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Fast Break: Isaiah Thomas returns, leads C’s past Hornets 12.16.16 at 10:57 pm ET
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Dec 16, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) drives the ball defended by Charlotte Hornets center Cody Zeller (40) in the second half at TD Garden. The Celtics defeated Charlotte 96-88. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Isaiah Thomas battles through Cody Zeller on his way to the basket in the second half Friday night at TD Garden. (David Butler II/USA Today Sports)

He’s back.

In Isaiah Thomas’ return, the Celtics snapped a 3-game losing streak and defeated the Charlotte Hornets 96-88. The 5-foot-9 point guard led all scorers with 26 points on 9-of-20 shooting and 6-of-7 free throws. 

The starters got it done, as four of five scored in double figures. Al Horford had a complete game, amassing 18 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists and a game-high 5 blocks, while Jae Crowder poured in 12 points, including going 2-of-5 from 3-point range, 5 rebounds and 3 assists. Jonas Jerebko, who has quietly become the team’s best scorer off the bench, scored 9 points on 4-of-8 shooting and was a game-high plus-15.

And while the Hornets were missing Kemba Walker, who is arguably their best player, due to personal reasons, the Celtics did exactly what they had to do: beat a team that was already down coming in.

The game was a tale of two halves. The Celtics looked uninspired in the first period, falling behind by 12 in the middle of the second quarter and going into the half down 50-41.

I don’t know what was said at the half, but I wish I did. Falling behind by 12 once again, the C’s embarked on a 16-2 run in the latter half of the third quarter. The game remained close, until the Celtics went on another run late in the fourth quarter, outscoring the Hornets 15-0 and essentially sealing the win.

“I thought we really defended a lot of the night, but certainly in the second half,” Brad Stevens said. “And then the ball finally started going down. I thought that this was predictably going to be an extremely tough game, because of the fact that we’re playing a really good team who is, like us, coming off a long road swing and then we’re both, you know, hungry to get a win..  And so you knew it was going to be exceptionally hard. And I give our guys a lot of credit; between all the travel and coming back and popping right back up and playing, now getting right back on a plane tomorrow – I’m really happy with that effort today.  That was great effort.”

As for Horford’s monster night of 18 points, eight rebounds, five blocks and 2 steals?

“He was good.  We need him to be really good,” Stevens added. “They went small at the end of the first half, and we struggled a little bit with that, and then we tried to play small and skilled most of the second half, with the exception of a little few minutes with Kelly (Olynyk) and Amir (Johnson). But, you know, we needed everybody to play well there, in the second half.”

 Stevens played Thomas at the start of the fourth quarter, calling on his fresh legs. 

“I just felt like I’ve seen too many games where you make a come-back and then the other team takes control and goes out to a lead,” Stevens said. “And we’ve actually seen that in our games at Charlotte, where we’ve lost the lead and then got it back and pulled away, and I just thought those first four minutes in the second quarter were really important.  And he was – he hadn’t been doing anything all week. 

“In all sincerity, like, he’s been working really hard to get back.  You know, but the rest of those guys have been all over the place, and now we needed – I told him the other day on the phone, “When, on Friday, we’re going to need to really give us a spark.”

The runs accentuated Thomas’ importance, as his aggressiveness on both ends of the floor opened lanes, caused turnovers and led to wide-open threes.

More times than not, the Celtics win ugly, and they did it again Friday.

 

For a complete box score, click here.

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Read More: Boston Celtics, Charlotte Hornets, Isaiah Thomas,
Mike Petraglia recaps Isaiah Thomas’ return (26 points), Al Horford’s presence (5 blocks) in win over Hornets 12.16.16 at 10:51 pm ET
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Isaiah Thomas made his return after a four-game absence due to a groin injury Friday night. And the Celtics needed his 26 points and Al Horford’s 18 points and five blocks to help beat the Charlotte Hornets to end a three-game losing streak. Mike Petraglia has your recap inside TD Garden.

JBL_CMYK_NoHarmanNoRBallWEEI is how you listen to Celtics coverage. JBL cutting-edge wireless headphones and speakers are how you feel like you’re there. As the official Sound of the Celtics, Isaiah Thomas and the NBA, JBL is Made for the Biggest Stage.

Read More: Al Horford, Boston Celtics, Charlotte Hornets, Isaiah Thomas
Celtics pregame notes: Isaiah Thomas (groin) returns with no minutes restrictions 12.16.16 at 6:45 pm ET
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Isaiah Thomas

Isaiah Thomas

Isaiah Thomas has been cleared for liftoff.

The Celtics point guard who has missed the last four games, including all three of Boston’s losses in their current skid, returns Friday from a groin injury suffered in a loss to Houston on Dec. 5. At the time of the injury, Thomas was leading the Celtics in scoring at 26.0 points per game in 21 games. 

