The Celtics steadied themselves after a wobbly stretch by winning their final four games before the All-Star break, concluding a first half unlike any other. While there was a COVID-19-related pause and a startling dip below .500, there also were some signs of hope, such as Jaylen Brown’s improvement and Kemba Walker’s return.
Here are midseason evaluations of the Celtics’ regular starters, including Marcus Smart, who has been sidelined with a calf injury for the past five weeks.
▪ Jayson Tatum: Tatum had an excellent start, but he contracted COVID-19 in mid-January and has struggled since then. Over his last 15 games, Tatum is shooting just 39.1 percent from the field and 30.6 percent from beyond the 3-point line, dipping his season averages to career lows.
He has said that he continues to deal with some respiratory side effects from the virus, and sometimes he has appeared a step slow.
Also, he is facing more traps and double-teams than ever before, but he has improved his passing while escaping them and is averaging a career-high 4.5 assists.
In the second half, Tatum should attack the basket more in an effort to draw contact. He is attempting .249 free throws per field goal attempt, a career low.
He will start in Sunday’s All-Star Game, the latest accomplishment for a player who just turned 23.
▪ Jaylen Brown: The fact that Brown’s All-Star nod was more obvious than Tatum’s shows how far he has come. He was absolutely dominant on offense early in the year, shooting 53.1 percent overall and 44.3 percent on 3-pointers through the end of January.
In the five weeks since then, those numbers have been 44.7 and 32.2 percent, somewhat of an expected regression to the mean.
He has battled knee tendinitis recently, and that will be something to keep an eye on.
Brown’s ball-handling and midrange shooting have improved significantly, but there have been odd times when his effort or engagement seems to dip, and he even acknowledged that Thursday. Regardless, he is proving that he can be a No. 2 option on a title team someday.
▪ Kemba Walker: Walker missed the first 11 games to strengthen his left knee. When he returned, it was not always pretty. On his drives, his shots were blocked at a higher rate than ever, and his 3-point shooting was bad.
The good news was that he did seem to be moving well, and Walker insisted that he just needed to clear a mental hurdle.
Recently, he has often been the team’s best player, and his confidence and bounce have been visible. Over the last 10 games, the Celtics have outscored opponents by 8.9 points per 100 possessions with Walker on the floor. Tatum, by comparison, has a minus-1.0 net rating during the stretch.
Walker’s best games have come after sitting out the second half of a back-to-back set, and the team has said that approach will continue.
▪ Daniel Theis: Theis has often joined Tristan Thompson in the double-big starting lineup. It was challenging for him to adjust to playing power forward rather than his normal center slot, but he has become more comfortable in the role recently.
Over their first eight games together, Theis and Thompson had a grisly minus-18.1 net rating. But over the last 10, the Celtics have a plus-6.0 mark with the Theis-Thompson pairing.
Although Robert Williams is emerging, it’s clear that coach Brad Stevens still trusts Theis most in big spots. Theis’s plus-4.3 net rating is first on the team among regular rotation players. With Theis on the bench, that figure plummets to minus-2.4.
His versatility as a defender and his ability to space the floor for the Celtics’ slashing wings as a 37 percent 3-point shooter make him an invaluable part of the attack.
▪ Tristan Thompson: Thompson was always a ferocious rebounder during his time with the Cavaliers, but in Boston, he is gobbling up missed shots like never before. His 23.8 defensive rebounding percentage is the best of his 10-year career.
While Thompson is a menace on the offensive glass, too, he has a tendency to quickly force up putback attempts. He would do well to spray the ball out to capable shooters more often.
He was slowed a bit by a hamstring injury that forced him to miss the preseason, but he appears to be developing more chemistry with teammates such as Theis. The Celtics have been slightly better with Thompson on the bench (plus-2.0) than on the floor (minus-0.3), and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Williams eat into his playing time a bit more in the second half.
▪ Marcus Smart: The Celtics had the NBA’s 10th-ranked defense when Smart went down with a calf strain in a game against the Lakers Jan. 30. Over the 18 games since then, their defense has ranked just 22nd.
They have has missed Smart’s defensive skill as well as his underrated playmaking abilities. Seven of their 10 lowest assist game this season have come since Smart was injured.
His general tenacity and intense distaste for losing have been missed, too. He is the team’s heartbeat.
Smart is expected to return soon after the All-Star break, but his playing time will likely be limited at first to help him avoid a recurrence of what can become a nagging injury.
Prior to getting hurt, Smart’s progression as a shooter had slipped a bit. He was shooting just 31.1 percent from beyond the arc, his lowest mark since the 2017-18 season.
Tomorrow: Midseason evaluations of the reserves