The NBA might only be at the midpoint of the 2021-22 season but, borrowing from the local football squad, it feels like wild card weekend for the Boston Celtics, too.
After limping to the finish line of calendar year 2021, the Celtics have won five of their last seven games -- and that might be an unblemished stretch if not for a couple of head-slapping losses to the Spurs and Knicks -- and have given first-year president of basketball operations Brad Stevens a reason to ponder the team’s path forward a bit longer.
A back-to-back with the Sixers -- a team that had won seven straight to surge to fifth in the East before tripping up against the Hornets on Wednesday night -- and the conference-leading Bulls will tell us a whole lot more about whether the Celtics have made honest-to-goodness progress or if the recent stretch was fool’s gold aided by a weak schedule.
I know, I know. We’ve been here before plenty of times over the last two-plus seasons. It feels like the Celtics are waiting in perpetuity for full health and a chance to truly launch with this group.
What’s more, take out the Suns win on New Years’ Eve and there’s not exactly a signature win in a stretch where the Celtics needed a feverish late-game rally to beat the basement-dwelling Magic in overtime, then got bailed out by a Jayson Tatum late-game make that aided an overtime win against the Pacers earlier this week.
Getting steamrolled by the Sixers and/or Bulls would only confirm that this team needs to embrace a future focus and embrace the reality that it hasn’t played with the sort of consistency that suggests it can make any noise from the bottom of the East playoff bracket.
But there are slight glimmers of hope from this recent stretch.
The Celtics have a sizzling net rating of plus-12.1 in the 129 minutes the Jays have shared the floor since December 31. Most encouraging: Boston’s offensive rating pops to 114.1 in that span, a notable spike for a team that ranks 22nd overall this season while scoring 108.6 points per 100 possessions.
Amid the “blow it up!” narrative that gained steam after the Celtics coughed up a 25-point lead in New York, the Jays have seemingly found inspiration in the suggestion they can’t lead Boston forward together. Jaylen Brown is in the middle of a stretch that has seen him: erupt for a career-high 50 points to spark the Orlando comeback, dish out a career-best 11 assists in a win over the Knicks, and grab a career-best 15 rebounds in Monday’s rock fight with the Pacers.
The icing on the cake: Brown and Tatum paired up for 67 points on matching 11-for-19 shooting lines with 11 3-pointers in Wednesday’s 119-100 triumph over the Pacers. Beyond letting off the gas a bit late in the second quarter, it was Boston’s best wire-to-wire offensive performance.
Mix in Robert Williams’ best stretch of his pro career and it’s OK to be slightly enthused about what we’ve seen lately. Ime Udoka has leaned a bit too heavily on a playoff-caliber rotation but has also made some subtle tweaks to personnel that have helped diminish some of Boston’s late-game woes.
You can absolutely quibble with the strength of schedule. But it was Brown who famously noted after the Magic game that, "We just needed to f—ing win.”
Beggars can't be choosers. The Celtics have cobbled their way back to .500 but still linger in 10th place in the East (and tied with the Knicks at 21-21 overall). Brown continues to say all the right things while noting that he’s not satisfied with where the team stands even after this stretch.
Stevens has choices to make about how he tinkers with this roster before February’s trade deadline. He’s repeatedly noted that he won’t overreact to single games. Udoka has noted that, despite Boston’s many infuriating collapses, he takes solace in the fact that the team has been competitive in all but a small handful of games.
We’ve suggested in this space that, given the team’s inconsistencies, it might be better for the Celtics to adopt a future focus. That would mean trading veterans for assets and opening time to better examine the youngsters on this roster. All with the goal of best positioning the team to add talent this summer and hit the ground running for the 2022-23 season.
If you’re of the ilk that there isn’t much of a difference between selecting 18th or 12th in the draft, then maybe you’d prefer Stevens seek low-budget shooting upgrades that this team so clearly needs, maintain some of the veteran pieces, and keep crossing his fingers that things will eventually fall into place. There should always be hesitation in punting on any season that Tatum and Brown are healthy.
But the bottom line here is that it feels like the games on Friday and Saturday mean something. We had hoped to have a definitive feel on this team coming out of December but the NBA’s COVID woes and the team’s roller coaster ways didn’t help carve that path.
The next two games might. Because it’s one thing to stick on this roller coaster if it’s clear this ascent might continue. It’s probably better to bail if there’s another dip ahead because we can all go get in line for the next attraction.