With a 132-125 victory over the Toronto Raptors on Thursday night, the Boston Celtics wrapped up their unofficial first half of the 2020-21 season, and what a mixed bag of emotions those first 36 games were.
Jayson Tatum maintained his stardom. Jaylen Brown joined him en route to career-highs and his first All-Star appearance. Payton Pritchard turned out to be a diamond found with the 26th pick in the draft. That was the good of the season, but there was a whole lot more bad.
Upon return from his knee injury, Kemba Walker struggled to rediscover his All-Star form. He really struggled just to be a net positive on most nights. A calf strain took Marcus Smart out of the lineup. COVID-19 invaded the roster, its effects still being felt by Tatum.
Any semblance of productivity from the bench came and went from varying sources game to game. Closing out games was always a toss-up, where not even a 24-point lead was safe. The losses piled up at an alarming rate, knocking the Celtics out of the playoff picture and below .500 (if only for a few days).
Chaos ensued at a rate parallel to the spiral. Walker seemed like a $141 million mistake. Danny Ainge thought too highly of his ability to draft and watched the supporting cast around his two All-Stars suffer because of it. The famed Traded Player Exception and its possibilities were seemingly the last hope Boston had to right the ship.
You’d think the Celtics would be dragging their feet into the All-Star break with their heads buried in disappointment. They’re not, and it’s not because of the ceiling they can reach. For one of the few times this season, the Celtics, winners of four straight games, are fostering optimism because of what they actually are and not necessarily what they want to be.
“After the game in Atlanta, when you looked in everyone’s eyes, you knew we were going to be better,” Brad Stevens said following the win over Toronto. “As Kemba said multiple times, ‘No one goes on break until we all go on break’. You learn a lot about yourselves in those moments.”
Walker’s play has been a nightly talking point. Any version of Boston breaking through to The Finals comes with one of their few capable 20-point scorers playing like such.
In his first 15 appearances of the season, Kemba averaged just 17.0 points a night on 37.1 percent shooting and the Celtics lost nine of those outings. During this winning streak, he’s up to 24.8 points while converting more than 42 percent of 10.0 nightly 3-point attempts.
Kemba Walker has had a few plays over the last couple of weeks where you say "He's back!". They've been hard drives or stop-on-a-dime pullups. This one, where he rejects a screen to get himself the jumper should be added to the list of plays where you can see Kemba is back. pic.twitter.com/tIVK5dUbqV— Keith Smith (@KeithSmithNBA) March 5, 2021
“He’s a huge part of us, if we’re going to be what we want to be,” Stevens said last month. “And I really, really believe he will be that guy.”
A second unit producing the fourth-fewest points per game has shot up to the No. 12 spot during this stretch, removing some of the reliance Boston had for a duo that had to combine for nearly 60 just to offer a decent shot.
Against Toronto, four bench players scored in double figures. Robert Williams III, in particular, has accelerated his development in these last four games, producing 10.8 points on 73.9 percent shooting to go with 8.0 rebounds, 2.8 assists, and 2.0 blocks in just 21.8 minutes a night, becoming a player Brad Stevens can turn to with greater regularity.
“He’s on a great trajectory, really helping us,” Stevens said after Tuesday night’s win over the Clippers in which Williams scored 13 points, grabbed eight rebounds, dished out four assists, and blocked three shots.
“One of the things about Rob that sometimes does not get talked about enough is that he’s a competitor. He wants to win, he plays hard, goes after rebounds, and he’s learning how to take advantage of what he does best at both ends of the floor.”
Boston has one of the worst winning percentages in crunch time with the most such games under its belt. That is not an ideal combination for any team, much less one that hopes to make a deep playoff run where tight games are a nightly norm.
To make their shortcomings sting even more, Philadelphia and Brooklyn have two of the five highest winning percentages in the clutch. Those are two division rivals sharpening the iron that would give them a leg up in a hypothetical playoff matchup with the Celtics.
Each of Boston’s last four games wound up within five points or less with under five minutes —the definition of crunch time. Anything worse than a winning record would reinforce the growing belief that they couldn’t finish the games it needed to and further separate them from the cream of the conference crop. A sparkling 4-0 record put the Celtics on the right track to firmly push back.
“We showed a lot of resolve to stay together and to tackle this challenge together instead of pulling apart,” Stevens said of the string of down-to-the-wire victories.
Whereas so much has gone wrong for the Celtics, from injuries to COVID to inconsistencies, the second half of the season is setting up quite a bit to work in their favor.
Stevens said that Smart is “getting a lost closer” to a return after last being seen against the Lakers on January 30th. Daniel Theis let slip that sophomore Romeo Langford is close to making his season debut after undergoing wrist surgery in September.
After having one of the tougher first-half schedules, things ease up considerably for Boston moving forward. According to Tankathon.com’s strength of schedule ranking, only 10 teams have an easier remaining schedule than Boston.
The Celtics have had to maneuver through a lot of uncharted waters, but they’ve come out the other side as the No. 4 team in the Eastern Conference.
“We’re not far from where I thought we would be,” Stevens said. “Especially knowing we wouldn’t have Kemba (Walker) early. The way we got there is unique. We haven’t played as good as we know we can. We need to be a lot better.”
Heading into a much-needed rest period, it’s clear that they’ve already gotten started.