Blakely: Losses have turned Celtics into winners

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Blakely: Losses have turned Celtics into winners

BOSTON Players often view games as individual vignettes that over the course of a season, give you a greater sense of a team's body of work.

But there are some individual games that speak volumes as to a team's identity.

Boston had one of those games on Sunday as they managed to survive a triple overtime battle with Denver and emerge with a 118-114 win.

Survival has indeed been part of the Celtics story this season.

Losing the league's assists leader in Rajon Rondo with a partially torn right ACL is a major blow. Compounding the loss less than a week later was promising rookie Jared Sullinger being lost for the season following back surgery.

Instead of being hurt by those setbacks, it seems they have only helped this group to re-invent themselves into a formidable club that doesn't subscribe to the theory that teams that lose key players are supposed to lose.

The Celtics have shown the kind of fight and resiliency that was nowhere to be found at the start of the season. As strange as it may sound, the loss of Rondo and Sullinger might have been just what this team needed in order to see those traits within themselves.

Far too many games to count this season, they played as if the regular season was just a lay-over until the arrived at the "real games" - the playoffs. But because of how this team sputtered out the gates this season, that's no longer a luxury.

The regular season for a change had meaning for the Celtics; significant meaning if they were to have any shot at achieving the lofty dreams they aim for every season.

But what appeared to be a dead end to those dreams coming to fruition with Rondo's injury, have only become a detour into a brand of Celtics basketball that in many ways is better.

That's not to say that the C's are a better team without Rondo, of course.

But what the Celtics lost in Rondo's talent, they have more than made up for their fight to prove they can win in his absence.

They seem to work harder on defense, crash the boards more frequently, follow the game plan closer and by doing all those things, position themselves most nights to have a chance at winning.

But to achieve all those things, it has to be done by the collective group. And that is what makes this team, this re-invented Celtics team, so special.

Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are still Boston's 1A and 1B options. But the gap in terms of contributions between them and the rest of the team, isn't nearly as wide as many suspected.

Jeff Green has become a consistent X-factor off the bench who is a double-digit scoring machine. Jason Terry has rediscovered his shooting touch and clutch-gene. Chris Wilcox appears to have worked himself back into Doc Rivers' good graces as a viable option as Kevin Garnett's backup. And Leandro Barbosa is still effective, even with more minutes.

It collectively adds up to a team that isn't going to go away anytime soon, even if they are not complete.

But within that incomplete state lies a team that is complete with fire, hunger to win and an edge about them that makes them kind of scary come playoff time.

Avery Bradley is one of the more soft-spoken Celtics you'll find. But there's no mistaking the confidence - the swagger if you will - that he exudes that in many ways, symbolizes this entire team.

Once Sunday's game went into overtime, the Celtics' confidence was still high.

"There was never a doubt in our mind in any overtime that we weren't going to win this game," Bradley says.

Whether you believe him or not is not the point.

The fact is, as you walk around the Celtics locker room talking to player after player, the confidence level of this team is on a similar or higher plane than Bradley's.

It's clear that this winning streak while impressive, won't be enough to satisfy this group. They see this latest run as just part of the puzzle.

But truth be told, it's more than that.

When you look at how they are winning, it says more about who they are than where they are in terms of the standings.

This a team whose foundation is built on great defense, timely shot-making and the contributions of many.

And then there's the edge that they are steadily playing with these days, an edge that wasn't around most of this season.

That gritty defense and overall edge about their play has become their identity; an identity that this current seven-game winning streak has firmly established and brought to light.

And that light isn't ready to flame out anytime soon.

A make-or-break season ahead for Kelly Olynyk?

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A make-or-break season ahead for Kelly Olynyk?

Every weekday until Sept. 7, we'll take a look at each player at the Celtics roster: Their strengths and their weaknesses, their ceiling and their floor. We continue today with Kelly Olynyk. For a look at the other profiles, click here.

BOSTON – The Celtics went into the playoffs last season well short of being at full strength. No player exemplified this more than Kelly Olynyk, a non-factor in postseason due to a right shoulder injury that required surgery in May.

He comes into this season facing a much stiffer route to playing time than his previous four seasons. While Jared Sullinger (Toronto) is gone, Boston brings in four-time All-Star Al Horford, in addition to returners Amir Johnson, Tyler Zeller and second-year big man Jordan Mickey, who is in line for a more expanded role this season.

