Today is Sunday, December 2. Last night the Celtics beat the Timberwolves on the second night of a back-to-back, on the road. They have won the last 3 in a row, and arguably played better in each of those games than they did the game before. The pace of their cutting and passing has improved, resulting in more good looks in the paint, a higher assist rate, and more frequent visits to the foul line. Today is a good day. We've been a bit starved for those this season.
The purpose of this post is to try and tease out what portions of today's happiness are sustainable, and how much is likely to evaporate over the course of the next 10 or 15 games. Are we looking at a real trend, or just a couple of statistical anomalies that happened to coincide? Here's my take.
- Team cohesion is a hard thing to pin down, but I think there are a couple of things we might be able to hang our hats on. Bringing Hayward off the bench has been good for all involved, as has starting Marcus Smart. It's just way clearer who to look to first on offense. Both Smart and Hayward are great on defense, albeit in different ways. Smart's energy has been contagious, as always, and the starters have needed that energy injection more so than the bench, BY FAR. I'm hoping Stevens will stick with the combinations that are currently clicking. That Hayward will continue to come off the bench, even as his minutes and stat line continue to rise.
- Speaking of Hayward, I see no reason to think that his improvements, in all areas, are not sustainable, barring injury. He is reacting faster, jumping harder, seeking contact, and showing great anticipation on D. His feet aren't quite as fast staying in front of guys as you might hope, but that is likely to get better.
- Semi Ojeleye is playing great. He is a rock on defense, and not a liability on offense. He takes the right shots, and he battles on the boards. He's never going to be a main piece, but I feel good knowing we can call on him anytime, and he won't disappoint.
- Marcus Morris is a true vet. You just can't rattle the guy. No matter how badly things are going, Morris remains Morris. At the start of the season, I was thinking he was expendable. My apologies, Mook.
- Kyrie Irving is reinventing himself. Always. Sometimes it makes you crazy, sometimes you've just gotta love it. The guy takes risks. He gambles on defense, and while that is not always a good thing, I'm starting to see that it is emblematic of the risks he's taking with his game. Tinkering with something that had already garnered him a lot of fans, and a movie! He is still a magician with the ball, but now he's working his ass off on defense, and has pretty much stopped trying to dribble through triple teams to get to the rim. Instead, he's making hard, purposeful drives and seeking contact. Seeking contact? Am I imagining that? I might be, but I don't think I'm imagining the part where he's reinventing. Maybe that will be great for us, maybe not, but I see a guy trying to mold his game to suit his situation. That takes some guts. Maybe it isn't an asset, but neither is it unsustainable. I think we need to count on it, for better or for worse.
- Marcus Smart. Need I say more? If there is one thing we can count on, it's Smart's energy and defensive genius. Now that he's getting more minutes, we are a better team. It's sustainable until he stops getting minutes. Simple as that. And oh, yeah, he's hitting his shots. That part might not be sustainable, but if it is, we're looking at a championship.
- Good ball movement. I'd like to think our days of standing around on offense are over for good, but we've seen that come and go so often, it's not safe to assume. And everything depends on it. You either have to count on good ball movement, or you have to count on bad shots falling at a high percentage.
- Shot making. Always a wild card, and we've had more than our share of late. Don't count on it. Even the best shooters have off nights. Lucky we have so many good shooters, but we've seen all too many times how one guy's drought can be contagious.
- Good defense. I know what you're thinking: we have a top rated defense. But we've seen some horrible, horrendous, awful defense against weak teams. That is in us, lurking, waiting to come out whenever we start hanging our heads. Seems to be correlated with poor shooting in a completely unacceptable, amateurish fashion. We have yet to prove capable of digging in on defense when it is needed most. This year. Got to get that back in a consistent way if this team is going to be great.
- Pace. We play much better when we play with pace. I don't mean turning the game into a track meet. It's more about making quick decisions, passing and cutting with good velocity, and having hyper-active feet on defense. Sometimes that can lead to a track meet, because active feet lead to steals, and steals lead to fast break buckets. Sometimes the track meet mentality bleeds over into the set offense. However it evolves, we need to sustain a high pace of action to be at our best. When we get too deliberate, everything breaks down. When we learn to play with pace in the half court set, even when we aren't forcing turnovers, THEN pace will be a sustainable asset. I don't think we're there yet.
- Toughness. Last year, it was a given. This year, it's been mostly MIA. We need to be tough-minded. Should probably have listed that first.