Every morning, we compile the links of the day and dump them here… highlighting the big story line. Because there’s nothing quite as satisfying as a good morning dump.
“You definitely got the feel during the regular season when they were playing against one another,” Irving said of the Celtics and Wizards. “Both teams kind of jawing back and forth. Things happened within the playoff series. That’s fine. I don’t mind those type of games. I’m just looking forward to playing against a great Washington team.”
Marcus Smart, one of the four returnees, downplayed the matchup. The Celtics have the best record in the Eastern Conference and have a completely different look than last May. The Wizards, despite returning their full squad, have been wildly inconsistent this season, losing at home to Phoenix, Dallas, and Portland, and dropping a 35-point decision at Brooklyn before winning Saturday against Orlando, 130-103.
“I never really thought of it as a rivalry,” Smart said. “It is a lot of new faces. As a competitor, they’re going to come out ready and we’ve got to be able to come out and beat their intensity.”
Christmas Day. NBA Basketball. And for whatever reason, Boston is hosting it’s first ever (no typo) Christmas game. Did the late Red Auerbach strike a deal with the NBA to avoid Boston games on Christmas? Or, maybe, the league figures if they’re gonna work today, they should schedule games for warm weather cities, like Los Angeles and Miami (who always seem to be hosting on Christmas).
The NBA regular season is a six month grind, but the important checkpoints include Christmas Day, the All-Star game, and the trade deadline. At this first checkpoint, the Celtics lead the league with 27 wins, and despite their recent struggles, any C’s fan would be giddy if you said before the season they’d lead the league in wins by December 25th.
When the NBA scheduled this Celtics-Wizards matchup, they expected a reprisal of last season’s rivalry. We saw four heated regular season games that included disrespectful finger wagging, untimely ejections, and funeral-themed attire, followed by an intense seven-game playoff series, one of the lone bright spots of an otherwise boring playoffs. The NBA had no idea the Celtics would return a mere four players from last year’s roster, and Boston has proven to be a tier above the Wizards throughout this season.
It’s kind of crazy that through almost 40 games, this is the first matchup with the Wizards. They’ll play three more times this season, and all games are on national TV. In today’s era of short contracts and constant player movement, it’s difficult to find true rivalries, and the NBA really tried to milk all it could from last season’s Celtics-Wizards battles.
The Celtics are nearly finished with a brutal December schedule. This month has the C’s playing 17 games, four sets of back-to-back, and after today, they’re blessed with two consecutive off days for the first time since late November. The effects of this front-loaded schedule caught up to the Celtics, but they appeared to get things back on track with a convincing blowout victory Saturday night against the Bulls.
The Wizards enter this matchup with an 18-15 record and sit 7th in the Eastern Conference. I wouldn’t say they’ve had a disappointing year, but they haven’t vaulted to the elite tier as some expected before the season. They clearly have talent, but inconsistency still plagues them, as evidenced by their last two games, where they lost by 25 to Brooklyn, but proceeded to blow out Orlando by 27 the next night.
Bradley Beal is enjoying a breakout season, averaging 23 points on 45 percent shooting. He had a 51 point game earlier this month, and averaged 38 during a three game stretch without John Wall. Some of the most hipster NBA fans claim Beal has surpassed Wall, and the star point guard ought to cede some ball-handling responsibilities. Kelly Oubre has established himself as a reliable 3-and-D wing, and Otto Porter is (temporarily) proving he deserved his $20 million/year deal.
Unlike the Celtics, the Wizard’s are returning nearly all the players from last season’s rivalry. The individual match-ups will be great: Wall and Kyrie going toe-to-toe, Jaylen trying to stick Beal, the Morris twins going at one another, and Tatum managing the length of Washington’s wings. But please, let’s hope neither team shows up wearing all black.
Page 2: Where Marcus Smart Speaks His Mind
Marcus Smart, who had questioned his team’s effort after the Miami loss, saw that quality return against a playoff-bound opponent. Prior to its loss to Cleveland on Thursday, Chicago had won seven straight.
“We definitely thought about it,” Smart said of the Dec. 11 loss in Chicago. “As a competitor, you definitely think about those games. You know, we went into their house and they did what they were supposed to do. They took care of homecourt and they embarrassed us. So we’ve been on a tear where we’ve been slacking at our homecourt. And these fans have been sticking with us. So we knew we really had to bring it tonight.”
The C’s lost two close games against Miami and New York earlier this week. They weren’t playing with the same focus and togetherness as we saw earlier in the season. They seemed to be more frustrated, playing with an increased testiness, but they appeared to change course after a convincing win against Chicago.
Marcus Smart wasn’t holding back in expressing his dissatisfaction with the team’s play. A quick refresher, here’s what he said after the one-point loss at Miami:
“If this isn’t a wake-up call for us, I don’t know what is,” said Smart. “It’s effort. We’re not talking on the defensive end, coming down and playing one-on-one ball. It really comes down to effort. They beat us to a couple of loose balls and wanted it more than us. They got rewarded tonight.”
Through four seasons, this is the first instance of Marcus Smart speaking his mind to the media. While he’s had some fan altercations in the past, he’s usually PC when talking to reporters. This could largely be a function of him being the most veteran guy on the team, more comfortable being honest in public, but it might also be due to some deeper-rooted frustration.
