The importance of the next three Celtics games cannot be overstated. Isaiah Thomas called Monday night’s visit to the Charlotte Hornets “a must win,” and really all nine of their remaining contests could command the same label. But, really, the next three could make or break their playoff chances.
After traveling to Charlotte, the C’s then respectively host the Indiana Pacers and Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday and Friday, marking a trio of head-to-head battles against teams jockeying for the Eastern Conference’s final three playoff spots. Here is the schedule for those five teams over the next five days.
If the Celtics were to sweep all three games ‘ and that’s quite an “if” ‘ there’s a very real chance they could hold the East’s seventh seed, trail the Bucks by one game for the sixth seed (with another game and a chance to win the season series against Milwaukee in the final game of the season) and own head-to-head tiebreakers against both the Pacers and Nets by week’s end. That’s kind of a big deal.
In the next few days, the sixth-seeded Bucks play lose-able games against the Hawks and Bulls, as do the seventh-place Heat opposite the Spurs and Cavaliers. On Tuesday, the Nets host the Pacers, who in turn host the Hornets on Friday, so those head-to-head battles should help keep Brooklyn, Indiana at Charlotte at bay ‘ as long as the Celtics can take care of business in their next three games.
Of course, the Hornets, Pacers and Bucks all have chances to take the tiebreaker from the Celtics with a victory against Boston this week, as Charlotte and Milwaukee would win the season series and Indiana would own a superior conference record. So, conversely, should the C’s get swept this week, there’s also the very real chance they could be in line for the No. 9 overall pick by Friday and staring down the barrel of a six-game season with two games apiece against the Cavaliers and Raptors.
So, it’s kind of a big week. The season is on the line, one way or the other. No pressure or anything.
The starting lineup of Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, Evan Turner, Brandon Bass and Tyler Zeller ‘ a five-man unit Celtics coach Brad Stevens has employed in 18 of his team’s 22 games after the All-Star break ‘ has been outscored by 10.9 points per 100 possessions since the season resumed on Feb. 20, according to NBA.com/stats. That group has totaled 195 minutes together in that span ‘ nearly 20 percent of the C’s total playing time ‘ digging an average deficit of 2.6 points per game.
‘We have to punch first; we have to hit first,’ Isaiah Thomas said after the C’s dug themselves a 14-point hole in the first quarter of Sunday’s loss to the Clippers. ‘I don’t know what it is. We’re waiting to get hit, and then it’s tough for us to get back in it. We have to change that as soon as possible.’
Meanwhile, every lineup featuring Thomas that has played more than 10 minutes together on the Celtics has outscored the opponent per 100 possessions, including a group of Thomas, Bradley, Turner, Bass and Zeller that has outscored opponents by a point per minute over one quarter’s worth of floor time together spread out over four separate games. So, it stands to reason the Celtics could benefit from swapping Smart for Thomas to start the first and second half.
Asked if he was implying his insertion into the starting lineup might help deliver that early punch, Thomas smiled. ‘I didn’t say that,’ he responded before wisely leaving roster decisions to Stevens.
‘If coach puts me in the starting lineup, I’ll be happy,’ added Thomas, a legitimate NBA Sixth Man of the Year candidate. ‘If he doesn’t, it is what it is, but I definitely can help. That’s my game ‘ bring energy and make plays. So, if he calls my name and I’m in the starting lineup, I’m going to continue to play the game of basketball the way I know how and just do what it takes to win.’
Of course, moving Thomas might simply be robbing Peter to pay Paul, as few regular lineups sans the diminutive point guard have enjoyed much success. Stevens must consider whether Thomas’ presence would benefit the starting lineup more than his absence would detract from the bench.
