Relief. That is what I woke up feeling this morning and I have a feeling I am not alone if you just so happened to be a fan of the Boston Celtics. Make no mistake, the West Coast trip was a complete and utter disaster. Inexcusable losses filled with some of the worst basketball you'll ever see. It was gross. As a result, we heard the blow it up chatter start up again. Quotes went viral, it was the same old same old and the team had no one to blame but themselves. If you don't want that shit to exist, stop playing like ass. Pretty simple. That's what made last night's game against a full strength Bucks team all that more important. Not only did they need to stop the bleeding coming back home after a 1-4 skid, we all needed to see the Celts finally with guys back play well and beat someone good. The last win over the Bucks was quickly discredited because Giannis/Middleton didn't play. Weird that the Celts never get let off the hook with guys out but whatever, fine. Last night was different. The Bucks are the 2nd best team in the East right now, they are rolling. This was going to be a much better litmus test and just as I suspected, when the Celts are healthy and play to their potential, they can hang and beat any team in the league.
Now just like I always say after a big win like we saw last night, perspective is important. All this win did was get the Celts back to .500, which stinks. They are in NO WAY out of the woods. That's not what this is about. This is about the relief that when we finally needed this team to not let us down and get embarrassed by a contending team, they answered the challenge. They obviously have to keep answering the bell in that regard because the rest of the month doesn't exactly get any easier, especially with Steph coming to town on Friday, but it's OK to feel pretty happy with how they looked like last. We've waited basically all month to see Jaylen come back and I can't think of a better welcome back party than what we saw last night. The challenge now is to find a way to bottle that shit up and continue to play that way on a consistent basis. There was nothing all that unsustainable in that game. It wasn't like the Celts made 27 3PM or some fluke thing. They won that game through defense and ball movement. That shit is replicable as long as the Celts continue to play the right way.
Coming home, getting a win like that, and then having a 3 day break before the Warriors come to town was pretty important. Had they been blown out or something, these next 3 days would have been insufferable. So, not only is it a relief that we finally saw them play well, but it's a relief that as fans we don't have to deal with that bullshit.
So before we have to start losing sleep about how the hell this team guards Steph Curry, let's first relive the first positive moment it feels like this team has had in weeks.
- I'm starting to think Jayson Tatum heard the slander. There's no denying that the start to his season was horrific. It's OK to admit that the Celts best player didn't exactly get off to the greatest start. Suddenly, because Tatum was struggling to make his open threes and finish at the rim (the real reasons for his slow start) that turned into
"Tatum doesn't have the IT factor"
"Tatum doesn't care about winning"
"Tatum is selfish"
Those of us who have watched Tatum play every second of his career knew that while the start was maybe worse than normal, it was following a pretty similar trend. We knew that once he got to December, chances are Tatum would come around just like he always does. Hm, look at what's happening
Tatum has played in all 7 games this month. This is how his December looks
vs MIL: 42/5/4 on 64/53%
vs PHX: 24/7/3 on 40/14%
vs LAC: 29/10/2 on 45/28%
vs LAL: 34/8/3 on 59/60%
vs POR: 31/10/4 on 52/66%
vs UTA: 37/6/5 on 48/18%
vs PHI: 26/16/2 on 45/37%
That's a cool 31.2/8.9/3.3 on 50/40% splits with 3.4 3PM. So, let me ask you. Does Tatum have the "It" factor now? Does he suddenly care about winning? I mean those were the reasons I was told he was struggling to start the season. Or, it is possible that water has simply found its level? His three point shooting is coming around, his finishing at the rim is a whole lot better and as a result, the production and efficiency have skyrocketed? The thing with Tatum is people say he needs to do it consistently and against good teams. OK, that's what is happening this month since every game is against a good team and he's delivered in every single one.
In a game that included Giannis, Tatum was the best player on the floor last night. Fact, not opinion. For all that talk about how he never plays well when Jaylen is on the floor, rough night for that take. They were great together. The best part of Tatum's performance at least for me was that it was consistent throughout the game and then when it was closing time Tatum was at his best. He finished with 16 points on 6-8 shooting (3-4 from three) in the fourth quarter. It was his offense that prevented another fourth quarter collapse. Tell me that wasn't a relief for you as you watched it.
How good has Tatum been in the fourth quarter this month? How about 8.9 points on 58/46% shooting. That's what I call a turnaround given how he started the year in that final frame. He ended the game with knock out threes, but he was also very good about attacking the rim and remaining aggressive. Of his 16 FGM, 9 of them came from the FT line or closer. That's huge, especially since the Bucks didn't really have any rim protection. Tatum missed just 1 FGA at the rim last night. Again, relief.
