Kelly Olynyk and the Celtics won their third straight Friday night against the Kings. (AP)
The short-handed Celtics have suddenly won three straight.
Jared Sullinger scored a career high 31 points and grabbed 16 rebounds to lead the short-handed Celtics to their third straight win, a 99-89 victory over the Kings Friday night at TD Garden. All three wins (Orlando, Philadelphia and Sacramento) come against losing teams that figure to provide much stiffer competition for draft position in the NBA lottery this spring.
Playing without Rajon Rondo (knee soreness) and Avery Bradley (ankle), Jerryd Bayless (19 points) and Kelly Olynyk (11 points, nine rebounds, five assists) also helped to pick up the slack.
Jeff Green added 17 points on 6-of-20 shooting to help the Celtics improve to 18-33, which may not be great news in the long run. Boston moved 3.5 games ahead of last place Philadelphia in the Atlantic Division.
The Kings took advantage of the depleted Celtics early on, building a 29-19 lead late in the first quarter. DeMarcus Cousins was big early on, scoring 13 of his team-high 28 points in the opening quarter. Sacramento led 29-21 after 12 minutes.
But Olynyk led the Celtics back in the second quarter, scoring nine of his 11 first-half points off the bench. Olynyk couldn’t miss in the first half, hitting all three field goals, including a 3-pointer, while draining all four free throws. Olynyk had eight of Boston’s 12 points in a 12-0 run that put the Celtics on top, 31-29. Boston outscored Sacramento, 28-17, in the second quarter to grab a 49-46 halftime lead.
The Kings scored the first six points of the second half, taking a 52-49 lead, moving coach Brad Stevens to call a time out. After the break, the Celtics responded with a 10-0 run. The Kings responded with the game’s next seven points to tie the game again, a trend that continued for most of the third quarter as the Celtics led, 71-69, heading into the final 12 minutes.
Isaiah Thomas added 24 points for the Kings and got into a brief scuffle with Bayless late in the fourth quarter under the Kings basket. The tussle came close to spilling into the stands but was brought under control just in time. Both players were assessed technicals but remained in the game.
The Celtics opened the fourth quarter on an 18-4 run and were never threatened down the stretch. The Celtics have Saturday off before hosting the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday evening (6:30 p.m. ET) at TD Garden.
The team announced just before Friday’s game with Sacramento that they have signed 6-foot-6 swingman to a multi-year contract.
Johnson 23, has appeared in eight games for the Celtics and has averaged 7.6 points, 2.8 rebounds, and 1.3 assists in 21.6 minutes in eight games. He posted a career-high 12 points against Brooklyn on Jan. 26 and recorded a career-high four steals against Washington on Jan. 22.
He is currently shooting 40.0 percent from the three-point line which is tops on the Celtics since he signed his original 10-day contract with the Celtics on Jan. 17.
Johnson had appeared in 20 games for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the NBA Development League earlier this season where he had averaged 19.4 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.0 block in 37.2 minutes per game.
The two teams, which are managed by retired NBA players Chris Webber and Grant Hill, will face off next Friday night during NBA All-Star Weekend in New Orleans.
The draft took players out of a pool determined by the NBA’s assistant coaches. Webber picked Sullinger in the fifth round, and Olynyk, who was one of the last four players chosen, was selected via a blind draw.
Chris Johnson‘s second 10-day contract expired at midnight, but the Celtics have already informed the 23-year-old wing they will sign him for the remainder of the season. Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowskifirst reported the news.
The 6-foot-6 Johnson has averaged 7.6 points, 2.8 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.0 steals in 21.6 minutes over eight games in a Celtics uniform, registering an impressive 60.9 true-shooting percentage. His performance convinced Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge to fill one of the team’s two open roster spots for a pro-rated minimum salary that translates into less than $500,000 against the cap.
“I think it’s a great story, but it’s not like it’s some miracle,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens told reporters after Thursday’s practice. “It’s the result of hard work, doing the right things, not being scared of the moment, taking advantage of opportunities, those type of things.”
