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3 reasons the Celtics are a playoff threat and 1 reason to be cautious


Celtics

The Celtics have won eight straight. How seriously should we take them?

The Celtics have won eight in a row. How seriously should we take them? photo by Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

After rallying to beat the Hawks on Monday, the Celtics have won eight straight – the longest active winning streak in the NBA. Their starters are wiping out teams even after slow starts in their last two wins. They would have achieved their primary goal by the trade deadline. If the old axiom that “defense wins championships” is true, they will face the Warriors in the NBA Finals.

It’s crazy, of course… isn’t it? On December 28, after a brutal loss to an incredibly shorthanded Timberwolves team – which Ime Udoka called “one of the weakest losses of the year – we wrote that “we can’t call this “shocking” or “inexplicable” loss because it was neither” and man, we thought. The Celtics semi-regularly embarrassed themselves against really poor competition.

Still, throughout their early-season struggles, the Celtics did themselves a big favor: They hung around .500. Canceling them completely was not possible, if only because they still had plenty of talent to turn the season around.

Now they have. The Celtics are no longer troublesome — they’re sixth in the Eastern Conference, just 2.5 games from third and just 4.5 games from first. So how should we take them seriously?

Here are a few reasons to take them seriously as a playoff challenger, and one big reason to be cautious (this, of course, isn’t an exhaustive list for either argument).

Suddenly, the Celtics resist

Remember when big tracks were a punch line? The Celtics’ 2022 iteration is the opposite – they hold their lead and they rally when they’re behind.

Look no further than Sunday’s game against the Hawks. Playing at 2 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday, the Celtics came out flatter than Jaylen Brown’s rookie haircut of the year and fell into all their worst habits. Marcus Smart threw bad shots at the start of the clock. Brown tried to do too much and committed two of his four turnovers in 10 seconds trying to attack Hawks defensive ace DeAndre Hunter 1-on-1. Jayson Tatum took it upon himself to isolate himself against Hunter as well, and got nothing.

Then the Celtics corrected their trajectory. Smart didn’t shoot again until the fourth quarter (he took four shots in the fourth, including two behind the shot clock) and dished out seven assists. Brown was 4-for-5 from the floor and scored 11 points in the deciding third quarter as the Celtics outscored the Hawks 42-23. Tatum scored 25 points in the second half and finished with 38.

The Celtics followed a similar mold two days earlier when they faced the Nuggets: a double-digit deficit turned into a hard-fought victory down the stretch.

“A few weeks ago, months ago, at the start of the season, a game like this probably would have slipped our minds,” Smart said after the win over the Nuggets. “We wouldn’t have reacted the way we did.

“We just stuck with it. We didn’t let anything trouble us. We continued to trust each other. »

The Celtics seem to trust each other a bit more – a strange phenomenon considering Smart, Brown and Tatum have played together since 2017 and Robert Williams joined the team a year later. Still, they acknowledge the challenges at the start of the season of playing under a new coach and new staff.

“Everyone would have liked us to play like that from the start,” Tatum said. “We have made efforts, but the reality is that things take time and obviously there are a lot of losses that we would like to recover and things that we would like to be able to change. We were all adjusting to something new, a whole new coaching staff, kind of a new brand of basketball a bit.

Jayson Tatum still hasn’t had a huge stretch

With the Celtics floating around .500, most optimists pointed to Tatum’s 3-point shot as reason for hope. After all, it seemed highly unlikely that a career 38 percent 3-point shooter would continue to shoot 32 percent from deep, and much of Tatum’s game revolves around his 3-point shooting.

Tatum has yet to burst, but the Celtics are still rolling. In January, Tatum averaged 27 points per game but shot just 33.3% from behind the arc. In February, Tatum is averaging 23.2 points per game and shooting just 29.2 percent from deep. Its use has also declined significantly.

No matter. The Celtics are 16-6 since the schedule was reversed — the third-best winning percentage in the NBA in that span and the best in the Eastern Conference.

If players like Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James are finesse players – edging their way to the edge and pouring out when the defense crumbles – Tatum is a player of power and finesse. His game is built on 3-point, footwork and grip, but he’s also grown more comfortable just overpowering big men like Hawks center Onyeka Okongwu.

Tatum can score 40 points any night, and that counts in the playoffs. Still, the Celtics have shown they can win even when he doesn’t, and that’s a good sign.

The Celtics have inflection points.

Narrative psychology is a field that “studies the value of stories and narration in making sense of people’s experiences – shaping their memory of past events, their understanding of the present, and their projections of future events – and in defining themselves. and define their lives.”

Much to the Celtics’ credit, they turned their 2021-22 season around with no obvious change in the narrative – a six-game winning streak before the trade deadline has only since extended.

Still, adding Derrick White to the list helps. White is a rookie-caliber player who closes out games and bolsters perimeter defense. He showed shooting flashes in his early days, and even when he’s out — 4 for 14 against the Hawks — he does a lot of little things. His arrival felt like an inflection point, though the real inflection point was just making the whole roster healthy. The tandem of the arrival of White and a wholesome group seems to have changed the narrative enormously.

We joked at the top about the ‘defense wins championships’ axiom, and it might be a little hard to imagine a showdown between the Celtics and Cavaliers — the two best defensive teams in the East — for one. final trip. But it’s much easier to imagine a Celtics-Cavaliers Eastern Conference final on Feb. 14 than it was on Dec. 25, partly because of the Celtics’ defense, partly because of their stars, but also because they added a new variable that fits perfectly.

Always:

Health matters a lot

Celtics players have missed many games this season due to various ailments and injuries, but the team has been rolling since they got their full roster together. That’s great news for anyone who thought the Celtics were a better group than the mid-game team that stumbled to a sub-0.500 record in 2021, but we’ve yet to see what injury to the one of the four core makes chemistry.

Conclusion

The Celtics are clearly not the favorites in the Eastern Conference – that distinction belongs to the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks. The Sixers just acquired a former MVP in James Harden and already employ an MVP candidate in Joel Embiid. The Heat, Bulls and Cavaliers are great. The Nets have lost 11 straight, but you can’t write off Kevin Durant even though his two co-stars are notoriously unreliable.

Still, the Celtics are a team no one wants to face in the playoffs. Their defense is tough. Their stars are young and hungry.

If nothing else, the Celtics appear to be on an upward trajectory once again.



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