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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.

Celtics still can’t catch Cavaliers 12.29.16 at 11:20 pm ET
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LeBron James drives during Thursday's game in Cleveland. (Ken Blaze/USA Today Sports)

LeBron James drives during Thursday’s game in Cleveland. (Ken Blaze/USA Today Sports)

At Thursday’s team shootaround, hours before the Celtics took on the defending NBA champion Cavaliers, Brad Stevens was asked about the C’s using the game as a measuring stick, and he downplayed the significance.

“We’ve played these guys,” Stevens said (via MassLive.com). “We know how good they are. They’re the class of the East. Regardless of how we play tonight and regardless of result, these guys are still the champions last year and they are still well ahead of all of us. We’re chasing them. We’ve got to play better over the course of a long, long stretch to start talking about measuring anything against this level, in my opinion.”

Good choice of words.

As has been the case for most of the season, the Celtics were unable to deliver when faced with a chance to make a statement against one of the league’s elite, rallying in the fourth quarter to cut a 20-point deficit to one but ultimately dropping a 124-118 decision in Cleveland.

They’ll take away some positives — the C’s took control in the fourth quarter and had a chance to take the lead with eight seconds remaining but Jae Crowder’s 3-pointer clanged off the back of the rim, and Al Horford’s block of a LeBron James layup attempt in the first half undoubtedly will become a regular clip on the TD Garden video board the rest of the season  — but they continue to show that they are not yet ready to take that next step.

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Celtics make themselves a tough opponent as they find versatility in individual abilities 12.27.16 at 11:08 pm ET
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Marcus Smart applauds the Celtics' effort during Tuesday's victory over the Grizzlies. (Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports)

Marcus Smart applauds the Celtics’ effort during Tuesday’s victory over the Grizzlies. (Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports)

The Celtics’ 113-103 win over the Grizzlies Tuesday night was, by all accounts, much better than the nail-biter they found themselves in exactly a week prior.

Trailing by as many as 17 at one point, the C’s were saved only by a 44-point performance by Isaiah Thomas in the two-point overtime win in Memphis last Tuesday. This time around, the Celtics never trailed after 4:07 in the first quarter. They controlled field goal and 3-point percentages as well as rebounds.

What the win truly served as, however, was a clinic in variety.

There was little doubt that after dismantling the otherwise stout Grizzlies defense, Memphis was going to put heavy emphasis on stopping Thomas. To a degree, they did that, holding him to 21 points. But the Celtics way of answering was unleashing a wealth of other scorers onto them to balance the offense.

“They were paying a lot of attention to [Thomas] off screens, they were blitzing some, they were sending guys from the weak side into the paint. And I thought he did a pretty good job of making the right play,” coach Brad Stevens said following the win.

The Celtics had five others on top of Thomas in double figures. Al Horford (11), Marcus Smart (13), Jae Crowder (17), Gerald Green (19) and Avery Bradley (23) all helped balance out the production.

Marcus Smart was subtly a major part of relieving some of the pressure off of Thomas. Oftentimes lately (with Tuesday as no exception), the 22-year-old has been tasked with running the point, allowing Thomas to get time on the bench without the need to but Terry Rozier in, who otherwise would be a defensive downgrade.

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Read More: Avery Bradley, Gerald Green, Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Smart
Celtics find hidden gem deep on bench in win over Grizzlies: Gerald Green 12.27.16 at 9:57 pm ET
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Gerald Green drives past two Grizzlies defenders during Tuesday's game. (Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports)

Gerald Green drives past two Grizzlies defenders during Tuesday’s game. (Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports)

There was an odd stretch of time from the start of the second period to the seven-minute mark of the frame in the Celtics’ 113-103 win over the Grizzlies Tuesday night.

Eighteen seconds in, Gerald Green took a feed from Kelly Olynyk and knocked down a 17-foot jumper. Innocuous enough.

Shortly over a minute later, the 30-year-old took a step back 24-footer to extend the Celtics’ lead to nine. After Vince Carter — a man nine years his senior — drained a 3-pointer, Green responded with another 2-point jumper. At that point, it was becoming evident that Green was starting to feel some kind of way.

He found the net from distance one more time, dropping a 26-footer to put the Celtics up by 11 and sending the TD Garden into hysterics. He was subbed out for Jae Crowder 1:35 later, finishing the eight minutes of work with a then-team-leading 10 points. 

He reentered the game in the third period, providing another spark in the fourth with an offensive board on the Celtics’ baseline, finishing with a contested layup off the glass. It put the Celtics up by six and coerced the Grizzlies into a timeout. He finished the night with 19 points in as many minutes with five rebounds. When he departed the game with 3:44 in the game and a five-point lead, the Garden crowd gave him a standing ovation.

Only Avery Bradley (23) and Isaiah Thomas (21) had more points for the Celtics than Green.

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

With possibly Tyler Zeller as his only competition for player with most fluctuation in his minutes, Green’s return to the Celtics has been nothing short of enigmatic. He’s averaged 9.9 minutes per game this season, has been active for 28 games and seen the floor in just 15 of them.

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Read More: Gerald Green,
Celtics pregame notes: After 6-6 start at home, Celtics looking to improve at Garden 12.27.16 at 6:33 pm ET
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Brad Stevens

Brad Stevens

Following a stretch of five games in which four were played on the road, reasonable minds would believe it’s a welcome change for the Celtics to have a home tilt on the docket as they do Tuesday against the Grizzlies.

Not so fast.

The Celtics are off to a 6-6 start at home, they’ve shot 44-percent or less from the field in eight of those games and enter Tuesday 2-3 in their last five home games.

For coach Brad Stevens, it’s about playing strong regardless of venue.

“I don’t really look at whether or not you’re playing at home or on the road. You’ve just got to play well between the lines,” Stevens said prior to Tuesday’s game. “I don’t know if there’s enough of a sample size necessarily to say you play well on the road or well at home.

“At the end of the day we’ve got to figure out a way to win some of those games and get over the hump a little bit more. That is what it is, I haven’t lost sleep over that as much as just trying to get better as a team and play well when the clock starts.”

The Celtics will need to find a way to win games at home sooner rather than later with home matchups scheduled to ramp up in the coming weeks. After playing just 12 games at home as opposed to 19 on the road thus far into the season, the C’s have six of the next eight games at TD Garden between Tuesday and Jan. 11.

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Read More: Al Horford, Isaiah Thomas, Memphis Grizzlies,
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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