Two realizations about the Celtics as they hit the All-Star break tangled up in the contradiction of having won nine of 10 games, with the loss coming in a casual, hitting-the-break-early performance against lowly Detroit Wednesday night:
▪ The ol’ blood-pressure monitor will no longer flash “DANGER! DANGER!” when you watch them if you can accept that some of their bad habits will never be permanently expunged.
▪ After some mixed early reviews, it is apparent that first-year coach Ime Udoka has done a remarkable job of getting the players to buy in to what he wants them to do, which includes stunting those bad habits (for the most part).
There are numerous reasons why the Celtics, despite the annoying hiccup against the Pistons, head into the break with a 34-26 record (they were 18-21 on January 26 after a ridiculous loss to the Knicks), holding the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference, and rightfully feeling pretty good about themselves.
Among them: The core players, at least until the recent absences of Marcus Smart and Robert Williams III, were finally all healthy at the same time for an extended length. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown (more the former than the latter) made a conscious effort to move the ball and resist most of their urges to go into isolation mode. President of basketball operations Brad Stevens found an ideal glue player in his trade-deadline deal with the Spurs for Derrick White, who has been the kind of versatile, above-average, complementary piece this team has desperately needed for years. They built momentum with an easy stretch of the schedule at the start of the winning streak. And with the departure of Dennis Schröder and Enes Freedom, almost every player fits into and seems to accept a defined role that suits his skill set. (See Grant Williams, corner-3 assassin.)
But arguably the two most important changes happen to be the two Udoka harped on the most: a team-wide commitment to lock down defense and selfless ball movement on offense.
The first-year coach wears a serious face publicly and isn’t exactly a quote-machine (Stevens, believe it or not, was much appreciated by the local TV folks for his knack for speaking in usable soundbites), but from Day 1 Udoka has never held back on candidly, even bluntly, expressing what he wants from his team and, specifically, what it wasn’t delivering. His basketball philosophy, in short: Share the ball, and shut ‘em down.
When the Celtics were deep into their habit of finding creative ways to blow fourth-quarter leads, it made me wonder whether his message was even making it to his players anymore. It’s not just that they were losing winnable games in December and January. They were losing them in aggravating ways, with Tatum and Brown too often playing your-turn/my-turn ball on offense, and defensive breakdowns becoming all too common, especially on the pick-and-roll. And I don’t think Tatum will ever stop chirping at the referees. I’m resigned to that being the one bad hardwood habit he can’t break.
Some of their old, collective habits reared up Wednesday. Udoka was quick to note afterward that the Celtics gave up 18 offensive rebounds, a statistic that suggests lackadaisical effort in procuring the basketball. He also acknowledged he would have liked to see Tatum get “downhill,” or attack the defense, rather than settle for just a decent look on the potential winning shot, a 20-footer that did not drop. Such mistakes, however, have been scarce enough lately, and with Smart, who has played inspired all-around basketball for the past few weeks, and Most Improved Player candidate Robert Williams III both absent, an off-night was somewhat understandable as the break beckoned.
Accepting the ugly loss is my way of saying I’m buying this turnaround, and that Wednesday’s result is nothing more than a fleeting flashback to their former unreliable selves. During the nine-game winning streak, the Celtics beat the Heat by 30, the Nets by 35 and the Sixers by 48. They held it together in tight games, like a 6-point win over the Nuggets on February 11. They did what they needed to, night after night.
Their talent has never been in doubt, but with Tatum and Brown determined to thrive together in part to stick it to all of those who said they never would, Smart living up to his surname, the Williamses (excellent Danny Ainge draft picks, I might note) ever improving, White being exactly what they’ve needed, and Al Horford finding his rhythm, the players on this roster are finally enhancing each other on offense.
And on defense, they are committed, people. The Celtics now rank third in the NBA in points allowed per game (103.5), and are second in defensive rating (105.6, which is the number of points allowed per 100 possessions). Their hard luck (and yes, lousy late-game execution) early in the season shows up in their expected win-loss record: They should be, based on point differential, 40-20, or six games better than they are. I bet you, me, and Mr. Udoka can come up with six games they should have won without even looking at the schedule.
The Celtics return to action against ever-annoying Brooklyn on Feb. 24. It’s a matchup of two teams capable of making a charge up the conference standings over the final few weeks of regular season games, two teams that almost seem destined to run into each other in the postseason.
The Celtics need to come back from their hiatus ready to go. You know what? We should trust that they will. They listen to their new coach. He got through to them. And the result is an appealing brand of basketball. For the first time in a long time, trust is a word we can use with this team with a positive connotation.