Celtics

Superlatives for the Celtics at the midway point of the season

Superlatives for the Celtics at the midway point of the season

BOSTON -- The Boston Celtics (25-16) are officially at the midway point of the season after dropping a 115-99 loss at Miami.

And at this point in the season, it’s time to reminisce a bit about how things have fared not only for the team but also for the individual players.

With that, we have a few team superlatives to hand out.

Drum roll please …

Most Improved - Marcus Morris

There are other players on this Boston Celtics team who are better players than Marcus Morris. But no one has been as valuable to this team’s success this season. And he has done it by elevating his play in all phases of his game, resulting in a breakout season that has been instrumental in keeping the Celtics afloat in terms of being one of the better teams record-wise in the East. The challenge for Morris going forward is to continue to be an impactful scorer in mid-range, off-the-dribble and behind the 3-point line along with being a solid defender. If he continues to do those things and the wins continue to pile up, it won’t be long before Morris enters the conversation for the league’s Most Improved Player award.

Future All-Star - Jayson Tatum

Fans were giddy at the start of the season that Jayson Tatum would pick up where he left off in the playoffs and emerge as an All-Star alongside Kyrie Irving. Tatum’s numbers for the season have been solid, but his play hasn’t elevated to where he’s a major player in the All-Star discussion. But the fans certainly are high on Tatum’s potential, evident by him currently sitting fourth in the fans' All-Star voting among frontcourt players. The top three finishers will start in next month’s All-Star Game, which will be voted upon by fans (50 percent), media (25 percent) and players (25 percent). It’s unlikely that Tatum will be voted in by the fans (he trails third-place Joel Embiid of Philly by more than one million votes) or picked by the coaches unless Boston really starts to rack up the wins between now and the All-Star break and he plays well during that stretch.

Rising Star - Marcus Smart

Smart has established himself as one of the NBA’s better defenders, but we’re seeing him prove he can do more than just contest shots - he can make some, too. Smart, a career 29.9 percent 3-point shooter, is connecting on a career-high 35.0 percent which includes knocking down 4-of-8 attempts in Thursday’s loss to Miami. Smart’s ability to make teams pay from beyond the 3-point line does more than just get him a few more points than usual. It opens up the floor in a way that makes this Celtics offense, and his role in it, far more potent and difficult to defend.

Most Underrated - Aron Baynes

He doesn’t play a ton of minutes, but there is no mistaking the value Aron Baynes has for this Boston Celtics roster. We see it in his defense which has been among the NBA’s best for the past year and a half. But it also stands out when he’s not around, which is the case now as he continues to be on the mend from a left metacarpal fracture that will keep him sidelined at least until the middle or latter stages of next week. Baynes brings a physicality without fouling to the floor that can’t be replicated by any of his teammates. And while he doesn’t play a lot of minutes, Baynes’ ability as a defender often slows down or stops potential runs altogether before they even start, a talent that often goes unnoticed. Thursday’s loss to the Miami Heat is an example of where Baynes’ presence was definitely needed. Miami’s ability to get into the paint and finish with little to no resistance was a major factor in the loss. The same holds true for Miami enjoying a decisive 51-37 advantage in rebounds. He doesn’t clean all of that up. But again, his presence and overall impact sure would have helped Boston on Thursday.

On the rise - Robert Williams III

After a not-so-great start that included a missed flight, missed practice and the losing of his wallet twice, there was plenty of room for Williams to grow as a Celtic. And to his credit, we have seen the improvement in both his play on the court and limiting young, rookie-like mistakes off of it. Playing time early on came about because of injuries to the team’s other bigs. But as we saw more and more of Williams play, figuring out why the Celtics took a flyer on him with the 27th overall pick began to make more and more sense. He’s a long, athletic big man with a penchant for pinning shots on the glass or swatting them two or three rows deep. And on this Celtics roster, they don’t have anyone who can protect the rim the way Williams can, or run the floor and finish above-the-rim as well as he has shown the ability to do right now. He still makes mistakes defensively, blows an assignment, and at times isn’t where he needs to be on offense. But the potential and promise he has shown when given an opportunity to play is proof-positive that his best days in the NBA are indeed ahead of him.

Super sub - Gordon Hayward

This isn’t quite where we thought Hayward would be for the Celtics this season. But lately, moving Hayward to the bench has been a huge plus for Boston. He has shared the playmaking duties with Terry Rozier off the bench, and - Thursday’s debacle in Miami aside - has shown more confidence in looking to score whether it be from behind the 3-point arc, on mid-range jumpers, or occasionally getting to the rim for a layup (still working up to dunking on folks!). It remains to be seen whether Hayward will come off the bench for the rest of the season. But so far, he has looked very much like a reliable sixth man with the potential to dominate play on any given night.

Best player - Kyrie Irving

This was by far the easiest award to hand out for this team. Kyrie Irving is one of the top players in the NBA who is a ball-handling highlight reel every time he steps on the floor. He leads the Celtics with 22.6 points per game to go along with 6.4 assists and 4.8 rebounds while shooting 40.6 percent on 3’s and 49 percent from the field. We know about his scoring ability, which is fueled by his ankle-breaking handle that has left many a defender befuddled. But what has really set Irving apart this season has been his defense. He was known for many things during his time with Cleveland. Solid defense was not one of them. But in Boston, Irving has embraced the defensive teachings of the Celtics to the point where he has been among the team leaders at that end of the floor, whether it be communicating with one another or his play, which has been among the best defense played by any of the Celtics this season. Indeed, Irving is having a breakout season defensively with a defensive rating of 103.1. Combine that with efficient scoring and you have the makings of a matchup nightmare for most teams, most nights.

