It’s been exactly one month since the Celtics finalized the Jeff Green trade — completing a series of deals that also sent Rajon Rondo packing — and yet they’re playing their best basketball of the season. After losing three straight immediately following their leading scorer’s departure, the C’s have won seven of their last 12 games to enter the All-Star break trailing the Hornets and Heat by only one loss for the Eastern Conference’s final two postseason spots.
Despite a 20-31 record, the Celtics are in the playoff conversation. Seriously.
“It’s always been a conversation, since Day 1,” said Marcus Thornton, whose 14 points helped ground the Hawks on Wednesday night. “I believe we can make it, and I believe we can make noise, too, so it’s on us to make that happen.”
Except, some of the current C’s weren’t here when the season began — namely rotation players Jae Crowder and Tayshaun Prince — and not all of them are expected to be around when the team reconvenes for the second half in Sacramento some 24 hours after the league’s Feb. 19 trade deadline.
So, Jared Sullinger can decry all he wants, “It’s the All-Star break; that’s the last thing on our mind,” but the harsh reality is this team that appears to be just hitting its stride could look completely different in a week.
“I’m going to use that time to take off and kind of forget about basketball a little bit,” Thornton said when asked about an eight-day vacation leading up to the trade deadline, “but wherever I’m at, I’m ready to go.”
Thornton’s $8.6 million expiring contract and scoring prowess (team-high 19.6 points per 36 minutes and 41.9 percent 3-point shooting) make him attractive trade bait for a team looking to bolster its playoff roster this spring and clear cap space over the summer. Same goes for Prince and Brandon Bass, a pair of veterans who respectively carry $7.7 million and $6.9 million price tags while still proving productive on the court.
“My teammates are great,” added Thornton, 27, who’s already on the record saying he’d like to stay in Boston. “We’re young. I’m kinda like old here on this team, which I don’t like to say, so none of y’all better not say it, either. But it’s great. The way we interact with each other is great. It’s one of the funnest teams I’ve been on.”
It’s a chemistry Brad Stevens has somehow concocted despite constant uncertainty throughout his two-year tenure. And while the Celtics coach would like to see his current team stick together for the final two months, he also knows Danny Ainge & Co. in the front office aren’t all that concerned about the here and now.
“Certainly, I’d love for us to have as little movement as possible,” said Stevens, “but I understand those guys will do their jobs, and they’ll take everything and look at it and figure out how best to move forward with our team, especially with 30-some-odd games left. I think that we have built momentum and have a good group of young guys that are — like I talked about before with Atlanta — figuring out how to be stars in their roles, and I think that’s the key. And that’s why I think we’ve been able to have a little bit of success here and there.”
Ainge has turned his coach into a real-life Sisyphus, and if another set of trades sends the Celtics careening down the hill again, Stevens will begin anew his mission to carry Boston back up that NBA mountain.
“We’ll figure it out depending on what happens in the next week,” added Stevens. “I really like these guys. They’re a good group of guys. They work hard, and you see a lot of growth in a lot of them.”
Having won three of their last four games, the Celtics looked to stay hot in their final game before entering the All-Star break. Unfortunately for Brad Stevens and company, the first place Hawks were on the other side of things.
But after a roller coaster of a game, the Celtics somehow prevailed 89-88 on an Evan Turner buzzer beater. After a crazy fourth quarter — and a game that saw the Celtics trail by as many as 18 — Boston found themselves down just one with only 6.3 seconds left. Then, on a play that appeared to be nothing like Stevens drew it up, Turner drove into the lane and splashed in a floater. Swish. Celtics win.
Jared Sullinger led the way for Boston (20-31) with 17 points and 15 rebounds, while Turner racked up 12 points, nine assists and seven rebounds. Marcus Thornton also contributed 14 points off the bench. Al Horford led the Hawks (43-11) with 22 points and 12 rebounds.
Don’t look now, but the C’s are now 7-5 over their last 12 games and are poised to continue their playoff push after the break.
