From the outset of the season the Boston Celtics looked to establish their identity as a gritty defensive team. They lacked the star power typically associated with contending teams, but they were a scrappy collection of underdogs that played team basketball and could never be counted out because of the effort they put in on the defensive end.
So what's changed? The Celtics are still an elite defensive team, with a 98.9 defensive rating that ties the defending champion Golden State Warriors for second in the league. What comes as a bit more of a surprise is that Boston now has the offensive firepower to match.
The Celtics had eclipsed the 100 point barrier in 12 straight games leading into Tuesday night's road win against the New York Knicks, where they fell short of that mark in a 97-89 victory. The stretch was the franchise's longest streak of scoring 100+ points since 1995. Prior to Tuesday's win the Celtics had scored 110+ points in 6 straight, the franchise's longest such streak since the 1990-91 season, while topping that mark in 9 of their last 10 games.
Celtics: 110+ points in 9 of last 10 games, including each of last 6 (longest such streak since 9-game streak in 1990-91)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 2, 2016
Clearly the Celtics are rolling on offense right now. Since January 12, when their streak of scoring 100+ points began, Boston is third in the league in scoring at 111.4 per game. While that figure is partially influenced by playing at the league's second fastest pace, the Celtics still remain among the elite in efficiency with a 109.1 offensive rating that puts them mere percentage points behind the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors for the best rating in the East over these past few weeks.
Boston's offensive surge has helped fuel their rise in the standings, as they have moved up into a tie for third place in the East. If they can keep up this momentum they may very well find themselves with home court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs this spring.
(Eastern Conference team gaining momentum)
Cleveland Cavaliers: 35-12, 1st in the East
Just in case there were any concerns that the Cavs would stumble in the wake of firing coach David Blatt, Cleveland has quickly put them to rest.
The Tyronn Lue era got off to a rocky start with a double-digit home loss to the Chicago Bulls, but since then the Cavs have ripped off five straight wins, while scoring at least 111 points in each of them. Cleveland hasn't picked up the pace as much as one might imagine with the coaching change, as they are still among the slowest paced teams in the league, but their offensive rating is a league best 118.2 since Lue took over the coaching mantel. Cleveland also boasts a Net Rating of 10.7 with Lue at the helm, narrowly edging out Boston for the best mark in the East over that span.
It's a travesty that a coach of a first place team that led his squad to the Finals a year ago was fired mid-season, while fans are right to be disgusted by LeBron's obvious power play. Despite the turmoil at the top, Cleveland hasn't missed a beat and is still expected to coast to the top seed in the East.
(Eastern Conference team that is struggling)
Atlanta Hawks: 28-22, third in the East
Atlanta is currently tied with the Celtics for the No. 3 seed, but you get the feeling that they are trending in the wrong direction after dropping 5 of their last 10 games. There have also been rumors floating around that the Hawks may be seller's at the trade deadline, with Jeff Teague among the players they have discussed with other teams.
If Teague is on the move then you have to imagine they would consider trading impending free agent Al Horford as well, especially if they don't believe they can re-sign him.
The Hawks have taken a step back from the 60-win team that led the Conference a year ago, but they still have the talent to remain in the top half of the East. However, if they feel that this squad has hit its ceiling then they may feel now is the time to blow things up before several key players become eligible for free agency.
If Atlanta were to start selling off its best players then they would essentially concede their spot in the race, making it that much easier for the Celtics to keep rising.
Draft Pick Watch
(Checking in on the status of teams that potentially owe a first-round draft pick to the Celtics)
Brooklyn Nets: 12-37, 14th in the East
Joe Johnson's future in Brooklyn remains hazy, but with the deadline looming the veteran insists that he has no intentions of demanding a trade that would send him to a contender.
"I'm a professional, man. Obviously, this late in my career, this isn't the ideal situation," Johnson told Newsday this week. "But I'm not forcing anything. I haven't [gone] to management, asked for anything. I come to work day in and day out, compete and have fun. That's what it's about. Whatever happens, happens."
The 34-year old is a shell of his former self, averaging a mere 11.3 points per game on a career-low 39 percent shooting from the floor. Yet even at his worst, Brooklyn's shallow roster doesn't have anyone better to soak up his minutes if Johnson were to be moved.
Even if the Nets can't find someone to take Johnson's expiring contract there is still the possibility that he could reach a buyout before March 1 that would allow him to latch on to a contender. While it would be a nice gesture toward a veteran who has remained loyal throughout a disappointing four-year run, letting him go for nothing won't help the Nets win more games.
If the Nets start unloading veterans it won't be because they are tanking, since they obviously are aware that Boston own's their first-round draft pick, but if they can acquire some assets to help rebuild for the future then sacrificing the present may be a necessary evil - one which the Celtics can benefit from.