The Boston Celtics have won six straight games and eight of their last nine. They own the best net rating in the NBA in the month of April and there’s a whole bunch of reasons to be optimistic about the way this team is trending entering the final 30 days of the regular season.
But it all begs what admittedly might be a premature question: Are the Celtics legitimate NBA title contenders?
There is an obvious danger in overreacting to short stretches. Heck, a month ago we were sitting here after the Celtics’ latest crunch-time crumble against the Sacramento Kings and it was fair to wonder if the team should be prioritizing draft position given their inconsistent ways and their status as a potential play-in team in the Eastern Conference.
An April surge has helped the Celtics shimmy like Antoine Walker up to the No. 4 spot in the East. With Saturday night’s win over the Golden State Warriors, Boston moved a half-game in front of the Atlanta Hawks with 15 games remaining in the regular season.
For the first 48 games of the 2020-21 season, the only thing consistent about the Celtics was their inconsistency. This team’s only identity was routinely crumbling in the fourth quarter of close games.
But as a COVID-ravaged roster has emerged from the deep recesses of the health-and-safety woods, the Celtics have put together an uber-encouraging stretch in which their calling card has been an ability to withstand adversity and produce some of their finest basketball in the biggest moments.
It still feels a bit too soon to suggest the Celtics have thrust themselves back in the conversation with the rest of the Eastern Conference elites, including the Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks. But that we’re even entertaining the option speaks to how far the Celtics have come.
Reasons to be optimistic
- The Celtics have shot up to 10th in the NBA offensive rating (113.6) and 13th in defensive rating (111.6) for the season. For the nine games in the month of April, Boston is sixth in both offensive (117.2) and defensive (108.6) rating. Its plus-8.6 net rating is best in the NBA this month.
- Jayson Tatum, after drawing scrutiny as Boston struggled against teams with other young stars like Luka Doncic and Zion Williamson, has played like a legitimate superstar. The reigning Eastern Conference player of the week might even be able to hang onto the honor given Boston’s streaking ways.
Over his last five games, Tatum is averaging 34.2 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 3.8 assists while putting up shooting splits of 54.8/50/90.5. He’s making a late surge towards an All-NBA status that would escalate the maximum-salary extension he inked last year.
More importantly, Tatum’s blossoming has aided winning and his late-game heroics are a big reason the Celtics have been able to get to the finish line of recent victories. He’s also content to step aside and let sidekick Jaylen Brown shoulder the load like he did in Boston’s win over the Lakers.
- Even as his 3-point shot continues to defy him a bit, Kemba Walker has morphed his offensive game and embraced being more of a playmaker who is making Tatum and Brown even better with the attention he draws.
Despite shooting just 32.3 percent beyond the 3-point arc in April, Walker’s field goal percentage is up this month as he sizzles near the basket. He’s also averaging 6.5 assists per game this month and his turnovers are down. Walker’s dip in usage and spike in assist percentage might just be the biggest non-Tatum reason for Boston’s surge.
- The Celtics haven’t been able to fully clear their injury report, but the more consistent presence of their top eight players has allowed this team to better define roles and forge chemistry.
Tatum and Brown have absorbed more responsibility, Walker has modified his offensive game, and Marcus Smart has downshifted his field goal attempts and put a priority on defensive disruption. Tristan Thompson has been a different player post-COVID and has helped the team stay afloat despite a thin big-man depth chart with Robert Williams sidelined for recent games.
Maybe the biggest reason for optimism with these Celtics moving forward is that, whenever the Celtics get Williams and Evan Fournier back on the floor, the team has a solid playoff rotation. The Core Four have shown an ability to thrive beside either Williams or Thompson, while Romeo Langford’s return has added defensive consistency to the bench.
Brad Stevens can confidently lean on a reserve group that includes Payton Pritchard, Langford, Fournier, and potentially new addition Jabari Parker. Suddenly the team can be more prudent in how often it deploys the likes of Grant Williams (who, to be fair, has been excellent with Fournier sidelined) or Semi Ojeleye.
Once we see Boston with a completely healthy top 10, we’ll have a better idea of just what their ceiling might be. But the recent glimpses from many of those players suggests it could truly thrust Boston into that contender conversation.
- Another big reason for confidence: The Celtics have started to respond well to adversity. Whether it’s an early deficit, an in-game offense lull, or missing a key player, the team has found a way to grind through it and emerge with the sort of wins that evaded them earlier in the season.
There’s a mental toughness and a late-game confidence about this group that simply did not exist even a few weeks ago. It still must become habit but the trend is encouraging.
Reasons to be leery
- For all their recent success, the Celtics still have to prove they can hang with the beasts of the East. They got swept by the Sixers and it’s hard not to focus on that red L next to that Philly game on April 6, even amid a sea of green Ws. Boston has feasted on some inferior competition in this stretch (Houston, Charlotte, Minnesota) and benefited from opponents like the Lakers being shorthanded.
That shouldn’t take away from what the Celtics have accomplished. Going into Denver and causing the hottest team in the league to fold like a cheap suit was particularly jarring. The Celtics have found ways to win even when Damian Lillard and Steph Curry are doing their damndest to carry their teams.
The end of this week should tell us an awful lot about just where these Celtics stand. Boston could be at just about full strength going into a ferocious back-to-back against the Phoenix Suns and Nets. How they fare against two legitimate contenders will offer far more hints about just how far they’ve come.
- Boston’s early-season inconsistencies have condemned the team to underwhelming playoff seeding. The Hawks have a fairly breezy schedule at the finish line of the regular season and Boston will have to scrap just to get a sip of homecourt advantage in Round 1 if it can emerge with the No. 4 seed. Advancing in the playoffs from that position would still mean a showdown with the East’s top seed in Round 2.
It's better than talking about the play-in tournament but the path back to the East finals alone is particularly daunting.
- Despite the improvements, this team is still hunting for both a killer instinct and the ability to play 48 minutes of consistent basketball. Boston could have KO’d the Lakers in the first quarter last week but instead threw the ball all over the Staples Center as the Celtics' third-teamers nearly kicked away a 27-point lead in the final minutes. Slow starts continue to be a problem, even as the team tightens up in the clutch.
The bottom line is that, with their recent play, the Celtics have at least thrust themselves back into the conversation as potential disruptors in the postseason. History suggests that teams don’t typically just crank it up in the final quarter of the season but, in a year unlike any other, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that Boston could make a legitimate surge.
The jury remains out, but they’ve got far more to deliberate with this team now than they did a month ago.