Forty-one games down, 41 games to go. Before the season started, predicting that the Boston Celtics would sit on top of the Eastern Conference with a record of 31-10 wouldn’t have been a stretch. In fact, that would have been quite a reasonable take. After the Gordon Hayward injury, though, very few people could have predicted how the season would unfold. If you told me on October 18th that by January 4th the Celtics would embark on a 16-game win streak; have quality wins over the Oklahoma City Thunder, Toronto Raptors, San Antonio Spurs, the Houston Rockets, the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers; and would lead the East by a sizable margin, I would have slapped you in the face for playing with my emotions.
Surprisingly, though, that’s precisely what happened.
On the morning of the team’s first preseason matchup against the Charlotte Hornets, I wrote an article titled “One question for every Celtic this season” in which I asked one relatively simple question for each player to answer throughout the course of the season. With half of the season completed, it’s about time to check in on everyone’s progress so far.
Question: How well will he transition back to being a point guard?
Answer: It turns out that we don’t need him to be extremely point guard-y. Al Horford currently leads the team in assists per game with 5.2, and Irving is not too far behind him, averaging 4.9 per game. In an unexpected twist, adding Kyrie Irving didn’t boost the offense in the way that we thought. The Celtics had a top-10 offense and a middle-of-the-pack defense last season. This season, the Celtics have the best defense in the league and a middle-of-the-pack offense. Not all of that shift is due to Irving, but it certainly is fascinating.
One thing I’ve noticed about how he plays is that even though he may put up a lot of shots, Irving has rarely forced the issue. Sure, he gets into “Untucked Jersey Kyrie” mode from time to time, but for the most part his shots come within the flow of the reimagined offense. The offense is designed to get him shots and to have the ball zip around the floor with constant movement. Therefore, even though 4.9 assists per game isn’t very point guard-y in the traditional sense, it’s working just fine for what we need. *points at record*
Question: With less weight and added speed, can Smart finish at the rim?
Answer: As much as I like to tweet “HE’S ON A DI3T” when Marcus Smart hits a 3-pointer, his weight loss hasn’t produced the (offensive) impact that we imagined when we saw him tear up the preseason. As the Chief Officer of the Marcus Smart Stan Club, I am not completely down on his offensive progress. He’s gotten better at things he was already good at. After a really rough shooting start to the year, Smart has, um, improved his 3-point shooting to get up to 31%. The real issue (and the focus of this question) is his two-point scoring.
Smart is still subpar from inside the arc. On the season, he’s shooting 37% on 2-pointers, which is not ideal, especially for a guy his size with his combat muscles. In the last few weeks, though, Smart has shown more of a willingness to drive inside the paint, and this has elevated the rest of his game. After shooting an abysmal 30.6% from the field in November, Smart “rebounded” in the month of December, shooting 37%. After one game against Cleveland, he’s shooting 43% in January, so let’s hope he stays in the 40s for the whole month.
Question: How good is Hayward’s defense?
Question: Is he ready to start?
Answer: I’ve been wrong before. I argued heavily entering the year that Marcus Smart should start at the shooting guard position (and I’m not necessarily wrong there because of the great results we’ve seen from Smart and Irving sharing the floor and the ball) because I didn’t believe that Jaylen Brown was ready. I was wrong. In fact, I was super wrong. Brown was one of the early frontrunners for Most Improved Player of the Year after a strong jump in his stats and confidence. Brown has been in the middle of many of the team’s victories against elite competition, including his third-quarter spurt against the defending champions in the midst of our win streak.
Additionally, Brown’s defense has continued to flourish. He consistently tackles the opposing team’s best wing threat, and his offense hasn’t suffered greatly. Brown still struggles with consistency and focus at times, but he’s more than earned his starting spot.
Question: How great will he make Kyrie Irving?
Answer: Very great. Similarly to how the addition of Horford elevated Isaiah Thomas’s game, Kyrie Irving’s efficiency has taken a huge jump—Irving with him even flirting with the 50-40-90 club. Irving is a +231 with Horford on the court this year, and the two have established a crisp two-man game. Here’s a good example of a seemingly simple play that takes both of their strengths into consideration. I’m not even sure if this is a set play, but Horford and Irving make it work and look good at the same time:
It took barely any time for the two to get familiar with each other, and that dynamic is a huge part of why the Celtics are looking down at the rest of the East at the moment.