In a season of inconsistencies, it seems the Celtics have come out just that way every game. There are no steady first quarters, only very good ones and very bad ones. Wednesday’s first quarter was a bad one. The Celtics scored a mere 13 points and shot only 18.5 percent from the field (5-for-27 FGs). Atlanta didn’t shoot the lights out, but after a 9-0 start to the game the Hawks managed 23 points on 52.9 percent shooting in the quarter (9-for-17 FGs).
The Celtics went on to shoot 31.8 percent in the second quarter (7-for-22 FGs). This raised their shooting percentage up to 24.5 for the first half — the lowest the Hawks have held an opponent in any half this season. For reference, the C’s have only shot under 30 percent for an entire game five times since 1985, the last time being in 2004.
After trailing by as many as 18 points and shooting only 32.3 percent for the game, the Celtics somehow pulled out a victory over the Eastern Conference’s finest. This was the definition of winning ugly, but the C’s proceeded to grind one out in a low scoring game that had everyone saying: “How did they win this game?”
BEST WIN OF THE SEASON
This one is self explanatory. Stealing a game before the All-Star break against the best team in the Conference on a buzzer beater takes the cake for best win of the first half of the season. It wasn’t as convincing as some others, but the C’s have to feel good about themselves heading into the break after this one.
MARCUS SMART SAW HIS MINUTES CUT
In the previous four games that Smart started at point guard he had played a minimum of 36 minutes. Stevens said it was easy to give to rookie so much playing time since he was so comfortable with Smart’s defensive presence. But perhaps the presence of Jeff Teague — who has been one of the best guards in the NBA this season — led Stevens to shy away from leaning so heavily on Smart. Smart only played 26 minutes against the Hawks, but tallied 11 points to go with three assists and two rebounds.
A major theme of the rebuilding Celtics has been that no player is safe from being traded for the betterment of the team ‘ something Danny Ainge has shown the willingness to do throughout his career (and now once again by trading Rajon Rondo). Here are some trades that make sense for the mess that is the Boston Celtics. Again, these specific trades are not rumors, simply ideas. This is part six.
After a flurry of trades, Danny Ainge’s phone has finally cooled off. At least for the last couple of weeks. But now the trade deadline is a mere eight days away, so expect things to begin to heat back up.
If you take a look around the league (which to me means skim through the ESPN trade machine for an hour), it makes sense that the Celtics haven’t been able to piece together any more moves that accomplish the goal of selling unneeded parts for future draft picks. Most teams that are considered buyers have either already made their moves to add help, or simply don’t have the contracts or assets that would match what Boston is trying to do.
However, there are still buyers out there.
The Hawks are back in Boston on Wednesday, and despite continuing to run away with the Eastern Conference, Atlanta still has many doubters. The Hawks just traded rookie Adreian Payne to the Timberwolves in order to add a 2017 first-round pick — a pick that figures to be used to add more firepower for this season. Furthermore, Atlanta has also been rumored as a potential landing spot for free-agent guard Ray Allen.
But with the Hawks still under the cap, here’s a move that could help them build their bench:
CELTICS GET: Elton Brand and a future second-round draft pick
*Brand would have to waive his trade clause
This deal makes perfect sense for both sides, but would probably need to wait until Atlanta knows if they will be making a bigger move first. Coming off a month where the Hawks entire starting lineup won Conference Player of the Month (which is absolutely remarkable), it’s now time to build their bench. The addition of Allen — or any other guard around the league that they can lure with their newly acquired first-rounder — would sure-up Atlanta’s backcourt, but they still need help off the bench in the form of a big. Bass is that guy.
Because the Hawks are under the cap, they are able to swap Brand’s $2 million expiring contract for Bass’ $6.9 million expiring deal without any problems. Boston would most likely buy Brand’s contract out, saving them money for the rest of the season, while Bass provides the perfect spark for the Hawks. In addition, Ainge tosses another second-rounder in his pile … you never know when all of them may come in handy.
1. Make Ray Allen compete in the 3-point contest before he is allowed to return to the league
Numerous media outlets are reporting that Allen is channeling his inner Roger Clemens and is close to making a midseason comeback. Before the perpetual front-runner ultimately settles on which contender he would like to play for, Allen should be forced to provide NBA fans with a pro bono shooting display as a sort of payment for taking off the first half of the season.
