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Fast Break: Celtics lose Isaiah Thomas to flagrant 2 ejection but hold off Heat 12.18.16 at 8:43 pm ET
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Al Horford backs down Josh McRoberts during Sunday's game in Miami. (Steve Mitchell/USA Today Sports)

Al Horford backs down Josh McRoberts during Sunday’s game in Miami. (Steve Mitchell/USA Today Sports)

After one quarter, Sunday’s game in Miami looked like it was going to be an uneventful Celtics runaway against a struggling Heat team.

The C’s did manage to get the win, 105-95, but it turned out to be quite an interesting finish.

The Heat, who trailed by 18 points after the first quarter and by 22 later in the half, rallied to get within five points in the closing minutes before the C’s — who lost Isaiah Thomas to an ejection — closed the door.

With 3:02 remaining, Thomas was assessed a flagrant 2 foul — which comes with an ejection — when he was trying to clear space and caught Justise Winslow with his right elbow, giving the Heat forward a bloody cheek. Winslow missed both free throws, and those misses loomed large after the Heat quickly ran off three consecutive baskets — the last a 3-pointer by Goran Dragic — to get with five points at 97-92 with two minutes remaining.

After a missed 3-pointer by Al Horford, Tyler Johnson was fouled on the rebound and hit 1-of-2 to get the margin to four. The C’s responded by going right to Horford — this time in the post. He spun on Johnson and hit a reverse layup while being fouled, then hit the ensuing free throw.

After a missed 3-pointer by Heat guard Josh Richardson, Marcus Smart found Horford open for a 15-foot jumper and the center was true again, upping the lead to nine at 102-93 with 1:02 remaining.

Another Heat turnover — Miami’s 23rd of the night — essentially ended the home team’s hopes.

Thomas finished with 23 points on 9-of-15 shooting (3-of-5 treys). Avery Bradley also shot the ball well, hitting 9-of-17 from the field and finishing with 20 points. Horford contributed 17 points, eight assists and seven rebounds. Jae Crowder had 15 points, six rebounds and five steals.

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Full Court Press: Brad Stevens comes to grips with mediocrity, effects of new CBA on Celtics 12.17.16 at 12:34 pm ET
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Dec 3, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens during the second quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Brad Stevens is patiently waiting for his team to rise from mediocrity. (Eric Hartline/USA Today Sports)

Everyone knows injuries have impacted the Celtics to start this season of promise. 

But what Brad Stevens is trying to get across to his team is that the losses due to man-games missed has not been the biggest issue. The Celtics have simply been a mediocre team just under a third of the way through the year. 

And Stevens can’t blame it all on injuries. 

What does he think of the record so far?

“It’s 13-12,” Stevens said before Friday’s win over Charlotte that improved it to 14-12. The Celtics entered Friday’s action actually a half-game behind the 14-12 Knicks. 

Satisfied?

“It is what it is. I thought this was going to… I thought we had a lot of tough, tough challenges, especially at the start of the season, ahead of us,” Stevens said. “There were a couple of things, obviously, that you can’t predict going into a new year, with regard to availability. But I said at the beginning of the year, we’re as close to second or third as we are 10th. Still are.”

Al Horford missed nine games with a concussion and one due to a paternity leave. Jae Crowder missed eight games with an ankle sprain. Thomas returned Friday after a four-game absence due to a sore groin. Marcus Smart missed three games with a bum ankle. 

“I don’t think we should use that as an excuse,” Stevens said. “I think at the end of the day, that’s part of the game. Certainly, we’ve missed some guys [who have] missed some games. My hope is that we can get a little bit of a steady play here and see how we look healthy.” 

 Avery Bradley took it a step further before Friday’s game.
 
“We know we need to get back to playing the right way,” Bradley said. “And pulling off some wins in a row is important for us. I would call it a must-win after losing three close ones. We always want to take care of home, and like you said it’s a team that’s in the East that we’re going to see again. These games really count for us. It really matters when it comes down to the end of the year as far as seeding in the playoffs.”

The Celtics and Hornets are very similar in their approach this season. They are two teams looking to take that next step after making a late-season run last season. The Celtics and Hornets finished tied with the Hawks and Heat with 48 wins.

“Yeah, there’s no question. It’s been that way for the last couple of years and I think it boils down to… we always talk about you’ve got to maintain an even keel and you’ve got to control what you can control, and that is playing as consistent as possible every single night. I thought we played some really good basketball against Toronto last week, some really good basketball against Oklahoma City, not as good against San Antonio. But I think we have to do what we are doing, better, to beat those teams.”

Charlotte is 14-12 and that’s good enough, despite a three-game skid, to be leading the Southeast Division. 

“I was talking to Brad before,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said. “I hesitate to even look at standings at this stage of the game, because the schedule is such a big part of it. Some teams played a lot more games on the road, other teams have been out West already and we haven’t. I think until you play 40-45 games… obviously you don’t want to lose contact with everybody, but you just have to worry about your team and building a team game that’s balanced.”

New CBA and the Celtics: On Wednesday, the NBA announced that the league and the Players Association reached a tentative agreement on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, pending ratification by players and team owners. 

In the statement, the league announced that “in order to give both sides enough time to review the terms of the agreement and vote to ratify, the parties have agreed to extend the mutual deadline to opt out of the existing CBA from Dec. 15, 2016, to Jan. 13, 2017.”  

Multiple reports indicate that the deal is for at least six years and the Washington Post’s Tim Bontemps has a thorough explanation of some of the leaked details of the new pact, including what exactly is the new “designated player exception” (DPE).  

What does that mean for the Celtics? 

The new rule has the potential to impact free agents, like Blake Griffin, as well as potential trade targets like Paul George or the always-coveted but highly flammable DeMarcus Cousins. The Kings could still decide they would rather move on from the Boogie man, but now have the option to offer Cousins a longer, more lucrative extension this summer. In other words, the league is trying to provide incentives to teams like Sacramento and Indiana to hold onto their own free agents instead of just dumping them. Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge will have to more closely weigh short-term goals versus long-term planning and how the Nets’ likely lottery pick is going to figure into all of this. Then there’s Kevin Durant. If Ainge thinks he can lure Durant to Boston and if Durant opts out in Golden State after one year, that could significantly change how Ainge views the marketplace and more importantly, Boston’s place in it. 

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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Read More: Avery Bradley, Boston Celtics, Brad Stevens, Charlotte Hornets
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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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.

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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
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