10 Things I Heard About Celtics

We’re here on a Friday afternoon, because it’s the holidays, and time flies. I’ve also been working on a few stories that are still developing, so those will have to come later. In the meantime, let’s dust off an old running column from my WEEI.com days: 10 Things I Heard About Celtics. …

10. Isaiah Thomas vs. the Celtics.

On national TV, Thomas again expressed his distaste for Danny Ainge dealing him after he played through injury and his sister’s death for the Celtics in the playoffs, and he now says he wouldn’t have played during the conference finals run had the C’s doctors informed him of the risks.

This confused Ainge, since Thomas sought a second opinion, and it’s rekindled a debate about whether the C’s did him wrong or Thomas should let it go. Or both. It’s turned Celtics fans into children of divorce, since they love both Thomas and their team, and I wrote about that at Yahoo Sports. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on the matter, if you want to share them in the Parquet Post comment section below this column.

It’s certainly set the stage for Thomas’ potential return to Boston on Jan. 3 or Feb. 11, when the Celtics will raise Paul Pierce’s number to the rafters.

9. The 50-40-90 Club.

Ray Allen called it the “holy land” of shooting: 50 percent shooting from the field, 40 percent from 3-point range and 90 percent from the free-throw line. Allen, owner of arguably the smoothest shooting stroke in basketball history, somehow never accomplished the feat over the course of a full season. Only nine regulars ever have: Steve Nash (four times!), Larry Bird (twice), Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Dirk Nowitzki, Reggie Miller, Mark Price, Steve Kerr and Jose Calderon. Great shooters, all.

Kyrie Irving is currently shooting 49 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3 and 89 percent from the stripe. And Jayson Tatum is at 51-48-83. So, there’s an outside chance these Celtics could add two players to that list in the same season if they stay hot — one of whom is 19 years old.

8. ROY.

Tatum’s Rookie of the Year campaign is gaining steam. He’s ranked fourth among rookies in scoring, behind Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell, Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma and Sixers point forward Ben Simmons — the other top contenders. Except, Tatum’s true shooting percentage (64.5%) is the best among that group by a significant margin and top 10 in the league.

Simmons and Kuzma also average more rebounds than Tatum (5.6), but here’s where the C’s rookie has an edge: He’s winning. The other three are doing their work for teams well below .500 and out of the playoff hunt (for now). If Simmons carries the 76ers to the playoffs (they’ve lost 10 of their last 12 and fallen three games behind the eighth seed), it’ll be impossible for Tatum to catch him for ROY. Simmons is averaging a 17-9-8, after all.

But if Joel Embiid continues to miss time, defenses beg Simmons to shoot (he’s 0-for from 3 this year), and the Sixers tumble down the standings, all while Tatum continues to ascend and evolve into a secondary scorer in crunch time for a No. 1 seed, then the debate gets a bit cloudier. And the modern voter is much more likely to think beyond Simmons’ stat line.

Take this tidbit, for example: Tatum just unseated Simmons as the leader among rookies in Total Points Added (TPA), a statistic created by NBA Math to reflect points added offensively plus points saved defensively.

Or this: According to Synergy Sports Technology, “Tatum now ranks fourth in the NBA in scoring efficiency among the 167 players using over 10 possessions per game … between Anthony Davis and Stephen Curry.”

7. Nike’s new “City Edition” uniforms.

I do not like gray jerseys, and I especially do not like these new Nike ones:

6. Nike’s new Kyrie commercial.

Nike released the new Kyrie 4 sneakers, and the commercial for them features Irving walking past a Flat Earth and saying, “This is my world.” As the official chronicler of Kyrie’s FlatEarththeory, I very much like this:

5. Wing rebounding.

Stevens was pretty irked about the Celtics’ inability to secure defense rebounds in their loss to the Wizards on Christmas. He specifically called out the wings, who let Otto Porter, Bradley Beal and Kelly Oubre run wild for 19 combined rebounds, including seven on the offensive glass.

