The Boston Celtics snapped a four-game losing streak earlier this month by winning three of their last four to climb back into the No. 8 seed in a tightly contested Eastern Conference.
Boston currently finds themselves tied in the loss column with an Orlando Magic team eager to burst into the playoff picture and they have a mere two losses less than a Charlotte Hornets team that ranks 12th in the Conference. On the flip side, they are only one game away from rising all the way to the No. 5 spot. Piling up a few straight wins or losses could result in a drastically different outlook, which has led to a turbulent month for the streaky C's.
One constant for the Celtics this month has been the surging Isaiah Thomas. The diminutive point guard is averaging 24.7 points on 43.1 percent shooting in January, both of which represent season high's for any month aside from October's minuscule two-game sample. IT has also been more aggressive going to the basket this month, averaging nearly 8 free throw attempts per game.
Thomas may be lighting it up, but is that really a good thing for the Celtics? He scored 30+ points in back-to-back games this month for the first time in his career, yet both of those games resulted in losses. Thomas actually has five games this season scoring 30+ points, three of which his team lost. Another came in a narrow victory over the lowly Philadelphia 76ers, while most recently it took John Wall missing a layup at the buzzer to seal the win over a banged up Washington Wizards squad.
One would naturally assume that as Thomas goes, the Celtics go, but that hasn't really been the case. Thomas is averaging 22.7 points per game in losses, which drops to 20.9 points when the Celtics win. He's scoring more when we lose, but the difference is the gap in efficiency. IT is shooting a dismal 40.7 percent in losses compared to 43.6 percent in wins. This suggests that Thomas may be shooting us out of some games this season, as he actually shoots the ball more in losses even when his shot isn't falling.
Thomas is trying, perhaps too much, to keep the Celtics in the playoff race, but he needs his teammates to step up with a more consistent effort to help carry the load on offense.
(Eastern Conference team building momentum)
Toronto Raptors: 26-15, 2nd in the East
The Raptors have won five straight to move into second place in the East and within striking distance of a Cleveland team that was expected to run away with the conference. They still might, but Toronto won't make it easy.
They may not have a Big Three like the Cavs do, but Toronto does have the best backcourt in the East with a pair of guards that should both warrant consideration for an All-Star selection. Kyle Lowry is 4th in the East with a 23.26 PER and second with 9.1 EWA, which should make him a starter even if the fans probably won't vote him in.
DeMar DeRozan is averaging a career-high 22.8 points and 4.1 assists, while ranking 14th in the East with a 21.01 PER. He also leads the Conference with 8.2 free throw attempts per game, while converting at an 84.3 percent rate. He's building a strong case to join Lowry in the All-Star game and if the Raptors remain near the top of the East then don't they deserve to have two players selected? Especially considering Toronto will be hosting the All-Star Game this year.
(Eastern Conference team that is struggling)
Orlando Magic: 20-20, 9th in the East
The Magic have dropped seven of their last ten to fall back to .500 for the season, which puts them 1 game behind Boston for the No. 8 seed. Given their -0.2 point differential this season, it's hard to argue they have played any better than their record suggests.
Point guard Elfrid Payton missed four games with an ankle injury during this recent cold spell, but has been dreadful of late when he has played. In the two games since his return Payton owns an ugly ratio of 9 assists to 8 turnovers and is now averaging 5.8 points and 5.0 assists in January.
Payton inserted himself back into the starting lineup in Orlando's last game, but only because Victor Oladipo is now sidelined with a sprained knee. Coach Scott Skiles seems to have given up on the idea of starting the two of them together, which will make it difficult for Payton to remain a starter once Oladipo returns. After a slow start to the season, Oladipo has come on strong this month with averages of 18.3 points and 4.0 assists, so his injury really couldn't have come at a worse time.
Draft Pick Watch
(Checking in on the status of teams that potentially owe a first-round draft pick to the Celtics)
Dallas Mavericks: 24-19, 6th in the West
The Mavs are slowly sinking in the West while playing at a sub-.500 level this month. This is music to the ears of Celtics fans hoping to obtain a lottery pick from Dallas, especially since they have banked enough wins to give them a comfortable margin above the bottom-seven teams that would put that pick into protected territory.
Coach Rick Carlisle hasn't been shy about resting starters this month on the second night of back-to-backs. It happened twice in January the night after Dallas played an overtime game where the starters were forced into heavy minutes, which isn't a trend likely to continue. It still bears watching how often the Mavs are willing to rest some of their aging veterans, as it may cost them a couple wins over the course of the season.
Boston didn't do themselves any favors losing in overtime in Dallas on Monday, even if the NBA later acknowledge that the officials missed a blatant turnover by Zaza Pachulia with 5.6 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter that should have allowed the Celtics another shot to win it in regulation.