Thanks to Isaiah, Celtics Surviving; Thanks to Injuries and Young Bench, Not Yet Thriving

Twenty games in an 82-game season is long enough to diagnose patterns. At 12–8, Boston has climbed to third in the densely-packed olive jar that is the Eastern Conference standings. There is next to zero separation (seven teams with 8–10 losses) at the quarter-mark of the season. If we examine those twenty games, we see how much the Celtics have done what is necessary to get close to the 50-win barrier: beat the NBA’s bottom half soundly (8–3 vs under .500 teams) and hold your own against the league’s better half (4–5 vs. over .500 teams). Still, of the team’s last seven wins, only two have been convincing. On the one hand, winning close games feels much better than losing close games. On the other, it’d be refreshing to rest the starters in the 4th quarter once in a while.

Isaiah Thomas has been a one-man wrecking ball in the 4th this year. In last night’s 107–106 road win in Philadelphia, Thomas poured in 13 of his season-high 37 in the 4th. For the year, Boston leads the NBA in 4th quarter scoring at 29.0 per game. Thomas shouldered an enormous load in the absence of Al Horford and Jae Crowder (each missed 8 games).

Use Me Up

IT’s usage rate of 32.8%, puts him 6th, behind only DeRozan, Cousins, Embiid, Harden, and Westbrook. If you want to be accurate, Embiid hasn’t played enough minutes to qualify. Westbrook’s 41.5% usage rate is absolutely ludicrous. One has to wonder how long his body can hold up at that rate. Among all NBA players in recent memory, only Westbrook’s 2014–15 season (38%) compares, in terms of usage. Remember that was Durant’s injured season, in which Russell went on a triple-double tear that was obviously a precursor to this year’s edition of the Westbrook experience.

One issue for Boston: Isaiah is the only player who gets to the free-throw line consistently. The absence of Evan Turner is especially noticeable on the bench units, where Turner controlled the ball and created his end-of-shot-clock, spinning jumpers. IT takes 44% of the team’s free-throws. Marcus Smart is the only other teammate to reach the 2.0 attempt per game threshold.

This is in part by offensive design. Stevens’ roster is far from ideal. Still a mix of too-young/offensively limited reserves. Boston hopes Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier (and Smart, to some extent) will grow into shot-creators. Avery Bradley has been excellent this year, but his game is limited inside the paint, other than those back-door cuts. Kelly Olynyk’s recent confidence spike is important to creating some offensive balance.

Against high-level defenses (Pistons, Spurs), the offense struggled mightily without Isaiah. In many ways, the Celtics depend on hounding defense (Smart, Rozier, Crowder) to create just-enough offense until the starters return.

***

Rebounding continues to be the weakness we figured it would be. The Andrew Bogut rumors have begun. One can only hope Dallas loses enough games before Dirk’s return to force Cuban to acknowledge the tanking necessities of his franchise(Shark Tank irony?).

Unless Boston finds a trade partner beforehand, a D-league call-up is in order after January 5th. Defensive rebounding without Jared Sullinger has taken a serious dip.

Late January will bring an avalanche of rumors for Celtics fans. The current roster doesn’t quite have the depth this team probably needs to fight for a spot in the East Finals, though its more reasonable to expect a playoff series victory before fans start clamoring for a legit shot at Cleveland. The trade deadline is February 23rd.

Upcoming Schedule (On the Road Again)

Mon, Dec 5 @ Houston

James Harden and his crew of long-range maestros will be tough to handle. Celtics need to guard Ryan Anderson at half-court.

Wed, Dec 7 @ Orlando

Orlando has many (too many, really) big men. Rebounding will be crucial. Celtics must win this game amidst a tough stretch of opponents.

Fri, Dec 9 vs Toronto

DeMar DeRozan has been nothing short of remarkable. Long jumpers may be unpopular, but this man doesn’t follow the trends. Raptors will be major obstacle in May. Barometer game.

Sun, Dec 11 @ OKC

Westbrook’s one-man show. Can Smart show his old college fans and the NBA how to limit Russ?

Wed, Dec 14 @ San Antonio

Celtics played a very good game against San Antonio last week. Spurs bench killed Boston. Patty Mills and Davis Bertans must be contained.

Writing. Poetry. Personal Essays. On the NBA, MLB, media, journalism, culture, teaching and humor.

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