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Three Things to Know: Celtics project confidence after fourth straight loss… should they?

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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 continue to project confidence as defense falls apart weeks before playoffs. The Boston Celtics have eight games left before the playoffs begin — playoffs that almost certainly will start on the road in Indiana. This is when Boston should be building momentum and confidence for a deep playoff run…

The Boston Celtics have lost four games in a row. In that stretch their defense is fourth worst in the NBA, clustered around Memphis and Washington and other teams missing the postseason. In their last 10 games, their defense is bottom 10 in the NBA.

So much for building momentum.

Yet even after LaMarcus Aldridge dropped 48 on them and the Spurs beat the shorthanded Celtics (no Al Horford or Jayson Tatum) on Sunday, Boston was projecting confidence. Marcus Smart, Kyrie Irving, and Brad Stevens all were. (Via A. Sherrod Blakely of NBC Sports Boston).

“I know we’ve been here plenty of times before saying the exact same thing — ‘We’re gonna get it, we’re not worried about it’ — but we can’t put extra extra extra stress and more weight on ourselves,” Smart said… “”We got to take a deep breath, breathe, just relax — and then go out there and have fun and play basketball.”

“I never worry about how we’ll respond,” said Irving. “We’ve proven that. We just have to be consistent with that and be committed to it, that’s all. We have a lot of great guys in this locker room and they are committed to winning. We have winners in this locker room as well, so I’m never worried about trying to go back and respond with these guys. They are a resilient group who have proven that for the last year and a half we’ve been together.”

“I don’t think we’ve given any reason to suggest that [Boston can figure it out] right now,” said Stevens “But I think, ultimately, we’ll see how the rest of this story plays itself out.”

It’s better the Celtics are confident than panicking… but if Celtics fans wanted to panic, I wouldn’t blame them.

When Boston made it’s unexpected run to the Eastern Conference Finals last season (despite no Irving or Gordon Hayward) it was on the back of an elite defense. Tatum and Terry Rozier got deserved credit for stepping up and taking on the offensive load, but what kept the Celtics going through all of that was a defense that could slow any team down, anchored by Al Horford playing elite ball in the paint. That was the foundation of their success. It should have been again this season.

Now, that Celtics foundation seems built on sand. Boston was up 18 on Charlotte with less than nine minutes to go Saturday then gave up 30 more points the rest of the way and lost. The Celtics’ four straight losses are to three playoff teams and a Hornets team playing with the desperation of a team trying to hang on to its playoff hopes (keep reading down to item No. 2). Give those teams credit —  and give

the Spurs credit for doing what they do and executing the game plan, and for LaMarcus Aldridge for just going off.

I can envision a scenario where Boston, playing a shorthanded Pacers team in the first round, gets pushed six or seven games but starts to find its groove and by the end is playing with the confidence and teamwork we saw last season. Those kinds of leaps can happen in the playoffs. Then the Celtics bring that increased level of play up against a Bucks team without that playoff experience (and maybe without Malcolm Brogdon) and suddenly Boston is dominating like the team we expected preseason. That absolutely could happen.

But watch the Celtics the past week or so and it’s hard to envision that scenario. We’re 74 games into the season and it feels a little late for “We’re gonna get it, we’re not worried about it.”

2) Charlotte will not let its playoff dreams die, even if it takes a Jeremy Lamb prayer to keep them alive. Saturday night the Hornets came from 18 points down to the Celtics to stay within two games of the Miami Heat and the playoffs.

Then on Sunday, Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard looked like the closer the Raptors need him to be. Toronto was down 13 midway through fourth but went on 18-3 run to take lead, with Pascal Siakam (10 points in fourth) making plays Leonard hitting the shots when it mattered, including the apparent game-winner.

Then Jeremy Lamb did this from 48 feet.

Unreal. Siakam even made a good defensive play to tip the ball into the backcourt.

Watch Kemba Walker’s reaction in the last angle of that video — he had popped out from the far side and the hope was likely he would get the ball, but he was well defended. When Lamb took his shot Walker turns his back and throws down his arms in disgust. That was never going to go in… until it did.

Charlotte is still two games back of Brooklyn and Miami, who are tied for the 7/8 seeds in the East, and fivethirtyeight.com gives the Hornets just a 14 percent chance of making the playoffs. It’s still a longshot. But so was Lamb’s shot. Sometimes desperation heaves work out.

