Celtics

Team USA prepares for familiar foe: Greece's Giannis Antetokounmpo

Team USA prepares for familiar foe: Greece's Giannis Antetokounmpo

BOSTON — When it comes to NBA players, Giannis Antetokounmpo is as good as it gets. 

He has length, size, athleticism, pogo stick-like leaping ability. 

And oh yeah, he’s the reigning league MVP and the focal point of the Greek National Team which is on to the medal round of play for the FIBA World Cup where they will face Team USA on Saturday. 

The World Cup is full of talented players who have kept their talents overseas, forcing Team USA to do quicker studies of opponents that they never see play with regularity.

But Giannis? 

Uh, they know him well — better than they wish they did. 

Because as we saw last season, Antetokounmpo is already one of the leagues’ top players whose game, as good as it is now, has clear and undeniable levels of which he can clearly get better, be more dominant and in doing so, become an even bigger problem than he is now for opponents.

“Giannis is pretty special as far as good players are concerned,” said Team USA head coach Gregg Popovich. “But when they play for their countries, we like to say that they become superheroes. They get together and ... they fall in love with each other, they enjoy playing with each other.”

Chemistry was indeed one of the chief concerns for Team USA heading into pool play which ended with a 98-45 win over Japan to cap off an undefeated 3-0 record. 

But the loss to Australia in exhibition play soon followed by a 93-92 overtime win over Turkey in pool play has galvanized this team in a way that has made them better and even more complete. 

“We haven’t been together very long,” said Popovich, who added, “and I think our players are enjoying playing with each other and understanding that consistency is necessary and what we have to do as a team to be successful.”

And while much of the build-up to the Team USA vs Greece game will center on Antetokounmpo, Team USA players know all too well that spending too much time locking in on one player is a sure-fire way of setting themselves up for a loss if they’re not smart about the preparation process.  

“For us, understanding that he's a great player, he's obviously the MVP, but it's not just him on that team,” said Team USA and Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell. “They have other guys on that team who can really get going and we've got to be able to lock everybody down and pressure defensively and I think we'll be in good shape.”

The Greek roster includes players who have spent some time in the NBA, such as 7-foot-2 center Georgios Papagiannis who was a former NBA lottery pick in 2016, and point guard Nick Calathes. 

Khris Middleton knows all too well the challenge of balancing the proper amount of attention to pay to his Milwaukee Bucks teammate, while not letting his Antetokounmpo’s teammates get too comfortable. 

“He (Antetokounmpo) is the MVP, but at the same time, they do have other great players on that team,” Middleton said. “They have a couple of bigs, a couple of shooters, so it’s not just all about Giannis. He’s a smart player. He knows how to use his teammates, so you can't just focus all on him.”

And if anyone knows that lesson, it’s Team Shamrock. 

Jaylen Brown, one of four Celtics players on Team USA, was asked about that experience of having played against Antetokounmpo in the playoffs and whether that gives Team USA an edge.

“I guess we’ll see pretty soon,” said Brown who wasn’t offering up anything close to bulletin board material for the Greek Freak and his teammates. “I’m looking forward to it.” 

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Celtics vs. Kings Instant Overreactions: C's starting to feel Gordon Hayward's absence?

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AP photo

Celtics vs. Kings Instant Overreactions: C's starting to feel Gordon Hayward's absence?

The Boston Celtics had their 10-game win streak snapped on Sunday as they fell to the Sacramento Kings, 100-99.

It came down to the final buzzer as Marcus Smart's last-second floater hung on the rim, but failed to fall into the basket.

Here are three instant overreactions from the loss, which brings the C's to 10-2 on the season:

1. The C's are starting to feel Gordon Hayward's absence.

Verdict: Overreaction

The Celtics have looked out of sync offensively in their last couple of games. Friday night's close call vs. the lowly Golden State Warriors left plenty to be desired, and their struggles in Sunday's loss didn't do much to inspire confidence either as they turned the ball over 14 times.

If we see one or two more lackluster performances like this on the West Coast road trip, it may be time to start counting down the days until Hayward's return. But for now, I'm willing to give the C's talented offensive unit the benefit of the doubt.

2. Jaylen Brown and Buddy Hield both are showing they're worth every penny.

Verdict: Not an overreaction

Jaylen Brown finished with 18 points and eight rebounds, going 4-for-7 from 3-point range. Once again, he was one of Boston's standout performers on the offensive side and is backing up his statement about his game improving.

