Smart didn't force anything when the Jazz blew up Boston's first attempt to put a final play in motion. And he remained unflappable despite having 7-foot-1 Rudy Gobert defending both inbound attempts with Boston down 1 with 1.7 seconds to play. No, the 20-year-old Smart calmly waited for Tyler Zeller to draw the anticipated switch on the second attempt and lobbed a near-perfect feed from in front of the Boston bench to beneath the basket, where Zeller waited a beat before muscling home the winner in traffic as Smart delivered an emphatic fist pump in celebration.
A night earlier in Cleveland, Stevens had been asked about Smart's rookie development and showered the No. 6 pick with telling praise.
"I think, no matter what, Marcus always has a place on a winning team," said Stevens. "And the reason I say that is because he's a competitor, first and foremost. There's nobody that would argue that. Nobody that's around him, nobody that's ever coached him, nobody that's ever played against him would argue his competitiveness. He makes mistakes on both ends of the court, and he will always make mistakes on both ends of the court, because he's kind of got that competitive edge that makes him sometimes take a risk or take a gamble. But most of the time his stuff pans out because of his aggressiveness. And that's a great person to build with."
On Boston's young, superstar-less roster, there's a case to be made that no player has a better chance to emerge as the face of the team than Smart, whose gritty play very much aligns with the style of basketball Stevens desires from his team. Yes, Smart is still learning how to be a point guard at the NBA level and his shooting has been streaky this season (more cold than hot), and yet he impacts the game in a positive way for Boston most every time he touches the floor.
That's probably most notable at the defensive end, where he's beyond his years in being able to defend at the NBA level. But good things simply seem to happen when Smart is on the court, regardless of how he's playing, and that's an encouraging sign about his influence on this team.
Bradley injured his elbow during the first half of Wednesday's win over the Utah Jazz and briefly retreated to the locker room with the team's medical staff. He returned with a shooting sleeve over the elbow and totaled 36 minutes of floor time.
The team initially announced Bradley's injury as a contusion, but changed it to the strain on Thursday. The Celtics traveled Thursday in advance of a three-game road trip that also visits Orlando and Miami. It's uncertain if Bradley will rejoin the team later in the trip.
The Celtics could elevate recently acquired Isaiah Thomas, the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week, to a starting role alongside Marcus Smart to fill Bradley's void. Bradley's absence could mean more time at 2 guard for players like Evan Turner and rookie James Young.
Bradley is averaging 13.9 points on 43 percent shooting over a career-high 31.2 minutes per game in 58 appearances this season.
After Celtics general manager Danny Ainge acknowledged earlier Thursday that the two sides were close to a deal, a source told ESPN.com that it unraveled when McGee wanted a player option for next season while the Celtics wanted a team option.
He has averaged 4.6 points and 2.7 rebounds this season in 23 games -- 17 with the Nuggets and six with Philadelphia.
The Celtics (24-35) are 11th in the Eastern Conference standings but only two games behind the Charlotte Hornets for the eighth playoff spot.
"JaVale is a long, athletic guy, and we don't have that type of player -- an above-the-rim offensive and defensive player," Ainge said earlier Thursday during his weekly appearance on Boston sports radio 98.5 The Sports Hub. "He's been paid a lot of money in our league, had some injuries, hasn't lived up to his potential yet, and we're hoping that he can under [Celtics coach Brad Stevens'] tutelage.
"I think he's in a good place, emotionally and mentally, and he really wants to get his career on the right path."
However, that path apparently will be with another team.
• Defense must improve: McGee has all the physical tools, but it hasn't always translated on the court. In six appearances for the Sixers last month, opponents shot 75 percent (6-of-8 overall) inside of 6 feet, according to the league's player-tracking data. McGee is still working his way back after missing almost all of the 2013-14 season because of a stress fracture in his left tibia, but his playing time in Boston will be dictated by how much he's willing to commit himself to tapping his full potential. He was among the NBA leaders in blocked shots from 2010-2013, leading the league in block percentage in 2010-11 (and finishing second a year later). Combine that with efficient scoring and -- if Brad Stevens can harness his abilities -- there's potential here.
• Low risk, high reward: While we wait for the contract specifics -- Boston had the salary flexibility to outbid some legitimate contenders this season -- it's likely that the Celtics got McGee on a cost-efficient deal that will keep him here next season. Boston has never been afraid to take a flier on a reclamation project and Stevens has gotten the most out of guys such as Jordan Crawford and Evan Turner by putting them in position to maximize their talents. Putting McGee on the floor with an up-tempo, shooting-filled second unit could lead to positive results near the basket. If nothing else, McGee has potential to be an upgrade over what Boston has had for big men at the end of the bench this season.
