CelticsHub http://www.celticshub.com Boston Celtics Blog for information, in-depth analysis and discussion about CelticsHub. Mon, 02 May 2016 18:38:36 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Navigating the Celtics’ Offseason http://www.celticshub.com/2016/05/02/navigating-the-offseason/ http://www.celticshub.com/2016/05/02/navigating-the-offseason/#comments Mon, 02 May 2016 18:25:00 +0000 http://www.celticshub.com/?p=58256 Trends and Forces        No team operates in a vacuum. The Celtics, coming off a positive season with a disappointing end, are entering what is viewed as a critical offseason at a time when the league’s traditional team-building foundational principles are changing. This is well-trod territory, but it’s worth just looking at what […]

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bos_g_danny-ainge_mb_576Trends and Forces       

No team operates in a vacuum. The Celtics, coming off a positive season with a disappointing end, are entering what is viewed as a critical offseason at a time when the league’s traditional team-building foundational principles are changing. This is well-trod territory, but it’s worth just looking at what the “new TV deal” cap increase looks like.

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Last year’s $7M cap increase, which was barely noticed as people looked to the future, was, in raw dollars, the third largest cap increase ever. Next season the cap is projected to increase by $22M, with a further $16M (and it will end up being more than that) tacked on the following year.

This means that functionally every team in the league would be willing and able to clear enough cap space to sign a transformative player like Kevin Durant, if he chose them. We could actually see a team break the regular season wins record and then make one of the biggest free agent signings in league history.

In this environment the traditional team building tools are all seeing their values change. The Mid-level Exception (MLE), long the primary tool for good teams to add quality role players (or saddle themselves with bad contracts), now looks like it may buy a deep bench player instead of someone for the core rotation. Most teams will spend time under the salary cap meaning they won’t even have access to the full MLE and instead will get the smaller Room Mid-level Exception (RME) if they are able to get back up to the cap at all. The Bi-annual Exception (BAE) is already rarely used and the Taxpayer MLE (MMLE) may only even be a consideration for the Cavaliers as no one else has immediate tax concerns.

Trade Exceptions (TPE), which the Celtics have used well in the past, barely even exist now. Teams that do have or create them are more likely than ever to just renounce them as they go below the cap, and their value in the market is extremely low as cap space is easier to trade into than a TPE and many teams have that available to use. In the past, when cap space was precious, expiring contracts often greased the wheels of major trades. The years long decline in the value of those contracts is now bottoming out with them being functionally worthless.

Rookie deals, with their first four years of salary predefined and ending in restricted free agency with comparatively low maximum contracts, see their relative value increase as their salary-to-cap ratio quickly drops. However, future draft picks for 2018 and beyond are more difficult to value as the potential to re-write the CBA, and with it the rookie scale table, looms that summer; we’ll get to that in a second.

Pushing against all this newly available cash is the salary floor. The obligation for every team to, at least on paper, spend up to 90% of the salary cap has, to this point, only been the concern of a few teams tanking away seasons. Beginning this year we’ll have multiple teams both trying to compete and add talent, and struggling to spend up to the floor. It may be that teams simply accept the “penalty” of having to cut their players a check to make up the difference to the salary floor, but teams really don’t like to give away money for nothing, no matter how much fans like to believe the owners of their team will do it for team good will. The more likely result of the floor will be that it plays its intended role and leads teams to overspend on middling players. Getting something is better than nothing, after all.

Except when it’s not. The challenge for teams is striking a proper balance. It may be that we see the cap increase by large amounts for two seasons then shrink and level out. Teams that spend lavishly on mid-tier players may find themselves capped out in a few years, looking to dump contracts the way teams used to regret giving out bad MLE deals. The limits on contract length keeps that from being a major issue (if it were the late-1990’s we’d be seeing Evan Turner angling for a 5-6 year deal) but smart, or copy-cat, front offices who miss out on their top targets but want to spend up to the floor will look to make Amir Johnson-type deals with frontloaded money followed by team outs. The goal of the agents of mid-tier players will be sniffing out the stupid franchises willing to give their player a four-year deal to overcome a two-year salary floor concern.

I say this is a two-year concern but we really don’t know how things will play out beyond that. The expectation is that the CBA will be rewritten after the 2017-18 season. It seems like the players are the driving force behind this, which would indicate player friendly changes could be coming, including further increases in the salary cap. Teams, who have more information about how things are going than an outsider like me, have to make bets on how they see this playing out. Around the last set of CBA changes we saw two franchises, the Mavericks and Thunder, make large bets that the league’s finances would be more stagnant than they have been and so made aggressive moves that backfired.

That choice between being conservative or aggressive in pursuing a plan aligned to your projections is one all teams face. Unlike around the last CBA change, where the aggressive position was to scale back team finances, the aggressive position now is to expand them and spend. This is actually a less risky position to be in than last time, because trading away James Harden or breaking up a title core lasts forever; a free agent signing that goes south may only carry two years of real pain and even that could be cleared away if a new amnesty provision is created.

All of that leads to a position that teams have maybe never been in before. Hyper-aggressiveness, on the financial front, seems to be the correct course of action. That does not mean that teams should be willing to spend for the sake of spending; it’s that teams should not let financial concerns get in the way of what they think are good talent acquisitions. We’ll get into how that plays into the planning specifically for the Celtics, but the average team should identify their targets all the way down through the tiers of players and then pursue them very hard. A player signed to a “bad” four-year deal on an even $92M salary cap won’t matter if the cap is $125M in 2018 or your projection goes wrong and it sinks to $100M but you get an amnesty option, especially if that player helps you reach the salary floor for the next few seasons.

The current projections, which will likely change again after the league finish their audit, look like this:

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Assets and Options

The timing of this temporary bonanza is actually somewhat unfortunate for the Celtics. Throughout almost all of the salary cap era, cap space was a precious commodity available to only a handful of teams each year. The Celtics spent 18 consecutive years over the salary cap, a feat that would not be possible if cap spikes like we’re about to see were a regular occurrence. For salary matching purposes, the Nets trade had to send back some multi-year contracts, including Gerald Wallace’s. From that moment you could see that, unless the Celtics got anxious and traded away picks to dump contracts, last summer would be an opportunity to go below the cap with this season the chance to get all the way to max space.

If the cap continued to grow at historic rates, the Celtics would have hit this offseason as one of a few teams with that type of flexibility. Instead, they face a market flush with potential suitors for their target players. Where they do have an advantage is in the ability to create enough cap space to sign two max players without gutting their core.

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If the Celtics were to win one of the top two picks in the lottery they would no longer have enough starting cap space to sign two 7-9 year player max contracts, but they could get back there by using one of their picks on a draft-and-stash or by giving away one of their young players (probably James Young).

The below table shows how combinations of the four remaining non-guaranteed players and restricted free agents would impact the team’s starting cap space.

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A Brief Aside About Evan Turner

Evan Turner’s situation is complicated. A player establishes different levels of Bird Rights based on how many years it has been since they voluntarily changed teams. Full Bird Rights, the kind that allow a team to re-sign a player for all the way up to their maximum salary even if it bring them over the cap, are established after three seasons. The Logo signed in Boston two years ago, so he carries a lesser type of right known as Early Bird Rights.

