Celtics

Which Celtics are best suited for bubble games in NBA playoffs?

Which Celtics are best suited for bubble games in NBA playoffs?

The big unknown as we wait for the NBA to restart its season inside the fan-less Disney bubble is how exactly players will respond to such a unique game experience.

It’s been suggested that the Boston Celtics, despite their relative youth, could be well-positioned to succeed in a bubble environment because of coach Brad Stevens’ ability to keep his team laser focused. At least one of his players buys this notion.

"The mindset is the most important,” said Enes Kanter. "The game of basketball is like 80 percent mental. If you’re off, it doesn’t matter how good of a player you are.”

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Stevens has repeatedly implored his players to stay one week away from their best shape and Kanter said that has forced players from letting their minds wander too far from basketball during this three-month pause in activity. 

"Even this [quarantine] period that we have, the past two, three months, I didn’t go like, ‘Woo, it’s a vacation.’ I did gain weight, I'm not going to lie, but my mindset [was there]. My body, of course, was healing and resting. But my mind was like, ‘OK, I’m going to play any minute. We can come back any minute.’ I think the Celtics did a really good job of makings sure [players stayed focused].”

So which Celtics players are best positioned to thrive in Orlando? Trying to determine how anyone will fare in a rather unprecedented game environment is guesswork at best. But that doesn’t mean we can hunt for clues.

For this exercise, we looked at Celtics’ players home/road splits this season for clues about how location might impact performance. Those players with little variance in stat lines would seemingly be ideal for a neutral-site game, able to block out the elements around them and focus on the task at hand.

Those players who had divergent splits, particularly those that soared at home and struggled on the road, would seemingly be less likely to thrive in the bubble while allowing performance to be impacted — positively or negatively — by environment.

A handful of splits that jumped out:

JAYSON TATUM Home/Road Splits

The epitome of evenness. Tatum’s stat lines are jarringly equal. Most impressively, his overall shooting was slightly better on the road and his 3-point percentage didn’t waver between locations. Six of his 10 double-doubles this year came on the road and he was generally more active in both rebounds and steals away from home.

Yes, the bigger question with Tatum is simply whether he can pick up the momentum he had before the season paused but, if he struggles, it shouldn’t be because of environment.

MARCUS SMART Home/Road Splits

Smart’s splits were as pronounced as any rotation player with his stat line slumping on the road. This isn’t exactly surprising considering Smart’s emotional nature and the way he tends to feed off the Garden crowd. But Smart shot 43.3 percent overall at home while averaging 15.3 points per game and that dove to 33 percent shooting and 11.8 points per game on the road.

Smart’s 3-point shooting also plummets, dipping from 38.2 percent at home to 31.3 percent on the road. Smart’s intensity rarely wavers but the Celtics need him to be a consistent offensive threat given their lack of experienced offensive weapons off the bench.

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DANIEL THEIS Home/Road Splits

Entering the exercise, we figured Theis might be one of the more varied splits. Surprisingly, he’s steady. His shooting does fall off a bit on the road — particularly beyond the 3-point arc. Alas, all five of his double-doubles have come on the road this season where he grabs 1.4 more rebounds per game. 

GORDON HAYWARD Home/Road Splits

Much like Tatum, Hayward is noticeably even based on location, his road scoring average slightly higher than his home. Hayward shoots better overall on the road but worse from beyond the arc. Like Theis, Hayward saves the majority of his big stat nights for the road (right, Timberwolves?)

Six of Hayward’s eight double-doubles this season came on the road.

GRANT WILLIAMS Home/Road Splits

It’s been well documented how role players tend to thrive at home and struggle on the road, especially in the postseason. It’s part of the reason why home-court advantage is so important to teams.

Williams needs to keep teams honest with his shot in order to be a rotation presence in the playoffs. He didn’t shoot the ball well at either location but shooting sub-40 percent overall and 22 percent beyond the 3-point arc on the road doesn’t inspire confidence.

