Consider this the fifth chapter of the 2021-2022 season. The first ended with the Smartgate cliffhanger. The second was a riveting read of 10-5 basketball where our heroes discovered their defensive identity. Chapter III was that disastrous detour out west and we’re closing out the fourth with a brief revival of the Hospital Celtics (knock on wood).
Now, nearly midway through the season, it feels like the preamble is over. That “extended preseason” has taught us that the Core Four of the Celtics is pretty darn good:
Only four players are signed into 2023-24: Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Robert Williams III. In 214 minutes this year, they have a 110.4 offensive and 94.9 defensive rating. It’s a relatively small sample size because of Brown’s extended absence with his hamstring injury, but big enough to suggest that Boston’s core is good enough to build around.
The pieces around them have coalesced, too. Al Horford has tapered off a bit after a strong start, but is still Very Above Average Al. Dennis Schroder continues to be a polarizing player with the debate ranging from “he dribbles too much” to “what is art?” Josh Richardson has become Josh Richardson again and Grant Williams just might be Jae Crowder.
As CelticsBlog’s Keith Smith suggests, this eight-man rotation now has five weeks to prove to President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens that they’re worth keeping together and maybe even fortifying before the February 10th trade deadline.
Their return also comes with some pressure. At 18-19, the Celtics are 10th in the East and clinging to a spot in the play-in tournament. The good news is that they have the 4th easiest schedule remaining and just two and a half games from the #5 and #6 seeds.
The bad news is that the opposing team hasn’t really mattered, has it? Crippled by injuries or not, we’ve seen these Celtics beat the defending champs twice, dismantle the Suns, and top the 76ers, but also crumple to those teams, too. We’ve also seen them struggle against lesser competition and fold in the clutch.
A rematch against San Antonio seems a fitting test. Just over a month ago, the Celtics erased a 27-point Spurs lead at AT&T Center, went up 7 late in the 4th, and wilted under a 15-0 run by the home team. Some of that was missed shots. Some of that was poor execution. Some of that was bad luck. But ultimately, it’s those kind of games that Boston needs to win and now that they’re healthy-ish (knock on wood) with the benefit of some home cooking over the next four weeks, they’ll have ample opportunity to figure things out mind, body, and soul.
We finally saw some of that Sunday night when they relinquished a lead to the Magic and clawed back in overtime behind a 50-spot from Brown. “We just needed to f***ing win,” Brown told NBC Boston’s Brian Scalabrine. “That’s it.”
That is it. They struggled early in the season with their “switch everything” defensive scheme. And then they figured it out and now boast the 7th best defensive in the league. They shot the three poorly out of the gates. And then they figured it out and have steadily improved month-to-month. Tatum and Brown have suffered their growing pains as playmakers. And then they figured it out and the team has started to share the responsibility of initiating their offense between the two young stars, the veteran point guards, and the bigs.
“We’ve been through this situation (COVID, injuries, etc.) all year, but the numbers and the eye test, you kind of see what we can be,” Udoka said of having the starting five finally back together at Tuesday’s practice. He suggested that now with a full complement of players, Boston could start setting their rotations and roles for the rest of the regular season. So while tonight’s tip is officially game #38, it sure feels like Opening Night all over again.