Early Bird Rights allow a team to sign their free agent for up to 175% of their previous salary even if that brings them over the salary cap. To sign the player for more than that, they must use cap space. In the coming hyper-aggressive seller’s market, Evan is going to get paid quite a lot. His Early Bird Rights only cover a $6M first season salary, which will not be enough to re-sign him, so whatever you think Turner’s whole 2016-17 salary will be is taken out of cap space.

In effect, if you want to bring back Evan Turner at his market price, you do not think the Celtics can/will have a transformative offseason with multiple major acquisitions. That may very well be the case regardless of what happens with Turner. The question then becomes: Is Evan worth the price not so much in dollars (we’re in an aggressive market, after all) but in minutes. Is it a good idea to close off avenues to a massive offseason while also blocking the development of younger, cheaper alternatives like Terry Rozier and RJ Hunter? In my opinion, no; it’s not a good idea to re-sign Turner regardless of if he’s leaving because the team needs the cap space to acquire two major players, or the team is taking a longer path where internal development is a better choice.

It seems like the clearest path for Evan to return is some sort of middle way. If the team were to acquire one star player, possibly via a trade that moves some of the other options for his role, but then were not able to close on a second one they could then go back to Turner as a veteran fallback. Picture a scenario where the Nets pick and Smart are traded for DeMarcus Cousins, but then Kevin Durant goes back to OKC leaving the Celtics with vacant cap space and a need for another playmaker, for example.

Back to the Topic at Hand…

All of that is the set-up for the next chapter in this building cycle for the Celtics. The team was one of the youngest in the league so it’s not correct to call this a make-or-break offseason. It’s more like a fork in the road. The team is set up, more so than last summer or at the last trade deadline, to execute a franchise altering series of moves. The issue continues to be that the opportunity to do that may not present itself, and if it does there will be other teams looking to grab it at the same time.

An unfortunate reality is that the likable core of this past season’s team may not stay together if what I think everyone believes is the best case scenario happens. It’s possible that all of the non-guaranteed players and free agents are simply allowed to leave and they are replaced with two major free agents and a set of draft picks. More likely, an ideal rebuild involves a combination of expensive signings and trades where an established player and/or a set of young ones have to be let go.

Goals and Aspirations

Before we map out some fantasy offseasons, let’s set goals:

First, this team needs shooting. They really badly need shooting. Ideally from someone who looks like a traditional small forward.

Second, we need more athleticism. Terry Rozier stood out so much because there’s no one else on the roster like him. A dunker on the front line would be a welcome addition, especially if they’re able to block some shots on the other end.

Third, unless the team goes through a major overhaul with new top-end talent, we need to clear opportunity. There’s no point in drafting a pack of youngsters if the only minutes available to them are in Maine. Even if it costs a few wins in the short-term, we need to see what we have in the youth movement so informed decisions can be made about them in the future.

Fourth, it would be nice to have a star player over 6′ who the rest of the league fears at least a little bit on offense.

Lastly, we don’t want to do anything stupid. The goal is not to be a 52 win team for the next five seasons. We want to reach 52 as part of a sustainable progression, or jump all the way up to 60 and challenge for a banner.

Pretenders and Contenders

So, what would it really take to elevate the Celtics to the upper echelon of the league in a single offseason? It starts with an acceptance of risk. Much of that risk is related to the timing of steps in the offseason.

The draft, which will present an opportunity to move, especially with the Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko contracts, also carries the risk of future mediocrity. If the Celtics win the lottery would they be willing to move that pick for a player like Jimmy Butler, who on his own does not make the team a contender, because it increases the chances of a follow-up move? If they don’t win the lottery, is it worth moving a pick in the 3-5 range with Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder for that trade that shows intent, but also may limit long-term upside if the rest of the plan does not come to fruition?

That question may be key in this whole process because if a Butler or Cousins level player is for sale the draft would be the most likely moment for it to happen and the Celtics will not have spoken to any prospective free agents at that time. If Boston is hesitant to take the leap, a collection of teams (76ers, Lakers, Magic, etc.) will be there with similar goals and tradable assets to jump in.

We at least have history to look to on this. In 2007, Ainge did take that leap moving for Ray Allen at the draft. The difference there was that Garnett was definitely available in trade so the Celtics had a full portfolio of information to work off of. A trade at this draft, if the goal is to sell a change to Kevin Durant, is done largely blind.

A complete, league altering rebuild probably looks something like this:

Boston opens with an offer at the draft of just draft assets and players who spent time in Maine, using Amir Johnson’s contract for matching purposes. If the Celtics have a top-2 pick and are willing to move future Brooklyn picks in the process that may be enough. If it is, the trade is executed at the draft.

If it’s not, and the team agrees to include an established player like Avery Bradley or Jae Crowder, it would ultimately suit the Celtics to not formally execute the trade until much later in the offseason. This is a fine line to walk and they may not bother with it, but if all of the moving parts could be managed the team could then take the necessary steps to clear as much cap space as possible. They could then sell two free agents with the promise of a third player, like Butler, unofficial but in the bag. If the cap goes up from $92M and the outgoing players make a little more money (like maybe Bradley and Smart together) it might not even be necessary to wait.

After the draft, it will be time to tender qualifying offers to Jared Sullinger and Tyler Zeller. I see no reason not to make the offer to Sully. He won’t accept it and it could always be rescinded later if the cap space is needed. Tyler Zeller is less clear-cut. I don’t think he would take the qualifying offer but you never know, and there are limits on how you can trade a player who takes the QO so if he did it couldn’t be immediately cleared off the books. If the team has no interest in retaining Tyler, it would also just be nice to give him the freedom of unrestricted free agency.

Regardless of earlier steps, the team then has to make their decisions on Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko early in the moratorium. I don’t see a scenario where Jonas Jerebko needs to be waived before his $5M becomes guaranteed on July 3. There are plenty of teams who would be happy to take him off Boston’s hands and into their cap space if they need the room for major moves later. Amir should also get more than $12M in his next contract but it would not be as simple to move him quickly if needed. It could still certainly be done so I don’t think he would be waived (if he weren’t traded at the draft) but I also wouldn’t be shocked if it happened. If it does, it’s a GREAT sign for pending moves.

Our ideal rebuild now has to consider some fine details. Depending on the exact salary cap, and how the lottery and draft played out, the team may choose to ship out some of the younger players like James Young or RJ Hunter to clear all required space. Neither would bring much in return, but there would also be multiple teams happy to take a risk on them for no cost.

At this stage we’re now looking to add one or two premier free agents. The primary target is, of course, Kevin Durant. We know we’ll have space for him. If we haven’t consummated a draft day trade, we’ll be looking for a second primary free agent acquisition to sell as a combo deal to KD. The name most commonly brought up is Al Horford, but Hassan Whiteside could also be in play. Most of the other top free agents play Durant’s position, or aren’t as good as the Celtics’ current options.

A less ideal but similar looking offseason would have Horford as the main acquisition and a player like Nic Batum as the paired signing.

