As of January 28th, the Boston Celtics are 35–15, on a 57-win pace. Some might point to the blistering 22–4 start, and see a team that’s only a couple games above .500 over the last seven weeks. Though they’re currently dealing with their first real dose of adversity since Gordon Hayward fell awkwardly to the floor on opening night, on Saturday night against everyone’s expected 2018 NBA Champ, the Golden State Warriors, the Celtics met the challenge and showed why they are a legitimate contender, and likely favorite in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics played the most games in the NBA through mid-January as a result of the schedule-crunch due to the NBA’s London Game vs Philadephia. On the one hand, the Celtics piled up wins during the practice-free early season. On the other hand, they are a young team that was bound to hit a rookie/sophomore wall even without the schedule crunch.
Coming into the night, Boston had dropped four straight before pulling things together with a Wednesday win over the Clippers. How did the Celtics rise to the challenge on Saturday?
Four words: Kyrie Irving and defense.
Boston came into the game having beaten the Warriors in 2 of their previous 3 match-ups, the only team in the NBA to claim a winning record against Golden State since Kevin Durant’s arrival. One reason: Smothering defensive guards Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart. Another reason: Brad Stevens’ game planning. Last night, however, Avery Bradley was playing for the Detroit Pistons, and Marcus Smart was in Boston recuperating from a vicious bout with a hotel room picture frame (someone please write a short story about this treacherous encounter). Steph Curry was suffocated and stifled in the November 16 contest in Boston, enduring his worst night of the season (3 of 14, 4 TOs) in a 92–88 Celtics win. Marcus Smart’s line that night? 0–7, 0–3 from deep, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, 1 block, and a whopping +15 in 31 minutes. Smart’s absence last night paved the way for Steph to enjoy some redemption on the Celtics.
Curry went berserk, torching the Celtics for 49 points on only 24 attempts. The line: 16–24, 8–13 from deep, 9 of 10 from the line, and only 1 turnover. Freed from the clutches of Smart, Curry continued his insane January. For the month, Steph has averaged 30.9 pts / 5.4 reb / 6.8 ast, on 53% from the field and 48% from deep. Peak Curry.
And yet, the Celtics jumped out to an early lead and 37 first quarter points because Kyrie and Jaylen Brown refused to miss. Kyrie gave Steph a dose of his own medicine with a surprising walk-into 28-footer as the offense was setting up in the half court. Kyrie and Steph are so much fun because they can elevate their games in the biggest moments. Let’s hope we see it again in June.
What do the Celtics need to do to find the consistent level that they played with against the Clippers and Warriors? They need to find more scoring off the bench, when Kyrie sits. The same issues that propped up last year when Isaiah sat are evident, despite the new roster. Sometimes it’s as simple as Terry Rozier making his first shot or two. Against the best defenses, it might mean not playing Aron Baynes, whose range is roughly 5 feet. Marcus Morris’ knee issues seem to point toward an acquisition to bolster the bench. The front office might be waiting until the trade-deadline buyout season to add a scorer. The disabled-player exception allows them to add a player on an expiring deal (often those players get bought-out after they’re traded).
Possible Additions to the Celtics Roster
Players rumored to be on the market soon: Corey Brewer (Lakers), 41 year-old Vince Carter (Kings), Greg Monroe (Suns).
Via Trade: Ersan Ilyasova (Hawks), Tyreke Evans (Grizzlies)
Of those five, Monroe would add a solid low-post presence and a fulcrum for the second unit, though his style of play would disrupt the flow of Stevens’ fluid offense and would take some time to incorporate. Tyreke Evans has found the way-back machine in Memphis. His shooting has been better than its been in years, and his off-the-bounce game would add real dynamism to the second unit. Unfortunately, he would cost the most in future picks and his injury-riddled past may keep Danny Ainge from giving up too much.
Celtics Upcoming Games of Note
Mon, 1/29 @ DEN
Finish up the road trip in Denver, against a Nuggets team that is battling for the 5th/6th seed in the West.
Tue, 2/6 @ TOR
The Raptors are a genuine threat at the top seed, sitting only 1.5 games behind Boston, tied in the loss column. This one might matters.
Thu, 2/8 @ WAS
The Wizards play down to their competition, as well as up to the top competition. They are capable, but are they going to get it together in time this year? Wall’s knee issues are lingering.
Sat, 2/11 vs CLE
The Cavs are a mess. Isaiah’s hip is clearly encased in rust. He should be working through it in the G-League, and then coming back at the All-Star break, but he has to prove he’s okay by the end of the year in order to land the contract he deserves. Love is being thrown under the bus for his lackluster defense. Together, Love and IT form a gigantic defensive liability. They shouldn’t be on the court together until IT is close to 100%. Who will be on this team after the trade deadline? We shall see.