“Those are killer possessions when you have a stop and you just can’t finish that stop. We turned and looked instead of blocked out most of the night, and it ended up costing us. … You’ve got to finish plays at a better level. That’s been a pretty consistent theme with us over the last couple weeks. We’re not rebounding from the wing the way we did earlier in the year.” — Brad Stevens

Here’s what Stevens was talking about, courtesy of Terry Rozier:

During the 16-game win streak, the Celtics were the NBA’s best defensive rebounding team, grabbing 82 percent of available boards on that end, and here are the d-rebounding percentages for their wings in that span:

• Jaylen Brown: 17.6%
• Terry Rozier: 16.9%
• Jayson Tatum: 16.7%

To give you an idea of how well Brown was rebounding during that stretch, he was grabbing the same percentage of defensive rebounds as Kristaps Porzingis, the Knicks’ 7-foot-3 stretch forward. And Rozier’s activity on the glass was on par with Spurs big man LaMarcus Aldridge. Not bad at all.

Since the streak snapped, though, the Celtics have been dead last in defensive rebounding percentage (74.8%). And here are the d-rebounding percentages for their wings since their loss to the Heat on Nov. 22:

• Brown: 14.4%
• Rozier: 16.0%
• Tatum: 15.9%

Rozier and Tatum are down a tick, but Brown has fallen off significantly on that end, so maybe Stevens was issuing a wake-up call to the 21-year-old.

4. Jaylen Brown’s injury.

Unfortunately, Brown has an air-tight alibi for why he got beat to a back-breaking rebound by Oubre in the final 90 seconds of the Wizards loss: Markieff Morris collided with his knee, sending him limping off the floor.

Brown left the arena on a crutch. He hasn’t played in either game since. He told reporters on Wednesday that he strained ligaments in his knee. Both Brown and Stevens sound hopeful that it won’t cost him much time — good news, because they can’t afford to be without another forward.

3. Making up for lost Gordon.

Sports Illustrated scribe Lee Jenkins was in Boston this month, and he delivered as usual for the magazine: The Immense Pride and Unspeakable Agony of Gordon Hayward. Read it for all things related to Hayward’s rehab, but I found one anecdote about how the Celtics have used Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown in Hayward’s absence especially fascinating.

Brad Stevens called an impromptu team meeting on Oct. 19, when the C’s would normally have an off day following back-to-back losses to the Cavaliers and Bucks to start the season. Mostly, the coach just wanted to clear the air about Hayward’s injury status, but his staff also installed this adjustment, according to Jenkins: More post actions for Tatum and Brown.

This was how they planned to solve shifting Hayward’s playmaking responsibilities to a pair of young players who don’t yet have the ball-handling abilities of the All-Star wing whose void they were tasked with filling. And this was Stevens’ message to them at the meeting, via Jenkins:

“The age thing is not an excuse. We’re not going there. You have to expedite it. You don’t get to fall asleep in a film session because you’re 19. No, you have to learn because we need you to be good.” — Brad Stevens to the young C’s

Learn, they did. And good, they were.

The C’s won 16 straight after that meeting, with Brown doing stuff like this:

And Tatum doing stuff like this:

The two have been adept at recognizing mismatches and taking smaller defenders into the post. Brown has posted up twice as often, but Tatum has been more effective, scoring 1.25 points per possession — third in the entire NBA among players who have taken 20 or more shots in the post. Brown has been better than average, too, and together they’ve crafted another playmaking dynamic that has benefited the rest of the offense:

Throw in their 3-point shooting (43.3 percent on 7.5 attempts per game combined) and slashes to the basket, and it’s enough to make you wonder why the Celtics don’t use the two of them more often, especially Tatum, who has already proven to be a better ball-handler than they anticipated:

Marcuses Smart and Morris are shooting almost as often as Brown and Tatum, only far less efficiently. Something to discuss at the next practice.

This is yet another example of how the development of Brown and Tatum has been sped up in Hayward’s absence, something that will certainly pay dividends down the line. It’s also another reminder that Hayward is an even more complete player than either of the Celtics’ two young phenoms.

2. The Schedule Demons.

The Celtics have played six more games than the Bucks and at least three more games than any other team in the East at this point of the season, mainly to allow for their upcoming trip to London, which includes four scheduled off days on either side of a Jan. 11 game against the 76ers at O2 Arena. This is the reason many are pointing to for their recent struggles.

