Boston Celtics midseason report card
BOSTON -- Like the rest of the NBA, the Celtics have hit the official midway point of the season. And they did so with a disappointing 115-99 road loss at Miami.
It was a fitting performance at the halfway mark of the season because on many levels, it was a game that reminded us once again how this team tends to play down to too many bad teams while getting up for the best of the best.
While that’s a great quality to have in the playoffs, not taking care of the beatable teams in the regular season only increases the degree of difficulty come playoff time, which is the last thing the Celtics need to do.
As a team, the Celtics (25-16) have left a lot of room for improvement. The same holds true for their players and as you might imagine, is reflected in their grades at the halfway point of the season:
We have talked about how insanely consistent Morris has been this season. But he has done so much more than just be consistent. He has been consistently impactful in all facets of the game. His scoring off the dribble, scoring from 3-point range, rebounding, defense, hustle plays . . . you name it and Marcus Morris this season has played at an elite level doing it. It’s to the point where Morris is slowly but surely playing his way into the All-Star conversation. And to think, this was a guy the Celtics were essentially forced to make a deal for because of the actual salary cap coming in lower than expected after they had already come to terms on a deal involving Gordon Hayward. So they shipped out Avery Bradley for Morris, who has played his way into being arguably the best bang-for-your-buck player in the NBA this season.
The numbers put up by Kyrie Irving this season are consistent with what he has done in the past, but this has been a season unlike any he has had before. Irving came into this season with the benefits that come with good health, wisdom, and an unspoken dogma to be this team’s undisputed leader. Gradually, he's shown improvement in finding that balance between leading by example and with words. And make no mistake about it: Irving’s leadership, particuarly during times when the Celtics were hovering around the .500 mark, was critical to this team staying the course to finish out the first half of the season playing some of their best basketball. The numbers are strong, obviously. But the leadership component to what he has done has in many ways been just as valuable and like most of what this team has accomplished this season, remains a work in progress.
After a lackluster start to the season, Boston’s energy level as a team soared to new heights almost immediately after Smart was inserted into the starting lineup. Since then, the Celtics are 15-6. And while his scoring numbers may be taking a dip this season, his impact on winning has never been greater. You hear players talk all the time about their desire to win and do whatever it takes to make that happen, but few players put those words into action as consistently as Smart. And while his scoring might be on the decline, he’s actually shooting the ball better than he has like, ever. And being a more efficient scorer while taking fewer shots is indeed a winning combination for Smart and the Celtics.
The goals set for Tatum, both by himself and from others, were ridiculously high with many predicting he would be a first-time All-Star this year. Tatum has not played at that level consistently, which has drawn criticism in some circles about the second-year forward. But a weekend trip to Boston by shooting czar Drew Hanlen, as reported by NBC Sports Boston, has brought about a more assertive Tatum. Since the shooting sessions with Hanlen, the Cetics are 3-1 with Tatum averaging 17.8 points in the process. And while you don’t hear much about his defense and rebounding, those are also areas Tatum has made strides in this season. The play of late is indeed better, but it hasn’t totally masked what was a ho-hum start to things.
Injuries robbed Horford of nine games this season, which included seven in a row because of a patellofemoral pain syndrome injury in his left knee. He has been better since then, but his playing time will likely stay in the high-20s, low-30 minute range for the rest of the season. And the strategic rest plan they have for Horford is to best ensure he’s good to go when the postseason arrives, which is when the minutes for him are likely to rise, too. When he has played, Horford has been solid as ever. But you get the feeling that the big, breakout-type games that Horford delivers from time to time are going to be fewer and farther between going forward.
A broken left hand injury has kept Aron Baynes sidelined for the past couple of weeks. But when healthy, there’s no doubting the impact he makes. He had the league’s best defensive rating a year ago and thus far, he’ll be on the short list of elite defenders once again this season. But like most players, Baynes is showing he can impact the games in more ways than just his defense. You can add Baynes to the list of stretch bigs who will look to score from beyond the 3-point line as well as around the rim. Baynes is shooting 32.4 percent from 3-point range this season, which is pretty good considering how quickly the big man has added the long-range shot to his game.
