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Celtics spoiled with depth. Too much?

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The Celtics return eight players who started during a playoff run that ended one game from the NBA Finals.

Boston also has two other players who might be better than those eight.

Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward will join Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown, Aron Baynes, Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris and Semi Ojeleye on the court this season. It’s an embarrassment of riches.

It’s also a stacked roster that exists at the same time as the Warriors, arguably the greatest team of all-time. So, Boston will still have major external barriers.

But the Celtics’ initial challenges will come from within as they try to balance all this talent. How will they manage?

Coach Brad Stevens is already sending his message: This is a special team capable of winning big if everyone sacrifices, and these opportunities don’t come around often. Stevens is an excellent communicator and has repeatedly gotten his players to embrace their roles. The expectation should be a continuation this year.

Perhaps no player has set a better tone than Rozier. Starting for an injured Irving in last year’s playoffs, Rozier wowed. He looked every bit like the starting point guard he hopes to become. But Rozier has consistently said he has no problem returning to the bench behind Irving.

This is also a contract year for Rozier (unless he signs an extension before the season). He has been stuck on a relatively low-paying rookie-scale deal and this will be his chance to earn set-for-life money.

If he can buy in, why can’t everyone else?

There are plenty of Celtics with big reputations considering their standing in the league. Boston put a league-high seven players in ESPN’s ranking of the NBA’s top 100 players. Per #NBArank, the Celtics have the NBA’s second-best third-best player (Horford), second-best fourth-best player (Brown), best fifth-best player (Hayward), best sixth-best player (Smart) and best seventh-best player (Rozier).

Here’s how the top 100 is represented by rank within each team – teams’ best players in the first column, teams second-best players in the second column, etc.:

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Quibble with the exact rankings. But the overall picture is clear: The Celtics are loaded.

And Boston has three extra first-round picks, likely including the Kings’ this season (top-one protected). The Celtics aren’t just in great shape now. They’re poised for a long run of success.

But personal agendas sometimes derail teams headed for greatness. Rozier and Morris are playing for new contracts, though at least they might be the only ones in the rotation. Irving is practically guaranteed the max next summer no matter how he performs this year. Horford and Baynes have relatively lucrative player options to fall back on. There are fewer potential pitfalls here than usual.

The best thing Boston can do to keep everyone on track is win. Many players across the league feel as if their role isn’t large enough. The ones on winning teams usually keep quiet (enough) about it. How can they complain when the overall plan is working? They typically understand it won’t go over well. It’s players on underwhelming teams who grumble more.

Essentially, these things snowball.

And the Celtics have been snowballing toward greatness for a while. They could hit a snag, but the avalanche is building and coming for the rest of the league.

Rumor: Celtics, Jamal Crawford have mutual interest

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The Boston Celtics have 15 guaranteed contracts on the roster, the most they can carry into the season. They also have pretty good depth on the wing: Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward will start at the 2/3 spots, with Marcus Smart and Semi Ojeleye behind them. The Celtics are not really looking to add a wing. Plus, Crawford was frustrated with his role last season in Minnesota getting almost 21 minutes a night and having the ball in his hands a lot, that’s not necessarily a fit with Boston’s selfless style.

But a good rumor never lets facts get in the way — like Jamal Crawford to the Celtics.

The Athletic’s Jared Weiss, talking on the Celtics Beat podcast with Adam Kaufman, said there is “mutual interest” between the sides (hat tip to NBC Sports Boston).

“There is mutual interest between the Celtics and Crawford. That I do know. The Celtics didn’t make an offer to him. He’s been kind of waiting for the right situation to materialize. That’s why he’s holding out to training camp, basically. He wants to be in a position to win a championship. He wants to sign on with one of these title teams.” 

Is Crawford really a fit for the Celtics? While he is 38, and his skills and his efficiency have slipped in recent years, he still averaged 10.3 points per game last season in Minnesota. While he is a three-time Sixth Man of the Year (most recently in 2016), he is more of a volume scorer who creates his own shots and is not much of a defender. Is that what Brad Stevens and the Celtics would want? Crawford certainly can still carry a team for a five-minute stretch off the bench some nights, but is it a good fit in Boston?

Depends on how the Celtics’ bench is doing. My guess is we will be well into training camp if not into the season before a team comes calling for Crawford — but a good team will come calling. He has value, he can still get buckets. Maybe the Celtics will need that, but another team could have that need first.

Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell receive, Jayson Tatum one vote shy of, unanimous All-Rookie first-team selections

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The 76ers’ Ben Simmons, Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell, Celtics’ Jayson Tatum and Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma were locks for the All-Rookie first team.

The final seemingly up-for-grabs spot? It went to the Bulls’ Lauri Markkanen, and it wasn’t close.

Here’s the full voting for All-Rookie teams (first-team votes, second-team votes, total voting points):

First team

  • Donovan Mitchell, UTA (100-0-200)
  • Ben Simmons, PHI (100-0-200)
  • Jayson Tatum, BOS (99-1-199)
  • Kyle Kuzma, LAL (93-7-193)
  • Lauri Markkanen, CHI (76-21-173)

Second team

Others receiving votes:

The first team matches our choices.

Dennis Smith Jr. and Josh Jackson are the only selections I’d quibble with. Those two were just so destructive with shooting efficiency and defense. To be fair, they were pressed into larger roles than they were ready for on bad teams. But if the goal is picking the rookies who had the best seasons (what I aim to do), Smith and Jackson didn’t cut it.

However, some voters give more credence to long-term potential, and Smith and Jackson both have plenty of that. Other voters are drawn by bigger per-game numbers, which Smith and Jackson produced in their larger roles. So, it’s minimally surprising they made it.

That one first-team vote for Jackson, though? That’s odd – and it was enough to get him on the second team by one voting point over Heat center Bam Adebayo.

Boston Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers preview: Three things to watch

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Before the season tipped off, this is the Eastern Conference Finals we expected. However, the path to get here was nothing like we envisioned. Gordon Hayward out. Kyrie Irving out. Cleveland radically shaking up its roster at the trade deadline.

Yet in the end, here we are — a repeat of last year’s conference finals that the Cavaliers won. They are the favorites again, but this series is not going to be a sweep like the round before, the Celtics are disciplined and playing at a higher level than anyone the Cavs have seen this postseason. Boston has a shot to win this.

Here are three things to watch in this series.

1) Can the Celtics wear down LeBron James with multiple fresh defenders? The question isn’t “who is guarding LeBron?” but rather “how many guys will be guarding LeBron?” The Celtics have a wealth of defenders who will get their turn on The King: Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris, Jayson Tatum (in very limited stints), Semi Ojeleye (off the bench), heck I wouldn’t be surprised to see Brad Stevens ask Dave Cowens if he can still give them 10 good minutes. The idea is to keep fresh bodies on LeBron and hope that he wears down just a little having to work harder to get his shots.

The bigger question is how will the Celtics choose to defend LeBron? In the last two series, Boston was willing to largely single cover the opposing team’s star and let him rack up points — Giannis Antetokounmpo then Joel Embiid — but then stay home on the shooters and the rest of the players. It’s a good plan, one the Raptors tried to employ last round — rookie OG Anunoby did a respectable job on LeBron (as much as can be expected) but the Raptors did not silence Kevin Love, Kyle Korver, or J.R. Smith. If Boston goes with this system they will face a serious challenge because LeBron is both a high IQ player and a gifted passer. However, Boston is a far more disciplined defense that is far more switchable, has far more mobile big men, and doesn’t make the mistakes that Toronto (and before them Indiana did). Boston is going to follow the standard book to a degree and try to turn LeBron into a jumpshooter. LeBron is going to have to carry an even bigger load this series. He’s also fully capable of that.

2) Will a season of bad defensive habits from the Cavaliers catch up with them? No need to rehash how the Celtics were 29th in the NBA in defense during the regular season, but if you think they have been much better in the playoffs, think again: Cleveland allowed 109.5 points per 100 possessions during the regular season, it has been 108.4 per 100 in the playoffs (10th out of the 16 teams). Cleveland’s defensive effort has been better, as it will be in this series, but their communication and recognition have not been sharp.

That’s something Boston can exploit because this is not a team where the defense can just target one guy (Victor Oladipo) or even two (Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan). The Celtics get their buckets out of their system and trust all five guys on the floor to make the right pass, the right cut, and when the time comes take the shot.

Boston makes a defense work for the entire 24 seconds, Cleveland has not been good at second and third defensive efforts. Cavaliers’ defenders can get twisted around on pick-and-rolls, and particularly dribble handoffs (which the Celtics run a lot of). All of which is to say Boston is going to rack up points in this series. The challenge will be getting stops against that Cavalier offense on the other end.

