Are the Boston Celtics Good Again?
Here we go again. Playing with my heart, marching me around like the puppet I am. The NBA season is full of ebbs and flows, peaks and valleys and whatever other lousy idiom can be inserted to explain the ways in which some nights you watch your team and they look like the prime showtime Lakers and other nights well unwatchable. No team has quite epitomized these extremes the way the Celtics have this season. Coming off an Eastern Conference finals appearance, with the core of the team in the Jays only just starting to hit their prime, it seemed as though the Celtics would be a front runner. Early on this season they were nothing more than mediocre, struggling to find their form with underwhelming guard play and a lack of confidence in their bigs to make the plays necessary on the nights where the Celtics weren’t filling it up.
The truth of the matter is that Danny Ainge showed confidence in the already established composition of the team in two instances. The offseason when he only added Tristan Thompson and Jeff Teague to replace the void left by Gordon Hayward and then again at the deadline when he added Evan Fournier, but regressed at the big position in shipping Theiss to Chicago. Ainge showed an unwillingness to pull the trigger on a splash acquisition, which with the relative failures of Kyrie and Hayward the last time he did so, perhaps the trepidation is justified.
So where are we now. The Celtics are 6-1 in the month of April. And most impressively they are winning in different ways. A shootout vs the wolves, a gritty defensive effort vs the Knicks with a Marcus Smart dagger, a ferocious second half run vs the Nuggets and Jayson Tatum icing the game vs the Blazers with his signature side step three. They are beating the teams they should and showing up vs the playoff teams. Jayson Tatum has been playing like the star he is painted to be, showing both a desire to get his while maintaining an impressive efficiency given his high volume. This has everything to do with the parts already in place. Their big acquisition pg/sg Evan Fournier has been out under COVID protocols. The team is finding its form at a crucial time as they try to avoid the first annual for 7-10 seed death trap tournament. The teams hovering right above them in the standings? Teams even younger and more unproven then the C’s. The Hawks and Hornets are new to this position and with the level the Celtics are performing. It’s tough to imagine them not moving up a few spots, especially with how clustered the Eastern standings are.
Veering from the stars, the ultimate test is how well the surrounding parts can perform. The return of Marcus Smart has seen the resumption of a boatload of questionable shots, but just as well reintroduction of this Celtics team’s heartbeat. When Smart can even shoot at a decent percentage he is an elite perimeter player. Another change is Robert Williams as the true center for this basketball team. Rob is really figuring it out both on the glass and as an actual functioning chip in the defensive rotations and offensive scheme. What also impresses with Rob, is unlike some incomprehensibly large NBA humans, Rob has a true finesse to his game, he can catch in traffic and apply touch when needed. A star in the making? Well we’d love that. But even Roberts Williams serving as a high quality center can help take this team to new heights. As Jaylen and Jayson continue to elevate their levels into true stardom, they will need the other players to raise their levels correspondingly. If the pieces around these two plateau or regress (Kemba) then it will put that much more pressure on the two young players to carry this team.
Gone are the east is weak narratives. With Milwaukee, Brooklyn and Philly holding the reigns at the top of the conference it is going to take the Celtics best performance to down either of those contenders. Realistically, the Celtics are closer to a contender than they are a fraud. Hopefully the start of April is a signal of the direction they are heading rather than some anomaly. With about 20 games left, the time to get out of this 7-10 seed zone is now.