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Raptors’ win proved Celtics will remain 3rd fiddle until they get some help 01.10.17 at 10:29 pm ET
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DeMar DeRozan torched the Celtics for 41 points Tuesday night. (Tom Szczerbowski/USA Today Sports)

DeMar DeRozan torched the Celtics for 41 points Tuesday night. (Tom Szczerbowski/USA Today Sports)

This was supposed to be as inspirational as a mid-January game could be.

Beat the Raptors, draw even with Toronto for second seed in the Eastern Conference, and prove yourselves to closer to Cleveland than ever before. That was the plan for the Celtics.

The plan fell apart with one Raptors’ fourth-quarter flurry. Toronto boosted its lead over the Celts in the conference standings to two games after completely dominating the final seven minutes of what would end up as the Raptors’ 114-106 win over Brad Stevens’ club in Toronto.

(For a complete recap of the loss, click here.)

The Raptors would out-score the C’s, 34-22, in the fourth quarter. But the ultimate dagger would reveal itself in the form of a 23-6 run by the hosts to close out the Tuesday night loss, leaving the Celtics just one game ahead of the Hawks for the conference’s third spot.

The frustration that came with the Celtics blowing a 16-point, third-quarter lead was just a small part of the equation. The big picture reality should have been much more painful.

While Toronto’s backcourt duo of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan were taking over the game down the stretch, the Celtics were left defaulting to their fourth-quarter superstar Isaiah Thomas. This time, however, Thomas couldn’t keep up. Simply watching the collapse unfold, you could get that feel that something was missing for the Celtics.

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Win over Jazz reminded us it might be time to start finding out what Jaylen Brown is all about 01.03.17 at 10:03 pm ET
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Jaylen Brown (Jerry Lai/USA Today Sports)

Jaylen Brown (Jerry Lai/USA Today Sports)

It was internet catnip. Just another list. This time the article attempted to identify the eight biggest busts from the 2016 NBA Draft, to date.

Sitting at No. 3? Jaylen Brown.

Such identifications start making some wonder. What if this player who was supposed to emerge into piece of the Celtics’ foundation was a miss.

Brown came into the Celtics’ tilt against the Jazz Tuesday night 24th among rookies in points per game (4.9), having also landed at 26th among the group for minutes per contest (13.4). Both classifications would certainly support the notion that things weren’t going as planned for the No. 3 overall pick.

But the reality is that Brown will ultimately be just fine. And proof of the promise came in the Celts’ 115-104 win over Utah, with the forward scoring 10 minutes in his 12 minutes. It was the first time since Dec. 11 he had totaled double-figures, and only third occasion since Nov. 11.

(For a complete recap of the Celtics’ win, click here.)

With the roster as currently constituted, the Celtics will continue to patience. But performances like Tuesday night make one wonder if the training wheels might be at least loosened a bit.

Clearly, Celtics coach Brad Stevens wants to prioritize those who he know can defend off the bench. That was once again made clear with Stevens’ comments prior to his latest win. And this might be a good reason while Brown hasn’t played more than 18 minutes in any of the last 12 games.

But it would also behoove the Celtics to find out if Brown is ready to add some offensive electricity. It’s not as if Brown hasn’t been efficient, having made 10 of his last 16 shots from the field over the past three games.

And while it might seem this isn’t a priority, especially considering the Celtics’ offensive output the best of any opponent against the Jazz this season, time is somewhat of the essence. The C’s simply have to start figuring out what they have — whether it’s for their future, or somebody else’s.

It’s ironic that Joe Johnson was in uniform for the opposition on this night considering he represents what could be a very real scenario for Brown and the Celtics. It was Johnson who was dealt to the Suns by the C’s after averaging 6.9 points in 48 games as a rookie.

That Johnson deal brought the Celtics Rodney Rogers and Tony Delk, and with them came a legitimate path to the Eastern Conference. At the time, it was worth it for the Celts. Now, with Brown as perhaps one of their best non-draft pick trade chips, they have to figure out if it’s worth it once again.

What do you think about Jaylen Brown?

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Al Horford’s sister says Celtics need center because her brother is better suited to power forward 01.01.17 at 8:19 pm ET
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Anna Horford has the pulse of her brother’s team. The sister of Celtics forward Al Horford is pleading with Danny Ainge to prioritize getting some help on the inside instead of going after scoring, suggesting a center would be a better addition than Atlanta forward Paul Millsap, (or perphaps Indiana forward Paul George). Millsap has been rumored to be available, with the 6-foot-8, 10-year veteran averaging 17.4 points and eight rebounds per game. George is one of a multitude of stars from around the league the Celtics have reportedly shown interest in, with Pacers teammate Monta Ellis possibly being involved in a potential deal. George has one year left on his contract, with a player option for 2017-18.

She then clarified her tweet a bit …

Anna might ultimately get her wish when it’s all said and done, with DeMarcus Cousins, Nerlens Noel and even Anthony Davis being mentioned as potentially available via a trade. Horford might also have a change of heart, which already seems to have happened after seemingly urging the Celtics to go after an outside presence just a few weeks back.

Do you agree with Anna Horford?

