The Boston Celtics have been perched at the top of the NBA for so long now that it’s easy to take their winning ways for granted.
The dirty little secret is that, for the better part of more than a month now, the Celtics have been relatively mediocre. And yet it hasn’t really mattered because they just keep finding ways to win ugly.
Some of this is understandable: The Celtics spent much of January and early February decimated by injuries. But even at close to full health coming out of the All-Star break, the team has been anything but crisp.
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Boston finally has its preferred starting five back together and that group has been abysmal the past two games, logging a minus-27.8 net rating with a 138 defensive rating in 24 minutes together. Jayson Tatum has posted consecutive games with a negative plus/minus for only the third time this season and wondered out loud earlier this week if he was still hungover from his MVP weekend at the All-Star Game.
Despite all that, the Celtics just keep winning. On Saturday night, it was Tatum hitting a dazzling pull-up 3-pointer in the final seconds to lift Boston past Philadelphia in a game the 76ers so desperately needed to convince everyone they are a legitimate Eastern Conference threat.
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There was one sequence in the second half when Tatum, who had more turnovers than points early in the third quarter, looked hesitant to take an open look. That almost never happens.
Yet, when it mattered most, Tatum was calling his shot to teammate Grant Williams, predicting his game-winner before it happened. That’s what superstars tend to do.
And that's simply the way it’s been for the 2022-23 Celtics. While they have stretches of dominant play, this group has more regularly had to grind through adversity to prevail. It’s part of the reason that Tatum is fourth in the NBA in total minutes, because they’ve needed him on the court to pull out some nail-biters.
A year ago, the Celtics were a second-half juggernaut. A 51-point night from Tatum in Washington on January 23, 2022, lit Boston’s second-half fuse and the team dominated the NBA over the final 2-plus months of the season before dashing to the NBA Finals.
Since January 23, 2023, the Celtics have been just meh. Boston is 9-5 over its last 14 games and sits 14th in the NBA in offensive rating over that span. A plus-4.9 net rating overall is third in the league over those 14 games but the Celtics have had some really bad stretches even in wins.
Again, some of that can be chalked up to injuries. But, even near full health, they’ve needed to stumble into overtime to take down a team like Indiana coming out of the break.
Winning ugly has become these Celtics' trademark. Boston is now 20-8 in clutch games -- score within five points; final five minutes -- with nearly all of those clutch losses coming as part of a ridiculous nine overtime games (Boston is 4-5 in those contests). The Celtics have the second-best clutch winning percentage in the NBA behind only the Bucks.
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The starters should eventually find their mojo. Joe Mazzulla should get better at picking the closing lineups that have routinely made things more interesting than they need to be for Boston.
But it’s a positive that Boston can find ways to win without its best basketball. Its depth has been showcased throughout the past month, with Derrick White being a godsend for this team throughout. That Tatum can be a negative in consecutive road games and the Celtics can still prevail is a big step for a team that hasn’t always kept its head above water when Tatum struggles.
You have to know how to win ugly in the postseason. That was the big fear last season given Boston’s woes in clutch games during the regular season. The Celtics have to carry some of this win-ugly momentum over to the postseason to get where they want to go.
Bu the bottom line is that, even as they’ve gone more than a month looking something far less than the wrecking ball their record might suggest, this team still sits atop the NBA.
There’s still a couple levels the Celtics can kick this thing up. They’ll need to do that in order to truly compete for a title. Until then, it’s not the worst thing to keep winning ugly.