As for Hield, he continues to reward the Kings for signing him to a four-year, $86 million contract extension last month. The Celtics simply had no answer for the Indiana product, who dropped 35 points while going 7-for-12 in 3-pointers. Hield also drilled a key 3 late in the fourth quarter to help Sacramento come out on top.

3. Semi Ojeleye is the new Steph Curry.

Verdict: Not an overreaction

OK, fine, it may be a SLIGHT overreaction. Still, Ojeleye surprised everyone by going 3-for-4 from beyond the arc and tallying 11 points off the bench. He was one of the bright spots in the Celtics' disappointing loss.

Don’t miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Suns, which tips off Monday at 8 p.m. ET with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Scal have the call of the game at 9 p.m. You can also stream the game through the MyTeams App.

Celtics-Kings Takeaways: C's 10-game win streak snapped in Sacramento

Celtics-Kings Takeaways: C's 10-game win streak snapped in Sacramento

So. Close. 

Marcus Smart’s potential game-winning floater as time expired hit seemingly every part of the rim, paused for a moment before rolling out as time expired in Boston’s 100-99 loss to Sacramento. 

‘It was a good look in that moment,” Boston’s Brad Stevens told reporters after the loss. 

The loss snapped Boston’s 10-game winning streak, in addition to preventing them from being the first team in NBA history to win 11 in a row after dropping the season opener.

Sacramento (5-7), after dropping their first five games this season, have now won five of their last seven with the lone losses being a road game at defending NBA champion Toronto and a controversial defeat to the Los Angeles Lakers.  

After spending most of the first half playing catch-up, the Celtics — in all-too predictable form — swung the game’s momentum in their favor in the third quarter to take a 75-71 lead into the fourth quarter despite the offensive fireworks put on by Sacramento’s Buddy Hield (game-high 35 points). 

In the fourth, Boston’s slim lead didn’t last long with the Kings tying the game at 75 less than a minute into the quarter, only for Carsen Edwards to drain a 3-pointer to put Boston back on top, 78-75.

Things remained close for the rest of the game before Smart’s potential game-winner rolled out as time expired.  

Here are some takeaways from Boston’s one-point loss at Sacramento.

KEMBA IN THE FOURTH QUARTER

We have come to expect the best from Kemba Walker when the game matters most: the fourth quarter. That was not the case on Sunday, with Walker going scoreless in the fourth quarter to finish with just 15 points. You certainly love the season-high nine assists he tallied, but Walker’s greatest impact on this team night-in, night-out is his scoring down the stretch.

BUDDY HIELD 

The Kings gave Hield a four-year contract extension worth as much as $106 million, and he showed on Sunday why he's worth every penny. Time and time again, he came up with one big shot after another while often being draped by Boston's best perimeter defender — and one of the best in the NBA — Marcus Smart.  Hield led all scorers with 35 points on an efficient 14-for-24 shooting performance from the field.

TURNOVERS

One of the biggest keys to the Celtics’ fast start to the season has been their ability to limit their mistakes. They came into Sunday’s game averaging a league-low 11.7 per game. On Sunday, the Celtics committed 12 of their 15 turnovers in the first half alone.

SEMI (OJELEYE) AUTOMATIC

Ojeleye hit a big 3-pointer in the second quarter, capping off a 7-0 Celtics run to bring Boston within four points (36-32) with 6:30 to play in the first half. He would finish the day with 11 points on 4-for-5 shooting from the field, including a career-high-tying three 3-pointers. It was indeed a breakout scoring game for Ojeleye who came into Sunday’s game having scored just 14 points in Boston’s 11 games this season. 

THEIS IS NICE

While his play doesn’t necessarily find a home on the Celtics’ highlight reel, there’s no getting around the impact that Daniel Theis continues to make on this team. Usually he does it by excelling at intangibles such as setting screens, boxing out and rolling to the basket. But on Sunday, Theis’s impact was made in the more traditional sense: getting points. He finished with a season-high 14 points and 10 rebounds for his first double-double this season. It was also the second time in the last three games Theis has reached double figures scoring. 

LINE ‘EM UP

The Celtics did not shoot the ball well against the Kings, but their aggressive play offensively led to a number of trips to the free throw line, which was a huge difference-maker in the game’s outcome. For the game, the Celtics were 21-for-24 from the line, compared to the Kings who were just 10-for-12 at the free throw line, which included Richaun Holmes’ game-winning free throws with 13.3 seconds to play. 

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Don’t miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Suns, which tips off Monday at 8 p.m. ET with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Scal have the call of the game at 9 p.m. You can also stream the game through the MyTeams App.