LOS ANGELES -- This season has been like one of those choose-your-adventure books for the Celtics, with seemingly no idea of what’s coming next other than to know every change is somehow connected with one another.
And as the Celtics gear up for the final 23 games of the season, there will be developments in the coming months that will go far in determining this team’s fate.
Here are five storylines to keep tabs on as the Boston Celtics begin their post All-Star break schedule.
One of the early leaders for the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award, Jayson Tatum now finds himself a distant third at best, behind Donovan Mitchell of Utah and Ben Simmons of Philadelphia. It’s not so much that he’s now all of a sudden started playing poorly. But there's no mistaking Tatum’s impact on winning games now isn’t what it was earlier this season. He’s averaging 13.5 points, which is sixth among rookies, and is shooting 42.7 percent, which is tops among all first-year players. Since Jan. 1, Tatum has averaged 12.3 points while shooting 33.3 percent on 3s. Those are decent numbers, but Tatum has shown he has more to offer. The All-Star break should benefit him not only in terms of providing some mental relief, but also allow that his dislocated pinkie injury added time to heal. He says it hasn’t affected his shooting, but the numbers suggest otherwise. Prior to the Dec. 21 injury, Tatum shot better than 50 percent from the field and from 3-point range, while averaging 13.8 points per game. Since then, his scoring average took a slight dip to 13.2, but his field-goal percentage (44.0 percent) and 3-point shooting (32.5 percent) each dropped off noticeably. We’ll see just how a little in-season rest will be enough for Tatum.
When it comes to Marcus Smart, there’s two very distinct opinions. You either love him despite his obvious basketball flaws (shooting), or you can’t stand him and pray that the Celtics find a player who helps them more. I hate to break it to Smart’s naysayers, but his value to the C's may not be any higher than it is right now. They've lost four of their last five games, and the defense has been the main culprit. Boston had problems defensively even when Smart was healthy, so why does his return matter so much? Because we’ve seen the next-man-up mantra play out and more often than not, it works. But there comes a point in time when the players being thrust into more prominent roles remind us that consistently, more than anything, is the difference between them and the players whose absence they're trying to fill. Smart has a defensive rating of 98.9 this season, tops among all players in the NBA averaging 30 or more minutes played. That kind of elite defense for such an extended period of time is among the many reasons why his return after the All-Star break will be worth keeping an eye on.
After a slow start because of a sore left knee that kept him in and out of the Celtics lineup, Morris seemed to finally be healthy enough beginning with Boston’s Jan. 11 matchup in London against Philadelphia, in which he scored a then-season high of 19 points.
That would be the first of 11 straight double-digit scoring games for Morris, which was a first for him. More than the points, Morris’ availability has been huge. Including the Jan. 11 game against the Sixers, Morris has played in all but two games since then.
Boston will need Morris to continue along those lines, with the only question lingering around him is a pretty simple one: Will he continue to be healthy enough to contribute?
No one expected Greg Monroe to hit the ground running, with 20 points and 20 rebounds a game. But after four games, the early returns aren’t exactly overwhelming. Monroe has scored a total of 20 points and grabbed -- you got it -- a total of 20 rebounds.
At the same time, it’s still too soon to know what he’s going to bring to this team. A low-post scoring threat for sure, Monroe has also shown himself to be a decent defender. However, Boston will need Monroe to put his imprint on games in a more significant fashion going forward.
That doesn’t mean he has to score a ton of points or grab a huge haul on the glass. But he has to make his presence felt,. Otherwise his signing will have done little to move Boston towards best positioning itself for all possible scenarios that may come its way in these final regular season games as well as the playoffs.
Most of us approached this season anticipating the worst when it comes to the Boston Celtics and rebounding. The Celts havs been a bad rebounding team for years and the moves they made in the offseason didn’t spark any hints things would get better. But they did . . . a lot better. And as the wins piled up, so did the rebounds which had the Celtics regarded as one of the league’s better rebounding teams.
And then they hit a swoon and have since been trying to get back to being a good rebounding team. The results of late, have been mixed. Lots of variables go into winning; rebounding for the Celtics is one of the bigger ones. In victories this season, they averafe 4.6 more rebounds per game than they do in losses. Improving their lot in this area not only provides a chance to improve their win total, but also allows their defense to be better, play at a tempo more to their liking and just overall, be a better team.
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