NEW YORK — What is evident after the Celtics’ sixth consecutive win in what has become an impressive resurgence is they actually have an opportunity to claim a high playoff seed in the Eastern Conference.
The Celtics are beyond just trying to avoid the play-in tournament, 4½ games out of first place with 26 to play; it’s time for the club to reassess its position and add to the roster for a long playoff run.
Tuesday’s 126-91 win over the undermanned Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center was yet another step away from mediocrity and moderate expectations.
Just a month ago the Celtics were 18-21 and in jeopardy of being a draft lottery team. But a combination of good health for the Celtics, COVID-19 issues, misfortune for other Eastern Conference clubs, and a stretch of impressive play by Boston’s frontline players has thrust the club into contention.
In what has been a frustrating season, filled with blown leads, complacency and inconsistency, the Celtics have gathered themselves at the perfect time to make a legitimate run at the elite teams in the Eastern Conference.
“When you have your full roster available you think what you can do with your size, length and versatility,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “Offensively, it [was] going to take a little more time to come around to do some of the things that we’re asking them, change their habits at times. You’re always optimistic that when you get the full complement back, some of those lulls offensively won’t happen and defensively we would be stronger.”
What appeared to be out of the question a few weeks ago is now possible for a team that has displayed its strengths — strong defense, two premium scorers and an improved pace — and its weaknesses — a lackluster and unproductive bench.
That should be a message to president of basketball operations Brad Stevens, who has roughly 36 hours before the NBA trade deadline to upgrade his team for what could be a special season. As much as the Celtics have proven better than expected, their Eastern Conference foes have all exhibited warts and shortcomings that have made this conference compelling.
There are no Phoenix Suns or Golden State Warriors boat-racing the rest of the conference with All-Star players and long winning streaks. The East is a bunch of solid but not spectacular teams that have had issues.
The Celtics are solid but not spectacular, aren’t they? They have had their share of issues. And they have a starting lineup that can compete with any team in the NBA. What has been the problem — even during this winning streak — is the supporting cast, a crew that’s too young, too flawed or just incapable of playing long stretches and relieving Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.
Brown and Tatum are each playing their best basketball of the season. Marcus Smart, who had a team-high tying 22 points Tuesday and was able to let the 3-pointer launch during the blowout, is playing his best ball as a Celtic.
Robert Williams is staying healthy (the Celtics are crossing their fingers as we speak) and has emerged as a defensive force while Al Horford has become a stabilizer and remained a solid defender.
“We experienced some adversity early, which led to some games that we lost that maybe we should have won,” Brown said. “Right now, we’re only [two-thirds] of the way through so our mind is still focused on the future rather than looking back.
“But I am proud of our guys for continuing to be consistent and keep going, to navigate through the pressure of being in Boston and the expectation level. It’s not an easy thing to do.”
It’s obvious the Celtics should be buyers at the Thursday trade deadline. They’ve proven that, with a stretch of 12 wins in 16 games coupled with some skids from Eastern Conference competitors. The Celtics have been so focused on getting themselves together, trying to overcome a handful of issues, learning Udoka’s new system and some players learning new looks they have not had much time to look around to see the sunshine that’s developed.
The Celtics are contenders, and while this outfit as it’s currently constructed may not be favored against Milwaukee, a healthy Brooklyn, Miami or Philadelphia, they have put themselves in a position to reach all of their preseason goals and expectations.
“It’s a marathon; it’s not about how fast you go,” Smart said. “We are hitting our peak and starting to click at the right time. It’s impressive but we still got a lot of ways to go.”
What the Celtics know is that whether they host a playoff series or crack the top six seeds and avoid the play-in tournament is in their hands. There’s ample time to continue their run and Stevens could help boost the morale of the bunch by upgrading the bench.
Udoka rested his starters to begin the fourth quarter with a 26-point lead and hoped his reserves would play well enough to maintain the lead. While their performance was shaky in the opening minutes, the reserves scored enough to hold the league and avoid the suspense of Friday in Detroit.
Still, the Celtics could use more depth to really reach their potential, and they’ve proven worthy of roster additions by Thursday afternoon.