Celtics

Only a matter of time until Celtics harness 'beautiful basketball'

Only a matter of time until Celtics harness 'beautiful basketball'

His team off to a somewhat underwhelming 6-4 start, including dropping the first two games of its current five-game road trip, Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens this week offered a noteworthy assessment of his team out of the gates of the 2018-19 season.

“For whatever reason, we can have some of the most beautiful basketball played and then we can throw away a few possessions,” said Stevens. "That’s got to change if we want to be good.”

The Celtics will be good. They should eventually be great. This team simply need to find the consistency that’s maddeningly evaded them through 10 games.

We’ve seen enough small glimpses of Boston’s potential to know that this team has the ability to mingle among the NBA’s elite. The Celtics’ first-quarter offensive explosion in Denver on Monday was some of the sexiest basketball played this season in a league on a scoring binge. And Boston’s defense is on pace to own the best defensive rating in the NBA in three years despite that current offensive boom.

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But it's also true that the Celtics have underachieved. They’ve endured a couple head-slapping losses, including an inexcusable dud against the visiting Orlando Magic, then fumbled away a win in Indiana at the start of this trip. Then Jamal Murray singlehandedly willed the Nuggets to a win on Monday night, carving up Boston’s top-ranked defense.

Growing pains were expected and there are plenty of kinks to work out, especially with regards to the rotation and how Stevens can best deploy his talent. Boston’s jagged start isn’t quite as dire as some make it seem based on record alone. And anyone rushing to the Trade Machine ought to let the season breath a bit.

With help from a stout defense (at least outside of crunch time, more on that later), the Celtics ranked fourth in ESPN’s Basketball Power Index entering Wednesday’s action and trailed only the Warriors, Raptors, and Bucks— or teams that were a combined 29-3.

Despite the early bumps, BPI projected Boston as a 55-win team capable of pushing Toronto and Milwaukee at the top of the East. The Celtics have played the eighth-toughest schedule, per BPI, and this season-long five-game road trip has certainly added to that degree of difficulty. It’s notable that the seven teams ahead of Boston in strength of schedule this season were a combined 27-44 (.380 winning percentage) through Tuesday and only one of those teams has a winning record (Portland, 8-3).

Which is to say: Things could be worse. But they could also be better.

The Celtics have all the necessary talent and ability to thrive; they simply need to find consistency. Some of that will come in time, as roles and rotations become cemented, and as Gordon Hayward feels more like his old self. The preseason should have prepared us for some turbulence but it’s understandably frustrating when the Celtics perform at elite levels for small stretches and then fall into bad habits.

While so much attention has fallen on a Jekyll/Hyde offense, one thing that could aid the Celtics is better crunch-time defense. 

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A league-high eight of Boston’s 10 games this season have hit the crunch-time criteria — games within 5 points in last 5 minutes — and the Celtics are just 4-4 in those contests.

On the encouraging side, Boston is 4-2 in games within one-possession in the final two minutes, and it would be 5-1 if not for Victor Oladipo. The Celtics’ overall crunch-time offensive execution has been solid with the team posting a robust 122.8 offensive rating over 26 minutes of crunch-time play.

The concerning part is that the team’s league-leading defense seems to regress in the fourth quarter. That Boston has played so many close games confirms that alone. But the Celtics' defensive rating in crunch time also vaults to 118.3, which ranks 21st in the league. That’s nearly 18 points higher than Boston’s overall rating and would rank 30th in the NBA if maintained.

Great teams win close games. Last season, the four teams with the best regular-season win percentage in crunch-time games were the last four teams standing in the playoffs in the Rockets (.714), Cavaliers (.667), Warriors (.655), and Celtics (.630). Boston played 46 crunch-time games last year — tied for sixth most in the NBA — and had a 29-17 record in those games. 

Of the 12 teams that finished with a .500 record or worse in crunch-time games, only one (Wizards, 21-24) made the postseason.