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It’s time to start giving Isaiah Thomas the superstar status he deserves 12.30.16 at 11:26 pm ET
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Isaiah Thomas has earned superstar status. (Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports)

Isaiah Thomas has earned superstar status. (Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports)

Isaiah Thomas deserves a different kind of conversation.

OK, maybe it took the Celtics guard scoring 52 points in his team’s 117-114 win over the Heat Friday night to jump-start the conversation. And scoring a franchise-record 29 points in the fourth quarter — coming two away from Wilt Chamberlain’s NBA mark, set in the Hall of Famer’s 100-point game — certainly should allow for another night in the spotlight.

“It doesn’t seem real,” Thomas said after the performance. “It’s crazy.” But for 2016, this was the Celtics’ David Ortiz. Thomas was the alpha dog. The guy who kept talks of competing beyond the regular season finale a reality.

Right now, as we sit here, there are three athletes who have established themselves as legitimate superstars during this calendar year. Tom Brady. Mookie Betts. Thomas. (You can make the case for Patrice Bergeron, Chris Sale, Rick Porcello, Rob Gronkowski, and maybe Brad Marchand, but each feel like they fall short of the others.)

But on virtually every day but the one he nets 52, Thomas is usually on the outskirts of such a conversation. Why?

Maybe it’s because some haven’t got past the fact this was a guy who was the very last pick in the 2011 NBA draft. Or perhaps it is because Danny Ainge only needed journeyman guard Marcus Thornton and a pick in the 2015 draft to get him from the Phoenix two seasons ago.

Yet the real reason we still don’t want to immediately identify Thomas as a no-questions-asked foundation piece is something he brought up after getting doused with ice by his teammates in the Celtics’ locker room.

“I do,” said Thomas when asked if he felt there is a hesitation to lump him in with the league’s superstars. “The only reason say that is because I’m 5-9. That’s why they don’t about me like they do the other guys. But I’m fine with it.”

Once again, it’s easy to bring this up now. It was the first time a Celtic had scored 50 or more points since Paul Pierce netted half a century in a double-overtime loss to Cleveland on Feb. 15, 2006. Only Larry Bird and Kevin McHale scored more points in a single game while wearing a Celtics uniform. And the nine three-pointers tied a club record, with Antoine Walker having managed the total twice.

“It just felt like I was out there by myself, like I was in the guy working on my game,” Thomas said. “I was just throwing up everything and it was going in. It was a special feeling.”

This, however, is bigger than just one night.

Thomas — who is now fifth in the NBA in scoring — has the skill and personality befitting those we hold above the rest. Last postseason, he was the one who called out his teammates after nobody could pry Atlanta’s triple-team away from him. Time and time again, it is the guard who has let the Celtics’ complementary players still win with their complementary skills. And Brad Stevens can be a good coach who wins in the NBA, because even the best coaches in this league need players who can score.

And all of this while paying him just more than $6 million this season and next before he finally is eligible for free agency after the 2017-18 season.

Thomas is keeper. That is one thing the Celtics should feel confident of heading into the new year.

“For me it feels normal,” he said. “When I score and I put the numbers up that I do, I give credit to my teammates and this organization for believing in me. It feels normal. Everything I’ve always done in my whole life I’ve worked that hard for it. It’s never felt like, ‘I’m 5-9.’ When I’m out there I feel like I’m 6-4. It’s just the same as everybody else. Tonight was different. But everything else, it feels somewhat normal.”

 

What was lesson Celtics learned after Isaiah Thomas’ 52-point night? They need to get him some help 12.30.16 at 9:56 pm ET
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Isaiah Thomas netted a franchise-record nine three-pointers Friday night. (Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports)

Isaiah Thomas netted a franchise-record nine three-pointers Friday night. (Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports)

It is the most uncomplicated team in recent memory. When it comes to the Celtics, the reality is simple: they are one player away.

This has nothing to do with the Celtics’ 117-114 win over a bad Miami Heat team, back-to-back games, or not having Avery Bradley for Friday night’s game.

What transpired against the Heat without Bradley — who missed his first game with an illness — was a familiar refrain. The Celtics needed scoring, so Isaiah Thomas scored. In this case, the production was in the form of 52 points and franchise-record nine three-pointers.

(For a complete recap, click here.)

Al Horford also offered his complementary output. But as has been the case for most of the last two seasons, the mish-mash of good-but-not great was good enough to beat a team like Miami, but not enough to get over the hump against the conference elite in Cleveland.

Thomas could do whatever he wanted against this collection of Heat. Try this strategy against any team with a record better than 10-24? Good luck.

Sure, Bradley and his 17.9 points a game would have helped. But without the guard, and even with Horford, this was a reminder of the pain that will ultimately be waiting in the postseason. The kind of pain that the Celtics became all-too-familiar with last April against the Hawks when Thomas finished off his season bemoaning triple-teams.

So, will this dynamic change before the Celtics really have to be judged against the best of the East?

It’s not like legitimate Top 3 guys can be added without some discomfort. In the case of DeMarcus Cousins (whose game would be a perfect fit), the uneasiness comes with both the player’s demeanor, and the cost to bring him in.

