The competition was mediocre at best, the best record out of the five teams being Minnesota at 13-13. Yet, there is no denying the Celtics have played dominant basketball over the past two weeks, starting with an impressive win at New Orleans.
The Pelicans come to TD Garden on Monday to face a Celtics team that has won five consecutive games, distancing themselves from the .500 mark and gaining the confidence and momentum they lacked when the season started.
Yes, the competition — New Orleans, Cleveland, Minnesota, New York, Chicago — has to be taken into account, but the Celtics are doing what good teams are supposed to; drop the hammer on bad teams.
Such was the case on Saturday when they battered the Bulls by 56 points, a record for the largest margin of victory in Celtics history and the largest margin of defeat in Bulls history. It was a surreal game. The fourth quarter turned into the McDonald’s All-American game for the Celtics, with Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier trying various breakaway dunks against an overmatched team.
The Celtics walked away from Chicago feeling more like themselves. It wasn’t a cinch they would dominate so easily. The Bulls had just beaten Oklahoma City the night before. When the Celtics jumped out to a 17-0 lead and then led by as many as 58 in the fourth, the concern about whether they could maintain such a high level of basketball appeared to dissipate.
“It’s something we had to figure out, what was going to work best,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “As all things being equal, I think as we went back to our lineup that started the year, we’d be a little bit better because we’re more comfortable with each other. We know a little bit more about how guys can coexist.
“It’s clearly been a good couple of groups [first and second units], so we’ll see what happens.”
In examining the past five games of each NBA team entering Sunday, the Celtics have been by far the most dominant in the league.
Here are the categories in which they lead the league during that span: points per game (126.2), field goals made (47.2), field goal percentage (51.4), 3-pointers made (17.6), 3-pointers attempted (39), 3-point percentage (45.1), assists (30.6), and margin of victory (28.6).
The offense is working. It’s working as well as people expect it would at the beginning of the season. The Celtics spent the first 20 games trying to figure things out, enduring frustrating times as Stevens tried to determine rotations and roles.
He has settled on a starting unit for now that includes Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris. The bench features Brown, Rozier, and Gordon Hayward. What has deflated the egos in the Celtics locker room is success. Players can’t argue with winning. They don’t want to be perceived as selfish or greedy, and winning creates a more pleasant environment.
After the Chicago win, Kyrie Irving was in the locker room joking with former NBA player Bobby Simmons. Irving had no media obligations because he scored just 13 points in 23 minutes. Jayson Tatum wasn’t required by media either because he played just 21 minutes and scored 18 points.
They played and contributed, but in the end they relaxed on the bench. Brown scored 23 points and looked as if he was playing with a passion and confidence that has not been seen this season.
“We’re just trying to keep playing good basketball and show people what we can do,” Brown said. “Just finishing a rhythm and chemistry for 48 minutes. This is one of our best games, against an opponent that I think we still should have beat. We have played some of our best basketball the last few weeks.
“It’s a long season. There’s going to be ups. There’s going to be downs. There’s going to be different lineups, and we’re learning to play with everybody and right now we found some continuity.”
The schedule is set up for more success with just one team in the next five — the Pistons — owning a winning record. The Celtics desperately need to continue to separate themselves from .500, and keep pace with the Raptors, who lead them in the Eastern Conference standings by five games.
The season is barely a quarter done, but the Celtics, because of their slow start, are indeed playing for playoff seeding at this early stage. The 76ers and Bucks have gotten off to strong starts, while the Pacers have been up and down like the Celtics.
The No. 1 seed in the conference is hardly a guarantee, as it appeared at the beginning of the season when Stevens put out his most talented five offensive players and figured they would work well together. They didn’t, and he was astute enough to make changes, get Smart and Morris in the starting unit, and then hope that his suddenly bolstered bench would blend well together with Hayward and Brown.
So far it has been successful and Saturday was an example of the Celtics’ potential dominance when they are playing the right way. They beat a team by 56 points, a team that had just beaten the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference the night before.
So confidence should be brimming. The Celtics seem to have found the right combination before matters got out of hand this season. The next task is to build on that success and become the team they envisioned in October, a team that can reach the Finals.