In the last two weeks, the Boston Celtics have beaten Eastern Conference competitors Washington, Miami, Chicago and Charlotte. Other than a road-trip opening loss to the Orlando Magic on November 29th, the Celtics only losses since November 25th have been to the two best teams in the Assocation: Golden State and San Antonio. And both of those losses were very tight games.
In other words, the Celtics have played great basketball over their last 9 games (6-3 record in that time, 14-10 overall). Perhaps not coincidentally, the backcourt minutes rotation has been relatively consistent since Marcus Smart went down with a knee injury after Game 14 (might miss two more weeks).
In the last 10 games, Isaiah Thomas is taking advantage of the extra 5-8 minutes of playing time, averaging 35 minutes per game, and dropping in 21 ppg, 8 apg and only 2.2 turnovers, 23 of 62, 37% from deep. Avery Bradley’s minutes are up to just over 34 over the last 10. In those extended minutes, Bradley has continued his torrid 3-point shooting, making 21 of his last 45 (47%) from deep. In his last 7 games, Avery is averaging 18 points. Those that were wishing for offensive growth from Bradley this off-season have to be happy with these developments.
In addition to Thomas and Bradley, third-year forward Kelly Olynyk regained his shooting over the recent road trip, and is averaging 16.5 points in only 25 minutes, while connecting on 44% from deep in 6 December games. Olynyk had his 2nd-best scoring night of his young career with 28 points in the Friday night double overtime thriller with Golden State.
The upcoming week brings a trio of “barometer” games. Eastern Conference opponents who the Celtics will be dealing with as the playoff crunch hits in March and April.
Like Boston (4th in defensive efficiency as of Sunday), Cleveland (10th), Detroit (7th) and Atlanta (13th) all have defensive identities.
Cleveland (15-7), Tuesday, Dec 15
Cleveland has slumped as of late, missing Kyrie Irving’s offense even more so after his temporary replacement Mo Williams developed recent knee soreness. Much has been made of LeBron’s discontent with the Cavaliers recent stretch of fallability, which included a three-game losing streak to the Wizards, Pelicans, and Heat. A first round playoff rematch will certainly have Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas motivated.
@Detroit (14-11), Wednesday, Dec 16
A recent hot stretch has propelled the Pistons up into overcrowded middle of East playoff contention. Detroit has won 6 of 8, including a blowout win over the formerly-hot Pacers over the weekend. New addition Marcus Morris (trade from Phoenix) has been on fire from deep (57%) over his last 7 games. Defending the three-point line will be critical for the Celtics as forwards Morris and Ersan Ilyasova, and shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope can extend the defense. The Celtics bench depth may prove huge here, as the Pistons depend more on Anthony Tolliver and Steve Blake than they really should. If the recent trend of winning on the road on the second game of a back-to-back means anything, the Celtics will find a way to dig this one out.
vs. Atlanta (14-11), Friday, Dec 18
This will already be the third meeting of the season with the Hawks. Boston beat them handily early on in the season, with Hawks PG Jeff Teague injuring an ankle and playing poorly afterward. On Nov. 24, the Hawks embarrassed the Celtics on TNT. Friday, Boston gets a shot at revenge. Of the three teams they face this week, Atlanta is probably the most important in terms of measuring sticks. A loss to Cleveland (the clear favorite in the East) would not surprise anyone. A loss in the second of a back-to-back on the road would be understandable. This Hawks game feels like an important one. The Celtics have been playing great basketball over these last few weeks. A win over Atlanta could get them that much closer to home court in the first round of the playoffs.