And really to reel in any available player similar to Cousin’s caliber, the Celtics be ready to give up that Brooklyn pick. It is one that is looking better and better every day thanks to both the college prospects who might be available and the Nets’ record. (Brooklyn owns the NBA’s worst record after Friday night’s loss.)

Perhaps Danny Ainge wants to ride this out. But the problem is if he does there really doesn’t seem to a lot of hope for internal solutions.

Jae Crowder. Marcus Smart. Gerald Green. Jonas Jerebko. Terry Rozier. To think that any of of this group is going to offer the kind of consistent production needed to change the conversation isn’t realistic.

Perhaps the best hope is Jaylen Brown, the rookie who once again showed flashes in his 15 minutes against the Heat. Brown finished with just six points on 3-of-4 shooting from the floor, but with some increased confidence and playing time, he possesses the type of game of that can solve some problems.

Or maybe Brown becomes the kind of player teams will actually prioritize when looking to talk trade with the Celtics.

Isaiah (who, by the way, didn’t have a single assist) needs some help. Until then, the Celtics will have to live on the edge they’ve found themselves the last two nights.

What should the Celtics do?

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How big a loss would Avery Bradley be? Celtics find out against Heat 12.30.16 at 6:55 pm ET
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Avery Bradley is missing his first game of the season, Friday night. (David Butler II/USA Today Sports)

Avery Bradley is missing his first game of the season, Friday night. (David Butler II/USA Today Sports)

Avery Bradley was not available for the Celtics’ game against the Heat Friday night. He wasn’t even at TD Garden.

Upon first blush, the news would have seemed to be a result of a jammed left thumb suffered on a blocked shot by LeBron James Thursday night. But that was not the case. Bradley’s absence, as explained by Celtics coach Brad Stevens, was due to a illness.

“Avery’s home sick,” Stevens said prior to the C’s showdown against Miami. “His hand felt a little bit better, but he came down with the latest sickness. He came in, got checked out and we sent him home.”

Bradley had been a key component in the Celtics’ two previous meetings, with the guard scoring 18 and 20 points, respectively in both C’s wins.

Starting in place of Bradley was Marcus Smart.

Bradley is turning in a borderline All-Star season, averaging 17.9 points and 7.1 rebounds per game in just 28.4 minutes a contest. He has hit double-figures in each of his 33 games.

It will be the first game the Celtics have gone without Bradley this season, having represented the only Celtic who started every game.

Games like Celtics’ win over Knicks offer reminder Marcus Smart will always be haunted by Bill Simmons’ tweet 12.25.16 at 3:08 pm ET
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I’ve said this too many times to count: Marcus Smart will never make an NBA All-Star team.

This used to rile people up, and fill up the phone lines, with Celtics’ diehards hanging their hopes on Smart for the next foundation piece. After all, he was taken at No. 6 overall in the 2014 draft, and has shown enough to make it seem like a sustained run of excellence might be in there.

And then there was that tweet from Bill Simmons …

Ugh.

Smart is never going to come close to being Westbrook, and he also isn’t going to make an All-Star team. But, you know what? That’s OK. And that’s something anybody who watched the Celtics’ Christmas Day, 119-114 win over the Knicks at Madison Square Garden should agree with.

(Click here for a complete recap of the Celtics’ win.)

Smart did his usual thing in playing 28 minutes, managing a plus-18 while totaling 15 points and seven assists. This time, however, he added in the game’s pivotal shot, breaking a 112-112 tie with 48 seconds left with a 3-pointer as the shot clock was winding down.

ESPN announcer Doug Collins immediately offered a great comparison when trying to describe Smart’s vibe: there’s a little Dennis Johnson in there, making you forget all the bad when the good counts the most.

The knocks on Smart haven’t really subsided, starting with his critics’ issues involving the guard’s shooting. This was a player who, last season, had the lowest 3-point percentage (25 percent) of any NBA player in history taking as many treys as he did. It hasn’t gotten much better this time around, with Smart shooting three’s at 27 percent with a field goal percentage right at his career average (35.7 percent).

Still, if you’ve watched the Celtics’ last few games it is easy to uncover the key plays Smart has made when the game has been on the line, and we’re not just talking jumpers. Rebounds. Taking offensive fouls. Steals.

Sunday only reaffirmed what the Celtics’ coaching staff, and chief decision-maker Danny Ainge, think of Smart. They love him. They think he will be part a key part of a winning team, which is exactly what the Celtics are right now, residing only behind the Cavaliers and Raptors in the Eastern Conference.

But the question is will be if Smart can be that complementary piece on a team that will be talented enough to overtake those Eastern Conference big wigs? Will the Celtics have to trade him to get that much-needed foundation piece? Or will the Celts end up being not quite good enough because they prioritize keeping Smart?

For now, the Celtics will see how good they can be with a top five of Isaiah Thomas, Al Horford, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Smart, all of whom (along with Kelly Olynyk) finished in double-figures.

Threes like the one Smart hit against the Knicks are just a bonus. This is a player you should like. Just don’t expect too much.

Will Marcus Smart ever make an All-Star team?

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