Celtics-Nuggets review: What we saw

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Celtics-Nuggets review: What we saw

DENVER Get beat by a team that makes a ton of shots. Get beat by a team that simply did a better job at executing.

But to get beat by a team that simply played harder, is a tough pill to swallow.

The Boston Celtics have no choice but to choke on that one, as the Denver Nuggets hung on for a 98-91 win.

"We just got out-worked tonight," said Boston's Paul Pierce. "It was nothing about game planning or Xs and Os. It was just they out-worked us. I hate for it to even come out my mouth. For me to come in here and say that, what happened tonight, it hurts me to say that."

Seeing how well the Celtics played in the second half, and woeful in the first, stings pretty bad as well.

Celtics coach Doc Rivers looks back at the team's win at Golden State, as being the precipitant of the team's struggles lately that have produced back-to-back losses. "We relaxed against Golden State, and we won the game," Rivers said. "And then we thought we could come out and do it again against Sacramento, and we got our butt kicked."

Much of the same was on display in the first half as Boston showed very few signs of being the aggressor that we've seen of late from them, especially defensively.

Effort was certainly one of the keys in the loss. But there were other factors at play, some of which were highlighted prior to the game. Here's a look at how those potential factors actually played out as the C's dropped their second in a row while the Nuggets (25-20) are in the midst of a nine-game home stand.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR - Boston has a tendency to ease their way into games, which can't happen tonight. While the Nuggets rank among the NBA's top 10 in points scored in the first quarter (25.4), they give up a ton of early points as well. Teams are averaging 26.1 points against Denver in the first quarter of games which ranks 28th in the NBA.

WHAT WE SAW: Denver and its high-powered offense didn't waste much time getting the Celtics to play their brand of basketball. They shot a higher percentage and crushed the C's on the boards which both factored in the Nuggets leading 29-22 after the first quarter.

MATCHUP TO WATCH - Paul Pierce vs. Kenneith Faried: Pierce should win this battle rather convincingly, but the C's have to be on guard for not looking for Pierce too much so that it disrupts the flow offensively and leads to what Doc Rivers refers to at times, as the "ball sticking" on one side of the floor or in the hands of one particular player. Faried is a high-energy guy who seems to continue to get better with more experience. The 22-year-old rookie has started 17 games this season after not playing (coaches decision) in a number of games in January.

WHAT WE SAW: Pierce usually struggles in the Mile High City, but had a respectable game shooting the ball (22 points, 8-for-17 from the field) despite being in foul trouble down the stretch and eventually fouling out. As for Faried, his energy and just flat-out hustle was too much for most of the night for Boston to handle. He finished with 18 points and a career-high 16 rebounds which included a rebound in the fourth in which Pierce picked up his sixth and final foul of the night.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Anytime the Celtics have a back-to-back situation and minutes become a concern, you always have to wonder how will it impact Kevin Garnett. However, because of the lopsided loss at Sacramento on Friday night, Garnett should not be too fatigued considering he was the only starter to play less than 30 minutes in the loss.

WHAT WE SAW: Garnett showed no signs of fatigue, finishing with 22 points nine rebounds and five assists. Although disappointed with the loss, Garnett reached yet another milestone. He is the only player in NBA history with more than 20,000 points, 10,000 rebounds, 5,000 assists and 1,500 steals. "To be honest, I'm not a stat guy," Garnett said. "But anytime you make accomplishments in the league, milestones, you gotta be grateful." For his career, Garnett has 23,945 points, 13,157 rebounds, 5,004 assists and 1,648 steals.

STAT TO TRACK: With lots of points come lots of mistakes by Denver. The Nuggets average 15.6 turnovers per game which ranks 27th in the NBA. Ironically, the Celtics average 15.6 forced turnovers per game which ranks sixth in the NBA. But a normal night in terms of forced turnovers by Boston, probably won't be enough for the win. The C's need to have another one of those nights in which they force 20 or so turnovers which should then lead to a few easy baskets in transition.

WHAT WE SAW: Boston forced the Nuggets into turning the ball over 22 times which led to 20 points scored. But that could not mask how poorly Boston's defense played in the first half, which set the tone for the C's to be outscored 48-40 on points in the paint, 20-4 on second-chance points and 21-6 in fast-break points - the kind of trifecta that put the Celtics in a hole that they could never fully dig their way out of all game.

Sixers' success against C's defense shows Boston still has room to grow

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Sixers' success against C's defense shows Boston still has room to grow

Avery Bradley was a member of the NBA’s All-Defensive first team a year ago. And Al Horford has been among the league’s best interior defenders for a number of years.

