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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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This was why Celtics should have been hoping for Russell Westbrook, not Kevin Durant 12.24.16 at 12:00 am ET
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Russell Westbrook torched the Celtics for 45 points Friday night (Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports)

Russell Westbrook torched the Celtics for 45 points Friday night (Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports)

Russell Westbrook. Kevin Durant. You can’t go wrong. Let’s get that out of the way.

But while so many lusted after the idea of Durant being wooed by Tom Brady and the Celtics in the Hamptons last summer, the eyes should have been on another prize, his Oklahoma City teammate.

This was a fact that Westbrook helped crystalize Friday night at TD Garden.

The Thunder made sure they didn’t get in the predicament the organization found themselves with Durant, locking up Westbrook to a three-year, $85 million extension that wouldn’t allow him to become a free agent until after the 2018-19 season. For Celtics’ fans it elicited another offseason sad trombone. Within a month, Durant and Westbrook had dashed the C’s dreams of reeling in one of the two to serve as the foundation for the team which would ultimately overtake LeBron James and the rest of the NBA.

But even with the prospect of getting one of the stars in green dashed, the debate regarding which one should have been prioritized lingered. The consensus was Durant would be the better acquisition. The consensus might be changing their mind.

Westbrook virtually singled-handedly beat the Celtics, 117-112, in their most recent meeting, notching his 14th triple-double of the season with 45 points, 11 assists and 11 rebounds. And all of that after not making his first basket until four minutes into the second quarter.

(To read a complete recap of the Celtics’ loss to the Thunder, click here.)

The guard now has 133 points in his last four games, and finds himself leading the NBA in scoring at 31.8 points per game. Westbrook also averages the second-most assists per contest (10.8), currently serving as the active leader in career triple-doubles (51), totaling six more than LeBron.

Right now, he is simply the one guy you would take over everyone else with the game on the line, which the Celtics found out the hard way.

It’s not like Durant is having a bad season. He is averaging 25.9 points per game, playing a major role in Golden State’s 27-4 start. But all things considered — including what would be the perfect fit for these Celtics — Westbrook should have always headlined the C’s wish-list.

“We’ve got really good defenders on him and he made great plays,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said of Westbrook. “I don’t know what to say other than ‘Hats off to him’ for plays he made.”

Who would you rather have on the Celtics?

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Al Horford’s sister uses Twitter, Kirk & Callahan to fire back at brother’s critics 11.29.16 at 7:56 pm ET
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Al Horford’s sister has the Celtics’ star’s back. One perusal of Anna Horford’s Twitter account and that becomes clear.

After Horford received criticism from Mike Felger on Comcast SportsNet New England over the forward’s decision to skip the Celtics’ game in Miami Monday night to be present for the birth of his daughter, Anna fired back.

The first salvo came in the form of an obscenity-laced tweet, which was followed by a series of retweets supporting her defense of Al. (To read all the tweets, click here.)

And, of course, there was this clarification when it came to her relation to the subject of the controversy …

And, finally, her plans for truly clarifying the defense of Al.

To read more about the Horford controversy, read John Tomase’s column by clicking here.

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Kevin Durant isn’t thrilled about rehashing how close he came to becoming Celtic 11.18.16 at 1:08 pm ET
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Kevin Durant (Kyle Terada/USA Today Sports)

Kevin Durant (Kyle Terada/USA Today Sports)

He had to know it was coming.

Once Kevin Durant emerged for the shootaround at TD Garden prior to Friday night’s tilt between his Warriors and the Celtics, the questions started flying. Why the star forward has already addressed how the Celtics courted him this offseason, this would be the first time he would be coming face-to-face with the team he designated as an almost, but not quite.

“Do we really want to open this back up?” Durant said at one point during his gathering with the media. adding, “I have much respect for everybody on their team. I know AB, I know Isaiah. Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder and those guys came and we had a nice talk. They were very impressive. The city of Boston is one of the best cities in the league. I really respect how they approach the game and how they play the game.”

So, how close was he to picking the Celtics?

“I met with them, they were really good. I was really impressed by them,” the forward said. “It’s hard for me to say how close each team was. I’m not going to go into that. But they were very impressive.” And what about that presentation in the Hamptons, which included Celtics players, front office types, ownership and even Tom Brady? “It was pretty good,” he said. “I’m not going to go into depth everything they said, but it was pretty good.”

Durant comes into Friday night playing for a Warriors club that is second in the Western Conference, standing at 9-2. He is sixth in the NBA in scoring, averaging 27.7 points per game, just slightly ahead of teammate Steph Curry (27.2). The Celtics, meanwhile, are in sixth-place in the Eastern Conference at 6-5, and will head into the showdown with the Warriors without both Al Horford and Jae Crowder.

“I don’t know. I expect them to cheer on their team like they always do,” said Durant when asked about what type of reception he expected from the TD Garden crowd. Outside of that, I don’t know. I’m trying to lock in and focus on our team, our game. The fans are going to be the same, they’re going to enjoy the game. As the game goes along they’re going to boo, they’re going to cheer. It is what it is.”

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