What is evident 51 games into this Celtics season is that the franchise is in better condition and has more confidence in its long-term plan in Year 2.
When president of basketball operations Danny Ainge decided to detonate the Big Three Era and begin again, there was great doubt as to whether there would be years upon years of suffering.
On Wednesday night, there was no suffering, only celebration after the Celtics rallied from an 18-point deficit to stun the Eastern Conference-leading Atlanta Hawks, 89-88. Evan Turner sank a 7-foot floater with 0.2 seconds left for the winning points.
The win improved the Celtics to 20-31 and they are 1½ games behind Charlotte and Miami for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. So they are in a legitimate playoff chase as the NBA begins its midseason hiatus. They didn’t collect their 20th win last season until the 59th game, so progress is apparent.
So, would Ainge strip this roster of its three veterans — Marcus Thornton, Brandon Bass, and Tayshaun Prince — for more draft picks before the Feb. 19 trade deadline?
He shouldn’t, unless the deals are irresistible, because this team is building the confidence, winning culture, and cohesiveness it didn’t have last season. They have reached that second step in which a team is consistently competitive, avoids mental breakdowns, and pushes more talented teams to the waning minutes.
And unless dealing or buying out the aforementioned three will benefit the organization beyond this season — and that doesn’t mean a 2032 second-round pick — Ainge should stand pat. Coach Brad Stevens has consistently said he hopes the roster upheaval has ended and lauded his veterans for their professionalism and leadership.
He said the same following Wednesday’s win, which was significant considering the Hawks had won 13 consecutive games against Eastern Conference opponents, were 40-4 when holding opponents under 50 percent shooting (the Celtics shot 32.3 percent), 30-2 when holding opponents under 100 points, and 37-1 when leading by double digits (they led by 18).
“Certainly, I’d love for us to have as little movement as possible,” Stevens said. “I understand those guys will do their jobs and they’ll take everything and they’ll look at it and figure out how best to move forward with our team, especially with 30-something games left. We have a good momentum. We have a good group of young guys that are figuring out how like I talked about before, being stars in their roles. That’s why we have been able to have a little bit of success.”
And for those who are rooting for the Celtics to sink so they can procure a high draft pick, that journey will be difficult. The Celtics have the 11th-worst record in the league and realistically, the lowest they could sink with a late-season collapse is perhaps sixth worst. New York, Philadelphia, Minnesota, Los Angeles (Lakers), Orlando, Sacramento, and perhaps Utah and Denver all are likely to finish with records worse than the Celtics.
All of those teams are either 1) tanking or 2) hardly talented enough to surpass Boston.
So the Celtics might as well make a run at the postseason. The TD Garden crowd was nearly lulled into hypnosis by the Celtics’ inept shooting through the first three quarters (28.4 percent) but were invigorated by their fourth-quarter rally.
There was passion from the fans because they sensed passion from the players. The veterans weren’t playing out the string. Bass, Thornton, and Prince all played a part in the surge and none have indicated they’re looking to get out before next week.
“Yeah, I am [enjoying it here],” said Thornton, who has an expiring $8.6 million contract. “My teammates are great. We’re young and I’m kind of like an old head on this team [at 27], which I don’t like to say. The way we interact with each other, it’s great. It’s one of the funnest teams I’ve been on.”
What has occurred since the departures of Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green is the younger players have responded by growing perhaps faster than expected because they had to. And now that growth is becoming evident to even the casual fan. The Celtics are back to being more confident, playing hard each night, and have embraced stability.
So unless the return is beneficial, there is no reason to disturb the stability and progress, and this team should be allowed to pursue the postseason. The Celtics have escaped the NBA abyss. They are stepping toward respectability.
“Any time you’re in that situation and you feel like there’s progress, progress is a good thing,” Stevens said. “We’re getting progress from a lot of guys. I think our older guys are doing a lot better things. These experiences of growth are good for everybody but we’ll figure it out, depending on what happens in the next week. I really like these guys. They’re a good group of guys. They work hard. You are a lot of growth in a lot of them.
“We just want to win the next game and if that ends up with an opportunity to play beyond, that’s how that works.”