As the Celtics did with Chinese imports Shavlik Randolph, D.J. White and Terrence Williams last season, they are expected to give Johnson, who was playing for the D-League’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers three weeks ago, a non-guaranteed deal for next season that will keep him around until training camp.
Thanks to the Courtney Lee deal, the Celtics still have roughly $1 million worth of wiggle room under the luxury tax line after signing Johnson, granting them some flexibility as the trade deadline looms.
The Celtics are coming off of their worst month in team history — a record of 2-15 in January.
Duke’s Jabari Parker (left) and Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins (right) are two of the top prospects for the 2014 NBA draft. (AP)
Wrap your mind around that: the worst month in Celtics history. The 2006-07 team that lost 18 straight never dropped more than 14 games in a month. Even M.L. Carr‘s 1996-97 tank-squad that won a total of 15 games never topped 14 losses in a single month.
So what does this mean? It means the Celtics are going to lose a ton of games this season, even with Rajon Rondo.
The trade deadline is looming, and Danny Ainge already has showed that he is not afraid to make moves for the future — trading Courtney Lee and Jordan Crawford for expiring contracts and draft picks is evidence. And it’s safe to expect similar moves between now and Feb. 20.
It’s also safe to expect Ainge to hold a high draft pick come June. Boston currently has the sixth-worst record in the NBA and has reached as low as third (the C’s were fourth worst entering Wednesday). Recent wins over bottom-feeders Orlando and Philadelphia have the Celts sitting a bit higher in the standings. Losing another game or two would allow them to get in that bottom three, which yields a 96 percent chance at a top-five pick. The timing couldn’t be better, as the class of 2014 is loaded with prospects that project to be NBA stars.
Given the Celtics’ current position, selecting somewhere in the top five seems reasonable. So let’s look at the top five prospects in the draft and how they would work in Boston.
Joel Embiid, Kansas, freshman – Embiid has scouts drooling over his NBA potential. He has grown from a mid-to-late lottery pick to a probable first overall pick in just about half a season.
Embiid is a 7-footer with a 7-foot-5 wingspan. And oh, yeah, he’s only been playing basketball for about three years. Originally from Cameroon, Embiid still is learning the game at Kansas under Bill Self. The conventional wisdom was that he would take more time to develop, but Embiid has been masterful on the defensive end and is far less raw on offense than we were led to believe.
Embiid has posted season averages of 10.9 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.6 blocks and 1.3 assists in only 22.7 minutes per contest. He has done all this while shooting 61.6 percent from the field and making plays that have (rightfully) drawn comparisons to Hakeem Olajuwon. The lone flaw in his game? Embiid fouls far too often. His 3.5 fouls per game are much too high, especially considering his minutes.
One note of caution: We can’t be sure Embiid will enter the draft. The lanky freshman is smart; he knows the great big men he aspires to emulate all stayed in school multiple years. If he feels he is not ready for the NBA, Embiid will further develop at Kansas, and he said Tuesday that’s he’s “strongly considering” returning to for his sophomore season. We’ll see if Embiid has a strong enough second half to make up his mind to go pro.
Embiid would be an excellent fit in Boston up front with Jared Sullinger. Those two would complement each other perfectly on both ends of the floor. Embiid and Sully along with Rondo would be a heck of a start to rebuilding. Ainge would simply be left with finding a reliable wing scorer.
Andrew Wiggins, Kansas, freshman – Ainge probably would trade the entire Celtics roster for the Kansas roster. The Jayhawks have the top two prospects in this stacked draft. Wiggins has not lived up to the preseason hype, but he has shown flashes of brilliance. His 15.9 points and 6.0 rebounds per game should both be higher, but Wiggins has dropped 29 in one game and posted 19 boards in another (both in meetings with a highly ranked Iowa State squad), so he has the potential to excel at the next level.
Wiggins is a 6-foot-8 wing player known for his lightning-quick first step and his pogo stick-like second jump. Basically he is a freak athlete built for the NBA fast break — something he is ready for today.
