Alright Celtics fans… we’re more than halfway through the season. The Celtics currently sit at 39-16 through 55 games. The all-star break is always a great time to sit back, take stock of the season and try to project how the rest of the year will play out. In this post I’m going to run through a collection of thoughts and observations that have been on my mind as the season has progressed. If you missed my part 3 breakdown which includes a breakdown of the games before all-star break, you can check it out here. Now, let’s look ahead to where the Celtics could potentially land, what they need to do to get there and why I think they will be able to…
Approaching the Stretch Run…
The Celtics need that second seed. The Milwaukee Bucks have established themselves as the best team in the Eastern Conference if not the entire NBA. They have a 6.5 game lead over the second place Toronto Raptors and it doesn’t seem like their march to the 1 seed will slow down any time soon. That makes attaining the 2-seed a huge priority. The numbers 2 through 6 seeds in the Eastern Conference include the Raptors at 40-15, our Celtics at 38-16, Miami (35-19), Philly (34-21) and Indy (32-23). 8 games separate that group from each other. For the Celtics, getting that 2 seed means not only avoiding any of those 4 teams in round 1 but also avoiding Milwaukee until at least the Conference Finals. There’s a huge difference between playing a healthy Indiana team in round 1 vs. a banged up Brooklyn Nets team. The Celtics need to come out of the all-star break on fire and I believe they will do it. The Raptors have been impressive in the way they have strung together wins and the C’s will need to do the same to close that gap. There are a few factors I believe will contribute to the Celtics rise to the top (which you can read below). Most importantly though, the Celtics need a healthy team. A fully functional and complete Boston Celtics team can beat anyone in the NBA and that includes the vaunted Milwaukee Bucks with the Greek Freak. I predict that the Celtics will finish with that second seed and see the Bucks in the Conference Finals with a chance to go to the NBA finals. Read below to see why I feel so confident…
- The Rise of Jaylen Brown: Before the season began, it seemed as if the Celtics and Jaylen Brown were at a crossroads. He had played 3 seasons with the Celtics and showed flashes of greatness that crescendoed with his tremendous run in the 2018 playoffs. However, the 2018-19 season saw Brown take a step back. He struggled to fit in with Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward and was even relegated to the bench as Coach Stevens sought out a solution to their season long chemistry issues. Despite the setback, Danny Ainge decided to resign Brown to a 4 year/$115 million contract this past offseason. Brown is one of my favorite players of these post-Truth Celtics teams so I was overjoyed at the signing and the show of faith by the Celtics organization. However, to the rest of the NBA landscape the signing was a joke. hOw CoUld a PlAyEr wHo aVeRaGeD 13 pOiNtS pEr gAmE bE wOrTh 28.75 million per season?? Well… what if that player upped his averages to 20 ppg, 6.4 rpg and 2.2 apg (all career highs) while still retaining his elite defensive skills? Jaylen Brown’s ascension this season has been one of the top stories of this Celtics season and I couldn’t be happier for him. It’s been even better for us as fans though in that we can drop a solid and confident “told you so” to everyone who doubted Jaylen Brown. #Celticnation never doubted Brown would become one of the best two-way players in the NBA, now he’s proving it.
- The Kemba Walker Signing: Allow me a moment to set the scene… The 2018-19 season was over; the Milwaukee Bucks had just trounced the Celtics in 4 straight games in the semifinals to move onto the Eastern Conference Finals. The Celtics looked listless and unconcerned for all 4 games after a getting a raucous game 1 win. In its wake, the fanbase was pissed off and despondent. After only a couple of weeks, we would learn that Kyrie Irving was going to sign with the Brooklyn Nets; Al Horford would sign with the Philadelphia 76ers and Marcus Morris would go with the New York Knicks…. Just like that, our promising future was in shambles. Out of the ashes, Kemba Walker miraculously walked through our doorstep. The happy, smiling, stone cold killer out of the Bronx was becoming a Boston Celtic. It’s hard to quantify how much Kemba has meant to our team this year but in the most simple way possible I’ll say he’s meant everything. He stabilized a roster that was close to imploding, he’s instilled confidence in young players, he’s brought Gordon Hayward back to form and he’s been a shot of adrenaline in this whole team and organization since the day he walked in. Always smiling, always happy to be playing the game; Kemba has set a tremendous example for the type of players the Celtics want to attract. I don’t want to disparage past Celtics here but this 2019-20 season has felt different from the start. None of the negativity that swirled around the Celtics last year is present and I think Kemba is the primary reason for that. Kemba brings heart, hustle, pride and soul into every game he plays and Celtics fans like myself have fallen in love with him for that. In college, he went by Cardiac Kemba and I cannot wait to see that version of him grace the NBA playoffs stage in his Celtic green jersey.
