Celtics-Bulls preview: Running away from the competition

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Celtics-Bulls preview: Running away from the competition

WALTHAM, Mass. The aftermath of a morning shootaround is typically a quiet, intimate affair for the Celtics. Players have routines that often involve scurrying out of the practice facility as quickly as possible once the game plan for that particular night has been laid out.

Tonight against the Bulls, that game plan will account for the brand of basketball that the short-handed Celtics must now play.

Even with a full stable of healthy bodies, the Celtics were not a team that could beat you consistently in the half court game. Their offense in those scenarios -- get it to Kevin Garnett on the block -- was too predictable.

While getting Garnett on the post is still important, the injury-riddled Celtics now find themselves attacking more in transition which has opened things up scoring-wise and, more importantly, gives them a better shot at winning.

The Celtics currently rank 15th in the NBA in fast break points, with 13.4. That number is relatively consistent with the 13.5 fast-break points the Celtics have averaged in their last eight games -- seven of which were victories.

That trait will be especially important tonight against a Bulls team that's once again among the league's best rebounding teams.

The Bulls rank 7th in the NBA with 52.3 rebounds per game this season. Meanwhile, the C's are at the far end of that spectrum with 48.1 per game which ranks 28th (out of 30 teams).

Boston's ability to hold their own on the boards will indeed be one of the keys in tonight's game. Here are a few other factors to pay attention to as the C's try to get back to winning games after their season-best streak of seven straight wins, come to an end at Charlotte on Monday.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: With two of the NBA's top scoring defenses, points will be hard to come by for either team. The Celtics are ranked 10th in the league, giving up 96.3 points per game. The Bulls are even better, with opponents scoring 91.9 points against them which ranks 3rd in the NBA.

MATCHUP TO WATCH: Avery Bradley vs Nate Robinson. The one upside to Rajon Rondo's injury has been how it has allowed Bradley to show that he's more than just a ball-hawking defender. Robinson, who was named Eastern Conference player of the week earlier this month, has been a major reason why the Bulls have remained among the Eastern Conference's elite despite former league MVP Derrick Rose being out all season.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Brandon Bass is long, long overdue for a breakout game scoring the ball. His season-high scoring is 16 points, which he has done three times. In his first season with the C's last year, Bass eclipsed that mark three times within his first 16 games.

STAT TO TRACK: The Celtics have to do a better job in the hustleeffort categories. In the 3-point loss to the Bobcats on Monday, Charlotte had more points in the paint (34-32), on fast breaks (15-9) and on second-chance opportunities (9-6).

Pick or trade?: Celtics find themselves in similar position to 2014 Cavs

Pick or trade?: Celtics find themselves in similar position to 2014 Cavs

BOSTON – Even before the Boston Celtics landed the top overall pick in next month’s NBA draft, there has been talk about Boston potentially trading it away.

While Danny Ainge has made no secret about being open to all options involving the top overall pick, there are a couple of things to remember.

Moving the number one overall pick is not a decision that’s made lightly.

That’s why only twice since the ABA-NBA merge in 1976, has the number one overall pick not played for the team that selected him.

But in looking at the two instances when it did happen, 1993 with Chris Webber (drafted by Orlando, traded to Golden State) and 2014 with Andrew Wiggins (drafted by Cleveland, traded to Minnesota), the Wiggins deal best resembles the kind of situation that the Celtics now find themselves in with the top overall pick in hand.

In 2014, Cleveland wound up with the number one overall pick for the second straight year. In 2013, they shocked many in selecting UNLV’s Anthony Bennett which turned out to be a huge mistake.

But the following year, taking Andrew Wiggins out of Kansas with the top pick was more of a no-brainer.

The Cavs were soon faced with the kind of problem every team would love to have.

Just a couple weeks after the draft, LeBron James announced that he was taking his talents back to Cleveland.

The number one pick and James returning to Cleveland?

Does it get much better than that for a Cavs fan?

As it turned out … yeah. It got a hell of a lot better, actually.

While a James-Wiggins-Kyrie Irving Big Three will probably win you a lot of console championships, in the real world of NBA basketball it wasn’t going to work.

The Cavs knew this, which is why they made no secret about willing to part ways with the top pick (Wiggins) for the right player.

That player was Kevin Love, who had grown tired of all the struggles he endured with the Timberpups who never grew up enough to win enough games to get to the playoffs.  

Minnesota, understanding that they may be better off down the road without Love, decided to move him for a bunch of pieces centered around Wiggins who went on to become the league’s Rookie of the Year.

Cleveland’s motivation for making the deal had a lot to do with being in the best position to compete for a title right now, without having to do major work at the front-end of their rotation.

LeBron James. Kyrie Irving. Kevin Love.

Fill in the rest of the roster with good players who are great fits, and just like that ... you're a title contender. 

Boston finds itself in a similar position to the Cavs in 2014.

Unlike most franchises with the top overall pick, Boston doesn’t need that player to come in and carry the franchise from Day One.

Remember, Boston advanced to the Eastern Conference finals this season with one of the younger teams in the playoffs.

Of the players under contract for next season, Al Horford – he’ll be 31 years old on Saturday – is the oldest player.

So with all that youth still developing their games, still figuring out how best to impact the Celtics, Boston knows they would be much better served if they can convert that top overall pick into a proven, established All-Star that can move them that much closer to title contention sooner rather than later.

