Celtics Mailbag

Celtics Mailbag: Resetting expectations and the importance of seeding

Celtics Mailbag: Resetting expectations and the importance of seeding

The Boston Celtics had their seven-game winning streak snapped Tuesday night in Houston during an eyesore of a game filled with whistles and free throws.

In the bigger picture, the Celtics remain on a 57-win pace and are positioned to challenge the Raptors for the coveted No. 2 spot in the Eastern Conference — assuming Toronto ever loses again. 

We start this week’s Celtics Mailbag by resetting expectations for Boston’s hoopsters with nearly two-thirds of the season in the rearview mirror and the All-Star break approaching.

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Earlier in the season, it felt like the Celtics' bar was set at the conference semifinals. Lately it seems more like conference finals, if not the NBA Finals. Do games like Tuesday’s loss in Houston change that?

We’ll dive a little deeper into that Rockets mess later, but let’s just say that we look at that contest a lot like opening night in Philadelphia in the sense that it was much too jagged of a game to truly pull any hard conclusions. 

Zoom out, and the Celtics rank fifth in the NBA in offensive rating and third in defensive rating 53 games into the 2019-20 season. Boston is third in both net rating (plus-6.8) and point differential (plus-6.9), trailing only the conference-leading Bucks and Lakers in both categories. 

ESPN’s Basketball Power Index ranks Boston fourth overall, and behind only the Bucks in the East. That computer model gives Boston a 37 percent chance of making the East finals and a 9.4 percent chance of making the NBA Finals.

Essentially, despite all their injuries, the Celtics project as a legitimate contender out of the East. Despite only scratching the surface of their potential, Boston lingers among the league’s elite.

Much of Boston’s postseason success, however, could ultimately hinge on seeding.

If the playoffs started Wednesday, Boston would be the No. 3 in the East and draw a first-round matchup with an Indiana team that could be especially dangerous once Victor Oladipo shakes his rust and the Pacers start playing to their own potential.

Even a first-round victory would still send Boston to Toronto for a second-round matchup against the defending champs, who are currently riding a 15-game wining streak. That’s a daunting path just to get to the East finals, where a potentially 70+ win Bucks team could be waiting.

All of which makes Boston's final 29 games of the season particularly important. Not only do the Celtics need a good run of health to identify roles and figure out how their pieces work best together, they'll also be jockeying for seeding. 

Boston currently sits 2.5 games behind No .2 seed Toronto and two games ahead of No. 4 seed Miami. BPI projections have the Raptors finishing second in the East but the Heat a distant fourth, though it's fair to wonder if their trade deadline activity could help push their win total a little higher.

Working against Boston: The Celtics have the eighth-hardest remaining schedule in the NBA. The Raptors have the 20th-hardest, while the Heat have the 28th-hardest.

A trip to Toronto in late March and a couple games versus Miami in April will go a long way to sorting out the seeding, and that could go a long way towards deciding how the East shakes out.

Now, to the mailbag.

THE ROCKETS GAME 

I would have preferred to not watch players shoot free throws for three hours. — @Jate57

Thank goodness I only have to watch them play the Rockets one more time this year. — @BSolomonsHood

I usually roll my eyes when people complain about watching the Rockets, but Tuesday night was BRUTAL. We’re admittedly curious to see if Houston’s super-small-ball approach is sustainable — we think it is in the regular season but are less bullish about the playoffs — but if it means watching James Harden and Russell Westbrook live at the charity stripe, we’ll be content to monitor this experiment from the postgame box score.

Refs were never gonna let Boston win that game … period. — @KG10247201

It’s too easy to look at a 42-25 disparity in free throws and suggest the referees dictated this game. We’d make the case that Boston’s putrid half-court offense hindered this team far more than the whistles. So did the team’s propensity for biting on pump fakes and stumbling into shooters.

The Celtics actually got a fair amount of fourth-quarter whistles and nearly fouled out Harden but he’d already done his damage during that third-quarter scoring barrage. The Rockets shot 28.9 percent beyond the 3-point arc and the Celtics bailed them out with their fouling ways. Yes, some calls were ticky-tack and we get Marcus Smart’s frustrations, but the Celtics rank 24th in the NBA in opponent free-throw attempt rate so this isn’t a one-off issue.