In 154 career appearances as a starter ‘ mostly on the Kings from 2012-14 ‘ Thomas has averaged 17.2 points (57.9 true shooting percentage), 5.5 assists (2.3 turnovers) and 2.7 rebounds as his teams have outscored opponents by two points per 100 possessions in his 32.6 minutes per game, according to Basketball Reference. In 121 career appearances as a reserve since 2011, he has produced 13.4 points (56.8 true shooting percentage), 3.6 assists (1.9 turnovers) and 2.1 rebounds as his teams have played opponents to a virtual standstill in 23.0 minutes per game. In other words, his production hasn’t fallen off in the slightest when given increased playing time as a starter.
Meanwhile, the Celtics reserves actually weren’t all that bad before Thomas arrived in Boston, outscoring opponents by one point per 100 possessions’ a figure that ranked 11th among the league’s benches prior to the All-Star break. Those numbers have respectably improved to a positive net rating of 4.3 points and sixth place for the C’s reserves since Thomas came to town.
Considering the evolution of Jae Crowder along with the additions of Jonas Jerebko and Gigi Datome have also contributed to the Celtics bench’s improved performance, it might be worth making a reserve out of Smart, whose splits this season suggest he has been more effective off the bench.
Starter (29 games): 10.1 points (45.3 true shooting percentage), 5.0 rebounds, 3.6 assists (2.0 turnovers) and 2.0 steals per 36 minutes (minus-1.3 net rating)
Reserve (29 games): 10.8 points (52.9 true shooting percentage), 5.3 assists (1.7 turnovers), 3.9 rebounds and 1.7 steals per 36 minutes (plus-2.6 net rating)
A bench of Smart, Crowder, Datome, Jerebko and Olynyk isn’t such a bad group, as each member of that quintet is among the eight current Celtics with a positive net rating. Fellow reserves Thomas, Gerald Wallace and Phil Pressey are the other three with an on/off number above zero, which might be more of an indictment on the C’s starting lineup than anything previously mentioned here.
If the idea is to match the opponents’ best five with your own and see whose left standing at the end, it’s hard to argue Thomas hasn’t been the C’s most important player, so maybe it’s time Stevens lets Floyd Mayweather’s pal throw the first punch when they step into the ring against the Hornets.
If the playoffs started today, the Celtics would be on the outside looking in.
They lost their hold on the eighth seed in the East thanks to a 119-106 beatdown from old friend Doc Rivers and the Los Angeles Clippers. Despite another furious fourth-quarter comeback that nearly cut a 35-point deficit to single digits, the Celtics never led.
Meanwhile, Brooklyn’s victory earlier in the day gave the Nets (32-40) a half-game lead over the Celtics (32-41) for the eighth and final playoff spot. The seventh-place Miami Heat (34-49) also won and moved two games ahead of the C’s, who face fellow Eastern Conference playoff contenders Charlotte and Indiana in the next three days.
Isaiah Thomas (19 points) led six C’s in double figures against the Clips. Tyler Zeller (16 points), Kelly Olynyk (14 points), Brandon Bass (13 points), Gigi Datome (12 points) and Jonas Jerebko (10 points) were the others. Chris Paul (21 points, 10 assists) and DeAndre Jordan (15 points, 14 rebounds) both had double-doubles for L.A., and Blake Griffin (21 points, 9 rebounds) came close.
The Celtics submitted arguably the worst defensive quarter of the Brad Stevens era in the opening 12 minutes. The Clippers scored 34 points on 60 percent shooting — including 3-of-5 from 3-point range — and established a 14-point lead after one. It marked only the second time under Stevens the C’s had allowed 34 points in a quarter. The last time, according to Basketball Reference, came Dec. 3, 2013, when the Celtics outscored the Milwaukee Bucks 39-37 in the fourth quarter of a 108-100 victory. For an encore, the Celtics gave up another 34 points on 50 percent shooting in the second quarter and entered the break trailing 68-47.
DEANDRE THE GIANT
As has been the case all season against athletic big men, the Celtics had no answer for DeAndre Jordan. The NBA’s leader in field goal percentage and rebounding amassed his double-double by halftime. Jordan could command a max contract in free agency this summer, and a Celtics team in desperate need of rim protection just might be inquiring about his services. Obviously, his inability to make free throws is a major concern — an issue that was on full display as the C’s played Hack-a-Jordan during the comeback effort.