Few would have envisioned Hayward being at his best as a supersub for Boston, but that is the role he is cast in. And by all indications, it is a role that he is becoming increasingly more comfortable with as time passes. Boston has benefited greatly from Hayward’s ability as a playmaker. And the last few games he has become a more aggressive scorer, which has given the Celtics' second unit a major boost. Hayward has had an uneven first half of the season, no doubt. Part of that was expected when you consider he missed all but the first five minutes of last season recovering from a left ankle/leg injury. But it’s clear that Hayward is playing his best basketball now which has helped the Celtics. And the best part for Hayward and the Celtics? He still has plenty of room for improvement.
Terry Rozier is an example of what happens when expectations are based on opportunity one year being the same as another. As we’ve seen with Rozier this season, his role is very different than it was a year ago when minutes were plentiful. But with Kyrie Irving in good health, chances to play major minutes have been few and far between for Rozier. And the improvement so many of us felt we would see in his play just hasn’t materialized as well as we thought. In three starts filling in for Irving, Rozier has averaged just 11.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 2.7 steals per game.
A right plantar fascia tear injury forced him to miss six games earlier this season. His return was a mixed bag in which the moments of solid play led to a good deal of inconsistent play throughout the early part of the season. But the last couple of weeks have reminded us as to why Danny Ainge and the Celtics think so highly of Theis, who has given them solid play in the frontcourt in helping Boston ease the loss of not having Aron Baynes available.
With Gordon Hayward’s return coupled with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and the surprisingly strong play of Marcus Morris, it was clear that minutes would be somewhat limited this season for Ojeleye. A stand-in-the-corner-shooting-3’s-all-game player a season ago, Ojeleye has looked to dribble-drive into the lane with the goal being to finish at the rim a lot more than we saw during his rookie campaign last season. It has allowed Ojeleye to be a more well-rounded player offensively. Combine that with his usually solid play at the other end of the floor, and the Celtics have a player that doesn’t play much but has shown himself to be ready when called upon if he’s asked to play a more prominent role.
No Celtics player this season has had to adjust more than Brown. He went from being the team’s No. 2 scorer a year ago to a reserve who for weeks seemed to struggle with consistent play and full understanding of what he needed to do in order to help the Celtics win while still playing to his strengths. Well, in the last month or so, Brown has been delivering with the kind of consistency and impact that Boston desperately needs from arguably their most athletically gifted wing player. Brown is averaging 12.0 points per game this season, and came into the month of January having increased his scoring average every month beginning with 10.9 points in October. But Brown’s defense, which was supposed to be one of his strengths, has not been as good as he or the Celtics expected this season. He has had some pretty public assignment-related miscues that have shined a light probably a little brighter than expected on those mistakes.
The jury is still out on what to make of Yabusele. He shows signs here and there of being someone who can help the Celtics. But it’s still not clear exactly what his role has to be in order for both him and Boston to be successful. He has not played (coaches' decision) in 12 games and missed another five with a sprained ankle injury.
ROBERT WILLIAMS III
When the Celtics drafted Robert Williams III, there was no real expectation that he would be anything more than an end-of-the-bench player who would likely log more time with Boston’s G League affiliate than the Celtics. While that remains true, Williams has shown tremendous potential in the spot duty he has received. And with injuries earlier this season to all four guys ahead of him in the big man pecking order -- Al Horford, Aron Baynes, Daniel Theis, and Guerschon Yabusele -- Williams has had more chances than anticipated to showcase his skills. The ability to be an elite rim-protector defensively and rim-runner offensively has thus far been as good as any of Boston’s current allotment of big men. But he is a rookie and makes his share of rookie mistakes (out of position defensively, fouling unnecessarily, picking up a tech for doing a chin-up on the rim after a dunk). But the more he plays, the more comfortable he looks in executing whatever game plan Brad Stevens and the Celtics have for him. He is indeed a work in progress, but has shown noticeable growth from the start of the season up to this point.
As the third point guard, Wanamaker knew coming in that minutes would be few and far between. Talking to his teammates, they tell me that Wanamaker has the kind of confidence that gives them confidence he’ll be fine when he gets an opportunity to play. So far, Wanamaker has been just that. In Boston’s win over Dallas, Wanamaker drained a couple of 3-pointers near the end of the half to help lift Boston’s lead to double figures right before the half.