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Brad Stevens on Celtics’ defensive struggles: ‘We play like a finesse team’ 11.07.16 at 12:09 am ET
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Brad Stevens saw his team fix some things in earning their second win of the season. (Jeremy Brevard/USA Today Sports)

Brad Stevens says his team needs to sustain its aggressiveness on the defensive end. (Jeremy Brevard/USA Today Sports)

Following their 123-107 loss to the Nuggets on Sunday at TD Garden, Brad Stevens pointed to his team’s physicality — or lack thereof — as the biggest reason why the Celtics have struggled defensively in their first six games of the season.

The Celtics allow an average of 111.8 points a game — they’re second in most points allowed behind the Suns (113.3). Five of their first six opponents of the season have finished with no less than 105 points, as the Celtics (3-3) are now a .500 team. 

“I think we play like a finesse team, and they play physical,” Stevens explained after the Celtics’ loss on Sunday. “So I kind of saw that right out of the gate. You know, they were getting where they wanted to on their drives.”

How far are the Celtics from becoming a top three defensive team?

“I don’t even know if it’s statistically possible based on our week,” Stevens answered. “I don’t even know if you can make it up in 76 games but we can get a lot better. But it starts with holding your ground physically. You know, [Emmanuel] Mudiay goes nuts, that’s fine, but Mudiay also gets two putbacks — or at least one putback early — that gets you going. Makes you feel good about yourself. We brought a little bit of aggressiveness at the start of the third quarter but that wasn’t sustainable.

So, I don’t know. I don’t have the answer. Obviously we’ve got some guys that aren’t playing that will play, but this is about physically holding your ground.”

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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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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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