Some people prefer a future where the Celtics sign Durant and Horford after drafting and keeping Ben Simmons (or Brandon Ingram) instead of making a major draft trade, which works and would also be great and leaves the team with more depth, but here is the maximalist “ideal build” in sequential order:

1. The Celtics agree to trade the Nets pick, Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, RJ Hunter, and James Young for Jimmy Butler

2. One of the remaining 1st round picks is used on a draft-and-stash while the other is used on a player for next season

3. A qualifying offer is extended to Jared Sullinger but not Tyler Zeller

4. Amir Johnson is waived before July 3

5. Evan Turner’s rights are renounced (they don’t help anyway)

6. The team approaches Durant and Horford on the first day they can, pitching a super team built around them with Isaiah Thomas, Jimmy Butler, and Jae Crowder

7. Both players agree to sign for their max contracts, Durant taking a 2+1 deal meaning he can move back into free agency in 2018

8. Jonas Jerebko is traded into another team’s cap space for a future 2nd round pick

9. John Holland is waived

10. Jared Sullinger’s qualifying offer is rescinded

11. Durant and Horford officially sign

The roster is filled out with some ring chasing veterans using the RME and minimum contracts

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Slow and Steady

A build like that requires so many things to happen that are out of the team’s control that, while fun to talk about, if very unlikely. The most likely, and least immediately gratifying, path involves no major acquisitions and a commitment to building through the draft. Even in this path the team isn’t going to have all players under 24 years old so all the picks down through round 2 won’t be used in this season.

This path potentially leaves the team below the salary floor by some amount so there’s no reason to lose players like Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko unless you think younger players are ready to push them out. Jared Sullinger, for all that he looked terrible to end the season, is still young and performed well by advanced metrics this season. If you’re building for the future, you want to keep a player like that. Evan Turner could be brought back in this scenario but let’s say you add Jamal Murray or Buddy Hield on top of Smart, Rozier, and Hunter. Do you want to commit multiple years to Evan Turner in that scenario?

If this does play out it’s important to remember that this is the mid-point of the haul from the Nets trade, not the end. The team can be ok for a few years while building a young contender beneath the surface if the patience is there. It’s more likely that the next great Celtics team will be Harry Giles, Jamal Murray, and Marcus Smart in 2021, than Kevin Durant and Al Horford in 2017.

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Hot and Cold

The last option is, of course, somewhere between these two extremes. That could take any number of appearances. It could be that the team trades the Nets pick for a star but then cannot follow that up with the rest of the moves needed to become a legitimate contender. The only free agent (LeBron excluded) who makes a team a contender is Durant so, similarly, the team could make the Nets pick and then sign one good free agent (Horford, Batum, Barnes) or a few ok ones (Bazemore, Fournier, Ezeli) and advance to being an over-50 wins team.

If this is done through free agency there’s no real downside. Those players aren’t going to hamstring your franchise with the length of deals and the way the cap is moving. If Durant decides to return to OKC but only for one season, this might actually be the best course of action. You can be a 52 win team and show further progress while building a larger asset base of veteran player who could be moved later. Worst case you’re still building through the draft; best case you’re doing that while turning excess cap space into current wins and future assets.

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The bigger risk, and a definite possibility given the timing of the offseason, is trading away the Nets pick for that Butler or Cousins level player but then not having the other shoe drop. If you, for example, make the Butler trade for the Nets pick, Bradley, and Smart and then, failing to entice Durant, bring back Sullinger and add some other mid-tier veteran you’re pushing up your age and cost profile but not getting to the realm of title contenders. It’s much harder to get “trapped in the middle” in the current climate than in a flat cap one, but you start edging into that world with that type of offseason.

Facts and Figures

The fact is that it’s really hard to figure how this offseason will play out. It’s undoubtedly an important one for the Celtics, but it’s an important one for a lot of teams, and the league as a whole. Having multiple positive options is always good, but it’s especially so when you’re in an environment where no one is exactly sure how the underlying landscape is shifting.

The reason a team even builds flexibility is not so they can execute one specific plan. They may have a Plan A, but too many teams get themselves in a position where Plan A is a possibility but out of their complete control, and Plan B isn’t that good. Plan A for the Celtics returns them to immediate contention, but Plans B, C, and D are still better than what most teams have going. To be able to say that about a team that is already pretty good is a testament to good management and luck. As fans, we can only really hope for those two things to continue.

(But let’s also hope for Kevin Durant)

 

You can follow me @dangercart. I also maintain a cap calculator workbook at roster-builder.com that is now out-of-date. A Celtics-only copy of the model in Excel can be downloaded via dropbox here.

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The Good, the Bad, and the Unknown for the Celtics Following Another First-Round Exit http://www.celticshub.com/2016/05/01/good-bad-unknown-celtics-following-another-first-round-exit/ http://www.celticshub.com/2016/05/01/good-bad-unknown-celtics-following-another-first-round-exit/#comments Sun, 01 May 2016 04:25:24 +0000 http://www.celticshub.com/?p=58243 Despite two hard fought home victories, the Celtics have been officially eliminated from the 2016 NBA post-season. The culprit – the Atlanta Hawks – will move on to the next round and face the Cleveland Cavaliers. Boston, meanwhile, can turn its attention to an off-season that will be full of intrigue. Before diving deep into […]

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Despite two hard fought home victories, the Celtics have been officially eliminated from the 2016 NBA post-season. The culprit – the Atlanta Hawks – will move on to the next round and face the Cleveland Cavaliers. Boston, meanwhile, can turn its attention to an off-season that will be full of intrigue.

Before diving deep into what the draft and free agency will yield, it’s worth taking the time to dwell on what we saw out of this Celtics team (and Brad Stevens) during the course of those six fateful playoff games.

The Good

Boston finished the regular season with a 48-34 record, exceeding many expectations for a team still working out the kinks of an accelerated rebuild. The team finished in the top ten in assists, points scored and +/-, among many other encouraging accolades. At the helm was Isaiah Thomas, who not only earned his first All Star nod this season but showed tremendous leadership.

In Game 3 of the Hawks series,Thomas dropped 42 points in a  home win at the garden, the crown jewel of the team’s entire post-season. He became just the 9th player to ever put up 40+ points in a playoff game wearing Celtics green.

Not only was he the most potent offensive weapon for the Celtics, but his incredibly team friendly contract means that Boston has a secured top-level talent without compromising any financial flexibility moving forward. This series likely grew IT as a player, and should the C’s find themselves in the post-season next season, he will likely have an even stronger supporting cast.

Boston’s other star, head coach Brad Stevens, also logged important playoff experience this season. He netted his first ever NBA post-season victories, and despite a few ugly games, one can only assume he too experienced growth during the series. Again, given the Celtics are poised to make a major splash this summer, even a first-round exit can be considered positive.

As for the rest of the Celtics roster, each player had shining moments that deserve recognition. Terry Rozier and Amir Johnson, both of whom had rather tepid regular seasons, came alive in this series. Their energy and play-making abilities were essential resources that gave Boston even more to work with. Others, like Marcus Smart and Crowder, had inconsistent post-season showings, but hopefully grew an appetite for success.

