BOSTON -- The Boston Celtics (25-16) are officially at the midway point of the season after dropping a 115-99 loss at Miami.
And at this point in the season, it’s time to reminisce a bit about how things have fared not only for the team but also for the individual players.
With that, we have a few team superlatives to hand out.
Drum roll please …
Most Improved - Marcus Morris
There are other players on this Boston Celtics team who are better players than Marcus Morris. But no one has been as valuable to this team’s success this season. And he has done it by elevating his play in all phases of his game, resulting in a breakout season that has been instrumental in keeping the Celtics afloat in terms of being one of the better teams record-wise in the East. The challenge for Morris going forward is to continue to be an impactful scorer in mid-range, off-the-dribble and behind the 3-point line along with being a solid defender. If he continues to do those things and the wins continue to pile up, it won’t be long before Morris enters the conversation for the league’s Most Improved Player award.
Future All-Star - Jayson Tatum
Fans were giddy at the start of the season that Jayson Tatum would pick up where he left off in the playoffs and emerge as an All-Star alongside Kyrie Irving. Tatum’s numbers for the season have been solid, but his play hasn’t elevated to where he’s a major player in the All-Star discussion. But the fans certainly are high on Tatum’s potential, evident by him currently sitting fourth in the fans' All-Star voting among frontcourt players. The top three finishers will start in next month’s All-Star Game, which will be voted upon by fans (50 percent), media (25 percent) and players (25 percent). It’s unlikely that Tatum will be voted in by the fans (he trails third-place Joel Embiid of Philly by more than one million votes) or picked by the coaches unless Boston really starts to rack up the wins between now and the All-Star break and he plays well during that stretch.
Rising Star - Marcus Smart
Smart has established himself as one of the NBA’s better defenders, but we’re seeing him prove he can do more than just contest shots - he can make some, too. Smart, a career 29.9 percent 3-point shooter, is connecting on a career-high 35.0 percent which includes knocking down 4-of-8 attempts in Thursday’s loss to Miami. Smart’s ability to make teams pay from beyond the 3-point line does more than just get him a few more points than usual. It opens up the floor in a way that makes this Celtics offense, and his role in it, far more potent and difficult to defend.
Most Underrated - Aron Baynes
He doesn’t play a ton of minutes, but there is no mistaking the value Aron Baynes has for this Boston Celtics roster. We see it in his defense which has been among the NBA’s best for the past year and a half. But it also stands out when he’s not around, which is the case now as he continues to be on the mend from a left metacarpal fracture that will keep him sidelined at least until the middle or latter stages of next week. Baynes brings a physicality without fouling to the floor that can’t be replicated by any of his teammates. And while he doesn’t play a lot of minutes, Baynes’ ability as a defender often slows down or stops potential runs altogether before they even start, a talent that often goes unnoticed. Thursday’s loss to the Miami Heat is an example of where Baynes’ presence was definitely needed. Miami’s ability to get into the paint and finish with little to no resistance was a major factor in the loss. The same holds true for Miami enjoying a decisive 51-37 advantage in rebounds. He doesn’t clean all of that up. But again, his presence and overall impact sure would have helped Boston on Thursday.
On the rise - Robert Williams III
After a not-so-great start that included a missed flight, missed practice and the losing of his wallet twice, there was plenty of room for Williams to grow as a Celtic. And to his credit, we have seen the improvement in both his play on the court and limiting young, rookie-like mistakes off of it. Playing time early on came about because of injuries to the team’s other bigs. But as we saw more and more of Williams play, figuring out why the Celtics took a flyer on him with the 27th overall pick began to make more and more sense. He’s a long, athletic big man with a penchant for pinning shots on the glass or swatting them two or three rows deep. And on this Celtics roster, they don’t have anyone who can protect the rim the way Williams can, or run the floor and finish above-the-rim as well as he has shown the ability to do right now. He still makes mistakes defensively, blows an assignment, and at times isn’t where he needs to be on offense. But the potential and promise he has shown when given an opportunity to play is proof-positive that his best days in the NBA are indeed ahead of him.
Super sub - Gordon Hayward
This isn’t quite where we thought Hayward would be for the Celtics this season. But lately, moving Hayward to the bench has been a huge plus for Boston. He has shared the playmaking duties with Terry Rozier off the bench, and - Thursday’s debacle in Miami aside - has shown more confidence in looking to score whether it be from behind the 3-point arc, on mid-range jumpers, or occasionally getting to the rim for a layup (still working up to dunking on folks!). It remains to be seen whether Hayward will come off the bench for the rest of the season. But so far, he has looked very much like a reliable sixth man with the potential to dominate play on any given night.
Best player - Kyrie Irving
This was by far the easiest award to hand out for this team. Kyrie Irving is one of the top players in the NBA who is a ball-handling highlight reel every time he steps on the floor. He leads the Celtics with 22.6 points per game to go along with 6.4 assists and 4.8 rebounds while shooting 40.6 percent on 3’s and 49 percent from the field. We know about his scoring ability, which is fueled by his ankle-breaking handle that has left many a defender befuddled. But what has really set Irving apart this season has been his defense. He was known for many things during his time with Cleveland. Solid defense was not one of them. But in Boston, Irving has embraced the defensive teachings of the Celtics to the point where he has been among the team leaders at that end of the floor, whether it be communicating with one another or his play, which has been among the best defense played by any of the Celtics this season. Indeed, Irving is having a breakout season defensively with a defensive rating of 103.1. Combine that with efficient scoring and you have the makings of a matchup nightmare for most teams, most nights.
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