Heading into last night's game I have to admit I was a little nervous. After seeing an Eastern Conference "contender" go into Atlanta over the weekend and get run out of the gym by this very Hawks team, all I heard that night was what a tough place to play that arena was. Ignore the 8-17 home record, if "the most talented team in the East" couldn't win in that building then what were the undermanned Celtics going to do? Oh that's right, what they usually do...which is win. On the road, at home, full roster, mangled roster, doesn't matter. I'll give the Hawks credit, they sure are a pesky bunch. Trae Young is downright terrifying and is already at the point for me that no matter when or where he shoots it from, my brain assumes it's going in. I don't know how you could watch him in this game and not be impressed, the dude had like three logo 3PM in the first 8 minutes for crying out loud. What a stud. A little turnover prone, but an absolute beast by every definition of the word.
Since that terrible 2-6 slide where the Celts basically couldn't beat anyone whether they were a contender or one of the worst teams in the league, they've responded by winning 7 of their last 8. That's not a fraud run either because 5 of those wins have come against playoff teams (LAL/MEM/ORL/MIA/PHI) which include the best team in the West, one of the hottest teams in the West, an Eastern Conference contender, and the 2018-19 Celtics. I think we all wanted to see how they would respond to that adversity because we can be honest, things looked pretty fucking pathetic for a while there in January but they have responded about as well as you can imagine. No coincidence it's coming from their defense, outside of the 123 in the loss to NO the Celts have kept 3 opponents to under 100, three more to under 107, and then last night's win despite giving up 115. They are looking much more like the defensive team we saw to start the year and as a result the wins are stacking up.
Taking a step back, the Celtics should beat the Hawks. Healthy or not, the Hawks were banged up themselves and the Celts have a better collection of talent. So just like I always say, this win does not guarantee SHIT come the playoffs. It doesn't mean they are suddenly contenders or you should plan the parade. All I'm saying is it makes me happy that this team is getting back to winning games they are expected to win and aren't dropping games against under .500 teams. Good teams don't do that shit. Good teams win on the road.
With that said, we have a lot of fun to get to so let's dive right in.
- To be honest this was an impossible choice. Getting the top spot in this blog is basically the most prestigious thing a player on this team can do. A lot of thought goes into who kicks us off and there were a ton of worthy candidates coming from this win. After spending the night thinking about it, I can't not start with Jayson Tatum.
Maybe the biggest prayer of all was that his dick muscle healed at superhuman speed, because this man looks healthy and as devastating as ever. The overall line is great, 28 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists on 10-20 shooting and 5-9 from deep with a team best +19. The best part? I'm pretty sure he started like 1-6 or some shit. That's the mental toughness that I feel like is important when it comes to Tatum's development. Despite a poor shooting start, he remained engaged, his effort never dipped and when this team needed him he put them on his back late with some BIG TIME buckets. Tatum finished with an overall net rating of +30.1 which was the second best on the team and his usage rate wasn't all that crazy at just 27.5%. He's now notched at least 20 points in 6 straight games which doubled his previous career high and he is blossoming into the All Star that we always knew he could be.
- But don't blow your load just yet. We have the other Jay to talk about. The development and leap from Jaylen Brown this season is every bit as impressive as what we are seeing from Tatum, and again I'll say if this is the version of Jaylen we are going to get after his All Star snub then I am more than fine with him not making it.
You watch that highlight and you see Jaylen's development everywhere. The improved handle, the aggressive mindset, the patience on drives, the finishing at the rim, it's all so much better than any previous version of Jaylen this team has seen. He has moves in his bag that he makes with confidence that I didn't even know existed. We already knew he was stronger than pretty much any wing defender he faces, but now he's reading defenses so much better and has taken his playmaking to a whole new level in addition to his improved scoring. You watch Jaylen and he's so much more in control, remember he's just 23!
- One of the best hot takes you hear dummies make is that Jaylen/Hayward/Tatum can't coexist. That Hayward is stunting the development of the two Jays and that they never play well together. Tough night for the crowd that just regurgitates what they hear on 98.5 and don't actually watch what is happening in front of them. Call me crazy, but those two performances from the Jays combined with a measly 24/7/6 on 9-16 shooting from Gordon Hayward feels like maybe, just maybe they do coexist nicely and are all important to one another's success
Make no mistake, Gordon Hayward carried this team early in the fourth with a couple of HUGE midrange jumpers when things were looking pretty dicey, and just like the Jays he was aggressive and efficient. The bonus is with no Smart or Kemba we also got to see Hayward be responsible for more playmaking, which everyone knows he rules at. I do not find it a coincidence that when his usage was finally at the UTA level (26.9%) he had a very UTA Hayward performance. That's what his haters don't understand. It's not that Hayward can't replicate that production, it's that within the confines of this team he isn't asked to. His first step looks great, he's dunking without fear, his jumper is smooth, THIS is the Hayward Ainge and Brad thought he was getting and it's the version that ultimately raises this team's ceiling.
Not only that, but Hayward was the only one to really limit Trae Young, holding him to just 2 points on 9 possessions which was the most anyone guarded Young in this game.