This clearly is the best way for the NBA’s all-time leader in 3’s to make his return to the league. There is no doubt in my mind that Allen could still win the contest. In preparation for his comeback, Allen undoubtedly has kept up his absurd practice routine. When you have shooting OCD, you don’t just give up shooting altogether.
Imagine the potential WWE-like spectacle. After the first eight shooters finish the first round, the entire arena goes dark. The MSG public address announcer gets on the mic.
“AND NOW, A SPECIAL NINTH COMPETITOR HAS COME FORWARD TO PROVE HE IS THE GREATEST SHOOTER IN ALL THE LAND. A 6-FOOT-5 SHOOTING GUARD FROM LINCOLN HIGH SCHOOL IN CONEY ISLAND, THE NBA’S ALL-TIME LEADING 3-POINT SHOOTER, NO. 34, JESUS SHUTTLESWORTH.”
Allen, wearing a Lincoln High School Shuttlesworth shooting jacket, then proceeds to obliterate the competition. Reggie Miller complains the entire time about how Allen is breaking the rules. Marv Albert is so excited he just starts biting everyone within his grasp. The NBA Twitter community explodes, creating an abundance of reaction memes, GIFs and new hashtags.
Then Ray Ray proceeds to destroy Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Kyle Korver in the finals, and take his trophy and rip off his jacket revealing his brand new No. 34 Cavaliers jersey. Boos reign down from the rafters as LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, who are just as surprised as the rest of us, run out on the court to embrace the newest NBA villain. Courtside, cameras find Paul Pierce, Joakim Noah and Kyle Lowry pointing at Allen and making a menacing throat-slashing gesture. The gauntlet is thrown down and it is officially ON in the Eastern Conference.
Maybe it’s just me, but I think it could be the greatest moment in NBA history.
2. Add a defender to the dunk contest
The dunk contest of the 21st century feels like American foreign policy around the 1900s. For years and years, a sort of manifest destiny drove NBA players to explore the great unknown. There was a sense of hope, honor and optimism with each new dunk. What would happen if they put the ball between their legs? Spun the opposite way for a 360? Maybe even throw the ball off the side of the backboard?
Eventually, just as American pioneers ran out of land to settle out West, dunkers ran out of new and original dunks to perform. With nothing new left to accomplish, the dunkers tried to rehash dunks of the past, adding silly props like a Kia or a cape in an attempt to regain the feelings we once had. We as fans pretended to care, even pretended to be impressed, but deep down we knew that something was missing and these dunks were not as great as those of yesteryear. Sure it was nice to have control of the Phillipines and Puerto Rico, but were we really going to pack up our entire lives into a covered wagon and move there? Not a chance.
The Dunk Contest either needs to be abandoned completely or retooled for the modern era. As a strict isolationist, I am in favor of getting rid of the silly contest and instead focusing efforts on creating new forms of midseason entertainment. I understand this is unlikely, as the world is filled with backward thinkers unwilling to relinquish the tired and hackneyed ideas of the past.
The only way to I can think of to make the dunk contest exciting again would be to add a defender. Rather than jumping over a car or Nate Robinson, dunkers would have to outmatch the likes of DeAndre Jordan, Hassan Whiteside or K.J. McDaniels. This will never happen due to the insane likelihood of injury, but a one-on-one dunking death match would be a guaranteed thrill ride. Think of the potential blocks! The posterizations! The bruised egos and ensuing fistfights!
Unfortunately for the Boston Celtics, three is the magic number. On the second night of a back-to-back, the Celtics were unable to win what would have been a season-high fourth game in a row.
The Milwaukee Bucks beat the Celtics 96-93 on Saturday night. Playing their fourth game in five nights, the C’s (19-31) were unable to sustain a comeback attempt that brought them within one point in the final minute. Brandon Knight led all scorers with 26 points and sealed the game with an impressive step-back jumper in the final 10 seconds.
The Celtics struggled to deal with the absurd length of the Bucks (28-23). The Celtics were unable to establish their motion offense, and instead settled for contested jumpers. They shot 42 percent from the floor and an abysmal 24 percent from 3-point range. Avery Bradley, Tyler Zeller, Marcuses Smart and Thornton each had double-figure points in the loss.
