Five factors to watch for the Celtics to finish the season on a high note
BOSTON -- The All-Star break has arrived and the Boston Celtics, by anyone’s account, aren’t where they want to be. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that their play this month, while certainly filled with a couple of clunkers, has on many levels reinforced the belief they're still one of the front-runners to emerge out of the East, even if their record (37-21) might suggest otherwise. They go into the break with wins in their last two games: a huge road win at Philadelphia, which they followed less than 24 hours later with a win over a Detroit team that, like the Sixers, came in playing some of its best basketball of the season.
Here’s a look at five factors to keep an eye on as the Celtics gear up for the final stretch of the season beginning at Milwaukee on Thursday.
Gordon Hayward's growth
The last two games have been the kind of breakout performances the Celtics have been longing to see. But with Hayward, it isn’t so much the scoring and assists that stand out lately. It’s the attacking manner in which he is approaching the game. There’s a more conscious effort on his part to be aggressive as both a scorer and drive-and-kick playmaker.
For the season, Hayward is averaging 5.3 drives per game according to NBA.com/stats. But over the last two games, we have seen that number increase to 8.5, which serves as a clear indication of him feeling more comfortable attacking the rim than we saw earlier this season. And that’s looking more and more like the final hurdle he needs to cross in order to have a meaningful discussion about whether the 6-foot-8 Hayward is indeed close to being back to his pre-injury self.
Healthy Kyrie Irving
We all knew Kyrie Irving was due to miss some games this season, if for no other reason than to keep him as healthy as possible. And Boston has done a nice job of getting players to step up when Irving is out. This season, the Celtics are 9-2 without Irving in the lineup. But coach Brad Stevens was quick to squash any notions that the Celtics are better off without Irving.
“We need Kyrie to be the best version of ourselves,” Stevens said. “And we all need to be -- we all need to consistently play better as a group. We’ve done that at times, and we’ve rode Kyrie in a lot of cases, and he’s carried us in a lot of games. And we need everybody at their fullest and there’s no question about it, that he’s -- he is -- he’s going to be a guy that is going to make a ton of plays for us moving forward. We just need him to get healthy.”
Awesome Al Horford
A technical foul and a flagrant-1 call against Al Horford in the last couple games speaks to how edgy he has been on the floor for Boston lately. He has always been a leader who let his work on the floor, not in the locker room, do the talking for him.
True to form, Horford has elevated his play at a time when the Celtics seemed on the cusp of splintering following comments made by Marcus Morris about the team and some of the issues impacting their play at times. Morris’ words seemed like they ushered in a put-up-or-shut-up approach to the game, with no one embodying this more than Horford. And he's done it against high-caliber competition. That's the kind of play that provides another clue as to what the Celtics need to do in order to continue on their winning ways when they return from the All-Star break.
Better Brad Stevens
Brad Stevens is dealing with a level of second-guessing and increased scrutiny unlike anything he has faced since becoming the Celtics coach in 2013. But to his credit, he doesn’t show any signs of being overly concerned. There’s no getting around how, for whatever reason, this team has made noticeable improvement in recent weeks. Despite blowing double-digit leads to the Lakers and the Clippers, they're still in a very good place in terms of their play.
And that point -- how they play -- is why Stevens isn’t tripping out about a loss here and there. Of greater concern to him is how the team is playing, which of late has been pretty solid. Stevens’ ability to motivate guys and keep them focused has been better lately. That combination will give Boston a great shot of continuing to hold its own.
Play teams, not schedule
We have seen the Celtics struggle and at times lose to teams that shouldn’t even be competing with them, let alone coming away with a win. Far too often, they focus more on an opponent’s not-so-great record than the opponent’s play. But Boston has 24 games remaining and won’t have the luxury of taking teams for granted.
Of those 24 remaining games, 14 are against teams with an above-.500 record. And of the 10 sub-.500 teams, most are within a game or two of the eighth and final playoff spot. If the Celtics intend to build off of their strong finish heading into the break, they can’t ease their way into this final stretch. For the Celts to get home-court advantage in the postseason, they'll need to finish strong.