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Why the 0-2 problems (and solutions) start with the players, not Brad Stevens 04.19.17 at 2:52 am ET
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Apr 16, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4), center Al Horford (42), guard Avery Bradley (0) and forward Jae Crowder (99) walk off the court after their 106-102 loss to the Chicago Bulls in game one of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4), center Al Horford (42), guard Avery Bradley (0) and forward Jae Crowder (99) need to regroup in a hurry. (Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports).

The problem with these Celtics through two games is they haven’t met the challenge of the more experienced Chicago Bulls. This is not the job of Brad Stevens. 

Stevens can only do so much. True, he fell to 2-10 in his three playoff seasons in Boston, including 2-5 at home. No coach in NBA history has a worst record after at least 10 playoff games. Don Chaney and Bob Weiss were 2-9. Monty Williams stands 2-8. But Stevens can only pull so many players from a bench that consists of rookie and second-year players in Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier. His bigs behind Amir Johnson are Tyler Zeller and Kelly Olynyk. Marcus Smart has been spotty at best and Jonas Jerebko has been non-existent. 

Al Horford has underachieved in the first two games and doesn’t play like a pure post player even though Stevens admitted that, due to matchups, the Celtics have no choice but to put Horford at the ‘4’ and hope he can defend the low post. 

Jae Crowder continues to struggle and Isaiah Thomas seems – very understandably so – carrying the weight of the entire team on his shoulders, while his mind is clearly burdened with the loss of his 22-year-old sister last weekend in a tragic car accident 3,000 miles away. 

What exactly is Stevens supposed to say or do with all of that? 

“We have to get ready to play great on Friday,” Stevens said after the 111-97 loss to the Bulls.in Game 2 Tuesday night. “That’s what our focus has to be; we don’t have any other choice. And that’s what we said in the locker room, and that’s it.  We’ll dissect the film, we’ll go through it, we’ll figure out what we didn’t do well and there’ll be quite a lot, and go from there. But the (Paul) Zipsers, (Nikola) Mirotic, (Bobby) Portis – those guys have had huge impacts on the first two games of this series.

“I mean, I expect it from Wade, right? I mean, I think we all do.  Last year I think he hit less than 10 threes during the regular season and then more than that in the first round of the playoffs.  Like, this is who he is. And it’s who Rondo’s been throughout his career. I mean, the level that he’s playing at is terrific. And then Butler’s Butler. So, but those other guys are really impacting the series in a big way.”

Stevens coached this team to 53 wins in the regular season. He’s clearly one of the brightest minds in the game. But at some point, the players like Jae Crowder and Al Horford have to pick it up.

“Its self-explanatory. Down 0-2 going into their place we just have to take it one game at a time,” Crowder said after his 16-point minus-12 effort Tuesday. “They came in and took, and we have to do the same. Take it one game at a time and try to get a game three. It’s not ideal for us. Definitely don’t put yourself in a 0-2 hole having home court advantage. But it’s not the end of the world for us. We have the unit to go to Chicago and take care of business.”

Horford had seven points but was a minus-19. 

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Read More: 2017 NBA Playoffs, Boston Celtics, Brad Stevens, Chicago Bulls
Brad Stevens on the status of Isaiah Thomas: ‘I think his intention is to play’ 04.16.17 at 6:07 pm ET
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Brad Stevens

Brad Stevens

Instead of talking X’s and O’s and his game plan for the Bulls in Game 1 of the playoffs, Celtics coach Brad Stevens spent time updating the media on the status of Isaiah Thomas. 

In the wake of the tragic passing of Thomas’ sister Chyna J. Thomas, Stevens couldn’t confirm if Thomas will play in the opening matchup of the Celtics’ seven-game series against the Bulls but did say Thomas’ initial intention is to take the floor.

“He went through our shootaround. He’s struggling,” Stevens said. “Obviously it’s tragic circumstances that he and his family are going through right now. Our thoughts are first and foremost with all of them. I think his intention is to play. We talked a little bit last night and then again today. As he goes through it and feels like he needs to not [play] then that’s whatever he wants. One of the things that I’ve learned having been through situations in the past is that there’s really no right or wrong answer — it’s whatever’s right for him. That’s what we’ve encouraged him. He’s really hurting. It’s a tough situation.”

Stevens said every member of the Celtics team has reached out to Thomas within the past 24 hours and spent time talking about Thomas’ character and what he means to the team. 

“Everybody reached out, it’s a close-knit team, he’s a big part of it” Stevens said. “Isaiah is a great teammate, Isaiah’s a great husband, he’s a great father. He is a great guy, great son and brother and I think ultimately we just all tried to do our part and let him know we’re thinking about him. Anything that we can all do to help; we do. We’re family and this particular situation with his family takes precedent over everything else going on and we’re here for him if he needs us.”