3) LeBron James drops triple-double, “I will not cheat the game.” The Lakers are out of the playoffs. There is more interest in who will coach the team next season (and who will be on the roster) than there is in the remaining games. For the sixth straight year, the Lakers are just playing out the string.

That didn’t stop LeBron from dropping a 29-11-11 triple-double on the Suns in a Lakers’ win Sunday night (Kyle Kuzma had 29, too).

LeBron is not going to cheat the game. He would never anger the game gods like that.

 

Is Gordon Hayward getting favorable treatment because of his popularity with some fans?

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The Celtics have so many talented players.

Yet, they started Gordon Hayward – whose play clearly didn’t merit it – his first 15 games this season.

Boston went just 8-7 during those games. Its main starting lineup – Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford – scored only 91.1 points and got outscored by 3.9 points per 100 possessions during that span.

Why were the Celtics so invested in Hayward?

Several reasons:

He’s earning $31,214,295 this season and is due $66,887,775 the next two years. He was going to factor significantly into the team’s roster construction, regardless. There was plenty of financial pressure to get Hayward on track.

Hayward suffered a season-ending injury in Boston’s first game last season. He didn’t get healthy until shortly before the season. Hayward reaching full speed was always likely to require a rocky transition into game play at some point.

Celtics coach Brad Stevens coached Hayward at Butler. It always helps to have the coach so personally believe in you.

Stephen A. Smith of ESPN:

And then there’s the element of Boston, Massachusetts. They don’t just want a star. Of course, they’ll take any star that they can get, because their priority is winning. But everybody and their mother knows that particularly when it comes to Boston, if we can have a white superstar, that would be even better. And they view Gordon Hayward as having that kind of potential.

So, all of those things considered, the players recognize this, were aware of this. And ultimately those who were compromised by having to be on a court with Gordon Hayward were sensitive to it.

Not because they don’t like him. Not because he’s not a good guy, because he is a good guy. It’s just that they know he hasn’t fully recovered 100 percent from his injury. So, he’s not the same as he used to be. They know he’s going to be a step slower. They know he’s going to be compromised. I have spoken to people in the league who literally have said, “Look man, no disrespect to Gordon Hayward, nice guy, but he’s really, really compromised right now. He’s not the same guy that he was.” And they said, “We actually kind of feel sorry for him, because he is a nice guy, and we know he’s trying to come back from injury.”

Are there Celtics fans who’d prefer a white star? Yes.

Has that thinking trickled into the team’s actual decision-making? I don’t know.

Are Celtics players sensitive to all of this? Apparently so, according to Smith.

Boston has earned a reputation for its racism. That doesn’t make everyone in Boston racist. That doesn’t make anyone in the Celtics racist. That doesn’t make Boston the only city with racism. But there is a perception, and sometimes perception itself matters.

Discussion of race and the Celtics intensified two years ago, when Boston fans cheered Hayward, who was then visiting with the Jazz. Jae Crowder, who’s black and was the Celtics’ starting small forward at the time, took exception. Did Boston fans support Hayward over Crowder because of race?

Celtics fans also also cheered visiting black players, Kevin Durant the year before and Anthony Davis this season. Durant and Davis are significantly better than Hayward. On the other hand, Durant (2016), Hayward (2017) and Davis (2019) each looked like the best player Boston could realistically acquire each of those summers.

There are no clear motives here. Not every fan cheering for Hayward did so because he’s white. Even the fans who prefer their team has a white star rarely admit it, including to themselves.

But this is where perception matters. If Celtics players believe Hayward gets special consideration because he’s white, whether or not he actually does, that would lead to problems with togetherness, supportiveness, attitude and environment – all issues Boston players have said the team has faced this year.

Kyrie Irving has taken the most blame. His leadership, impending free agency and general attitude have all made waves.

But it doesn’t have to be only one thing. Whatever is happening with Irving, the situation around Hayward could also be causing resentment.

There are plenty of good reasons to lean on Hayward – his contract, his upside as he gets healthier. More than with any other player, the Celtics have played best when Hayward is playing well. It’ll be difficult for Boston to reach its goals without Hayward clicking.

He and the Celtics have played better lately. The micro problem could be solving itself – at least one micro problem.

