It took a Memphis Grizzlies team absent 13 players to make the Boston Celtics look dominant again, but the Celtics nevertheless recorded another winning week as the All-Star Break approaches. Let’s discuss.
Boston Celtics, Week 15: 3-1 record, +42 differential
W vs New Orleans, 118-112
W vs Indiana, 129-124
L vs LA Lakers, 114-105
W vs Memphis Grizzlies, 131-91
It’s strange to say about a team that leads their conference by five games as of this writing and hasn’t lost consecutive games since November, but right now, these Boston Celtics might be in as much of a slump as we’ve seen from them so far this year. They were going to lose their undefeated home streak eventually, but after a 20-0 start, going 3-2 at TD Garden over their next five home games is a bit of a sharp decline. That, taken alongside some red flags in wins over New Orleans and Indiana, qualifies as a bump in the road.
The wins over the Pelicans and Pacers were both odd. It was as if they were mirror images of each other. Against New Orleans, the Celtics came out cold, falling behind early before crawling their way back behind a strong second half. Against Indiana, they looked unstoppable for the first quarter-and-a-half of the game, compiling a ridiculous 81 points at the half but allowing the Pacers back into the mix in the third quarter. These were both tough wins that featured quality crunch time efforts, but to say the Celtics looked particularly great in either would be a stretch.
Losing to a Lakers team absent LeBron James and Anthony Davis is a disappointment, even if not an altogether meaningful one. These two-game, cross-conference season series obviously say very little in the grand scheme of things, having fairly negligible effect on playoff seeding. And it’s not like there’s a terribly high likelihood of seeing the Lakers in the postseason. Still, it feels like a gift falling into your lap when you’re handed a game without two players of that stature, and fumbling that away in such a fashion stings.
There wasn’t nearly much intrigue on the court against Memphis, though. The Celtics bounced back from the Lakers loss by putting in a workmanlike effort and burying a Grizzlies team that was absent an astounding 13 players from its active roster. GG Jackson led the Grizzlies in shots, and while we have to extend kudos to the rookie for stepping up in an absurdly difficult situation, his 24 shot attempts tell you just about everything you need to know about that game.
Instead, the story of the Memphis game was about who was on the sideline. Marcus Smart returned to the TD Garden for the first time since his offseason trade as part of the Kristaps Porzingis deal, and the Boston crowd was more than ready to show him some love. The Celtics played a video tribute for the nine-season Boston vet, and shortly thereafter named him the night’s Hero Among Us for his work as a community figure in the city. It was overwhelmingly apparent that the city of Boston still very much loves and trusts their Defensive Player of the Year.
One throughline this week: the Celtics’ rebounding looks very bad. With a frontcourt rotation that isn’t necessarily dominant on the glass, they’ve typically relied on collective effort to survive on the defensive boards. Last year, it worked — they were the league’s best defensive rebounding team. That effort is slipping, though, as they rank seventh in defensive rebound percentage (72.5%) on the year and a brutal 19th (71.2%) over their past 10 games. Opposing teams are getting far too many second chances against this roster right now.
Player of the Week: Jayson Tatum
4 GP, 35.9 MPG, 28.8 PPG (53% FG, 43% 3PT), 8 REB, 6.3 AST, 1.5 STL, 1 BLK, +20
Resisting the urge to name Smart as this week’s recipient out of sheer sentimentality, this is actually something of a difficult week to pick from. Tatum almost wins by default. Jaylen Brown missed the Memphis game and played poorly against the Lakers. Porzingis had a relatively strong week, including a nice outing against the Grizzlies in Brown’s absence, but struggled against Indiana. Jrue Holiday was largely anonymous, as was Derrick White (apart from a great effort to seal the win against the Pacers).
It’s not an undeserving win, however. Tatum was lights out against both Indiana and Memphis, scoring at least 30 in each game, and similar to last week’s game against the other Los Angeles team, he at least had a pulse against the Lakers. Trust me, it’s never particularly exciting to pick the best player on the team in this spot. All the same, they’re often just going to deserve it.
One trend that feels worth noting: his three-point shooting appears to be capital-B Back. Since the start of the new year, he’s been shooting better than 40% from behind the arc on his customarily large volume (42%, 7.7 3PA), which has helped pull his season average back to 37%. This week, he was a blistering 17-of-39 from deep.
Tatum’s relationship to the three-point shot has always been interesting. He started his career as a sniper — a high-percentage, high-volume shooter playing on rosters that didn’t expect him to create quite so many shots. The sidestep threes that he built his reputation on looked good, of course, but playing alongside ball-dominant scoring guards like Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker afforded him a more manageable shot diet than he’s asked to shoulder now.
