Slow starts (Bill Sy): Since Isaiah Thomas’s return, the Celtics are 10-2 and are tied for the best record in the NBA in that span. However, their defense has dropped off during that stretch, but their offense—particularly their recent three-point shooting over their latest homestand—has made up the difference. They’ve been the fifth-best offense in the league, prompting Isaiah Thomas to say after tonight that this was the best offense he’s ever played in “for sure.” You can say that when you’re averaging over 31 points per game on over 43% from behind the arc since his injury.
Despite the success, there are some troubling signs. In addition to the lack of defensive focus and rebounding, the team has suffered nearly crippling starts to open games. Last night, they went down 8-0 and 25-15 in the first quarter before tightening the screws on both ends. That’s been a trend over the last month. During this three-game stretch, the team has a negative net rating of -3.3 in the first quarter. Fortunately, they are winning the 2nd at +9.5, the 3rd at +5.3, and the 4th at +7.3.
With young players coming into their own on the offense end and the team collectively hotter than they’ve ever been, are the once gritty-for-all-four-quarters Celtics cruising and later flipping a switch? I think the eye test says yes. The starters seem to settle on long 2s early and not dig in defensively. Maybe it’s because we’re in the middle of a long season. Maybe it’s because the Celtics are finally home after playing 20 out of their first 33 games on the road. The next five games are against Eastern Conference foes that they could see in the playoffs, including a Tuesday date in Toronto. Let’s hope they’re ready to play all 48. Not 36 or 40 or 44 minutes. All 48.
Here come the Celtics (Keith P. Smith): Don't look now, but after going 10-2 over their last 12 games, the Celtics are just 1.5 games behind Toronto in the standings. And the best part? They play at the Raptors on Tuesday night. Get your popcorn ready! It could be for the division lead, because the Raptors, coming off the loss to the Bulls, have a tough back-to-back with travel against the Rockets tomorrow. Houston is already resting in Toronto waiting for the Raptors to show up fresh off an OT loss.
We've been hoping and assuming the Celtics would play at this level once they were fully healthy, but they've now validated that on the court. Isaiah Thomas is playing at a clear All-Star level and has started to garner some slight MVP buzz. Al Horford has fit in seamlessly in the offense and has provided unexpected rim protection. Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder, despite slipping on defense, have both been terrific on offense. Marcus Smart is stepping up on both ends off the bench. And it still feels like the Celtics have a trade up their sleeves. It is all coming together at the right time for Boston to make a run.
Now, you can question if being 2 or 3 in the East matters, since you avoid Cleveland until the Conference Finals either way. But we all saw what happened last year with playoff seeding and tiebreakers. Boston would much rather be at home when it matters most vs. trying to win games on the road. So, while it is still early and we haven't even hit the halfway point, these are big games. And big games, really truly big games, are what we've been waiting for all along.