Scuffling Celtics search for their own magic

Scuffling Celtics search for their own magic

BOSTON — We didn’t get Mad Brad. Not even I’m-Not-Mad-I’m-Just-Disappointed  Brad. When Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens strode to the podium after Monday’s loss to the Orlando Magic, we got Bottom Line Brad.

“We have a job with scoreboards,” said Stevens. "Orlando’s better than Boston right now. We’ll find out if we get any better.”

It’s one thing to hear Stevens assert that his Celtics are lagging behind the Toronto Raptors in the aftermath of Friday’s loss to a chief Eastern Conference rival. With a healthy Kawhi Leonard looking every bit the MVP-caliber player he was during his San Antonio heyday and with Boston’s well-documented struggles north of the border, it was at least understandable that the Raptors were quicker out of the gates this season.

But having your coach slot you behind a young Magic squad that most expect to linger in the basement of a top-heavy East? That’s sobering. 

“I’ve said it, that we’re not as good as everybody thinks we are,” Stevens told NBC Sports Boston in his postgame interview. “[Monday’s loss is] just another reminder how much we have to work.”

On his 42nd birthday, Stevens did not scold his team for gifting him another underwhelming offensive output at a time when gaudy three-digit numbers are the norm around the league. He actually praised Boston’s ball movement and lamented missed shots, even if he did offer a slight jab by noting that, “It tells you kind of where we are that that was our best offensive game so far.”

He didn’t call out the team's defense, even if 93 points allowed was a particularly deceiving number given the way the Magic bullied their way to 28 first-quarter points and left Boston playing from behind nearly the entire night.

No, Stevens just acknowledged what’s plainly obvious based on what we’ve seen from the Celtics through four regular-season games, as well as the underwhelming preseason that preceded it: The Celtics have simply not shown anything to suggest they are anywhere near as good as the team they were made out to be.

Make no mistake, there’s no reason to think Boston can't eventually get to that level. But an October loss to the visiting Magic is a firm reminder that this team is still quite a ways off.

"I have no doubt we’ll figure it out, but we definitely have a lot of work to do,” said Gordon Hayward, who, along with Kyrie Irving, missed a potential overtime-forcing 3-pointer in the closing moments.

While the Celtics most certainly generated better looks on Monday night — at least compared to the cringe-fest that was Saturday’s effort in New York, which required some late Jayson Tatum heroics to escape with a win — it’s hard to walk away too enthused when a team hoists up 40 3-pointers and shoots just 22.5 percent from distance.

The Celtics are still trying to figure out how all these talented pieces fit together, but that's been far more challenging than most probably expected. Chemistry came quick last season when this starting group was thrown together in the aftermath of the late-summer trade that delivered Irving from Cleveland.

But we’ve only seen glimpses of that potential this year. And even as Irving and Hayward shake rust, younger players like Jaylen Brown have struggled to settle into their new roles. On Monday night, Stevens was left searching for a spark, particularly with Aron Baynes sidelined, and he went 12 deep overall.

Maybe that’s why Irving didn’t have an answer when asked about where Boston’s chemistry stood through four games.

"I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t mean that negatively. I just don’t know,” said Irving. "It’s four games. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t have the answer for that.”

Irving tried to offer better insight later when asked about Brown’s rough start to the season.

"It’s been a rough start for a few of us,” said Irving. "I try to think of the season as kind of sequential, when I say we just want to make it through October. I’m just trying to get through October, start a new season off where, obviously the excitement is now dwindling. Now we can finally just start playing basketball where the game becomes fun, which is a lot of thoughts that you could come into the season and what you expect to do, and then you come into the realization of where you are and that hurts sometimes. 

"You’ve just gotta play better, take a few hits on the chin and weather the storm. This is a game. The good thing is we have great teammates and great people in this locker room, and a great staff, and a great organization that believes in us. So coming in after games like this when you have guys still cheering up and getting everybody involved, it’s always great.”

Again, the Celtics are clearly better than what they’ve shown thus far, particularly amid this 2-2 start. And yet, like Bill Parcells so often reminded us, “You are what your record says you are.”

So in the early season NBA power rankings, Boston sits behind at least Toronto and Orlando.

"We're figuring [chemistry] out. It's a day-to-day thing and it's us understanding what we all need to do to be successful,” said Horford. "It takes time. There are times we look really good, there are times we don't look good at all. We just have to keep learning, hopefully winning and learning as opposed to losing. 