• A new team record: When McGee makes his debut for the Celtics, Boston will set a franchise record by utilizing 23 different players in games in one season. McGee will be Boston's 41st roster player this season for a team that has made 11 trades and a never-ending stream of roster tweaks. In order to add McGee, the Celtics will have to waive a player as they sit at the 15-man limit. The most likely candidate would seemingly be Shavlik Randolph, who was inactive for Wednesday's game with the return of Olynyk. Randolph is in the final year of a minimum contract.
• Final thoughts: McGee is still only 27 years old. He's been mocked for some head-scratching on-court activities, but the Celtics will put him in a situation where he'll either conform and try to maximize his potential, or continue his journey. And it's that word "potential" that we can't stop using with McGee. He can potentially help this team on a potential playoff push if he embraces his potential.
[Update: And as talks with McGree break down over who controls the 2015-16 option on his contract, this is all for naught]
Celtics general manager Danny Ainge acknowledged Thursday that the two sides were close to a deal.
"JaVale is a long, athletic guy, and we don't have that type of player -- an above-the-rim offensive and defensive player," Ainge said during his weekly appearance on Boston sports radio 98.5 The Sports Hub. "He's been paid a lot of money in our league, had some injuries, hasn't lived up to his potential yet, and we're hoping that he can under [Celtics coach Brad Stevens'] tutelage.
"I think he's in a good place, emotionally and mentally, and he really wants to get his career on the right path."
The 7-footer has averaged 4.6 points and 2.7 rebounds this season in 23 games -- 17 with the Nuggets and six with Philadelphia.
McGee would be eligible to play in the postseason because he was waived before the playoff-eligibility deadline,
The Celtics (24-35) are 11th in the Eastern Conference standings through Wednesday's games but only two games behind the Charlotte Hornets
"That’s one of our five things that we have made a big deal for our team [Wednesday] and moving forward," said Stevens. "We went into the game eighth in the league in turnover percentages, which is good, but last time we allowed Utah back in the game because we threw the ball all over their gym and almost lost that game there. So we placed a huge priority on it. It helps to have Isaiah [Thomas] handling the ball because he’s a hard guy to get it from."
Thomas committed one of Boston's three turnovers, but it came when he was whistled for an offensive foul. Tyler Zeller and Avery Bradley got tagged with the other two giveaways for fumbling the ball away in the third quarter.
Boston didn't allow a single point off of a turnover in Wednesday's game. By comparison, the Celtics generated 13 points off Utah's 14 turnovers.
"We were decisive, we played with energy, and we made the right plays for the most part," said Thomas.
OLYNYK RETURNS TO ACTION
Second-year big man Kelly Olynyk returned to game action Wednesday after missing 18 games due to a right ankle injury.
Olynyk, sidelined since Jan. 22, missed all three shots he took and finished scoreless in 7 minutes, 14 seconds of first-half action. Stevens tightened his rotation in the second half, leaning on newcomer Jonas Jerebko as one of the backup bigs.
"I thought Kelly was fine. I thought he looked tentative in shooting the basketball," said Stevens. "But he was in plays and I thought he looked fine moving. Again, we don't get a chance to practice, so this is his practice. That was good to get a few minutes of game time in, up and down the floor, make him feel better. And then Friday he'll be ready to roll."
HAYWARD'S HARD WORK
If Zeller didn't rescue the Celtics on the game's final play, then Gordon Hayward's 14-foot pull-up jumper over Zeller with 1.7 seconds to play would have been the difference in the game. Stevens was asked about how it would have felt to see his former pupil sink his current team.
"Big shot. I've seen him shoot it before; seen him hit it before," said Stevens. "He's a special player. I found him right after the game and I'll talk to him a little bit before they leave. But you take a lot of pride in watching his success because you know where he came from and you know what he puts into it."
PRAISE FOR JAZZ DEFENSE
The Jazz only further entrenched their status as the league's best defense since the All-Star break with Wednesday's effort. Asked what he'll take from the game, Stevens raved about Utah's defensive play.
"The No. 1 thing I walk out of here with is: Damn, their defense is good," said Stevens. "Like that’s an outstanding defense, and it’s got the potential to be an outstanding defense for a long time, with that length."
The Celtics were down a point to the Utah Jazz with 1.7 seconds to play Wednesday and, after an initial inbounds attempt fizzled, coach Brad Stevens had drawn up a play designed to get Zeller the final look. The Jazz had 7-foot-1 center Rudy Gobert defending the inbounds pass, so Boston wanted to exploit a potential height mismatch near the basket.
