Don’t look now, but the Boston Celtics are gaining steam. One thing working to their advantage: their own record. Often overlooked in March and early April are teams that have been busy shuffling their roster all season (and whose record shows them to be mediocre at best).
Most of the time, the better teams in the NBA will beat those up-and-down-and-all-over teams. Most of the time, those teams are not competing for a playoff spot and use the post-trade deadline months as an experimental time to try and develop younger players and worry less about wins. Many have gone the tanking route and been comfortable seeing the losses pile up, with the emphasis on the future success of the team, through the lottery and developing their own talent. Celtics GM Danny Ainge has put coach Brad Stevens in a decent position. Instead of taking any offer for Brandon Bass and waiting on a player like Isaiah Thomas, Ainge made a move geared toward the future that helps the team now. Thomas is a creator, a brilliant finisher at the rim, and a 4th quarter assassin. The Celtics had many useful parts before Isaiah, but they couldn’t do any of these three things well. Now they can.
These Celtics spent the first 25 games showcasing their assets (Rondo, Green, etc.) and then the next 25 games, flipping some of the acquired players (Brandon Wright to Phoenix, Tayshaun Prince to Detroit), and developing others (Jae Crowder), and then, in mid-February, as the trade deadline approached, they brought in Isaiah Thomas as a genuine building block for the future (under contract for three more years on a very modest deal). In addition to bringing in Thomas, players like Brandon Bass and Evan Turner are still here, and can breathe a bit more easily, knowing they will be Celtics for at least this season (Turner is under contract next year as well).
One of the benefits of being in the Eastern Conference (and there are many) is that hovering around 10-games under .500 after 55 games means you are not completely out of the playoff race.
After beating the red-hot Pacers (winners of seven straight heading into Saturday night’s game), the Celtics are 29-36. According to John Hollinger’s NBA Playoff odds, they are now the slight favorites to finish in the East’s 8th and final playoff spot.
Indiana 30-35, 78.6%
Boston 29-36, 43%
Charlotte 29-35, 41%
Miami 29-36, 31.1%
The Celtics have won 9 of their last 12. With the infusion of instant offense maestro Isaiah Thomas, the team is playing with a new edge. There is a feisty side to this bunch that Thomas spearheads with his fearless drives to the paint, which is also highlighted by Jae Crowder (Draymond-lite) deflecting passes, and causing confusion with his energy and quick hands, the two-handed dunks of Brandon Bass, given extra minutes with the absence of power forward Jared Sullinger. The bench is active and effective, with new additions Jonas Jerebko and Luigi Datome extending defenses with their shooting ability and making things messy with their defensive intensity. When Thomas went down with a badly bruised lower back (missed last three games), Phil Pressey jumped into the fray and made his presence felt against Orlando (10 pts, 10 ast, 4 reb in 27 min) and added some punch against Indiana. Everyone is contributing and we are beginning to see the fire that Brad Stevens has been forced to keep under wraps for his first 140 or so games as an NBA coach. That fire was kept hidden in order to preserve his sanity and take the long-term approach. He used the word “process” in nearly every state-of-the-team interview last year.
After a lackluster start to Friday night’s game against Orlando (the athleticism of Payton and Oladipo have been issues all year long for Boston’s guards), Stevens apparently lit into the team at halftime. In addition to discussing how unacceptable their performance was, he threatened no food on the plane to Indiana (Saturday night’s opponent). This kind of thing sounds hilarious and ridiculous, but it gets at something bigger: Stevens has kept his competitiveness in check out of necessity so far. That doesn’t mean he will remain so even-keeled and steady throughout his NBA coaching career. At Butler, it was clear that Stevens knew how to motivate his players, but it was also clear he could wear his heart on his sleeve. He’ll be doing that in the best way possible over the next 15 games and hopefully into the playoffs. The players will feed off of his energy, just like he is feeding off of these wins and Isaiah Thomas’ “hop on my back, even if it may be bruised…” mentality. Boston fans will be given a real glimpse into the future of the Celtics and the rumors of Stevens departing for Indiana or Duke or wherever else rumor-mill-makers decide will die down completely. When I mentioned to my friend Eric that we may have to watch many Celtics games together in April, he replied, “This is getting kind of serious.”
You’ll hear coaches, especially Popovich, Thibodeau, Doc Rivers and even former-Warriors coach Mark Jackson refer to playing with “force.” They refer to defense as a matter of will-power and tenacity. This means getting the “50/50” balls, deflecting passes, running opponents off of the three-point line even when your legs are heavy. It is easy to talk about playing with “force.” It is harder to bring that energy every game for 82 regular season games. In fact, coaches differ in how to best use their players in order to get that maximum energy at the right times. Popovich (and now Kerr and others) seems to fully realize that the schedule will screw each team a few times a year (forget 5 games in 7 days, how about 3 games in 4 days?). Kerr just wrote back to disgruntled Nuggets fans who were understandably miffed that they’d driven from South Dakota to Denver, paid a shitload of money, and then saw the Warriors B-team.
Thibodeau has long been criticized for running his players into the ground, coaxing more regular season wins at the expense of fresher legs in April and May. This criticism should probably be extended beyond Thibs, as the Bulls training staff seem to diagnose injuries in the “if you can walk, you can play” fashion. It may be extended even to the city of Chicago, where fans seem to prize toughness over long-term health (insert sociological/psychological city data here). Joakim Noah’s knees will likely never be the same. Should we blame Thibodeau for putting too much emphasis on the regular season, or should we consider that forcing Joakim Noah to sit out a game might be more damaging to a team’s psyche (Noah plays with the same intensity KG, Draymond and Westbrook all play with).
These Celtics are playing with force. Jae Crowder and Brandon Bass seem to bring it every night. Isaiah has it. Marcus Smart and Avery both have it, even though Marcus is hitting the rookie wall (last 20 games: 32% from field, 26% from deep). There is no way rookies can physically prepare for the 82-game grind, and usually hit that wall around the All-Star break, if they’re actually given big minutes. It’s been deeply rewarding to watch these Celtics take on this new identity. Regardless of the outcome this year, all Celtics fans should be optimistic. Let’s hope Isaiah’s tailbone heals quickly.