It would have been a long trip back to the States had the Celtics remained passive and erratic and lost to the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday in London after falling behind by 22 points.
They were able to resuscitate themselves and rally for a runaway win, making this respite — one game in the span of nine days — even more rewarding as they prepare for the second half of the season.
It’s been a triumphant first half for Boston. It could not have gone any better after the team lost Gordon Hayward five minutes into the season-opening game against Cleveland. Hayward’s absence briefly robbed the Celtics of their hopes and dreams for a season in which they would overcome the Cavaliers and reach the NBA Finals.
Those unsettling and pessimistic thoughts were replaced quickly by optimism when the Celtics ran off 16 consecutive wins because of a stellar defense, the emergence of rookie Jayson Tatum, and the major step forward taken by Jaylen Brown.
Kyrie Irving has been sparkling at times but he has not had to carry the entire offensive load, as expected. Al Horford has played strong defense and delivered occasional scoring bursts.
Entering Tuesday’s matchup with the New Orleans Pelicans, the Celtics lead the Eastern Conference with a 34-10 record, playing the most games of any team. What is important to note is the Celtics have already finished their road swings with seven teams in the Eastern Conference, including Cleveland.
Of the Celtics’ 38 remaining games, 42 percent will come against the Western Conference, including two West Coast trips, the first beginning Jan. 23 in Los Angeles. The schedule also consists of one remaining game against the Cavaliers, and three against the fast-charging Toronto Raptors and nemesis Washington Wizards.
The remaining schedule will be challenging, but the team’s No. 1 goal with 46 percent of the season left is clinching the top seed in the conference. The Celtics begin Saturday’s league games three games ahead of the Raptors and seven ahead of the struggling Cavaliers.
Home-court advantage doesn’t matter as much to the Cavaliers, so they may not make a serious push for that top seed. Toronto is a different story. The Raptors will push for the top seed because they don’t want to see the Cavaliers, who have dominated them in playoffs past, until the conference finals.
Also, the Raptors have a home-heavy schedule in the second half. Entering Saturday’s game against Golden State, Toronto had played the fewest home games of any team in the NBA. The Raptors play 21 of their next 35 games at home. They serve as the Celtics’ biggest threat to the No. 1 seed.
What this long break has done for the Celtics is allow injured players to rest. Marcus Morris has played with minutes restrictions most of the season because of a sore left knee. Morris has proved effective coming off the bench because of his scoring prowess.
The Boston bench was a weakness until recently, when Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart began improving offensively. Adding a healthy Morris to that equation gives the Celtics a different element they lacked during the first half of the season. What is also encouraging for the Celtics is their defense has returned to form after being battered at times during the month of December.
During their current seven-game winning streak, the Celtics are No. 1 in the NBA in defensive rating, No. 1 in opponent’s field goal percentage, No. 1 in opponent’s 3-point field goal percentage, No. 1 in opponent’s scoring, No. 2 in blocked shots, and 10th in opponent’s turnovers.
A smothering defense along with an effective offense has made the Celtics the best team in the Eastern Conference, especially when those two elements are working simultaneously. The Celtics dominated early in the season in defense and then it slipped toward the end of their 16-game winning streak. The offense then surged but the Celtics lost five times in a nine-game stretch in December.
Since their Christmas Day loss to the Wizards, the Celtics have put everything together, with seven players averaging in double figures during their seven-game winning streak. And it hasn’t been a case of Irving taking over. The perennial All-Star has averaged just 20.4 points on 40.8 percent shooting during this run.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens couldn’t ask for better circumstances for his team as it prepares for the second half. Besides Hayward, who is progressing from his broken tibia and dislocated ankle, the Celtics are healthy. Irving, because of the recent surges from Rozier, Tatum, and Smart, hasn’t had to take an overabundance of shots to save the offense late in games. The Celtics have been one of the more balanced teams in the NBA, which is why they are prepared for a successful second-half run and a shot at 60 wins.
They will have to go 26-12 the rest of the way for their first 60-win season in nine years. Who would have believed this bunch would have a chance to reach that plateau after the injury to Hayward? Yet now, because of their depth and sparkling first halves from Tatum and Brown, the Celtics have a chance to not only achieve regular-season excellence but also make a long playoff run.