Like most things, Boston’s issues are likely complex.

Three Things to Know: LeBron James passes idol Michael Jordan on all-time scoring list

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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) LeBron James passes childhood idol Michael Jordan on the all-time scoring list. “[Michael Jordan] is somebody I looked up to and always believed was the greatest. It’s pretty cool. I have no idea how I’ve been able to do it.”

That was LeBron James during All-Star weekend. On Thursday night, he did it — LeBron James passed Michael Jordan to become fourth on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.

At the next timeout (as mandated by the league), LeBron was celebrated for his accomplishment with a video tribute.

It was an emotional moment for LeBron, who all but said 12-year-old him would not believe where he is now.

LeBron, at age 34, is not done, he has several more years of high-level basketball in him. If LeBron can stay healthy, he likely moves past Kobe Bryant into third on the scoring list next season. Jordan averaged more points per game than LeBron — career averages of 30.1 points per game to 27.1 — but LeBron has played more games. Longevity is part of it — that’s why Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is on top of this list, because at age 40 he was averaging 14.6 points per game (starting on a championship team).

The GOAT conversation is a fun bar stool argument that we’re not going to get into, but here is the thing that shows why these two have to be part of the conversation — they are 1-2 all-time in player efficiency rating (PER). We can pick apart the flaws of Hollinger’s stat, but it’s a good offensive snapshot of a player and these two are the tops ever. Jordan was the better scorer, LeBron the better passer and playmaker.

In what has been one of LeBron’s roughest seasons (the Lakers fell to the Nuggets on Wednesday and are now five games below .500) this is a reminder he belongs on the league’s Mount Rushmore, and he is in the GOAT conversation. LeBron is an all-time great. Nothing is ever going to take that away from him.

2) While nobody’s been watching, the Bulls have become good, beat Sixers on Zach LaVine game-winner. Early in the season, the Bulls were a mess. Chicago went 3-12 in November being outscored by 9.6 points per 100 possessions (second worst in the NBA), with an offense scoring less than a point per possession. December wasn’t much better (-8.4 net rating).

Things slowly started to change. The most significant difference was Lauri Markkanen got healthy and returned to action. Zach LaVine scored at a high rate all season but he started to become efficient. Fred Hoiberg was out as coach after going 5-19, Jim Boylen was in. The Bulls traded for Otto Porter at the deadline to give them another athletic wing.

The Bulls are a good team now — 8-7 in their last 15 games with a +1 net rating. It’s the kind of massive improvement in a season young teams hope to see, it provides hope for the future.

But the Bulls can win now, too. Just ask the Sixers, a team that needs wins because they are in the middle of a playoff seedings chase (they and Boston don’t want to finish 4/5 and face off in the first round). Jimmy Butler put Philadelphia up by a point with two free throws with 4.8 seconds left, but then Zach LaVine capped his 39 points on the night with this.

That was some bad defense by Philly — how much do they miss Joel Embiid in the middle? He was out a seventh straight game resting a sore knee, he hasn’t played since those 21 minutes in the All-Star Game.

The Bulls got the win — after they re-played the final 0.5 seconds a couple of times, the second one without Porter. The Bulls aren’t making the playoffs this year, in fact they will be drafting high again thanks to those first few months. But they are a solid team right now and there is genuine reason to feel warm about the Bulls during this cold Chicago winter.

3) Gordon Hayward gets redemption in game-winner to beat Kings. Boston was set up to lose: Second night of a back-to-back against the fastest pace team in the NBA in Sacramento, and Kyrie Irving was out with a bruised thigh.

Hayward almost blew it for the Celtics, who were up three late after a couple of Jayson Tatum free throws. Then on the next play Hayward fouled Buddy Hield on a three-point attempt and a trio of free throws later, the game was tied.

Then Hayward saved the day.

The question after Boston’s impressive win in Golden State was can they build on it? Just one game, but so far so good.

BONUS THING TO KNOW: Miami moves into eight seed in East with a win against Charlotte. Can they hold it? There’s a real battle to make the playoffs at the bottom of the East, with three teams — Miami, Charlotte, and Orlando — all within a game of each other for the final playoff slot. Only one gets an invitation to the dance.

