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Win over Jazz should make you start wondering about bigger things for Celtics 02.12.17 at 9:08 am ET
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Isaiah Thomas is leading the Celtics to new heights. (Russell Isabella/USA Today Sports)

Isaiah Thomas is leading the Celtics to new heights. (Russell Isabella/USA Today Sports)

In case you haven’t been paying attention, the Celtics — even without trading what could very well be the No. 1 pick in the draft — have entered the NBA’s elite.

The C’s are just 2 1/2 games out of the top spot in the Eastern Conference, and have now won nine of their last 10 games. During that run Brad Stevens’ club managed wins over the East’s No. 4 team (Toronto), and the third-, fourth-, and fifth-best teams (Houston, Utah, Clippers) in the Western Conference.

The latest reminder came Saturday night, when the Celtics picked apart one of the best defensive teams in the NBA, the Jazz, on the way to a 112-104 win over Utah. (For a complete recap, click here.)

This time around the non-Isaiah Thomas scoring came from reserves Kelly Olynyk (19 points) and Gerald Green (16 points), with Al Horford doing his thing with 16 of his own. But what the win over the Jazz did was once again remind us what a good coach Stevens is.

The Celtics had already come away with a win over the Jazz at the Garden, so a very good Utah team had every opportunity to adjust when hosting the C’s this time around. But Stevens managed an offensive game-plan that exposed the Jazz’ usual lock-down defense.

For the night, the Celtics finished shoot 59 percent fro the field, keyed by Olynyk and Green going a combined 15-for-19. Sure, there is still the prevailing notion that the Celtics are a player away. (Watching Kevin Durant return to Oklahoma City Saturday should have gave C’s fans a quick jolt of what-might-have-been.) But, the way this team has found a way to make the most of what they have should at least make the Cavaliers nervous.

The Celtics should be favored in the remaining six games they have in February, leaving two contests that should be circled: March 1 at Cleveland and the March 8 road game against the Warriors. By the time those games roll around, Danny Ainge could very well have secured that one piece everybody is looking for.

It coast would seem to be clear if Celtics fans wanted to adjust expectations a bit.

What are realistic expectations for Celtics?

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Knicks evidently not giving up hope they can ship Carmelo Anthony to Celtics 01.30.17 at 12:19 pm ET
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Carmelo Anthony

Carmelo Anthony

It still appears to be a longshot, but according to the Boston Globe the Knicks are holding out hope that the Celtics agree to become a landing spot for Carmelo Anthony.

The Globe is reporting that while Danny Ainge has told New York he isn’t interested in dealing for Anthony, the Knicks continue to push for a deal with the C’s, showing interest in some of the pieces on Boston’s roster. It was reportedly the impetus for a Knicks’ scout’s attendance at the recent Celts win over the Bucks in Milwaukee.

Anthony does have a no-trade clause in his deal, but has identified the Celtics as one of the teams he would accept a trade to.

The 33-year-old forward is currently averaging 22.6 points and 6.2 rebounds per game for the underachieving Knicks, which hold the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference standings with a 21-27 record.

To read why Anthony might be a good fit for the Celtics, click here for John Tomase’s column.

It looks like Celtics might be eyeing Magic big man Nikola Vucevic 01.29.17 at 7:44 pm ET
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Nikola Vucevic

Nikola Vucevic

It’s not complicated: The Celtics need scoring and rebounding, and Nikola Vucevic can do both.

So hearing CSNNE.com reporting the Celts have expressed interest in acquiring Vucevic should make all the sense in the world.

The report states the Celtics and Magic have talked about a deal involving the 26-year-old center, who has just two fewer double-doubles (19) as the entire C’s team. The 7-foot Vucevic is currently averaging 13.8 points and 9.8 rebounds a game for lowly Orlando.

Vucevic’s appeal also extends to the team-friendly four-year, $53 million rookie contract extension he inked. The deal pays him $11.75 million this season, $12.25 million next season and $12.75 in 2018-19.

Two seasons ago, he averaged 19.3 points and 10.9 rebounds per contest, while totaling 18.2 points and 8.9 boards a game in 2015-16. Vucevic was taken 16th overall in the 2011 NBA draft out the University of Southern California. After his rookie season, he was dealt to the Magic in a four-team trade involving Dwight Howard.

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.”

 

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