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Will Isaiah Thomas be ready for his playing time to spike in playoffs? 04.12.17 at 9:27 pm ET
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Apr 6, 2017; Atlanta, GA, USA; Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) drives against Atlanta Hawks forward Kent Bazemore (24) in the third quarter of their game at Philips Arena. The Hawks won 123-116. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Isaiah Thomas could be in for a playing time increase come the playoffs. (Jason Getz/USA Today Sports)

When Brad Stevens steps on the gas in the playoffs, will Isaiah Thomas be ready to fire up the Celtics engine?

For the Celtics to have any prayer of fulfilling the promise made by the Celtics point guard before Wednesday’s regular season finale, Thomas will have to be ready to answer the bell, even if it means playing more minutes than his team-leading 34 minutes-per game average. 

Thomas has put up MVP-caliber numbers, averaging 29.1 points per game, second in the league only to Russell Westbrook. He’s averaging 5.9 assists and an NBA-best 10 points a game in the fourth quarter. He’s done it all, leading the team in clutch shot-making and wrist-pointing, while leading his team to an unlikely perch atop the Eastern Conference. 

He was held scoreless in the first 14 minutes of playing time Wednesday before exploding for 10 points in the final two minutes of the first half. The Celtics didn’t look like themselves until Thomas took over the game. The question is: Will he be able to continue this in the playoffs?

Thomas entered Wednesday’s game ranked 27th in the NBA in minutes played. There are certainly others like LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and James Harden who rank at the top of the league. But with Thomas, there is the unknown of playoff wear and tear. 

The Celtics, after all, are still looking for their first playoff series win with Thomas at the point. Two years ago, the Celtics were swept by the Cavaliers in the opening round. Last year, the Celtics won a pair of games but fell in six to the Hawks in the first round. Thomas was acquired at the trade deadline in February 2015 and the Celtics have been in the playoffs ever since. 

“I don’t know that it changed the attitude. I think that that’s something we were starting to find a stride about us right before the All-Star break that year,” coach Brad Stevens said Wednesday. “Isaiah was a huge addition from the standpoint of he brought something to the table that we needed badly and that complemented the rest of our players. I think that he fit in with his chip on his shoulder and his desire to prove people wrong and be great. But I don’t know that he changed it, per se. We were headed in the right direction and then this was a big part of it. He’s been a huge part of it, don’t get me wrong. I think it’s a collective effort. All of our guys have that mindset.”

Now the mindset is getting deep in the playoffs and that could mean asking more from Thomas and others. 

“Nobody’s played more than 34 minutes a game,” Stevens said. “Isaiah is on 75 games. Everybody else is less than that. We feel really good about our total minutes, our minutes per game and where we are heading into the playoffs, from a preparation standpoint and from a load standpoint thus far. 

“I said the other day that the silver lining of the injuries we went through was everybody sat. Avery missed almost two months, Al missed 15 games, Jae missed 10 games. We’ve had a good number of games missed due to that. And as a result, we feel like it’s more important to play right now and continue to play together.”

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Celtics Pregame: Brad Stevens does not plan on resting players in last two games 04.10.17 at 7:52 pm ET
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Mar 31, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens during the second half against the Orlando Magic at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Brad Stevens will not rest his starters against Nets on Monday at TD Garden (Bob DeChiara/USA Today)

Don’t expect to see Brad Stevens rest his guys in the final games of the regular season. Celtics head coach has no plans of sitting his players if they’re healthy and it could pay dividends depending on what happens Monday.  

With two games left, the Celtics (51-29) find themselves tied with the Cavaliers for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. After surrendering a 26-point fourth-quarter lead in a 126-125 overtime loss to the Hawks on Sunday, the Cavs are giving the Celtics another chance to grab the top playoff spot in the east. 

A Celtics win and a loss by the Cavaliers at Miami will give Boston a one game lead ahead of the Cavs for first place. The Cavs have to beat the Heat in order to clinch No.1 but will have to do so without LeBron James and Kyrie Irving — coach Tyronn Lue has decided to rest both — and Tristian Thompson (thumb), who is out nursing a hand injury. 

Meanwhile, the Heat (39-41), who are currently tied with the Bulls for the eighth and final playoff spot, are fighting to keep their playoff hopes alive. If the Heat knock off the Cavaliers while the C’s top the Nets on Monday, the Celtics can then decide their fate in Wednesday’s regular season finale against the Bucks — a win gives them first, a loss will lock Boston into second (CLE owns tiebreaker). 

