Wednesday NBA Roundup: Can We Trust the Boston Celtics as Contenders? – Bleacher Report

OAKLAND, CA - MARCH 8: Isaiah Thomas #4 of the Boston Celtics handles the ball during the game against the Golden State Warriors on March 8, 2017 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)

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Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 9, 2017

A road game against the Golden State Warriors may not seem like the best environment to judge whether we can trust the Boston Celtics.

Then again, maybe it’s the perfect one.    

Because we’re running out of time to judge the Celts, slotted second in the East after taking a 99-86 contest against the Dubs on Wednesday at Oracle Arena. And even if most opponents Boston will face between now and whenever their season (and postseason) ends won’t present the problems Golden State does, it’s still helpful to see the C’s tested.

Consider this a passing grade.

The Celtics had failed most examinations of consequence this season, amassing a 3-7 mark against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards. That’s not to say Boston has been disappointing. It is 41-24 on the year and has comported itself well against a Warriors team struggling to knock down open shots. The Dubs were 6-of-30 from deep, and a great many of those misses weren’t produced by tight defense.

But some were, and Boston utilized its cadre of fearsome wing-stoppers to deny clean catches and harass the Warriors’ shooters off the ball. Though Golden State’s ongoing refusal to increase its pick-and-roll usage made things easier on the Celtics, there’s no question we saw flashes of their lockdown potential that has laid mostly dormant this year.

Golden State’s 86 points were a season low. They’d scored at least 100 points at home in every game. Critically, Boston didn’t back down when the Warriors started feeling themselves and threatened a run.

Wednesday’s effort didn’t erase the months of inconsistency that produced a defensive rating still outside the top 10, but it showed the possibility of regaining last year’s fifth-ranked form isn’t yet foreclosed.

Boston’s greatest strength this season has been its offense—more specifically, its ability to score in the clutch. Isaiah Thomas has been the source of most of that, and he posted 25 points against the Warriors, though only two of his seven made field goals came in the fourth. He didn’t need to do much, as the C’s cranked up the defense and forced the Warriors into poor shooting and turnovers, but he’s still leading the league in fourth-period scoring anyway.

Though we can debate the existence of clutch, it seems reasonable to rely on Thomas’ scoring when it matters.

But that ties into one of the confounding elements with this Boston team—one of the traits that makes it so difficult to embrace as a real postseason threat.

Thomas, the Celtics’ great weapon, is also a vulnerability. A poor defender whose 5’9″ size makes him exploitable, he’ll be attacked relentlessly by playoff foes with time to scheme for long series. Boston has been better with him off the floor in the fourth quarter, and its defense is an incomprehensible 27.4 points per 100 possessions better without him in those minutes versus when he’s on. Those are noisy numbers, but they’re not something to be ignored.

What happens when he’s targeted even more ruthlessly? It’s not like he can just be more incredible on offense to offset the difference.

The Celtics flat-out earned this win against Golden State and are now 19-6 when their preferred starting five is healthy. But this is the same team that couldn’t beat the Phoenix Suns earlier this week. The same one that has fallen to Chicago and Sacramento and New York.

So in the end, whether we can trust the Celtics really comes down to what we’re counting on them to do.

If we’re asking them to be a plucky, occasionally excellent team capable of winning a playoff round or two, sure, they’re trustworthy. Asking for more right now is where things get hazier.

In a way, that ties into the broader uncertainty surrounding this Boston team. Thanks to loads of draft assets from the overly generous Brooklyn Nets, the Celtics are operating in a rare two-window setup. They’re good right now, but it’s hard to avoid thinking their potential for greatness is a few years off—when those assets, plus Jaylen Brown and a free agent or two down the road mature into a new core.

If we have to trust anything about the Celtics, it should probably be their future.


Styles Make Fights

That’s a boxing maxim, kids, but it applied to the contrasting schemes at work in the Utah Jazz’s 115-108 win over the Houston Rockets.

Utah, which plays at the league’s slowest pace, actually looked comfortable running up and down with the Rockets, who check in at No. 4 in that statistic. And though it’s unlikely we’ll suddenly see the Jazz sprinting up and down while hoisting 40 threes per game, it’s encouraging to see them succeed in a surprising way.

Unsurprising: Rudy Gobert completely dominating the game.

His presence in the lane was integral to Utah’s sellout perimeter defense. With him anchoring the paint alone and snuffing out pick-and-rolls by guarding both the ball-handler and the roll man, the rest of the Jazz could stay home on Houston’s three-point shooters.

Houston could hardly get a look in the early going, and it finished just 8-of-32 from deep on the night.

That Gobert also finished with 23 points and 10 rebounds while taking just eight attempts from the field says everything about his value.

James Harden, who totaled a game-high 35 points and shot 16 of Houston’s 40 free throws on the night, was 0-of-8 from long distance.

With the win, Utah moved to within three games of the Rockets for the No. 3 seed in the West. While that gap will be tough to close, we should remember this game when forecasting the Jazz’s playoff outlook. The Jazz can do more than plod.


Highlights Top Winning Streaks

MILWAUKEE, WI - MARCH 08:  Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks celebrates a dunk against the New York Knicks during the second half of a game at the BMO Harris Bradley Center on March 8, 2017 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  NOTE TO USER: User expre

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The Milwaukee Bucks matched their season high four-game winning streak as Giannis Antetokounmpo led them to a 104-93 triumph over the New York Knicks at BMO Harris Bradley Center.

