So the Celtics are off to a surprising 38-16 start, with a legitimate opportunity to claim the second seed in the Eastern Conference with a strong performance over the final 28 games. What’s been most encouraging is the club has been able to win despite constant injuries to their core players.
The presence of Kemba Walker transformed this team into championship caliber because of his calming demeanor, and Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown took major steps forward while Gordon Hayward has looked more confident another year removed from his horrific leg injury.
For perhaps the first time in his seven years as coach, Brad Stevens has a roster where everyone has a role. The Celtics don’t have any unwanted contracts, veterans griping about playing time or arguing over shots. This group has been unselfish with Walker often deferring to Tatum and Brown.
With the Celtics turning themselves into an enjoyable team after last year’s drama and tumult, it’s prudent to examine what exactly went right and led to this turnaround. The team has had its issues, some unexpected losses to downtrodden teams, the penchant for slow starts, but overall Boston has been one of the more impressive teams in the NBA this season.
Let’s look at what has gone well and what’s ahead:
WHAT WENT RIGHT?
The Celtics entered this season with some major concerns after last year’s playoff embarrassment. They lacked a proven quality center and rim protector. Tatum and Brown were both coming off years in which they stumbled at times. Hayward went through a major transitional year following his injury, and it was unknown how Walker would fit into the offense as primarily a pick-and-roll player.
Well, the Celtics appeared to learn from last year’s selfishness. Tatum became an All-Star, producing several big games and showing he’s a rising star by outplaying counterparts such as Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James in recent games. Brown nearly made the All-Star team and became more comfortable in the offense, using his improved ball handling to create more opportunities and become a reliable mid-range shooter.
Hayward has bounced back well, despite being beset with a broken hand and a foot that has caused him to miss 17 games. Walker was an All-Star starter and while he has attempted four fewer shots per game than his final season in Charlotte, he has become more efficient and has had no issue sharing the wealth.
The biggest surprise may be the development of center Daniel Theis, who started just five games in his first two seasons in Boston. As a full-time starter, Theis has proved reliable off the pick-and-roll, a pesky defender and effective rebounder. And he has blocked 1.4 shots per game.
In addition, the bench has played well. Marcus Smart is still streaky as a shooter but he’s become more reliable and consistent. Brad Wanamaker has enjoyed his moments as the reserve guard and has shown the ability to score while Enes Kanter has lived up to his billing as a premium offensive rebounder and quality scorer in the post. He averages 8.2 rebounds in just 18.6 minutes per game.
Rookie Grant Williams has also cemented a role as an undersized forward/center, unafraid to guard bigger and more established players.
WHAT CAN BE BETTER?
The Celtics aren’t a finished product, but president of basketball operations Danny Ainge doesn’t appear impressed with the current buyout market. There will be a handful of players who will be available over the next two weeks — after negotiating out of their contracts — who could help the cause.
Boston is short on bench scoring. The club had hoped rookie Carsen Edwards would serve as sort of a “Microwave” off the bench because of his ability to score in bunches in college. But he’s struggled on defense, which has affected his offense.
The Celtics could also use another rim protector and quality center, especially against bigger teams such as the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez. The hope is that Robert Williams, who hasn’t played since Dec. 6 because of a hip injury, can return soon and help the defense. Celtics brass had high hopes for Williams in his second season but he’s been besieged by injuries.
A quality shooter off the bench is also a major need. Jamal Crawford and J.R. Smith are available but perhaps Ainge and Stevens will wait for a more desired player on buyout or hope Edwards can snap out of his slump.
WHAT HAPPENS NOW?
The Celtics are in the middle of a five-team race for the No. 2 seed, which is a precious landing spot. The second seed likely will avoid playing Philadelphia or Indiana or Miami or Toronto in the first round. The Celtics trail the streaking Raptors by 1½ games for the second seed with one more matchup at Toronto. The remaining schedule includes two games with Miami (Celtics have won the first two) and two against Indiana (0-1).
There are also home-and-road matchups with Minnesota, Utah, and Portland. The remaining schedule is difficult but the Celtics have yet to play a prolonged stretch fully healthy. And they are only a Williams return away from being a complete team.
The Celtics deserve all the praise they’re receiving for being a Top 5 NBA team after last year’s debacle but there is more work to be done, and grabbing that second seed and an easier playoff road should be their No. 1 priority.