Thirty games into the season, the Celtics are the third seed in the Eastern Conference with a legitimate shot of claiming the second seed with 52 games left. We have learned a great deal about this team more than a third through the season — the most important of which is that they are a contender.
What we have also learned is that the Eastern Conference is competitive. The Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers are off to surprising starts, while those who believed the Toronto Raptors would take a significant step back without Kawhi Leonard were wrong.
The road to home-court advantage in the first round will not be easy for the Celtics. The January schedule is treacherous with 16 games in 30 days, including matchups with the first-place Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers. And the Celtics are only 2½ games up on the Pacers, who are currently the sixth seed.
The final 64 percent of the regular season will be a challenge but these are the eight things we’ve learned about the Celtics:
■ Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum each have taken the next step — The biggest concern this season with the departure of Kyrie Irving was whether Tatum and Brown would continue their development into All-Star-caliber players. That has happened this year, especially with Brown, who could be selected for the first time. Tatum has become a more selective shooter and better defender while Brown has become a more aggressive scorer and better 3-point shooter. And they have learned to play well together.
■ The center position isn’t the issue it was supposed to be — When Al Horford decided to opt out and sign with the 76ers and Aron Baynes was dealt to the Phoenix Suns, the Celtics had a major hole in the middle. But Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter have played well enough to keep the position respectable defensively. There are nights like Saturday when the Celtics get pounded on the boards but the center position hasn’t been a weakness as initially thought. Also, the position should get an upgrade when Robert Williams returns from injury.
■ Kemba Walker is a better fit than Irving — Last season’s upheaval wasn’t all Irving’s fault. It wasn’t even half his fault. But the Celtics are a more harmonious team with Walker in the fold. He doesn’t dominate the ball down the stretch, and picks and chooses his moments to score. Walker doesn’t need stardom. He needs success and he has no issue with being a complement on certain nights when Tatum, Brown, or Gordon Hayward flourishes down the stretch.
■ Hayward is better than last season but injuries are going to be part of his résumé — He has definitely improved from last year’s uneven return season from that catastrophic leg injury suffered in 2017. But he’s already missed time this season with a broken hand and a nerve issue in his foot. He’s played in 14 of the Celtics’ 30 games and they are still integrating him into the system because they still don’t know how it’s going to consistently work with him in the lineup.
■ There could be a backup point guard controversy in the second half — Brad Wanamaker sparkled in November, shooting 52 percent from the field and 43 percent from the 3-point line in averaging 9.1 points. That allowed Brad Stevens to shift Walker to shooting guard and the Celtics were still productive on offense. However, Wanamaker has struggled in December (34.5 percent from the field, 29.4 from the 3-point line). That could open the door for G League product Tremont Waters, who has played well with Maine and may get a shot with the Celtics.
■ Romeo Langford is more than a G League stash — He’s played in only seven games, but Langford has shown the ability to produce in spurts, including on the defensive side. The Celtics were expected to send Langford to Maine for most of the season but they have found a role for him and he could contribute in the next few months. Langford could be the best of what has been a stellar draft class with Grant Williams, Carsen Edwards, and Waters.
■ If the Celtics make a move, Vincent Poirier is the most likely to go — The Celtics thought they were getting a dependable backup center who could defend but Poirier hasn’t worked his way into the rotation. Stevens chose undersized rookie Williams to play the five position at times — and then Poirier got hurt. Everyone else on the roster has a role or purpose except Poirier, so if the Celtics do need to create a roster spot, Poirier and his $2.5 million contract could be offered in a trade.
■ Tacko Fall isn’t going anywhere — The Celtics figured out a way to get the 7-foot-5-inch Fall on the roster by waiving two-way contract player Max Strus. Fall has been a sensation, mostly off the court, for the Celtics. They will continue to tutor him in Maine with the hopes that he’ll eventually be able to play spot minutes for the Celtics. Fall has improved on the court and the Celtics have capitalized on Fall’s personality and popularity off the floor. It has been a win-win situation for both sides.