The Celtics did win their first game without Thomas on Dec. 7, when they blew out the Magic by 30. But they’ve lost the last three to the Raptors, Thunder and Spurs. Marcus Smart has started at point guard in all four games. He returns to the bench for Friday’s game against Charlotte. 

Brad Stevens was asked before Friday’s game if Thomas was good to go.

“From everything I know, yep,” Stevens said.  “He went through everything and felt pretty good.”

The Celtics did not practice Thursday after returning late from San Antonio Thursday morning. 

Stevens also added that Thomas will not be under any minutes restrictions. 

“They told me nothing more today and nothing about minutes restrictions,” Stevens said. 

Thomas’ teammates were certainly happy to have him back. 

“It’s a big-time boost,” Avery Bradley said. “We’ve been missing him. His scoring, his leadership. I could go down the list.” 

The Celtics take on a Charlotte team that is led by Kemba Walker. But the star point guard out of UConn is not playing due to a personal issue. Walker has dramatically improved his long-range shooting this year, converting 41.2 percent of his 3-point attempts, up four percentage points from last season and seven points above his career average over his six seasons.

“First of all, whether he plays or not, he’s obviously had a great year and he’s a great individual player,” Stevens said. “This team is a tough team. They are really well-coached. They’re really disciplined. They don’t beat themselves. They don’t turn the ball over. And I think he does a terrific job, Steve Clifford. Regardless if Kemba’s playing or not, we have our hands full.”

Stevens has a special appreciation for the Hornets guard since it was Walker who drove a dagger into Stevens’ Butler Bulldogs in the 2011 national championship with 16 points in a 53-41 Connecticut win. 

“Kemba and his progression [shooting threes] is not a surprise at all,” Stevens said. “It’s hard for me to talk about it because he beat us in the national championship game. That kid’s a warrior. That kid’s a competitor and always has been. You know that he loves the game. I watched him play as a high schooler in an AAU game and play with a great love for the game and spirit. And that’s translated at every level.” 

JBL_CMYK_NoHarmanNoRBallWEEI is how you listen to Celtics coverage. JBL cutting-edge wireless headphones and speakers are how you feel like you’re there. As the official Sound of the Celtics, Isaiah Thomas and the NBA, JBL is Made for the Biggest Stage.

Read More: Boston Celtics, Isaiah Thomas,
Craig Sager, flashy NBA sideline reporter on TNT, dies of cancer at age 65 12.15.16 at 4:08 pm ET
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TNT's Craig Sager was known as a loud dresser and spot-on interviewer. (Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports)

TNT’s Craig Sager was known as a loud dresser and spot-on interviewer. (Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports)

Craig Sager, famous to a generation of NBA fans for his flashy suits, died of cancer on Thursday, Turner Sports announced.

Sager, 65, had battled leukemia since 2014. He announced this past March that the disease had returned after entering remission. Given no more than six months to live, he vowed to fight. 

“‘Craig Sager was a beloved member of the Turner family for more than three decades and he has been a true inspiration to all of us,” Turner President David Levy said in a statement.

“There will never be another Craig Sager. His incredible talent, tireless work ethic and commitment to his craft took him all over the world covering sports.”

Sager covered the NBA on TNT for 25 years, earning notoriety not just for his loud wardrobe, but his persistent interviewing style that made unlikely fans of difficult personalities like Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who enjoyed sparring with him and once referred to him as “an iconic figure in the NBA.”

Sager graduated from Northwestern and covered a variety of sports over his career, making a name for himself by covering Hank Aaron’s record-breaking 715th home run in 1974.

He went on to cover the Olympics, baseball, the NFL, and college basketball, but he rose to fame as a sideline interviewer for TNT.

He leaves his wife, Stacy, and five children.

JBL_CMYK_NoHarmanNoRBallWEEI is how you listen to Celtics coverage. JBL cutting-edge wireless headphones and speakers are how you feel like you’re there. As the official Sound of the Celtics, Isaiah Thomas and the NBA, JBL is Made for the Biggest Stage.

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Report: Celtics boss Danny Ainge ‘wants to do a deal,’ eyes Gordon Hayward, but overvalues players like Marcus Smart 12.15.16 at 10:35 am ET
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Danny Ainge

Danny Ainge

Danny Ainge’s hunt for a superstar continues.

Noted NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski said on his Vertical podcast (fast-forward to 35-minute mark) on Wednesday that Ainge is itching to pull the trigger on a deal for a star, but as usual is finding the going rough.

One name to keep an eye on: impending free agent swingman Gordon Hayward of the Jazz, who played for Celtics coach Brad Stevens at Butler and has emerged as a potential All-Star this year.

