With five games left in the regular season, the Boston Celtics find themselves in the thick of one of the more accidental playoff races in the NBA in recent years. Five teams slipping and sliding there way toward the 7th and 8th seeds in the Eastern Conference. It’s a fascinating mess.
After 53 games, these Celtics were 20-33, and heading toward the end of a second rebuilding year without an identity. The long road back to contention felt like an endless stretch of highway instead of a windy hillside stretch, where around the next corner, Celtics fans might find civilization after the wilderness of the last two years. Of course two years isn’t a long time when you consider franchises like Sacramento and Charlotte, in which a mere playoff appearance would be cause for great celebration. Boston Celtics fans in my age group (30-40) have been on both sides of the coin. Too young to fully appreciate the heights of the franchise in the 1960’s, ’70’s, or even early-to-mid ’80’s, we got to know mediocrity well. The Celtics won 45 or fewer games in all but one year (2002) from 1994-2007. With the brief blip of success in 2002 as an exception, we genuinely went through the NBA wasteland and we feel we’ve earned something as diehard Celtics fans. The wagon got full again from 2008-2012, as the wins piled up and April, May and June became basketball months in Boston again, interfering with the region’s Red Sox obsession.
In mid-February, we drove to Sacramento, my lovely lady, my old pal Eric and his girlfriend, Nichole. We happened to catch George Karl’s debut as Kings coach. The Celtics had just traded for Isaiah Thomas, but he wasn’t in uniform, still waiting to pass his physical. The Celtics jumped out to a big early lead, and then saw it slip away, as DeMarcus Cousins had his way with the Celtics big men. Boston dropped a close game, failing to score in the half-court as the game progressed. The Sactown faithful got to feel good again, if only for a hot minute, as visions of George Karl’s winning touch came alive in their imaginations. Cowbells came out.
The Celtics record slipping to 20-32. The season felt like it was slipping away, but this new addition seemed like an ideal fit. A pint-sized scoring point guard in the Tiny Archibald mold (Isaiah is a lethal lefty, too) with the ability to finish at the rim, get to the free-throw line with ease, and continue scoring when the defense and physicality picks up in the fourth quarter.
Thomas’ opening game came against the hapless Lakers. He scored easily, but was ejected early in the 4th quarter. The Celtics lost in overtime. 20-33 record. The thing about looking at the standings is that it’s clean and neat. The numbers appear definitive. Wins. Losses. Percentages. Games behind. If you’re an obsessive sports fan, you’re used to doing subtraction. 82 games. 53 played. 29 left. How many wins will it take to make the playoffs (remember it’s the lowly East)? Last year, Atlanta finished 8th with 38 wins. How quickly things have progressed for the Hawks, who pushed Indiana to 7 games in the first round. Thanks to Al Horford’s health, familiarity with Budenholzer’s system, Teague’s development, and Kyle Korver’s marksmanship, the Hawks are the darlings of the Eastern Conference. A recent shoulder injury to Paul Millsap has them holding their breath, though it appears he’ll only miss two games.
So the Celtics were 20-33. For every step forward (Jae Crowder getting comfortable in Stevens’ system, Brandon Bass and Tyler Zeller contributing on a nightly basis), there was one (or two) steps back. Turnover were all too common with Evan Turner and Marcus Smart taking on ball-handling and play-making duties. The lineup still lacked outside shooting. Nobody noticed that Jonas Jerebko and Luigi Datome would be joining the Celtics because their names: (Jerebko and Datome) are not exactly tip-of-the-tongue type NBA surnames. Though neither had played much in Detroit, both were supposed to have some range.
Losing Sully (And Now He’s Back?)
Jared Sullinger, one of the Celtics possible building blocks on the roster, had a great November averaging 16 / 9 / 3 in 30 min (thanks, Rajon), After the Rondo trade, the Celtics had trouble getting Sullinger (and everyone else) the ball as often. The numbers dipped in December, but he had another solid month in January, with the exception of his long range shot (22% in 22 January and February games). Then, Sullinger went down with a stress fracture in his left foot that would supposedly end his season. Jackie MacMullan talked with Sullinger about his weight after GM Danny Ainge mentioned that Sullinger has not met the team’s health expectations. Fast-forward six weeks and without warning, the Celtics announced Sully was cleared to play. On Saturday, he provided a crucial lift off the bench in the win over Toronto (7 rebounds, 2 steals, 1 block in 12 minutes).