"Gigi walked up to me right before [the final play] and said, 'You've got time for one shot fake.' That’s exactly what happened," Zeller said. "I caught the ball, saw Gordon flying in, so I shot-faked, and got the ball up."
What's maybe most impressive about the game's final sequence is how utterly composed these young Celtics were. Hayward had just made a 14-foot pull-up jumper over Zeller to give Utah its first lead of the second half. TStevens drew up a play for Jae Crowder, who had the second-hottest hand of the night (likely figuring the Jazz would over-commit to Isaiah Thomas, who had scored 19 of his game-high 21 points in the second half), but that play got blown up.
The Jazz were switching on screens in the hope of thwarting Boston's final play and denied Crowder the chance to catch the ball. Rather than force an inbounds pass, rookie Smart calmly called timeout before a potential five-second violation and allowed Stevens to call an audible.
Knowing that Gobert would likely remain on the inbounder and that Utah was switching on screens, Stevens exploited the situation, including getting the 6-foot-8 Hood switched onto Zeller before the lob. And it was Zeller's composure and clock awareness that ensured the outcome.
"He may have just wanted to enjoy 1.7 seconds at the rim and being the biggest guy for once," Stevens deadpanned after Zeller had to joust with Gobert for much of the night. "He fumbled [the pass] a little bit, but we always say with 1.7 you have two dribbles. So we know there's time to fumble the ball, regain yourself, and get it back up."
Zeller had just watched Gordon Hayward sink a 14-foot pull-up jumper over him with 1.7 seconds remaining to put the Jazz in front. Unfazed, Smart -- who had 7-foot-1 Rudy Gobert defending the inbounds pass -- lobbed the ball to Zeller, who calmly maneuvered in traffic and released it right before time expired to lift Boston to victory.
While Celtics players swarmed Zeller, coach Brad Stevens calmly walked to center court to hug former Butler standout Hayward. Jae Crowder followed to swarm Stevens, the architect of the final play.
Isaiah Thomas scored 19 of his game-high 21 points in the second half to propel Boston's offense. Crowder added 18 points in 33 minutes and started the second half for the Celtics.
Gobert had 10 points and 16 rebounds for Utah, which got 16 points from both Derrick Favors and Trey Burke.
• Olynyk's return: Second-year big man Kelly Olynyk returned after missing 18 straight games with a right ankle injury. He played seven first-half minutes, misfiring on all three shots he took, and went scoreless.
• Loose balls: With Olynyk back, the Celtics went 10 deep with their rotation, but condensed it to eight players in the second half. Luigi Datome, Phil Pressey and Gerald Wallace were healthy DNPs. ... Shavlik Randolph landed on the inactive list with Olynyk back. ... Tony Brothers, the ref who tossed Thomas from his Boston debut last month in Los Angeles, was one of the game officials. ... Avery Bradley missed a few first-half minutes while returning to the locker room with a left elbow contusion.
• What it means: The Celtics snapped a two-game losing streak and improved to 24-36. The Jazz fell to 24-36. Boston heads out on a three-game road trip starting Friday in New Orleans before a Florida back-to-back against the Magic and Heat.
Smart averaged 9.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 1.6 steals per game last month. Elevated back to the starting lineup, Smart averaged 32.6 minutes per game, which was a conference-high among rookies. The Celtics went 7-4 in 11 games.
Some highlights from Smart's month via the NBA:
• Feb. 1 vs. Miami: Dished out a career-high nine assists and had only one turnover in an 83-75 loss to the Heat.
• Feb. 4 vs. Denver: Grabbed a career-high 10 rebounds and added four points, eight assists and three steals in a 104-100 victory over the Nuggets.
• Feb. 20 @ Sacramento: Scored 16 points and contributed five rebounds and a career-high five steals in a 109-101 loss to the Kings.
The Timberwolves' Andrew Wiggins won the award for the Western Conference.
Olynyk sprained the ankle after landing awkwardly on an opponent's foot during a win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Jan. 22. The team has been patient with his recovery.
"It's definitely a long time," said Olynyk when asked about his lengthy absence. "It’s tough. I did some damage to it, so I wanted to make sure it was good so I could come back and help."
Celtics coach Brad Stevens admitted he's unsure what to expect in Olynyk's first game back.
"I watched him play 3-on-3 [on Tuesday], he looked good to me," said Stevens. "Hopefully he can give us what he gives us and that is a skilled offensive guy and a guy, defensively, with some size."
The Celtics have missed Olynyk's versatility up front.