After Wednesday night, the Heat are in front. Kelly Olynyk dropped 22 points and grabbed 11 rebounds as Miami went into Charlotte and won. Miami, at 30-34, is a game ahead of Orlando (30-36) and Charlotte (29-35).

Who is going to win the race? My money is on Orlando, simply because they have a much easier schedule the rest of the way and have been playing well of late. But it’s wide open, and another factor is Brooklyn is the seven seed, 3.5 games up on Orlando/Charlotte, but the Nets have a very difficult schedule down the stretch. They could come back to the pack.

Danny Ainge: Brad Stevens deserves least blame ‘by far’ for Celtics’ problems

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The Celtics are reeling. They’ve gone 1-5 since the All-Star break and face chemistry issues.

How much blame does Boston coach Brad Stevens deserve for the team’s struggles?

Celtics president Danny Ainge on 98.5 The Sports Hub, as transcribed by Darren Hartwell of NBC Sports Boston:

“There’s blame to share for everybody, but I will say this: He’s the least, by far, of anybody that there is to blame,” Ainge said of Stevens.

“Because I know that Brad is going to be prepared, and I know that Brad is putting in the work to do whatever he can to try to help this team and fix this team. So, that is the very bottom of the rung.”

“I know that he takes more responsibility than anybody, in my opinion, as to the success and lack of success,” Ainge added. “He takes ownership in the things he needs to do better.

“Anyway, he’s the least of all the problems that we have on our team right now.”

Ainge could have easily left it at, “There’s blame to share for everybody.” His strong support for Stevens seems like a message to Celtics players to get in line behind the coach.

I wonder how that goes over in the locker room.

Stevens remains a highly respected coach. He did an excellent job in Boston the previous four years.

But, at Butler and with the Celtics previously, he has largely succeeded by overachieving with moderate talent. He develops strong equalitarian-leaning game plans, communicates them well and gets his players to buy in.

The challenge in Boston this year is different.

The Celtics are loaded with at least theoretical talent. Kyrie Irving is a star. Gordon Hayward was a star before he got hurt. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier played big roles on a team that reached the conference finals without Irving and Hayward last year then have had to take backseats this year. Al Horford and Marcus Smart can’t be ignored, and the way he played until lately, neither could Marcus Morris.

Irving’s leadership has been turbulent. His impending free agency casts a cloud over everything. Rozier and Morris are also in contract years.

It’s a lot for a coach to manage. Stevens not totally flourishing in this situation is not necessarily an indictment of him. This is new ground for him, and he can learn on the job.

But it does seem Stevens must coach better for Boston to realize its potential.

Jayson Tatum: ‘I know I’m going to be an All-Star’

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Boston’s Jayson Tatum doesn’t lack for confidence.

Averaging 16.4 points and 6.3 rebounds a game — while trying to get his touches in conjunction with Kyrie Irving and a crowded rotation of guys who want the rock — he struggled to find his place more early in the season but has looked more comfortable and aggressive of late. He’s ready to help Boston make its playoff push.

Next year, Tatum believes he will be an All-Star, he told Shams Charania of The Athletic.

“I know I’m going to be an All-Star,” Tatum told The Athletic. “It wasn’t this year, so it will be next year. There are definitely certain guys that are able to achieve things at faster rates than others, and I know I can be one of them. Nobody puts higher expectations on me than myself.”

Tatum unquestionably has All-Star potential — it’s why he became a talking point in the Anthony Davis trade talks (even though the Celtics cannot make a trade before July 1). Sources told me the Pelicans simply were not high on the young Lakers being offered back to them (various combinations of Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram) and didn’t see a sure All-Star in the group, but they see that in Tatum.

It leads to the question if Tatum becomes an All-Star, whose jersey will he be wearing when it happens?

“I’ll play basketball anywhere,” Tatum told The Athletic. “I’ll play for whoever wants me. That’s my job. I know I can’t control any of that stuff, so I’m not going to lose sleep over it. Trade talk doesn’t bother me.

“I’ll play for anyone.”

The Celtics told the Pelicans before the deadline that “everyone was available” this summer, and there is little chance the Pelicans would make a trade with Boston that didn’t involve Tatum. That said there are a lot of moving parts — and a lot of basketball to play, including the postseason — before any deals get done.

Just know wherever he is playing next season, Tatum has set the bar high.