After jumping out of the gate with a pleasantly surprising 2-1 start to a six-game west coast road trip, the Celtics went just 1-3 against Western Conference opponents this week.
Boston gave the NBA's best all they could handle at ORACLE Arena on Sunday night, but fell short 114-111 despite a strong push down the stretch of the game. The Celtics outscored Golden State 34-25 in the fourth quarter, but it didn't help that they gave up 30+ points in each of the first and third quarters (deja vu).
The Warriors are on another level right now, but Brad Stevens' troops can hold their head up high in regards to how they held their ground in a legitimate contender's building. Jared Sullinger lead the charge going toe to toe with a physical front line, and he responded well with a team high 26 points and nine boards. Especially in the second half, Sully did an excellent job making his presence felt in the paint and he made a lot of tough plays in heavy traffic in key moments. The big fella can do a lot of damage inside and out; I'm enjoying how much more often he is being featured underneath the free throw line.
In addition to that, Evan Turner put together one of his better games of the season when the team needed him most, as Marcus Smart missed the game while he tended to a death in a family. Turner had some extra bounce in his step against the league's top backcourt, attacking often off the dribble and making a lot of good things happen in pick n' roll situations. His 19 points, seven rebounds and seven assists didn't hurt my fantasy team, either.
A loss is a loss at the end of the day, but it was a lot of fun watching the Celtics battle in this one.
The very next night, Boston closed out their fifth back-to-back set of the month in Salt Lake City against coach Stevens' former pupil Gordan Hayward and the Jazz. Some have questioned whether or not Hayward is worth the max contract he signed a year ago, but he earned his money in this one with 26 points, six boards, 12 trips to the free throw line and a 4-5 shooting clip from beyond the arc against his old coach. Enes Kanter was a heavy load for the Celtics to handle, as well, and he did some damage in the paint with 20 of his own.
Those two were especially a problem in the third frame, where Utah outscored the Celtics 35-16 in response to Boston's dominant 34-14 second quarter. However, the Celtics came together as a unit and closed the game out with far superior intensity than their opponents.
Avery Bradley, Jared Sullinger and Evan Turner shot a combined 10-29 in the game, but the Boston bench brigade was firing from all cylinders and were ultimately the difference in the game. Tayshaun Prince contributed one of the best "just let the game come to you" performances you'll see from a Celtic this season, moving the ball well and scoring 19 points within the flow of the offense on an efficient 7-10 shooting clip. Tyler Zeller picked up the slack up front with 14 points and seven boards while Marcus and Marcus came in and changed the game with their ball pressure (guess which one) and momentum-crushing pull-up jumpers (guess which one).
The entire second unit shot the ball well, provided a much-needed energy jolt and drastically improved the offense's overall flow/ball movement. Some of it was shots falling (the bench) vs. shots not falling (the starters), but the reserves really moved the ball with a purpose and knocked down good shots.
I could say a lot of similar things about the starters vs. the bench in regards to Wednesday night's matchup in Minnesota. Marcus and Marcus shot the ball well to combine for 27 points, while Smart added six assists in another solid all-around performance at the one. Of course, five of his seven shots were threes, but he buried four of them so we'll take it. Tayshaun Prince (12 points) did what Tayshaun Prince does, Tyler Zeller grabbed nine rebounds and the bench only turned the ball over five times.
Additionally similar to Monday's meeting in Utah, Avery Bradley struggled from the field (5-15 FG, 1-7 3PT) and the Celtics frontcourt had a difficult time against bigger and longer opponents. However, the difference is that Boston fell into their own little mental trap of settling for too many jumpers at the Target Center, and it came back to bite them as the Timberwolves gobbled up 39 defensive rebounds and made the most of their physical advantages. Each side scored 46 points in the paint, which hovers around the vicinity of the league average, but the C's weren't nearly as physical on Wednesday night. In fact, they shot just nine free throws all game while Minnesota was clearly the more aggressive team off of penetration, as their 28-32 free throw clip tells you.
The Celtics and Timberwolves each had seven players reach double-figure scoring, which is more likely when neither team has a bona fide superstar but still impressive. With that said, when your opponent is longer and more athletic than you, there's no way you can let them outwork you too. Unfortunately, that happened on Wednesday night and the Wolves enjoyed their eighth victory of the season as a result.
