The first half of the Boston Celtics’ 2020-21 season was anything but normal, even when viewed through the lens of these unprecedented circumstances.
Injuries and COVID-related absences were felt at every turn. Some players emerged to produce at a level higher than what was expected. Others have fallen short of their preseason hopes.
Following a string of three postponed games in mid-January, things only got stranger. There was a more than a months-long stretch where the Celtics won consecutive games only one time. The proud franchise fell below .500 and uncomfortably sat outside the playoff picture at a point in the season they’ve rarely been accustomed to.
In the wake of it all, there is clearly a lot worth talking about. So as the Celtics rest up following a chaotic first half that, after rattling off four straight victories puts them fourth in the Eastern Conference, we’re here with some of the bigger takeaways.
The point guard position is working its way out
Boston’s point guard situation was littered with question marks heading into the season. Kemba Walker would start off sidelined while rehabbing his knee. Even upon return, it was understood that time would be required to get him back to his All-Star form, which was made painfully clear when that moment arrived.
Through his first 15 games played — he sat four times to avoid the second of a back-to-back — Walker averaged 17.0 points a night on 37.1 percent shooting from the field. His ineffectiveness wasn’t a mobility issue. He was generating the shots he always has, just not hitting them, not that it made his struggles any easier to stomach as the losses piled up.
But as the Celtics began trending in the right direction, so did Walker. In his final five appearances before the break, Kemba averaged 22.8 points and 5.8 assists a night while shooting 41.3 percent from distance.
Behind him, Boston has found its much-needed backup point guard, though it hasn’t been who they expected. Jeff Teague was signed to assume that role but Payton Pritchard quickly took it from him.
The most recent 26th pick has impressed with his outside stroke (40.2 percent on 3.4 attempts per game) and Marcus Smart-like ability to always be in the right spots.
Pritchard answers one of Boston’s biggest question marks from a season ago. As Walker continues to work his way back into form, concerns about him will dissipate as well, allowing the Celtics to push forward with more of their best self intact.
Robert Williams III is on his way
Outside of the two Jays, no Celtics youngster has fostered more intrigue than Robert Williams III. His athleticism and lanky 7’6’’ wingspan create the most tantalizing of dreams, but injuries and foul trouble kept the former late first-round pick from an honest chance at turning them into a reality through his first two seasons.
Williams has already played in as many games so far this year as he did the entirety of the 2019-20 campaign. His fouls per-36 minutes have decreased as well. The absence of negatives has brought him back to neutral status. In helping the Celtics enter the break on a four-game winning streak, Williams racked up positives at a rapid rate by averaging 10.8 points on 73.9 percent shooting with 8.0 rebounds, 2.8 assists, and 2.0 blocks in just over 21 minutes a night.
It seems like every game, Williams does something worth fawning over. It’s usually an impressive block, but recently it’s been more and more potency in the pick-and-roll, whether he’s getting behind defenses for lobs or making plays in 4-on-3 situations.
The 23-year-old might not be ready to assume the starting center position on a team with Finals aspirations. Such is the beauty of having Daniel Theis and Tristan Thompson to assume those responsibilities.
But as Williams continues to improve with every game and Theis set to hit the free agent market this summer, don’t be surprised to see the Timelord make Boston’s decision an easy one when the time comes.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are that potent of a duo
We’ve known for a while that Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown made up one of the league’s best young duos. That’s the type of reputation earned by contributing to conference finalists at such a young age.
Both took considerable leaps to cement that status last season, Tatum earning his first All-Star and All-NBA selection while Brown cracked the 20-point barrier.
Tangible statistical benchmarks and league-wide honors were the logical next step in their ascension. They’ve gone even higher this season, evolving from an elite young pairing to one of the best one-two punches in the entire NBA, period.
The Brooklyn Nets are the only other team with multiple players inside the top-20 in scoring this season. Tatum’s rise has been steady, having made his leap last season. But Brown, doing what he can to fill the void left by Kemba Walker, has earned his first All-Star birth by using more shots to produce more points while amazingly increasing his all-around efficiency in the process.
Boston is currently working with the ultimate NBA dream: two interchangeable wings who can defend across multiple positions and, more importantly, create a bucket amid the worst of circumstances. Their respective offensive arsenals have become so advanced, it’s as if Tatum and Brown take turns tormenting opposing defenses, often hovering near the 60-point total as a duo.
After years of drooling over what Tatum and Brown have the potential to be, we can now marvel at their current play the Celtics will get to prosper from for years to come, setting a championship foundation that’s as strong as it’ll ever need to be.