Stevens is experimenting with a starting lineup that was nearly outscored by J.J. Redick through the first two quarters. The Celtics coach swapped Jae Crowder and Jonas Jerebko in for Marcus Smart and Tyler Zeller to start the third quarter, but that did little to boost their anemic offense, as the Clippers quickly pushed their lead to 30. The C’s refuse to insert Isaiah Thomas into the starting lineup, if only because he’s proven to be one of the most effective sixth men in the league, but outside of that change there isn’t much Stevens can do to increase his first five’s offensive efficiency. At some point, the Celtics’ personnel is what it is.
THOMAS BACK BRUISING
After a pair of poor shooting performances in his first two games upon returning from a bruised back, Thomas appeared more comfortable against the Clippers. He scored 18 points on his first seven shots, including a pair of 3-pointers and eight free throws. He chased Chris Paul around on the other end with the same success rate most defenders find against the perennial All-Star point guard. His shooting numbers dipped in the fourth quarter, when the C’s started chucking in an attempt to get back in the game, but the Celtics had to be encouraged with how Thomas performed, as they’ll need his production if they hope to make the playoffs.
Since his career night against the Oklahoma City Thunder — when Marcus Smart collected 25 points, nine rebounds and five assists in 37 minutes opposite Russell Westbrook — the Celtics rookie has been mired in a slump. He was ejected in the next game against the San Antonio Spurs, served a one-game suspension, and finished with no more than six points, three rebounds and two assists in any of his next three games. In limited minutes against Paul and the Clippers, he was held without a point or an assist.
Although they did not play their best basketball, The Celtics (32-41) defeated the New York (14-59) Knicks 96-92 Friday night in Madison Square Garden. Isaiah Thomas led the Celtics scoring with 18 points, while Jae Crowder (17 points) Brandon Bass (16) Evan Turner (15), and Avery Bradley (10) also finished in double-figures. Andrea Bargnani scored 25 points for the Knicks in the loss.
The Celtics gained a game on the Miami Heat, but remain only a half game ahead of the Nets for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The C’s begin a stretch of five games in seven nights against the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday night in Boston.
CELTICS LACK “SECRET STUFF”
After a woeful effort against the Heat on Wednesday, the Celtics needed to get off to a strong start. Instead, the C’s struggled to create open shots and looked generally lazy on the defensive end of the floor. Luckily for the Celtics, they were not playing a formidable opponent and only finished the quarter down by a point 22-21. To start the third quarter, the Celtics squandered their eight-point lead by quickly giving up a 7-0 run. During the second half of the season, the starters have not performed nearly as well as the bench. Brad Stevens may consider changing the rotations down the stretch.
CROWDER CONTINUES TO PLAY WELL
In addition to his usual excellent defense, Crowder did a great job tonight of pushing the pace after turn overs and defensive rebounds. On offense, Crowder’s first thought has been attack the basket, which has served him well recently. Crowder grabbed nine boards tonight and made seven of eight of his free throws. Since Isaiah Thomas went down with the back injury, Crowder has been the most consistent player on the floor for the Celtics, averaging 13 points and 6 rebounds per game. Speaking of Thomas.
THOMAS BACK TO FORM
Physically, Thomas looked drastically better than he did on Wednesday night in Boston. He did a better job of creating separation and looked more explosive when attacking the rim. Although he looked better from a physical standpoint, early on Thomas struggled to find his stroke, opening the game 1 for 7 from the field. He warmed up a little bit in the second half, finishing with 17 points, including going eight for nine from the free throw line.