The Bad

In my opinion, the C’s were playing with house money and had a regular season that was better than expected, but it is still reasonable for fans around the Hub to feel upset over back-to-back first round exits.

As for the playoffs, there are a few things that cannot be ignored. Avery Bradley injury notwithstanding, there is little excuse for some of the stretches the Celtics put together, chief of which being a Game 2 1st quarter in which the team managed just 7 points.

Sprinkled throughout the series were moments where Boston really couldn’t buy a basket. Personnel concerns aside, Stevens takes some blame for such stark offensive inactivity. In the regular season letting the guys sort things out may be ok, but the stakes are just too high in the post-season to not intervene.

Overall, Boston’s lack of scoring prowess was on display. On the break and amid the chaos, this team can thrive, but in traditional half-court sets,  this roster does not have the right tools to be successful. The 2015-16 campaign is over, and it is possible that these concerns will be fully addressed in just a few months.

The Unknown

Free agent to-be Evan Turner made it known after Game 6 that he hopes to return to the Celtics, as did future restricted free agent Jared Sullinger. This was a team with great chemistry and trust, and I think the recent success of teams like the Spurs and Warriors have validated how important a happy locker room is.

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Regardless, with a boat-load of cap space and a treasure trove of draft picks, Danny Ainge will likely have the Celtics front office working hard throughout the summer to identify the right talent to bring to Boston in pursuit of a deeper playoff run. Whether it’s in the form of a Brandon Ingram or Ben Simmons or some sort of big trade or FA signing, it is fair to assume the Celtics roster will some sort of turnover.

As the dust settles from this first-round exit, Ainge and his team will begin to assess the most pertinent needs facing the team. Unlike other clubs that have just been bounced from the playoffs, the Celtics likely do not have to wait long to enjoy greener pastures.

Final Thoughts

I think it’s worth mentioning that this Atlanta Hawks team is extremely talented and well-coached. Though the sting of a playoff loss takes time for players and fans to recover, the Hawks certainly deserve recognition for the tremendous effort they put forth in this first round.

It also feels worth mentioning that this summer will truly be an incredible one for Celtics basketball. The fruit of Ainge’s asset-mongering will likely be realized, and its anyone’s guess as to what that will look like. Celticshub will keep you posted on the draft and free agency throughout the coming weeks and summer.

Please follow me on Twitter @CTabatabaie

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Deja Vu All Over Again: Celtics Fall to Hawks in Game 6, Season Ends http://www.celticshub.com/2016/04/28/deja-vu-celtics-fall-hawks-game-6-season-ends/ http://www.celticshub.com/2016/04/28/deja-vu-celtics-fall-hawks-game-6-season-ends/#comments Fri, 29 Apr 2016 02:43:19 +0000 http://www.celticshub.com/?p=58236   Other than the jersey colors, Game 6 ran pretty much the same path as Game 5. The Celtics played great D early and forced several turnovers, but they only got 3 points off of them and struggled to hit shots overall. This led to various players forcing shots, and Atlanta was eventually able to […]

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Other than the jersey colors, Game 6 ran pretty much the same path as Game 5. The Celtics played great D early and forced several turnovers, but they only got 3 points off of them and struggled to hit shots overall. This led to various players forcing shots, and Atlanta was eventually able to respond and pull away by halftime.

Isaiah Thomas’s call for his teammates to step up and help him were met with a couple of sparks, but not much else. Jonas Jerebko hit a couple of big threes, Marcus Smart made a few successful drives to keep it close, and Jae crowder finally got hot after 23 quarters to pull the deficit to respectability late. But Thomas was aggressively doubled again, and Boston struggled to make Atlanta pay for it.

Defensively, the team struggled again. There could be a myriad of factors attributed to that – Avery Bradley’s absence, the team looking exhausted, frustration from missed shots, you name it. Whatever the reason, Atlanta got to the hoop at will, rotations were missed, and the Hawks put the game mostly to bed with a 37 point third quarter.

This was a terrible matchup from the start. Atlanta’s defense found a way to snuff out what,little offense Boston could muster, and Boston’s defense seemed to run out of gas by the middle of game 4. It was going to be hard for Boston to pull it off at full strength, let alone with all the bumps, bruises, strains, and sprains they suffered as the series went on.

A plethora of questions need to be answered about this team, both as a result of this series and the season as a whole. But there’s plenty of good to take from what happened this year. The team improved as a whole, in record, standing, and ability. Thomas looks like a legit offensive piece to build around. Crowder is a dangerous multi-tool player. Stevens is suddenly a legitimate recruiting piece this offseason. Lots of questions remain, but lots to look forward to, as well.

Lots more to come, about tonight and the offseason, in the coming days. But be proud of this team for now. The past few days sullied it a bit, but the future is very bright.

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Celtics-Hawks Game 6 Preview: Can the Celtics Get Even Smaller? http://www.celticshub.com/2016/04/28/game-6-preview-can-celtics-get-even-smaller/ http://www.celticshub.com/2016/04/28/game-6-preview-can-celtics-get-even-smaller/#comments Thu, 28 Apr 2016 15:43:36 +0000 http://www.celticshub.com/?p=58231 As Jesse noted yesterday, this series is a lesson in punch, counter punch. In Game 3, Brad Stevens decided to go small, with Jonas Jerebko starting in the frontcourt instead of Jared Sullinger. In Game 5, Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer responded to a rough first seven minutes by going smaller, taking Al Horford out of […]

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Feb 25, 2015; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics forward Jonas Jerebko (8), guard Evan Turner (11), guard Isaiah Thomas (4), forward Jae Crowder (99) and guard Marcus Smart (36) celebrate against the New York Knicks during the second half at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

As Jesse noted yesterday, this series is a lesson in punch, counter punch. In Game 3, Brad Stevens decided to go small, with Jonas Jerebko starting in the frontcourt instead of Jared Sullinger. In Game 5, Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer responded to a rough first seven minutes by going smaller, taking Al Horford out of the game and moving Paul Millsap to center. With their backs against the wall in Game 6, one strategy open to the Celtics would be to go all in with this nesting-doll of a series. So if Game 5 proved the Hawks are looking to fight someone their own size, perhaps the Celtics should counter by becoming even smaller.

Let’s consider how this might work:

1.  There’s no getting around the fact that Atlanta has a frontcourt advantage. That would be the case even if Kelly Olynyk’s shoulder was 100 percent. Jared Sullinger hasn’t been able to keep pace with the game speed, and as a result he’s averaging just 14.8 minutes in the series, and his shooting (32 percent) hasn’t provided an adequate counterbalance.

The (sorta) good news is that Millsap’s solid performance (16 points, 9 boards, 47 percent shooting) hasn’t been magnified by support from Horford. Perhaps hampered by a groin injury, Horford has struggled offensively in the last three games. He was 2-11 on Tuesday, and has just 19 points on 27 percent shooting since Game 2.

Jerebko and Jae Crowder should be able to keep up their excellent defense, and I think Tyler Zeller should see some more time, as he can both body up Horford and play fast in a way Sullinger cannot. If he can hit some of his smooth 15-footers? All the better.