Although Stevens isn’t going to rest up his guys before the postseason, he’s also not up late at night tossing and turning thinking about first place.

“The most important thing is tonight’s game (against Brooklyn). That’s the way I’m looking at it,” Stevens said. “Whatever seed we get, we get. That’ll be the result of an 82-game schedule, not the result of one or two games. It is what it is. We’ve had a pretty consistent year with regard to performance. We’ve also had moments where we haven’t played as well. I’m literally not talking about it with the team nor am I losing one second of sleep over it.”

Despite clinching the league’s worst record of the season, the Nets enter Monday’s game winners of four of their last five. Brooklyn has been playing the “spoiler” role lately, beating teams like the Hawks and Bulls, respectively — two clubs lobbying for playoff position. 

The Nets now will attempt to spoil the Celtics’ final chance at locking in the No. 1 seed.

Read More: Boston, Brad Stevens, Brooklyn Nets, Celtics
Celtics pregame: Stevens on facing Giannis Antetokounmpo, ‘Don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody like him’ 03.29.17 at 7:27 pm ET
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Mar 28, 2017; Charlotte, NC, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) reacts to a foul call in the second half against the Charlotte Hornets at Spectrum Center. The Bucks defeated the Hornets 118-108. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Giannis Antetokounmpo joins Russell Westbrook and James Harden as one of only three players in the league averaging at least 23 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists this season (Jeremy Brevard/USA Today)

The Celtics will undoubtedly have their hands full on Wednesday as they gear up to face one of the hottest teams in the league.

Fresh off their 118-108 win at Charlotte, the Bucks will look to make it two in a row against the Celtics on the second night of a back-to-back. Celtics coach Brad Stevens couldn’t say enough about Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo — who is probably the biggest reason why Milwaukee has gone from a lottery team to the fifth best team in the Eastern Conference.

“He does some things,” Stevens said. “That’s the best way to say it. He keeps adding to it. Him in transition is like, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody like him.”

The Greek Freak enters Wednesday’s game averaging 23.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists. Russell Westbrook and James Harden and the only other players averaging 23-plus points, 8-plus rebounds and 5-plus assists.

“As he’s become more skilled,” Stevens said. “He continues to put you in a worst bind. He’s tough; he’s good.” 

Milwaukee’s supporting cast has also been a key to their success. The return of Khris Middleton (left hamstring) has definitely helped throughout their recent stretch, rookie Malcom Brogdon (10.2 points) has emerged as a reliable outside threat and Greg Monroe is embracing his newfound 6th man role — averaging 12 points and 6.7 rebounds off the bench.

Middleton has been on fire this month, averaging 16.8 points and shooting 46.5 percent from the floor, including 40.9 percent from behind the arc.

“Middleton spaces the floor, he can run off screens and score,” Stevens said. “He’s a really good scorer cutting off the ball. He’s gotten better, I think, as time’s gone on in pick-and-roll and with the ball. And then he’s a knockdown shooter.”

The Bucks (38-36) have won 12 of their last 15 games. In what could be a possible first-round matchup for the Celtics, Boston will get another crack at beating Milwaukee in their final game of the regular season on April 12.

Read More: Brad Stevens, Giannis Antetokounmpo,
Silver lining of early season injuries sheds light on Brad Stevens’ approach to resting players late in season 03.22.17 at 7:18 pm ET
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Mar 20, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics guard Avery Bradley (0) controls the ball while Washington Wizards forward Otto Porter Jr. (22) defends during the second half at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

A healthy Avery Bradley has been getting back to form since his return from a sore Achilles. (Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports)

If there’s one dividend from the early season injury bug that the Celtics are cashing in on now it’s rest.

Specifically, it’s the rest players like Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk, Al Horford and Jae Crowder were able to gain as the rest of the league was going through the grind. 

Every year, there’s intense debate as to what to do at the league level to discourage teams from resting their players at the end of the season as playoff-bound teams prep their star players for the postseason.

This was brought to a head on March 11 in San Antonio when, on a nationally televised game, the Warriors sat Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala. Kevin Durant was already sitting with his left knee injury. The Spurs rested Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker and LaMarcus Aldridge. 

What’s Stevens’ take?

“I understand the discussion and certainly we’re all sensitive to the fact that somebody is going to watch a game in TD Garden for the first time tonight,” Stevens said before Wednesday’s game against Indiana. “That’s why I don’t know if this is fortunate or unfortunate, probably more unfortunate because you never want to have injuries, but we had a lot of injuries so we got rest because we had to get rest. 

