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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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Al Horford will miss Bulls game while in concussion protocol program; Avery Bradley has shoulder examined 11.02.16 at 12:26 pm ET
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Al Horford

Al Horford

The Celtics will be without Al Horford for Wednesday night’s game at TD Garden against the Bulls, as the center was placed in the NBA’s concussion protocol program.

According to the team, Horford was hit in the head during Monday’s practice, although he did not show any concussion symptoms on Monday night or Tuesday morning. During Tuesday’s practice, Horford started to show symptoms, so he was removed from the court and examined by team physicians. He was placed in the concussion protocol program Tuesday night.

Meanwhile, Avery Bradley missed Tuesday’s practice with a sore right shoulder — an issue he’s been dealing with since training camp. Coach Brad Stevens said the team’s medical staff will determine the guard’s availability for Wednesday. Bradley had two shoulder surgeries (both sides) after the 2011-12 season.

Bradley, 25, is coming off a tremendous performance in a win over the Hornets on Saturday night, as he amassed 31 points, 11 rebounds and eight 3-pointers. Through three games he is averaging 21.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists.

On the positive side for Boston, guard Marcus Smart will make his season debut Wednesday after being sidelined with a sprained ankle.

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Celtics exercise 2017-18 options for Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier 10.31.16 at 5:11 pm ET
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Marcus Smart already was in a good mood Monday, as he practiced with the team and then said he is ready to return to game action. He had to be feeling even better later in the day, as the team announced that it was exercising his contract for next season, keeping him in Boston for a fourth year.

The C’s also announced they were exercising the third-year option for fellow guard Terry Rozier, who is averaging 6.0 points, 3.0 assists and 3.3 rebounds in three games this season.

Smart will earn $4.5 million next season, while Rozier is set to make $1.9 million.

While both of those moves were expected — the players are key parts of Boston’s rotation — the team has not made clear its plans for shooting guard James Young leading up to Monday’s midnight deadline. The 21-year-old beat out R.J. Hunter for the team’s final roster spot earlier this month, but it would not be a surprise for the Celtics to allow him to become a free agent in the offseason, as he has yet to impress with any consistency.

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Marcus Smart: ‘I will return Wednesday’ 10.31.16 at 2:31 pm ET
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Marcus Smart

Marcus Smart

The Celtics bench, which has struggled at times in the early portion of this season, is about to get a boost.

Point guard Marcus Smart, who has missed the season’s first three games with a sprained left ankle, said he’ll be back in uniform for Wednesday’s rematch with the Bulls at TD Garden.

“I will return Wednesday,” he stated after practicing with the team Monday.

Coach Brad Stevens was a little less definitive but also optimistic that Smart will get his season started this week.

“He’s one of our returning most-contributive players, so that’s a big addition to our team,” Stevens said. “He looked good today. We’ll see how he feels in the next couple of days. But every indication is that he’ll be available.”

Stevens said he’ll consult with trainers to determine if he should limit Smart’s minutes, but Smart said he won’t make any adjustments in an attempt to ease his way back.

“You go right back to what you know,” Smart said. “You can’t try to baby it.”

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Fast Break: Celtics dominated on glass in loss to Bulls 10.27.16 at 11:08 pm ET
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Isaiah Thomas drives on Michael Carter-Williams during Thursday's game. (Dennis Wierzbicki/USA Today Sports)

Isaiah Thomas drives on Michael Carter-Williams during Thursday’s game. (Dennis Wierzbicki/USA Today Sports)

The Celtics might be a trendy pick to reach the Eastern Conference finals this season, but right now they don’t look anything like a team ready to make a breakthrough.

One night after an uninspiring victory over the lowly Nets, the Celtics were dominated on the boards by the Bulls en route to a 105-99 loss.

Chicago held a 55-36 advantage on the glass, taking advantage of the second-chance opportunities to get 16 more shots than the visitors. That allowed the Bulls to win despite shooting 39 percent to Boston’s 50 percent.

“That’s is the No. 1 thing,” coach Brad Stevens said of the rebounding woes in his postgame press conference. “That’s something that we’ve talked a lot about. We’ve got to get better at it.”

Isaiah Thomas led all scorers with 25 points on 10-of-15 shooting, although he was uncharacteristically unreliable from the free throw line, making just 2-of-6.

