BOSTON — Evidence—and there has not been much of it—of the Celtics ability to be conference contenders was on display this week, with Exhibit A Sunday’s pasting of (probably) playoff-bound Charlotte and Exhibit B a Christmas Day win over Philadelphia. Watch just those games and you see a team with remarkable depth—five players scored in double figures against the Hornets, with 11 tallying at least five points—and a bona fide alpha in Kyrie Irving, who dropped 40 on the Sixers.
Evidence—and there has been plenty of it—of Boston’s candidacy to be first-round fodder in a few months could be found in the three previous games, a road loss in Detroit, a home defeat to tanktastic (it’s an adjective, really) Phoenix and a largely lifeless performance against Milwaukee, the last of which prompted a 30-minute, closed-door meeting after the game that was described as a Seinfeldian airing of grievances.
Christmas is widely considered the unofficial start of the NBA season. The league owns Christmas like the NFL owns Thanksgiving, and by the time Santa comes around, there is often a clarity that comes from teams having completed more than a third of the season.
Except in Boston—we still really have no idea what the Celtics are.
It was Boston 121, Philadelphia 114 on Tuesday, the Celtics second straight quality win after those three horrifying losses. Irving had the 40 points on a season-high 33 shots, the last an eye-popping transition 30-footer with 90 seconds left in overtime to seal the win.
Asked about Irving’s offensive explosion, Marcus Morris said, “Some of that s— [doesn’t] even surprise me anymore.”
Indeed, Irving has been one of Boston’s few constants. Privately, some Celtics officials will say this is the best Irving has ever played. His offensive numbers are largely static from last season, but he’s rebounding at a career-best rate (4.9 per game), his playmaking has improved and his defense—never elite—has become credible. On Tuesday, Irving—who had 20-plus friends and family in the crowd and was giddy at the rare opportunity to play in front of all of them—told his teammates, “I’m acting up.” He did, and Boston picked up its 20th win of the season in the process.
So is this Boston? The team that blitzed Charlotte and edged the Sixers with its best big defender (Aron Baynes) out with an injury? Or are the Celtics closer to the group that stumbled at home against a team (Phoenix) with no interest in winning?
It is … unclear.
Here’s what we do know: Last month’s lineup change has been effective. The Celtics decision to shift defensive maven Marcus Smart and utility man Morris into the starting lineup has clicked. Morris—in the running for most valuable Celtic, after Irving—is averaging 16 points and connecting on 40% of his three’s as a starter. Smart’s ability to take on the top defensive challenge has taken pressure off of Irving—which Irving admits has helped. Shifting Gordon Hayward—the NBA’s highest-paid sub—and Jaylen Brown to the bench has given Boston some balance, too.
Here’s what we also know: The Celtics core of young stars continues to process life as secondary players. Boston’s 20-somethings—Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier—were one game away from ending LeBron James’s Eastern Conference reign of terror, and adjusting to life as second fiddles has not been easy. It’s getting better—Brown is shooting ten points better from beyond the three-point line since coming off the bench and December has been Tatum’s best month—but it remains a work in progress.
Here’s what we think we know: The Celtics aren’t changing, at least not substantially, for the rest of the season. There’s a reasonable argument to be made that Boston has too much talent. The Celtics could have packaged some of that talent last summer in exchange for Kawhi Leonard, but Leonard’s expiring contract and Boston’s utter inability to get a read on its chances of re-signing him scared them off. Now, the Celtics wait until July, until Anthony Davis makes a decision on a supermax contract extension. The Celtics lust for Davis, and they won’t deplete the war chest until he makes a decision.
And that could be fine. This Celtics team has enough talent to win the conference. The starting five is starting to jell (“Our chemistry is high,” Morris said) and the young stars are publicly stating they need to find more ways to impact winning, not just contribute points. When asked about Irving’s 40-point night, Celtics coach Brad Stevens praised Irving (“It’s all him,” Stevens said) but was quick to point out the evolution he was seeing in the offense.
“It’s a function of the one thing that I think we’ve gotten better at offensively over the last couple months, [that’s] spacing and early attack,” Stevens said. “And you know, [Irving] is a big reason why, obviously. But our bigs are doing a good job hunting guys in transition. We’re playing with a little more tempo than we played with the first couple weeks.”
Is Boston turning a corner? A three-game road trip through Houston, Memphis and San Antonio should be educational. Are the Celtics on the same level as Toronto and Milwaukee? They haven’t proven it, yet. But Boston’s talent level is unmistakable and with Irving, they will often have the best player on the floor.
The NBA season is (un)officially underway. The Celtics remain as mysterious as ever.