The Celtics are currently sitting at the 5th seed and 4.5 games back of the 1st seed Miami Heat. Though the odds of somehow getting to the top seed of the Eastern Conference are slim, there’s still a really good chance of Boston landing higher in the standings (my bet would be as high as 3rd in the East). The fact that it’s even a possible outcome is testament to how much this Celtics team has improved as the season has gone on, and gives some hope that they’re not done growing.
For reference, let’s take a look back to where the team was at the end of 2021. On December 31st, the Celtics sat at 17-19 tied for 9th place with the New York Knicks for the last two spots of the play-in. Fast-forward to now, Boston is 39-27 with a chance to host a 1st round series and the Knicks are 26-38, five and half games back of the last play-in spot. It’s like the Celtics collectively made a New Years resolution to play winning basketball, and stuck to it. Here’s another tidbit of perspective from former CelticsBlogger and The Athletic’s Jared Weiss after Boston beat Brooklyn on Sunday:
Pretty remarkable symmetry happening over their last 22 games as the Celtics are an Eastern Conference-best 17-5 while the Nets are 5-17, second worst to only the Knicks, naturally.— Jared Weiss (@JaredWeissNBA) March 6, 2022
December 31st seemed to be a crucial turning point in the season, as the Celtics beat the Phoenix Suns 123-108 with Jayson Tatum in the league’s health and safety protocols. That game seems to have some significance to the 2nd half improvements the Celtics have made. After their win against the Memphis Grizzlies this week, Al Horford specifically cited that win over the Suns as the moment where the Celtics “found something” on offense as they began to move the ball and incorporate their bigs more.
This was probably my favorite play from the Celtics win over the Grizzlies. The ball and player movement are terrific. Tatum accepts (embraces?) the double-team and Horford knows what he wants before he even catches it. Plus, look at the pure joy from Kornet as Rob slams it home! pic.twitter.com/1rgzUZkiqp— Keith Smith (@KeithSmithNBA) March 4, 2022
Per NBA Stats, Boston has been on a tear since January 1st with the 2nd best record (22-8). They’ve also had the best Defensive Rating (102.7) and the best Net Rating (11.7), and it’s been on full display as the Celtics have played some stifling defense on their opponents.
The best word to describe this Boston team is “resilient,” as they’ve taken their fair share of blows from injuries and COVID and have still turned a new leaf in the 2nd half of the season. That mentality has not just been on display over the course of the year, but they’ve taken that mindset into each game. Boston’s ability to take their opponent’s punches in the 1st half and respond in the 2nd was on full display in their Tuesday matchup with Atlanta.
The Hawks dropped 61 points on the Celtics in the 1st half, and took a 14-point lead going into halftime. Jaylen Brown went down in the 1st quarter with an ankle sprain and didn’t return, and Atlanta’s shooters started to get hot; the matchup had all of the earmarks of a game that Boston would have lost earlier this season. However, Boston responded in the 2nd half by holding Atlanta to only 33 points on 13-of-39 shooting, and closed the game on a 70-44 run to beat the Hawks 107-98. The 33 points was the lowest total in a half for Atlanta since 2019, and tied the lowest total in a regular season half since Trae Young’s arrival in Atlanta. Trae Young was held to 4-13 FG (1-4 3P) with 3 assists and a turnover in the 2nd half.
While this recent performance highlights the team’s improvements on the season, Boston has quietly been one of the best teams in the 2nd half of games. Per NBA Stats, the Celtics in the 2nd half of games rank:
- 3rd in total plus-minus (191) trailing only the Warriors (296) and Suns (220)
- 1st in PTS (3,662)
- 3rd in REBS (1,488)
- 3rd in BLKS (191)
- 2nd in FT% (82.2%)
- 2nd in personal fouls drawn (713)
- 3rd in Offensive Rating (114.3)
- 9th in Defensive Rating (108.5)
- 3rd in Net Rating (5.8)
- 5th in TS% (58%)
Keep in mind, these stats are for the ENTIRE season, not just their current run in 2022 where they’ve been playing their best basketball of the year. If we want to just look at Boston since January 1st, the same 2nd half stats look like this:
- 1st in total plus-minus (201)
- 6th in PTS (1,733)
- 4th in REBS (685)
- 3rd in BLKS (90)
- 1st in FT% (84%)
- 15th in personal fouls drawn (311)
- 1st in Offensive Rating (120.3)
- 4th in Defensive Rating (106.1)
- 1st in Net Rating (14.2)
- 1st in TS% (60.5%)
During this same stretch, the Celtics rank 6th in AST% (63.6%), 4th in AST Ratio (19.2), 2nd in eFG% (56.4%), 5th in FG% (48.3%), and 5th in 3P% (37.8%).
