Marcus Smart

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Three Things to Know: Kyrie who? Celtics win streak reaches dozen

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) No Kyrie, no problem — Celtics keep finding ways to win, streak up to 12. Brad Stevens has turned the Boston Celtics into the embodiment of every coaching cliché: one man goes down and it’s next man up, they are just taking it one game at a time, they just have to worry about themselves and play their game, they play a full 48 minutes, they are focusing on defense, and they are giving 110 percent effort.

Bottom line — it’s working, and the Celtics are winning. Twelve in a row now.

Kyrie Irving was out Sunday due to a facial fracture suffered at the elbow of teammate Aron Baynes (he is expected back Tuesday at Brooklyn wearing a mask, which could be bad news for the league, last time Irving had to wear a mask he tore it up for a couple of weeks).

Next man up. Marcus Smart started for Steven’s Celtics, Al Horford returned from missing games with a concussion and scored 21 points on 8-of-9 shooting, Jaylen Brown added 18, the Celtics again played strong defense, and they held on through a tight fourth quarter to knock off a good Raptors team 95-94. The Raptors had the chance to win with a couple late pull-up jumpers and an offensive foul call on Jayson Tatum that a kid hated and screamed about, apparently into a courtside mic. However, DeMar DeRozan missed both chances, the second one was the kind of shot he hits a lot of (he is shooting 42.9 percent from that area of the floor this season).

The Celtics have been the NBA’s most surprising and impressive story to start the season, losing Gordon Hayward but shifting the offense around, getting well-rounded games out of Irving, Horford playing like he’s 26 again (but with a three-point shot), and the team is defending like mad, all game long and especially in the fourth quarter. It works. They get a real measuring stick on Thursday against Golden State, but so far all the clichés sound good in Boston.

2) Rudy Gobert out 4-6 weeks with a bone bruise in his knee.
Utah Jazz fans breathed a huge sigh of relief Friday night when Rudy Gobert returned to the court after this injury where Dion Waiters went crashing into his knee.

They may have exhaled too quickly — Gobert is out four to six weeks with a bone bruise.

That’s not good. The Jazz defense, third in the NBA this season allowing just a point per possession (100.2 per 100), is focused around forcing penetration into Gobert, who is the best shot blocking/rim-protecting big in the game right now. Utah is going to struggle to get stops the same way, because Derrick Favors is not that same kind of athlete (nor the same kind of athlete Favors himself was before the injuries).

What might help Utah compensate for this is an improved offense — the two-big starting lineup with Favors and Gobert, and Ricky Rubio running the show, has an offensive rating of 94.7 points per 100 possessions this season in 108 minutes — they are still struggling with those starters despite the defense. They miss Gordon Hayward’s shot creation and shooting with those two bigs on the court. Forced to go to just one big, maybe they find better spacing and options. Maybe.

It still could be a rough time between now and Christmas for the Jazz.

3) Paul George drops 37, Thunder win second in a row… but let’s not say they have figured it out yet. Hey, Paul George, what did you get Russell Westbrook for his birthday.

PG13 dropped 37, Russell Westbrook had 16 of his 27 in the third quarter when the Thunder pulled away, and Oklahoma City beat Dallas 112-99 for a comfortable win on Sunday. The kind of win the Thunder need — that’s two wins in a row now.

You know why Oklahoma City has back-to-back wins? No, not the team meeting, good luck finding a player who actually thinks those things are useful other than to vent. No, I’m nowhere near convinced the Thunder have started to figure it out (they were without Carmelo Anthony on Sunday).

The Thunder have won two straight because they have played a Clipper team that’s falling apart (they are 1-7 in their last eight) and then a Dallas team that is last in the Western Conference. Maybe the Thunder needed a couple easy wins as slump busters, just any wins to turn the team around, and with Chicago up next the streak could well reach three wins. But talk to me after the games against the Spurs, Pelicans, and Warriors, then we will have a measuring stick.

