Marc Gasol

In quest for an Embiid stopper, Celtics best option might be what they've got

In quest for an Embiid stopper, Celtics best option might be what they've got

Joel Embiid’s dominant two-way performance Thursday night in Boston won’t do much to ease fans who remain convinced that Celtics bigs aren't stout enough to hold up in an Eastern Conference in which many of Boston’s primary rivals — including Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Indiana, and Toronto — have All-Star talent at frontcourt positions.

From this vantage point, Enes Kanter and Daniel Theis held up about as well as could be reasonably expected. Yes, Embiid put up 38 points and 13 rebounds, all while limiting his turnovers and made some a couple key defensive plays late in the game (including absolutely smothering a Theis dunk attempt). 

Still, Kanter and Theis both put up season highs for scoring while pairing up for 36 points and 14 rebounds. As coach Brad Stevens suggested after the game, " I guess I'd take 38 to 36 in that matchup.”

The lingering question is whether the Celtics, now 0-2 against Philadelphia this season, should feel confident in their ability to match up with the 76ers should the two teams cross paths in the postseason.

Two more regular-season matchups — one in Philadelphia early in the new calendar year (Jan. 9) and another in Boston on Feb. 1 — will offer more chances for the Celtics to gauge where they stand against Philly. Both sides were missing key parts — the Celtics without Marcus Smart; Sixers without Al Horford — and full-strength rosters will offer a better sense of whether Boston’s frontcourt can hold up in a seven-game series.

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Ultimately, the Celtics might have no other choice. A lack of tradable contracts means they can’t deal for a top-line center without sending out one of the team's core players. Theis, at 6-8, despite giving up size in matchups against players such as Embiid, has been excellent this season and the Celtics need a 5-man that is content to do the little things and take open shots when they come in the rhythm of the offense.

Looking around the league, particularly at those players that might be able to best joust with Embiid, it’s hard to find a player that the Celtics could reasonably target as an in-season addition.

In the quest to identify players that have best held up against Embiid in recent seasons, we parsed the NBA’s defensive tracking data. First, we examined every player that has defended Embiid for at least 20 partial possessions this year to find players that have had the best individual success. Ten players emerge, a snapshot of the names: 

MARC GASOL

The dreamiest of in-season additions — just ask the defending champion Raptors — Gasol has defended Embiid for a total of 14:23 this season and has allowed a measly 2 points and ZERO field goals on 12 shot attempts while creating seven turnovers. Some Celtics fans came into the season dreaming of a scenario in which the Raptors struggled early, started moving pieces, and maybe Gasol and his $25.6 million salary somehow landed on the buyout market. That’s definitely not happening now with the Raptors right on Boston’s heels and playing some incredibly inspired ball this season during a Kawhi-less defense of their title.

TAJ GIBSON

One of the more interesting names on the list, the 34-year-old Gibson has only 6 minutes of matchup minutes this season against Embiid but has limited him to 6 points on 2-of-9 shooting. Embiid’s offensive rating is just 100 in the 25 minutes that Gibson and Embiid have shared the court this season, all the more impressive given the sorry state of the Knicks. Gibson is earning $9 million this season with a nonguaranteed salary. He’s exactly the sort of piece that the Knicks should yearn to move for future assets. The question is whether Gibson’s success is a small sample and whether you get enough value out of an in-season acquisition. On the positive side, he is a 10-year veteran with eight years of playoff experience and played with Kanter in Oklahoma City.

DON’T EVEN BOTHER DREAMING ABOUT THESE GUYS

Among the top Embiid stoppers this year: Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert (pictured), All-NBA big man Nikola Jokic, and Knicks swat-happy youngster Mitchell Robinson. You’re not getting any of these guys, so let’s just move right along despite the fact that they’ve all held Embiid to 37.5 percent shooting or less.

TRISTAN THOMPSON

Slowly becoming the leader in the “If he gets bought out, the Celtics should swoop him up!” references among Boston fans. But the data isn’t quite as bullish. Thompson has defended Embiid on 50.7 partial possessions this season and allowed 31 points on 12-of-21 shooting over 14 minutes of matchup time. That’s the second-worst mark among high-volume defenders (in front of only LaMarcus Aldridge). Thompson is still an intriguing option because of his rebounding abilities, his playoff experience, and his potential to impact the offense as a fourth or fifth option. Alas, Thompson has his limitation — as seen in Boston when he went 1-for-7 at the free-throw line and committed five turnovers. He was minus-22 in a game in which he went 8-for-11 with 17 points and 11 rebounds.