"One of Kelly’s best attributes as a player is that he can play with any lineup," said Stevens. "No matter what the skill set of the guy next to him on the front line is he complements that person -- if it’s a rim-roller and not a skilled guy, he complements them; if it’s a skilled guy, it’s just another skilled guy on the court. That’s his greatest strength in my opinion."
Stevens said he expects to utilize Olynyk in his typical reserve role, adding size to a unit that has played a lot of small ball recently.
Asked before Wednesday's game how he might avoid future ankle injuries, Olynyk deadpanned, "Best thing to do is to try to avoid coming down on other people’s feet. Maybe jump less or something, jump less frequently. I”m not sure."
GAME PREVIEW (via STATS LLC)
Not long ago, the Boston Celtics probably thought a matchup with the Utah Jazz would help them get closer to a playoff spot.
The Jazz, however, are looking much more formidable in their role as spoiler.
The Celtics will try to avoid becoming the latest victim by extending their home winning streak over the Jazz on Wednesday night.
Boston (23-35) is two games back of Brooklyn and Charlotte for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, also trailing Indiana by 1.5 games.
After wins over Phoenix, New York and Charlotte, the Celtics' streak ended with a 106-101 loss to West-leading Golden State on Sunday. They weren't even close Tuesday, falling 110-79 at Cleveland in their most lopsided defeat of the season.
"The way we played is not the right way," coach Brad Stevens said. "It's not acceptable. We played individual basketball the whole night, and you can't do that. We were bad."
Boston shot 36.0 percent from the floor -- 25.4 from beyond the arc -- over the last two games after making 45.1 of its field goals, including 44.2 of its 3s, over the three prior.
Poor shooting hasn't been a problem against the Jazz (24-35), with the Celtics connecting on 49.7 percent and holding them to an average of 87.5 points during six straight home wins in the series.
Boston went 8 for 19 from long range in a 99-90 win at Utah on Jan. 26 for its seventh win in eight overall matchups.
The Jazz, though, have been a much better team lately, limiting opponents to 85.4 points per game during a 7-2 stretch that includes five wins over teams currently in playoff position.
Utah notched another impressive victory Tuesday, beating Southwest Division-leading Memphis 93-82 for its first three-game win streak of the season. Rudy Gobert continued his strong play with 15 points and a career-high 24 rebounds to put the Jazz in position for their first four-game run since winning five in a row March 25-April 1, 2013.
(Read full game preview)
THE BIG STORYLINE (via Chris Forsberg)
The Jazz are playing some inspired ball lately and, for a Celtics team that's really struggled shooting the ball the past 6+ quarters, it's not the ideal to bump into coming off Boston's worst loss of the season. Over the last 10 games, the Jazz own a league best defensive rating of 93.4. That's 3.6 points better than the nearest competitor (Milwaukee, 97.0) and nearly 10 points better than Boston (103.3) in that same span. The Jazz, with their interior protection, are going to entice Boston to shoot those perimeter jumpers that haven't fallen since the first half of Sunday's game against the Warriors. Boston absolutely has to push the pace and find easy buckets in transition. The Jazz don't score with much efficiency and turn the ball over often. But their defense and rebounding has given them a chance to compete most nights recently.
CLEVELAND -- The Cleveland Cavaliers won big on Tuesday, beating the Boston Celtics 110-79 to account for their eighth win by 20 or more points this season and their third by such a margin in their past nine games.
They did it against a Celtics team that had been surging of late, averaging 108.2 points in the six games they played since acquiring Isaiah Thomas at the trade deadline. And they did it on a night when two of their big three were less than 100 percent, as Kyrie Irving made his return after a two-game absence from a left shoulder strain he revealed had been bothering him even before he jammed it while fighting through a Draymond Green screen and Kevin Love was so ill from suspected food poisoning that he missed shootaround and required an IV injection of fluids after the game.
Even though Boston is lurking around the Eastern Conference's eighth seed in the playoff standings, the fact that Cleveland led by as many as 44 points even with the circumstances the last paragraph laid out is mostly inconsequential.
There are 20 more games left in the regular season for these Cavs, starting with a two-game road trip through Toronto and Atlanta -- two of the teams ahead of them in the standings -- and LeBron James is continuing to tighten the strings on his squad.
“We’re not there,” James said when asked if the Cavs were already prepared for the playoffs with six weeks remaining in the regular season. “We still got a lot of room to improve. We’re still trying to get better. We got a lot of games to play. We’re not playoff ready right now.”
For instance, the Cavs scored 110 points in each of their past two wins against Boston and Golden State. Yet against the Celtics, they racked up 28 assists on 43 field goals, while against the Warriors they had just 15 assists on 36 field goals.
Cavs coach David Blatt will tell you that was by design.