Yes, playing a seven-footer isn’t exactly a sign of playing small, but let’s see what I have planned for the backcourt.

2.  Double teams on Isaiah Thomas disrupted the Little Guy’s flow all night. A tweaked ankle isn’t going to help Thomas rediscover his form. If the Celtics play two other primary ball-handlers alongside Thomas (some combination of Turner, Smart and Rozier), IT will be able to work off the ball in half-court sets. Working off-ball should be a little easier on the ankle, it takes away the Hawks option to immediately double-team, and it would allow Celtics “bigs” to set off-ball screens that could get Thomas easier looks.

A three-point-guard lineup would also allow for a defensive scheme that I don’t think we’ll see, but I wouldn’t be opposed to Stevens giving it a shot. In Game 5, Stevens tried a 2-3 zone. The Hawks bombed that zone from long range until that side of the court was just splinters and ash. A 3-2, however, could give Atlanta some trouble.

As discussed, the Atlanta frontcourt is dangerous, but it’s not where the Celtics chances are made or broken. (Even 45 points from Millsap couldn’t stop Boston from winning Game 4.) If the Celtics can get more defensive speed on the perimeter, perhaps they can counter the screens and passing that gave Atlanta so many good looks from outside in Game 5. Because Kyle Korver is who the Celtics really have to be concerned with. If he’s off, like he was in Game 1, that’s a mark in Boston’s favor. But since Game 1, Korver is 16-31 from three. That’s terrifying, and if that hot shooting continues, the Celtics season does not.

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Game 5 Analysis: Celtics Shouldn’t Change Much; They Just Need to Score http://www.celticshub.com/2016/04/27/celtics-dont-need-change-much-just-need-score/ http://www.celticshub.com/2016/04/27/celtics-dont-need-change-much-just-need-score/#comments Wed, 27 Apr 2016 15:39:43 +0000 http://www.celticshub.com/?p=58220 A popular recurring theme when talking about a playoff series is the “chess match” that goes on between the coaches and their rosters, the tweaks in rosters and schemes that happen between games. Punch-counterpunch. So it might be tempting to say last night was the result of the latest chess move by Mike Budenholzer in […]

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A popular recurring theme when talking about a playoff series is the “chess match” that goes on between the coaches and their rosters, the tweaks in rosters and schemes that happen between games. Punch-counterpunch. So it might be tempting to say last night was the result of the latest chess move by Mike Budenholzer in an extended match between the Hawks and Celtics.

I think at this point, though, the chess match is over. Tomorrow will mark the tenth time these two very evenly matched teams have faced each other this season. There’s very little either could do at this point that would come as a surprise. This is now a rock fight, and last night, the Hawks had a much bigger rock.

Sure, there were a couple tweaks Atlanta made that are worth noting. They aggressively trapped Thomas behind the three-point line, often with a double team featuring longer defenders like Bazemore or Sefalosha – Thomas’s Achilles heel thus far in his Celtics career. He made several correct decisions early in the game, but as time went on, those decisions turned into mistakes and turnovers.

The Hawks also finally broke out their own small lineup – one I was expecting to see a lot more in this series for its offensive potency. Boston has done a fantastic job thus far of containing Horford and (besides game 4) Millsap, preventing the majority of their post-up opportunities, effectively poking the ball away in the paint, and muscling them up with smaller but more brutish defenders. So, Atlanta took Horford out, put Millsap at the 5, and put everyone around the perimeter. It helped that the shots were falling, but the Celtics looked a bit frazzled trying to cover the extra shooter, and frazzled quickly lead to exhausted in the third quarter. For the first time this series, Boston actually looked like a tired and beat-up team.

But none of that should really surprise anyone from a strategy standpoint. The book on Isaiah is well known: get a long, quick defender on him, and he becomes way less effective as a scorer. The Hawks simply decided to split that defender into two parts – a quick point guard to bother him on the perimeter, and a long wing to prevent him penetrating and to trap when available. The small lineup they broke out was always there, it just took until game 5 for Budenholzer to trust it for an extended run.

The real issue is much simpler: the Celtics aren’t hitting their shots.

The first quarter should have been a real warning bell for Celtics fans. Atlanta started their aggressive double teaming of Thomas almost immediately, and he was initially able to find open guys around the perimeter for WIDE open threes. I’m actually pretty sure he had more passes out of shots than actual shots in the first quarter. But no one could hit them.

Thomas is best as a lightning-quick penetrator; his perimeter shooting is a secondary weapon. He can’t execute when he’s facing the kind of tight zone defense he saw last night. Take a look at any possession Thomas tries to initiate offense as a ballhandler and see how much Atlanta is collapsing when he enters the paint. That is the case for just about any Celtic trying to make a move in the interior – Turner, Crowder, Smart, etc.

The Hawks have seen Boston for nine games, and they have decided they literally don’t care how open a lot of their players are from outside. They’ll take their chances. But Isaiah is not going to beat them inside if they can help it.

Imagine if just one or two of the open threes Boston got in the first quarter went in. Suddenly, the trapping up top doesn’t look as smart, and maybe Atlanta has to lay off a little bit. Maybe there’s a bigger cushion to withstand the Hawks going full NBA Jam in the third quarter. Maybe Crowder finally snaps out of his schneid and returns to Dark-Horse All-Star Replacement Candidate Jae Crowder. Maybe Thomas finally gets some room to operate inside. At the very least, it’s a much closer game.

Instead, Atlanta continued to pack any area inside 15 feet, Thomas began to force shots, the rest of the team began to panic and force the issue, and Atlanta was off. A big reason the Celtics eventually collapsed on defense was the number of transition opportunities the Hawks got off missed shots and turnovers. You can’t set an aggressive ball-denial defense up if you’re constantly moving.

So obviously, Thomas needs some help. It doesn’t really matter from where. Smart had a superb Game 4 and looked to be continuing it at the start of Game 5; he just needs to cut down on the forced passes when he faces the Atlanta wall. Turner has been doing as much as he can, but the Hawks love when he shoots on the perimeter, and he’s also caught the turnover bugaboo lately. Amir Johnson has his moments cleaning the offensive glass.

Other candidates you feel less confident in. Jerebko at the 5 has been a revelation, but he hasn’t really capitalized from deep enough to make the Hawks consistently worried (29% for the series). Crowder has handled the interior on defense well, but his slump continues. Sullinger has no matchup in this series. Olynyk should be taking his minutes, but he still doesn’t trust his shoulder, and last night was an out-and-out catastrophe; it’s debatable if Stevens should even use him at this point. Rozier has already overextended his ceiling for contributions in this series, and he still makes plenty of rookie mistakes on both sides of the ball.

This was always going to be the case, though. Thomas was a sure thing, and fans had to feel reasonably good about Turner coming to perform. Both have done their jobs, for the most part, and now other players have to hit their shots.

The good news is, if that happens, this should be an easy fix that doesn’t require a rapid transformation. The offense, as a unit, was running effectively when it was in control. The right guys were getting open shots most teams would love to have on a regular basis. That small Atlanta lineup being gushed over should, in theory, be a defensive sieve, so if Boston plays under control, they should continue to find opportunities. They just need to go in.

