Celtics

Red-hot Rockets at full strength for Celtics rematch

Red-hot Rockets at full strength for Celtics rematch

HOUSTON – There is no hotter team in the NBA right now than the Houston Rockets, who are currently riding a league-best winning streak of 14.

Indeed, they are a different-looking team since Boston’s epic 99-98 comeback win on Dec. 28.

And that change can be summed up in two words: Chris Paul.

While James Harden is once again a popular talking point in MVP conversations, it is Paul’s presence that has elevated Houston from being one of the top teams that falls short of contending with Golden State to a club that’s looking the Warriors in the eye for Western Conference supremacy and isn’t blinking one bit.

“They're a special team,” Brad Stevens said.

And now they’re a special team at full strength as the Rockets look to keep on their winning ways while exacting a bit of revenge in the process when they face the Celtics on Saturday.

When Boston rallied from a 26-point deficit in the third quarter to win 99-98 over the Rockets in December, Houston played that game minus two key players – Paul and Clint Capela.

Paul, who was out with a left adductor strain injury, is a nine-time All-Star, two-time Olympic gold medal winner and statistically speaking, one of the most decorated active players.

So, for the 32-year-old Paul to not play? Yeah, you’re gonna notice his absence for sure.

But the 23-year-old Capela has emerged as a vital cog in Houston’s strong season, which had them atop the Western Conference standings at the All-Star break.

The 6-foot-10 center, who missed the Dec. 28 game against Boston with a right orbital fracture, is averaging a double-double this season of 14.6 points and 11.1 rebounds while shooting 5.7 percent from the field.

“They're really good and the way that they play offense is obviously really tough to stop,” Stevens said. “And then defensively, I think they've really improved. Very versatile, very long, play with multiple efforts, very good.”

Aron Baynes echoed similar sentiments about the Rockets (48-13), who despite a strong run of success lately, remain just a half-game ahead of Golden State (48-14) for the best record in the West but can take solace in the fact that they have already won the head-to-head season series.

“They're very talented,” Baynes said, adding, “of course their back court is super talented, but you know they have great guys down the bench, one through 12. It's everyone, it's just a matter of we have to go out there and play our team ball and our team defense and then we should be all right.”

Kyrie Irving holds the key to getting the swerving-off-course Celtics back on the right track

Kyrie Irving holds the key to getting the swerving-off-course Celtics back on the right track

BOSTON -- The Boston Celtics spent more time than usual inside the locker room following their 115-96 drubbing at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs. 

While the particulars of what was said remain a mystery, there’s one thing that came through with clarity - everyone inside that locker room has be better. 

A better player; a better teammate; a better leader; better at doing whatever role they are tasked with. 

And while it is indeed an across-the-board problem, there’s no denying who has to be the first to make that change and make it soon - Kyrie Irving. 

He is Boston’s best player, the one everyone looks to for leadership both on the floor and inside the locker room. 

Boston (43-31) has now lost four in a row, the team’s longest losing streak of the season. 

They have given up at least 114 points in seven straight games, something that last happened to a Celtics team before any of the current Celtics - or their head coach Brad Stevens - was born. 

Irving reminded us all how hard it can be to win in the NBA, and how difficult it can be to “accomplish something great.”

And while there may be a million opinions outside the Celtics locker room, Irving readily admits that he has to be better in a number of areas. 

“For me my focus is figuring out, the guys I have in my locker room, how to get the best out of them and them getting the best out of me,” Irving said. “It’s been hard but it’s a challenge worth fighting for because the end result is standing on that (championship) stage.”

Of course, Irving is the lone Celtics player who has won an NBA title besides Baynes, although Irving did it as a starter while Baynes, then with San Antonio, was a lightly used reserve.

And having played both for a team that won a title (Cleveland) and one that's in pursuit of one (Boston), there are indeed some similarities. 

But not many. 

MORE CELTICS

 “This is just a new challenge," Irving said. "We had a luxury of relying on experience (in Cleveland). Here we’re building something great every single day and that’s the experience we get. We had guys (in Cleveland) that had been on that stage, lost on that stage, won on that stage. Here, we’re trying to build great championship habits. And that takes time and takes a commitment.

Irving added, “But it starts with me. I will do my best to keep communicating as best I can and get the most out of these guys because they deserve it.”

And that communication that Irving speaks about … he knows it too is something that he has to do a better job at going forward. 

