Remember that line from Moneyball? The “rich teams —> poor teams —> 50 feet of crap —> us” line? It’s this one, in case you have no clue what I’m referencing.
This past week, specifically since Christmas, the Boston Celtics went on a stinker of a streak, losing three straight games that they feasibly could’ve won, perhaps should’ve won, and yet most certainly didn’t deserve to win. They fell apart at the seams multiple times, collapsing on Christmas against the Bucks, handing a game over to the Timberwolves as if they were tasked with passing out slices of cake at a child’s birthday party, and putting forth a three-point shooting performance against the Clippers that wasn’t unlike the Rockets goose egg against the Warriors in 2018.
In other words, there are good streaks, and then there are bad streaks. Then, there’s 50 feet of crap. Then, there’s what the Celtics did over the course of the last seven days.
Perhaps things are turning around, though, and the Celtics are finding ways to dig themselves out from underneath the 50 feet of crap that had been packed solid above them throughout this holiday season. A confident, wire-to-wire 123-108 victory over the Phoenix Suns on New Year’s Eve sure is a nice start — talk about the proper way to ring in the new year. Robert Williams III notched a triple-double; Marcus Smart returned to the lineup to the tune of 24 points and nine rebounds; Jaylen Brown, Josh Richardson, Romeo Langford, Grant Williams (who starts now!), and Payton Pritchard all put forth formidable efforts in the win. It was something special. I’m pretty sure I caught Ime Udoka smiling under his mask (you can see it in the eyes).
“Just trying to settle it down, get the looks and quality shots we wanted,” Udoka said when asked about his team’s approach, which seemed to differ slightly from their other recent outings. “We had some mistakes early on defensively, which allowed them to kind of score better in [the third] than they had in the first half… It’s really about weathering the storm and getting great looks offensively, but tightening it up defensively.”
The storm to which Udoka is referring came in the third quarter, when the Celtics looked as though they may let yet another big lead slip through their grasp. Boston’s 26-point halftime lead was methodically cut to 13, with Phoenix slowly but surely cooking up a storm that slashed their opponent’s lead right in half. But the Celtics — primarily because their gameplan of playing through Williams III and Horford as opposed to relying on a de facto number-one guy (that would be Jaylen Brown, seeing that Jayson Tatum remains out) — weathered the comeback perfectly. It felt like a sign of things to come; or at least things that can come in the future.
“We saw some things that we could exploit with their defense. We had a good practice yesterday and saw a lot of great carry over today,” Udoka said. “We wanted to play out of our bigs; we had 28 assists, and Rob and Al had 17 of them… We wanted more movement off-ball. We knew we’d get our isolations and pick-and-rolls eventually, but that was the gameplay, going through those guys… it worked well obviously.”
“It’s a great win. Celtic basketball,” Brown added. “We came out, played with some pace, played with some intensity on both sides of the ball, and I think it was a great win, one that we can build off of.”
Brown’s night was another up-and-down one — he shot just 8-for-20 from the field, despite the fact that he scored 24 points and pulled down 11 rebounds — but it was, in some ways, a proper showing for a top option. “It doesn’t always look fun, but it is fun in my opinion,” Brown said of being Boston’s number-one. “It’s a role that I haven’t been asked to play at no part in my career. So getting out there, accepting the challenge, and figuring things out, I look at that as great. That’s exciting.
“Sometimes it doesn’t look as good, but when I figure things out, watch out. So I’m excited.”
That particular bite could be applied to the Celtics as well. Phoenix was without DeAndre Ayton, but Devin Booker, Chris Paul, Mikal Bridges, and their primary bench scorers were all involved and playing their regularly-assigned minutes. And yet the Celtics outplayed them from tip to buzzer.
When the Suns hinted at a comeback, Boston held them off. “We came out and played basketball today,” Brown continued. “Some days are ugly, and today was good. Let’s just try to build off of this one and keep it going. Sometimes basketball is not as hard as we make it… When we play like we did today, making the game easy, we start to grow, we start to win. And that’s what Celtic basketball is about.”
Udoka echoed his star’s sentiment, primarily mentioning how pleased he was with his team’s response to the Suns’ comeback bid. “They were getting some different looks here and there out of timeouts, and I think our guys responded well to them… It was good to weather the storm, obviously, that’s been an area of concern so far this year. We’ve given up enough leads, I’m not thinking about taking guys out with a minute or so left. Good rehearsal against a good team. We just have to do it again now.”
Boston’s first chance to do so comes tomorrow against the Orlando Magic. It’s not the same kind of test, but it’s a test to see if a new, better streak can come to life.