The loss of Sullinger, after the somewhat expected departures of Rondo and Jeff Green, was a gut punch to even the most optimistic Celtics fans. We needed some good news. The trade for Isaiah was made for the present and the future. With the exploding salary cap in July, 2016, the last two years of Thomas’ 4 year, $27 million deal will make him an absolute bargain. Thomas filled desperate needs (PG, 4th quarter scoring, 3-point range) for Boston immediately. For the season (both Phoenix and Boston), Thomas is 13th in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus for Offense. Though his height makes him a defensive liability (partly why Phoenix made him available), he was exactly what Boston was looking for as a future complement to Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley, who are both strong defenders.
Isaiah Breathes Life Into the Offense
In 8 of his first 10 games, Isaiah took 7 or more free-throws (never playing more than 31 min). Isaiah hit 3 or more three-pointers in 6 of those 10. The Celtics started winning. After the OT loss to the Lakers, Boston won 6 of its next 9 games. In a tough road game with Miami, Boston continued to play it’s feisty defense. The Celtics benefited by facing Miami with their new addition Goran Dragic, or Chris Bosh. Still, in a physical match-up, the Celtics rose to the occasion, thanks in part to the scrappy swagger of Isaiah. And then he drove the paint, rose, up-faked and collided with Dwyane Wade, coming down awkwardly on his lower back, tailbone and elbow. Writhing around in pain, it was clear he would be out for some time.
But the Celtics kept fighting. They won four more in a row, including a home win over Memphis. Without Isaiah, the Celtics have had stretches without much bench scoring, where they dropped a couple of games (home vs. DET especially) that they may have pulled out. Still, they remain in the thick of it with five games remaining after a memorable overtime buzzer-beating victory in Toronto. In Thomas’ first five games back after two weeks off, it was clear he couldn’t get his legs under him as he struggled to get his jumper over the rim. In the last two games, he’s shot 17 of 31 (55%) and 5 of 13 from deep.
Evan Turner Turning Heads
Evan Turner’s stellar play has been a main reason the Celtics survived the Thomas injury. Since the All-Star Break (last 26 games), Turner has averaged 11 points, 6.8 assists, and 5.8 rebounds. Those may not be Russell Westbrook numbers, but they are huge (especially the assists) when you consider the gaping hole left for Boston during those 10 games Thomas was forced to sit out. 20-33. The Celtics have gone 15-9 since, mostly against the Eastern Conference (11-4 vs East, 4-4 vs West), but who cares? They have unbelievably fun to watch. They share the ball and they are always on the move. They want it more than their opponents most of the time. They have nothing to lose, and they are playing like they have something to win. It’s about as refreshing as a sunny day after an insanely snow-filled gray winter. It’s the start of something new for this franchise.
The wagon will start to fill up next year…
Counting Down: Five Games Remain
Over the last ten days of the NBA’s regular season, Boston will be watching Miami, Brooklyn and Indiana as each of the team’s scramble for the final two spots in the East. Top seed Atlanta may actually be vulnerable if Millsap’s shoulder injury is severe. Losing reserve shooter Mike Scott has impacted the Hawks’ depth.
Indiana got Paul George (13 pts in 14 min, 2 steals) back on Sunday and romped all over the Heat. Miami plays 4 of their final 5 games at home, and finishes the year against meager opponents Orlando and Philadelphia. The Heat own the tiebreaker with Boston (3-1 head-to-head). Because of the home-heavy, soft schedule Hollinger’s playoff odds give the Heat a 60% chance at the playoffs, while the Celtics currently have a 46% chance.
All East Tiebreakers
Miami over Brooklyn
Boston over Brooklyn
Brooklyn over Charlotte
Miami over Boston
Brooklyn over Indiana
Boston over Indiana
Eastern Conference Swamp Race
7. Brooklyn Nets 35 41 — 60.3% (5H, 1A: POR, ATL, WAS, @MIL, CHI, ORL)
8. Boston Celtics 35 42 — 46.0% (2H, 3A: @DET, @CLE, CLE, TOR, @MIL)
9. Indiana Pacers 34 43 1 26.2% (2H, 3A: @NYK, @DET, OKC, WAS, @MEM)
10. Miami Heat 34 43 1 60.5% (4H, 1A: CHA, CHI, TOR, ORL, @PHI)
11.Charlotte Hornets 33 43 1.5 7.2% (2H, 4A: @MIA TOR @ATL @DET HOU @TOR)