Blakely: Too early to write off Celtics

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Blakely: Too early to write off Celtics

WALTHAM When you've won as much as the Boston Celtics have in recent years, you should be considered among the NBA's elite.

But with that comes the reality that you'll get your opponent's best punch every night. And that leads to the problem in Boston: The C's are getting smacked around pretty good, and are doing little to fight back.

That raises the question that few around here want to think about . . . are the Celtics still worthy of being considered an elite team?

"I think we are," said coach Doc Rivers. "Obviously, we're 4-5 now. Our record says we're not."

Their record and, to an even larger extent, their play.

While Rivers acknowledged he was encouraged by what he saw after reviewing the video of Wednesday's loss to the defending NBA champion Dallas Mavericks, that doesn't change the fact that the Celtics have a number of areas that desperately need improving.

Rebounding has never been a strength of the C's under Rivers, and this season is no different.

Boston ranks 29th (out of 30 teams) in rebounds per game, and only five teams are getting out-rebounded by more boards per game than the Celtics.

"I don't know what to tell you," C's big man Chris Wilcox told CSNNE.com. "We're out there playing hard. Things aren't going our way right now."

Opponents are also doing a better job getting to loose balls, evident by Boston being outscored 131-71 in second-chance points this season.

But as Rivers told one reporter -- this one, actually -- "I'm just going to warn you, it's nine games. Don't jump off the bridge yet, OK?"

He's right.

It's way too early to write this season off as a lost cause, especially when one good week of basketball can take you from the middle of the pack to pack leader because of the compressed schedule.

Win or lose, Rivers said he would still be worried about his team moving forward.

"A coach is always worried about his team," Rivers said. "That's my job; concerned, worried. That's what I should be. If we were 10-0, I'd be concerned that we're getting overconfident."

Still, it's clear that regardless of how the C's have struggled, the belief that they are still among the league's best remains strong as ever.

"There's no concern that we can't turn it around," said Ray Allen. "We've been here before. We've been in tough situations. That's what makes us champions. The fact that when our backs are against the wall and the results not in our favor, we know where we need to go to get this thing rolling. Everybody feels the same way. We have a group of guys, in the shower, in the training room, just trying to talk about little things."

Among those topics of conversations is beating a team that's actually decent.

Boston's four wins have come against Detroit, Washington (twice) and New Jersey, which have a combined 5-26 record. The five losses came to New York, Miami, New Orleans, Indiana and Dallas. Those five teams have a combined record of 30-22.

The losses only add fuel to the fire that the Celtics are a team past its prime, not one primed to make a deep playoff run.

"We haven't really beaten anybody yet," Rivers said. "So we have to do that eventually if we're going to be an elite team."

At the half: Sixers applying pressure early and often against the Celtics

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At the half: Sixers applying pressure early and often against the Celtics

The Celtics are getting more than they bargained for against the Philadelphia 76ers who are once again, record-wise, among the worst teams in the NBA.

They didn’t look like it in the first half which ended with the Celtics trailing the Sixers 53-45.

Boston came into the game having won its last four road games. And they did so by playing solid defense, something that has been noticeably absent in the first half.

Philadelphia came into the game as one of the NBA’s better 3-point shooting teams and has lived up to the lofty ranking.

In the first half Philadelphia made nine of its 18 three-point attempts while the Celtics are way, way, way at the other end of the 3-point shooting spectrum while missing eight of their 11 3s with Isaiah Thomas making a pair with the lone other made 3-pointer coming from Marcus Smart.

The defense struggled, the offense never had any kind of flow and not surprisingly, the Celtics found themselves playing from behind most of the first half.

Here are the first half stars from Saturday’s game.

STARS

Sergio Rodriguez: His playmaking was solid as usual, but it was Rodriguez getting it going with his jumper that really produced surprisingly strong results for the Sixers. He had 11 points, four assists and a steal in the first half.

Isaiah Thomas: Playing his game which is shooting and attacking the rim, Thomas was Boston’s lone double-digit scorer in the first half with 15 points which is tops among all players.

STUDS

Dario Saric: It was a solid first half as Saric contributed both on the boards and the scoreboard. He had 10 points in the first half along with five rebounds.

Gerald Henderson: Henderson had one of those high efficiency-type games with 11 points on 4-for-5 shooting.

DUDS

Celtics 3-point shooting: It was a miserable first half for a team that has been among the NBA’s leaders in 3-pointers made and taken this season. At the half, Boston has shot 2-for-10 on 3's.

Celtics defense: Boston has shown little to no signs of providing the kind of push-back they’ll need in order to leave Philly with a win. In addition to allowing Philadelphia to shoot 47.4 percent from the field, Boston also allowed the Sixers to knock down nine 3's.

Thomas becoming one of the NBA's best in the fourth quarter

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Thomas becoming one of the NBA's best in the fourth quarter

Isaiah Thomas has established himself as one of the NBA’s top players in the fourth quarter of games this season.

“I’d rather play that than any other quarter,” Thomas said.

But there will be times when the game’s flow or head coach Brad Stevens’ gut will tell him to go in a different direction with Thomas’ minutes which is something the two have had conversations about which has helped eliminate any confusion or misunderstandings.

“We’ve had player-coach talks, how he feels and how I feel,” Thomas said. “That’s the relationship we have. We changed it up a little bit (in the win over Sacramento) and I’m just happy we got the win.”

In that game, Thomas was replaced by Terry Rozier with 3:20 to play in the quarter and Boston trailing 66-63. He returned to the floor at the 8:31 mark and the Celtics were down 76-74.

“The key is, there are some times where you feel like those last few minutes of the third quarter will be real important moving forward,” Stevens told reporters prior to tonight’s game. “Especially based on how your team is playing. And you just have to make that decision. You have to make that decision, you take him out early in the third like we did (against Sacramento) and put him back in earlier; or play him through until the two or one-minute mark in the third, and then give him his rest up until the seven or six. Either way, we’ve talked about it like I do with all our guys, especially the guys that are playing and big in the rotation.

Stevens would love to come up with a game plan and stick to it with little to no changes being made.

But the NBA game is unpredictable and his job as the head coach is to make the necessary on-the-fly changes that best position the Celtics for victory.

“Ultimately there will be days that it will be very consistent and there might be a time or two where I’m gonna go with my gut,” Stevens said. “They know that and we’ve talked about it.”

And while Stevens’ decision may not sit well with some, players understand it’s all done to achieve one goal – win. 

“There’s a number of reasons why you make a decision to leave someone in or take someone out,” Stevens said. “Ultimately, we have to figure out game to game, moment to moment, what’s best for our team. That’s what I’m charged with. That doesn’t mean I’m always right. I’m not gonna act like that. Ultimately, those guys know I’m thinking about it all the time.”