Previous iterations of the Celtics have continuously found their identity on the defensive end - not through exceptional talent levels, but via an iron will and “in your face” mentality. You knew that the Celtics were going to put everything on the line every night and that both teams would go home battered and bruised.
In Boston’s subsequent three games following that loss to Philadelphia, a familiar trend appears to be taking shape. In each of the Celtics’ last three wins, the team has battled through adversity, came from behind, and grinded out wins. Things haven’t always been pretty, but the team has found ways to get things done on both sides of the floor.
“All the good teams I’ve been around can come back and win. You come back in each of the last three games and win, down in the fourth quarter in each of those three games. That’s encouraging.” Brad Stevens explained after the Celtics’ most impressive comeback to date, a 40-8 run that spanned the third and fourth quarters of a 105-87 thrashing of the Nuggets.
Most of the attention currently lies on those three wins, primarily due to the nature of Boston’s resolve and how the team turned around each of those games. However, casting our eye further back, the picture becomes brighter. The Celtics are 7-3 in their last ten games, and throughout those contests, Boston has flashed improved ball movement, improved physicality, and a newfound ability to get to the line consistently.
Throughout the last two weeks, Boston’s defense has improved to a top-5 level with a 106.3 defensive rating in their last ten games. Offensively, the Celtics’ struggles from the perimeter have hurt their ranking, but the team still finds itself hanging around at 13th, with less than 1 point per 100 possessions keeping them from being a top-10 offense.
Buoyed by Tristan Thompson’s return and the formation of an unlikely back court pairing alongside Grant Williams, the Celtics have found a physical forcefield that’s making offenses think twice before penetrating.
Currently operating on a limited sample size of 64 possessions, when playing alongside Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown, the big-man duo has created a finely tuned defensive machine. During those 64 possessions, the Celtics limit their opponents to 52% true shooting, a projected 98.5 points per 100 possessions, and forcing the live-ball turnovers 20% of the time.
“When we’re at our best, we’re pushing catches out, pressuring the ball, we’re making things tough for guys,” Grant Williams said, as he highlighted some of Boston’s better traits.
The remainder of the west coast road trip is littered with potential trap games. The Celtics face the Portland Trail Blazers tomorrow who have lost 4 of 6 and will be playing their fourth game in six days and the Los Angeles Lakers who will be without Anthony Davis and LeBron James.
“Each game is its own entity. It doesn’t matter what you did in the last game if you won or lost,” Brad Stevens detailed when asked about the Celtics’ momentum as they try to climb up the Eastern Conference standings.
Regular season basketball is about finding a rhythm, developing team chemistry, but tangibly, it’s about the standings - and the playoff seeding that comes with a high-placed finish. Currently, the Celtics are tied for 6th with the injury-riddled Charlotte Hornets and only half a game back from the 5th spot presently occupied by the Miami Heat.
Third place in the standings is probably a step too far for the Celtics, as the Milwaukee bucks hold that position by a commanding five-game lead, meaning the Celtics will be shooting for fourth - and it’s an attainable goal. Atlanta is only a game ahead of the Celtics, with the middle of the conference separated by just three games (5th - 10th).
In their final eighteen games of the regular season, Boston will face east coast competition ten times, with most of those games coming against teams striving for a play-in spot. Of those ten games, the Celtics will only face highly ranked conference competition twice - the Brooklyn Nets on April 23rd and a doubleheader against the Miami Heat in early May.
There will be a couple of banana skins along the way, games against the Phoenix Suns, and recently strengthened Chicago Bulls should keep the Celtics on their toes. Ultimately, Boston has begun to turn a corner and can see the finish line of the undisputedly most bizarre season in league history, and now they need to turn their jog into a sprint to finish the season strong and carry that momentum into the playoffs.
“I like where we’re heading. But it’s on guys like me, Jaylen, Jayson, and Smart. We’ve got to hold each other accountable,” Kemba Walker responded when asked how the Celtics can continue improving for the final stretch of the regular season.
Luckily, Boston is finding some consistency, an identity, and some health (fingers crossed). With Evan Fournier still due to return to team duties from health & safety protocols, the team is perfectly positioned to put their struggles of the last few months firmly in the rearview.