On Wednesday, December 14 the Celtics lost their third straight game, which happened to be against the San Antonio Spurs. It was the fourth straight game without Isaiah Thomas, and the overall record stood just one game above .500 at 13-12. They trailed the Raptors for the second spot in the East by five games.
Questions abounded about the team's defense, rebounding, and overall place in the league. I even wrote out some (admittedly vague) concerns I had about the team as a whole.
Still, I have an underlying concern about this team and I can't quite put my finger on exactly what it is. When it boils down to it, I guess it has to do with my own expectations. They were heightened by the team's success last year, along with the signing of Al Horford and the preseason predictions that had the Celtics pegged as the 2nd best team in the league. We may still get to that point, but right now the record is what it is and we're left with vague excuses about injuries.
The maddening thing is that I feel like there are more issues than just injuries. But the injuries are an easy excuse and they may even mask some systemic issues that the team needs to work on but can't due to the lack of a full roster. So we wait and hope that the team can get healthy and figure things out on the fly.
Fast forward 3.5 weeks—the team has won 10 of their last 12 contests and has looked fantastic in the process. I would imagine that there is a direct link to the fact that Isaiah Thomas returned on Dec. 16 and has looked fantabulicious the whole time. He's also had a full complement of leading characters around him, including Al Horford, Jae Crowder, and (until recently) Avery Bradley.
Maybe I should wring my hands and worry about the team more often.
The funny thing is that if you had told me a month ago that this was going to happen, I would have assumed that it was due to the Celtics re-discovering their defensive swagger. However, that hasn’t been the case. The Celtics’ defensive efficiency was ranked 15th on Dec. 14th (104.7). Since that point, the team's rank has dropped to 17th (107.4).
Turns out they've just been THAT much better on offense, going from a 106.4 offensive rating (still impressive at 9th place through Dec. 14) to a rating of 112.3 in the last 12 games (4th in the league). Again, thank Isaiah Thomas (#nbavote).
Note that they also happen to be the second-highest-ranked assist ratio team, and they’ve made the third-most three-pointers in the league (7th best shooting % on 3s). So they are clearly running Brad Stevens’s offense and knocking down the shots that the offense sets up.
The past 12 games have featured some high quality wins over very solid teams like the Memphis Grizzlies (twice) and Utah Jazz. On the other hand, Boston fell to the defending champion Cavaliers (that still sounds weird). In fact, this season they have yet to win a game against the six teams that are currently ahead of them in the standings.
They can change that on Tuesday when they fly north of the border to play the Raptors. If they win that game they’ll be tied with Toronto for second place in the East.
When the season kicked off, many had the Celtics ahead of the Raptors in their season projections (though admittedly, most had them roughly on the same tier). After a slow start it appears that the Celtics are who we thought they were, just in a different way than we thought they would (using offense instead of defense). We’ll see how they fare against the Raptors and how the rest of the season plays out.