Celtics-Suns preview: Looking for consistent bench play

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Celtics-Suns preview: Looking for consistent bench play

BOSTON It's only three games, not nearly enough consecutive victories for the Green Teamers to go out and get fitted for championship rings. But there's no question the Celtics are playing their best basketball of the season right now.

It's true that their success has been led by the starters, as it should be. But what has ultimately gotten them over the top of late has been a multitude of strong performances from the bench that for most of this season has been a disappointment.

What we're finding throughout the course of the season is how they seem to respond better facing some form of adversity.

Take Monday's win at New York, a game in which Rajon Rondo (suspension, his fourth in less than a year) did not play. In addition to his absence, the Celtics also had to deal with leading scorer Paul Pierce being in foul trouble.

Although Pierce finished with a team-high 23 points, it was the 16 points off the bench by Jeff Green that was just as important, considering most of it came while Pierce was on the bench.

Playing without Rondo, Avery Bradley had a season-high 13 points while three different Celtics (Bradley, Pierce and Jason Terry) each had five or more assists.

"Our bench as a whole has been big," Pierce told CSNNE.com. "You can't just point one guy out when you look at our bench."

That's how it was supposed to be when Danny Ainge assembled this group during the offseason. While it hasn't quite come together as quickly as many would have hoped, they have left little doubt that they can be the difference-makers that the C's envisioned at the start of the season.

"We just have to be consistent with it," Lee told CSNNE.com. "That's all. Just be more consistent."

They will get another opportunity tonight against Phoenix which has lost nine of its last 10 games.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: The days of scoring a ton of points seems to be a thing of the past in Phoenix. They come into tonight's game averaging 96.4 points per game which ranks 16th in the league. They haven't finished outside of the top 10 in scoring since the 2003-2004 season.

MATCHUP TO WATCH: Brandon Bass vs Luis Scola. Bass isn't scoring as much as he did last season, but his defense and rebounding has been solid during Boston's current three-game winning streak. Scola is a high-energy, multiple-effort kind of player so keeping him off the boards -- especially the offensive ones -- will be key for the C's.

PLAYER TO WATCH: It seems playing against the Boston Celtics brings out the best in Marcin Gortat, a player the C's may have some interest in as we get closer to the trading deadline. In the three games he has played against Boston since joining the Suns, he has averaged 18.7 points and 14 rebounds while shooting 56 percent from the field.

STAT TO TRACK: The third quarter has been decisively positive for the C's lately, and quite devastating to the Suns. In its last three wins, Boston outscored its opponents in the third quarter each game, by an average of 12.3 points per game. Meanwhile, Phoenix is giving up a league-high 25.6 points in the third quarter this season.

OFFSEASON

Report: Celtics hoping to sign Horford, bring him to Durant meeting

Report: Celtics hoping to sign Horford, bring him to Durant meeting

The Celtics met with Al Horford Friday and it appears they’re trying to get him to sign before their meeting on Saturday with Kevin Durant.

Multiple outlets have already suggested that theory, but Basketball Insiders’ Alex Kennedy tweeted late Friday that’s actually what the Celtics are attempting to do. It's similar to what the Suns tried last summer by signing Tyson Chandler and then bringing him to their meeting with LaMarcus Aldridge. They almost did have Aldridge signed, but he changed his mind over the 48 hours between his meeting and his decision.

Unfortunately for the Celtics, it sounds like Horford wants to take the weekend before deciding, according to The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski.

If the Celtics are able to get Horford agree to a max contract Friday, it’d likely be a huge boost to their chances of signing Durant. But they might have to wait a bit.

OFFSEASON

Celtics "emerged as a front-runner" for Al Horford

Celtics "emerged as a front-runner" for Al Horford

BOSTON – The Boston Celtics are poised to do the seemingly unthinkable: acquire an elite free agent in their prime. 

The Celtics are meeting with four-time all-star Al Horford tonight and as one league executive told CSNNE.com, Boston has emerged as a front-runner for his services after the Atlanta Hawks came to terms on a three-year, $70.5 million deal with Dwight Howard. 

And the Celtics will come armed with a four-year, $113 million max-salary offer for the 30-year-old Horford as well.   

In addition to the Celtics, Horford is also reportedly considering signing with the Houston Rockets.

Acquiring Horford would bolster the Celtics’ franchise on multiple levels. For starters, he would provide an upgrade roster-wise to a team whose progress has leveled out the last couple of seasons with first-round playoff exits.