Three Things to Know: Celtics win streak at 10, should we call them contenders?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Celtics make it 10 wins in a row… is what Boston is doing sustainable? Are they contenders? Wednesday, Boston coach Brad Stevens finally unleashed his ultimate offensive weapon — Aron Baynes. For the first 11 games of the season Stevens been using some misdirection, putting the ball in the hands of Kyrie Irving, and having him do dribble handoffs with Al Horford. But that was just the hors-d’oeuvre, Baynes is the meal. Wednesday night against the Lakers Stevens finally unleashed the fury that is Baynes.

Okay, maybe that is overstating it. Slightly. But Baynes had 21 points on 12 shots starting in place of Horford — who is in the league’s concussion protocol — as he overwhelmed the Lakers inside on Boston’s way to a fairly comfortable 107-96 win over rival Los Angeles.

That’s 10 wins in a row for Boston, and it lead’s to the question: Just how sustainable is this? We knew Boston would be good this season, but are they contenders right now, even without Gordon Hayward?

Yes, they are.

Making the Finals is a good definition of a contender and this season that is not some far-off dream in Boston, it’s reasonable.

Boston moves up to contender status because of their defense — the best in the NBA this young season. Just ask Lonzo Ball, who was rudely introduced to Marcus Smart Wednesday.

No, this Boston run is not sustainable in the “they are going 80-2 this season” kind of way — they have won 10 in a row against the 10th softest schedule in the league so far. Think of who they have beaten and there are a lot of rebuilding teams (Knicks, Kings, Sixers, Lakers, Hawks) and even when they get the Spurs they get them without Kawhi Leonard. There will be rough patches ahead. The Celtics have had role players playing over their heads a little  (see Baynes dropping 21), and while the young tandem of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum keep playing incredibly well, they will have peaks and valleys as well.

However, Boston is a real and legitimate threat to come out of the East. Kyrie Irving has bought into what Stevens preaches on offense, and more importantly has hustled more on defense than we have seen in years (he doesn’t die on nearly as many screens as he did in Cleveland). Horford and Irving have developed a fast on-court chemistry, and their two-man dribble handoff game is hard to stop. Role players like Smart and Marcus Morris can sustain what they are doing, and Stevens puts guys in great positions to succeed.

The shadow of LeBron James still looms over the East. While the Cavaliers have struggled early — and there are legitimate questions about how good their defense can be — LeBron has been to seven straight NBA Finals for a reason. He has other gears has not even thought about reaching yet (well, except when Bradley Beal and John Wall decided to piss him off before a game). Getting through the Cavaliers to the Finals will be a huge mountain to climb — you are going to have to knock out the champ, he’s not just handing over the belt.

However, that is a question for May. Right now the Celtics have won 10 in a row, they thumped their rival Lakers, and the Celtics are going to keep Bostonians warm through a long winter. This team is for real.

2) Detroit remains the team pushing Boston… is that sustainable? The Detroit Pistons are 8-3, and Andre Drummond is shooting 68.3 percent from the free throw line. Those two facts are a bigger surprise than what is happening in Bean Town, and after the Pistons handled the Pacers on Wednesday, it’s time to ask:

Is Detroit for real? Is this sustainable?

Define for real. The Pistons are currently on a 60-win pace, and that’s not happening. They are not a threat to Boston now or Cleveland whenever that team decides to wake up.

However, are the Pistons a playoff team? Absolutely. One that can make the second round? Let’s see what the matchups are and how teams are playing in April, but it’s not out of the question.

The Pistons are ninth in the NBA in both offensive and defensive rating to start the season, and while being top 10 in both may not hold up (the defense may falter, teams are shooting fairly well against them and getting to the line at a good clip; and the offense still takes more long mid-rangers than I like) this is a team we thought would take a step forward last season but never got on track thanks to the Reggie Jackson injury, which threw everything off. Now, they are back on that trajectory, and Avery Bradley has been a better version of KCP so far to help that cause. They get some easy buckets in transition now, and they have guys who can shoot the rock.

Detroit has been one of the bigger surprises of the young season, but this is no fluke. Andre Drummond is for real (and not just at the charity stripe), and so is Detroit in its new downtown building. Stan Van Gundy has things back on track in the motor city.