- “President” Brad Stevens’ Return: Last season Brad Stevens caught a lot of the blame for the Celtics underwhelming season. Some of it was deserving. Stevens brought the Celtics from 25 wins in his first season to 40, 48, 53 and 55 wins in his next 4. However, his sixth season with the franchise saw the Celtics underperform with 49 wins and a 4th place finish amid locker room controversies and chemistry issues. Stevens just couldn’t find the right combination of players to put together a cohesive unit and that led to inconsistency on the court. Sure, a lot of the blame lies with the players and GM Danny Ainge but I also think Stevens could have done a better job with the rotations and getting the most out of his guys. For the first time in his career, us fans began to second guess some of his decisions. This season though has seen “President” Stevens re-establish himself as one of the best coaches in the NBA. Throughout his entire tenure, Stevens has always pushed the right buttons, inserted the right players and ran the right plays. This season we’ve seen that consistency reemerge. As we get closer to the playoffs, the little things start to matter more in the nuance of an NBA game. For the Celtics, having Stevens as a coach gives them an edge heading into any series with any of the Eastern Conference contenders. We’ve already seen Stevens outduel the likes of Brett Brown and Mike Budenholzer in a playoff series and I think that knowledge and that confidence is going to come into play again as we hurtle towards the finish line.
- The Ups and Downs of Gordon Hayward: This season has been enjoyable on so many levels but it has contained its share of injury woes. No one player has been more affected by this than Gordon Hayward. To start the season, Hayward was on fire. He scored a career high 39 points against the Cavs and was shooting a phenomenal percentage to start the year. He was aggressive and confident and our hopes for him were high. Then he broke his hand. That put him out for a month and a couple weeks. He came back… then injured his foot. Hayward has been in and out of the lineup for most of the season and it can be frustrating at times. Hayward has played well since coming back from the foot injury but the guy just can’t seem to catch a break. As fans, we haven’t given up on him because we’ve seen what he can do when fully healthy. He’s an integral part of this team as a veteran, a creator, a shooter, a defender and a rim finisher. A healthy Hayward puts the Celtics ceiling at a whole ‘nother level. We have to remain positive but we also have to hope for a little luck with his health. The broken hand was a freak accident and the foot could have been residual damage from his awful injury a couple seasons ago but I can’t help but cringe every time he hits the deck or goes barrelling into the lane. Either way, the health of Gordon Hayward is a big issue going into the playoffs as this team needs time to gel and get everybody back and healthy at the same time. If Hayward is close to the form with which he started the season, the Celtics will trot out 3 dominant wing players alongside Kemba Walker for the playoff run and that would be a scary sight indeed.
- Rise of the Rookies: The Celtics have 7 rookies on the roster and all of them have seen playing time this season. It’s an obscene number for a contending team but every single one of these guys has shown that they are capable NBA players. In all likelihood, one or two of these guys is going to contribute to a playoff win this spring. For brevity’s sake, I’ll run through them all with a sentence or two while noting what their contributions have been so far and what I think they can do in the future. Carsen Edwards and Tremont Waters have both been solid backup guards for the Celtics this season. Edwards comes in the game and has no fear in that he’ll shoot the ball from anywhere. Waters is steady and a defensive stalwart; grabbing steals and leading fast breaks seemingly every time he’s called up to the big club. Tacko Fall has been a crowd favorite in every arena he’s showed up in and he has not disappointed. We like to joke about his Per 36 min numbers but 28 and 17 is ridiculous no matter how you slice it. However, the 7’5 big man is still a raw prospect. There was a point during this season when the Celtics didn’t have a single big man to play quality minutes and Vincent Poirier stepped in and was both solid and capable. I’m not sure if Javonte Green is actually a rookie but this is certainly his first time getting NBA minutes and he’s making the most of it. He’s aggressive, confident and he might be the best athlete every time he steps on a floor that’s full of elite athletes. Romeo Langford has shown his lottery pick type of talent despite the injuries hampering for most of the season. In extended minutes, he’s shown that he can be an elite defensive player and I believe his highly skilled offensive game will come around with more minutes. The ceiling is high for this Langford and personally, he’s one of my favorite Celtics rookies to watch. Already a fan favorite, Grant Williams has shown he’s ready for minutes in big games and crunch time situations. Like Marcus Smart, Williams has a nose for the ball and he consistently comes down with huge rebounds, hustle plays and clutch shots. Williams is one of those players I think will contribute in a big way to a deep Celtics playoff run. All in all, the rookies have been so good that Danny Ainge didn’t feel comfortable trading any of them away when the trade deadline came and went. I trust all of these guys and I think one or more of these guys is going to come up big in a playoff game or series.
