|Irish Coffee: The case for Isaiah Thomas as Sixth Man of the Year||04.10.15 at 12:02 pm ET|
When I tried to make a case for Brad Stevens as the NBA’s Coach of the Year, I couldn’t talk myself into it, even though he most certainly belongs on the short list of candidates. But making an argument for Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas as the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year is easier, because he deserves the award.
Thanks to his 34-point effort in Wednesday night’s victory against the Pistons, the Celtics improved to 16-11 since the trade deadline deal for Thomas, climbing to seventh place in the Eastern Conference standings. Prior to his arrival at the All-Star break, the C’s owned a 20-31 record and sat 10th in the East.
Conversely, the Suns started 29-25 with Thomas coming off the bench and owned the eighth seed in the brutal Western Conference at the All-Star break. Since the trade deadline, when Phoenix also swapped Goran Dragic for Brandon Knight, the Suns are 10-15 and have all but clinched 10th place in the West.
Plenty of factors have contributed to the Celtics rising and the Suns setting since the Thomas trade. Phoenix soon lost Knight to a season-ending heel injury, while the additions of Jonas Jerebko and Gigi Datome have also improved the C’s depth. But there’s no denying Thomas’ impact in both cities.
Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of evaluating how each Sixth Man of the Year candidate impacted two separate teams’ playoff chances, since none of the other top contenders swapped rosters this season, but we do have a season’s worth of statistics to compare a field I’ve whittled down to six — Thomas; usual suspects Lou Williams (Raptors), Jamal Crawford (Clippers) and Manu Ginobili (Spurs); reigning First Team All-Defensive wing Andre Iguodala (Warriors); and rookie forward Nikola Mirotic (Bulls).
|5 things we learned as Isaiah Thomas, Celtics motor past Pistons||04.08.15 at 9:46 pm ET|
Playing their final game against a lottery-bound team, the Celtics badly needed a win to remain in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt, and Isaiah Thomas — now recovered from the back injury that sidelined him for two weeks last month — carried them to a 113-103 victory against the host Detroit Pistons.
Thomas scored a season-high 34 points to go along with six assists, leading the C’s to their fourth win in five games. Combined with a loss by the Nets (36-42), the Celtics (36-42) assumed the seventh seed in the East with the head-to-head tiebreaker against Brooklyn.
The Indiana Pacers (35-43) and idle Miami Heat (35-43) remain a game back of the Celtics, who face a home-and-home series this weekend against the Cleveland Cavaliers, who clinched the second seed on Wednesday night and would currently host the C’s in a first-round playoff matchup.
Against Detroit, Jae Crowder (17 points), Tyler Zeller (16 points), Kelly Olynyk (12 points) and Avery Bradley (11 points) all reached double figures, as 10 different Celtics reached double figures. For a complete box score, click here.
From the outset, the Pistons’ frontcourt tandem of Greg Monroe (19 points, 10 rebounds) and Andre Drummond (22 points, 14 rebounds) proved a problem for the undersized Celtics. In the opening 5:34, Monroe and Drummond each scored six points on four shots apiece — all in the paint — forcing Celtics coach Brad Stevens to call his first timeout. Detroit bruised its way to an early 14-8 advantage and made the C’s to rethink their lineup early. Monroe, of course, becomes an unrestricted free agent when the Celtics have money to spend this summer, although his inability to stretch the floor with a jump shot may not fit Stevens’ pace-and-space system.
Rather than match size with size, Stevens instead replaced Brandon Bass and Tyler Zeller with Jae Crowder and Kelly Olynyk, asking Monroe and Drummond to defend out to the 3-point line. As a result, the Celtics closed the first quarter on a 22-2 run and led 30-16 after one. Naturally, Sixth Man of the Year candidate Isaiah Thomas helped key the run, scoring or assisting on 13 of those 22 points. By game’s end, the Celtics benched outscored their counterparts, 73-31.
|5 things we learned as Bucks trample Celtics||04.03.15 at 9:56 pm ET|
Allowing 36 points in the third quarter, the Celtics essentially removed themselves from the running for the Eastern Conference’s sixth seed, dropping a 110-101 decision to the Bucks at home on Friday night.
The final two playoff spots in the East remain in play, but this latest loss did the Celtics (34-42) no favors, as they remain behind the Brooklyn Nets and Miami Heat in the race for seventh and eighth.
Jared Sullinger briefly returned against the Bucks (38-38), Isaiah Thomas scored a team-high 23 points to go along with six assists, Avery Bradley added 17 points and Jonas Jerebko (17 points, 5 assists) submitted arguably his most impressive performance in a Celtics uniform, but it wasn’t enough.