The Celtics need to find a way to harness their stretches of “beautiful basketball.” They need to keep their foot on the accelerator longer when they are clicking. And that’s why Irving pointed to more dependability when asked for a state of the union through 10 games.

“Just trying to build that consistency. That’s all,” Irving told reporters in Phoenix this week. "Until then, once we put a few games together, even in the tough ones where it may look like the team may have control of the game but we still have the will of a disciplined team, of knowing what shots we need to take, knowing where we need to be, the pace we need to play with, the physicality, that’s when you start seeing the separation of the good from the great teams … 

“Once you realize you have the potential to be very special and it’s realized amongst all of us, we’ll be alright.”

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The Camera Guys: Some coaching pointers for Brad Stevens

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The Camera Guys: Some coaching pointers for Brad Stevens

Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens stopped by the Red Sox spring training facility Sunday in Fort Myers, Fla., so you know NBC Sports Boston's Camera Guys had to get a few minutes with the man of the hour.

Stevens, of course, is an Indiana native. And he's a master at running set plays. So you know Glenn Gleason and Bill "Moose" Messina had to ask him if he'd ever consider installing the iconic "Picket Fence" play run by coach Norman Dale in the movie "Hoosiers".

"I’ve heard of the play," Stevens told Moose. "I need to go back and look at it closer."

Not to worry, Brad.

"We’re tape eaters," Glenn interjected. "We can get it done for you!"

The Celtics resume their regular season post-All-Star break on Thursday with a huge tilt in Milwaukee against the Bucks, who sport the NBA's best record. Tip off is 8 p.m. on NBC Sports Boston.

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Brad Stevens visits Red Sox camp and reflects on Boston coaching fraternity

Brad Stevens visits Red Sox camp and reflects on Boston coaching fraternity

If Boston were a college campus, the hottest fraternity to join right now would be the coaching one. The chapter president, of course, is Bill Belichick, but right behind him in the ranks are Brad Stevens and Alex Cora.

Which is why for the second year in a row Stevens made his way to Fort Meyers to watch batting practice and bullpen sessions while picking the brains of his Red Sox equivalent Alex Cora and FOB (friend of Bill), Tony LaRussa.

“It’s one of the great benefits of being the Celtics coach. You get a chance to meet these people and learn a great deal from them,” Stevens said. “Whether it’s those guys or {Bill} Belichick or Bruce {Cassidy} or whoever. We’re really blessed to have a lot of people to pick the minds of in Boston.”

The way Stevens sees things, he learns as much or more from the men who lead teams in sports other than basketball. 

“You are all dealing with the same things on a day to day basis. The challenges of a team. The challenges of being the best that you can be.”

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Cora views the opportunity in a similar light. He feels he can learn a little something from everyone that in turn makes his job a little easier in a tough market like Boston. 

A place that becomes a lot tougher when you aren’t cruising to a team record 108 wins in the regular season and a World Series title. 

“It’s not that I’m expecting them, {bad stretches} but when it comes, I know how the city reacts to it,” Cora explained, “and how the media reacts to it. It’s a good learning experience.”

Although Cora marveled at how Bill Belichick can stand in front of a room of reporters and say almost nothing, Cora conceded with a laugh he doesn’t quite have that clout yet.

“I can’t do it yet with you guys,” Cora admitted, “But it’s pretty cool he is the way he is with the media. But then you talk to him and he’s a real person and he’s funny and obviously very smart.”

At the end of the day both Cora and Stevens understand that every coach and manager in town is aiming for the same thing. 

“I think that ultimately we all want to improve,” Stevens said. “We all want to get better.”

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Stevens also touched on a few basketball topics on Sunday afternoon. 

On Jayson Tatum’s All-Star Game Challenge win:

“Yeah, he made a big shot, from deep. That challenge always seems to come to down to whether you make that shot or not. Jayson did a great job finishing it with a little flair. That’s what the All-Star game is all about.”

Anthony Davis comments:

“I can’t talk about all that stuff. As far as just generally in regards to rumors, we do talk about as a team, focusing on what we can control. Danny does a great job of handling all that.”

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