3) Kevin Durant sits, Warriors don’t even break stride. Just a reminder: The Golden State Warriors won an NBA title and then had a 73-win season BEFORE Kevin Durant arrived. As Jeff Van Gundy said after the game, take Durant off this team — as a thigh contusion did Wednesday — and they are still the title favorites.

Minnesota came into Oracle Arena on a five-game win streak and as the poster child for “team on the rise,” then for two and a half quarters the upstarts hung around with the champs. Then, sparked by Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson (with some help off the bench from Shaun Livingston and JaVale McGee) the Warriors went on an 18-4 run, pulled away, never looked back and went on to win 125-101.

That’s just what the Warriors do. To everyone. So enjoy highlights of Curry and Thompson going off and know that with the thematic question of the day on this post — is this team for real? — we were never asking it about Golden State.

Joel Embiid frustrated, wants more post touches, to play back-to-backs

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Joel Embiid remains a frustrated man.

He wants to be unleashed on the NBA, and he feels he’s being held back.

Part of that is not playing in back-to-backs — Embiid started Friday night against Boston but will sit out by plan Saturday night against the Raptors in Toronto. Embiid knows the plan to help protect a body that has played only 31 games in three seasons before this one and was not cleared for most of training camp, but that doesn’t mean he likes it, as he told Jessica Camerato of NBC Sports Philadelphia.

“I just want to feel like an NBA player,” Embiid said.  “I feel like I’m not an NBA player because I can’t play back-to-back.”

I get his frustration, but can you blame the Sixers for treating the guy like he’s made of glass at this point? Hopefully, later in the season, he can be cleared to play on both ends.

His second frustration came from the loss to the Celtics on Friday — he wants more post touches. In the video above he is clear, “I didn’t get the ball enough in the post.”

He’s right here. Embiid had three post-ups all game, one in each of the game’s first three quarters (stat via Synergy Sports). Embiid is efficient in the post — he has shot 9-of-12 on those plays overall this season and the Sixers score 1.33 points per possession when he does. That will work especially well against teams going small (for example, the Cavaliers with Kevin Love at the five), although Friday night Boston had big man Aron Baynes starting at center (in part because of Embiid, in part because Marcus Smart was out injured). Still, Embiid can score on Baynes.

Take a look at Embiid’s shot chart from Friday night.

Part of this is on him with all the threes, but they have to utilize him better. It’s part of the Sixers growing pains that will come this season.

Three Things to Know: Giannis Antetokounmpo spoils Boston home opener

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Every night in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, especially on this, the real opening night of the NBA with 22 teams in action. Every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA. Tonight, that includes a few historic numbers… good and bad.

1) Brad Stevens, Celtics have no answer on how to slow Giannis Antetokounmpo either. As a general rule of thumb, if you’re getting mentioned in the record books with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, you’re doing something very right. Monday night, the Greek Freak was rolling to the rim and finishing alley-oops over defenders, hitting floaters and leaners in the lane, and generally using his length to get any shot he wanted against the Celtics on his way to a 37-point, 13 rebound night in Boston. The only other Buck to have an opening night of at least 35 and 10? Yup, one Mr. Abdul-Jabbar.

Put a smaller defender on Antetokounmpo and he shoots right over them. Put a bigger defender on him and he goes around them — or just over them too. Brad Stevens tried a lot of things on defense, and while Al Horford had a little first-half success slowing him nobody did all game as he shot 59.1 percent on his way to dropping 37.

Notice all those shots are close to the rim. Antetokounmpo was a ridiculous 10-of-12 at the rim and 12-of-18 in the paint overall, but just 1-of-4 outside the key. It’s easy to say “make him a jump shooter” but good luck finding anyone who can stay in front of him, or that he can’t just finish over. The man was dunking over Aron Baynes, how do you get anyone much bigger in front of him?

