In what has felt like a long season already, the Celtics are finally above .500. This team began the Ime Udoka era with two losses, five in the first seven games, and has been climbing uphill the past few weeks.
Saturday’s 111-105 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder was an encouraging response to Friday’s resounding win over the Los Angeles Lakers. The Celtics let down several times last year and racked up losses against lottery teams, including these Thunder, which beat the Celtics with a bunch of G-Leaguers last season at TD Garden.
This time, the Celtics took the lead, held the lead, and were able to polish off the hard-playing Thunder even when it became precarious in the final minute. It wasn’t a stylish, easy win, but the Celtics displayed enough execution on both ends to prevail.
Boston blew a chance to eclipse .500 a week ago with a 19-point blown lead at Cleveland. The Celtics again wasted a chance with Wednesday’s loss at Atlanta. This mark is significant because just 20 percent into the season, adversity has already been overcome.
Seven wins in the past 10 games. Jayson Tatum is beginning to resemble the two-time All-Star and Olympic gold medalist. Dennis Schröder is returning to his previous form as a reliable second scorer and playmaker. Marcus Smart seems content with a pass-first, avoid-needless-threes style, while Al Horford is contributing mightily at age 35.
Grant Williams is making corner threes, and Enes Kanter has been removed from moth balls and is impacting rebounding.
The Celtics are far from perfect, but at least they’re playing with enough consistency and gaining an identity at the appropriate time, giving themselves plenty of opportunity to become a factor in the Eastern Conference.
Last year’s Celtics finished 36-36, and struggled to put together a string of wins because they always stumbled against lesser teams. Motivation was easy against LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the Lakers with Bill Russell and Paul Pierce in the house. It wasn’t so easy Saturday, against a team where only diehard fans outside of Oklahoma City could name their starting lineup.
“We knew it was a dangerous game,” Udoka said. “We knew they would still come out with that effort. They’ve done it all year. We turned the page pretty quickly and said [the Lakers win] doesn’t mean anything if we follow up with a dud. We brought the effort for the most part. We’re happy with the win overall.”
Seventeen games into his first season and Udoka already has been through a few ordeals. But he has stuck to his convictions, waiting for his new team to adjust to his style and stressing defense first while waiting for shots to fall.
In the past 10 games, the Celtics defense has dramatically improved, and Schröder has taken pressure off Tatum while Jaylen Brown remains out with a hamstring injury. Health has been an issue all season, especially with Brown and Robert Williams, but new president of basketball operations Brad Stevens acquired enough depth for the Celtics to move forward without cracking.
Josh Richardson has become a nice addition. Kanter, who was beginning to complain about lack of playing time, logged 47 minutes in the past three games after just 18 in the first 14. Udoka is using his bench extensively, and while scoring has been a struggle at times, it’s giving him a chance to develop different playing rotations.
“The biggest thing is trusting one another,” forward Grant Williams said. “Game by game, it’s a new journey. The Houston team coming in [Monday], their record may say one thing, but they’re talented, and we have to come out there and compete.”
Horford has become more of a vocal leader in his second time with the Celtics, and he’s been trying to stress to his younger teammates to remain steady and stick to Udoka’s concepts. Eventually, the desired results will come.
There was no early honeymoon for Udoka: His first NBA job has been a difficult journey that has required patience. Perhaps it was Smart’s comments after that painful Chicago loss that changed the course of the season. The Celtics are 7-3 since Smart called out Brown and Tatum for not passing enough, and the group has shaken off the early adversity and is beginning to play full games.
“I think we understand the level we need to play, and we should never question our level of effort and commitment and for the past [few weeks], that’s what’s been consistent,” Horford said. “Now that we have that there, we can start building from there. The defense is getting better. Our ball movement is getting better. I think we’re starting to understand what we need to do offensively and it’s nice to see that starting to come together.”
What was interesting was Horford used the word “starting,” as if the process of building good habits is just beginning. And it truly is.
The good news for Celtics faithful is that the improvement and ascension is apparent, and they are seeing the results of the labor.