The bad news is, in all honesty, they now have to go in. The Celtics are out of time to have guys work out of shooting funks. Whether it’s Jerebko at the 5, Crowder finding his stroke, or Smart going Smart at the right time, this team needs to find its offensive rhythm. Otherwise, Atlanta will keep packing the paint, and Boston will be packing it in for the summer come Thursday.

 

Follow Jesse on Twitter:@JesseAlling

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Hawks Crush Celtics 110-83 In Game 5 http://www.celticshub.com/2016/04/26/hawks-crush-celtics-110-83-game-5/ http://www.celticshub.com/2016/04/26/hawks-crush-celtics-110-83-game-5/#respond Wed, 27 Apr 2016 03:48:57 +0000 http://www.celticshub.com/?p=58218 Post written by Jeff Wasserboehr Not even new shoes for Isaiah Thomas at halftime could help him—or the Celtics—buy a bucket in this absolute slaughtering in Atlanta. The Celts will return to the TD Garden for Game 6 on Thursday, down 3-2 in the best-of-seven series with the Hawks. In a relatively close first half […]

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Jae+Crowder+Boston+Celtics+v+Atlanta+Hawks+QC7lK_MNLxPl

Post written by Jeff Wasserboehr

Not even new shoes for Isaiah Thomas at halftime could help him—or the Celtics—buy a bucket in this absolute slaughtering in Atlanta. The Celts will return to the TD Garden for Game 6 on Thursday, down 3-2 in the best-of-seven series with the Hawks.

In a relatively close first half that saw multiple lead changes, and even a 10-point Celtics lead, this game was won definitively by the Atlanta Hawks in the third quarter. While the Celtics scored more points in the third than any of the other quarters, their measly 23 points were no match for the Hawks’ 42.

For as badly and low-scoring as the first two quarters were, the Hawks flipped a switch in the third, going over 70 percent from the field, with Kent Bazemore as the main scoring catalyst. Meanwhile for the Celts, nobody, it seemed, could make any real meaningful offensive contributions—and they lacked the presence of a real superstar capable of taking over [or keeping a team in] a game.

Evan Turner led the Celtics scoring efforts with 15 points, and Jerebko, in his newly-acquired playoff starting role, chipped in 8 solid rebounds. Atlanta did a great job taking Isaiah Thomas out of the game with double teams, and the Celts had no other reliable scoring threats.

Down 24, it was evident Stevens threw in the towel when, two minutes into the fourth quarter, every young buck on the Celtics was on the floor. The result? A fourth quarter that was essentially entirely garbage time; the two teams’ bench players getting double-digit minutes of playtime before an emptying Atlanta Phillips Arena.

One other concern: Isaiah’s early exit after he made an awkward landing on a layup, spraining his ankle. He says he’ll be ready for Game 6.

More analysis to come on this one.

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Four Takeaways from Game 4 and Looking Ahead to Game 5 http://www.celticshub.com/2016/04/25/four-takeaways-game-4/ http://www.celticshub.com/2016/04/25/four-takeaways-game-4/#comments Mon, 25 Apr 2016 15:09:59 +0000 http://www.celticshub.com/?p=58206 On Sunday night, in one of the wonkier games in recent memory, the Boston Celtics evened their first round series at two games apiece with the Atlanta Hawks after pulling away for a 104-95 victory in overtime. In honor of this Game 4 win, here’s a quartet of lessons we can take away:   1. […]

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Screen Shot 2016-04-23 at 4.50.14 PMOn Sunday night, in one of the wonkier games in recent memory, the Boston Celtics evened their first round series at two games apiece with the Atlanta Hawks after pulling away for a 104-95 victory in overtime.

In honor of this Game 4 win, here’s a quartet of lessons we can take away:

 

1. Atlanta has a forcefield around the rim.

The Celtics are shooting just 45.9 percent at the rim when at least one Hawk is in the restricted area, per NBA.com. In the regular season, the Hawks allowed opponents to shoot 51.1 percent in such situations––still a stingy mark good for tenth in the league.

They don’t have any particularly good shot-blockers; center Al Horford stands just 6-foot-10 and Paul Millsap is two inches shorter than that. So how do they do it?

What Atlanta lacks in size they more than make up for in athleticism and mental acuity. Their perimeter players––Kent Bazemore, Jeff Teague, Thabo Sefolosha––are quick defenders and can dart to close out on kick-outs after taking a few extra steps toward the paint to clog things up. Look how attentive all five guys are to the drive on this play:

 

Screen Shot 2016-04-25 at 9.30.53 AM

 

Horford and Millsap are rarely left to defend the basket by themselves, too. The team doesn’t have one specific swatter––instead, the Hawks gang up to protect the rim as a team, like a swarm of Drosophila fruit flies jittering around a rotten strawberry:

 

Hawks_Swarm

 

The Celtics converted half their contested shots at the rim last night, including a layup with 15 seconds to go in the fourth by Isaiah Thomas to send the game into overtime. That’s still a pretty stiff mark, but it’s better than the first two games. Inserting Jonas Jerebko into the starting lineup has provided some breathing room for Thomas and Evan Turner to probe the paint. It’s probably best if Jared Sullinger plays nothing but spot minutes here or there for the remainder of the series.

It’s tough to loosen Atlanta’s tight grip on the interior, but Stevens’s adjustments have made a notable dent.
2. Sometimes, you’ve gotta try weird things on defense.

And by “weird” we mean tasking the 6-foot-4 Marcus Smart with defending the 6-foot-8 Paul Millsap.

In his autobiography, University of North Carolina coach Roy Williams says a lot of dumb, college coachy stuff. A lot of smart stuff, too, no doubt, but still a bunch of those college-game cliches. One passage, though, has stuck out to me and struck as extremely wise:

Essentially, if an opposing team is in an offensive groove, it’s sometimes smart to stick a mismatched defender onto one player to disrupt the other team’s flow. The idea is that your opponents will recognize the mismatch, force-feed the ball to it, thus halting their movement and rhythm.

Paul Millsap had 41 points by the under-9 official timeout, scoring every which way and within the flow of Atlanta’s team offense. At that point, Stevens was grasping at straws on how to defend him. Because Millsap was scoring every which way––post-ups, snag-and-go-drives, catch-and-shoot threes––the Celtics couldn’t really double him.

So he channeled his inner Roy Williams and told Smart, “He’s yours.”

The theory held up. The Hawks, recognizing the perceived mismatch, did exactly what they were supposed to do––they posted Millsap up and cleared everyone else to the other side of the floor. And things like this happened:

 

Millsap_Airball

 

Or this:

 

Smart_Steal

 

Smart clearly doesn’t have the length to bother Millsap in certain ways, but he was able to use his quickness to stay between the ball and the basket. Stay in front of your man, keep him as far away from the basket as possible, put your hands straight in the air, and you can make medium-range shots tough for anyone.

Stevens and Atlanta head coach Mike Budenholzer both mentioned that Smart was defending Millsap late in the game––after he’d already played 35-plus minutes. That matters. Your legs start to go, you can’t get as much lift on your shots, lateral explosiveness is draining rapidly.