Absent those All-Star guards, his shot creation responsibility has increased dramatically, which has seen his efficiency understandably drop. He’s sat around 35% shooting from behind the arc in each of the past two seasons, fueled in part by a decline as a pull-up jump shooter. That’s not as bad as it looks; the gravity created by the threat of Tatum as a scorer provides huge value by itself, and he’s been dominant inside the arc. But seeing the long-range percentages tick back up to what we know is closer to water level for Tatum’s skill level has been satisfying, and as loaded as this offense is, it’s very much sustainable.
The Parquet Play: A game ball for the rook
As a big fan of his game, it is my absolute pleasure to put Jordan Walsh’s first career bucket in this space this week. It’s no flukey jumper or anything like that either; this is an exclamation point.
JORDAN WALSH FIRST CAREER BUCKET pic.twitter.com/IuHOELFdqz— Boston Celtics (@celtics) February 5, 2024
The Memphis game was obviously well out of reach for Walsh to have even been on the court, and he remains a ways away from seeing regular playing time at the NBA level. But that’s an exciting way to announce yourself to the league. I very much still think this kid has some real juice to his game, and it was great to see him get some extended run on Sunday night.
Around the League: Cleveland surging, Philadelphia in jeopardy
The Eastern Conference feels particularly volatile right now. As of this writing, while the Celtics enjoy a five-game lead on the competition, the waters behind them are remarkably muddied. Four teams currently sit within 1.5 games of each other, Cleveland, Milwaukee, New York and Philadelphia, with the Indiana Pacers looming slightly behind with Pascal Siakam now in tow. It’s an incredibly volatile batch of teams.
We start with the Cleveland Cavaliers, whose arrow is pointing sharply upwards, winners of 14 of their last 15 games. Not long ago, their season looked to be falling into disarray, with All-Star Darius Garland and frontcourt prospect Evan Mobley hitting the injured list for extended periods of time. Instead, the team found a new identity around their remaining stars, Donovan Mitchell and the perpetually underrated Jarrett Allen. The shooters are popping — Dean Wade and Sam Merrill have become scorching hot three-point specialists — and the defense has quietly snuck up into a tie with Boston for second in the NBA with a 110.6 defensive rating.
Playing a radically different style of ball absent their two cornerstones — notably, deploying fewer double-big looks that have struggled when Mobley has been healthy — there were understandable questions about how the duo would be reincorporated in the midst of this hot streak. The answer, thus far, is incomplete; both are still getting their legs under them, but that hasn’t stopped the Cavaliers from winning. As of now, they’ve eked ahead of Milwaukee for the second seed in the East by fractions of a percentage point.
Actually falling into disarray, then, are the Philadelphia 76ers. After a week of discourse surround Joel Embiid’s absence for yet another road game against the Nuggets — he hasn’t played in Denver since before the pandemic — Embiid returned to the court on January 30 against the Warriors and showed... that sitting him was probably the right call. The MVP candidate looked like a shell of himself for 30 minutes before Jonathan Kuminga fell on his left knee, tearing his meniscus and putting his season in jeopardy.
Understatement of the century here: this is a nightmare for the Sixers. The extent of Embiid’s injury is not yet known, but the two possibilities appear likely to be either 1: they remove the torn section of the meniscus, putting Embiid back on the court in 1-2 months but likely putting his long-term health at risk, or 2: repairing the meniscus, likely ending his season. It’s the same lose-lose scenario that Robert Williams III faced two seasons ago, and Embiid is a much larger player than Williams, with a greater level of strain placed on that knee.
The Cavaliers won’t know how high their ceiling could conceivably be until Garland and Mobley are back to 100%. The Sixers won’t know what the future holds for their season until they know whether Embiid will be able to take the court for the postseason. These are teams moving in radically different directions, and have wound up at the center a truly dramatic rebalance of power among the contending teams of the East.
Next Up: Rounding out the homestand
This week, the Celtics’ extended stay in Boston comes to an end. After a seven-game stint in the cozy confines of the TD Garden, they’ll be hitting the road once again. The final two games of the homestand are friendly ones: Wednesday brings the Atlanta Hawks, in the midst of a very disappointing season and currently grasping onto the 10 seed in the East, and Friday will bring a visit from the bottom-feeding Washington Wizards. From there, it’s time to hit the road for South Beach to face a Miami Heat team that has lost eight of its last 10 games.
On paper, this should be a 3-0 week, but as we saw against Los Angeles, you can’t rule anything out until the buzzer sounds. We’ll be back next week to break it all down.