After spending much of the past three months atop the NBA, the Boston Celtics slipped to second in the Eastern Conference with Monday’s loss in New York.
The Celtics are not the offensive juggernaut they were for much of the first quarter of the season. Despite some bumps in the road, the team is still on a 56-win pace and there are still positives to pluck as the team tries to find its mojo over the final stretch of the 2022-23 regular season.
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Here are four encouraging trends as the Celtics prepare for a 20-game sprint with the Milwaukee Bucks that could determine the top seed in the Eastern Conference:
+37.2: Boston’s net rating without Jayson Tatum since the All-Star break
Even as Tatum has struggled with his shot since his MVP performance at All-Star weekend, this still feels like it must be a typo, right?
No, the Celtics have been outscored by 32 points in Tatum’s team-high 115 minutes of floor time in the three games since the break. What’s more, Boston has outscored opponents by 24 in Tatum’s 34 minutes on the bench.
The encouraging spin here: The Celtics are showcasing their depth and thriving in non-Tatum minutes, something this team has struggled with in recent seasons. Boston sits at a minus-0.2 net rating in Tatum’s 855 total minutes on the bench this year. That’s part of the reason why Tatum has logged heavy minutes, with coach Joe Mazzulla feeling a need to keep him on the floor to win games.
If the Celtics can continue to keep their head above water in non-Tatum minutes once he’s back to playing like an MVP candidate, then they will be exceptionally tough to beat.
51.9: Malcolm Brogdon’s 3-point percentage over Boston’s last 11 games
Brogdon leads the NBA while shooting 46.4 percent beyond the arc, and his number has only climbed in recent weeks.
When the Celtics ripped off seven wins in eight games starting in early February, Brogdon connected on 20 of 34 (58.8 percent) triples.
Over his last 11 games, Brogdon is averaging 17.1 points while shooting 54.8 percent overall, including 51.9 percent beyond the 3-point arc.
Three of Brogdon's top five performances in Game Score, a John Hollinger-created metric that distills a player’s nightly stat line down to a single number based on box score production and efficiency, have come in that 11-game stretch. Brogdon had a monster night (24 points on 9-of-12 shooting with five 3-pointers) while posting a season-best game score of 25.8 against the Pacers. His game score of 23.1 versus the Detroit Pistons right before the All-Star break ranks as his third-best mark of the year.
It sure feels like Brogdon is strengthening his grasp on the Sixth Man of the Year award, even as he’s repeatedly stated that his focus is on winning a title.
+117: Derrick White’s team-leading plus/minus for February
White, who earned a much-deserved Player of the Week nod earlier this month, has been exceptional throughout the month of February. At +117, he sat behind only the Denver duo of Nikola Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. entering Tuesday’s action.
It’s even more remarkable when you consider the output of his teammates. The next closest Celtic for the month of February is Sam Hauser at +70. The next closest regular is Al Horford at nearly half of White’s output (+59).
White, despite his own bumps, bruises, cuts, and busted eardrum, is still the only Celtics player to appear in every game this season. For February, he is averaging 20.4 points while shooting 50 percent from the floor and 44.3 percent beyond the 3-point arc while adding 5.8 assists, 4.4 rebounds, 0.7 blocks, and 0.6 steals per game.
In a stretch where the Celtics were ravaged by injuries, White kept the team afloat and didn’t take his foot off the accelerator when the team was at closer to full health coming out of the break.
53: Minutes played by Boston’s preferred starting 5 this season
Boston’s preferred starting 5 logged a mere 29 pre-All-Star break minutes together, including one start. The good news: That group has already had two starts (and 24 total minutes together) in three games coming out of the break.
The bad news: That lineup has really struggled with a net rating of minus-11.8 over the 53 total minutes. Despite some encouraging moments, particularly when they are moving the ball on offense, the preferred 5 have struggled in their reunion. Particularly on the defensive end, they look little like the group that routinely clamped opponents at the end of last season.
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We feel pretty confident suggesting they’ll get back closer to the juggernaut lineup that fueled Boston’s playoff run last season. The key is simply staying healthy enough to rekindle that magic before the finish line of the regular season.
Wednesday’s visit from the Cleveland Cavaliers should provide another glimpse of that group. Given the way the Cavaliers used their size to prevail in two early-season meetings while Robert Williams III was rehabbing from offseason knee surgery, Wednesday could be a nice gauge of how the field has leveled with Boston’s preferred 5 available. Remember, the Cavaliers could be a second-round matchup for Boston depending on how the seedings shake out.
The more important part here: The Celtics were rarely at full health over the first half of the season — playing 25 games without one starter, 16 games without two starters, and 6 more games without three or more starters. That’s nearly 80 percent of Boston’s first 59 games without at least one starter on the court.
Better health could deliver the consistency this team has lacked lately.