“I do think in the last week of the season it is a little bit different. But I also understand as each team goes about it to try and best set themselves up for the postseason, the idea and opportunities to get rest. I’m hopeful, like everybody else, that the extra week in the season can appropriately handle some of those things but there are some really tough stretches in this and it is difficult. You just have to try to manage those as well as you can. 

“If some team chooses to rest their players then I understand it has to be a discussion but I understand why they do it.”

To mitigate some of the schedule grind to make it easier on players, the NBA shortened the preseason, adding a week to the schedule to spread out more games. Still, teams like the Celtics still faced a huge challenge.

“We knew going into the year, and I think this is probably what a lot of teams do, they look at the schedule,” Stevens said. “We knew December was going to be a monster and on Dec. 30 we were going to play six games in nine days and then we knew early February the West Coast trip coming back, All-Star break, Toronto, Detroit, back, West Coast trip again, you knew that was going to be really tough. You just kind of know that in advance and try to plan for it the best way you can. But again, some of our decisions were alleviated by the fact that we didn’t have guys available because of injuries. Again, I understand why teams do it but I understand the dilemma.”

Jae Crowder entered Wednesday’s game shooting 39.7 percent from beyond the arc. He has taken 605 shots, 340 from long range. That figures to 56 percent of his overall shots from long range. 

“If they’re all open, whatever, right? And even if they’re lightly challenged, he’s a really good 3-point shooter,” Stevens said. “You look across the league at guys that do what he does, that’s pretty typical. I think that’s something that’s a great testament to him, that he can continue to be as consistent as he’s being, shooting that percentage and shooting as high of a percentage with that volume.” 

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Read More: Boston Celtics, Brad Stevens, Indiana Pacers, Isaiah Thomas
Brad Stevens says Isaiah Thomas is ‘good to go’ for return against Wizards 03.20.17 at 6:34 pm ET
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Isaiah Thomas dribbles as Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal (3) looks on. (Brad Mills/USA Today Sports)

Isaiah Thomas dribbles as Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal (3) looks on. (Brad Mills/USA Today Sports)

After missing the last two games with a bruised right knee, Isaiah Thomas has been cleared to return against the Wizards. 

The Celtics All-Star point guard injured the knee in last Wednesday’s win over the Timberwolves and missed Friday’s win in Brooklyn and Sunday’s loss in Philadelphia. 

“Yep,” was Brad Stevens one-word answer in the affirmative when asked if the guard would be back in the lineup against a Washington team that is 1.5 games behind the Celtics in the race for the No. 2 spot in the East. 

Stevens said Thomas received plenty of treatment for the bruised knee over the weekend, making the most of time away playing. 

“Feeling a lot better,” Stevens said. “I think all the treatment over the weekend, which he had a ton of, was all positive. He’s good to go.”

Thomas sounded a bit more cautious, admitting that he wasn’t at full strength yet, “but I’m good enough.” 

Then he added, “I can’t sit this one out. I know what’s at stake. I know it’s a big game for us.” 

Stevens added that he doesn’t anticipate a minutes restriction for Thomas, who leads the team in playing time at 34.1 minutes a game. 

“I don’t think so,” Stevens said. “I haven’t heard that from the training staff. Usually, the minutes restriction is as much to do [with] extended periods of time as anything else.”

Stevens was asked if he could tell Thomas was ready based on the team’s walkthrough Monday.

“Well, our walkthrough happened at about 4:45 [p.m.] and it was a WALK through so I think he looked great,” Stevens said. “But I have no idea how that translates to playing in a stance or running up and down the floor but I’ve been told he’s fine.”

On the importance of holding off Washington for the second seed in the East. 

“I think it’s about playing good basketball,” Stevens said. “That stuff sorts itself out. Obviously, you want to be as good of a seed as you can. There’s no question about that. Again, I’d like to have some healthy games here to play good basketball and see if we can’t figure ourselves out as we head into the next month, plus.” 

Monday’s game is the opener of a season-long six-game home stand. Entering Monday, the Wizards and Pacers (Wednesday) were the only team with a winning record of the six teams. Much has been made of the newly-created rivalry in the media between the Celtics and Wizards, featuring Isaiah Thomas and John Wall. A battle for playoff position only fuels it. 

“My focus is on playing good basketball,” Stevens said. “When I think of rivalries, I think of years upon years upon years in the making. Certainly, we have a great deal of respect for how good these guys are. And that’s that. But we’ve got to focus on trying to do our best to play as well as we can against them, which means a lot of the focus has to be on what we’re trying to accomplish, and they’re going to be doing the same on their end. 

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Read More: Boston Celtics, Brad Stevens, Bradley Beal, Isaiah Thomas
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