Local product Michael Carter-Williams helped Milwaukee’s cause with eight points, seven assists, five rebounds and five blocks. For a complete box score, click here.
The Celtics handed the 10th annual Red Auerbach Award — given to the player who best embodies what it means to wear the green — to a beaming Avery Bradley prior to tipoff. And the fifth-year guard took the role rather seriously, scoring the team’s first nine points to establish an early 9-6 advantage. Playing all 12 minutes of the first quarter, Bradley was omnipresent defensively, wreaking enough havoc to help hold the Bucks to 40 percent shooting in the frame and take a 25-21 lead after one.
BUCKING THE TREND
The Celtics led by only two at halftime, but appeared in control of the flow of the game, and when Tyler Zeller immediately gave them a 54-50 edge after the break, it seemed like we were in for more of the same — a game C’s team holding off a series of surges from the visitors. Then, the Bucks rattled off a 28-8 run that transformed a four-point advantage into a 78-62 deficit late in the third quarter. Ersan Ilyasova and Zaza Pachulia combined for 20 of Milwaukee’s points in a run that changed the game.
Things got so bad in the third quarter that Celtics coach Brad Stevens turned to Jared Sullinger, who was surprisingly activated hours before the game after missing the previous 24 contests with a stress fracture in his foot. Sullinger said prior to the game he had lost 20 pounds during his absence in an attempt to answer C’s president Danny Ainge’s public criticism of his conditioning. In three minutes of work, Sullinger missed both of his field goal attempts, committed two fouls and finished a minus-7. How much he is able to help the Celtics in the final six games of their playoff push remains a question.
Despite digging themselves a 15-point hole, the Celtics refused to go down without a fight, as has been their custom all season. Somehow Gigi Datome always seems to find himself at the heart of the C’s fourth-quarter comebacks, and while he didn’t score as the C’s slashed the deficit to four early in the fourth quarter, his insertion into the lineup immediately coincided with the 17-8 run. It must be the hair. Or his ability to spread the floor, crash the boards and play competent defense. But the Celtics never inched closer than four, and anybody who complained about the officiating might have a point.
MARKING KHRIS MIDDLETON
Bucks wing Khris Middleton will be an interesting free-agent case study. He’s exactly the type of player the Celtics covet — a potentially undervalued asset capable of playing three positions. Stevens loves Swiss Army types whose versatility allows him to toy with matchups in any number of ways. So, while teams fight over fellow restricted free agents Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green and Jimmy Butler — all expected to remain with their current teams — is there a chance Ainge could pry Middleton from Milwaukee?
The Celtics would have to overpay, but they might be willing to do so in order to land a guy they believe fits their system. In addition to averaging 13.1 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.5 steals while shooting better than 40 percent from 3-point range and 85 percent from the free-throw line in 30 minutes a night, Middleton ranks among the league’s elite in defensive real plus-minus, defensive win shares and defensive rating. He finished with 13 points, seven rebounds and three assists in the Bucks victory.
|Celtics’ Avery Bradley receives Red Auerbach Award||at 7:57 pm ET|
Prior to Friday’s game against the Bucks, the Celtics named Avery Bradley as the 10th recipient of the annual Red Auerbach Award, given to the player or coach who best represents what it means to be a Celtic on and off the court.
A regular participant in the Shamrock Foundation’s charitable efforts, Bradley promptly scored the C’s first nine points against Milwaukee, surpassing 1,000 points in a season for the first time in his five-year career. Appearing in 72 of Boston’s 76 games, he has averaged 14.0 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.7 assists this season.
“Avery Bradley received this award because he embodies what it means to truly be a Boston Celtic,” Celtics co-owner Stephen Pagliuca said in a statement. “He continues to prove that not only can you be a great basketball player, but you can also be an amazing role model in the Boston community off the court. We are proud to have someone like Avery as a part of our organization, as he exemplifies exactly what it means to be a part of the Celtics franchise.”
The Celtics rewarded Bradley with a four-year, $32 million contract this past summer. He joins select company as the 10th recipient of the Red Auerbach Award since 2006: Paul Pierce (2006, 2013); Al Jefferson (2007); Kevin Garnett (2008, 2012); Ray Allen (2009); Rajon Rondo (2010); Doc Rivers (2011); Brandon Bass (2014); and Avery Bradley (2015).
|Jared Sullinger surprisingly returns to Celtics||at 1:13 pm ET|
In an unexpected turn of events, Celtics forward Jared Sullinger — once thought to be out for the remainder of the regular season with a broken bone in his foot — is available to play in Friday night’s home game against the Bucks.