KEMBA WALKER Home/Road Splits

Another Celtics starter with very steady splits (and you can add Jaylen Brown to that list, too). The big question with Walker is how he responds to the playoffs stage, having appeared in only 11 postseason games for his NBA career.

His collegiate exploits are a testament to his abilities on big stages. His splits suggest the location won’t matter when he gets a chance to taste postseason ball with the most talented group of teammates he’s ever had.

ENES KANTER Home/Road Splits

Another role player who tends to thrive more at home than on the road. Kanter averages 9.5 points on 62.5 percent shooting in Boston, and that dips to 6.8 points on 49.7 percent shooting on the road. Matchups are probably more important than environment with Kanter but he’ll have to adapt to having no crowd to feed off.

ROBERT WILLIAMS Home/Road Splits

An extra half-block per game on the road for Time Lord, who also shot markedly better on the road. Now, all of this might be a product of that one big game in San Antonio but since it conveniently fits our argument that Williams can emerge as an X-factor for the restart Celtics, we had to mention it here.

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Jayson Tatum, Celtics officially playoff ready after win vs. Grizzlies

Jayson Tatum, Celtics officially playoff ready after win vs. Grizzlies

Jayson Tatum, sporting some sort of cyborg, choke-sign Reggie Miller T-shirt that Indiana native Brad Stevens would certainly approve of, plopped down in a chair for his postgame Zoom conference Tuesday night and was asked to assess Boston’s postseason preparedness.

"I think we’re ready,” Tatum declared, hammering home what Boston’s play over the past four games had already confirmed.

The Celtics can comfortably put their core players in, ahem, bubble wrap for Thursday’s seeding-game finale against the Washington Wizards. Everything has fallen into place for Boston over the past week, not the least of which is August Tatum playing like February Tatum while scoring a game-high 29 points on 10-of-13 shooting over 29 minutes as the Celtics handed a desperate Grizzlies team a 122-107 loss on Tuesday night.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Wizards, which begins Thursday at 11 a.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at noon. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

The Celtics, sluggish and rust-filled early in the bubble experience, have clicked on most cylinders the past seven days. The ball has zipped around the court, the team displaying increased ball movement and highlight-quality passing that has keyed Boston’s offensive surge, which includes owning the second best offensive rating in the bubble (120.3, trailing only playoff-pushing Portland).

When one of Boston’s usual offensive weapons has had a rough night, others have stepped forward. Case in point: As Jaylen Brown labored through a 3-for-13 shooting performance Tuesday, Gordon Hayward — his bubble alter ego Stache Gordon slowly emerging — shook off his own 3-point woes to put up 19 points behind four triples. Tatum hit some absurdly tough shots (negating his five turnovers) and Kemba Walker showed more signs of being back to the All-Star form from the start of the season.

Walker put a Grizzlies defender on skates with a ruthless jab-step pull-up late in the fourth quarter. Later he noted, "Today is probably the best I’ve felt out there. I was really comfortable making my moves and stuff like that.” The next time Walker plays, the minute restriction that caused some of Boston’s early bubble turbulence will be a thing of the past. And it’s no coincidence that, as that restriction loosened, Boston started to find its groove.

Boston’s net rating inside the bubble is now plus-10.3, second only to the undefeated Phoenix Suns. The next closest Eastern Conference team is Toronto at plus-3.7.

“We’ve definitely come a long way, and we’re gelling really well,” said Walker. "Having fun, competing at a very high level.”

Not only has Boston’s core players looked ready to go but the team has found a little something in its complementary pieces as well. Second-year big man Robert Williams, who did little to kick down the playing-time door during scrimmage work, has been a revelation the past four games. He went from not getting off the bench in Boston’s early seeding games to putting together four straight eyebrow-raising efforts. In that span, Williams has averaged 11.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks over 14.8 minutes per game. He’s made 19 of his 23 shot attempts (82.6 percent) with many of his finishes coming north of the rim.

Stevens' bench, once perilously thin, looks like it can confidently lean on at least four options in the postseason. Smart and Brad Wanamaker will handle backup guard minutes while Williams and Enes Kanter should split center reps based on matchups. Stevens can mix in the occasional doses of Semi Ojeleye or Grant Williams or Romeo Langford on nights he must go deeper.