And by many, I mean almost everyone but the Celtics. “Everyone is tired in the league,” Stevens said after the Christmas Day loss, the Celtics’ 10th game in 16 nights. “Everybody has 82 games. We’ve had plenty of rest.”

The NBA lengthened the season by two weeks this year to eliminate stretches of four games in five nights and limit back-to-backs. This was a response to mounting evidence that such instances result not only in fatigue, but a worse product on the floor and a heightened injury risk.

Except, because of the London game, the C’s are operating on something akin to the old schedule, while other teams enjoy the benefits of extra rest. Some of this is their own doing. According to Yahoo Sports columnist Chris Mannix, the Celtics requested those extended breaks before and after the trip across the pond, which is why they won’t be making excuses.

Even as Stevens ensures his team maximizes rest opportunities, practice is in short supply. Prior to Christmas, the Celtics conducted just one unabbreviated practice all season. That’s not ideal, especially after losing Hayward six minutes into the season, since they had spent much of the previous two months installing an offense with him as a central figure.

“There’s probably not a day I’m looking forward to more than Dec. 30 when we practice next.” Brad Stevens

It’s a wonder they expanded Brown and Tatum’s roles so quickly.

The Celtics have not had consecutive days off in December, and Thursday’s game against the Rockets (good God, was that a game) marked their fourth stretch this month of three games in four nights — a brutal run, including a 5-5 stint that also saw minor injuries to a handful of rotation guys. They have two days off before playing the Nets on New Year’s Eve (hence the practice) and two more off before Jan. 3, when they host the Cavs in a meeting that kicks off three more games in four nights. (The C’s are 2-0 with two or more days off.) Then, finally, the London trip.

The hope is that the eight off days surrounding the trip allow the C’s ample time for both rest and practice, even with six-hour flights there and back. It’s a second All-Star break, only players can’t escape to Mexico on their own. They’ll be together, giving Stevens a few extra chances to fix the rebounding, defense and secondary scoring issues that have plagued them since the end of the win streak. (And even before then, really.)

The Sixers game will mark the C’s 44th of the 2017-18 campaign, leaving 38 games in the final 86 days of the regular season, including 12 occasions with two or more consecutive days of rest. Over that same span, the Raptors and Cavs — the two teams competing with the Celtics for the No. 1 seed in the East — will play 38 and 39 games, respectively.

For the most part, the C’s will be on an even playing field down the stretch, save for the fact that Cleveland and Toronto each have a couple more home games than Boston in the final three months. As a result, there are ample practice days for Stevens to look forward to, just in case his staff ever has to reconfigure the offense around a certain someone again.

1. Gordon’s return.

The chatter about Hayward potentially returning this season is growing louder and more real. He told The Boston Globe’s Adam Himmelsbach:

“It’s definitely in the back of my mind. I’m definitely pushing to get back as fast as I can, while making sure that I still have a lot of good years of basketball in me. And coming back early and hurting something else is not part of that plan. So I’m making sure that if I come back, I’m 1,000 percent confident in myself and my leg. I hope more than anything I can play this season. That would be awesome. But that’s not something I’m stressing about. I’m stressing about what I can do today to help myself get better.” Gordon Hayward

Hayward only got his walking boot off recently, and he’ll wear an ankle brace for another three months. Meanwhile, he still has several rehab hurdles to climb before being cleared to run the court. Then, he’s got to get his range of mobility back before non-contact practice drills, 1-on-1 work, 3-on-3 and finally 5-on-5 scrimmages. That doesn’t even account for the mental aspect. Returning by April is a long shot, yes, and yet …

“It will be just a matter of how long it takes to get his strength and mobility back,” former Celtic Shavlik Randolph, who suffered the same injury a decade ago, told Jenkins. “Different people get that back at different rates, but he is an elite athlete with a terrific work ethic, so I don’t see any reason why he doesn’t get all of it back relatively quickly.”

Those inside the Celtics organization aren’t ruling out a return, either. Ainge has not-so-quietly kept the door open. They won’t set expectations, but there’s hope brewing. Of course, you knew this if you’ve been reading Parquet Post all year, since an insider said as much a day after the injury.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Happy New Year, and Parquet Post promises to be even better in 2018. Spread the good word.

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