The Celtics are holding their own against the NBA’s elite.
Less than three weeks after beating the Eastern Conference-leading Hawks, the Celtics gave the West-leading Warriors all they could handle, establishing a 26-point first-half lead in front of a raucous home crowd before Golden State chipped away and crumbled their hosts, 106-101.
Once again, Isaiah Thomas ignited the C’s scoring effort with 20 points — missing a 3-pointer that would have tied the game in the final seconds — to go along with five assists in 29 minutes off the bench. Tyler Zeller’s 17 points led all five Celtics starters in double figures, followed by Brandon Bass (15 points, 12 rebounds), Avery Bradley (12 points), Marcus Smart (10 points) and Evan Turner (10 points). Jae Crowder added 17 rebounds and nine points off the bench.
Still, it wasn’t enough to overcome a Warriors team that owns the league’s best record (46-11) and features MVP favorite Stephen Curry, who netted 37 points to lead all scorers. Meanwhile, the Celtics drop to 23-34 and remain on the outside looking in on the East’s eighth and final playoff seed.
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THE RUN THAT WAS ALWAYS GOING TO COME
Since taking a 5-4 lead 1:55 into the game, the Celtics held the Warriors at bay longer than anyone expected, but it was only a matter of time since the league’s top-scoring team got back in the game. Over the course of 12 minutes from the end of the third quarter to late in the fourth — as Shaun Livingston gave them a spark off the bench, Green heated up and Curry remained on fire — Golden State outscored the Celtics 32-15 to grab their first lead since the opening minutes.
DEFENDING THEIR LIVES
If the Celtics have any hope of making the playoffs, it’ll be their improvement on the defensive end that will make the difference between a first-round series and a lottery pick. Six games after holding the Hawks to 42.3 percent shooting, the C’s held the Warriors to 42.1 percent — not an easy task two of the game’s most prolific shooters. Curry and Klay Thompson (20 points) were always going to get their points, but the C’s built their lead by holding Golden State’s frontcourt — Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, David Lee and Andre Iguodala — to combined 4-of-20 shooting in the opening 24 minutes. That’s especially impressive considering the Celtics are sans Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk.
ISAIAH THOMAS IS AN ELITE SCORER
Quite simply, Thomas has been a dominant offensive force during his Celtics tenure, anchoring a unit that scored 117.9 points per 100 possessions during his first four games in Boston. Even more impressive, he owns a usage rate of 35.4 percent, meaning more than a third of the C’s possessions are running through Thomas when he’s on the floor. His 58.2 true shooting percentage during that four-game stretch would rank among the NBA’s best guard over a full season. Sunday night was no different, as his 15 points before the break led a 65-point first-half for the Celtics. He cooled off in the second half, finishing just 8-of-21 from the field and missing eight of his 11 3-point attempts, but his presence remains a revelation.
JAE CROWDER IS THE C’S DRAYMOND GREEN
Granted, Green will receive a max contract on the restricted free agency market this summer and Crowder won’t command anywhere near that salary, but the two offer similar styles. Crowder has shown the ability to knock down the open 3-pointer, defend multiple positions on the other end and generally fill up the stat sheet across the board. Crowder’s outside shot wasn’t falling, as he made just 4-of-17 shots, but he finished with nine points, 17 rebounds, two assists and a block in 26 minutes off the bench — a Green-esque performance.
JONAS JEREBKO IS A STRETCH 5
The Celtics continued to play small-ball with great success, in large part because the Warriors didn’t have a center capable of making them pay defensively. That allows the C’s to space the floor offensively with Jerebko playing the five. His entrance coincided with an 18-5 run that helped the C’s establish the startling 26-point lead. Starting the second quarter alongside Thomas, Marcus Smart, James Young and Crowder, Jerebko knocked down his lone 3-point attempt while collecting four combined rebounds, blocks and steals — and finished a plus-11 in seven first-half minutes.