But you could make the same excuses for why Smart shouldn’t have been able to plug the defensive gap. It was a remarkable, if unsustainable, effort, the kind of bizarro match-up deliciousness that only happens in the playoffs.

 

3. It’ll take heroic efforts from multiple guys to beat the Hawks.

I mean, just look at the box score. Marcus Smart scored twenty points and nailed two huge––repeat: H-U-G-E––3-pointers in the middle of the fourth quarter to give the Celtics an 85-84 lead.

Jonas Jerebko scored 10 of 12 points for the Celtics at the end of the third quarter and beginning of the fourth, including this spinning, turnaround, “oops, I forgot I’m supposed to come back down to the floor” jumper we’ll likely never see him pull off again:

 

Jerebko_Jumper

 

And then, 22 seconds later, he gave us this equally improbably gem:

 

Jerebko_Finger_Roll

 

The playoffs are nutty, and the Celtics thrive on nuttiness. Paul Flannery of SB Nation wrote a wonderful article today on how this first-round match-up pits the control-craving Hawks against the chaos-mongering Celtics, and he couldn’t be more correct.

Team personality radiates in the playoffs, and last night was the ultimate Boston game. Bonkers plays by bonkers players.
4. The Hawks should have won.

Boston’s defense yielded 23 “wide open” jump shots to the Hawks yesterday, according to NBA.com’s shot-tracking data.* The Hawks made just six of those, including only 5-of-17 shooting from beyond the arc.

The Hawks offense produced 24 “open” shots, but Atlanta converted those into points just seven times.

Kyle Korver finished a respectable 3-for-9 from deep but missed some looks he customarily buries. Kent Bazemore, a 35.7 percent 3-point shooter this season, was unable to knock down a handful of uncontested three-balls.

On the series, the Hawks have generated the most wide open looks per game of any of the 16 teams in the playoffs, yet, oddly, they have the second-worst field goal percentage and third-worst effective field goal percentage (which adjusts for the extra point in a 3-point shot).

Boston has played inspired defense throughout much of the series, but Atlanta’s struggles to convert on open shots likely won’t continue. There’s still work to be done as the teams head back to Atlanta for Game 5 on Tuesday.

 

*Wide open jump shots are defined as shots from 10 feet or greater where the closest defender was six-plus feet away.
**Open jump shots are defined as shots from 10 feet or greater where the closest defender was between four and six feet away.

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Celtics Outlast Hawks in Kookiest Game of Playoffs http://www.celticshub.com/2016/04/24/celtics-outlast-hawks-kookiest-game-playoffs/ http://www.celticshub.com/2016/04/24/celtics-outlast-hawks-kookiest-game-playoffs/#comments Mon, 25 Apr 2016 01:21:04 +0000 http://www.celticshub.com/?p=58203 What. A. Game. After 53 minutes (five of them free!) of unthinkably delicious action, the Boston Celtics came out on top 104-95 to even the series with the Atlanta Hawks at two games apiece. Atlanta’s Paul Millsap finished with 45 points––one shy of his career mark––on 19-of-31 shooting. He did it every which way: drives […]

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What. A. Game.

After 53 minutes (five of them free!) of unthinkably delicious action, the Boston Celtics came out on top 104-95 to even the series with the Atlanta Hawks at two games apiece.

Atlanta’s Paul Millsap finished with 45 points––one shy of his career mark––on 19-of-31 shooting. He did it every which way: drives to the hoop against slower defenders, post-up bullyball when being checked by smaller dudes, 3-pointers.

But in the fourth quarter, he went cold. With about eight minutes to go, Brad Stevens stuck Marcus Smart, six inches shorter, onto Millsap, and it worked. He only scored two baskets on six shots the rest of the way.

Everyone, it seemed, made big contributions. Isaiah Thomas snuck a layup between two defenders at the rim to send the game into overtime. Smart nailed two 3-pointers and slammed home a dunk to give the Celtics a lead in the middle of the fourth. Amir Johnson’s defense was subtly spectacular.

Jonas Jerebko, starting in his second straight game, provided some timely offensive sparks, especially at the end of the third quarter and beginning of the fourth with a particularly impressive/heroic/comedic stretch of spinning fallaways, 3-pointers, and open-court chops.

Boston had five players finish in double figures (nearly six––Johnson had nine).
The Hawks and Celtics meet up for again for Game Five on Tuesday in Atlanta.

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Breaking Down Isaiah Thomas’ Historic Game 3 http://www.celticshub.com/2016/04/23/isaiah-thomas-historic-game-3/ http://www.celticshub.com/2016/04/23/isaiah-thomas-historic-game-3/#comments Sat, 23 Apr 2016 21:56:01 +0000 http://www.celticshub.com/?p=58188 Facing on 0-2 series deficit against the Atlanta Hawks, the Celtics returned to the TD Garden in hopes that some home cooking would yield positive results. Not only did the C’s grab a rather convincing win – the first playoff victory in Brad Stevens’ NBA career –  but Boston’s feisty All Star point guard Isaiah […]

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Facing on 0-2 series deficit against the Atlanta Hawks, the Celtics returned to the TD Garden in hopes that some home cooking would yield positive results.

Not only did the C’s grab a rather convincing win – the first playoff victory in Brad Stevens’ NBA career –  but Boston’s feisty All Star point guard Isaiah Thomas had himself a career night.

IT finished with 42 points, his highest scoring total ever as a pro. He set the tone with some aggressive play and hit some important shots down the stretch. The Garden was absolutely rocking, and when the game clock expired, Isaiah found himself among some very illustrious company.

In the entire history of the Boston Celtics, just a handful of men have netted 40 points or more in a playoff game. Friday night, Isaiah became the 9th player to achieve this feat. Here’s the list in its entirety:

Screen Shot 2016-04-22 at 11.22.47 PM

Isaiah finished with a 50 percent clip from the field, including 5-12 from three. He also turned in 4 rebounds and a steal. The way IT got his 42 points is rather interesting. He was an efficient 13-15 from the free throw line, but beyond that, there was a pretty discernible pattern to Isaiah’s game. Light it up, or take into the teeth of the defense.

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After the game, I asked Isaiah what it meant to find himself among so many Celtics legends. Through a suppressed smile, IT reiterated a focus on results. Jonas Jerebko, who started in place of Jared Sullinger and ended with postseason career highs in points, assists, and rebounds, joined Isaiah on the podium postgame.

Throughout the course of the night, Isaiah was ready whenever Boston needed a bucket. The C’s went up 19 points at one point in the third quarter, only to see the same lead disappear by the end of the period.

With just a one-point cushion heading into the fourth, Isaiah and the Celtics managed 32 points in the final frame, keeping Atlanta at bay and snagging the team’s first win of the series.

The Garden crowd was absolutely bananas all night, and Isaiah and the gang really fed off the energy. Even Kyle Korver admitted after the game that the crowd was a factor for the C’s, and with a few celebrities in house, Isaiah shared a moment with Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount after the contest.

Screen Shot 2016-04-23 at 4.50.14 PM

At times, things were a little testy between the Hawks and Celtics, and there were several flagrant and technical fouls issued in response to physical play and some pugnacious antics.