STEVEN ADAMS

A popular option among Celtics fans entering the season, at least when ignoring the fact that he’s making $25.8 million this season. Boston would have to move someone like Hayward as part of a trade. That’s not happening, and especially not with the way Adams has defended Embiid this season. In nine minutes of matchup time, Embiid has put up 24 points on 9-of-16 shooting, making four triples against Adams, too. Data from 2017-18 season confirms his struggles, Embiid shooting 60 percent (12 of 20) in 19:37 of matchup time.

AND BACK TO THE CELTICS

Then, of course, there is Kanter (pictured), who has limited Embiid to 38.9 percent shooting (7 of 18) in 12 minutes of matchup time this season. Kanter held up particularly well on Thursday, especially when you consider that Embiid shot 77.8 percent against all other Celtics defenders. For all the complaints about Kanter’s defense, it’s his struggles in the pick-and-roll that fall in the spotlight and he actually does well in post-up situations.

It's fair to be skeptical about whether Kanter can hold the fort for a seven-game series. Kanter has been on the floor for 46 of Embiid’s 60 minutes against the Celtics this season and the Philadelphia big man has an offensive rating of 109.3 in that span. The thing is Embiid’s offensive rating spikes to an absurd 142.9 in the 14 minutes with Theis as primary defender instead of Kanter.

Having Smart might help, though Philadelphia’s offensive rating was still elite (114.7) in the 16 minutes that Embiid and Smart shared the court in the first matchup.

To be certain, Boston did not lose either of the first two matchups against Philadelphia because of an inability to defend Embiid. He hurt Boston not only with his scoring Thursday but with an ability to pass out of double teams that Boston sent and the Celtics simply have to be crisper when they commit extra bodies.

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Is there anyone else out there available at a reasonable price that could help Boston’s frontcourt defense? We rolled the defensive data back to last year’s regular-season and crunched to players with around 20 Embiid field-goal attempts defended. Yet again, a who’s who of Eastern Conference bigs emerged from Horford (14-37 FG, 37.8 percent) to Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic (13-31, 41.9 percent) to Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner (a combined 25-52, 48 percent). 

Some of the names that fared well and might be available would include Cody Zeller (11-26, 42.3 percent in 21 minutes of matchup time) and Willie Cauley-Stein (8-20, 40 percent in 13 minutes). One completely random wild card to throw in here: Old friend Ante Zizic, who defended Embiid for 12:16 last season and limited him to 5-of-17 shooting (29.4 percent) with five turnovers. It was the lowest shooting percentage among any player with at least 15 shot attempts defended. A small sample size? Probably. Though, in a measly minute of defensive matchup time earlier this season, Embiid went scoreless while missing two shots.

The question becomes whether the Celtics should sacrifice future draft assets and risk tweaking the chemistry on the team in hopes of what might only be a marginal upgrade. It’s also prudent to want to see this team at full strength before declaring just how much of an issue the big-man depth could be. 

Remember, too, that Robert Williams' development could be huge here. Grant Williams’ ability to play small-ball 5 against bigs could dictate the desire for a move. Maybe Vincent Poirier gets an opportunity to show whether he can joust further out.

For now, the best option seems to be for the Celtics to stick with what they’ve got and find a longer-term plan to beef up that 5 spot, especially given the talent their primary conference rivals have in their frontcourts.


 

How a Grizzlies rebuild could deliver Boston's next star

How a Grizzlies rebuild could deliver Boston's next star

As the Memphis Grizzlies reportedly entertain the possibility of a rebuild, the Celtics might have found the centerpiece of their next big deal, one that might only bolster their long-term ability to contend for a title.

ESPN reported Tuesday that the Grizzlies, for the first time, will begin entertaining trade offers for stars Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. The Celtics are owed a future first-round pick from the Grizzlies and the protections loosen in coming seasons.

After Memphis won 12 of its first 17 games to open the season, it appeared the pick, which is top-8 protected for 2019, might convey this season. But the Grizzlies are a mere 7-23 since Nov. 21 and have lost 12 of their past 13. 

With the second-worst record in the Western Conference but only the sixth-worst record in the NBA, the Grizzlies seem to be coming to grips with the fact that it might be better to move their aging stars and embrace a rebuild in hopes of a quick turnaround that might take the sting out of the pick they will eventually deliver. In trading their stars, the Grizzlies almost assuredly will collect a top 8 pick this season.

Further out it gets murkier for Memphis. Quick rebuilds do not typically happen. And the Celtics would reap the benefits if the Grizzlies struggle to contend in the aftermath of an overhaul, even if that pick ultimately doesn’t convey for two more years. The Grizzlies’ pick is top-6 protected in 2020 before becoming completely unprotected in 2021. 

