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Fast Break: Celtics defense exposed again in blowout loss to Nuggets

11.06.16 at 9:54 pm ET
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Nuggets guard Emmanuel Mudiay drives past Avery Bradley during the Celtics' loss Sunday night. (Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports)

Nuggets guard Emmanuel Mudiay drives past Avery Bradley during the Celtics’ loss Sunday night. (Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports)

Celtics coach Brad Stevens, addressing Boston’s issues on defense this season, told reporters after Saturday’s practice that the team has “slipped in some defensive areas.” In Sunday’s 123-107 loss to the Nuggets, the C’s slipped, skidded, fell off a cliff and crashed into smithereens.

Denver (3-3) had its way from start to finish, shooting 52.4 percent in handing Boston (3-3) its first home loss of the young season.

Nuggets guard Emmanuel Mudiay scorched the Celtics for 24 points in the opening 12 minutes and finished with 30 on 11-of-17 shooting. Wilson Chandler added 22 points, making 8-of-14 shots.

Isaiah Thomas also scored 30 points, but he had to work a lot harder for his, hitting 9-of-17 shots and making 11-of-12 free throws. Avery Bradley contributed 14 points, 11 rebounds and six assists.

Denver was playing its fourth road game in seven days and was coming off a 17-point loss in Detroit the night before. No matter. The Nuggets scored 77 points in the opening half, taking a 25-point lead and sending the Celtics to the locker room amid a smattering of boos from the home crowd. The Nuggets hit 64.4 percent of their shots and outrebounded the Celtics 22-15.

Stevens tried everything, including playing all 12 players on his bench. Jordan Mickey provided a brief spark, getting open underneath for three dunks.

The C’s finally showed signs of life to open the second half, picking up full court, playing their man far more aggressively and boxing out with a purpose. That led to an 8-0 run that included three Denver turnovers, and a spurt that cut the deficit to 15 midway through the period. However, the Nuggets pushed the lead back to 20 heading into the final quarter (103-83) and cruised home from there.

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Fast Break: Celtics come up short vs. LeBron James, Cavaliers

11.03.16 at 10:49 pm ET
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Jaylen Brown defends against Tristan Thompson during Thursday's game. (Ken Blaze/USA Today Sports)

Jaylen Brown defends against Cavaliers forward Tristan Thompson during Thursday’s game in Cleveland. (Ken Blaze/USA Today Sports)

Cleveland’s sports fans were in need of a pick-me-up following the Indians’ Game 7 loss to the Cubs, and on Thursday night the Cavaliers gave it to them, jumping out to a big lead and holding on for a 128-122 win over the short-handed Celtics to remain unbeaten on the young season.

The defending NBA champions (5-0) rained down 3-pointers — 11 of their 13 coming in the first half as they took a 68-51 lead into the break — and loaded up on transition baskets as the C’s struggled to stay close most of the night. Boston (3-2) managed to whittle a 20-point deficit to five points midway through the final quarter after a Jaylen Brown 3-pointer.

The C’s rookie, who made his first career start in place of the injured Jae Crowder and drew the assignment of guarding LeBron James, impressed with 19 points (8-of-16 field goals, including 3-of-6 treys) and was a team-best plus-15.

“I thought he played really hard, obviously made shots and did a lot of good things,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said of Brown in his postgame press conference. “You never expect a guy to make 50 percent of his 3’s every day, right? But I think at the end of the day, if he can bring that same tenacity and that same focus, especially defensively, he can just keep getting better. That’s what you want. So I thought today was a good step in the right direction, for sure.”

Avery Bradley had a big night, scoring 26 points on 11-of-20 shooting and grabbing 10 rebounds. Isaiah Thomas netted 28 points, although he missed all six of his 3-point attempts.

James (12-of-22 field goals) scored a game-high 30 points as he closed in on 10th place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. He now sits at 26,945, one point behind Hakeem Olajuwon. James also had seven rebounds and 12 assists.

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Tyler Zeller doing ‘whatever I need to do’ to help Celtics with Al Horford out

11.03.16 at 12:32 pm ET
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Suffice to say that over the past two-plus seasons, Tyler Zeller has had to be the most flexible member of the Celtics in terms of his minutes.

