Jayson Tatum, sporting some sort of cyborg, choke-sign Reggie Miller T-shirt that Indiana native Brad Stevens would certainly approve of, plopped down in a chair for his postgame Zoom conference Tuesday night and was asked to assess Boston’s postseason preparedness.
"I think we’re ready,” Tatum declared, hammering home what Boston’s play over the past four games had already confirmed.
The Celtics can comfortably put their core players in, ahem, bubble wrap for Thursday’s seeding-game finale against the Washington Wizards. Everything has fallen into place for Boston over the past week, not the least of which is August Tatum playing like February Tatum while scoring a game-high 29 points on 10-of-13 shooting over 29 minutes as the Celtics handed a desperate Grizzlies team a 122-107 loss on Tuesday night.
Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Wizards, which begins Thursday at 11 a.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at noon. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.
The Celtics, sluggish and rust-filled early in the bubble experience, have clicked on most cylinders the past seven days. The ball has zipped around the court, the team displaying increased ball movement and highlight-quality passing that has keyed Boston’s offensive surge, which includes owning the second best offensive rating in the bubble (120.3, trailing only playoff-pushing Portland).
When one of Boston’s usual offensive weapons has had a rough night, others have stepped forward. Case in point: As Jaylen Brown labored through a 3-for-13 shooting performance Tuesday, Gordon Hayward — his bubble alter ego Stache Gordon slowly emerging — shook off his own 3-point woes to put up 19 points behind four triples. Tatum hit some absurdly tough shots (negating his five turnovers) and Kemba Walker showed more signs of being back to the All-Star form from the start of the season.
Walker put a Grizzlies defender on skates with a ruthless jab-step pull-up late in the fourth quarter. Later he noted, "Today is probably the best I’ve felt out there. I was really comfortable making my moves and stuff like that.” The next time Walker plays, the minute restriction that caused some of Boston’s early bubble turbulence will be a thing of the past. And it’s no coincidence that, as that restriction loosened, Boston started to find its groove.
Boston’s net rating inside the bubble is now plus-10.3, second only to the undefeated Phoenix Suns. The next closest Eastern Conference team is Toronto at plus-3.7.
“We’ve definitely come a long way, and we’re gelling really well,” said Walker. "Having fun, competing at a very high level.”
Not only has Boston’s core players looked ready to go but the team has found a little something in its complementary pieces as well. Second-year big man Robert Williams, who did little to kick down the playing-time door during scrimmage work, has been a revelation the past four games. He went from not getting off the bench in Boston’s early seeding games to putting together four straight eyebrow-raising efforts. In that span, Williams has averaged 11.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks over 14.8 minutes per game. He’s made 19 of his 23 shot attempts (82.6 percent) with many of his finishes coming north of the rim.
Stevens' bench, once perilously thin, looks like it can confidently lean on at least four options in the postseason. Smart and Brad Wanamaker will handle backup guard minutes while Williams and Enes Kanter should split center reps based on matchups. Stevens can mix in the occasional doses of Semi Ojeleye or Grant Williams or Romeo Langford on nights he must go deeper.
The Celtics have proven they can hang with the best of the Eastern Conference, putting a scare into Milwaukee despite spotting them a big early lead early in scrimmage play, and taking down Toronto at the height of their bubble buzz.
A matchup with injury-battered Philadelphia seems inevitable to open the playoffs. The Sixers still have plenty of talent, including old friend Al Horford, but the absence of Ben Simmons, and some uncertainty about the health of Joel Embiid, makes Philadelphia a far more agreeable foe than maybe it seemed even a week ago.
Boston’s improved level of play has helped boost the team’s confidence as well, regardless of first-round opponent.
“Obviously, we continue to get better, and I think we have from Game 1 playing down here to now,” said Tatum. "I think we just continue to get better each and every game, and that’s what you want this time of year, to continue to get better at the right time of the season.”
Barring the bizarre during Thursday’s matinee finale, the Celtics will head into the postseason playing some inspired ball and operating with a contender’s confidence.
The last four games haven’t been perfect but the Celtics have shown their potential during them. With Stevens’ ability to hone in on an opponent and an added level of focus required by the postseason, Boston has a chance to take its play even a level higher.
The last four games have shown that the Celtics are ready for what’s next.