On Feb. 22 the Celtics announced Sullinger “will be out for the remainder of the 2014-15 regular season” with a left metatarsal stress fracture, and C’s president of basketball operations Danny Ainge followed with some harsh words about the third-year forward’s lack of conditioning. So, when word came Friday that the injury “has healed completely,” it took everybody by surprise.
“We are excited that Jared’s recovery progressed quicker than initially expected,” Ainge said. “Jared was extremely diligent in his rehab, repeatedly expressing his eagerness to help our team reach the postseason. He will be available in a limited role this weekend as he works his way back to 100 percent game shape.”
Sullinger has averaged 14.4 points and a team-high 8.1 rebounds in 28.7 minutes over 51 games this season.
|Brad Stevens avoids talking playoffs: ‘Nothing is more important than the next game in our world’||04.02.15 at 10:06 am ET|
Maybe it’s superstition or maybe it’s just part of sending a message. But Brad Stevens didn’t mention the word playoffs once in his post-game press conference Wednesday after a 100-87 win over the Pacers that keeps his Celtics right in the hunt for the final two postseason spots in the East.
The way Stevens talked made it feel like he wants his team focused only on the here-and-now, knowing that any slip up in focus on the game at hand will likely cost them any chance of advancing to the playoffs for the first time in his two-year NBA coaching career.
“All 82 count the same,” Stevens said. “That’s kind of the way I’ve always looked at it. Every game carries equal weight and equal importance. Obviously because of the hole we dug, we’ve been fighting uphill all year. It adds more importance at the time but nothing is more important than the next game in our world, and we have to keep it that way.”
As Stevens was talking, the Nets were hanging on for a 100-98 win over the Knicks that kept them a half game ahead of the Celtics for the eighth and final playoff spot. The game-by-game approach should come in handy as the Celtics have LeBron James and the Cavaliers and the division-leading Raptors twice apiece in the final two weeks.
“At the same time, as we enter these last couple of weeks, it’s so very important to stay in the moment and take advantage of every day and focus again on the things we can control,” said Stevens. “If we get to the point where you play beyond that, maybe I’ll feel differently. Maybe this feels a little bit more like late February than the NCAA tournament.”
The Celtics have shown in their last two games the ability to do something that was sorely lacking for much of the season: the ability to close out. On Monday, the Celtics found a way to pull away from the Hornets in the final minutes and hang on for a valuable road win. On Wednesday, the Celtics led 77-71 with 8:23 left in the fourth. They went on a 17-7 run in the next four minutes to put the game away.
“The effort was really good,” Stevens said. “We talked about it before the Charlotte game; we have to play with a defensive DNA. And the last two games we have. But you know it’s one of those things like, you don’t now all of a sudden it’s not part of who we are; we have to make it part of who we are every day and that’s got to continue to be the emphasis. And I think that’s a good emphasis to have, because you’re focused only on what you can control and nothing else.”
That focus needs to continue at home on Friday against another desperate Eastern team with playoff aspirations, the Milwaukee Bucks, at TD Garden. They’ll be no talk of playoffs then, either.
|Kelly Olynyk proves he’s as tough as any hockey player||at 9:34 am ET|
Too bad Kevin Garnett never played with Kelly Olynyk.
Garnett, one of the most fierce competitors in recent Celtics lore, would’ve been proud to watch how Olynyk handled himself Wednesday night. The second-year swing man out of Gonzaga insisted on playing with his left eye shut thanks to a pregame accidental elbow from teammate Shav Randolph.
Good thing since Olynyk made seven of his 10 shots, including 3-of-4 from 3-point range, scoring 19 off the bench in a 100-87 win over the Pacers that keeps Boston right in the mix of race for the final two playoff spots in the East.
“It didn’t affect me a lot except I couldn’t see that well from that eye,” Olynyk said. “I felt good, we played well as a team, moved the ball, got open looks from the start and just got rolling.”
“I gave him no hope of playing,” marveled Tyler Zeller, who matched Olynyk’s team-high 19 points. “He looked like he just got out of a boxing fight. I was impressed with his ability to go out and play and be able to produce like he did. He couldn’t have been able to see out of that eye so he did a great job of playing through it.”
What was particularly amazing was how his teammates, realizing he had the hot hand with just one eye, kept feeding him the ball. His three-ball with 3:53 left in the fourth quarter was the perfect capper on the night, extending the Celtics‘ lead out to 16, 94-78.
“[Tuesday] night I went in the gym and got a lot of shots up, just kind of repped it out and just felt really good,” Olynyk said. “I was feeling good, before the game I was feeling good even after I got hit, I came back out and tried it out so I knew I was going to have a good one.”
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