Late-game execution key in series vs. Sixers

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Late-game execution key in series vs. Sixers

BOSTON For years, the Boston Celtics always had the experience card to play in end-of-the-game situations.

As you look at their second round playoff series against Philadelphia, that has become one of a number of should-be Celtic advantages that isn't playing out quite like anyone expected.

The series is tied at 2-2, with Game 5 in Boston on Monday and Game 6 back in Philadelphia on Wednesday.

As much as talk centers around the Sixers playing good enough to potentially be up 3-1 in this series, the C's can counter with the fact that this series would have probably been a Celtics sweep had they delivered the kind of late-game execution a team with their championship pedigree is expected to have at times like this.

The first two games weren't decided until the final moments, and essentially came down to which team could make the big plays needed to win.

In Boston's 92-91 Game 1 win, Kevin Garnett had a season-high 29 points and Rajon Rondo had his eighth playoff triple-double with 13 points, 17 assists and 12 rebounds. In addition, Rondo made a slew of heady plays in the game's closing moments to secure the win.

Philadelphia bounced back with an 82-81 Game 2 win, a game in which they came up with a slew of buzzer-beating shots, second-chance points and played good enough defense that Kevin Garnett was whistled for an illegal screen in the game's final seconds that just about killed any shot of a Celtic comeback.

Boston blew out the Sixers in Game 3 and seemed on their way to a repeat in Game 4. But they allowed Philadelphia to hang around too long, stopped playing with the same kind of energy and fire they had in the first half. And to the credit of the Sixers, they made the C's pay as they closed out the game with a 9-0 run to win, 92-83, to even the series at two games apiece.

So in three of the four games, it came down to which team could do a better job of executing in crunch time.

In two of those three games, Philadelphia - not Boston - was the superior team.

If you go behind the numbers, they only further validate the Sixers in this series as being better in close, down-to-the-wire finishes.

In the final two minutes of the games in which either of these two teams were ahead or behind by five points in this series, the Sixers are shooting 75 percent (6-for-8) which is tops among second-round playoff teams under those conditions while the Celtics (6-for-12) are right behind them at 50 percent.

If you look at the playoffs as a whole, it becomes even more clear that statistically at least, Philadelphia has been the better team when it comes to closing out opponents.

Examining those same conditions - ahead or behind by five points with two minutes to play - the Sixers are 5-1 in the playoffs while the Celtics are just 4-4 according to NBA.comstats.

In addition, Philadelphia has connected on 53.3 percent of its shots under those conditions in the postseason which ranks No. 2 among playoff teams, while the C's and their 36 percent shooting come in at a distant 10th.

There's no need to dwell on the numbers because the Celtics know all too well that they can be better - they have to be better - at closing out games in this series.

Fortunately for the C's, there's still time to change all that.

It begins Monday night in Game 5 which for the Celtics, has been a good time for them.

In the Big Three era, the C's are 7-0 when hosting a playoff Game 5 matchup.

At this point, having previously won in similar situations means little.

This series has been about making the proper adjustments and finding ways to win in a series that has come down to the wire in all but one game.

Normally, that would be a good thing for the Celtics.

As the C's remind us, this is not a normal season - from the lockout-shortened regular season schedule, to the injuries, players out for the season, and yes, late-game execution which for years was a given with this team.

Not now; not in this series.

Blakely: Tatum's character separates him from many of the other rookies

Blakely: Tatum's character separates him from many of the other rookies

BOSTON – With his new head coach Brad Stevens and Boston Celtics ownership and front office officials surrounding him, Jayson Tatum’s mind seemed to be somewhere else briefly.

He looked ahead, way, way ahead to the other end of the Celtics’ practice court where there were banners, lots of banners, raised high above all else in the gym.

This wasn’t just a passing glance, either.

TATUM SPEAKS

It was clear that the newest Celtic was in deep thought as he stared at the 17 banners and the one left blank, a steady reminder of what this franchise is about, past and present.

