What likely infuriates Celtics fans the most about this year’s squad is their ability to look so good, so flawless just hours after looking so clueless.
A team that couldn’t make a basket in the final 7:18 of a home loss Friday against the Portland Trail Blazers, one of the league’s worst defenses, responded with 116 points and a brilliant performance from Jayson Tatum in Sunday’s rout of the Wizards at Capital One Arena in Washington.
It’s what makes the Celtics a tantalizing dark horse in the Eastern Conference because they can play with anybody when they are clicking. Of course, Tatum cannot be expected to produce nights like these very often, but it does offer a glimpse of his star power and how the Celtics have two All-Stars in their starting lineup along with a difference-maker in center Robert Williams.
With their 116-87 win over the Wizards, the Celtics moved up from tenth to eighth in the Eastern Conference and are 6½ games behind the first-place Miami Heat with 34 games left. More important, Celtics coach Ime Udoka was able to field a full and healthy squad with the return of Marcus Smart and Aaron Nesmith.
Now that the Celtics are whole, and are presumably over their COVID-19 issues, it’s time to evaluate them as a team. Brad Stevens, the team’s president of basketball operations, has about two more weeks to make a move to enhance the roster.
What stood out even more than Tatum’s 51-point performance Sunday was the admission Smart made that the players realize what is being written and publicly said about the team’s underachieving season. Smart said he pulled his teammates aside prior to the tipoff in Washington to galvanize them and offer his encouragement and support.
It may have sounded as if Smart knew changes were in store. There is a perception the Celtics need a point guard, a floor leader, to become an elite team. They need an offensive facilitatorwho can get Tatum and Brown the ball in the right spots and is capable of stretching the floor in the fourth quarter.
Is that Smart? He would like to think so. He definitely entered this season making more of an emphasis on being a distributor. On Sunday, Smart was a plus-36 in his 31 minutes, whipping the ball around the floor, but also offsetting some of his customary home-run plays with careless mistakes.
Udoka named Smart as the starting point guard when taking the job in June, which was considered somewhat of a surprise because Smart was coming off a difficult season and was speculated to be trade bait.
Instead, he signed a contract extension and wants to cement himself as the permanent playmaker.
“As a point guard that’s my job, been trying the whole season to [get my teammates shots], shots haven’t fell for certain guys and things happen,” Smart said. “But as a point guard, when everybody else is going scattered, you have to be the one to calm everybody back down.
“I’ve been challenged from Ime and everybody else that I’m not the right person in this position to do it, but, even now, every time I go out there and do it, it shows.
“You just can’t worry about it. You just have to play basketball like we know how to do and let things work themselves out.”
Smart said he understands the criticism.
“Everybody [has challenged me], I’ve challenged myself, Ime [has],” he said. “I hear all the talks from everybody else. It’s part of the game. You use that as the motivation you need. I know it’s one game, but it’s one game and one step in the right direction. Now we just got to build on it.”
Said Udoka: “He’s been what he’s been all year. He settles us down at times . . .obviously the defensive presence he brings to the team is invaluable.”
The Celtics are going to find out a lot about themselves over the next two weeks. Is this roster, as it’s currently constructed, capable of avoiding the play-in tournament and being a factor in the playoffs? Will Udoka make difficult decisions when it comes to playing time for veterans such as Dennis Schröder and Enes Freedom?
Will Stevens acquire one or two more players who could inject more life and consistency into the club?
The encouraging sign Sunday was the Celtics took care of a team that was one of their peers, on the road, without any suspense at the end. Yet, the Celtics have absorbed a litany of losses this season against teams they should have beaten. If the Celtics are going to make a run, the proverbial switch needs to be flipped now, and there are winnable games — against Sacramento, Atlanta, New Orleans, Detroit and Orlando — along with some difficult ones vs. Miami, Charlotte, and Brooklyn that could determine the fate of this current roster before the trade deadline.
Having a healthy roster will help. The hope is that the Celtics stick to a winning formula that works. That has not been the case so far this season.