Celtics' improved rebounding could make all the difference vs Cavaliers

Celtics' improved rebounding could make all the difference vs Cavaliers

BOSTON – When the Boston Celtics’ season ended a year ago in the Eastern Conference finals to Cleveland, changes had to be made. 

Boston underwent a major overhaul, bringing back just four players from last season’s team. There was star power added, but one of the more not-so-subtle changes was the Celtics upgrading their overall rebounding prowess which will be a factor in Game 1 of Boston’s Eastern Conference finals matchup against Cleveland which begins today.

During the regular season, Boston was 14th in rebounding percentage (.503) compared to being 27th a year ago with a rebounding percentage of just .485.

In the playoffs, it has been a mixed bag of sorts for Boston whose rebounding percentage stands at .497 which ranks ninth among the 16 teams that made it to the playoffs. 

Although Cleveland won two of the three regular-season meetings, Boston averaged more rebounds per game (47.0 versus 46.3) and had a higher rebounding percentage (.504 versus .496).

Boston’s improved rebounding compared to a year ago really stands out when the Celtics go with a smaller lineup which as Brad Stevens pointed out, isn’t quite as small as it used to be.

“One of the things that when we went small in the past, we were pretty small,” Stevens said. “Now we’re pretty big. But still, you have to do a great job of keeping the ball in front of you, making everything as difficult as possible  and getting into their bodies.”

This is especially true on the offensive glass against a Cavs team that features Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson, two of the best when it comes to creating second-chance scoring opportunities. 

“The offensive rebound is one of many concerns as you get ready to play these guys,” Stevens said. 

Here are five under-the-radar storylines heading into Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals in a rematch of last year’s Conference finals pitting the No. 2 seeded Boston Celtics against 4th seeded Cleveland.

TURNOVER GAME

For Boston, converting turnovers into points has been a major factor in the team’s postseason run thus far. When turnovers have generated at least 10 points for Boston, the Celtics are 8-1 in the postseason. But when they have been limited to single digits in points off turnovers, Boston is 0-3.

DELIVERING IN THE CLUTCH

No two teams have consistently come up big when the game matters, more than the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers. Boston leads all playoff teams in points scored (85) in the clutch – the last five minutes of a game with five or fewer points separating the two teams – while the Cavaliers are second with 67. But defensively, the Cavs have limited playoff foes to just 36 clutch points, tops among playoff teams,  while Boston’s opponents have scored a total of 82 clutch points. 

ANOTHER TATUM MILESTONE COMING UP

The 20-year-old Tatum has scored 226 points in the playoffs thus far, needing just four points to set a new franchise record for the most points scored by a rookie in the postseason. The current franchise record holder is NBC Sports Boston analyst and two-time Hall of Famer Tommy Heinsohn who scored 229.

ARON BAYNES

You can’t blame Philadelphia in the last series for allowing Aron Baynes so many good looks initially from the corners on 3-point shots considering he had not been much of a threat during the regular season. That was not the case in the playoffs where Baynes made eight 3-pointers from the corners in the Philly series, which was one more than the Sixers as a team made in the entire five-game series from the corners.

PLAYOFF HISTORY

These two teams don’t have a longstanding history of playoff battles, although you wouldn’t know that by how things have played out recently. This will be the eighth time these two have met in the postseason, but the third time in the last four seasons. In the previous seven matchups, Boston has a 4-3 series record. But of those three series losses, two came under current head coach Brad Stevens (2015 first round; 2017 Conference finals) whose postseason record against the Cavs is 1-8.

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Rozier gets a big test tonight against Thunder

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Rozier gets a big test tonight against Thunder

BOSTON -- Terry Rozier has stepped up his game this season. There’s no disputing that point. 
 
And the Celtics have rewarded him with increased playing time, which he has proven he deserves. 
 
While he has made the most of his opportunity with an increased role due to injuries, at some point Rozier’s minutes should go back to being 20 or so per game. 
 
It’s amazing how far Rozier has come in such a short period of time, from a first-round pick many questioned as being a reach on Boston’s part, to an integral part of the team’s quest towards Banner 18.
 
And it is games like tonight’s against the Oklahoma City Thunder that will put the experience gained by Rozier as a major contributor, to the ultimate test when he faces off against reigning league MVP Russell Westbrook.
 
No one expects Rozier to put up Westbrook-like numbers . . . but would anyone be shocked if he did?
 
Remember, Rozier’s first NBA start came this season and he racked up his first career triple-double. The next game out, he dropped a career-high 31 points. 
 
But as we get deeper into the season, he’s no longer viewed as a backup or a role player, They see him as a player that has to be accounted for, regardless of whether he’s starting or coming off the bench. 
 
“There’s a lot of teams in this league you could easily see him starting for,” a league executive told NBC Sports Boston via text. “He’s not Kyrie [Irving] obviously, and he’s a different kind of player than Marcus [Smart], but he can play. If teams didn’t know it before, they know it now.”
 
Rozier may not be a secret anymore, but here are five under-the-radar story lines to keep an eye on tonight as the Celtics go for the season sweep against the Oklahoma City Thunder. 

AVOID OVERTIME

If the Celts expect to win tonight, they better get it done in four quarters of play. Because overtime has been a good time for the Thunder. They come into tonight’s game with a 3-0 record in overtime this season. They are one of eight teams with an unblemished overtime record, and no other team in the league this season has as more wins (3) in overtime without a single defeat. 

MORRIS FIRED UP

The NBA hit Marcus Morris up for $15,000 following “verbal abuse of a game official” at the end of Boston’s 108-89 loss at New Orleans.  Morris will be lighter in the wallet, obviously. But it also might get him even more fired up tonight which could lead to him lighting up the Thunder. 