That’s why Cleveland was so eager to trade the pick, knowing it would likely return a proven star for a team that at the time felt they were one piece away from being a true title contender.

Boston, which lost to the Cavs in the Eastern Conference finals last week, is at least one high-impact performer (I believe two personally) from posing a stronger threat to the Cavs’ dominance than we saw in a conference finals that Cleveland ended in five games.

There are a few big names that the Celtics have shown interest in the past, and they could once again come into play this offseason.

Indiana’s Paul George is a player Boston has had its sights on for a while now. The only real concern the Celtics have with George is whether he’ll re-sign with them next summer when he becomes a free agent.

Rumors have circulated for a few months that the Palmdale, Calif. native is longing to be closer to home and play for the Los Angeles Lakers who have identified him as a primary free agent target when he becomes available.

Indiana might be motivated to move him sooner to ensure they’ll get something for him if he does, in fact, decide to move on.

But are the Celtics willing to risk giving up the number one overall pick (along with other key assets) for a player who may only be around for one season?

And while it is a long shot and on paper makes little sense, New Orleans’ Anthony Davis shouldn’t totally be discounted, either.

The Pelicans are a franchise right now that’s not going anywhere with their current allotment of talent, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon.

They gave up their first-round pick this year as part of the DeMarcus Cousins trade, so they’re not on the clock until the 40th selection, or 10th pick in the second round.

It would take a significant amount of assets to acquire Davis, but considering his age (he’s just 24 years old), talent, and versatility at both ends of the floor, he becomes an instant game-changer if the Celtics can get him.

Boston also likes Jimmy Butler of Chicago, although the Celtics aren’t likely to need to give up the number one pick to get him.

The Bulls have been hesitant to move Butler for many reasons.

For one thing, he’s a hell of player.

In addition, his contract (he has three years left on a five-year, $92.3 million deal that began with the 2015-2016 season) is very team-friendly for a player regarded as being among the top-15, top-20 in the NBA.

With the salary cap steadily rising, Chicago would likely have to pay significantly more than that if they traded for say, Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley, who each hit free agency in the summer of 2018.

No matter what direction the Celtics decide to go with the number one overall pick, there will be some risk involved.

But with that risk comes the tremendous potential to be rewarded with a great player who could be just what this franchise needs in order to bring home Banner 18. 

Bradley's emergence as vocal leader speaks volumes about growth

Bradley's emergence as vocal leader speaks volumes about growth

BOSTON –  Terry Rozier was having a rough stretch where his minutes were limited and when he did play, he didn’t play particularly well.
 
Among the voices in his ear offering words of encouragement was Avery Bradley who knows all too well what Rozier was going through.
 
For all his time as a Celtic, Bradley has let his work on the floor do the talking for him.
 
But as the most tenured Celtic on the roster, his leadership has to be about more than just getting the job done, but servicing as a vocal leader as well.
 
For a player whose growth from one year to the next has been a constant, being a more vocal leader has been the one dynamic of his game that has improved the most during this past season.
 
And it is that kind of leadership that will carry into the summer what is a pivotal offseason for both Bradley and this Celtics franchise which was eliminated by Cleveland in the Conference finals, the first time the Celtics got that deep in the playoffs since 2012.
 
He is entering the final year of the four-year, $32 million contract he signed in 2014. And it comes at a time when his fellow Tacoma, Wash. native and backcourt mate Isaiah Thomas will likely hit free agency where he’s expected to command a max or near-max contract that would pay him an annual salary in the neighborhood of $30 million.
 
At this point in time, Bradley isn’t giving too much thought to his impending contract status.
 
Instead, he’s more consumed by finding ways to improve his overall game and in doing so, help guide the Celtics to what has to be their focus for next season – a trip to the NBA Finals.
 
While Celtics players have said their focus has always been on advancing as far into the playoffs as possible, it wasn’t until this past season did they actually provide hope and promise that Banner 18 may be closer than you think.
 
It was an emotional time for the Celtics, dealing with the unexpected death of Chyna Thomas, the younger sister of Isaiah Thomas, just hours before Boston’s first playoff game this season.
 
And then there were injuries such as Thomas’ right hip strain that ended his postseason by halftime of Boston’s Eastern Conference finals matchup with Cleveland.
 
But through that pain, we saw the emergence of Bradley in a light we have seldom seen him in as a Celtic.
 
We have seen him play well in the past, but it wasn’t until Thomas’ injury did we see Bradley showcase even more elements of his game that had been overlooked.
 
One of the constant knocks on Bradley has been his ball-handling.
 
And yet there were a number of occasions following Thomas’ playoff-ending injury, where Bradley attacked defenders off the dribble and finished with lay-ups and an occasional dunk in transition.
 
Among players who appeared in at least 12 playoff games this year, only Washington’s John Wall (7.9), Cleveland’s LeBron James (6.8) and Golden State’s Stephen Curry (5.2) averaged more points in transition than Bradley (4.7).
 
Bradley recognized the team needed him to be more assertive, do things that forced him to be more front-and-center which is part of his evolution in Boston as a leader on this team.
 
“It’s weird but players like Al (Horford) definitely helped me get out of my shell and pushed me this year to be more of a vocal leader,” Bradley said.
 
And that talent combined with Bradley doing what he does every offseason – come back significantly better in some facet of his game – speaks to how he’s steadily growing into being a leader whose actions as well as his words are impactful.