- The “Big” Question: Speaking of the trade deadline…. The Boston Celtics bigs were seen as the achilles heel of this team starting all the way back in August. The Celtics were linked to names like Andre Drummond and Tristan Thompson all the way up until the deadline came and went. Enes Kanter, Daniel Theis and the Williams boys (Robert and Grant) were seen as either too young too slow or too unproven to have any impact on winning. I call bullshit. Kanter has had one of his best seasons in the NBA while coming off the bench for the Celtics. Averaging 9 points and 8 rebounds per game, Kanter is the stabilizing force in the second unit and a big, bruising player the Celtics haven’t had in a long time. Daniel Theis has played with the starters for the majority of the season and he more than holds his own in that stacked unit. His positioning on defense and ability to lock down the opposing center make him invaluable. He’s quick and long and he spreads the floor on offense with his jump shot. Robert Williams is still the ex-factor of this group though if he can ever get healthy. Williams’ ceiling is the highest of any of the Celtics big man and if he can get healthy for a Celtics playoff run, the NBA community outside of Boston will finally start to see his value. I’ve already gone over Grant Williams in the “rookie” section but it bears repeating here: Williams is a 6’6 load on the low block and his motor and feel for the moment is unmatched. I keep coming back to Leon Powe in the 2008 playoffs when I think of Grant Williams and I think his impact can be similar.
- Heart and Soul: Marcus Smart as a Celtic: There is one player who has been a constant on these Celtics teams over the past few years. A constant force of energy and passion; a constant and smothering defensive dynamo; a constant voice of reason and calm and a constant presence next to Brad Stevens. Marcus Smart is and has always been the heart and soul of the Boston Celtics since the day he was drafted. Smart doesn’t get any of the accolades his more popular teammates get but this section is to show much us Celtics fans love him and how much he means to this team and their success. He embodies the spirit of Celtic Pride to the T. He’s a walking Tommy Point. He bleeds green. Every time the ball is on the ground or tipped up in the air; us fans know…Marcus Smart is gonna get that shit! This season, Smart has been all that but he’s also added a bit more to his varied game. If I were to tell you in 2014 that Smart would set a Celtics record for 3 pointers, you would have laughed in my face. 11 fucking threes in one game! A record held not by Ray Allen, Isaiah Thomas or even Larry Bird but by Marcus Smart alone. 35% from 3 and a career high in ppg; Marcus Smart has become a player that the Celtics can rely on not only for defensive effort and passion but also his offensive skillset. If the Celtics are going to go deep into May and June, Mahcus Smaht is going to have something to say about it.
- “The Making of an NBA Superstar” by Jayson Tatum: Last but not least, we come to the emergence of Jayson Tatum: legitimate NBA superstar. Tatum has taken a leap forward in his development this year. He’s become the elite scorer most talking heads predicted he would be but he’s also leveraged that with an elite defensive effort and presence. He’s using his long frame and limbs to disrupt shots and get in passing lanes and it’s lead to a career high 1.4 steals/per game and almost a block per night. His improvement on the defensive end of the court would have been enough for us fans to work ourselves into our usual fervor over him (HE’S ONLY 21 PEOPLE!) but it’s miraculously taken a backseat to his improvement as a closer this season. I hesitate to say it, but Tatum has leapfrogged Kemba Walker (himself an All-NBA player) as the most clutch player on the floor for the C’s. Starting with his game winner against the Knicks, Tatum confidently and calmly seeks out the big shots. He’s playing with a pace and poise that we haven’t seen in his young career but more importantly, he’s playing with supreme confidence. Not only does he look like the best player on the court, but he feels like it too. Watching the Celtics this season you can almost see the effect that he has when he leaves the floor. The Celtics aren’t bad by any means but you can feel a marked difference every time he checks in and out of games. The Celtics energy seems to rise and the score always goes up with his presence in the lineup. Personally, (incredibly biased opinion incoming) I wouldn’t take another Eastern Conference player ahead of Tatum unless his name was the Greek fucking Freak. At just 21 years old, it’s staggering to think of the kind of improvement he’s made this season and I can’t wait to see what the next few months bring. Seeing him shred Kawhi Leonard in the last game before the all-star break only solidified what I’d been feeling all season: Jayson Tatum is on the fast track to being a top 10 player in the NBA. Continued improvement and development from Tatum should have the entire NBA quaking in their sneakers. If you don’t believe me, check out what Kemba Walker said about his teammate: “He was incredible. He made every right play. He made every big shot. He was the best player on the court tonight.” Tatum made his all-star debut last weekend and as this year and his career progresses, the accolades and successes will only get bigger. The future is bright. The future is now.