Boston got off to a hot 2-1 start to their six-game west coast swing, but couldn't close it out quite as strongly as they would have liked as they finished the trip 2-4.
After two weeks on the road, the Celtics returned home to the Garden on Friday night as they hosted another formidable Western Conference club in the shorthanded, yet still dangerous, Houston Rockets. Dwight Howard sat out as he nurses a sore right knee, but the green and white still had a full plate in front of them and little did they know, Donatas Motiejunas was about to feast! The third-year seven-foot Lithuanian showed it all and made plays off of both shoulders, displayed his range out to three-point territory and methodically killed whatever the Boston defense threw at him in different areas on the floor.
Houston more or less dominated the first half as they headed into intermission feeling pretty good about themselves with an 18-point halftime cushion.
I don't know what Brad Stevens said in the locker room, but somebody or something ignited the fire in the bellies of the Celtics as they prepared for the second half. Boston not only increased their intensity, they delivered as menacing a defensive stretch as we've seen from them all year, holding the Rockets to just nine points on an abysmal 4-20 shooting in the third quarter.
Despite an admirable second half effort in addition to holding James Harden to 4-21 shooting for the game, the Celtics couldn't close out the month of January with a W. They took care of the ball and played hard, but the fourth quarter was a good way to differentiate a playoff team vs. a young team that is still trying to figure it out. Houston got smacked in the teeth in that third quarter, but they dusted themselves off and executed at a much higher level down the stretch.
Even when the Celtics cut it to a single-possession game, they failed to take advantage of multiple go-ahead opportunities and you could see that they were starting to scramble once Houston turned their defensive pressure up a couple notches.
You've got to feel proud of the team for digging themselves out of a big hole, and you don't have a pulse if you didn't enjoy that second half. They couldn't seal the deal, but they were once again in it down the stretch of a game against a better and more experienced team.
Those other 24 minutes, though...
CELTICS PLAYER OF THE WEEK
11.5 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 2.8 APG, 62.5% FG
We've seen a lot of good things from a lot of different guys lately, but it is usually different players getting it done on different nights with this team, and those guys might not play so well the following night. We're riding the roller coaster, baby.
Tayshaun Prince, however, has been Mr. Stability for the Celtics as of late and has been a valued addition that leads by example. Everybody knows Prince's track record, where he has been and what he does, but it has become something we can appreciate up close and personal. Prince is a strong veteran influence with a lot of wisdom to share from his experiences battling in the postseason, but those things mean so much more when a guy is still physically playing the game the right way in front of his younger teammates. You can roll your eyes at Prince's impact if you'd like and he may very well be wearing another jersey by the end of February, but generally speaking, people tend to undervalue the importance of his kind of presence on a young team.
Never did I ever envision Tayshaun Prince playing extended minutes for the Celtics, let alone one of their better performers, but his intelligence and consistency have been a breath of fresh air. Prince shot just under 63% from the field this week, including 3-4 from beyond the arc and he has averaged 14.7 points throughout the last three games.
Tyler Zeller had a productive week off the bench, scoring 10.8 points per game to go along with 8.0 rebounds, but Tayshaun Prince was as consistent of a presence as the Celtics had this week. Prince's 19-point, five-assist output was a big part of Boston's only victory of the week and while we would all like to see the youngsters get more minutes (cough cough James Young cough cough), Tayshaun has certainly exceeded expectations in Boston already.
LOOKING AHEAD: Our beloved Celtics are finally back in Boston, and they're set to do some home cookin' as four of their next six games will be played at the Garden. Miami comes to town for a 1:00 matinee on Sunday afternoon, setting the table for a five-game week that includes two sets of back-to-backs. The Celtics will square off with the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night before coming back home to host Carmelo Anthony's old friends in Denver. Tank goodness (I'm so original) the 76ers will pay a visit on Friday, just in time for a winnable affair before Saturday's trip to Milwaukee to take on the Bucks, who are currently the sixth in the Eastern Conference.
Following three days off, Boston will wrap up their
pre-trade deadline pre-All-Star break schedule at home against the red hot Atlanta Hawks.