When he came to the Celtics in 2014, he appeared in every game, starting 59, and averaged 21.1 minutes. The following year he played in 60 games, starting three (which happened to be the first three games of the season), while averaging just 11.8 minutes per game.

But just four games into this season, he was not only called upon to start, but called upon to replace the Celtics’ biggest free agent signing in recent memory in Al Horford.

“It’s good. I started a lot two years ago, last year was a little weird, but just being able to come in, try and do as much as I can to help this team win,” Zeller said. “Play hard, rebound, defend, whatever I need to do, but really just try to fit in with these guys.”

Zeller played 24:45 minutes in the Celtics’ 107-100 win against the Bulls on Wednesday, going 5-for-11 from the field for 11 points. He grabbed four rebounds and managed a steal in the process as well.

The 26-year-old occasionally looked lost in the early going, especially against a Bulls team that dominated the Celtics on the glass 55-36 in their first meeting last Thursday. But he settled in, most notably throwing down a dunk over Robin Lopez — who had been dominating him on the glass for the most part — in transition.

The Celtics ultimately lost the rebounding battle 49-39, but it was a step in the right direction after getting dismantled a week prior.

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Amir Johnson flashes different dimension of his game with 4 treys in Wednesday’s win

11.03.16 at 11:21 am ET
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Amir Johnson

Amir Johnson

In a tilt against the Bulls on Wednesday night that taught a lot about the Celtics, arguably the biggest lesson was one that not many people would expect.

Amir Johnson can shoot from the perimeter.

Now, maybe it’s a bit premature to start throwing him in with the likes of Peja Stojakovic, but the 6-foot-9 veteran showed a different dimension of his game than previously seen during his first year and change with the Celtics.

He attempted (and missed) one other 3-pointer this season, but after going 4-for-4 from deep, he now qualifies for league leader considerations in 3-point percentage. And believe it or not, he leads the league with an .800 3-point percentage.

“I don’t think I was on the scouting report for ‘Running Amir off the line,’ ” Johnson joked following the game. “It was just a good night for me.”

That’s not to say it will stay that way — because in all likelihood it won’t — but after Johnson almost never ventured out to the perimeter with the Pistons, but then wandered out more in his time with the Raptors, it probably shouldn’t be a total surprise he’s capable of pulling the trigger from downtown.

“I’m always able to shoot,” Johnson said. “Guys can shoot in the league. It’s just in our offense, you know? I try to always play team ball. I’m a very unselfish player. I look to pass first, but I was able to just find open spots and knock down shots within our offense.

“I prefer to roll and get that soft touch, but if guys are just laying off and giving me that much time, like [Robin Lopez] likes to sit in the paint, then I’m going to shoot the ball.”

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Jae Crowder (sprained left ankle) expected to miss at least a week

11.03.16 at 11:07 am ET
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Jae Crowder

Jae Crowder

The Celtics will look to build off of their 3-1 record without Jae Crowder for at least a week, according to coach Brad Stevens. 

Crowder suffered a left ankle sprain in the second quarter of Wednesday night’s 107-100 win over the Bulls at TD Garden. He is the second player in the front court to sustain an injury this week for the Celtics.

Al Horford, who was placed in the NBA’s concussion protocol program on Tuesday, will not be making the trip to Cleveland for Thursday night’s game against the Cavaliers, and Stevens doesn’t expect to see Crowder back on the floor in the near future. 

“Jae sprained his ankle,” Brad Stevens said. “That’s all I know. I was told that it would be at least a week and then we’ll see after, but I don’t think we’re into it enough to make an assessment on that timeline. It doesn’t sound like he’ll be back anytime soon.”

Crowder came down on Rajon Rondo’s foot after making a jumping pass and hit the floor for a moment before he hopped off the court and straight to the Celtics locker room. 

All-Star Isaiah Thomas knows losing Crowder is a tough blow to his team, but he reminded everyone that the Celtics were in a similar position last season when the C’s were forced to play without their starting small forward.

“[It’s] very tough,” Thomas said after the Celtics’ win against the Bulls. “Last year we lost a back-to-back and beat the Warriors in their arena without Jae Crowder. There’s no excuses, they’re not going to feel sorry for us. Get our rest tonight and be ready for prime-time TV tomorrow.”