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Escape route: Celtics' Marcus Morris and Brad Wanamaker escape mean streets of Philly in getting to NBA

Escape route: Celtics' Marcus Morris and Brad Wanamaker escape mean streets of Philly in getting to NBA

When it comes to speaking the truth, Marcus Morris is about as straight-no-chaser as they come. 

So as Boston gears up to face his hometown Philadelphia 76ers tonight, it’s an ideal time to reflect upon how far the North Philly native has come from THE humble surroundings that could have easily derailed his promising basketball career, as it did so many young men he grew up with at that time. 

“I have a lot of friends that did time in jail at a young age; 17, 18 years old and did five, six years and came home as a grown up,” Morris told NBC Sports Boston.

Those times have helped shape Morris’ outlook on life both on and off the court, forging a level of mental toughness in him that has allowed him to easily shrug off rough basketball nights while not getting too elated over good ones. 

“Basketball has been amazing,” Morris said. “Basketball gave me a platform to go back to the youth and show that it’s possible; it’s possible.”

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He’s hoping those amazing times will only get better with the Celtics looking to close out the regular season strong.

Tonight's game would indeed be another step in that direction as they attempt to sweep the season series from Philadelphia for the third time in the last four years.

While such dominance makes talk of a rivalry difficult to palate, Boston guard Brad Wanamaker knows it's always special whenever these two Eastern Conference foes hook up. 

Like Morris, Wanamaker is also from North Philly.  And like Morris, basketball became his escape from troubled surroundings as well. 

Crime. Drugs. Violence. Wanamaker had seen it all at a young age.

“My family . . . they were heavy in the drug game,” Wanamaker told NBC Sports Boston.

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But that all changed courtesy of his older brother, James Samuel. 

“My older brother was the first one that I really saw that had a job; like a 9-5 job. That was like a positive in my life. My twin brother (Brian) and my sisters (Crystal and Latisha),  we used him as our role model in a way that . . . we don’t have to go down that other path.”

For Wanamaker, the path towards success involved playing basketball. 

After a standout career at Philadelphia’s Roman Catholic High School, Wanamaker went on to the University of Pittsburgh, where he established himself as one of the Big East's top players along with being an honorable mention All-American. 

But the NBA wasn't sold on his talent and he went undrafted in 2011. 

He would eventually take his talents overseas where he found tremendous success, racking up championships and MVP honors in the process. 

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Still clinging to his dream of playing in the NBA, the 29-year-old Wanamaker spoke about how those tough times as a youth, the prospect of not being drafted and now being on an NBA roster but playing sparingly, has tested his mental resolve in ways he would have never dreamed of before. 

“It’s the toughest [expletive] I’ve had to deal with in my life,” Wanamaker, referring to not playing much for the Celtics, told NBC Sports Boston. “Basketball is my escape from everything.”

This season, Wanamaker has appeared in 30 games for Boston, averaging 3.4 points and 1.3 assists while shooting 44.3 percent from the field and 50 percent on 3's in 8.7 minutes per game. 

However, having seen and lived through some of the many challenges that kids who grow up in North Philly endure, Wanamaker isn’t tripping at all about not playing more. 

“I’ve seen a lot worse than not playing in a basketball game,” he said. 

And whenever he’s feeling down about his lack of playing time, Morris is often the first to cheer him up or, at a minimum, reminisce about their days playing together on the same AAU team.

Back then, they were playing to win for their team and showcase what they could do as players. These days, both acknowledge that they play the game for something bigger than their own personal agenda.

"There's so few of us in the NBA from Philadelphia, every time I step on the floor I gotta represent," Morris said in a separate interview with NBC Sports Boston.

Wanamaker echoed a similar sentiment.

“Not only am I playing for myself, but I’m playing for my family back home,” Wanamaker said. “My family back home and a lot of my homies who picked up the game and didn’t make it this far. I always tell people all the time, it’s bigger than me. I put the work in day-in, day out, to try and keep working to get out on the court. But I’m doing this for more than just me; I never forget that, never.”

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What advice did Celtics' Jayson Tatum give the Kings' De'Aaron Fox?

What advice did Celtics' Jayson Tatum give the Kings' De'Aaron Fox?

Jayson Tatum has found both individual and team success early in his NBA career. The Celtics forward was third in rookie of the year voting last season and his team reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

So, with one playoff run under his belt, he's passing on advice that an NBA postseason is a different animal to the Sacramento Kings' De'Aaron Fox, a player whose team - until a recent slump - was hoping to snag the final Western Conference spot and get him his first taste of the playoffs.

On the "Road Trippin'" podcast with ex-NBAer Doug Christie, now a Kings broadcaster, Fox, selected two picks after Tatum at fifth overall out of Kentucky in 2017 by Sacramento, said his fellow 21-year-old imparted his playoff wisdom while the two were on a tour of China last summer with Nike.

"All these old cats saying, 'Oh the playoffs is night and day. It's not the same,' " Fox said. "And I'm like, 'yeah, whatever.' But now that I have a peer that went through it, he's like, 'Man, playoffs is crazy.' And he went to Game 7, conference finals! He's like, 'the playoffs and regular season, it's NOT the same." 

Here's a clip via uninterrupted.com: 

It appears Fox may have to wait at least another season to see the difference after the Kings (34-35) have dropped seven of their past 10 and began Tuesday six games behind the Clippers for the eighth spot in the West.

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.