A few thoughts as the Celtics prepare for Sunday’s showdown at TD Garden against Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and the Nets ...
▪ G League stats can be deceiving, and there’s a reason veteran wing Nik Stauskas had been out of the NBA since the 2018-19 season. Nevertheless, the Celtics’ latest signing is intriguing. Stauskas, 28, erupted for 57 and 43 points in consecutive games with the Grand Rapids Gold over the past week.
Maybe he just caught fire against inferior competition, or maybe his 46.6 percent 3-point shooting over 14 games with the Gold gave him the burst of confidence he needed to make an occasional impact down the stretch as a floor spacer for Boston. If Aaron Nesmith is out for an extended period with an ankle sprain, Stauskas should at least get a look.
Plenty of Celtics fans would have preferred to see the team sign former All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas, who is on a 10-day deal with the Hornets. But that probably wouldn’t have been a good idea.
If Thomas came back to Boston it could have become a distraction, and his defensive limitations wouldn’t mesh with this group, anyway. And if Thomas played poorly or didn’t play at all, it would’ve been an unnecessarily sad end to what was one of the more stirring chapters in this franchise’s history. If Stauskas hardly sees the court, meanwhile, it won’t even be noticed.
The Celtics do visit Charlotte on Wednesday, though, so that should be fun.
▪ Al Horford’s improved 3-point shooting has been a significant development, and it’s no coincidence it has mirrored the team’s climb up the standings. Heading into the Jan. 29 game against the Pelicans, Horford was shooting just 28.4 percent from the 3-point line. In his 14 games since — Horford sat out last Sunday’s loss to the Pacers — he made 22 of 55 3-pointers (40 percent) and the Celtics went 13-1.
Opposing defenses have let Horford fire away from deep, and given his poor early results, it’s hard to argue with that approach. Of Horford’s 214 3-pointers this season, a defender was within 4 feet of him just twice. On 166 of the attempts, the closest defender was at least 6 feet away. He has to make teams pay for this approach, and the more success he has, the more it will open opportunities for Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and others to slash to the basket.
▪ Not only have the Celtics vaulted above the 7-10 play-in tournament range in the conference standings, they’ve actually created some breathing room above that line. Boston (38-27) entered Saturday night in fifth place in the East, one game ahead of the sixth-place Cavaliers and three games above the seventh-place Raptors.
The primary goal, of course, should be avoiding the play-in tournament. But this season that has been filled with significant injuries and COVID-19 absences will put some teams in unfortunate spots when seeding is decided.
For example, the Nets (32-32) are almost certain to be in the play-in tournament. They’re also just welcoming back Durant, Irving could be cleared to play in home games soon if New York’s vaccine mandate is lifted, Seth Curry is getting comfortable in his new surroundings, and Ben Simmons will eventually make his debut.
If the Celtics vault to the No. 2 spot and that results in a first-round matchup against the seventh-seeded Nets, it would be no reward for their progress. The Cavaliers have improved, but they still have to be considered the preferred first-round matchup for the teams in the upper tier.
▪ Robert Williams is averaging a career-high 2.2 blocks per game, but if there was a statistic for shots deterred, he’d probably lead the league. His ability at that end of the floor is no secret anymore, and when opposing guards carve into the paint and see him waiting, they often either think twice or flip up an offering at an awkward angle just so it won’t be swatted. He has become a true force.
▪ The Celtics signed forwards Kelan Martin and Malik Fitts to second 10-day contracts Saturday. The duo played three minutes apiece last Sunday, but Fitts has quickly developed a reputation as perhaps the team’s best bench hype-man, which is good value for a player on a 10-day contract.
Players cannot sign three 10-day contracts with a team in the same season, so if the Celtics hope to keep Martin or Fitts after these deals expire, they’ll need to sign them for the rest of the year via standard contracts. Players signed using COVID-19 hardship exceptions are not limited to two 10-day deals, but Fitts and Martin were signed to replace players who had been traded away.