Memphis’ willingness to overhaul their roster is no small development for the Celtics, whose assets have been diminishing in value as some NBA rivals outkick expectations. The Celtics are set to collect the Sacramento Kings 2019 first-round pick, if it’s not No. 1 overall, but the Kings are still battling for a playoff spot in the West, sitting 24-23 entering Tuesday’s action.

With a horde of East teams clogging up the bottom of the NBA standings, that means the Kings pick — once dreamed to be a top-five selection — is currently projected to land closer to No. 10 overall. 

The Celtics were staring at the less-than-optimal possibility of collecting all three of their owed first-round picks this season (the Clippers could potentially deliver a non-lottery first-rounder). But the Grizzlies pick pushing into future years gives the Celtics a lot more flexibility in using it a deal.

Not only does the value rise as the protections loosen but the Celtics can dangle that pick as part of a package for a big star — say, Anthony Davis, or his ilk — and it’s more attractive than if the Celtics were forced to make that selection in June.

The Celtics, of course, don’t have to move the pick in a deal but it just seems like the most likely scenario. Boston could also keep the prime selection and try to build young depth to an already talent-filled roster, especially if there’s not a big fish available on the trade market that they desire to chase.

Entering Tuesday, the Celtics projected to collect picks No. 13 (Sacramento), 19 (Clippers), and 24 (their own) based on current standings. 
 

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Irving comes up big (again) for Celtics as scorer, playmaker in win over Grizzlies

Irving comes up big (again) for Celtics as scorer, playmaker in win over Grizzlies

BOSTON -- With just over three minutes to play, the ‘M-V-P’ chants for Kyrie Irving came and went as he went to the free throw line. 

League MVP may be a stretch, but there’s no mistaking the value he has to this Boston Celtics team. 

And it was on display Friday night as the Irving-led Celtics pulled away for a 122-116 win over the Memphis Grizzlies. 

As was the case against the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday, Irving stepped up his game down the stretch to lead Boston (27-18) to its second straight win while handing the Raptors a loss for the 10th time in their last 11 games. 

The Celtics, fueled by the play of their bench, had a strong finish to the first quarter with a 19-2 run that spilled into the early stages of the second quarter. 

But as we’ve seen with the Celtics this season, no lead is safe especially when it's against team that has struggled like the Grizzlies who came in having lost nine of their previous 10 games. 

It didn’t take long for Memphis to put its own strong surge together, going ahead 62-58 at the half. 

Irving set the Celtics in motion with an early basket that sparked a 7-0 Celtics run that put Boston back on top 65-62.

After a Memphis timeout, the Grizzlies responded with a 6-0 spurt to regain the lead before Al Horford drained a corner 3-pointer to tie the game at 68.

Boston would eventually lead 96-90 after three quarters of play.

Here are the Stars, Studs and Duds from Boston’s six-point win over Memphis

STARS

Kyrie Irving: Sensing the Celtics needed him to carry more of the scoring load, Irving was indeed looking more for his own shot in the second half before finishing with 38 points and 11 assists for Boston which included 20 points in the third quarter. Irving, who also had seven rebounds, became the first Celtic since Larry Bird in February of 1986 to have at least 28 points and 11 assists in back-to-back games. 

Mike Conley Jr.: Arguably the best current point guard in the NBA to have never been selected as an all-star, Conley had a strong game for the Grizzlies before finishing with 26 points. 

STUDS

Marcus Smart: With most of the Celtics’ starting frontcourt struggling to make shots, Marcus Smart gave Boston a much-needed lift offensively. He would finish the night with 20 points which included him knocking down 6-of-8 three-pointers. 

Al Horford: Nobody has benefited more from Aron Baynes’ return than Horford, who seems a lot more impactful without having to bang against bigger bodies all game. He had a near double-double of 18 points on 8-for-10 shooting.

Jaylen Brown: Boston led by as many as 16 points in the first half, and it was Brown’s scoring that had a significant part in the lead. He would finish with 12 points and six rebounds off the Celtics bench.
Shelvin Mack: Scoring and getting others involved was indeed on the menu for Shelvin Mack who led all Memphis backups with 15 points in addition to dishing out seven assists. 

DUDS

Jayson Tatum: It was a rough night shooting the ball in every sense of the word, all game for Tatum. He had six rebounds and four assists, but missed all six of his shots from the field and scored just two points.

Marc Gasol: It’s rare that a guy tallies a double-double the way Gasol did with 11 rebounds and 12 assists. It was shooting that gave him problems as he scored four points but missed nine of his 10 shots from the field.

Gordon Hayward: There was never any point where Gordon Hayward seemed to be in a good flow offensively or defensively. He had eight points but did so on 2-for-7 shooting. And his plus/minus for the game was -7 which was the worst among Boston bench players.

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