Thomas is confident in the Celtics’ depth and said he believes guys can come up big on the road against the Cavaliers. 

“We have a lot of good players who can step in at any given time,” Thomas said. “That’s our strength, our depth, and we have to keep going. Hopefully we can sneak one out of Cleveland.”

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Marcus Smart shines defensively, struggles on offense in season debut

11.03.16 at 12:31 am ET
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Marcus Smart

Marcus Smart

In his season debut, Marcus Smart reminded everyone why he’s so important to the Celtics.

While his offensive touch might have been off, his defensive prowess shined against the Bulls and their brightest stars.  

Smart rattled the Bulls’ one-two punch of Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler. He forced them to take awkward shots from the perimeter, pressured them in the back court and was physical with both All-Stars when they penetrated the paint. 

In other words, Smart being Smart. 

Butler, who finished with 23 points on 8-of-21 shots, had trouble finding his rhythm offensively. The same could be said for Wade. The star who finished off the Celtics just a week earlier with a late 3-pointer, finished with 15 points on the night, on 5-of-13 shooting from the field. Both Bulls go-to scorers shot below 40-percent and Smart, who didn’t play in the Celtics’ only loss this season in Chicago, was a big key in slowing them down. 

His defensive play earned him nearly 34 minutes of playing time off the bench, and was a big reason why he was still in the game at the end of the fourth quarter. Smart finished with seven points, including a game-changing running hook shot out of a timeout called by Brad Stevens with 25.2 seconds left that made it a two-possession game (105-100).

“It kind of just happened,” Smart said. “I was supposed to get a ball right to Isaiah [Thomas], but he was getting double-played so I just made a play.”

How often does Smart practice hook shots?

“I actually work on those, work on getting it high off the glass,” Smart said. “I just figured if I could get to the spot and put it up there it’d be a good shot to go in.”

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Fast Break: Amir Johnson, Isaiah Thomas each put up 23 points as Celtics survive against Bulls

11.02.16 at 10:38 pm ET
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Nov 2, 2016; Boston, MA, USA;  Chicago Bulls guard / forward Jimmy Butler (21) is guarded by Boston Celtics forward / center Amir Johnson (90) during the second quarter at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Amir Johnson was an offensive and defensive force for the Celtics Wednesday, here guarding Jimmy Butler. (Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports)

While one Chicago team was in pursuit of ending a 108-year championship drought, another was giving the Celtics a heart attack in the C’s 107-100 win over the Bulls.

Leading by 16 points in the fourth quarter, the Celtics squandered yet another lead at home, letting the Bulls tie the game with less than two minutes left in the fourth. Despite the late surge, the Celtics fended off the Bulls, scoring five unanswered points after the Bulls evened the game.

“We’ve got to play better in that situation,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “I thought our offense was good and executed well, but we’ve got to be more sound defensively in that time.”

Amir Johnson had arguably his most memorable game in green, dropping 23 points on the Bulls, including four 3-pointers on as many attempts. He had three assists and five rebounds as well. 

“I was just feeling good,” Johnson said. “I’m always able to shoot, guys can shoot in the league, it’s just in our offense I’ve always played team ball and been a very unselfish player, [tonight] I was just able to find open shots and knock down shots.”

Isaiah Thomas turned in a double-double performance, scoring 23 points while dishing out 10 assists.

In his season debut, guard Marcus Smart was quiet offensively, turning the ball over six times in his 33 minutes of work, but was solid on the defensive end. He managed to grab five boards with one steal.

With legitimate concern surrounding the Celtics frontcourt with the absence of Al Horford, the C’s were more than adept on the glass against a Bulls team that dominated them in rebounding during their last meeting less than a week ago. While the C’s were outrebounded 49-39 Wednesday, it was an improvement compared to them getting worked over 55-36 on the glass on Thursday.

“[Tyler Zeller and Amir Johnson] did a really good job. Both those guys are good players,” Stevens said. “We talked about Tyler’s reliability off the bench, and you know one thing about Al: When he plays with Al, a lot of times he’s the roller and Al’s the guy that plays on the perimeter. And tonight Tyler was is the roller and [Johnson] is on the perimeter more.”

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