The NFL Playoffs may be hogging the spotlight, but the NBA remains as active as ever. It’s Week 12 of Boston Celtics basketball, and as we near the halfway point of the 2023-24 season, we have plenty of hoops to discuss. Let’s zero in on another week of Celtics basketball.
Boston Celtics, Week 12: 2-2 record, +4 differential
L @ Indiana, 133-131
W vs Minnesota, 127-120 (OT)
L @ Milwaukee, 135-102
W vs Houston, 145-113
Reader, we appear to be in a slump.
Or at least, as much of a slump as a team can have when they’re 30-9 in an NBA season. It’s rare that we’ve posted one of these columns without a winning record for the week, and perhaps even rarer to see a differential this low. Indeed, the Celtics were just 2-2 this past week with a point differential that should have been quite a bit worse than it was. A tough week, though not a disastrous one.
The elephant in the room: the Milwaukee loss. It’s the worst loss of the season thus far, and it’s certainly one that hurts given the likelihood that the Celtics end up in competition with the Bucks for playoff seeding. Sealing up the series tie for the year would have been a nice accomplishment. Instead, the Celtics fell behind early and never caught up, with Mazzulla opting to leave the core rotation on the bench as the teams took the court in the second half. A thorough, wall-to-wall butt-kicking. It stings a bit.
At the same time, it also feels understandable, at least a bit. This was as much of a schedule loss as you will see in the NBA. It doesn’t let the Celtics off the hook for a win they could have used, but this was brutal timing for a back-to-back. After the overtime win over the Western Conference-leading Timberwolves on their home court — a thriller! — the Celtics were immediately tasked with hopping on a plane to Milwaukee to face the second-best team in the East the next night. Better teams than this one have struggled in the same circumstances.
This year has featured some genuinely... quirky scheduling. Perhaps its due to the integration of the In-Season Tournament, but it feels as if outlier scheduling scenarios have arisen more frequently. Back-to-backs feel quite poorly planned — check out the Sixers in the midst of a four-games-in-five-nights stretch this coming week — and playing consecutive games against the same opponent in the same place has become strangely common. Neither of these are easy circumstances; an imbalance in rest can create some very strange results, and it’s not easy to beat any NBA twice in a row. Both came into play this week, with Monday’s loss to the Pacers being their second consecutive game on Indiana’s home court. It’s unfortunate, but you play the schedule you’re given. Upward and onward.
Saturday’s tilt with the Rockets came with its own intrigue, as well. It was former Celtics coach Ime Udoka’s return to TD Garden, the first time he has faced Boston since his dismissal from the team. Some cryptic comments in pregame interviews didn’t create much of a distraction, though, as the game itself was little more than a speedbump. The Celtics thumped the Rockets by 32.
Player of the Week: Jaylen Brown
4 GP, 32 MPG, 29.3 PPG (58% FG, 61% 3PT), 6.5 REB, 2.5 AST, 1 STL, +11
One prominent stinker of a game has typically been enough to disqualify a player from winning this award. There have just been too many standout performers this season — there’s always been another guy who didn’t stumble. In all honesty, though, the Bucks game hardly even factors into this calculus. If we took a player out of the running because they struggled in Milwaukee on Thursday, there just wouldn’t be anybody left. Who played well against the Bucks? Sam Hauser and Oshae Brissett?
That line of thinking is what leads us to Brown, who was absolute nails this week outside of the 10-point, 5-of-14 night against the Bucks that saw him benched at halftime. Remove the blowout loss from the equation, and his numbers were stellar: 35.6 points per game on a 65% percentage both from the field and from deep. He torched Indiana to the tune of 40 points, and every one of his 35 against the Timberwolves were instrumental in the Celtics’ comeback to secure that win. Against the Rockets, he had a career-high 21 points in the third quarter.
This has been an understated season for Brown. Every player on the roster has had to accept a reduction in volume to accommodate the bevy of top-end talent on this team, but apart from Jrue Holiday, nobody’s had to scale back more than Brown has. His usage rate is at its lowest since the COVID-shortened Bubble season, and although he’s made meaningful strides as a playmaker, he’s not the kind of player who will necessarily stand out if the scoring isn’t popping.
That’s not to say he’s been bad. Quite the opposite, in fact. Brown has been terrific in this role. He’s compensated for the reduced volume with an increase in efficiency — his 55.7% effective field goal percentage is flirting with a career high — and along with the aforementioned playmaking improvements, his much-maligned handle has looked more stable. A second consecutive All-NBA season might be a tougher sell for voters this time around, thanks to the ridiculous depth of the league, but this has been some of Jaylen Brown’s best NBA basketball.
The Parquet Play: Rejected!
Let’s keep the Jaylen Brown love going, what do you think? Get up, JB!
What a ridiculous rejection. It’s not the strongest finish from Jabari Smith Jr., who isn’t exactly the strongest player in the league, but still — the elevation! Brown may not dunk quite as frequently or audaciously as he did earlier in his career, but he remains a 99th percentile athlete in this league. He’s been getting after it defensively this year, too. Big week for #7.
Around the League: How real are the Wolves?
Wednesday’s exciting overtime win gives us an opportunity to talk about one of the more surprising subplots in the league this season: the Minnesota Timberwolves have spent most of the season in first place in the Western Conference.
We knew the West would be in a weird place this year. The Denver Nuggets were a safe bet to continue playing excellent ball — and they have — but outside of Colorado, nobody in the conference felt completely safe to count on. In that void, the Wolves have stepped into the spotlight and held on tight. They’ve remained in first place for nearly the entire season. This isn’t familiar territory for this franchise — prior to this season, they’d held first place in the West for a total of 16 days across the entirety of their existence (hat-tip to user paul_f on Reddit for the data).
Is this real? We’re nearly at the halfway point of the season, and the Timberwolves haven’t faltered, which is rapidly forcing us to consider that it might be. Anthony Edwards is making the superstar leap right in front of our eyes, averaging a career-best everything and assuming the mantle of alpha dog on this roster. Karl-Anthony Towns, finally healthy, has become an efficiency god and is flirting with a 50-40-90 season. Behind the efforts of Rudy Gobert and Jaden McDaniels, the Wolves sport the best defensive rating in basketball. Naz Reid is among the league’s best backup bigs, and the ever-reliable Mike Conley Jr. is stirring the drink as always.
Their net rating (+5.6) sags behind the league’s elite, and they’ve slowed somewhat in recent weeks, just 4-3 in their last seven games as the Thunder have snuck up on them. Can this team overcome their postseason demons and make a real splash? We won’t know until they get there. But thus far, this season has far surpassed even the most favorable of expectations, and breathed some life into a franchise that sorely needed it.
Next up: Bouncing back
The new week began for the Celtics last night, as they faced the Toronto Raptors on the road on Monday and walked away with a mostly comfortable 105-96 win. From there, the reigning #1 overall pick comes to town for the first time in his career, as the Celtics host the San Antonio Spurs and 19-year-old Victor Wenbanyama on Wednesday night. Friday, they’ll play host to the reigning champs — Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets — before traveling to Houston for a rematch with the Rockets on Sunday.
The Celtics are still waiting on that easy schedule, and they won’t find it just yet. This is another tough slate, with the rebuilding Raptors the only “easy” matchup on paper. We’ll be back next week to discuss how the Celtics fared against another slate consisting of mostly playoff-hopeful teams.