Yes, it’s a lot to soak in for anyone let alone a 19-year-old kid whose career with the Celtics can be timed on a stopwatch.

But the soft-spoken 6-foot-9 forward has been here long enough to understand that success around here is about more than playing well; it’s playing to win a championship.

And that in many ways separates Tatum from his teenage brethren who made up the majority of Thursday night’s NBA draft which included an NBA-record 17 players taken in the first round who like Tatum, were just one year removed from high school.

All come into the NBA with lots to learn, as well as goals and aspirations for this upcoming NBA season.

During an interview with CSN on Friday, I asked Tatum about what in his mind would make for a successful season.

And his answer initially was to ask me a question, “Individual or team?”

So I replied, either one.

“To get back to where they were last year and get over that hump,” he said. “Championships, chasing that number 18, that would be the ultimate success for me.”

That served as a reminder as to why despite having a handful of players under consideration at No. 3, the Celtics did the right thing in selecting Tatum.

His words may seem like the politically correct response, but take a look at the kid’s basketball resume and you’ll quickly see he is indeed about winning and doing so in whatever way possible.

After missing his first eight games at Duke with a foot injury, Tatum gradually improved as the season progressed and wound up on the all-rookie team as well as being named to the All-ACC third team.

Once the Blue Devils got to the ACC Tournament, Tatum became a different, better, more dominant player.

Indeed, Tatum led the Blue Devils to their first ACC championship since 2011 and did so in historic fashion as the Blue Devils became the first ACC school to win the conference tournament with four wins in four days.

Late in the title game against Notre Dame, Tatum put together a sequence of plays that speaks to why the Celtics were seriously considering taking him with the number one overall pick had they not been able to trade it for the No. 3 and a future first-round pick.

With the scored tied at 65, Tatum made a free throw that put Duke ahead.

Moments later, he blocked a shot and finished off the play with a lay-up that gave Duke a three-point lead.

After a Notre Dame basket, Tatum connected with a teammate for a 3-pointer that pushed Duke’s lead to four points with around a minute to play.

And then there was the 3-point play Tatum converted after getting fouled on a dunk which secured a 76-69 Duke win over the Fighting Irish.

Free throws. Blocks. Getting out in transition. Passing.

When his team needed him most, he gave whatever was required at that moment which is one of the intangibles that makes Boston feel good about his future.

“He does whatever he has to do to help you win,” said an NBA scout who said he has seen Tatum play “at least a dozen times.”

He added, “Like all of these kids coming into the league now, he has some things he has to get better at, get more consistent with. But he makes winning plays, whether it’s for himself or others. He’s a lot more unselfish a player than he’s given credit for being.”

And he’s 19 years old, which is both a blessing and a burden when you’re an NBA team executive charged with committing at least two years and millions of dollars into a young man.

Part of the process when making a draft choice, especially when it’s one of the top picks, is character evaluation.

Of the players at or near the top of the draft board, multiple league executives contacted by CSNNE.com in the past couple of weeks said this was an area where Tatum stood out in comparison to all of the top prospects.

“He’s the kind of young man you’d love whether he was a basketball player or not,” one Western Conference executive told CSNNE.com. “If you’re ranking guys on character alone in this draft, he’s your number one pick.”

Danny Ainge, Boston’s president of basketball operations, acknowledged the challenge of differentiating between miscues made by a teenager as being problems of concern going forward, or whether that’s a teenager making the kind of bad/questionable decisions most teens make.

“It’s dangerous to play too much into a 19-year-old kid’s behavior,” Ainge told CSN’s A. Sherrod Blakely and Kyle Draper on Friday. “But I think that, with all the things we do, from physical, emotional, mental, character, work ethic and their skills … it’s just really hard at 19. You hate to just be labeled what you are at 18.”

But in regards to Tatum specifically, Ainge added, “Jayson is a high character guy. We know he will get better because of his character and his work ethic.”