Why do we keep playing guys that are not 100% healthy and then watch them re-injure themselves? — @cabdulmassih

We can’t sit here and lament Boston never having all of its horses and then stomp our feet when guys try to tough it out. Brown looked plenty spry knocking down a barrage of corner 3s that helped the Celtics hang around. What’s more, the calf bruise he suffered late wasn’t connected to his ankle ailments. That said, the All-Star break undoubtedly will be helpful in letting many of these bumps and bruises heal. 

THE BUYOUT MARKET

Just heard your soundbite on Felger and Mazz and I want whatever drugs you're on. Come on, dude, to say that the Celtics couldn’t get Marvin Williams because of Vincent Poirier's roster spot is so ridiculous. — @Aperez8261

Are you an idiot? We couldn’t get Marvin Williams because we didn’t want to part with Carsen Edwards or Poirier? What a joke! Felger is right about Danny Ainge, and all of you who cover the team. God forbid we get rid of those suck bags. Keep drinking the green Kool-Aid, you moron. — @ogduckboy

Twitter has to be the only place where you can routinely start a conversation with a stranger with, “Are you an idiot?” A couple of things this idiot would note:

1) I didn’t hear the bite they played but I’m guessing it’s from the conversation we had Monday on Boston Sports Tonight, when I was asked who the Celtics would most likely waive if they desired to add a buyout player. While identifying Poirier and Edwards as likely candidates, I made the point that you'd better be convinced that the player you’re adding is going to be part of your rotation before you go giving up on young players. We fully admit  the jury is still very much out on what Edwards or Poirier will develop into, but if you’re going to trash all the time and energy you’ve already invested, you should at least make sure the rental player you add is going to contribute. We were fully on board with moving a depth piece at the deadline to add to this bench so we are far from anti-buyout -- but only if it’s for an impact pickup.

2) Marvin Williams chose to the go to the Bucks because Milwaukee might win 70+ games and is the clear favorite in the East. He went to Milwaukee despite Kemba Walker’s recruitment. His decision had nothing to do with Boston’s willingness to cut from the end of their roster and had everything to do with wanting to play for a surefire contender.

EVERYTHING ELSE

Why hasn’t anyone told Tatum that he needs to shave?  The worst looking beard in the NBA. — @peteroneilma

Woah, woah. There’s some terrible facial hair in the NBA. The poor guy just got his beard to connect this summer. Can we let him grow it out a bit and figure out what’s next? I’m guessing he’ll be plenty cleaned up for his closeups at All-Star weekend.

Brad Wanamaker reminds me of Eddie House. — @priley212

Wanamaker is to transition buckets what House was to open 3-pointers. But steady bench players are always a luxury, particularly given the youth at the end of Boston’s roster.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Clippers-Celtics, which begins Thursday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live. You can also stream on the MyTeams App.

Celtics Mailbag: Kobe Bryant's legacy, trade chatter, and All-Star reserves

Celtics Mailbag: Kobe Bryant's legacy, trade chatter, and All-Star reserves

This is quite a week for the Boston Celtics.

They got their first glimpse of Zion Williamson on Sunday, have a South Beach showdown with a primary rival for the No. 2 spot in the East on Tuesday, and host the Philadelphia 76ers in a primetime battle on Saturday night.

On Thursday, All-Star reserves will be announced and we’ll find out if Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown muscled their way into their first appearance.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Heat, which begins Tuesday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live. You can also stream it on the MyTeams App.

Through it all, a lot of fans’ thoughts remain on the tragic passing of Kobe Bryant and his part in the Celtics-Lakers rivalry. That’s where we start this week’s Celtics Mailbag: 

What was Kobe’s best moment at TD Garden? — @PlatanoGuy

Bryant’s last visit to TD Garden in December 2015 was incredible because of the way he was received. This was a player who broke the hearts of Boston fans, particularly in the 2010 NBA Finals, and he got deafening cheers on enemy soil. While there was plenty of purple and gold in the building that night, it was just a neat moment to see a rival fan base showing its respect to Bryant while celebrating his career.

Watch lineup introductions from that game and tell me it doesn’t give you goosebumps to hear that roar. And then it’s just perfect when Boston fans boo him the first time he touches the ball. Just an amazing experience. 

As far as most important victory at the Garden, the Lakers winning Game 3 of the 2010 Finals, after Boston had stolen Game 2 out west, was critical to that series. Bryant had 29 points that night in 44 minutes of action. He didn’t shoot the ball well, a theme in the series, but with three games in Boston, the Lakers needed that one and he went and got it for them.