POINTS IN THE PAINT

Scoring around the basket has not been a strength of the Celtics, but with key players on the perimeter hurt, Boston has to generate points in other ways. Doing so against the Thunder, a team that has allowed 43.1 points in the paint per game --10th-fewest allowed in the league this season -- will be a challenge.

TRANSITION DEFENSE

At some point tonight, Boston will be challenged to get back on defense and not allow Russell Westbrook to score on the break. The Celtics have been one of the league’s better transition defense teams in allowing 10.2 fast-break points, which is the fourth-fewest allowed per game this season. Meanwhile, the Thunder average 14.1 fast-break points, which ranks third in the league. 

HOME (NOT SO SWEET) HOME

The Celtic players talk all the time about how great the TD Garden crowd can be. But at the end of games lately, they haven’t let them much to cheer about. The C's come into tonight’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder with losses in five of their last seven home games with the lone wins coming over Memphis and Charlotte – two teams currently out of playoff seeding. Boston’s last home win over a team that’s currently in the top 8 was a 97-96 win over Portland on Feb. 4, a game in which Al Horford hit a game-winning, fadeaway jumper as time expired.

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Bradley finds a familiar face in L.A.

Bradley finds a familiar face in L.A.

BOSTON -- Avery Bradley spent seven seasons in Boston, but has found himself jettisoned off to two different teams in the last six months.
 
It’s the business side of things that no amount of time in the league will ever fully prepare you for.
 
But for the ex-Celtic, this latest move in many ways has him coming full circle in reuniting with Clippers boss Doc Rivers, who coached Bradley in Boston during the 6-foot-2 guard’s first four seasons in the NBA. 
 
That familiarity has been a plus for Bradley and can only help him tonight as the Clippers try to continue their winning ways against the Celtics. 
 
“It’s helped out a lot,” Bradley said. 
 
Rivers echoed similar sentiments. 

“It helps, probably for both [of us],” Rivers said.
 
However, one of the more significant differences from the time Bradley played for the Celtics under Rivers, was the offense. 

“We run so much more now,” Rivers said. “That’s who we are; that’s the type of team we have. And on the other end, he’s such a different player than when I coached him. He was so young. We wasted the first year trying to get him as a point guard and realized he’s more of a guard, he’s a heck of a player. His offensive game has opened up so much more, so . . . you don’t get this opportunity very often, when you have a young guy and then you get him back. But it’s been really cool to see the difference and the growth in Avery.”
 
Here are five under-the-radar storylines heading into tonight’s game between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Clippers.

 

L.A. REUNION

Former Celtics teammates and Tacoma, Washington natives Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley are back together -- sort of. 
 
Both were part of deals at the trade deadline, with Thomas being shipped out to the Los Angeles Lakers while Bradley now plays for the Los Angeles Clippers. 
 
Bradley said he has had conversations with his good friend/former teammate since the two were moved to teams in Los Angeles. 
 
In their conversations, Bradley has tried to remain upbeat with Thomas, who has come under heavy criticism in several circles. The negative vibe surrounding Thomas was, in part, a factor in the Cavs trading him. 
 
“All the negative press, all the bad things people are saying about him . . . I tell him everything happens for a reason and go out there and do what Isaiah Thomas does and that’s playing with confidence and helping his team win games,” Bradley said. 

TERRY ROZIER

One of the bigger influences on Terry Rozier since he has been in the NBA, has been Avery Bradley. When the two were teammates for the Celtics, Rozier would often turn to Bradley for advice as well as on-the-floor tips. Well Rozier has taken that advice and used it to become one of the more valuable role players off the Celtics bench this season. 
 
“This game is all about opportunity and confidence,” Bradley said. “So Terry is getting a great opportunity and he has confidence when he’s out there playing basketball. I’m happy for him. He’s definitely a guy that works hard and works on his game and now it’s paying off.”

TURNOVER A NEW LEAF

Boston is turning the ball over 13.9 times per game which ranks 12th in the NBA. Not bad . . . until you compare it to previous turnover numbers and rankings under Brad Stevens. Since Stevens’ rookie season, when the Celtics’ turnover average (15.3) ranked 27th in the NBA, Boston has consistently been a top-10 or borderline top-10 team in fewest turnovers committed per game. Having lost three of their last four games, Boston has averaged 14.6 turnovers, which ranks 25th in the league during that span. 

MONTREZL HARRELL

One of the more pleasant surprises for the Clippers this season has been the play of Montrezl Harrell, particularly his scoring around the rim on post-up plays. 

The 24-year-old forward has averaged 9.1 points and 3.9 rebounds per game while playing 15.4 minutes per game. 
 
“He’s a great example, every year you talk about guys accepting their role and trying to be a star in their role. He’s a perfect example,” Rivers said. “Early on he was trying to find his way. And now he knows exactly what he needs to do. He’s been amazing.
 
Rivers added, “One of the things I didn’t know about him, was I didn’t know he was that good on the post. Last year in Houston, I don’t ever remember them throwing post passes to him. I didn’t go into the season thinking about it because I never seen it. You saw it in practice and you’re thinking, are our guys bad post players on defense? And you realize he’s just good on the post.”
 
In his last five games, Harrell has shot 71.1 percent (27-for-38) from the field. 

HORFORD IMPACT

Al Horford doesn’t score nearly as much as some fans (and media members) would like to see. But there’s no denying good things tend to happen for the Celtics when he’s on the floor. This season, Boston has an offensive rating of 106.9 when the five-time All-Star is on the floor. That number drops to 100.0 when’s off the court. The 6.9 differential is tops among all Celtics players this season. 
 

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