“I’m used to gearing up for something bigger than myself around this time and what it takes,” Irving said. “I can do a better job of communicating that to my teammates. And being a better listener, figuring out the best way to communicate with those guys, that point, this point in the season … getting ready for wars and battles.” 

And while the challenge of figuring all this out and making the most of a season that began with such promise is indeed difficult, Irving says he’s all-in with his focus on the big picture. 

“For us we’re still developing as a team, a whole season of doing so,” Irving said. “But there’s a light at the end of all this. That’s probably where my patience will always lay, knowing something’s beyond this, something … this challenge is happening for a reason and I have to believe that.”

He added, “It hasn’t looked pretty all the time, but we’ve always tried to find a way to figure it out and get the most out of each other. It starts with me and it trickles down to the rest of our leaders on this team. You have to be committed and it starts with me." 

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Three Pointers: Celtics' season of destiny looking more like death march following another blowout loss

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AP Images

Three Pointers: Celtics' season of destiny looking more like death march following another blowout loss

BOSTON -- This was supposed to be the Boston Celtics’ season of destiny. 

Instead it's looking more like a death march with the team’s stretch of futility continuing on following Sunday’s 115-96 loss to the San Antonio Spurs. 

Boston (43-31) has now lost four straight which stands as the Celtics’ longest losing streak of the season. 

Now the argument that Boston was missing players with injuries (Al Horford, Jayson Tatum and Robert Williams III) will be a common justification to help explain how thoroughly throttled they were by the Spurs. 

But missing open shots, not boxing out for rebounds and playing shoddy defense for the bulk of the game against a team like the Spurs, will get your butt kicked every time regardless of who is available. 

This was an embarrassing loss not because the margin of defeat, but the margin of compete level that was even more lopsided than the final score. 

Here are three pointers to take away from yet another disappointing performance by the Celtics.

Hayward start over Brown

With Jayson Tatum (back) out, Brad Stevens decided to start Gordon Hayward ahead of Jaylen Brown. 

It was a surprising call considering how well Brown has been playing, and  it being Hayward’s first game back after missing the previous three due to being in the league’s concussion protocol program.

But the move worked out well for Hayward who gave Boston’s starting five a much-needed offensive punch before finishing with a double-double of 13 points and 10 rebounds along with three assists.

However, the move didn’t exactly work out in Brown’s favor. 

He would tally just seven points, which was only the fourth time in the last 14 games he has failed to reach double figures off the bench. 

DEFENSIVE DISAPPEARING ACT

It can’t be said enough how disappointing Boston was defensively against the Spurs. Yes, LaMarcus Aldridge had it going all game with a blistering 48 points for San Antonio on 20-for-31 shooting in addition to grabbing 13 rebounds while dishing out six assists. But it wasn’t the stats that Aldridge tallied hurt the most; it was how easily he got them all game long. 

Having no Al Horford hurt, obviously. Horford does the best job of any of the Celtics when it comes to defending Aldridge.

But Aron Baynes who usually plays at an elite level defensively, had arguably his worst game defensively as a Celtic. 

He was about as insignificant defensively as we’ve seen him since coming to Boston.

And while he’s not the most fleet-footed player, he looked a step or two slow even by his usual standards which isn’t that big a stretch considering it was his first game back following a foot injury that many - including head coach Brad Stevens - was going to keep him out for a significantly longer period of time. 

But at no point did Baynes do anything of significance to make Aldridge the least bit uncomfortable on the floor. Aldridge is just too talented a player to have so many open to lightly contested mid-range jumpers and shot attempts at the rim. 

However, Baynes’ troubles were more symbolic of the Celtics’ entire defense which seems to be going from bad to worst as we inch closer towards the playoffs. 

KYRIE IRVING

He has said on more than one occasion that so much of what this team does starts with him. 

He’s right. 

And when he’s not making shots, gambling on defense - and losing badly - it reflects poorly and unfortunately for Boston, becomes contagious. 

He had a double-double of 11 points and 12 assists, shooting just 5-for-17 from the field. 

It was his 21st double-double of the season, and maybe the weakest of the bunch. 

Because his numbers on this night rang about as hollow as the cavernous hole we see as the Celtics defense. 

There are eight games left to play and while that’s not enough time for them to change the identity of who they are as a team, they can at least start trending in the direction of being more competitive. 

Because the crap show we’re witnessing now … this team won’t get out of the first round of the playoffs if they don’t find a greater compete level AND FAST!!!

UP NEXT

Boston will hit the road for a Tuesday night matchup at Cleveland, at 7 p.m.

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