Strong fourth quarter propels Celtics to 97-90 win over Mavericks

Strong fourth quarter propels Celtics to 97-90 win over Mavericks

BOSTON – The Boston Celtics once again saved their best for last, putting together a strong fourth quarter which once again proved to be just enough to propel them to a 97-90 victory over Dallas that was yet another reminder of just how clutch this team can be when challenged. 

Kyrie Irving had a game-high 23 points on 10-for-18 shooting. Al Horford continued his nightly flirtation with a triple-double, tallying 17 points along with eight rebounds and eight assists. Jayson Tatum (17 points) along with Terry Rozier (12 points) and Shane Larkin (11 points) off the bench also finished in double figures for the Celtics.

The Mavericks (7-18) were led by Harrison Barnes’ 19 points with Dirk Nowitzki chipping in with 16 points and six rebounds.

Dallas came in having won four of its last six games, so the Mavericks’ confidence was high. Making the game even more difficult for the Celtics was that they were playing without Jaylen Brown (eye) and Marcus Morris (left knee rehabilitation).

Despite being without a starter (Brown) and a key rotation player (Morris), Boston still managed to get a tough, hard-earned victory prior to hitting the road for a three-game road trip that begins on Friday against San Antonio.

After lackluster starts to the first three quarters, Boston opened the fourth quarter with a 10-0 blitz to take an 80-73 lead before a Dallas time-out was called.

The Mavericks came out of the time-out with a focus on getting the ball to Nowitzki as often as possible.

It was a good strategy for the Mavericks who scored eight of the next nine points of the game to tie the score at 81 which is when Boston called a time-out with 7:23 to play.

Boston would regain the lead, but they just couldn’t shake this Mavericks team that once again, was giving them all they could handle.

When the two met earlier this season, the Mavericks had the Celtics on the brink of defeat only for Boston to rally in the fourth, force overtime and eventually prevail 110-102.

Boston didn’t dig itself as deep a hole in the fourth on Wednesday as they did when the two met last month, which made pulling away in the final minutes of play a smoother path towards victory.

Getting it done in the closing moments once again was Kyrie Irving, whose 3-point play that made it an 92-85 game brought about the all-too-familiar “M-V-P” chants from the Celtics faithful in attendance.

He wasn’t done.

After being nearly stripped in the paint, he tossed up a bank shot off the glass to make it a 95-87 game.

Moments later, he came up with a steal and got the outlet pass up court to Terry Rozier whose dunk put the Celtics ahead 97-87, their first double-digit lead of the night.

And from there, the Celtics (22-4) were able to manage the game clock and come away with their fourth straight win and sixth in the last seven games.

It also improved Boston’s record against Western Conference teams to a perfect 8-0 on the season.


Celtics play their best with something to prove

Celtics play their best with something to prove

BOSTON - One of the big questions entering the 2018-19 season was how the  Celtics would respond to a new burden of expectations. The Celtics, with the return of a healthy Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, were essentially anointed the team to beat in the East and a red carpet was rolled out to the NBA Finals.

Still, even as the Celtics were being crowned, the Raptors were busy acquiring Kawhi Leonard. The Bucks were salivating for another opportunity to show their young core - headlined by Giannis Antetokounmpo - was ready to truly contend. And, this week, the Philadelphia 76ers spiced up their own young roster with the addition of Jimmy Butler.

Entering the showdown Friday night with the visiting Toronto Raptors, the Celtics find themselves in a more familiar position than their lofty preseason billing. Beset by uneven play, the Celtics (8-6) sit tied for third in the East (alongside a Pacers team they lost to at the start of a 1-4 road trip) and the Raptors already own a 3.5-game cushion over the Celtics.

But if we’ve learned anything about these Celtics, it’s that they typically play their best basketball when they have something to prove. They’ve heard the whispers wondering if they are as good as they were made out to be and acknowledge that their play through 14 games has done little to suggest they are.