Said Tatum: “It’s a great feeling. Being part of a great organization like the Celtics; think of all the great players of the past and you can follow in their footsteps.”

And in doing so, blaze a trail of his own in the pursuit of Banner 18.

Did Suns ask Josh Jackson to cancel his Celtics workout to keep him from Boston?

Did Suns ask Josh Jackson to cancel his Celtics workout to keep him from Boston?

BOSTON – It appears there may be an answer to the mystery surrounding Josh Jackson’s decision to not work out for the Boston Celtics leading up to Thursday’s NBA draft.

While conventional wisdom tells us that such decisions are often made by the agent who in this case is former NBA player B.J. Armstrong.

Boston instead selected Jayson Tatum at No. 3 with the Phoenix Suns scooping up Jackson with the No. 4 pick.

MORE: Danny Ainge on Josh Jackson: 'He didn’t want to play for the Celtics'

During Jackson’s introductory press conference, there was a sense that it wasn’t necessarily Armstrong who strong-armed Jackson into not working out for the Celtics. But apparently, he got an assist from Suns General Manager (and ex-Celtics assistant GM) Ryan McDonough.

A reporter asked McDonough if Phoenix may have encouraged Jackson to cancel his workout with the Celtics who were flying into Sacramento, Calif. to watch Jackson workout only for it to be canceled after they had departed which as you can imagine, did not go over well with Danny Ainge, Boston's president of basketball operations.

“I’d like to consult my attorney B.J. Armstrong (Jackson’s agent),” McDonough said, smiling.

The more McDonough talked, the clearer it became that he and Armstrong were in cahoots to do all they could to get Boston to pass on Jackson at No. 3 which as McDonough mentioned, doesn’t break any rules.

“You guys all know my history with the Celtics and the respect I have for Danny Ainge and the organization,” McDonough told reporters on Friday. “But I think you guys who know me well know how competitive I am. Look, it is a competition. The Celtics were ahead of us at No. 3 and they could have selected whoever they wanted to. I think they got a very good player in Jayson Tatum, but that doesn’t mean B.J. and I and … other members of my staff couldn’t talk and try to formulate the best plan to get a player we were really high on to a place we felt he really wanted to go and would be a great fit for him.”

McDonough is right in that no rules were broken if he and Armstrong did decide to work together in an effort to get Jackson to Phoenix.

But to cancel the workout after the Celtics executives and head coach Brad Stevens had left, forcing them to spend a night on the road for a workout that Jackson’s camp probably knew wasn’t going to happen well before the Celtics contingent boarded for Sacramento … not cool.

Here are words I thought I would never say … the Ball clan got it right.

They told Boston from the jump that Lonzo Ball wasn’t going to work out for them, so the Celtics knew he didn’t want to be a Celtic from the very beginning.

Jackson’s actions said the same, but his words kept hope alive that he would work out or at the very least, talk to the Celtics organization – neither of which happened.

He kept referring to the fact that he didn’t think Boston was interested in him when they had the number one pick (that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if they asked him to work out for them; otherwise, what’s the point from the Celtics'  perspective of asking to work out a guy they had no interest in drafting?)

After they traded down to the number 3 pick, a deal that was cemented last weekend, Jackson said there wasn’t time to do a workout for Boston.

The draft was nearly a week away and he didn’t have time to work out for a team that had the third pick overall knowing that the top two picks (Markelle Fultz at No. 1 and Lonzo Ball at No. 2) were essentially accounted for?

“If I could have, I probably would have worked out for them,” Jackson said (with a straight face). “But I think everything worked out for the best.”

Yup.

Boston will once again be among the better teams in the East and will contend for the best record like they achieved this past season before their season ended in the Conference finals to Cleveland. 

Jackson will spend his rookie season playing a lot of minutes with a Suns team that probably won’t win as many games as he did a year ago at Kansas (33).

Enjoy.