But as talented defensively as they may be, the Celtics are still learning how to play with each other as well as off of one another.

Injuries have slowed down the chemistry developing as quickly as some might expect. Horford missed nine games due to a concussion, and another game due to wife giving birth to their second child, Alia Horford.

And in Boston’s 107-106 win over Philadelphia on Saturday night, defensive chemistry -- not only among Horford and Bradley, but with all of the players -- remains a work in progress for sure.

Boston had a number of defensive issues in the first half which factored in the Sixer shooting 46.1 percent from the field while shooting 9-for-18 from 3-point range.

But the second half was an entirely different story as Boston’s defense picked up his intensity and focus level which would prove to be just enough to beat a scrappy Sixers team.

The Celtics (12-8) are four games over .500 for the first time this season currently have the third-best record in the Eastern Conference behind Cleveland (13-5) and Toronto (14-6). 

And while the players point to a handful of games that they felt they gave away, Avery Bradley reminds all that the success of this team this season has for the most part come with key players out of the mix or limited in some capacity.

“We haven’t played that many games with the full roster,” Bradley told reporters after the win. “We’re still learning how to play with each other.”

Bradley pointed out a moment in Saturday’s victory where a miscommunication between him and Horford led to a defensive miscue.

Boston has had similar mistakes made on offense this season, too.

“We haven’t really been in pick-and-roll that much,” Bradley said. “Every single game we need to improve.”

And that improvement has to continue evolving on the defensive side of things for this team to achieve its goals this season which include being among the last teams standing in the East.

Doing that will likely mean Boston re-establishing itself as a defensive force, something that should come with time and experience playing with each other.

Horford, who signed a four-year, $113 million deal with Boston in the offseason, says it’s an ongoing process for all involved.

“I have to learn to play with our concepts, the guys have to learn to play with me,” Horford told reporters after Saturday’s win. “We just have to make sure we keep playing the right way, be more consistent with that. I feel like we’re getting better but there’s still some work that we need to do.”

Stars, studs and duds: Thomas churns out another strong fourth quarter performance

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Stars, studs and duds: Thomas churns out another strong fourth quarter performance

The pressure that comes with a tight game in the fourth quarter can be a weighty proposition for some NBA players.

Then there’s Boston’s Isaiah Thomas who continues to save his best work for the fourth quarter.

Saturday’s 107-106 win at Philadelphia had yet another Thomas-like finish for the Celtics as the 5-foot-9 guard was at his most dominant state in the game’s final minutes.

Thomas finished with a season high-tying 37 points which included a stretch in the fourth in which he scored 12 straight.

“I just love the fourth quarter,” Thomas told reporters following the win. “I just want to win. Whether it’s making plays for myself or making plays for my teammates, it’s about making the right play. I get ultra- aggressive in that fourth quarter. That’s what I’ve always done.”

And his teammates appreciate how Thomas elevates his play in the game’s most pivotal moments.

“A lot of the credit is to Isaiah, how he was able to finish the game tonight,” said Avery Bradley. “He was able to make shots when we needed him to.”

And while Thomas knows his shots won’t fall all the time down the stretch, his fourth quarter mentality does provide him with a level of confidence that no matter what the defense does to him or what the score may be, he can swing the game’s momentum in his team’s favor.

“Some guys get a little tight, they get a little timid (in the fourth quarter),” Thomas said. “I embrace it. I want to be great. I want to be somebody my teammates can call on when the game is close.”

Here are the Stars, Studs and Duds from Saturday night’s game.

STARS

Isaiah Thomas: There was no more dominant player on Saturday night than Thomas. He finished with a game-high 37 points along with seven assists.

Dario Saric: It was a breakout game for the 22-year-old rookie who led the Sixers with 21 points as well as 12 rebounds for his third double-double this season. Both his points and rebound totals tied his career highs in those categories.

STUDS

Avery Bradley: Boston’s surge towards victory did not kick in until the third quarter which is when Bradley elevated his play offensively. In the third he scored 10 of his 20 points on the night, to go along with a team-high nine rebounds.

Ersan Illyasova: He finished with 18 points which included a pair of three-pointers in the closing seconds of the game. He also grabbed six rebounds and two assists.

DUDS

Celtics first half defense: There wasn’t much to like about Boston defensively in the first half. The Celtics struggled to take away or limit Philadelphia’s only strength Saturday night which was three-point shooting. The Sixers nailed nine of their 18 three-point attempts in the first half in addition to hurting the Celtics’ transition defense which gave up seven fast-break points to Philly compared to Boston scoring just one point in transition.