At one point, Isaiah struck Atlanta guard Dennis Schroder, and following the game, many speculated that he could face a penalty in the form of a suspension. As Chris Forsberg reported, the league has issued a retroactive flagrant foul, and IT will be available Sunday evening for Game 4

“I’m focused on Game 4, man. They made the call of what it was, a flagrant-1, whatever it was. I’m glad I’m able to play.” Isaiah said at Celtics practice on Saturday.

Here’s the play in question:

I’ll abstain from making any judgement concerning intent on Isaiah’s part, but outside of the incident in question, Isaiah was unwavering the face of some tight Atlanta defense, and deserves praise for his toughness. Whether he was pulling up from a few feet beyond the three point line or fighting among the trees in the paint, he showed incredible resolve and confidence.

It was a performance for the ages, an instant classic in this latest chapter in Celtics basketball. To compare IT to the likes of a Paul Pierce or Larry Bird would be misguided, but for one night, Isaiah Thomas did in fact earn himself a place among the greatest to ever wear Celtics green.

Despite everything, the Celtics are still sitting on the wrong end of a 2-1 series deficit, and with a big game on Sunday, Boston will need to bring the same enthusiasm that was on display Friday night.

Please follow me on Twitter @CTabatabaie

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Celtics Get Back to Basics: Strategy Notes from Game 3 http://www.celticshub.com/2016/04/23/celtics-get-back-basics-strategy-notes-game-3/ http://www.celticshub.com/2016/04/23/celtics-get-back-basics-strategy-notes-game-3/#comments Sat, 23 Apr 2016 06:59:17 +0000 http://www.celticshub.com/?p=58182 My musings, notes, and questions, in no particular order, from a very entertaining game of Celtics’ playoff basketball: – I didn’t see anything particularly radical in Boston’s offensive gameplan tonight. Much was made in the moment of the small lineup Boston deployed in the last five minutes, featuring Jerebko at the 5. It really shouldn’t […]

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My musings, notes, and questions, in no particular order, from a very entertaining game of Celtics’ playoff basketball:

– I didn’t see anything particularly radical in Boston’s offensive gameplan tonight. Much was made in the moment of the small lineup Boston deployed in the last five minutes, featuring Jerebko at the 5. It really shouldn’t have been that surprising, though. The Celtics finally found a semblance of offensive rhythm during the season when they deployed the three guard lineup anchored by Crowder and Olynyk in the frontcourt. The prevalent lineup tonight was essentially that formula with Jerebko subbing in as a faster, poorer shooting version of Olynyk.

Tonight represented a return to past success more than anything else. This team has been, and always will be, at their best when they play under control, move the ball, and create enough space to operate. They just needed to see some shots fall to reaffirm their good work. Not a ton of them did tonight, but enough did.

– It really is remarkable, though, how much better the offense ran with Jerebko and IT on the floor together than when one or both sat. Jerebko never really took longer than a three minute break at any point during the game, and Brad Stevens had to be clever with timeout usage to buy Thomas as much time as possible resting without losing game minutes. When one of them was missing, the paint contracted on itself, and the offense became a slog of isolation misfires and poor shot selection on the perimeter.

Minutes for those two, particularly Jerebko, are going to become a factor sooner than later as the series continues. Thomas should be fine, but Jerebko can’t be expected to play 37 minutes a game efficiently when he has barely played more than 20 for any extended run during the year.

– A neat defensive wrinkle that stood out tonight: the Celtics pretty much routinely sent both defenders underneath on-ball picks. This was clever – the Hawks are a good shooting team, but they are decidedly less confident shooting off the dribble. Teague may punish you once in a while, but they would much rather catch and shoot off of four or five separate screens.

This also gummed up a lot of the Hawks’ offensive sets inside the three-point line. Teague and Schroder had a field day when they were allowed to get a head of steam going in, but set plays were much less successful. Turner and Smart were able to pick off a lot of cross court and kick out passes because they were already in position to intercept. Good stuff from the scouting department there.

– Sullinger received fewer minutes tonight than Rozier, and that gap may honestly widen as the series continues. Sullinger played poorly tonight, the one member of the Celtics who stood out as a consistent turnstile when it came to defensive rotations. His strengths don’t match up well against a quicker Hawks team, and Amir Johnson has been playing very well as of late in Sully’s preferred center position. It’s just hard to see where he fits in to the Celtics’ current formula for victory.

– Crowder’s injury has been well-documented, but he managed tonight to cover Millsap well, forcing into a number of unforced errors and rip rebounds away. Where he continues to come up well short is shooting the ball, and this is a major issue. His shot, already not pretty to look at, looks like a baby calf figuring out how to walk. There was a legit conversation if he was going to be too much of a liability to use in crunchtime tonight. There isn’t another obvious solution other than to have him keep shooting and hope he figures out, but the Hawks will have no problem continuing to allow him to try 3’s at will if he’s going to keep shooting 1-11.

– Marcus Smart is a zero-sum game when it comes to tallying his good plays vs bad plays, but his good plays are just ridiculously breathtaking, you have to just laugh and roll with it. An above average job tonight impersonating Avery Bradley as an on-ball defender, but he’s not quite quick enough to stay with Teague or Schroder. He compensated well by bullying them at times. He also needs to understand that Kyle Korver is still a very good shooter, and going underneath screens set for him is a bad, bad, very bad idea.

We’re just gonna pretend that thing in the fourth with Korver didn’t happen. If you want notes on that, check out Twitter or Vine, they’ve got you covered.

– Is Thomas going to get suspended for his slap at Schroder in the second quarter? It’s probably going to depend on exactly what shade of gray the league assigns to their view of what really happened. The letter of the law says a hit to the head is a one-game suspension, automatic. But it was only kinda-sorta intentional (probably was meant more as a bothersome wave than a full-on smack), and it looked worse than I think it was. Dwight Howard delivered a forearm shiver to Andruw Bogut’s face last year in the Western Conference Finals and wasn’t suspended, but he also got a flagrant foul called at the time. It’s really up in the air. My guess would be the league retroactively gives Thomas either a flagrant 1 or a technical, no suspension, but I don’t feel super confident about it. Either way, not the smartest play by Thomas, to say the least.

– That was just about the only mistake he made on the night, though. God, when Thomas is flying around at top speed, he is so much fun to watch. This was the first playoff game in a Celtics uniform where Thomas really looked completely in control throughout. Part of that is scheme – Boston has a more cohesive look to their ball movement, and that only gets amplified when shots are falling. But part of that is also Thomas finally not feeling the need to force the action every time he has the ball. The Hawks may use Bazemore on him more next game, and his length may prove to be more successful similar to how Iman Shumpert always plays Thomas well for the Cavs. But tonight, Thomas had the green light, and he responded with his best game ever.

Sometimes, when your back is against the wall, you need to employ a key defensive adjustment or move around your rotations. Both certainly helped Boston’s cause tonight. But sometimes, you just need your All-Star to pull 40 points out after struggling for his entire playoff career. Either or both work.

The post Celtics Get Back to Basics: Strategy Notes from Game 3 appeared first on CelticsHub.

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