That could change quickly. Starting with tonight's visit from the Raptors, and continuing with Saturday at home against Utah, the Celtics can quickly reassert themselves as a championship-caliber squad and wash away much of the uneasiness from their uninspired start.

A very agreeable schedule through Christmas should only help the team further build momentum. But tonight's game is a statement game, a chance to not only atone for an early season loss in Toronto, but remind the rest of the league of Boston’s potential.

Maybe that’s why Kyrie Irving’s face lit up Wednesday when asked about the looming matchup with Toronto.

“Obviously, one game at a time, but that’s just a competitor’s dream to be going against the best of the best,” said Irving. “Obviously, early-season when we played them in Toronto it wasn’t who we are now, or what we’re trying to grow into. So I think it’ll just be a great test for us. They have a lot of great players that we all well know. So, just up for the challenge.”

No one is naive enough to think that all that ailed the Celtics was cured in one lopsided win over a lottery-bound Bulls team. But it was a nice jolt of confidence before Friday’s showdown. 

Tonight goes beyond the standings and it's much too early to get worked up about how seeding in the East will eventually look. Homecourt advantage is a luxury and something the team can jockey for in March and April. Regardless of tonight's outcome, the Celtics should be there pushing the Raptors and Bucks at the top of the East at season’s end (ESPN’s Basketball Power Index currently projects the Bucks, Raptors, and Celtics to finish with three of the four best records in the NBA, trailing only the Warriors).

Tonight is more a chance for Boston to really lock in, put together the sort of 48-minute effort they’ve so clearly lacked, and remind even themselves of how good they can be.

Boston’s NBA title odds have started slipping. NBA observers are fairly questioning if a healthy Leonard makes the Raptors the true favorite in the East. But just when everyone starts to discount the Celtics is when they typically start to play their best basketball.

Said Irving: “We just have to be up for the challenge. I’m excited for that game.”

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.


What's ailing Celtics' offense? These stats point to one main culprit

What's ailing Celtics' offense? These stats point to one main culprit

The Boston Celtics enter Friday's marquee matchup against the Toronto Raptors with the NBA's best defensive rating.

So, why have they lost four of their last six games? Simply put: Boston's offense isn't holding up its end of the bargain.

The Celtics currently rank 24th in the NBA in points scored per game (105.6) -- behind league doormats like the New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks -- and are shooting 42.9 percent from the floor, third-worst in the NBA.

Some of Boston's struggles can be contributed to rust; Gordon Hayward missed nearly 12 months of NBA action, after all. But ESPN NBA analyst and stat maven Kirk Goldsberry dug a little deeper to pinpoint the Celtics' biggest offensive weakness: their failure to score inside.

Here's Goldsberry's evidence: Boston ranks dead last in the NBA in points scored in the paint (37.6 per game), 29th in free throw attempts (19.1 per game) and 25th in offensive rebounding percentage (24.4 percent).

Those are very troubling numbers for the preseason favorite to win the Eastern Conference.

The good news for the Celtics is this isn't a personnel problem. Boston has a number of talented players who can get to the rim, most notably Kyrie Irving, who scored an average of 8.5 of his 20.7 points per game last season in the paint. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum both can beat defenders off the dribble, while Al Horford is an effective low-post scorer.

Through 14 games, though, the C's don't seem willing to take the ball inside. Just 31.9 percent of their shots have come from inside eight feet, per Goldsberry, the lowest percentage in the NBA. Meanwhile, they're averaging the third-most 3-point attempts in the league but rank just 10th in 3-point percentage, a gap that suggests Brad Stevens may want to take a hard look at his team's shot selection.

It's worth noting Boston ranked 29th in points in the paint last season while winning 55 games, so a lack of interior offense won't necessarily be its downfall. But if the C's are serious about contending for an NBA title -- and knocking off talented clubs like the Raptors -- they'll need to strike a better offensive balance.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.