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Isaiah Thomas shows improved playmaking skills 10.27.16 at 12:08 am ET
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Isaiah Thomas

Isaiah Thomas

In his sixth NBA season, Isaiah Thomas is blossoming into an efficient playmaker — a facet of his game that will strengthen the Celtics  offense in the long run and help him finish strong in the fourth quarter.

Thomas made back-door passes to his bigs and bounce passes in transition and found his teammates open from the perimeter with ease during Wednesday night’s 122-117 win over the Nets. When he penetrated the paint and drew double teams, Al Horford — Thomas’ new favorite pick-and-roll partner — was a great target for Thomas in the post. 

In what turned out to be an ugly win for the Celtics, Thomas’ passing set the tone throughout the first half and helped the C’s finish with 38 assists on 48 baskets. Instead of being the focal point of his team’s offense — a role Thomas has become accustomed to in Boston — Thomas was the distributor and waited until the third quarter to strike. He scored 12 of his 25 points in the third. His offensive outburst helped extend the Cetlics’ lead to a 16-point advantage (97-81) before the final frame.

However, after the Celtics reserves squandered the lead in the fourth quarter, Thomas reverted to being the set-up guy when he needed to be the leading scorer that he is. He committed one of the ugliest turnovers of the night — a no-look pass that landed in an opponent’s hands and led to a Bojan Bogdanovic 3-pointer that pulled the Nets to within three (120-117).

Although the C’s were able to fend off the Nets in the final minute, Thomas understands that blowing double-digit leads in the fourth quarter is unacceptable, and he isn’t making excuses for the Celtics’ sloppy play.

“We want to be great, we want to be one of the top teams in the NBA, that can’t happen,” Thomas said. “There’s no excuse for it. If we want to be a top team like ‘they’ say we’re going to be, we have to do a better job of closing games out.”

If the Celtics are going to be one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, Thomas cannot shy away from scoring in the fourth quarter. Setting up teammates like Avery Bradley (17 points) and Jae Crowder (21 points) certainly will pay dividends this season, but it’s important for Thomas to go into attack mode in the second half — much like he did in the third quarter.

Thomas finished with 25 points and nine assists in Wednesday’s win. Despite the late-game frustration, Thomas said it’s still a great feeling to get a win and to be back at TD Garden. 

“It feels great,” Thomas said. “We didn’t end it like we wanted to, but we definitely got the win and it feels good, to play in front of your fans and really get going and playing for something that counts.”

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James Young, R.J. Hunter battle for final roster spot 10.18.16 at 2:13 pm ET
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Oct 17, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics guard R.J. Hunter (28) controls the ball while Brooklyn Nets guard Bojan Bogdanovic (44) defends during the second half at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

R.J. Hunter and James Young will have one more chance to strengthen their case for final Celtics roster spot (Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY Sports)

With one final exhibition game left on the schedule, the battle for the last roster spot has intensified. James Young and R.J. Hunter figure to be battling it out to the end. 

The Celtics have until the end of the week to determine who will fill out the back end of their 15-man roster and Young and Hunter have both made strong cases for themselves in their last two games.

Hunter, who has made the strongest statistical case of the two, scored a game-high 17 points against the Knicks on Saturday, capping off an impressive shooting performance. He scored 6-of-8 from the floor, including 2-of-4 from deep and not only knocked down open jumpers but made strong takes to the rim and got to the free-throw line. 

Young, on the other hand, followed up Saturday night’s Celtics win with his best performance of the preseason Monday night.

It may not have been as flashy as Hunter’s 17 points at Madison Square Garden, but Young (10 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, one steal) was able to make the most of his 16 minutes by stuffing the stat sheet in the win over the Nets at TD Garden.

He also looked a lot more comfortable on the floor, compared to the beginning of the preseason. 

“I’m way more confident in my game,” Young explained. “A lot of people are backing me up to just go and be aggressive, so that’s really helped me.

“I’m just trying to do a little of everything — scoring, rebounding, passing, and not to do too much at the same time. Whatever coach has drawn up for me I just do it and help out the team.”

Both Young and Hunter are scoring at a similar rate — making the choice between the two very difficult. Throughout the preseason, Young has averaged 5.1 points, 3 rebounds and shooting 45 percent from the floor in 15 minutes per game. While Hunter is averaging 6.1 points, 1.5 assists and shooting 44 percent from the floor.

However, Young has been an efficient 3-point scorer, shooting at a 42 percent clip, whereas Hunter — recognized as a precise 3-point shooter — is shooting 27 percent from downtown.  

Brad Stevens has certainly noticed the improvement, thus making the decision of cutting one of the two that much harder.