Throw in the fact that Olynyk and the Celtics can reach terms on an extension before the start of the season (an unlikely occurrence because frankly it’s to both Boston and Olynyk’s benefit for him to be a restricted free agent next summer), and it’s clear just how important this season is to all involved.

Here’s a look at Olynyk’s ceiling as well as the floor for his game heading into this season.

The ceiling for Olynyk: Starter, Most Improved Player candidate

Kelly Olynyk has proven himself to be a much better contributor coming off the bench as opposed to starting. But no one will be shocked if Olynyk can play his way into a spot with the first group.  A 7-footer with legit 3-point range, Olynyk has shown flashes throughout his career of being a major problem for opponents because of his stretch-big skills.

And when teams have been a bit too eager in closing out or failed to box him out on a rebound, Olynyk has shown us all that “the bounce is real.”

He already ranks among the best big-man shooters all-time and needs just one made 3-pointer to join Dirk Nowitzki (1,701) and Andrea Bargnani (627) as the only 7-footers in league history with 500 or more made 3s.

In addition to making lots of 3s, Olynyk does it at a fairly efficient rate which can be seen in him shooting 40.5 percent on 3s last season which was tops among all NBA centers and made him one of just 20 players in the NBA to shoot at least 40 percent on 3s.

Although Olynyk’s defense has been considered among his biggest weaknesses, his defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions on the floor) of 97.7 was tops among Celtics players who logged at least 20 minutes per game last season.

If he can build off that, as well as continue to make teams pay with his long-range shooting, Olynyk could be one of the breakout performers this season for the Celtics and find himself on the short list of the NBA’s most improved players.

The bigger issue with Olynyk centers around his struggles holding position in the post as a rebounder. Because he’s a stretch big, you know he’s not going to haul in a ton of boards for you.

But he has to be better than last season when he grabbed 4.1 rebounds, which continued what has been a career regression in this area.

After averaging 5.2 boards as a rookie, he slipped to 4.7 in his second season and averaged a career-low 4.1 last season.

The floor for Olynyk: Active roster

Talk to anyone within the Celtics organization and they will not hesitate to point out the skillset that Olynyk has and how important he could potentially be for this team going forward.

Still, that’s part of the problem.

Olynyk has shown promise to be more than just a player in the rotation. He has the kind of skills that if he were to deliver them with more consistency, he would immediately become one of the team’s standout performers which would make Boston a much, much tougher team to defend.

But his game has been one marred by injuries and inconsistent play which, as you might expect, go hand-in-hand.

Even with what has been an uneven career, Olynyk has still managed to be a double-digit scorer in each of the past two seasons.

And his net rating (offensive rating minus defensive rating) of +5.2 is tops among players logging 20 or more minutes, too.

But even if he doesn’t elevate his game defensively or become a more reliable rebounder for Boston, Olynyk won’t be suiting up in street clothes as a healthy scratch anytime soon.

Olynyk has too much talent, and when you look at this Celtics roster, he fits a clear and well-defined need.

Pace and space remain keys to what Brad Stevens is trying to do with the Celtics and Olynyk’s strengths are an ideal addition.

But as we have seen with Stevens in the past, he’s not afraid to take a player out of the starting lineup or regular rotation, and bench them from time to time.

Just as it won’t surprise anyone to see Olynyk play a more prominent role potentially as a starter, the same is true if he struggles and finds himself racking up a few DNP-CDs (did not play- coaches decision) either.

But Olynyk has too much talent to fall too far off the Celtics’ radar, especially when you look at this roster and realize there’s no other player quite like him in terms of combining size, skill and perimeter shooting.

 

 

 

 

 

     

Could the '80s Celtics have won eight championships?

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Could the '80s Celtics have won eight championships?

In this episode, we sit-down with one of the best basketball writers in the country, Jackie MacMullan. Jackie covered the Celtics for the Boston Globe for several years, and collaborated with Larry Bird on his auto-biography. 

Jim Aberdale, producer of CSN’s documentary on the ‘86 Celtics, talks with MacMullan about the bitter rivalry between the Celtics and Lakers during the 80’s, how the tragedies the Celtics faced following the ‘86 title were difficult to believe, and covering the Golden Age of the NBA.

