BOSTON – The wounds are still too fresh for the Boston Celtics to put their pre-All Star break play in perspective.
Boston (40-19) has lost three straight and four of its last five games, and are not exactly playing the kind of basketball that anyone with visions of a season that spills into the month of June would want.
But just like they refused to let their 16-game winning streak earlier this season define them, the same holds true for their recent skid.
Put it this way: if you would have told Danny Ainge and the Celtics that they would have the second-best record in the East going into the break and get just five minutes of play from Gordon Hayward all season, he would gladly sign off on that and we’d chock it up to another shrewd move by Ainge.
This recent stretch has absolutely set off alarm bells that all of Brad Stevens’ talk about this team not being as good as its record, may be true.
But let’s remember the one truth in all this. Regardless of how well or woeful you play, your record at the end of the day is who you are. And the Celtics, for all the ups and downs this season, are the second-best team in the East.
And as they hit the unofficial halfway point of the season (there’s actually more like a third of the season left for most teams), here are five key takeaways to be mindful of as they try to finish out the regular season strong.
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No rookie under fifth-year coach Brad Stevens has hit the ground running like Tatum. With most first-year players, they will provide glimpses of potential greatness. Tatum’s entire season has dispelled that myth. In it’s place, we have seen a 19-year-old play with a level of poise and focus seldom seen in a player so young. He ranks among the all-time great Celtic rookies in scoring, and for a period of time was on the short list as a legit Rookie of the Year candidate. But his play the last month or so has been inconsistent, in part because of the usual rookie struggles but also because of a finger injury. Having a few days off should do wonders for the 19-year-old, both mentally and physically.
He gets a lot of credit for his play-calling, especially is A-T-O’s (after time-outs). But this season thus far, Stevens deserves a ton of credit for keeping this team from completely falling apart following Gordon Hayward’s dislocated left ankle injury just five minutes into the season. He refused to let his play through mistakes, but instead learn from film study before and after games, in addition to leaning on the team’s veterans for on and off-the-floor guidance. And in the midst of their worst stretch of play, his leadership will be vital in Boston’s ability to regain the footing that they have lost in recent weeks.
Without a true shot blocker or an established lock-down defender in the first unit, the Boston Celtics opened the season playing elite level defense from top to bottom. Through the month of December, Boston had a league-best defensive rating of 100.8 which heavily factored in them having the best record in the East for most of this season.
Dating back to Boston’s trip to London when the Celtics played Philadelphia, there has been a clear and undeniable erosion of their defensive toughness. Boston’s post-London defense rating is 104.2 which ranks eighth in the NBA since then. Injuries have been a factor, but that doesn’t excuse what has been a precipitous fall-off. Boston’s defense has been even worst in the month of February as their defensive rating fell to 109.3 which ranks 18th in the league. Marcus Smart will be ready to go immediately after the break, as will Shane Larkin who has proven to be a surprisingly better defender than the Celtics initially thought. Their return, coupled with a renewed focus defensively should be just what the Celtics need defensively to get back on course.
One of the more consistent knocks against the Celtics has been their bench and its struggles generating offense. According to hoopsstats.com, Boston’s reserves are averaging 32.1 points per game which ranks 23rd in the NBA. Of course, joining them in the bottom-10 are high-powered offenses like Houston and Oklahoma City which rely heavily on their starting fives to carry the scoring load which is evident by both ranked among the league’s top-five in points per game from starters. Meanwhile the Celtics’ starting five ranks 14th in points per game according to hoopsstats.com. But Boston’s bench production has been on an upswing lately.
In their last five games, Boston’s bench has averaged 38.0 points per game which ranks ninth in the league during that span. Headlining Boston’s offensive resurgence has been Marcus Morris.
He has reached double figures scoring in 13 of his last 14 games which includes a personal-best of 11 straight games with 10 or more points scored.
Boston has also received a nice lift off the bench lately from Terry Rozier.
Ever since he returned to the bench after getting three starts for an injured Kyrie Irving, Rozier has become a much more aggressive scorer coming off the bench. In that span, he has averaged 14.8 points, 4.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists.
When Boston made the trade, you knew Kyrie Irving would be looked upon as the team’s face-of-the-franchise leader. But leadership was not a known trait of Irving’s prior to his arrival in Boston. Those first few years in Cleveland, Irving was trying to establish himself as a player and like most of the league’s young players, he wasn’t able to provide the kind of leadership needed to be successful. Then came LeBron James, re-claiming his spot as the team’s leader. Irving wanted out in part to lead his own team, and to his credit he’s done a good job thus far. He has both challenged and encouraged his young teammates on several fronts and to their credit, have responded positively more often than not.
But Irving knows there’s more he has to give, well aware that the collective efforts of the Celtics has to be amplified during this end-of-the-season stretch leading into the playoffs.