For the Celtics, the All-Star break offered a chance to rest, regroup, and start preparing for the stretch run of this season that has more promise than it did a few months ago.
Coach Ime Udoka went home to Brooklyn for a few days, but it was hardly a vacation. He said he wanted to “dive in” and examine what worked well for his team prior to the break, and what must be corrected in order to make a deep playoff run.
When he pored over film he realized that the team’s starts that had been an issue at one point in this season had become markedly better. Of course, it helped actually having his regular starting lineup available. And his study just reaffirmed how dominant the group of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Robert Williams, and Al Horford has been.
“Our numbers are off the charts at both ends of the court,” Udoka said.
The unit has a 115.3 offensive rating and an 88.8 defensive rating. To put those figures in perspective, that offensive rating would put Boston just behind the league-leading Jazz (115.9 points per 100 possessions) and the defensive rating would be nearly 16 points per 100 possessions better than the league-leading Warriors (104.6).
“Offensively, continue to play with pace and sharing the ball,” Udoka said. “And you look at the passing numbers from simple things like passes per game and assist percentage, it just means we’re doing the right thing. We’ve increased in all those areas. Shots start to fall, obviously those assist numbers go up. But the passes in general have gone up from 27th at one point to, the last 20 or so games, into the top 10. So just the ball movement in general, less isolation and more team play, has been beneficial for us.”
The Celtics resuscitated their season with their recent nine-game winning streak that vaulted them into sixth place in the Eastern Conference, the final slot above the 7-10 play-in tournament. Even though they had a slight letdown last Wednesday when the streak was snapped with a home loss to the lowly Pistons, the team is confident that was just an aberration.
Also, Smart (ankle) and Williams (calf) both missed that game and have been cleared to face the Nets on Thursday.
“Really I was just anxious to get back, man,” said Williams, who was sidelined for two games. “Anxious to get out there and run today. The trainers kept asking ‘Am I all right?’ And I’m telling them I’m ready to go. So, just ready to get that feeling back, a winning feeling.”
Thursday’s matchup against the Nets figured to offer a significant test to start this final stretch. But Brooklyn, which has plummeted to eighth in the East, will remain considerably shorthanded, with starters Kevin Durant (knee), Ben Simmons (personal), Kyrie Irving (vaccine mandate) and Joe Harris (ankle) out.
Unlike the meeting between these teams earlier this month, in which Brooklyn’s roster was completely decimated, the Nets will have at least some reinforcements. Guard Seth Curry and center Andre Drummond, who were acquired from the 76ers in the Simmons/James Harden deal, are expected to be available. And the Nets recently signed veteran guard Goran Dragic, who could make his debut.
“Approach it the same way we approached the last game we played them,” Williams said. “Same way we approach every game. Coach Udoka always tells us it doesn’t matter who they have. Each team has been through trials and triumphs through this year. So approach every game the same way and try to win.”
The Celtics are not really in need of bench depth anymore, especially considering the way Udoka has whittled his rotation to eight players on most nights. But there will be some new faces Thursday anyway.
Boston on Wednesday signed forwards Malik Fitts and Kelan Martin to 10-day deals. Martin, who was recruited to Butler by Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens before Stevens was hired as the Celtics’ coach, has played in 93 games over three NBA seasons with the Timberwolves and Pacers, averaging 5.6 points and 2.4 rebounds. Fitts played in seven games with the Jazz this year, averaging 0.9 points and 1.4 rebounds.
“We’re looking for a specific skill set with these guys, how they match to our team, and we like how they fit into that role,” Udoka said.
The Celtics were required to fill two of their three empty roster spots because their two-week grace period below the 14-player minimum had passed. Udoka said the Celtics could still explore the buyout market in the coming weeks, too. Players who are waived by March 1 will be playoff eligible regardless of when they’re signed.