Ceiling-to-Floor profile: Smart's defense gives him a shot at stardom

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Ceiling-to-Floor profile: Smart's defense gives him a shot at stardom

Every weekday until Sept. 7, we'll take a look at each player at the Celtics roster: Their strengths and their weaknesses, their ceiling and their floor. We continue today with Marcus Smart. For a look at the other profiles, click here.

BOSTON --  As a member of the USA Select Team this summer, Marcus Smart had a chance to play with and against some of the NBA's best. 
 
Not surprisingly, Smart played physical defense.
 
He made a few shots, too. 

Smart delivered the kind of all-around performance in Las Vegas that left an indelible impression as to the potential he has to become one of the better guards in the NBA someday. 

But will that day be this season?
 
After all, Isaiah Thomas is an All-Star point guard and his backcourt mate Avery Bradley is a first-team All-NBA defender. Their presence has certainly limited some of the opportunities Smart has had to display his skills.
 
But that won’t keep him off the floor this season or from logging significant minutes as the Celtics look to continue their ascension up the Eastern Conference standings.
 
Here’s a look at the ceiling for Smart’s game this season as well as the floor.
 
The ceiling for Smart: Starter, All-NBA defensive selection

 
Smart continues to make his mark on the NBA with his defense, combining some really nifty physical skills with an absolute bad-ass mentality towards locking up whoever he's assigned to defend. 
 
The 6-foot-4 Smart will tackle smaller guards like Matthew Dellavedova, or play a little bump-and-grind on the block with 7-footer Kristaps Porzingis. Stints defending elite scorers like LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are part of the job defensively for Smart, as well. 
 
Of course, Smart gets a heavy dose of praise for his physical play defensively, but so much of what he does centers around his hustle and overall effort.

In what was a season which Smart’s hustle play was recognized with a few All-NBA Defensive Team votes, one of the more memorable moments came when he was able to out-hustle San Antonio’s Tony Parker for a loose ball, leadin g to a Boston lay-up. 

But any tale about Smart’s effort defensively has to also include some mention of flopping, something he's been accused of from time to time. And on more than one occasion he's been guilty of this, without question.  
 
Still, with his aggressiveness and resume full of difference-making, high impact plays in his first two NBA seasons, there’s no reason to doubt Smart will become officially one of the league’s top defenders and occupy a spot on the NBA’s All-Defensive Teams sooner or later, and with that a potential spot as a starter.
 
For that latter point to happen, Smart’s shooting has to improve appreciably. Last season he shot 25.3 percent on 3s, with a career 29.6 percent shooting mark from 3-point range. 
 
With Evan Turner (Portland) no longer with the Celtics, Smart should have a few more opportunities to score now than he had in the past.
 
And while no deal is imminent, Bradley’s name was among those thrown around as possibly being on the move this season. If the Celtics decide to go that route, that, too, would open up an opportunity for Smart to become a starter. 
 
The floor for Smart: Rotation player
 
If Smart doesn’t make the kind of strides he and the Celts are aiming for this season, worst-case scenario is he will remain a player in the Celtics’ regular rotation. 
 
His versatility as a defender is just too valuable to leave at the end of their bench, regardless of how much he may struggle at times offensively.
 
If he continues to struggle, the more he’ll be seen as a one-dimensional (defense) player and with that, see his role -- and potential playing time -- more limited.
 
But coming off the bench, Smart has shown himself capable of holding his own as a defender against some of the backcourt scorers in the NBA. 
 
Lou Williams, the league’s Sixth Man of the Year in 2015, was a 33.3 percent shooter against Smar,t according to nbasavant.com. Other big-time scorers such as Westbrook (4-for-11, 36.4 percent), Kemba Walker (3-for-11, 27.3 percent) and high-scoring guard James Harden (3-for-10, 30 percent) have all had their share of struggles knocking down shots when Smart has been defending them.
 
Both Smart and the Celtics are optimistic that his shooting will only improve with time. But in case he continues to have problems, Boston can take solace in the fact that it has one of the more promising, up-and-coming defenders in Smart, whose play at that end of the floor is good enough to where minutes will continue to come his way regardless of what he contributes offensively.