Only in their second game since the All-Star break, the Boston Celtics led the way against the Detroit Pistons on Saturday, securing an 18th win in their last 23 games with a 113-104 triumph. Two days earlier, the 17 time Champions trumped the Brooklyn Nets, 129-106, capturing Boston’s sixth wire-to-wire win in their last 14 encounters. The team stuck to the same principles that helped turn their season around. On display were their stifling defense, a willingness to push the pace, and a heavy emphasis on ball movement. But just some weeks back, the story was different, as the center could not hold and their season slipping away. But as of now, they have emerged from the All-Star break as a potential dark horse contender for this year’s title. Just how exactly did they turn their season around? About a month ago, the Boston Celtics had become the depiction of a truly middling franchise. Sleepwalking through the motions, they held a 25-25 record as time ticked past the season’s halfway point – seeming destined for yet another abysmal year. A second straight season of failing to maximize the potential of their two budding stars. Trade discourse surrounding the duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown also reached an all-time high, as Celtics fans began to scratch their heads and wonder just how they got here. After three Eastern Conference Finals births in four years, the future seemed awfully bright in Boston just sixteen months earlier. Yet, by January 2022 they were dawdling in mediocrity. The Celtics were being routinely plagued by the same issues. Their defense was relatively good, but their offense got stagnant for lengthy periods – and their late-game execution was amongst the worst in the league. Even the most ardent of Boston homers seemed to accept their team’s new run-of-the-mill reality. In late January, The Ringer’s Bill Simmons tweeted this below:
Starting with the 2020 playoffs, the Celtics are 72-72. This season: 25-25 Last season: 36-36 2020/2021 playoffs: 11-11 — Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) January 29, 2022
THE TURNING POINT Since the new year, Boston’s defense has been elite. Over the last 14 games, the Celtics have had a defensive rating of 96.5 – good enough for first in the league. The next best defensive rating over that period has been OKC at 106.7. The Celtics have also held their opposition’s field goal percentage to 38.6 percent and points allowed to 95.4 over the aforementioned 14-game stretch. As the old saying goes – ‘defense wins championships.’ It’s no surprise that the Celtics went 12-2 through that span of games. Against the Nets, Boston’s perimeter defense stifled Brooklyn’s shooters. They were connected on a string and switching relentlessly, forcing the Nets to just 37.8 percent shooting through the first three quarters of play. This defensive identity has been Boston’s calling card, and what has catapulted them into being the hottest team in the NBA right now. Fortunately for the C’s, Coach Ime Udoka’s constant preaching seems to be paying off. The Celtics have led the league with a scoring differential of 19.6 over the last 14 games. Against the Nets, they also dished out 28 assists whilst connecting on 41 percent of their threes.
ARE THE C’S CONTENDERS? The Eastern Conference is as stacked as ever and it is set to be a dicey affair come playoffs, with teams like the Miami Heat, defending Champions – Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and Chicago Bulls, all staking claim. And certainly, the Boston Celtics have put themselves right in the mix. The C’s are the dark horses of this NBA season, and not many teams would want to play them in the first round. While their defense is and has been the key, Boston will ultimately go as far as their two stars will take them, a la, Tatum and Brown. Jayson Tatum has found his offensive groove. His performance against the Nets may have been the quietest 30 points he has scored this season. Everything was in the flow of the offense. He also posted 26 points, 11 rebounds, 6 assists, 1 steal and a block last night against the Detroit Pistons. Jaylen Brown has also been locked-in on both ends ever since his perceived All-Star snub three weeks ago. His initial response to the snub was taking to Instagram with a Kanye West meme to deliver the message: ‘Jaylen Brown should be an All-Star.’ He also tweeted ‘The energy is about to shift,’ Then proceeded to lead Boston to a 10-1 record over their next 11 games.
The energy is about to shift — Jaylen Brown (@FCHWPO) January 31, 2022
DARK DAYS TO DARK HORSE Did the Bill Simmons tweet flip the switch and spark the Celtics back to life? It is impossible to know for sure, but probably not.
Ultimately, it is fair to be skeptical about Boston’s playoff ceiling. They are running with an eight-man rotation and injuries could see it all tumble down quick. In a potential series against the likes of Milwaukee, Philadelphia, or Miami, the offense also desperately needs Tatum and Brown to play great just to stand a chance.
But the numbers don’t lie. Boston’s defense makes them a legitimate contender. They have so far been able to redeem a season from hell on the back of it and have earned the right to be in the championship conversation.