Was Kobe the greatest pure scorer in NBA history? — @tom_steely

The 33,643 career points certainly put him in the conversation, but I think Bryant’s legacy will go far beyond scoring. His absurd competitiveness, his unrelenting desire to win, and his take-no-prisoners style of play is what we remember more than just his absurd offensive arsenal.

Kevin Garnett tells the story about how the Lakers won Game 7 in 2010 because Bryant eventually realized he couldn’t win the game on his own that night. Bryant found ways to impact the game beyond his offense and it hammered home how winning was always the most important thing to him. As Brad Stevens suggested Sunday, for this current generation of NBA players, Kobe was their Michael Jordan. 

How could they play games Sunday? So [messed] up. Only money matters? I bleed green and I remain gutted. A dad taking his daughter to her game. How can Adam Silver justify it? — @jljedgemere1

There’s no denying the impact the news of Bryant’s passing had on players throughout the league. I think Gordon Hayward said it well after Sunday’s game when he noted he wouldn’t have been upset if the NBA postponed the games. Alas, it was hard to fathom how the league could erase that day’s slate and find a way to make up all the games.

It’s one thing to postpone Lakers-Clippers when there will be ample opportunities to get two teams based in L.A. together again. Getting Boston back to New Orleans would have been a real logistical challenge. Alas, there’s no denying the product didn’t look the same given the day’s events.

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TRADE WINDS

The current roster seems effective enough for the regular season, but do you think reinforcements are needed for the playoffs, when flaws are more quickly exposed? — @MikeDynon

We’d argue that, given all the team's injuries, Boston could really benefit from having one more experienced role player right now. Someone who could potentially hold down the 8th or 9th spot in the playoffs but also be able to play a larger role while navigating the remaining slate.

The fact that Boston played as well as it did against the Lakers — putting together some of its best basketball when 1) As close to fully healthy as it's been and 2) Playing with a shortened rotation — is an encouraging sign about the team's playoff potential. And yet we can’t shake the notion that some extra bench shooting would really benefit this team given the matchups they’ll likely encounter in the postseason. That last visit to Milwaukee showcased just how important shooting can be against one of Boston’s primary road blocks out of the East.

Is Nemanja Bjelica an obtainable player? Is he what the Celtics need? — @brad_lessard

Guys like Bjelica and Dario Saric check a lot of the boxes in terms of size, shooting, and manageable contract that wouldn’t force you to move one of your core pieces. But then you watch Bjelica put up 20/9/8 last night and you wonder why Sacramento would be in a rush to move him when he’s under contract for reasonable money next season. But that’s certainly the type of player I think Danny Ainge will hunt before the deadline with hopes of giving Boston an extra guy it can lean on.

What are Boston's tradable assets? — @HippoFoppy

That’s the hard part for Boston. The Celtics have some decent draft picks to dangle, especially if the team is willing to put the Memphis pick on the table for a more impactful player, and yet many of the Celtics’ bench players have limited trade value and you’d be sacrificing some just to make the money work in most deals.

Boston’s in a tough spot where it doesn’t want to move any of its core pieces that comprise all of its big-money contracts, and yet the Celtics don’t have any mid-tier salaries that could expand the pool of players they could pursue. Ultimately, it limits the trade partners and might put a premium on finding a lottery-bound team that yearns for draft assets or raw young talent.

Any chance you could see the Cs trying to trade for Isaiah Thomas? Shooting 41% from 3, he played his best under Brad Stevens and we could use a shooter off the bench. Plus, his cap hit isn’t much. Could be a win win for the C's and IT. -- @mjmed12

No one loves a “we’re getting the band back together!” story more than this writer and Thomas’ time in Boston remains my favorite years covering this team. All that said, I just don’t see the fit right now. Thomas needs the ball in his hands and a high volume of shots (10.4 per game this year), while the Celtics need more size and spot-up shooting to space the floor. Here’s hoping Thomas can continue to revive his career in Washington and earn himself a decent payday, wherever he lands this summer.

Do the Celtics have enough assets to go get Davis Bertans without giving up a Marcus Smart or Gordon Hayward? Would picks and a player to match salary work? — @ZLR43

I did not expect this much lusting for personnel from the 15-win Wizards in this week’s bag but here we are. Now I’m just waiting for an Ish Smith query to roll in. The Celtics called on Bertans early in the season and got the same message that the Wizards publicly declared soon after: Washington contends it's in no rush to trade a player who could be a key part of their core moving forward.