Question: How will he recover from missing so much time?
Answer: Clearly by frustrating me to no ends with midrange pull-up contested jumpshots and post turnaround fadeaway jumpshots from 15 feet out. Morris has been a very divisive player among fans due to his shot selection. On one hand, he makes them sometimes, and his scoring can be a big boost. On the other hand, his shots ruin the flow of the offense at times. After the “I’m coming back from my knee injury even though I’m not fully healthy just to be able to say that I played against my twin brother on Christmas” fiasco against the Wizards, Morris has actually played very well. If he can continue playing within the flow of the offense without forcing anything, he will be exactly what Boston needs off the bench.
Question: Can he plug up the paint?
Answer: All of Australia’s got it covered. Baynes’s stats might not wow you, but his contributions as the regular starter have clearly made life easier for other defenders on the best defensive team in the league. His presence helps Al Horford in particular, who never was much of a traditional rim protector. Baynes sets bone-crushing screens that feel like running head-first into a concrete wall, and his ability to defend in the restricted area has elevated Boston’s defense far beyond what it was last season. So in a word, yes.
Question: Can he defend enough to see the floor?
Answer: In one Michael Scott gif:
Question: Can he run an offense?
Answer: Probably not, but who cares? Terry Rozier (+ three sticks) is on an absolute tear recently, playing a particularly big role in wins against the Cavs and the Rockets. Including his game-winner in Indiana along with his increasing success rate on end-of-quarter heaves, Rozier has had a huge month—undoubtedly the best of his young career so far. He’s shown improved recognition of when to switch speeds, he’s thrown lob passes that haven’t almost ended a life, and his shooting has improved as his confidence has increased. Rozier Three Sticks is the man now, and whether or not he can adequately run three pick-and-rolls in a row doesn’t really matter at this point. Smart and Shane Larkin are taking care of that task in the second unit with varying success (particularly in the second quarter), but Rozier is focused all game on what he knows best: getting buckets.
Question: Can Yabu play small ball five?
Answer: I’m not entirely sure, but in limited minutes, he hasn’t gotten absolutely destroyed on either end. That’s a good sign. Yabu hasn’t had the opportunity to get extended minutes consistently, so I’m looking forward to seeing if he carves out more of a role moving forward. The best way he can do so is by playing solid defense, rebounding well when he’s out in shorter lineups, and by continuing to dab. I’m not even kidding.
Question: What’s the circumference of Ojeleye’s biceps?
Answer: Honestly I think they’re even bigger than they were at the start of the season, so if you follow this team solely out of a love of and dedication to combat muscles, you’re in the right place. Also, Ojeleye has been an extremely good defender, defending the likes of LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant excellently. Combat muscles always win.
Question: On a scale from one to “Phil Pressey,” where does Larkin rank?
Answer: 8.73. As it happens, that’s why we’ve seen a lot of Shane Larkin this season.
Question: How much of his defense will translate to the NBA?
Answer: Theis is posting a stellar defensive rating of 98.2. For reference, the team leads the NBA with a defensive rating of 102.4, holding opponents to 98.2 points per game. Although Theis’s minutes vary from game to game, his defensive presence and rim protection have been a huge part of the team’s success. I wasn’t expecting much out of the experienced rookie coming into this season, but he’s been extremely valuable. As the rotation settles back in with Morris and Brown healthy, maybe we’ll go back to seeing more Smart-Theis alley-oops. That would be very *puts shades on* Theis*.
*I’m sorry, I’m trying to delete it.
Question: Was his Summer League the normal for him?
Answer: Unfortunately, yes. I’m sorry, but I really don’t see Nader having any translatable NBA skills. His go-to move is driving hard to the basket with his right hand, and, well, that’s it. His defense is unfocused, and he gets rebounds occasionally not by effort, but simply by existing on the court at that time.
I’m not sipping the Naderade. However, I will concede that he was a big part of the Game of the Year when the team came back to beat Houston. Nader provided energy and productivity that helped the team instead of hurting. I will concede that. He’s got a long way to go, but it’s not impossible for him to get there.
15th Roster Spot
Question: Who’s it gonna be?
Answer: Still don’t know!
What questions are you looking forward to answering by the time the season wraps up in April?