- Not surprising at all that Enes Kanter came back and immediately snagged a billion offensive rebounds. He played just 15 minutes and had 5 of them, finishing with 8/9. Nobody, and I mean nobody is flourishing in their role off the bench more than Kanter. Shit like that is why all I'll say is be weary about moving on from him. This team isn't exactly all that great at shooting, and Kanter bails them out unlike any big they've had in decades. Look it up.
- After playing so well against PHI, Grant already sort of validated Ainge. After his performance last night he's making Ainge look like a goddamn genius
I love him. How could you not? He's a bigger, thicker Marcus Smart. For a 6'8 dude he surprisingly protects the rim way better than I thought, he makes all the effort plays that can swing a game, and when this game needed a closeout bucket it was Grant who put the ball on the floor to blow past John Collins and finish at the rim to ice it. The fact that he even had the confidence to try something like that makes my heart overflow with joy. His three point shooting as sort of gone back into hibernation, but that's OK because of everything else he's giving you. With Theis prob sitting out tomorrow, Grant is going to continue to get minutes and the more he plays the more he is earning Brad's trust. This may have been the best game of his Celtics career, and it makes me so happy for him.
- I did appreciate how the Celtics didn't panic when the Hawks came out and hit a billion threes early. They started like 8-13 and in year's past we would see this team put their head down and have that "woe is me" mindset. I hate watching that shit, so it was nice that instead they buckled down, weathered the storm, and then came out in the third quarter guns blazing.
- It's a wild roller coaster, but when Brad Wanamaker is playing like this you just have to let him do whatever he wants. I know at times it can get frustrating because he sees the ball go in and starts to have tunnel vision, but he has come through now in back to back games in a big way
Considering both Carsen and Tremont didn't do all that much in their minutes, they needed this type of performance from Wanamaker given their guard depth situation in this game.
- Thank the lord Theis ankle sprain wasn't super serious. He'll probably miss a game or two but considering the injury luck this team has had I take that as a prayer. He's too important to what they do that missing him for an extending period of time would have been pretty tough.
- Dominated points in the paint, dominated fast break points, won the rebounding battle, won the second chance points battle, never had a quarter under 28 points. That's how you win on the road.
- But of course, it wasn't perfect. For starters this team has no idea how to stop either Trae Young or John Collins. They were killing the Celtics in their earlier matchup at the Garden before Collins got hurt, and it was pretty much the same thing in this game. Trae Young was a big time problem to the tune of 34 points, and Collins wasn't too shabby with 22/11 on 10-12 shooting. It feels like they struggle against heavy P&R teams and that's something to keep an eye on for later in the Spring when teams will P&R them to death. There's nothing you can do if Young is going to make 38 footers, but at the same time you have to know that's coming and the Celts didn't exactly have the best strategy to limit those two.
- Same shit with Huerter. Not sure where all the wing defenders were but I can tell you they were not staying with Kevin Huerter. He was another dude who shot lights out early and make this a game, and frankly that's a little concerning that the Celts lost him so much on defense. Breaking news, the dude loves to shoot and can get buckets from anywhere. Jaylen had his issues, Tatum, basically everyone.
- For as good as the defense has looked during this run, it didn't exactly show up in this game. Playing a bad team like ATL sort of makes up for it because you can score at will, but no one can sit here and tell you that giving up 115 points to a 13 win team is acceptable.
- Can't say I loved Javonte's no look pass turnover or the behind the back pass turnover in the fourth quarter. Big Javonte guy but come on my man let's be smarter and take care of the ball in big moments.
- This is honestly one of the worst lobs I have ever seen and is very on brand for a team that is the worst lob throwing team in the history of the sport.
To make matters even worse this came at a bad time and was a huge 4 point swing that made me have to sweat this game out way more than I should have had to. Just make the easy play and get the hell out of there with a win. Not even Rob could have caught that lob, woof.
- You know what's really fucking bad? When you have 10 TOs in the fourth quarter and only 10 FGM. Holy moly was this team careless with the basketball at the worst possible time. It's what allowed ATL to crawl back in, it's why all Brad could talk about postgame was how sloppy they were, and honestly you do that against any team that has a pulse and you lose that game. Unacceptable and you are lucky to walk away with a win when you have a 5:10 assist to turnover ratio in the final 12 minutes.
Turnovers have felt like they've been an issue lately and maybe that has to do with guys being out, but it's something that they need to figure out because this is no way to live.
- Why do the Celtics always have problems with Jeff Teague? He's not even that good yet he's a sneaky Celtics killer. Didn't matter what guard they threw on him, he pretty much blew by them with ease. Very random and very annoying.
The Celts now enter a stretch of their schedule where they should be able to continue to build momentum with ORL tomorrow and then another date with these Hawks on Friday. Their schedule gets much harder over the second half of the season so stacking wins now is important. I'm like 85% of the way ready to say they have officially turned the corner from that 2-6 slide, and if they roll into the All Star break playing like this and winning like this then I'll firmly believe it. Close out strong and let's get healthy for the stretch run.
Now if you'll excuse me I need to go back to panicking over some sort of Woj/Shams bomb with the deadline two days away.