Wiggins’ halfcourt offense is far from NBA ready right now, though. He needs to be more aggressive getting to the basket and his jump shot needs work. The upside is that Wiggins has the tools to make these tweaks to his game.
Wiggins also has everything it takes to be a good defensive player. Yet he gets lost at times and some wonder if it is due to lack of effort. Wiggins’ motor has been questioned in the past — not a good concern to have. He is going to have to prove he wants to be one of the greats by showing the effort.
That said, Wiggins would be a good fit in Boston. He would have very high expectations unfairly placed on him right away, but if Wiggins develops his jumper and puts in the work required, he would be a star here. The Rondo-Wiggins fast break would be a regular on the #SCtop10.
Jabari Parker, Duke, freshman – Without a doubt, Parker is the most NBA-ready player in the draft. He has posted averages of 18.7 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.1 blocks and 1.1 steals while shooting 47.1 percent. Obviously he is well rounded, but he has a rare type of inside-out game that is comparable to Carmelo Anthony.
Parker is a scorer from everywhere on the court and has the handle to create his own shot. He is a much better passer than the numbers suggest and he is a better defender than he gets credit for. Parker could start in an NBA game right now.
Parker has superstar potential in Boston. He immediately fills a void Paul Pierce left in wing scoring. Down the line, Parker could even be a Pierce-type player in Boston. It would be pretty convenient for Ainge if Parker were to fall into Boston’s lap. If Ainge is lucky enough to have a choice between Parker or Wiggins, he’ll need to prioritize the immediate contributions from Parker vs. exploring the potential of Wiggins.
Julius Randle, Kentucky, freshman – Randle is a specimen who absolutely dominates the NCAA physically. He outworks his opponents on the glass and bulls his way to the rim with ease. Randle has been falling a bit lately but still maintains averages of 16.0 points and 9.9 rebounds this season.
Randle clearly needs to develop some type of game away from the rim if he wants to find success in the NBA. It’s really as simple as that for him. Otherwise, he is physically capable of all aspects of the game once he adjusts to the league. Turnovers have been an issue for Randle, but at age 19, this is a fixable flaw.
Randle doesn’t fit as well in Boston as the other top prospects, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t be welcomed. He projects as an NBA power forward, as does Sullinger, but if Randle can continue his dominance at the next level, they would be a scary rebounding duo. Much like if Boston lands Embiid, the C’s hole would then be a scoring wing to go with Rondo and their pair of young bigs.
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State, sophomore – Smart could have been the first or second pick had he come out of school last year, but he chose to develop his game for another season. That certainly has raised his NBA stock, but these spectacular freshmen have jumped past him on draft boards.
Smart is a big, strong, combo guard at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds and he can kill you in any and every way. His season averages of 17.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 2.4 steals clearly show his diversity on the court. Smart can shoot the ball from all over, but even when he shoots poorly he doesn’t have bad games. Smart will find a way to finish at the rim or draw the foul, leaving defenses helpless. His passing ability doesn’t make anything easier and he is ruthless on defense. Smart can give Parker a run for his money as the most NBA-ready player in the draft.
Many are not considering Smart becoming a Celtic because of Rondo, but Smart absolutely has the size and skill set to play the off guard. If Avery Bradley walks in free agency, Smart would be a perfect fit for Boston. And even if Bradley re-signs, Smart-Rondo-Bradley could be a deadly three-guard rotation.
So, those are the top prospects, but this is much more than a five-player draft. Some think there is a chance Dante Exum from Australia can end up as a top pick by the time June arrives. Aaron Gordon of Arizona is another freshman expected to go in the top 10. Doug McDermott of Creighton is a scoring machine and has four years of college under his belt. This entire first round is deep; even picks in the 20s should prove valuable.
A lot is going to happen between now and June 26. But two things that are fairly safe to assume are that this draft is going to be special, and Danny Ainge is going to hold a valuable key to Boston’s rebuild. We’ll see if he unlocks the right door.