You could certainly try to overwhelm them with draft assets, especially with three potential picks in this year’s draft, but the price tag that Bertans might ultimately command this summer could be a bit prohibitive, especially for someone who doesn’t solve your defensive concerns at the big-man spot.

HEY NOW, YOU’RE AN ALL-STAR

If you could only vote one player an All-Star reserve, who gets the nod: Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown? — @NBCSBoston

OK, so this might be a shameless plug for our most recent Celtics Talk Podcast in which we not only tackled this question but tried to predict the seven players who will be named reserves for the East on Thursday night.

The exercise showed that the talent in the conference makes it hard to see a path to three stars for Boston and, the fear for the Celtics has to be that Brown and Tatum split votes among voting coaches. Ultimately, we think Tatum gets in and joins Kemba Walker in Chicago.

Yes, he hasn’t been as efficient as Brown, but Tatum’s been a two-way monster whose on/off splits hammer home his overall impact. Stevens always talks about voting based on “fear factor,” and we simply think opposing coaches likely spend more time worrying about how to limit Tatum’s offensive impact right now. 

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Heat, which begins Tuesday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live. You can also stream it on the MyTeams App.

Celtics Mailbag: Readers have no shortage of ideas to get C's back on track

Celtics Mailbag: Readers have no shortage of ideas to get C's back on track

We don’t need a long preamble here. You know the nitty gritty.

The Boston Celtics have lost five of their last seven, including a pair of games against top Eastern Conference rivals Milwaukee and Philadelphia. After feasting on bad teams early in the season, Boston has started playing down to inferior opponents and enduring unsightly losses to Washington, San Antonio and Detroit. The confidence they inspired at the start of the year has eroded.

We asked our readers what’s on their mind and, well, there was a lot. (No, really: just scroll through the responses here). So, let’s dive into this week’s letters, which include an awful lot of thoughts on how Boston should move forward:

LIVE stream the Celtics all season and get the latest news and analysis on all of your teams from NBC Sports Boston by downloading the My Teams App. 

Schedule's sucked, we've sucked, don't overreact. — @LeoDAndreB

This is sort of what Celtics players are clinging to at the moment. As Marcus Smart said after Thursday’s loss, "It’s the NBA. You can’t get discouraged off [rough patches]. We’ve played two back-to-back nights and stuff like that. You can’t let that discourage you. That’s part of it. We’re at the 40-game mark. It happens.” 

The schedule kicking into overdrive certainly hasn’t helped Boston’s cause and yet the level of competition — outside of those back-to-backs involving the 76ers and Bucks — has been so poor that the Celtics’ inability to continue dominating those matchups is at least a bit troublesome.

What’s more concerning is the eye test. The Celtics aren’t flying around like they once did on defense and teams have shot lights out against them lately. Boston’s offense can look great for stretches and then grind to absolute halt when Kemba Walker isn’t on the court. The schedule isn’t relenting until mid-February and the Celtics must grind through it.

What’s happened to Hayward? Even when he scores it lacks the aggression he showed the beginning of the season. — @cheeroo

Maybe Boston's most polarizing player right now, Hayward is under the microscope after some roller coaster play since coming back from the foot injury on Christmas. He’s a microcosm of the Celtics: Spectacular at times and really fighting himself at others. Hayward labored through 1-of-10 shooting in Milwaukee on Thursday night and couldn’t fully aid Boston’s comeback attempt.

Hayward hasn’t suggested that any of his struggles are injury-related and was the first to admit Thursday that he needs to be better. Fans like to point to his maximum-salary contract when fretting this inconsistent stretch and many want to move him to alleviate the wing logjam. 

We’re not at that point. We think the Celtics are still at their best when all of their wings are contributing and making each other better. Each of them has slumped a bit lately and Boston’s margin for error simply isn’t great enough to overcome that, especially given the injuries they’ve endured.

Upgrade the coach.  Get a real NBA coach! — @iamaceltic33

The Brad Stevens slander in the mailbag the past couple weeks is wild. He’s not absolved from blame but I think he, as much as anyone, would like to have all of his horses for a change so he can actually pin down the best rotations.