Greek Freak Freaks Greeks; Potential best player in NBA history
Giannis Antetokounmpo is the most intriguing player in the NBA. The 6-foot-11 20-year-old is STILL growing, is a dynamic ball-handler, and has the ability to euro-step and dunk from the 3-point line. Coming off a career-high 27 points against the Rockets, the talents of the Greek Freak were on full display against the Celtics. Finishing with a double-double (14 points, 11 rebounds), Antetokounmpo impacted almost every aspect of the game. His length was most impressive, as he bothered Celtics shooters the entire night. I fully expect Giannis to win the Slam Dunk contest next weekend and slowly evolve into the best player in the universe.
In the point guard-heavy NBA, Brandon Knight is not a household name. After being drafted eighth by the Pistons in 2011 out of Kentucky, Knight had a disappointing couple of seasons in Detroit. In Milwaukee, though, Knight has drastically improved his game. Last season he averaged a career-high 17.9 points per game and continues to do a solid job leading the surprisingly good Bucks offense. Saturday, he had a very impressive first half, scoring 18 of his 26 points.
Sullinger stays in the paint
To the delight of Celtics fans everywhere, Jared Sullinger only attempted 3 three pointers tonight (Although, his shot in the final 2 minutes was particularly reprehensible) For the majority of the game, he chose to plant his excess posterior in the paint. In the first half, he was the best C’s player on the floor, scoring 12 points and grabbing 5 boards. Recently, Sullinger has been doing an excellent job passing the ball, but only finished with 2 assists in tonight’s game.
After being sidelined with a hip injury, Brad Stevens- favorite savy vet- returned to the rotation with excellent results. When the Celtics went small, Prince played the four, notching 8 points in 19 minutes off the bench. Tayshaun’s return meant that rookie James Young, who had seen his minutes increase in recent games, did not see the floor, finishing with a DNP-Coach’s Decisions.
Marcus Smart continues to improve on offense.
After a couple low scoring performances, Smart finished with over 10 points for only the tenth time this season. In the first quarter, the rookie continued his assault from beyond the arc. He opened the game by knocking down 2 for 4 from deep. Smart has also shown remarkable improvement running the offense, particularly in the pick and roll. He finished with 13 points but only 1 assist.
“Guys in here are trying to win,” said Jae Crowder, the only one left from the Dec. 19 Rondo deal. “A lot of people counted us out, so we have a lot of pride in this locker room, and the city has a lot of pride, so we want to keep playing for those guys, playing for ourselves and playing basketball the right way to give ourselves a chance.”
The Celtics own a similar record after the Rondo trade (10-16) to before it (9-14), but since the Green deal was finalized on Jan. 12, the C’s are 7-7, including the first three road wins against Western Conference teams of the Brad Stevens era. For better or worse, this hodgepodge of young talent and expiring contracts is playing to win.
But some within the Celtics locker room are waiting for the other shoe to drop, or at least it sounds that way.
“It’s been great,” said Marcus Thornton, who netted 16 points off the bench in Friday’s win over the 76ers, of the team chemistry since a series of trades also saw Brandan Wright come and go. “It’s still not over yet. Feb. 19 is still a long time from now, so we’ll see how that goes, too. For the time being, everybody’s just here playing.”
Feb. 19, of course, is the NBA trade deadline, and Thornton seemed awful familiar with that date. “No, I’m not thinking about that,” he countered. “Whatever happens, happens. I would like to stay here. Who wouldn’t? We’ve got a good thing going, but like I said, it’s not controllable. I can’t control it, so whatever happens, happens.”
So goes the battle for Brad Stevens and this band of merry Celtics, who staved off a 76ers comeback for another victory and pulled within two games of the Nets for the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff seed.
“We’ve been good in those moments in really the most part of the month,” said Stevens. “And we had a little bit of an adjustment, obviously, after Rondo was traded and Jeff was traded, but in close games — or, you know, we’ve had to come back in a couple of these games — I feel like for the most part it’s been a positive in the last eight minutes of games. So, that’s encouraging from where we started the year.”
Growing, morphing, evolving, it’s all part of the process of these Stevens Celtics, whatever that may be.