Amongst Celtic nation, the realists generally maintain their expectations of another trip to lotto land, but the optimistic crowd doesn't look so delusional these days, either. The Celtics have been awful busy as of late, coming off of a five-game week that was highlighted by the team's first three-game winning streak since mid-December.
Danny Ainge may or may not continue setting off fireworks as we approach the NBA's February 19 trade deadline, but Brad Stevens' troops have proven that they are going to compete regardless of how often Trader Dan makes them play musical lockers. While Boston's top 2014-15 storylines are mostly centered around player movement, this team still has a legitimate statistical chance of inserting themselves into the mighty Eastern Conference playoff picture.
The Celtics still have their work cut out for them if they want to transform that fantasy into reality, but while they currently sit in 11th place, they are only two games behind the eighth-seeded Miami Heat. Likely? Maybe not. Possible? You bet.
On Sunday afternoon, the Heat made sure to let the Celtics know that they are fully aware of those green headlights trailing their tail, jumping out of the gate on a 25-15 first quarter statement. Boston didn't bow down, proven by the energy they came out of the locker room with to begin the second half, but they closed the game the same way they opened it - sloppy and indecisive.
Miami's defensive intensity ultimately decided the pace and outcome of the game, as their interior length and perimeter ball pressure left Boston uncomfortable all night. The Celtics shot just 37% from the field, which felt more like 3.7% in the first half, and were never able to establish any kind of rhythm.
Oh yeah, it also didn't help that Hassan Whiteside looked like the 1994 version of Hakeem Olajuwon.
The Celtics may have started their week with an 83-75 home loss, but they put their big boy pants on and [figuratively] rebounded like Moses Malone. After coming off the bench in Sunday's matinee as a result of late arrival to the arena, Jared Sullinger made sure to set his alarm for Tuesday night's meeting at Madison Square Garden. Back in the starting five, Sully took advantage of the minimal resistance from New York's front line, leading the charge with 22 points, nine rebounds and a career high six assists to complement a cool 26 from Avery Bradley.
New York isn't the best defensive club in the world, but that kind of ball movement is comforting against any unit you can name. When the Celtics move the ball side-to-side and attack openings that they create based off of their own action, they are a completely different team.
The very next night, the men in green shipped back up to Boston to host the struggling Denver Nuggets, who came into Wednesday's matchup having lost 10 of their previous 11 games. Beat 'em while they're down, baby, beat 'em while they're down.
Brad Stevens continued to shake up the starting unit, bringing Sullinger off the bench for the second time in three games in order to go a little bit bigger against the ultra-active frontcourt duo of Kenneth Faried and rookie Jusuf Nurkic. Marcus Smart also started his second straight game, and Mr. Intangibles put together one of his better NBA showings to date despite shooting just 2-6 in 41 minutes. Smart dealt with the always difficult task of checking a speed demon like Ty Lawson, reminding us of his competitive spirit on his way to a performance of four points, 10 rebounds, eight assists, three steals and poised pick n' roll play that opened up a lot of offensive opportunities in the halfcourt.
Once again, when this team moves the ball east-west and opportunistically attacks north-south, they are much more successful offensively. The most important aspect of that? You don't get better with that unless you read and react properly. Larry Bird and Kevin McHale aren't walking through that door, but the young guns are noticeably developing their basketball IQs.
Then the Celtics beat Philadelphia without Michael Carter-Williams. Enough said there.
Our beloved C's capped off their week last night on the road against the up-and-coming Milwaukee Bucks, one of the most pleasant surprises of the 2014-15 NBA season. Both sides were tested physically and mentally, as this was Boston's fourth game in five nights along with the second night of a back-to-back for Milwaukee, who took a tough loss in Houston on Friday night.
The Celtics displayed as much toughness as they have all year, competing for 48 minutes and coming together to turn a 14-point deficit into a single-possession game that they had a chance to win down the stretch. Boston played hard, took pretty good care of the ball, had six players reach double figures and got big time contributions from the second unit, which produced 42 points and 19 rebounds off the bench. I'll take that seven days a week and twice on Sundays.
Unfortunately, Brandon Knight was able to dictate whatever he wanted to do and his efficient 26-point performance was capped off by a cold-blooded jumper that buried the Celtics with 6.7 seconds remaining on the clock. If Dwyane Wade can't go, don't be surprised if Knight replaces him on the Eastern Conference All-Star roster.
Regardless, it warmed my heart watching the pups fight. All the talk about this team being "soft" this season is finally starting to engage the competitive spirit that some guys need to be pushed towards in order to realize. Look, the victories were against the Knicks, Nuggets and 76ers. We can't overreact, but we can't act like the Celtics didn't earn those W's, either. Regardless of the opponent, this team is playing more cohesive basketball over the last month and bit by bit, we're witnessing growth.
CELTICS PLAYER OF THE WEEK
17.6 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 1.8 APG, 1.0 SPG, 50% FG, 41.7% 3FG
Throughout 30 appearances in December and January, Avery Bradley shot an accumulative 40.6% from the field and often found himself with his back against the wall versus a slump he couldn't shake. In fact, he shot below 35% in 13 of those 30 games.
Bradley had a tough shooting performance in Milwaukee last night, knocking down just four of his 15 attempts from the floor, but even with that included he still shot 50% in this five-game week. Throughout the first four games prior to last night's loss, AB was shooting a scorching hot 34-59 (57.6%), highlighted by a 26-point outing in New York at an 11-14 clip.
Over his last 11 games, Bradley is taking over 14 shots per outing on a consistent basis as his workload increases since the Celtics traded Jeff Green and Rajon Rondo. The only way a shooter can ever work himself out of a slump is to shoot himself out of it, and as small of a sample size as five games is, it has been great to see after shooting 36% in his previous five.
We all know Avery can shoot the rock; with him, it is more a matter of consistency. It's clear when he's pressing, everyone knows when he rushes his shot and when he's cold, boy, he's cold. This week, however, he has been as important a piece to the puzzle as anyone and that pull-up jumper has really come a long way. Bradley may never become a go-to scoring option, in fact I heavily doubt it, but he has no choice but to be aggressive with his own offense on this team.
Bradley is in the awkward phase of his career where he is trying to transform from a guy everyone viewed as a defensive specialist, to a two-way threat. It just so happens he has to persevere through that on a squad where he is given more offensive responsibility than he can handle at times, so with that will come lots of ups and downs and more 3-12 shooting performances than 8-15's.
This week, however, AB has been terrific and not only put up sexy numbers, but made big plays in momentum-altering moments. Let's keep it rolling.
LOOKING AHEAD: After five games in seven nights, the Celtics are as ready as the rest of the league for the upcoming NBA All-Star break. Boston will play just one game over the next two weeks before making their annual post-All-Star west coast swing.
It just so happens that one game is against the hottest team in the league, as the Celtics will host the Atlanta Hawks at the Garden at 7:30 on Wednesday night. Atlanta has won 35 of their last 38 games, including their highly publicized perfect 17-0 month of January.
I've said it before and I'll say it again, Celtics. Eat your Wheaties.