Celtics need to get gritty to survive the Knicks

191544.jpg

Celtics need to get gritty to survive the Knicks

By A.Sherrod Blakely
CSNNE.com

BOSTON The last time Boston played New York, Celtics coach Doc Rivers found himself uttering the seemingly unspeakable to his team at the half.

"I haven't used the word 'soft' in, maybe four years, but at halftime, that word came out a lot," Rivers said that night.

The Celtics rallied in the second half for a win, but the C's haven't totally freed themselves of such criticism.

Boston has shown the ability to lock into opponents and be the physical, grind-it-out kind of team we've seen make deep playoff runs an annual tradition.

Far too many times lately, though, that team is nowhere to be found when its presence is desperately needed.

That has to change if the Celtics are to have any shot at bringing home Banner 18.

But first things first.

They must deal with a red-hot New York Knicks team in the first round of the playoffs, which will begin at the TD Garden this weekend.

New York presents tremendous challenge to any team's defense.

Amar'e Stoudemire averages 25.4 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, and spent a good chunk of the season being talked about as an MVP candidate. Carmelo Anthony is essentially a younger, bigger and stronger version of Paul Pierce.

And don't forget point guard Chauncey Billups, a five-time All-Star who was NBA Finals MVP in 2004 with the Detroit Pistons.

Beyond those three, the Knicks have little firepower.

And we're not even going to talk about the Knicks and defense because, well, the Knicks don't really play defense.

That's why it's vital the Celtics counter New York's explosive trio of scorers with a physical brand of basketball.

It will have to be a team thing, obviously.

But it starts with the Big Four and Glen Davis, the only players on the roster who truly understand what it's like to go deep into the playoffs with the Green team.

"We have a core group of guys who have been there, who won it," Davis said. "At the end of the day, Doc's going to shorten the rotation. The guys out there are guys that got the grit, the guys who are going to grind and make it happen."

One of the more physical plays made by the Celtics recently was a flagrant foul by Jermaine O'Neal against Miami's LeBron James on Sunday.

The play led to the usual theatrical stare-downs between players from both teams, with the end result being a handful of technical fouls being handed out.

"Sometimes you have to have hard fouls, you have to have hard plays," O'Neal said. "Here's the issue. If you don't commit them, somebody is going to commit them to you. Sometimes the first team that hits first, is the team left standing."

O'Neal recalled the many battles he had with the Detroit Pistons when he was a member of the Indiana Pacers.

"It was like fisticuffs every game," O'Neal said. "That's just how it is."

And that's how it has to be if the Celtics are to finish the season off achieving the only goal they set for themselves this season -- bringing home Banner 18.

"It's no ill will to intentionally cripple somebody," O'Neal said. "But you have to make sure, they don't need to be coming into that lane on every possession. That's what it is. We have guys who have grit. Everybody is built differently. But we have a handful of guys who can bring some force and bring some toughness to that lane."

But the issue remains, can they do it with any kind of consistency?

If they plan to be the last team standing, they have no choice.

"We understand exactly what we need to do and where we need to go if we want to be champions," O'Neal said. "That's what it really boils down to."

A. Sherrod Blakely can be reached atsblakely@comcastsportsnet.com.Follow Sherrod on Twitter at http:twitter.comsherrodbcsn

Celtics' ball movement among NBA's best, with or without Thomas

Celtics' ball movement among NBA's best, with or without Thomas

BOSTON – When it comes to winning basketball, keep it moving – the ball that is – has become a staple of the Celtics this season. 
 
And lately they’ve had to do it without Isaiah Thomas, the team’s leading scorer at 26 points per game as well as their top assists guy (6.2) who will miss hish third game in a row Sunday in Oklahoma City because of a right groin injury.
 
The Celtics have split their first two games without Thomas, with the most recent being a 101-94 home loss to Toronto on Friday.
 
When it comes to this team and ball movement, fans are just as divided when it pertains to whether the Celtics move the ball better without the high-scoring Thomas in the lineup. 
 
Regardless of what fans think they know about this team and how they move the ball, the numbers paint a very clear picture that this team’s ball movement is among the best in the NBA, with or without Thomas in the lineup. 

