The Boston Celtics' often nauseating 2020-21 roller coaster ride finished the first half of its voyage on the upswing with the green winning four straight games to arrive at the midway point at 19-17 overall.
The good news: Despite their uneven ways, the Celtics currently sit in the top half of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. The bad news: Boston is closer to No. 10 Indiana than it is to No. 3 Milwaukee and still hasn’t quite distinguished itself the way that East kingpins Philadelphia and Brooklyn did late in the first half.
In fact, the Celtics rarely showed as championship material and general manager Danny Ainge wasn’t bashful in admitting as much. But there’s a lot of time to cure what ails this team, and Ainge still has a few weeks to inject the sort of talent that could better position this team to compete with the elite.
So, what exactly did we learn about the Celtics over their first 36 games? Some first-half takeaways:
With the ascension of the Jays, anything is possible.
Bumps were expected out of the gate. Perhaps not this much turbulence, but some bumps nevertheless. Nothing was more important over the first 36 games, however, than Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown taking the next step in their developments. Both are headed to Atlanta this weekend to participate in the All-Star game after dazzling for stretches of the first half.
Brown played at an All-NBA level for the first month of the season. Tatum has shown the ability to take over in crunch time. Both have taken steps even from what they displayed in the bubble.
Tatum battled COVID-19 and admitted he has some lingering effects in the aftermath. Brown dealt with knee tendonitis that forced him to miss a trio of games in February. But the progress the Jays displayed, and their ability to embrace being the focal points of the teams, were the most important aspect of the first half.
For all of the green's struggles, the progress of Tatum and Brown suggests that Boston’s championship window is open and the Celtics must maximize every moment of the next four seasons.
There are still strides to be made, including how the Jays can make each other better and how they can elevate the players around them, but the future is bright with two Top 20 players -- both aged 24 or younger and playing a position of premium importance -- on Boston’s roster.
Injuries made it difficult to know if this team is truly elite.
Kemba Walker spent the start of the season rehabbing his knee. Just as he was returning, Marcus Smart injured his calf. Halfway through the season, Boston’s four-man core of Tatum, Brown, Walker, and Smart has played just 28 minutes together in a measly two games.
Now, it’s not fair to suggest that all of Boston’s struggles in the first half were the result of injuries. And even with health woes, this team should not have been under .500 in late February.
But in typical Celtics fashion, we’re left yearning to know what this team might look like at full strength. Can a Celtics offense that ranked 12th in efficiency in the first half better harness its individual talents? Can the team produce the ball movement that coach Brad Stevens so desperately yearns for and unlock its full potential?
More concerning, Boston’s defense has not played at a championship level for much of the year and entered the break ranked 16th in defensive rating.
Will Smart’s return be enough to get Boston to find the consistency it has lacked on the defensive end? More importantly, can Boston get the big defensive stop when it needs it most? The C's too often crumbled in crunch time, though Boston did win four straight clutch games -- score within five points in the final five minutes -- to close out the first half.
Rest Kemba = Best Kemba.
A rested Walker looked like a real difference-maker. Just look at the difference in his splits between one and two days rest during the first half:
Walker certainly didn’t look himself early in his return. He didn’t have the same bounce, he struggled to finish near the basket, and it led to an awful lot of consternation about his fit alongside the improved Jays.
Those long-time concerns might still be valid. But near the tail end of the first half, Walker elevated his play -- especially after sitting on the second night of back-to-backs -- and offered some very encouraging glimpses about how he can help this team.
Walker needs to continue to ramp up his playmaking, find spots to be old-school pick-and-roll-heavy Kemba when the Celtics’ offense goes cold, and keep giving big-time energy on the defensive end. If he can do that, then good things will happen. Getting Walker to feel really good about his knee before the playoffs arrive has to be a top priority in the second half.
Robert Williams needs a consistent role.
The Celtics have (finally) unleashed the Time Lord, his playing time spiking to 18.9 minutes over the final 10 games of the first half. In that span, Williams averaged 8.9 points while shooting 74.1 percent from the floor to go along with seven rebounds, two blocks, and 1.8 assists per game.
Williams’ energy has been huge for a Boston team that desperately needed a jolt. He’s a luxury for a sometimes stagnant offense that can simply throw the ball near the rim and watch him float his way to completing a loud alley-oop dunk.
The Celtics are probably going to lean on more single-big lineups in the second half, which complicates matters a bit at the center spot where Tristan Thompson, Daniel Theis, and Williams are all clamoring for time.
But Stevens has to make sure Williams has a consistent role and allow him to build off the progress we’ve seen now. Williams doesn’t have to start, but he and Payton Pritchard can spearhead a strong and efficient second-unit attack.
Danny Ainge needs to tidy up this roster.
Injury woes didn’t help matters, but the Celtics simply have too much youth and redundancy with their roster. Ainge needs to not only infuse talent with the traded player exception but prune the edges as well.
Beyond Pritchard and Williams, few bench players truly seized their opportunity in the first half. We’d make the case that rookie Aaron Nesmith was starting to -- and hopefully his recent disappearance doesn’t impact his confidence -- but Stevens couldn’t lock in on a rotation because few options consistently impacted winning.
Ainge needs to find the right TPE prize -- hey there, Harrison Barnes! -- to solidify the 4 spot, and maybe he can send out a few bodies so that Stevens can hone in on a nine-man rotation, then lean on deep depth options only when the schedule is unrelenting.
The East is good and that's a problem.
Joel Embiid might be the league MVP. The Nets smoked the Celtics on Christmas even before they added James Harden. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the two-time reigning MVP and the Bucks have better pieces around him with the addition of Jrue Holiday.
Getting out of the second round of the East playoffs is going to be no picnic. It’s all the more reason why Ainge has to be aggressive in adding talent to this roster for the stretch run.