Adding Horford greatly enhances the Celtics’ chances at making a playoff run that extends beyond just the first round. Adding Horford also provides the first real tangible sign that the days of Boston being perceived as no man’s land when it comes to free agents are in the past.

In addition, Horford’s leadership on the floor and inside the locker room can only strengthen a culture that’s deeply rooted in accountability.

But as the Celtics approach their recruitment of Horford with cautious optimism, they know all too well that they can’t afford to take anything involved in wooing him for granted.

While the Rockets may appear to be a team that Boston doesn’t have to worry too much about when it comes to Horford, there is one wild card franchise out there: Oklahoma City.

They’re the odds-on favorite to re-sign Kevin Durant, and adding a player like Horford to the roster could only strengthen their chances of keeping him long-term.

Oklahoma City has explored possible trade opportunities centered around Enes Kanter, which could go far in freeing up space to pursue Horford.

And as one of the six teams that Durant will meet with this weekend, the Celtics are well aware of the minefield that awaits them in trying to secure Horford as well as their top target, Durant.

The fact that Boston is on the short list for the top two free agents out there (Durant and Horford), speaks volumes as to how far this franchise has come from a perception standpoint in the eyes of the league’s best players.

Both Horford and Durant have talked in glowing terms about the Celtics franchise, head coach Brad Stevens and the players.

And the Celtics have made no secret about wanting both to eventually become Celtics, something that now stands as a legit possibility with Boston well in the mix for both players.

A. Sherrod Blakely can be followed on Twitter: @SherrodbCSN

Bruins make official free agent signings of Liles, Nash, Khudobin

Bruins make official free agent signings of Liles, Nash, Khudobin

The Bruins made a number of signings official on the first day of NHL free agency on Friday along with the big prize in hard-hitting, productive center David Backes.

Backup goaltender Anton Khudobin signed a two-year deal worth $1.2 million per season to return as a goaltending tandem with Tuukka Rask as they were back in a highly successful 2012-13 NHL season.

Hustling, grinding fourth line forward Riley Nash was signed to a two-year, $1.8 million contract with the Bruins as well, and had nine goals and 22 points in 64 games for the Carolina Hurricanes last season in an energy forward role. In his five-year NHL career, Nash has played in 242 games, amassing 31 goals and 50 assists for 81 points with 69 penalty minutes, including a career-high 10 goals a couple of years ago with the Hurricanes.

The 36-year-old John-Michael Liles signed a one-year, $2 million contract with the Bruins after arriving from Carolina at the NHL trade deadline last spring. Liles appeared in 17 games and notched six assists along with a minus-6 rating for the Bruins in 2015-16 after being acquired for Anthony Camara, a 2016 third-round pick and a 2017 fifth-round pick on February 29, 2016. Prior to joining up with Boston, the 5-foot-10, 185-pound Liles played in all 64 games for Carolina, recording six goals and nine assists for 15 points with 16 penalty minutes.

“We went out to identify a primary target in David Backes as a center, right wing candidate. He provides depth and balance to our lineup, as did Riley Nash. And Anton Khudobin addressed an area that we seemed to have chased for a little while and possibly with Malcolm’s [Subban] injury we needed to address that for the next couple of seasons. John-Michael Liles is a player that we acquired last year that really added a lot to the mobility and the transition game and we’re excited about bringing him back,” said Bruins GM Don Sweeney. “Tim Schaller was a local boy at Providence College that we went out and identified another size, strength, left-shot, penalty kill and continued to add depth. Tyler Randell emerged last year was on our roster all year long, contributed and was a real hard-nosed player, sticks up for his teammates, was able to contribute goals, albeit not necessarily in the lineup every night, bringing balance. And Tommy Cross and the leadership qualities he brings to Providence for younger players to continue to develop.

“He found himself playing in NHL games, acquainted himself very well, just a real quality person across the board. So I think the overall philosophy of today and going into the free agent period was to address some needs and we did that. But we’ve created what I think is a real internal competition for our younger players to step up and emerge around what I think we’ve added to the core group of our players. They should be excited about this opportunity.”

Tommy Cross, Tyler Randell and Tim Schaller all signed one-year, two-way deals with the Bruins for an NHL value of $600,000, but are all expected to play the bulk of the season at the AHL level barring anything unexpected. 

Joe Haggerty can be followed on Twitter: @HacksWithHaggs