And that will be important on Sunday against an Oklahoma City team that doesn’t rely on the ball swinging from one side of the floor to the other, nearly as much as the Celtics. 
 
The Thunder, led by MVP candidate Russell Westbrook, are dead-last in the NBA when it comes to passes made per game (267.1). 
 
Meanwhile, the Celtics are at the opposite end of the passing game spectrum, averaging 331.7 passes per game, which is second in the NBA (Philadelphia, 354.3).
 
And in the two games without Thomas, Boston has averaged 347.0 passes per game, which ranks second in the NBA in that period of time. 
 
In addition to missing his points and assists, the Celtics must also find ways to make plays in filling the void left by a player who has the ball in his hands a lot of the time. 
 
Thomas’ usage percentage (percentage of plays used by a player while he’s on the floor) of 32.9 percent ranks seventh in the NBA, ahead of notable stars such as San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard (30.9 percent), Portland’s Damian Lillard (30.8 percent), New York’s Carmelo Anthony (29.5 percent), as well as Cleveland’s LeBron James (29 percent) and Golden State’s back-to-back NBA MVP Stephen Curry (28.2 percent).
 
So, considering how involved Thomas has been in the team’s offense, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the numbers in terms of passing and ball movement are better without him than they are when he’s on the floor playing. 
 
What should be surprising is that the gap statistically without him, isn’t greater. 
 
Boston has been a top five team when it comes to assists this season, currently third in the league with 24.7 assists per game. In the past two games without Thomas, the Celtics’ assists numbers have risen to 26.5 per game, but that only ranks fifth in the league in that span.
 
When it comes to potential assists and secondary assists (a.k.a. the “hockey” assist), Boston’s numbers have improved slightly without Thomas as well, but in each category Boston is ranked second in the league. 
 
And that ranking is with, and without Thomas in the lineup. 
 
While it’s not clear if Thomas knows just how close the numbers in terms of ball movement are with and without him playing, he is acutely aware that there are some who believe they are a better team in terms of keeping the ball moving without him.
 
“I can’t control that,” Thomas told reporters on Friday. “At this point, I laugh about it. I know what I mean to my teammates. I know what I mean to this organization, to Brad Stevens.”
 

Isaiah Thomas won't make trip to Oklahoma City for Sunday game

Isaiah Thomas won't make trip to Oklahoma City for Sunday game

BOSTON – Facing Oklahoma City Thunder star Russell Westbrook with a fully healthy squad is tough. 
 
Doing so without your leading scorer makes the challenge all that much greater. 
 
That is where the Celtics find themselves heading into Sunday night’s game against the Thunder without Isaiah Thomas, who did not travel with the team when they left for Oklahoma City today. 
 
Boston’s leading scorer this season with 26 points per game, Thomas suffered a right groin injury against Houston on Dec. 5 and has missed the Celtics’ past two games because of it. 
 
He was hoping to convince Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge to let him travel with the team, but Thomas acknowledged convincing Ainge was a long shot. 
 
“He’s not really in favor of me going,” Thomas told reporters on Friday. “I’m trying to convince them to let me go. If I’m there, they know I’m going to try and play. I’m shooting for Wednesday [at San Antonio] for the most part. That’s more realistic than Sunday. Hopefully I can play on Wednesday.”
 
Boston has split the two games with Thomas out, beating the you-know-what out of Orlando 117-87 on the road, but dropping one at home 101-94 to Toronto on Friday night. 
 
As disappointed as Thomas is with not being able to play – it’s the first games he has missed since the 2014-2015 season – he understands the potential problems that could surface with an injury like this if he and the Celtics aren’t careful. 
 
“They keep wanting to be very patient with this,” Thomas said. “They don’t want to re-injure it. It is an injury that can get re-injured and be a problem the rest of the season. I don’t want that. On top of that, it gives me time to heal all the other injuries I have.”
 
Among the other injuries Thomas was referring to, is a still-swollen finger on his left (shooting) hand. 
 
The injury was believed to have happened on Nov. 12 against Indiana. 
 
While it was painfully sore, it didn’t seem to be an issue in Boston’s next game against New Orleans when he scored a season-high 37 points. He followed that up with a 30-point performance in a 90-83 win over Dallas.