Boston was up four points entering the fourth quarter when the second night of a back-to-back seemed to hit them, they scored just 20 points on 8-of-25 shooting in the final frame, 4-of-21 outside the restricted area. Meanwhile, Antetokounmpo went off for 16 in the fourth as he ramped up his aggressiveness and Brad Stevens and the Celtics had no answer. Marcus Smart was fiery and got into it with Matthew Dellavedova, that may have exemplified Boston’s spirit, but Celtics looked physically and emotionally worn down by the end. Hard to blame them.

Rough start to the season for Boston, who lost Gordon Hayward just minutes into the opener (he’s out for the season), they fell to the Celtics Tuesday night and now are off to an 0-2 start. They will bounce back, but just now how the team with all these new players thought things would start.

2) Jeremy Lin injures knee and there is “tremendous” concern it is serious. Midway through the fourth quarter against the Pacers, Jeremy Lin drove the lane and finished a layup at the rim that looked ordinary — except when he landed he went to the ground grabbing his knee and did not get back up.

This isn’t good. Neither were the reports during and after the play.

Brooklyn was counting on Lin to help stabilize the point guard position and the backcourt with D'Angelo Russell (who had 30 on the night in a losing effort). If Lin is done for all or most of the season, it’s a huge setback for a team that, while bad, was expected to be a little better than in previous seasons. Remember, the Cavaliers have Brooklyn’s first-round pick this season unprotected (part of the Kyrie Irving trade from Boston).

• While we’re on the injury front, Boston’s Gordon Hayward underwent surgery on his dislocated ankle and fractured tibia on Wednesday, and according to his agent he is “unlikely” to return this season. Hayward did send a video message to Celtics fans thanking them. Boston will try to move on, but it’s been a difficult and emotional start to the season for the Celtics.

3) Suns’ season opening performance wasn’t just bad, it was the worst ever. The record for worst opening night loss in NBA history belonged to the 1987 Los Angeles Clippers coached by Gene Shue, who were blown out by Denver by 46 points.

No more. That record now belongs to the Phoenix Suns, who fell at home to the Portland Trail Blazers 124-76 — a 48 point loss. The Suns shot 31.5 percent as a team — Devin Booker was 6-of-17 and didn’t hit a three, Eric Bledsoe was sloppy and reckless all night and finished 5-of-18 with five turnovers and three assists, while Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss combined to go 1-of-10 off the bench. The Phoenix offense was about as in synch as the left shark, and many possessions ended with a terrible shot being jacked up because, well, somebody had to shoot it.

I’d like to say this was a good omen for the Trail Blazers’ defense, but really it’s impossible to judge how good it was against this offense. It was still a win the Blazers will gladly take, Damian Lillard had 24 points while Pat Connaughton came off the bench for 22.

Gordon Hayward’s agent says return this season unlikely

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Wednesday night in Boston Gordon Hayward underwent surgery to repair his dislocated ankle and fractured tibia suffered just five minutes into the season-opening game, a gruesome injury that put a pall over the rest of the night.

There had been hope from some Celtics fans that Hayward could return this season, likely for the playoffs, but now that the surgery is complete Hayward’s agent told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN not to expect him back until next season.

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who saw the injury. Hayward is in the first year of a four-year deal with the Celtics, they were always going to choose a cautious path rather than rush him back. Under Danny Ainge Boston has always taken the long view, even with all their moves this summer — specifically bringing in Hayward and Kyrie Irving — the target was to be the team set up for next as LeBron James and the Cavaliers faded. That plan does not change now.

Earlier in the day, Hayward had sent a video message out to Celtics fans thanking them for their support in the past 24 hours.

Without Hayward, the Celtics now will focus more on smaller lineups, rookie Jayson Tatum will get more run, as will Marcus Smart in his contract year. Jaylen Brown will be thrust into a more significant role. Also, Kyrie Irving will be asked to do more as the team’s second-best playmaker is now out for the season.

The Celtics will take a step back this season without Hayward, who was going to be crucial for them on both ends of the floor. That’s evidenced by their 0-2 start, falling to the Cavaliers and Bucks on the first couple nights of the season. Boston should still be a team well above .500 and in the playoffs, but they will not be quite the same this season.