I'm sure everyone will be super rational with their trade proposals 🤣🤣 — @JRat316

(Takes deep breath) Let’s find out … 

Trade for Giannis, LeBron, and Harden — @NickSpada

(Sigh)

Get some shooters for the bench. — @ShawtyReed

Faithful Mailbag readers know we’ve been beating this drum for a while now. For all the laments about Boston’s need for size, we’ve long felt that Boston’s biggest issue is shooting and it’s a more obtainable skill based on the in-season assets you have available to upgrade.

Here’s the crux of the issue: Boston ranks 19th in the NBA in 3-point percentage (35.2). Take away Kemba Walker’s shooting and it plummets closer to 25th.

More condemning: Celtics reserves are shooting a meager 30.4 percent beyond the arc this season. It simply feels like Boston needs another bench piece who can consistently knock down shots and loosen things up for everybody else. Boston bench is averaging only 28.7 points per game and, given the talent of the starters, that’s not a huge issue. But you can clearly feel the offense grind to a halt when reserve units are on the floor.

The one name we keep throwing out — and who just happens to be in town on Saturday — is Suns forward Dario Saric. His playing time with Phoenix has been in flux in Phoenix recently and he hasn’t shot the ball particularly well this season, but he was solid for Philadelphia in the playoffs a couple years ago, would give you a little extra size (6-foot-10) as a backup 4.

Most importantly: He’s making reasonable money ($3.5 million) and seems like the type of player Boston might be able to pluck if it were willing to sacrifice draft assets.

Semi + Poirier + Boston 1st for Luke Kennard? — @piggypanda123

Not sure what Detroit’s motivation would be to move Kennard -- who's been sidelined by a knee injury since late December -- when he’s on a favorable rookie deal and playing well. But he’s certainly the sort of low-money sharpshooter the Celtics should covet. 

Would it be easy to just sign Jamal Crawford? If no, why not? — @JLK7299

While beggars can’t be choosers, I’d say the best fit for the Celtics is someone who might be content to simply space the floor and knock down open shots. While adding a veteran presence wouldn’t be the worst thing on a rookie-filled team, I’m not sure Crawford’s high-volume approach best accentuates Boston’s other bench talent. 

Get a scorer off the bench so they don’t have to run Semi out there anymore. — @MarcR33

In defense of Semi’s, um, defense, he was Boston’s best defender against Giannis Antetokounmpo on Thursday night. While the whole "Giannis Stopper" nickname has always been a little bit over the top, he’s stout enough to make Antetokounmpo work: The Greek Freak went 2-of-6 against Ojeleye and 9-of-16 against everyone else (including 3-of-4 against Marcus Smart).

Ojeleye did get whistled for two shooting fouls and Antetokounmpo still finished with eight points against him but it was a nice effort on a night Boston was without Jaylen Brown. This isn’t to suggest that Ojeleye needs to be a consistent bench presence but he’s a nice luxury, especially given Boston’s size woes. When he knocks down open 3-point looks, he’s a helpful player.

This team desperately needs some veterans coming off the bench. — @dalappas

Found Kyrie’s burner! Just kidding. But this is part of the trickle-down effect of injuries: Inexperienced players are being put into spots they might not be ready for and, with inconsistent minutes, the results haven’t been great.

They miss Terry Rozier.  This was a much bigger loss than I thought it would be, now that none of the rookies has proven able to contribute meaningful offense. — @tom_steely

The takes are spicy this week. I’m not sure the Celtics miss 2018-19 Rozier but, certainly, the sort of boost he was capable of providing off the bench is missed.

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Can't wait for the deadline to pass so most of the stupid trade scenario ideas go away. — @Paullyt5

Found my burner account every time someone pitches an Andre Drummond trade.

Would trading Hayward make the Celtics, and specifically Danny Ainge, look bad to potential free agents? Or has he given (Hayward) enough of a chance at this point? — @DatHennessy

We had a long talk with Ryan Bernardoni (@dangercart) on the Celtics Talk podcast this week (see above) about Hayward’s somewhat murky future and why the Celtics have to at least be willing to listen to trade possibilities.

Let’s be clear here: We don’t think the Celtics should — or will — trade Hayward but you have to at least consider options if you’re uncertain about his future here. While optics are part of the equation, Ainge has rarely let emotions or what others think dictate his decisions.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Suns-Celtics, which begins Saturday at 6:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, followed by tip-off at 7 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.