One win. That's all it took to change the feeling around this Boston Celtics team. After a tumultuous few weeks, where the sky seemed to be falling after every game, our emotional wells received some much-needed replenishment.
We've been here before. Celtics play "the right way" and carve a team open like a pumpkin on Halloween. Then fans, analysts, and media are forced to eat some humble pie after spending countless hours berating the product on the floor. But then, in the very next game, it's the same old story of Boston falling short down the stretch, and the cycle begins again.
But should it?
It's hard to see the clear picture when looking on with green-tinted glasses and harder still when reacting out of disappointment or anger. Yet, when watching the Celtics rip apart the New York Knicks like a Viking horde claiming new land, something hit me: this team is in its rebellious teenager phase.
Boston's core players were all young, high-achievers, earning praise and additional freedoms far sooner than any of us would have imagined; this was their elementary school phase. Shortly after Danny Ainge gave that same core some AP classes, this was the Gordon Hayward, Kyrie Irving, and later, Kemba Walker era and can be considered the middle school phase. Finally, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Co. enter high school. They're all "the man" because of their previous success and find themselves tasked with additional responsibilities.
No one likes to feel like they have the weight of the world on their shoulders, especially when everywhere you turn, there is criticism waiting for you. But the quickest way to change that narrative is to start playing at a higher level. Win or lose, if it's clear that you're fighting every night, most people will get on board with the journey.
And on Saturday night, against the Knicks, we saw the Celtics play for each other. It was glorious.
We've seen the Celtics embrace improved ball movement in recent games, but the subsequent player movement was still a missing piece to the puzzle. Yet, Boston was moving in tandem for most of the Knicks game. Take the above play as an example.
Tatum's ghost screen briefly confuses the defense, which is what it's designed to do. On the strong-side corner, Brown is curling under an Al Horford screen to get into a better position to receive the ball. Once Smart hits Brown with the pass, and Brown takes a step, three Knicks defenders react to his presence around the paint, which leaves Horford wide open in the corner.
The point of moving without the ball and swinging the rock side-to-side is to create an advantage. It doesn't matter who gets the wide-open shot; this is the NBA, everybody is capable of knocking those down at a reasonable clip, and you trust them to do so.
There's something about a well-oiled offense that just flows. From one moment to the next, players are relocating, screening, or shifting their position to provide passing and scoring outlets. Watch how Horford relocates from the low block on this possession. The original idea was to drag Julius Randle out of the paint to give Brown a more accessible drive. When Randle stays low, Brown gives up the rock, Horford re-directs to Tatum and flows straight into a screen.
Nothing here is groundbreaking stuff, but it all seemed like a foreign concept to this roster earlier in the week. And, of course, things could still regress; this was only one game after all. But, one thing that has remained steady has been the team's defense.
In their last ten games, the Celtics have held three of their opponents to under 100 points and another two below 105. The team currently sits 6th in defensive rating and has continually put in good performances for stretches of games, only to implode down the stretch.
Part of those defensive implosions could be due to the offensive struggles and getting in their own heads, and the other part could be getting overconfident in their abilities. Again, rebellious teenager phase.
However, games like the one against New York remind you that this team is capable of much more. Sure, they're not of championship quality yet, but very few teams are. And while that's a bitter pill to swallow, it's worth remembering that the Celtics are far too good to settle for a play-in spot this year, either. But they have to play for each other if they want to change their current fortunes.
Zipping the ball side-to-side with no one moving won't cut it. And it looks like Boston's current crop of stars is starting to understand that lesson. So, perhaps all the talk of trades was premature, or maybe those rumors have catalyzed the team to figure out their issues.
No matter the reason why the Celtics put all the pieces together, their next step is to replicate their performance against the Indiana Pacers on Monday and look to build some momentum.