3) How will Cleveland primarily defend Al Horford, with Kevin Love or Tristan Thompson? The answer to this question is less about Horford and more about Tyronn Lue’s philosophy for the series, is he thinking offensively or defensively? We’ll find out quickly with how he chooses to start the game against Boston. In the previous series against Toronto, Kevin Love started at the five and it was a huge advantage for Cleveland on offense because it pulled Jonas Valanciunas away from the basket and forced him to defend in space, something he struggled with (and JV couldn’t make Love pay on defense). However, in the first round against the Pacers, Thompson and his defensive presence in the paint — and on the offensive glass — proved to be important for Cleveland.

Boston brings Horford to the table — he is comfortable protecting the rim and playing inside, plus he can step out and defend on the perimeter. Love and Korver’s corner action is not going to flummox Horford like it did JV and the Raptors, he will sniff it out and make plays.

On the other end, something to watch: Boston may try to run a lot of pick-and-rolls with Horford setting the screen for LeBron’s man (or, if LeBron is on Jaylen Brown as he was often during the season, Brown sets the screen) just to force LeBron to switch and be active on defense. Yes that means pulling Cleveland’s best defender into the play, but it also makes LeBron work on defense, where mostly the Cavs try to hide him and let him rest until key moments of the game. This is part of the “wear him ou”t strategy from above.

Three Things to Know: Karl-Anthony Towns goes off, Joel Embiid goes out

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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) Karl-Anthony Towns drops 56, now owns Timberwolves record for most points in a single game. Before tonight if you had asked me “who owns the record for most points in a single Timberwolves game?” I would have guessed Kevin Garnett. When told I was wrong, I would have switched to Stephon Marbury. Would not have remembered it was Mo Williams, who did it just a few years ago.

Was. As in past tense — the record belongs to Karl-Anthony Towns, who dropped 56 on the hapless Hawks.

Towns and the Timberwolves had a “we’re not going to repeat that Memphis game” attitude in this one from the start, which helped. It also helped that for the first three quarters the Hawks did not double-team KAT to get the ball out of his hands, which allowed him to go to work and be efficient, including hitting 6-of-8 from three. Atlanta did double him in the fourth, and he showed off his improved passing skills out of the double, and was still was able to go on a personal 5-0 run in the final 4:30 to salt the game away.

The Timberwolves need more games like this from Towns secure a playoff seeding they want (and they need more defense, they won in spite of letting the Hawks put up at least 28 in every quarter and have an offensive rating of 110.6).

With this win and the Utah loss (keep reading, we’re getting to it) the Timberwolves move into the seven seed, half a game ahead of the Jazz (and the teams are tied in the loss s column), with the Clippers looming one game back.

2) Joel Embiid goes down with injury to his face… and now the waiting commences. It was supposed to be a simple dribble-handoff, but as Joel Embiid fumbled the ball and lean forward his face collided with the cutting Markelle Fultz and the result was not pretty.

While Embiid was tested and did not show signs of a concussion (at least yet, those can come on later), and reportedly the team took X-rays and they were negative. Both of which are very good signs. However, there could be a number of other issues, so was he telling the truth or trolling with this (now removed) Instagram post?

The Sixers hung on to beat the hapless Knicks without Embiid, but they will not keep this up. On the season, the Sixers get outscored by 3.9 points per 100 possessions when Embiid sits — that’s Knicks/Mavericks territory for the season. Philly will hold on to their playoff spot, but their dreams of home court advantage would fade fast without Embiid on the court.

3) Celtics’ Jaylen Brown’s drains game-winner to beat Jazz. Kyrie who? The Boston Celtics have won five in a row without Kyrie Irving, and that includes beating Portland, Oklahoma City, and you can now add the Utah Jazz to the list.

There was no Marcus Morris and Al Horford for the Celtics on Wednesday, instead it was Jayson Tatum and Aron Baynes and even Semi Ojeleye off the bench keeping them in it. However, in the fourth it was Terry Rozier who stepped up and who got Boston the chance with 11 points, then with the game on the line the ball moved and found Jaylen Brown for a clean look to get his 21st point and win it all. Bang.

The loss leaves Utah the eighth seed in the West, just one game up on the Clippers (who beat the tanktastic Suns Wednesday). The Jazz and Suns face off next Thursday (April 5), but the Jazz need to find wins before that (two of their next three are the Grizzlies and feisty Lakers, Utah needs those).