The Celtics have proven they can hang with the best of the Eastern Conference, putting a scare into Milwaukee despite spotting them a big early lead early in scrimmage play, and taking down Toronto at the height of their bubble buzz.

A matchup with injury-battered Philadelphia seems inevitable to open the playoffs. The Sixers still have plenty of talent, including old friend Al Horford, but the absence of Ben Simmons, and some uncertainty about the health of Joel Embiid, makes Philadelphia a far more agreeable foe than maybe it seemed even a week ago.

Boston’s improved level of play has helped boost the team’s confidence as well, regardless of first-round opponent.

“Obviously, we continue to get better, and I think we have from Game 1 playing down here to now,” said Tatum. "I think we just continue to get better each and every game, and that’s what you want this time of year, to continue to get better at the right time of the season.”

Barring the bizarre during Thursday’s matinee finale, the Celtics will head into the postseason playing some inspired ball and operating with a contender’s confidence.

The last four games haven’t been perfect but the Celtics have shown their potential during them. With Stevens’ ability to hone in on an opponent and an added level of focus required by the postseason, Boston has a chance to take its play even a level higher.

The last four games have shown that the Celtics are ready for what’s next.

Stars, Studs and Duds from Celtics' impressive win over Grizzlies

Stars, Studs and Duds from Celtics' impressive win over Grizzlies

With the No. 3 spot locked up and no chance of moving up or down, there was not a ton of incentive for the Boston Celtics in their next-to-last seeding game, against the Memphis Grizzlies.

But you would have thought it was the Celtics -- not the Grizzlies -- who were playing for their postseason lives.

This Celtics team has shown itself to be more than just one of the best teams talent-wise we’ve seen since Brad Stevens took over in 2013.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Wizards, which begins Thursday at 11 a.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at noon. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Watching the way this group has grown throughout the season and even more so during the league’s restart in Orlando, Fla., the Celtics have shown a level of focus on the task at hand – winning games – that has allowed them to not just survive in the Bubble but thrive against any and all the competition.

The latest to fall by the wayside against the Celtics was the Grizzlies, who were no match for Boston as the Celtics pulled away for a comfortable 122-107 win.

It was a performance that like so many we’ve seen of late from Boston, consisted of players stepping up to contribute in a multitude of ways.

And the Grizzlies, one of the feel-good stories of the season, were unable to make it much of a game.

STARS
Jayson Tatum: Memphis became the latest team that simply had no answer on how to contain Tatum. He led all scorers with 29 points in addition to grabbing six rebounds.

Ja Morant: For most of this season, Morant has been the best first-year player in the NBA. You can chalk up Tuesday’s game as yet another strong performance by Morant who led the Grizzlies with a double-double of 26 points and 13 assists.

Kemba Walker: After a rough game against Orlando, Walker bounced back with an efficient game with 19 points coming on 7-for-10 shooting to go with four rebounds and three assists. 

STUDS
Marcus Smart: He put up a near double-double of 11 points and nine assists, but Smart’s impact was so much greater. His floor leadership, attention to detail, defense, intensity ... Smart brought it all to the floor and the Celtics were so much better off for it.

Jonas Valenciunas: If there’s one area of concern for the Celtics going forward, it has been the ability of opposing big men to put up big games with most of their work getting done around the rim. Valenciunas had a double-double of 14 points and 10 rebounds.

Robert Williams III: The days of being in and out of the lineup because of ineffective play or injuries appear to be behind Williams. He didn’t play a ton of minutes but Williams once again made his mark, finishing with 10 points, seven rebounds and three blocked shots in just 14 minutes of court time.

Brandon Clarke: The play of Clarke is one of the many reasons why the Grizzlies feel their best days are ahead of them. Clarke had 15 points on 7-for-14 shooting to go with six rebounds and a blocked shot.

DUDS
Daniel Theis
: One of the not-so-bright spots for Boston was the play of Theis who had two points on 1-for-3 shooting along with struggles defensively.