Add Commissioner Adam Silver to the long list of people who are very impressed by the coaching of Brad Stevens In an interview with Celtics play-by-play announcer Mike Gorman air during the second quarter, Silver said that Brad Stevens is ‘one of the best young coaches in the league.’ Silver was very impressed by Stevens quick transition from college to the pros, noting ‘there’s some legendary failures of some Hall of Fame college coaches who’ve come in. I would say Brad had broken the mold from that standpoint.’
SHARING THE ROCK
In an interesting statistical note, nine different players made the Celtics first nine field goals. Jonas Jerebko broke the streak by hitting two shots in a row early during the second quarter.Of those nine players, eight finished with five points or more, as only Tyler Zeller was unable to score another basket.
Things were so ugly in the Celtics‘ 93-86 loss to the Heat on Wednesday, Jae Crowder publicly apologized to Boston fans for the effort put forth by himself and his teammates.
Of course, Jae Crowder led all C’s with 16 points, barreled his way to 11 free throw attempts and grabbed seven rebounds in what seemed like a typically hardnosed 27 minutes from the forward. Along with Phil Pressey, Marcus Smart, Jonas Jerebko and Gigi Datome, Crowder was part of the last-ditch lineup Celtics coach Brad Stevens discovered in the fourth quarter. That group slashed a 22-point deficit down to six before running out of time, but Crowder wasn’t satisfied.
“We don’t show up for three quarters. I don’t understand it,” he said as the C’s fell to 31-40 — still in eighth place, but just a half-game out of 11th. “You can’t come out lackadaisical”
“That’s something we have to fix as a team, as a group,” added Smart, who scored four of his six points and swiped three of his four steals in a remarkable fourth-quarter defensive effort that came too late. “If we don’t fix that and figure that out quick, we’re gonna have some problems.”
Goran Dragic requested a trade from the Suns, so when Phoenix general manager Ryan McDonough also dealt Isaiah Thomas minutes before the deadline, the news came as a bit of a shock.
“If I’m honest, I was a little bit surprised, especially because I asked for the trade,” said Dragic after his Heat beat the Celtics, 93-86. “But that’s how the NBA goes. It’s a business.”
Following Dragic’s Third Team All-NBA campaign in 2013-14, Phoenix acquired Isaiah Thomas on a four-year, $27 million contract in a sign-and-trade with the Kings — seemingly as insurance should restricted free agent Eric Bledsoe find a lucrative contract offer elsewhere.
Only the Suns then reached a five-year, $70 million deal to keep Bledsoe in Phoenix. In theory, the Suns entered this season capable of extending the two-point-guard attack that worked so well last season over a full 48 minutes, but reality eventually took over on the court.
“Unfortunately, we had three point guards at the same position and only one ball,” added Dragic, who scored a game-high 22 points Wednesday, “so it’s kind of hard to satisfy everybody.”
In the end, Dragic landed in Miami, where he’s excited about the Heat’s playoff potential, especially if they can ever get healthy, and Thomas found his way to Boston. While rumors spread that the two former teammates butted heads in Phoenix, both players squashed that notion.
Asked about the on-court dynamic between the two during their 46 games as a backcourt tandem, Thomas said, “It was nice. When we did play together, it worked. He’s a hell of a player.”
“I talked with Isaiah. He’s happy here. He was a great teammate. We had a good relationship,” added Dragic, who then offered a glowing scouting report on Thomas, who returned from injury on Wednesday. “He can score in bunches. He’s an offensive-minded player. If he’s hot, he can score 30 points easy. He has that quality to put his team on his shoulders, especially on offense.”
As for Thomas’ new backcourt mates, Dragic is also impressed and seems to think they complement him well. “[Marcus Smart] is aggressive like Avery Bradley. They’re really good defenders on the ball. … It’s always nice to have these kinds of players on your team, because you know they’re going to defend the whole game, and they’re going to cause a lot of problems for the offense.”
No Dwyane Wade, no Hassan Whiteside and no Chris Andersen should have been no problem for the Celtics, but the hometown team with newfound playoff aspirations submitted one of its worst performances of the season Wednesday night.