Jimmy Butler scored 24 points and Dwyane Wade, displaying his newfound 3-point range, hit 4-of-6 from behind the arc — including a crushing trey with 26 seconds remaining to make it a five-point game — and finished with 22 points. Taj Gibson added 18 points and 10 rebounds.

The C’s did not have the same energy as in their opener — falling behind by 15 points in the opening quarter — but they clawed back and didn’t back down in what was a physical and at times emotional game. Tempers flared late in the second quarter when Jae Crowder collided with Butler, who drew a charge. Butler appeared to trip Crowder while on the ground, and Crowder responded by putting the ball on the chest of his former Marquette teammate. The skirmish quickly drew a crowd, and Thomas and Rajon Rondo were given technical fouls after exchanging shoves.

Al Horford battled foul trouble but still managed to contribute 11 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Rookie Jaylen Brown impressed, hitting 4-of-7 shots, although he had a costly turnover on an up-and-down in the final minute. Tyler Zeller was given some extra minutes — Stevens said he matched up well against Robin Lopez — and he finished with six points, five rebounds and a pair of blocks.

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NBA preview 2016-17: Can Celtics close gap on Cavaliers? 10.26.16 at 11:20 am ET
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Horford-Al-Celtics 10-4-16

With Al Horford on board, the Celtics are a popular pick to reach the Eastern Conference finals this season. (Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports)

As the Celtics begin their journey to Banner 18 with Wednesday night’s opener against the lowly Nets, optimism runs high in Boston. And it should, because this team should have an entertaining and successful regular season.

But any Celtics fan rooted in reality knows this to be true as well: This team is not built to win a title.

No doubt you’ve already read plenty of breakdowns about how a team needs a true star to win an NBA championship, and even the C’s front office has acknowledged there is a piece missing from this club.

On the positive side, the offseason acquisition of free agent center Al Horford was a good one, and it presents an apt comparison for this Celtics team in Horford’s former employers.

Two years ago, a smart young coach took a team with rising stars but no superstar and led that squad to an impressive 60-22 record — best in the Eastern Conference (by a whopping seven games over the Cavaliers) and second best in the entire NBA. In the playoffs, Mike Budenholzer’s Hawks took out the underwhelming Nets and Wizards in six-game series. Then, faced with LeBron James’ Cavs in the conference finals, Atlanta became the fourth No. 1 seed in NBA history to be swept in a playoff series.

The postseason awards were telling. Budenholzer was named Coach of the Year, but no Hawks were on the All-NBA first, second or third teams. Nor was there a Hawk found on the All-Defensive first or second team, or the All-Rookie first or second team.

In a nod to the team’s balance, the entire starting lineup — Horford, DeMarre Carroll, Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague — was named Eastern Conference Player of the Month for January after Atlanta went 17-0 to start the year. But that was it for major awards.

Like those Hawks, these Celtics have solid balance and depth, crucial factors to help overcome injuries that are sure to pop up during the season. And with the Eastern Conference perhaps even less challenging than the last couple of years, a run at 60 wins is not out of the question. But come playoff time, temper those expectations.

Fortunately for the Celtics, even if this year turns out similarly, they are in a much better position to rectify the situation, as they are likely to draft in the top three the next two years, courtesy of the Nets. Or, if another general manager has the guts to deal with Danny Ainge this season, the Celtics could acquire a proven star and make a run at a championship next spring.

For now, let’s focus on a regular season that is sure to entertain the TD Garden crowds.

NBA PREDICTIONS

EASTERN CONFERENCE

ATLANTIC DIVISION

1. Raptors, 54-28 — Toronto will battle the Celtics for second place in the Eastern Conference (with both teams ready to pounce if the Cavaliers get stung by the injury bug), but the Raptors lost a key piece in defensive stopper/rebounder Bismack Biyombo, and the team’s only offseason acquisition, former Celtics big man Jared Sullinger, already is injured.

2. Celtics, 52-30 — Evan Turner has his detractors, but he did come up big in the clutch a number of times for this team last season. This is the biggest concern for this team: Can the C’s close out tight games, especially with their questionable outside shooting and the lack of a proven finisher outside of All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas?

3. Knicks, 42-40 — Jeff Hornacek takes over a team that added former Bulls stars Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah to a roster led by Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis. As Tuesday’s season-opening blowout loss to the Cavaliers showed, this team isn’t likely to be a threat, although if the stars are healthy they could make a little noise.

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