It’s important to get the whole statistical picture of this season because it shows the journey and development of this roster as well as rookie head coach Ime Udoka. If the Celtics had just put together a small sample size of really good basketball, it could be easily dismissed as a fluke, a matter of luck or a soft schedule, but there’s a larger body of proof to suggest otherwise.
After facing Atlanta, Boston had two more tough matchups with the Memphis Grizzlies and Brooklyn Nets to further test themselves. First up was Memphis, and with Jaylen Brown still recovering from his ankle sprain, Boston was down one of their top offensive options against a tough Grizzlies team led by MVP candidate Ja Morant. Memphis in particular was a tough matchup because of how well balanced they are, with their offensive (113.2) and defensive (108.8) ratings both in the top 10 (6th and 8th, respectively).
After an alarming eleven first half turnovers, Boston was up 47-45 going into the 2nd half. After tightening things up, Boston only had 3 turnovers the rest of the way, and most importantly they only gave up 10 points off their 14 turnovers on the night. Memphis only had three scorers in double digits, and in the 2nd, half Boston racked up 22 assists on their way to a 120-107 win.
The Celtics started the season 18-21.— StatMuse (@statmuse) March 6, 2022
The coach and players called out each other:
"They don’t want to pass the ball"
"Looking in the mirror? Nah"
"They lack mental toughness"
They are now 39-27 with the NBA’s best defense.
One of the greatest in-season turnarounds ever. pic.twitter.com/HEM68xeAp7
With Brooklyn, Boston might’ve had one of the toughest offensive matchups they’ve seen this season, with both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving playing. Jaylen Brown returned to the lineup for the first time since his injury against Atlanta, but the main storyline was Jayson Tatum outplaying Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving down the stretch to seal Boston’s victory. Tatum was by far the best player on the court this game, and dropped 54 points on 16-30 shooting (8-15 on 3’s) with 5 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 turnovers.
In the 2nd half alone, Tatum dropped 34 points on 10-17 shooting (4-7 on 3’s) with 3 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 turnovers; by comparison, Durant and Irving combined for 29 PTS on 11-24 shooting (only 2-9 on 3’s) with 5 rebounds, 8 assists and 6 turnovers. Most impressively, Jayson Tatum dropped 18 points in the 4th quarter to put the game away. On the game, Tatum was matched up defensively with Durant and Irving a grand total of 48 possessions; he only allowed 9 points.
Most 50-point games in Celtics history:— StatMuse (@statmuse) March 6, 2022
4 — Jayson Tatum
4 — Larry Bird pic.twitter.com/SZ2U12y1Kq
In his postgame presser following the win over the Nets, Ime Udoka said, “I’ve mentioned health, shots we got, open looks that weren’t career averages, a lot of things, but one thing I was never worried about was Jayson Tatum.” Boston notched their 14th win in their last 16 games, and seem to continuously improve and grow game by game.
The team’s signature style is physical and active defense, and according to Jayson Tatum, this team’s growth is tied heavily to the improvement of Robert Williams. “Rob is probably the most important guy for the ceiling that we’re trying to get to,” said Tatum in his joint postgame presser with Jaylen Brown. Over their last three games, Robert Williams has led the team in rebounds (33), steals (6), and blocks (10) while being third on the team in total plus-minus (+27). On the team’s trajectory and growth, Jaylen Brown confidently stated, “I think we still have yet to hit our peak.”
This iteration of the Celtics is legitimate, and their ability to perform well in closing out games is a stark difference to what has been the norm over the past few seasons. The change wasn’t instantaneous, and it wasn’t without its fair share of turmoil and hardship. The Boston Celtics have earned their success, reputation and every ounce of respect that comes with it. It’s hard to know how the rest of the season and the playoffs will unfold, but there is one thing that is certain: no team should look forward to playing the Celtics in the postseason.