I feel like Smart hasn’t gotten nearly the same attention from earlier years. Remember when he was the blue-chipper? Now, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have jumped him in the organizational pecking order. Terry Rozier, because of his improvement and increased reliability as a rotation player, has gotten more media attention than Smart.
In 30 minutes, Marcus is averaging 9.6 points and 5.0 assists, while shooting a dreadful 33.4 percent from the field and 30.7 percent from three. Despite the weight loss this year, and the “improved” shooting form before last year, he hasn’t made any progress with his outside shot. However, he has turned into one of the better passers amongst NBA bench players, and the Celtics always have a better net-rating when he’s on the court.
He’s such a defensive demon it cancels out his offensive inefficiencies. But it begs the question, how much do we actually need Marcus Smart? He’s in the last year of a rookie contract, and while the Celtics can match any offer sheet, does Danny Ainge really want to pay a backup combo-guard $10-15 million per year?
The NBA is loaded with talented point guards. The Celtics nabbed Shane Larkin after some time overseas, and he’s proving to be a competent rotation player. We have a top-3 point guard in Kyrie Irving, and Rozier is ready for more responsibility.
The Celtics won’t be able to re-sign Smart for less than $10 million. Yes, not a ton of teams will have cap space, and the market hasn’t been friendly to restricted free agents, but some team will pay Smart. He can immediately change a defensive culture and inspire tenacity amongst teammates. Atlanta or Denver – two teams with cap space – would have no issue paying Marcus Smart $15 million per year.
In that case, does it make sense to trade Smart before he hits free agency? If that happens, the improvement to the offense might be greater than the regression of the defense. Rozier isn’t the same defender as Smart – nobody in the league is – but with more opportunity, his defensive potential might be unleashed, and he clearly has more tools in his offensive arsenal.
The Celtics are creeping closer to the luxury tax threshold. The important question isn’t “are we gonna keep Smart,” it’s “how are we gonna keep Smart?”
Let’s be clear, I’m a huge Marcus Smart supporter. I love how he always performs in big games, how he competes with Westbrook-eque intensity, how he has a knack for the “winning play.” Before he retires, I really think he’ll win a Defensive Player of the Year, in addition to multiple appearances on first-team all-defense.
But I’ve been fooled into thinking his shooting would improve, fooled into thinking his weight loss would result in better finishing at the rim. Last year, the Celtics lost Kelly Olynyk for nothing. Danny hates that stuff. This will be an important situation to monitor between now and the trade deadline.
And Finally… Theis is Nice
Like any player from overseas, there always is the question of how their game will translate to the NBA. And Theis — who played eight professional seasons in Germany before coming stateside — has done exactly what he was signed by Boston to do.
The easy thing to pick on about his game is his rebounding ability, which has been an absolute game-changer for Boston. Following a 2016-17 campaign where the Celtics were manipulated on the boards nightly, the fact that they now have a player they can lean on to come off the bench and clean the glass was a much-needed addition.
But away from the stat sheet, Theis’ intangible contributions for the second unit has been imperative in the cohesiveness of the group. And in some cases, it has contributed to the growth of some players.
For instance, point guards off the bench — most fittingly Terry Rozier, who is having a breakout season of his own — have been able to drive to the hoop with that peace of mind that Theis can clear the lane. His presence in the paint on defense allows both guards and forwards to defend with a little more aggression on the perimeter than most bench units can.
Danny Ainge has been on a tear lately. Trading down from the #1 pick – widely criticized at the time – is looking like a home run. Everyone’s declaring him the winner of the Kyrie trade. His second-round pick, Semi Ojeleye, is poised for a long NBA career. The selections of Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier were once questionable, but now are paying dividends.
But lost in the slew of great moves was the acquisition of Daniel Theis. Nobody knew who he was before the Celtics signed him. In fact, some people assumed he’d be a two-way player who’d spend time in the G-League.
He’s an NBA rookie, but his years of professional experience in Germany make him look like a 10 year veteran. His numbers aren’t eye-popping – 13.1 minutes, 4.5 points, 4.2 rebounds, 50 percent shooting – but his impact is understated.
The big-man rotation was a concern entering the season. Behind Al Horford, Aaron Baynes was the only big with NBA experience, and at best he was a 9th or 10th man with San Antonio and Detroit. Theis has soaked up the center minutes behind Horford and Baynes, and his effectiveness has been a breath of fresh air for the coaching staff.
Simply, he does his job: set picks, roll hard to the hoop, clean the defensive glass, use his freakishly long arms to protect the paint, and take the occasional three to stretch the defense. The team has a +2.3 defensive rating when he’s on the floor, and as the article mentions, his ability to control the paint allows for perimeter players to increase their defensive aggression.
Maybe he’d be less effective on a worse roster, but on this Boston team, he’s providing exactly what the Celtics are lacking. Any team could have signed him, but Ainge was first to the punch, and now he’s a legitimate asset.
The NBA is not too fast or physical for Theis, and he had his best game on Saturday night, putting up 10 points and 15 rebounds against the Bulls. The Celtics still might acquire another big man via trade or through their disabled player exception. But Theis has played so well in his role, Ainge might conclude they don’t need another big. Either way, the front office is sitting pretty with its string of solid moves.
The Rest of the Links:
Herald: Wild Times with Wizards on Tap
CBS Boston: Celtics Hosting First Christmas Day Game
Washington Post: Wizards Christmas Day History