It certainly worked for Tatum during his first year in Boston.

“Jayson Tatum’s defense is beyond his years,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said in 2017, Tatum’s rookie season. “He’s very savvy. He’s very long. He uses his length; his arms are out and he gets his hands on balls, deflects passes and discourages drives just because of his length. So, I think he’ll continue to get better and better.”

He was one of just three rookie forwards (Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons and Kyle Kuzma of the Los Angeles Lakers were the others) in 2017 who averaged at least 30 minutes of court time, with Tatum’s defensive rating of 100.8 being the best among the group. 

But last season, one in which Tatum was being looked upon to be significantly more of a scorer, he averaged more points (15.7 compared to 13.9 as a rookie) but saw his defensive rating slip to 105.1.

Part of Tatum’s process now when it comes to improving as a defender, is to improve his strength. 

Since arriving in Boston, Tatum estimates he’s gained about 10 pounds of muscle and now weighs 215 pounds. 

We have seen the added strength at work during his time with Team USA as well as what he has done in the preseason with the Celtics. 

But that added weight will also benefit him as a defender, with Tatum likely to play both forward positions this season and potentially some center depending on the opposing team’s lineup. 

“I’m trying to be the best player I can be,” Tatum said. “Just trying to make a bigger jump from year to year and be a better version of myself.”

Indeed, Tatum’s statistics improved in several categories last season. In fact, most of his numbers were similar to Toronto’s Pascal Siakam who was named the NBA’s Most Improved Player last season. 

But Tatum’s play last season, while better statistically in a number of categories in comparison to his first season, was roundly criticized in many circles and viewed as underachieving in others. 

Tatum has said on more than one occasion that he didn’t play his best basketball a year ago, and is determined to make amends for that with what he and Celtics Nation are hoping will be a breakout system.

And the best way to do that is to make strides towards becoming a more complete, two-way talent for Boston.  

“I want to be one of the best players on both ends of the court,” Tatum said.

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