“We played and I coached a very particular game against Golden State to take advantage of what I thought we needed to do to beat Golden State, and that seemed to work out pretty good,” Blatt said. Indeed, the Cavs pounded the Warriors inside and went 29-for-35 on free throws as a result. “Now the fact that we had fewer assists isn’t of that much concern when you’re winning by 15 or so against the best team, arguably, in the league.
“We played a specific type of basketball in that game and that is why there were fewer assists. Today we played another kind of offensive game and obviously scoring the same amount of points, we had 28 assists. That speaks a little bit to the maturity of our team, I think. We knew how to play those games.”
“It was a different approach, and we know that. ... Our game plan was different,” he said. “It’s great to know that you can go to different styles in different games, and how every game dictates itself, be able to approach it and be successful. And we did that tonight.”
When training camp opened up, much was made about the versatility of these Cavs and how they could go with different looks depending on matchups -- from Love at the 5 and James at the 4 when going small, to James at the 1, Tristan Thompson at the 4 and Anderson Varejao (now Timofey Mozgov) at the 5 when going big.
After an up-and-down season in which Cleveland had to learn how to win one way, let alone through nuanced lineup shifts, the Cavs are finally starting to explore those permutations in the final fourth of the season.
“We have different guys that can give us a completely new dynamic and I think that changed when we made the trade,” Love said. “I think Perk [Kendrick Perkins] helps us as well, just giving us a veteran leader and a different dynamic on and off the floor. So, it’s just something that we’re going to continue to improve upon especially in these next six weeks here before it starts getting serious.”
And serious it will get, with playoff series often boiling down to veritable chess matches between coaches and every little move causing a ripple effect to the complexion of what occurs on the court.
That’s why it’s right to ask now, even though the Cavs have won 19 out of 23 games, things like: Are they taking too many 3-pointers?
They’ve averaged close to 30 a game since the J.R. Smith/Iman Shumpert trade and hoisted up a particularly jarring 40 long balls in that Houston loss (making only 12).
“Well, we acquired some more shooting and we’ve also increased, I believe, our number of shots overall, and that of course is going to lend itself to some more opportunities from 3,” Blatt said. “The 3-point shot is a valuable weapon, particularly when you’re making it. When you go 12-for-40, it’s not a particularly efficient way to attack, in my opinion.”
At the team's shootaround Tuesday, James said that “3s and layups is a great way to win basketball games.” He added that the paint points ideally outweigh those from the perimeter and that “in-between shots is a low-percentage shot in our league.”
But against the Celtics, 11 of James’ 23 shots were from midrange. He made five.
“I was saying as far as team,” James clarified after the Boston game. “For me, I can shoot whatever. I can take any shot and be effective. But as far as teams, 3s and layups. Whatever groove I’m in, I can go. I can go midrange, I can go in the post, I can go shoot 3s if need be. Obviously, what’s better for our team is when I’m attacking, when I’m putting pressure on the rim, I’m getting my guys opportunities. But when I’m flowing, it doesn’t matter.”
For the most part, he’s right. He is a four-time MVP for a reason. But even he can continue to optimize his offense with the Cavs down the stretch. Especially within the context of how he plays with his teammates.
After James’ particularly ball-dominant 15-for-35 shooting performance in Sunday’s overtime loss in Houston when Irving was sidelined, Fear the Sword blogger David Zavac pointed out that James has used 41.5 percent of the Cavs’ possessions this season when Irving is out, with a true shooting percentage of 53.3. When he has played with Irving, however, James' usage rate drops to 30.6 while his true shooting percentage grows to 59.9.
Meaning, they are better when they’re together. Which is a great thing. Now the Cavs want all their guys to be better at blending their games no matter which approach they employ for the night.
“I think we’re learning now we have the ability to adjust in terms of the flow of the game and seeing how teams are playing us,” Irving said. “Some teams will have two guards back all the time and stop our transition, so our half-court offense and execution has to be that much better.”
It helps explain why James has balked at any questions about the Cavs’ climb up the Eastern Conference standings as the season comes to a close, saying that they are simply “competing against ourselves” and got as far on Tuesday to say all the Cavs need is a “top eight” seed at the end of the day. “Put me in the playoffs, I’m all right,” he said. “Once I get in the playoffs, I’m confident against anybody.”
This is the time for Cleveland to work in-house before the doors to the postseason are sprung open.
“We’re building,” James reiterated. “We’re getting there. But we’re not there yet and every game will continue to help us grow -- win, lose or draw. And you just come out and compete, compete at a high level, you play the right way, you build a game plan that the coaches give you, you go out and try to execute it and see where you go.”