There was a real sense of urgency for the Celtics to secure the final game of their five-game road trip Monday in New Orleans because they realized what awaited them on the road ahead.
The Celtics just concluded the first of several arduous stretches. The next six-game stretch caught their attention as soon as the schedule was released.
After having Tuesday off to recover, Boston plays the Bulls, Warriors, Hornets, Cavaliers, Pistons, and Hawks in a 10-day stretch. It’s one that can define where the Celtics stand in the Eastern Conference, and whether they are truly an improved team after 11 wins in the past 17 games.
“I’ve said this before, our stretch coming up, we’ll have a much better assessment of who we are when Jan. 1 hits,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Focus on one [game] at a time. Otherwise it’s a heck of a stretch.”
Stevens has mentally noted a date that he said will give him a real impression of his team.
“When I was [coaching] in college we had only played eight to 12 games before Christmas,” he said. “I always felt like Christmas was the point in time where you could thoroughly say, ‘This is what we are and this is where we need to improve.’ I think this is probably going to be the case with us here, too. That’s where we also have some practice time. I’m interested to see how we play.”
The Bulls, losers of two straight, are third in the Eastern Conference with an 11-7 record. After play Tuesday night, just 4½ games separated the 12th-seeded Knicks (10-12) and top-seeded Cavaliers (14-7).
So every game is critical, even in December.
“I said at the beginning of the year we were as close to fourth [in the East last year] as we were to 12th. And I think that will be the case for most of that bunch [of Eastern Conference teams] all the way through the year,” Stevens said. “We knew that the conference as a whole would be much improved because of the moves that were made.
“The Eastern Conference had three guys sitting out who are game changers in Paul George, Chris Bosh, and Carmelo Anthony, just those guys alone added to the Eastern Conference make it better.”
Olynyk finds time
It’s been quite an early December for Kelly Olynyk, who has posted 21 points in two of his past three games, including Monday’s 111-93 win over the Pelicans. Before that, Olynyk had posted just one double-digit scoring game in his previous 10.
Olynyk is best when he is offensively aggressive and popping the 3-point jumper. He is 5 for 11 from the 3-point line during the past three games and 20 for 31 from the field overall.
“He’s scoring the ball,” Stevens said. “He was able to post [New Orleans’s Ryan] Anderson and drive it a little bit. He’s getting better.”
Olynyk’s first 2½ seasons have been filled with inconsistency but after a successful summer with the Canadian National Team, he was expected to make a larger impact. It didn’t occur in November, when Olynyk shot 37.3 percent from the field and averaged just 6.6 points.
Stevens has stressed for Olynyk to shoot when open and avoid hesitating with the ball. Olynyk picks and chooses his moments but said he feels more comfortable in the offense.
“A couple of guys are banged up on this road trip we needed a couple of guys to step up,” he said. “It feels good to get it going myself. For me, it’s that familiarity, the more you touch the ball, you’re ready to go. I just got a long stretch in the second half where I got to kind of catch the ball and move it a couple of times and get into that rhythm and flow. And once the ball comes back to you, you can make something happen. That’s a big part of it.”
Jared Sullinger’s 20-rebound effort Monday against New Orleans tied his career best and has catapulted him to 13th in the NBA in that category. Of the league’s top 25 rebounders, Sullinger plays the fewest minutes and he’s seventh in the NBA in rebounds per 48 minutes.
His dirty work in the paint has been critical to the Celtics’ success this season.
“He’s a good rebounder, his position is good,” Stevens said. “He played a lot of minutes [Monday] which is good, at the end of a five-game trip. It shows a lot of progress on his part, both offensively and defensively to play with energy all through the game rebounding the ball and then scoring it late.”
Sullinger was 7 for 25 from the field in the final three games of the road trip but picked up 31 rebounds in that stretch.
“I think the ball just kind of found me,” he said of his 20-rebound game. “Everybody kept reminding me [I had a lot of rebounds]. I don’t know how many rebounds I had in the third quarter, but Isaiah [Thomas] said, ‘Go get 25.’ I looked up and I had 16. Then I got my fourth foul.”