But you’re not here for that news. Nor are you necessarily yearning to know Antetokounmpo finished with 32 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists, four steals and two blocks, even if that’s wildly impressive.

You’re here for this:

You’re welcome.


The Spurs Don’t Know How to Relax

Wins like the one the San Antonio Spurs secured Wednesday against the Sacramento Kings at AT&T Center won’t do much to stem the tide of “these guys are just robots” jokes.

Because even with Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge sitting out to rest, and even though they fell behind by 28 points in a game they didn’t need to win and even though nobody on the roster topped 20 points in the game…they won anyway.

Leave it to the Spurs to do something short-handed that no other team has done this season with its full roster. It was enough to get head coach Gregg Popovich fired up

So we might as well quit asking whether the Spurs care about chasing the West’s top seed or wondering whether they’ll pack it in and give a few games away in the short term as they rest up for the playoffs.

It doesn’t seem to matter what they try do. They just keep winning.


Heat Rising

Don’t look now, but the Miami Heat, once 19 games below .500, are now a half-game back of the Chicago Bulls and Detroit Pistons. In other words, another night like tonight and Miami could be the No. 7 seed in the East.

It’s been hard to fathom.

Make that 31-34.

Dion Waiters, because he’s Dion Waiters, did several Dion Waiters things in the Heat’s 108-101 win over the Charlotte Hornets on Wednesday at AmericanAirlines Arena. Though it may now officially be impossible to prevent him from hitting clutch triples, future opponents might consider not letting him shoot from a particular spot on the left wing.

He seems to like it there.

Waiters finished with 24 points and five assists on 8-of-16 shooting, a fine complement to Goran Dragic’s 22 points and 10 dimes. Those two spearheaded a 27-15 fourth-quarter advantage that swung the game.

Best of all, Miami isn’t satisfied yet.

At this point, it’ll be news when Waiters and the Heat aren’t the most delightful story of the night.


Hope Springs Eternal

Emphasis on springs.

Caris LeVert is a walking (often leaping) avatar for optimism in Brooklyn, and he might be the only one. Because unless you count the commendable embrace of next-generation offensive principles and shrewd asset management, little of what makes up the Nets today will make them up tomorrow.

LeVert has a slithery in-between game, a slick handle for a wing and legitimate playmaking instincts. These are skills that fall largely into the “can’t teach ’em” file, and that makes him even more intriguing.

Yes, the Nets won themselves a pair of games this week. And sure, they competed for much of their 110-105 loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday at Philips Arena. But LeVert, who produced seven points on 3-of-6 shooting and turned in a hint-of-the-future highlight, remains the only thing that matters in Brooklyn’s big picture.


The East Is Gross

Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

We’ve buried these three teams—the Bulls, Pistons and Indiana Pacers—down here because they’re three of the most ho-hum, snooze-inducing outfits in the league, and we shouldn’t have to devote top-line attention to them just because they happen to be in playoff position.

Chicago and Detroit are hearing Miami’s footsteps behind them, which was already covered. And as Detroit was falling by a final of 115-98 to the Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse (did we mention the Pacers are uninteresting and not very good?), the Bulls were imploding against the Orlando Magic, ultimately losing their third straight game, this one a 98-91 disappointment at Amway Center.

Iso-heavy offense resulted in 14 fourth-quarter points, which was a step back from the Bulls’ last awful late-game performance, when they scored 16 in the final period in Monday’s loss to…drumroll…the Pistons.

Chicago, rightfully, is thinking about shaking things up.

But when Rajon Rondo, a player whose recent career has been defined by his sporadic effort and a failure to lead, is delivering the message…you’re in trouble.

This is a Bulls team we knew wouldn’t have enough spacing or offensive flow to succeed from the moment it came together over the summer. That Chicago is part of the playoff conversation this late in the year is something of a triumph—or at least a remarkable stroke of luck.


The Wizards Are a Palate Cleanser

We just buried three East playoff teams at once, so here’s this:

Washington roasted the Denver Nuggets by a final of 123-113, possibly leaving lasting damage in the process.

Turns out adding Ian Mahinmi and Bojan Bogdanovic to the most prolifically successful starting unit produces good results.

Washington looks like a good bet to snag the No. 2 seed in the East and reach the conference finals.


Wednesday’s Final Scores

  • Milwaukee Bucks 104, New York Knicks 93
  • Indiana Pacers 115, Detroit Pistons 98
  • Orlando Magic 98, Chicago Bulls 91
  • Miami Heat 108, Charlotte Hornets 101
  • Atlanta Hawks 110, Brooklyn Nets 105
  • Utah Jazz 115, Houston Rockets 108
  • Minnesota Timberwolves 107, Los Angeles Clippers 91
  • Toronto Raptors 94, New Orleans Pelicans 87
  • San Antonio Spurs 114, Sacramento Kings 104
  • Washington Wizards 123, Denver Nuggets 113
  • Boston Celtics 99, Golden State Warriors 86


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Stats courtesy of and unless otherwise indicated and are accurate through games played through Wednesday.   

Wednesday NBA Roundup: Can We Trust the Boston Celtics as Contenders? – Bleacher Report