Since the turn of the new year, most of us have reset our expectations of the Celtics. A 24-9 record in 2022 (albeit against a light-ish schedule) help sway opinions. Boasting the league’s best defense and a vastly improved offense backed those opinions with facts.
But still, there are concerns.
A lot of that improvement on the offensive end has been buoyed by Boston’s three-point shooting finally reaching its level. They’re not exactly scorching the nets, but at the least the Celtics’ high frequency shooters have collectively shot themselves out of their slumps. After starting the year hitting just 32.9% of his threes, Tatum has hit 37.8% of his 3’s since the All-Star break.
Marcus Smart has had an even more dramatic turnaround. Before January 1st, Smart was making just 28.1% from behind the arc; some on court New Year’s resolutions later, that’s up 10 points to 38.3%.
There have been some troubling signs on the perimeter though. After being the most consistent high volume shooter in 2021, Jaylen Brown is taking fewer from behind the arc and making less. After taking nine threes a game in December and January, he’s tapered back and shooting just nearly six per game at a 28% clip. That could of course just be a reflection of a more aggressive approach to attacking the rim or an attempt to be more of a playmaker. Tatum has obviously shouldered much of the offensive load as Brown gets back up to speed from a sprained ankle, but the Celtics will need a reliable second option with teams doubling Tatum more.
More concerning might be Grant Williams’ current dip in production. Over his last four games, he’s hit just one of this 14 threes. He’s still defending at a high level, but that outside shot hasn’t been as automatic as it was. However, even with that small sample size, he’s still 39.5% this year.
Bigger picture, even with some dips in individual percentages, the Celtics have still shown steady improvement in their offensive efficiency every month (103.5 => 107.2 => 111.5 => 112.2 => 116.5 => 117.8).
Another cause for handwringing: minutes. Tatum is third in the league in total minutes at 2,364 behind Miles Bridges and Mikal Bridges. Outside of his four-game absence in the league’s health and safety protocols, he’s played in every game. After three consecutive seasons dealing with COVID plus a gold medal stint in Tokyo, Tatum has put on a ton of mileage on his 24-year-old legs. And with Boston in the thick of jockeying for playoff position and homecourt advantage on the line in the first (and maybe even second) round, there may not be a chance to give him some time off before the playoffs. But, depending on how this road trip starts, I could see Ime Udoka giving Tatum a day off in Oklahoma City on the back end of a back to back following a game in Denver.
The good news is that the Celtics play game #70 in San Francisco tonight and no other starter has played over sixty games this season. Only Grant Williams (64) and Derrick White (62) have surpassed the 60-game mark along with Tatum.
Preserving Al Horford with maintenance days here and there seems to have paid off. He played sparingly in January and February, averaging about 27 minutes a game. In March, his playing time has increased to over 33 minutes a game and he’s responded shooting over 40% from 3 and averaging 12.5 points.
Boston has been able to enjoy two post-Sunday breaks over the last two weeks and that should energize their batteries before this four-game west coast swing before another consequential five-game homestand (with a one-day puddle jumper to Toronto on the second night of a back-to-back in the middle).
In the dark of this daylight saved Wednesday morning, the Celtics wake up just two games out of the #2 seed behind the Bucks, 76ers, and Bulls. However, the Celtics have the fifth most difficult schedule remaining, highlighted by a close of the regular season with a road trip to Chicago, Milwaukee, and Memphis.
Dig a little deeper and you could make a case that Boston is at least hosting a first round series. They’re upcoming games are tough, but Chicago has the toughest road, marked by two games against Milwaukee and one more against Miami. With any luck, the Celtics and Bulls could at least flip flop the 4-5 seeding.
There’s also the issue of whether or not grabbing that second seed is a wise choice. After losing to the Celtics, the Nets won four in a row and showed just how dangerous the Kyrie Irving-Kevin Durant pairing can be on offense. Ben Simmons is still a question mark (and might always be), but even if you consider whatever he can give Brooklyn a luxury, the Nets are still pretty dangerous. Grab #2 and you could be hosting KD and Kyrie in Round 1.
This might all be the mental machinations of a worrywart after three days of waiting until the next game after a tough loss to the Mavs on Sunday. Little things like Brad Stevens not targeting any veterans to fill out the bench for a postseason run and instead signing Malik Fitts to a two-year deal turn mole hills into mountains of concern in just 72 hours.
Maybe all it’s going to take is seeing the Celtics play late tonight to put all these worries to bed.