Part of what makes watching the Boston Celtics so infuriating is that they are capable of tantalizing performances like Monday night when, amidst all the noise about the team’s murky path forward, the Green delivered one of their most inspired all-around efforts in a 117-103 triumph over the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks.
The vultures were circling after the Celtics limped back from a 1-4 West Coast trip with a sub-.500 record. There were valid questions about the future of this team and how they should proceed. None of that should vanish after one win, but Boston at least hit the mute button on some of the chatter by showcasing their potential when healthy and engaged.
Maybe it was Ime Udoka’s marathon film session. Maybe it was being back home after a long trip. Maybe it was adding an All-Star back to the starting lineup. But we’d be willing to bet that some of the over-caffeinated speculation about the future of the team’s core players undoubtedly added a little motivation for the Celtics.
Marcus Smart hinted as much when asked if he was concerned about Boston’s status as a .500 team over the past two-plus seasons.
"We got to continue to go out there and shut the outside world out as much as possible, and try to do our best to change this thing around,” said Smart. "I mean, I don't know what people want us to sit up here and say, like, ‘Yeah, we expected to be .500 or less.’ Like, no we don’t. ...
"Some people’s paths are different than others. Some take longer, some are shorter, some easier, some harder. Right now we got one of those harder paths that we have to kind of find our way through. It's only a matter of time. Hopefully it's not too late for us.”
Smart has been ice cold beyond the 3-point line lately but he put his focus on playmaking and defense on Monday night. He produced a team-high 11 assists to fuel Boston’s jazzed-up ball movement and also held Khris Middleton scoreless in four minutes of matchup time (Celtics-killer Middleton was 0-for-4 shooting when defended by Smart then departed early due to injury).
Jaylen Brown overcame another injury scare after bumping knees early but scored 19 points over 30 minutes. More encouraging, he handed out five assists, easily his highest non-overtime total of the season. One of those helpers set up a first-quarter 3-pointer for Jayson Tatum and the two paired especially well on the court where Brown’s presence seemed to loosen things up for an ultra-aggressive Tatum.
In 27 minutes of shared floor time, the Celtics had a net rating of plus-37.9 when Tatum and Brown were on the court together. That included a sizzling offensive rating of 143.1 and an assist percentage of 74.2.
"You can’t double us both,” said Brown. "So just being out there, I think takes pressure off of JT. Being able to play without seeing double teams and even at times triple teams. So if I’m out there and you’re doubling him, then I’m going to be aggressive. And if you double me, then he’s going to look to be aggressive. And just playing with the ball a little bit more in my hands and trying to find guys and making the right plays. That’s it."
For all the Celtics' warts -- and let’s be clear here again, they’re not removed based on one good night against a Bucks team that was on the second night of a road back-to-back -- the play of a healthy core has been the one thing that team brass can cling to.
Consider this: Boston’s four-man core of Smart, Brown, Tatum, and Robert Williams own a net rating of plus-19.5 in 170 minutes of floor time in 10 appearances this season. That’s the fifth best mark in the league among all four-man lineups with at least that much floor time.
Alas, much of the good from Boston’s core has been erased by inconsistent bench play, or the core’s own propensity to wane in intensity. On Monday night, with three days of rest ahead, Udoka was able to tighten to a playoff-like rotation and reaped the benefits as Boston stiff-armed all of Milwaukee’s second-half surges.
Regardless of what happens from here, the biggest question facing Boston is whether the team’s four-man core can continue to thrive together. The team still has flexibility moving forward but Brad Stevens banked heavy on that core this summer while extending both Williams and Smart and slotting them in starting roles alongside the pillars of Tatum and Brown.
And that core can’t succeed alone. Boston’s lack of shooting has hindered that core. On the positive side, Grant Williams and his 3-point shot have been a revelation, and Romeo Langford continues to play inspired defense whenever called upon. The Dennis Schroder roller coaster is a wild ride but he’s a luxury in a sixth-man role who should be reeled in on nights like Monday when his shot isn’t falling.
Ultimately, the question is whether Boston can bottle up what we saw Monday night. Can they play with the same intensity when it’s not the defending champions on the other side? Can they avoid the wild shifts in efficiency from one quarter to the next and really tap into their full potential?
It’s on the core of this team to ensure they don’t get splintered.