“They all really had good moments,” Stevens said. “As I said before the game, those are hard decisions because everybody’s improved. I thought they all played well at times.”

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R.J. Hunter (17 points), Celtics’ impressive shooting tops Knicks at Madison Square Garden 10.15.16 at 10:18 pm ET
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R.J. Hunter

R.J. Hunter

In what didn’t feel like a preseason matchup, the Celtics offense erupted by scoring 119 points in the team’s final road game before the regular season.

The Celtics shot nearly 60 percent (58.9) from the floor en route to a 119-107 win over the Knicks.

After the Celtics held to a double-digit lead for most of the game, the Knicks cut the margin to one point (98-97) before R.J. Hunter went off in the fourth quarter, when he scored most of his game-high 17 points on 6-of-8 shots, including 2-of-4 from deep. 

Horford caught fire early as he knocked down his first five attempts in the first half — including back-to-back 3-pointers — and finished with 12 points and two blocks. Avery Bradley’s 15 points on 7-of-9 shots led the Celtics’ first-half surge. Both starters led the offense and helped the C’s take a 59-50 lead into the half. 

After the break, Marcus Smart (13 points, 3 steals) carried the momentum while most of the starters cheered from the bench. So far, Smart is shooting 70 percent (14-of-20) from inside the 3-point arc throughout the preseason. He may not be knocking down shots from deep but he’s been very consistent from the mid-range and continues to be a force on defense. 

For a full box score, click here

In what was a regular season-like atmosphere at Madison Square Garden, the Knicks erased their double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter before the Celtics put together a late-game run to close out the win and silence the raucous New York crowd. Horford’s presence continues to impact the Celtics’ offense as their best shooter in Bradley had plenty of opportunities to knock down open shots against the Knicks.

Horford and Bradley’s great shooting and strong defense — one that forced 20 Knicks turnovers — set the tone on both ends of the floor as the C’s dominated throughout most of the game. 

Hunter — who’s believed to be on the bubble for making the team’s final 16-man roster — certainly made a case for himself in what may have been his best outing as a member of the Celtics. The second-year guard not only knocked down a pair of 3-pointers but also drove against the defense, got to the hoop and to the free-throw line. 

The Celtics will close out their preseason schedule with a pair of home games this week on Monday against the Nets and Wednesday against the Knicks. 

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Jordan Mickey Shines, Terry Rozier suffers injury in win against Hornets 10.08.16 at 6:26 pm ET
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Jordan Mickey

Jordan Mickey

UNCASVILLE, CT — In a game where Brad Stevens rested four of his five starters and had to do without backup guard Terry Rozier in the second half, the Celtics defeated the Hornets in their second consecutive preseason match up, 104-86. 

Jae Crowder was the lone member of the starting unit who played in this one. He started at the power forward position in a small-ball lineup that included Tyler Zeller at center, rookie Jaylen Brown at small forward, Marcus Smart at the point and Gerald Green — who made his preseason debut.

Isaiah Thomas (left wrist), Avery Bradley, Al Horford and Amir Johnson sat out as their younger teammates took care of business against Charlotte.

Both teams got off to a sloppy start and finished the game’s first 12 minutes tied at 18. Although the Celtics forced five turnovers in the first quarter — including four in the opening minutes — they struggled in transition on offense and committed six turnovers.  

Making matters worse, Rozier (4 points, 2 rebounds) left the game early in the second quarter when he was elbowed in the face while attempting to take a charge against Hornets center Christian Wood. He received seven stitches and never returned.

The Celtics’ offense found its rhythm against the Hornets in the second quarter as they took a 49-38 lead into halftime. Zeller scored 10 of his 14 points in the first half — he finished 5-of-7 from the floor, including 4-of-4 from the charity stripe. He did a stellar job of knocking down open mid-range jump shots and finishing strong in the paint.

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Celtics teammates impressed by Terry Rozier’s newfound confidence 09.27.16 at 11:01 am ET
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Terry Rozier (12) points to Al Horford (42) during a light moment during Celtics media day (David Butler II/USA Today Sports)

Terry Rozier points to Al Horford in a light moment during Celtics media day. (David Butler II/USA Today Sports)

WALTHAM — Terry Rozier appears to be ready to take on a larger role with the Celtics this season. The confident young point guard is coming into his own, and his teammates have noticed the strides he’s made throughout the offseason.

Rozier points to the playoff opportunity he received against the Hawks last year as a catalyst to his newfound confidence. He played five games, averaging 4.8 points, 3.4 rebounds and 1.2 assists in 19.8 minutes. It was the kind of experience Rozier — as a rookie — believes he needed.