“Danny’s wanted to strike and, like everybody else, get that big star, get that big player,” Wojnarowski said. “[Al] Horford was a big play and a great get in free agency. They can still keep their eye on Gordon Hayward from Utah who’s an unrestricted free agent this summer who played for Brad Stevens at Butler. I think there’s still strong hope in Utah that he’ll want to stay there.”

One problem hamstringing Ainge, according to Wojnarowski, is that he’s overvaluing players in trade talks, particularly misfiring guard Marcus Smart.

“Boston’s interesting in that (they have) some good young players, they have draft picks they can put in deals and they have some veterans that hold some interest in places,” Wojnarowski added. “I do wonder sometimes if Boston might overvalue some of the players they have compared to what the rest of the league sees in them. I think Marcus Smart might be starting to fall into that category. His name’s been in some talks previously, and they’ve been pretty careful about who they’d give him up for.”

JBL_CMYK_NoHarmanNoRBallWEEI is how you listen to Celtics coverage. JBL cutting-edge wireless headphones and speakers are how you feel like you’re there. As the official Sound of the Celtics, Isaiah Thomas and the NBA, JBL is Made for the Biggest Stage.

Read More: Brad Stevens, Celtics rumors, Danny Ainge, Gordon Hayward
Fast Break: Celtics can’t keep pace with Kawhi Leonard, Spurs 12.15.16 at 12:04 am ET
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Al Horford looks to pass as Danny Green attempts to defend during Wednesday's game in San Antonio. (Soobum Im/USA Today Sports)

Al Horford looks to pass as Danny Green attempts to defend during Wednesday’s game in San Antonio. (Soobum Im/USA Today Sports)

Celtics coach Brad Stevens can continue to preach patience, but his team looks as frustrated as its fans as it continues to plod along, losing to every good team it faces.

Wednesday night’s 108-101 loss to the Spurs comes as no surprise — especially with Isaiah Thomas still on the shelf. But at some point this team will need to turn a corner if it’s going to live up to preseason expectations.

“I’ve said the last couple of days that we’ve made progress,” Stevens said in his postgame press conference. “I didn’t think we played as well tonight as we did in Oklahoma City or maybe even at home against Toronto, but [the Spurs] had a lot to do with that. Every time that we got within striking distance, Kawhi Leonard made a huge play or they come up with a loose ball or an offensive rebound.

“They’re tremendous at maximizing every detail of the game. And hey, we’ve had our moments where we play really well, but we’re not as good as them at that.”

On the positive side for Boston, Avery Bradley continued his strong play of late, recording 25 points (10-of-16 shooting), 10 rebounds, six assists and three steals.

Jae Crowder scored 15 points, Al Horford netted 13, Terry Rozier chipped in with 12 in 25 minutes off the bench, and Marcus Smart had 11 points and six assists.

Leonard led the Spurs with 26 points, adding six assists. Pau Gasol had 17 points, 13 rebounds and six assists. Tony Parker scored 10 of his 16 points in the fourth quarter and also had seven assists.

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5 keys for Celtics to beat Spurs without Isaiah Thomas 12.14.16 at 7:46 pm ET
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Brad Stevens is looking for his first win over the Spurs (Troy Taormina/USA Today Sports)

After back-to-back losses to the Raptors and Thunder, the Celtics’ schedule doesn’t get any easier as the C’s are in San Antonio to take on the second-best team in the league without their best player.

Without Isaiah Thomas (groin), the Celtics will face a tall task of pulling off an upset on national TV (ESPN) and prove how good they are without their All-Star guard.

Winners of 14 of their last 16 games, the Spurs haven’t lost a game at home since Nov. 29 — a surprising loss, not only because it was against the Magic but because the Spurs suffered only one loss at home last season (40-1) and already are 6-4 this year at the AT&T Center.

San Antonio actually plays better on the road (13-1) than at home, but that certainly doesn’t negate the fact that the Celtics will have their hands full on Wednesday.

The Celtics aren’t the only ones playing without a member of their starting unit — Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge (rest) will sit out against the Celtics — although San Antonio still has plenty of firepower behind the rest of its starting lineup and has guys who can produce off the bench.

If the Celtics are to pull off what would be their biggest win of the season, here are five things that would go a long way toward helping that happen.

1. Jae Crowder comes through with his season-best effort

Coming off an ankle injury that forced him to miss eight straight games, Crowder needed just two games to find his offensive rhythm. The scrappy small forward followed up a 15-point, 6-of-11 performance in Brooklyn on Nov. 23 by scoring 18 points on 7-of-12 attempts against the Spurs at home.

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Read More: Boston Celtics, Brad Stevens, Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs
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