"Sometimes, these types of things have to happen for the group to react.”

Call it another wakeup call for a team that, with apologies to Williams’ post-draft follies, keeps hitting the snooze button.

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Celtics' Al Horford will rest Wednesday vs. Cavaliers

Celtics' Al Horford will rest Wednesday vs. Cavaliers

BOSTON -- Following the Celtics' Monday night win over the Miami Heat, Al Horford said he was feeling great. 

And one of the main reasons for that has been the ability to provide Horford with “strategic rest” at various points this season. 

We’re apparently at one of those rest stops right now with the team announcing on Tuesday that Horford will sit out and rest instead of playing Wednesday night at home against Cleveland.

By Horford not playing against the Cavs (9-39), who own the worst record in the NBA, Horford will essentially have a week off before Boston hosts two-time defending NBA champion Golden State on Saturday night at the TD Garden.

This will be the 10th game missed by Horford this season, a stretch that included eight in a row due to patellofemoral pain syndrome in his left knee. 

Upon his return, Horford played with a minutes restriction. 

But in the past four games, Horford has been essentially allowed to play the kind of minutes he has grown accustomed to. 

And to his credit, Big Al has delivered in a big way in the past four games - all Celtics wins. 

In that span, Horford has averaged 17.8 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.8 blocks and 1.5 assists while shooting 65.9 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3-point range in 31.3 minutes played per game.

With Horford out for the Cavs game, look for Aron Baynes to get the start with Daniel Theis, Guerschon Yabusele and Robert Williams III all likely options for coach Brad Stevens off the bench. 

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How a Grizzlies rebuild could deliver Boston's next star

How a Grizzlies rebuild could deliver Boston's next star

As the Memphis Grizzlies reportedly entertain the possibility of a rebuild, the Celtics might have found the centerpiece of their next big deal, one that might only bolster their long-term ability to contend for a title.

ESPN reported Tuesday that the Grizzlies, for the first time, will begin entertaining trade offers for stars Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. The Celtics are owed a future first-round pick from the Grizzlies and the protections loosen in coming seasons.

After Memphis won 12 of its first 17 games to open the season, it appeared the pick, which is top-8 protected for 2019, might convey this season. But the Grizzlies are a mere 7-23 since Nov. 21 and have lost 12 of their past 13. 

With the second-worst record in the Western Conference but only the sixth-worst record in the NBA, the Grizzlies seem to be coming to grips with the fact that it might be better to move their aging stars and embrace a rebuild in hopes of a quick turnaround that might take the sting out of the pick they will eventually deliver. In trading their stars, the Grizzlies almost assuredly will collect a top 8 pick this season.

Further out it gets murkier for Memphis. Quick rebuilds do not typically happen. And the Celtics would reap the benefits if the Grizzlies struggle to contend in the aftermath of an overhaul, even if that pick ultimately doesn’t convey for two more years. The Grizzlies’ pick is top-6 protected in 2020 before becoming completely unprotected in 2021. 

Memphis’ willingness to overhaul their roster is no small development for the Celtics, whose assets have been diminishing in value as some NBA rivals outkick expectations. The Celtics are set to collect the Sacramento Kings 2019 first-round pick, if it’s not No. 1 overall, but the Kings are still battling for a playoff spot in the West, sitting 24-23 entering Tuesday’s action.

With a horde of East teams clogging up the bottom of the NBA standings, that means the Kings pick — once dreamed to be a top-five selection — is currently projected to land closer to No. 10 overall. 

The Celtics were staring at the less-than-optimal possibility of collecting all three of their owed first-round picks this season (the Clippers could potentially deliver a non-lottery first-rounder). But the Grizzlies pick pushing into future years gives the Celtics a lot more flexibility in using it a deal.

Not only does the value rise as the protections loosen but the Celtics can dangle that pick as part of a package for a big star — say, Anthony Davis, or his ilk — and it’s more attractive than if the Celtics were forced to make that selection in June.

The Celtics, of course, don’t have to move the pick in a deal but it just seems like the most likely scenario. Boston could also keep the prime selection and try to build young depth to an already talent-filled roster, especially if there’s not a big fish available on the trade market that they desire to chase.

Entering Tuesday, the Celtics projected to collect picks No. 13 (Sacramento), 19 (Clippers), and 24 (their own) based on current standings. 

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