“I feel that anytime a rookie can get on the floor and play in the playoffs, it feels like a boost going into the next season. So that definitely played a big factor,” Rozier said at Monday’s media day. “I’m just excited for next season.

[I’m] just mainly more comfortable out there. I know that myself, if I’m comfortable playing this game that I love, then I’ll be fine. I can just about play with anybody. So just slowing my mind down and just being comfortable out there and just relax and play.”

One teammate who has noticed Rozier’s great offseason is Marcus Smart. When he was asked about the team’s vacant sixth man role, Smart mentioned Rozier as one of the lead reserves the Celtics have coming off their bench.

“With the absence of Evan, he’s going to be missed here. The things he brought to the team, he created his own jump shot. He created for others,” Smart said. “Everybody else understands the role that he left us with and we have to step up as a team, I have to step up as an individual, but this team has to step up. And there’s a lot of players. We’ve got guys coming off the bench like Terry Rozier, who’s been real good in the offseason. And as you guys saw in the summer league, he’s been playing his butt off.”

Even Al Horford — who has only played with Rozier for a month — is impressed with the strides Rozier has made. In talking about the Celtics’ young players, Horford singled out the second-year guard as one of his teammates who improved their game from last season.

“There’s a lot of the younger guys who were very, very athletic,” Horford told reporters Monday. “Guys that have definitely gotten better — Jae Crowder came in and played with us one day and his 3-point shot has gotten better. That was good to see. I was encouraged by Terry as well. He’s looked good all month. It just excited me to see that a lot of these guys are making progress in their game.”

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Isaiah Thomas improves diet, consults with Harvard ‘sleep doctor’ this offseason 09.27.16 at 8:29 am ET
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Isaiah Thomas has made lifestyle changes that he thinks will carry over to the court (Josue Pavon/WEEI.com)

Isaiah Thomas has made lifestyle changes that he hopes will carry over to the court. (Josue Pavon/WEEI.com)

WALTHAM — Isaiah Thomas has been in the NBA long enough to know just how important health and conditioning is during the offseason. At Monday’s media day, he told reporters how the changes he’s made will make him a better player this year.

Entering his sixth season, Thomas sounded like a seasoned veteran in discussing the changes he’s made in his eating habits and sleeping pattern as he aims to extend his career to the age of 40.

“I changed my diet,” Thomas said. “I hired a personal chef back home, and I’m eating vegetables for the first time since when my dad used to make me. I eliminated fast food. You guys have heard it before — I want to play until I’m 40, and I know it starts with little things like that. Last week I got in contact with Dr. Z [Charles Czeisler] over there at Harvard, the ‘Sleep Doctor.’ I’m trying to learn how to sleep longer and sleep more. Not only am I going to eat healthier, I’m going to get a lot of sleep. Instead of watching TV and playing video games, I have to learn to get more sleep. That will help me be a better basketball player. Those are the little things I am trying to figure out. The older I get, the more I’m trying to figure those little things out to be a better basketball player. It’s not all on the court.”

Thomas also admitted that he’s still bitter over last year’s first-round playoff exit against the Hawks. He explained how he’s never given so much effort on the basketball court like he did in the playoffs, and that he’s using last season as motivation heading into the 2016-17 season.

“Whole offseason that’s all I thought about,” Thomas said. “Losing that series left a bad taste in all of our mouths. We want to get past that first round. I do, I know that. I want to go further. We have a good team, and people to make that happen. Last season hurt me especially because that’s the first time I can say I gave everything I had. I had no more left in me, and that’s why I hurt so much. Having everybody back for another year, we’re looking for bigger and better things. What that may be we don’t know, but hopefully we can jell faster than we did last year with the additions we have on this team.”

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Celtics Player Preview: Jalen Jones 09.26.16 at 12:30 pm ET
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With Celtics training camp set to begin on Sept. 26, WEEI.com presents a player-by-player breakdown of the roster. The Celtics have 20 players under contract but will have to cut the roster to 15 by the start of the season.

2015-16 season 

33 games with Texas A&M: 27.3 minutes, 15.3 points, 42.5% FG, 7.2 rebounds, 0.7 steals

Jones was one of the Aggies’ go-to scorers his senior year. His long frame helped him score baskets at an efficient rate. Jones began his college career at SMU but sat out of the 2013-14 season after transferring to Texas A&M. He became a starter almost immediately after the start of his junior year and put together his best season last year. 

Projected role in 2016-17

Jones will be one of four players without guaranteed contracts at training camp and was the last man added to the 20-man roster. He most likely will spend his season in the D-League.

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