- We heard Ime talk about how before the game Jaylen looked like he had his normal burst back, and that was the biggest difference about this return compared to when he briefly came back earlier this month. After watching his performance, it's hard to argue with Ime's assessment
The fact that Jaylen finished 6-13 was a little surprising simply because you would expect a little rust offensively. There's no denying that his burst looked great, but it was also apparent watching him make moves off the dribble that his quickness was back as well. At no point did we see Jaylen hold back or second guess himself athletically because of the hamstring, and look at what a difference it made. It's almost like getting an All Star back who is finally healthy is actually……good? A wild concept that we're just going to have to accept.
Jaylen's night was more than just his scoring or his health though. How about his approach? He came in right away and looked to be a passer as well as a scorer. He finished with 5 assists which were the second most of any starter. I thought he was much better at avoiding playing with tunnel vision which can oftentimes get him in trouble. The benefit of having Jaylen on the floor next to Tatum was on full display in this game because of the gravity that Jaylen causes. Teams have to worry about him, and that opens it up for Tatum and everyone else. It's why I am begging Ime to run more sets for those two to have a two man game. That's why I don't get the obsession of breaking these two up or thinking they don't work. If you want the best versions of both, they need to be on the floor together!
The fact that Jaylen looked that good and now gets 3 days rest before GS is huge. Hopefully he can finally put this injury behind him and we can see what this team looks like with him available for a long stretch.
- If Tatum has been the Celts best player this season, the biggest surprise and most welcomed development has to be Grant Williams. I don't even know how that could be a debate. Look, his Year 2 was a disaster. We watched Grant make inexplicable mistakes that you couldn't possibly defend. As a result, he got crushed for that shitty play which is fine. But like we see so often, some Celts fans took things too far. People making Grant hate Twitter accounts, screaming that he should be off the team, blah blah blah. Now, here we are in Year 3 and Grant is legitimately good
Grant now currently ranks 5th in the ENTIRE NBA in three point shooting. He's shooting 45.3% from three in good volume. It's a weapon. Not only that, but he's back to playing legit defense and he's severely cut down on his boneheaded mistakes that we saw in Year 2. I think it's OK to say that Grant has developed into a legit rotation player. It's why I will always push back on giving up on young players. We're seeing similar growth with Romeo as well. Sometimes young players take a season or two to figure shit out. Finally getting a normal offseason did wonders for Grant, so it's important you keep that in mind when talking about other young guys on this roster.
I know personally, I've reached the point where when I see Grant take a three from anywhere (but especially the corners) I fully expect it to go in. Think of what a wild difference that is given how he started his career from behind the arc. He deserves all the credit in the world for working on his craft and proving that his three point shooting is for real. I can't even imagine where this team would be without it, which is another crazy reality we just have to accept.
- What do I always say. Everything will forever come back to defense. Well, after giving up 30 points in the opening quarter, the Celts held the Bucks to 20, 24, and 29 the rest of the way. They kept a team to under 110 and under 47% shooting, something they could not do on the West Coast, and guess what. They won! What a crazy idea.
Individually, we got some stellar defensive performances. Marcus Smart held known Celtics killer Khris Middleton to 0 points on 18 possessions. Al Horford held Giannis to 8 points on 36 possessions. They were better at defending the three point line holding MIL to just 30%.
That is the identity of this team. Tatum going nuts offensively is fun, but ultimately the success of the Celts will come down to how they defend. Scoring points is awesome but means jack shit if you can't get stops. Last night was an example of what things look like when this team does both.
- For all the talk about how Smart refuses to accept his role, he took just 6 FGA in this game. had 5 rebounds, 11 assists and 0 TOs in his 29 minutes. He did not take a shot in the 4th quarter. Instead, what we saw was him pass up looks to keep the ball moving. I just think that should be talked about as loudly as the slander is. It was important for him to have a game like that coming off his horrendous performance in PHX, but this gets back to my overall point with Smart.
When guys are back and he can slide back into his pass first/defense first role, he does. His shots are down. When guys are out, his role changes. I don't get why people can't see that. I honestly think they refuse to and are just set in their old narrative ways. A weird way to live, but fine.
- Much better performance from the starting front court which was a relief given how badly they struggled on the trip. Huge, and I mean huge buckets from Al late in this game to seal it, better rebounding from Rob, and overall they did a nice job filling their roles.
It's crazy how important Horford can be for this team when he's not regressing. His 10/5/4 on 44/40% with stellar defense is exactly what they needed from him. The fact that he was able to make timely buckets was for sure a relief for him because it sure as shit was for me. Get him rested over these next 3 days and let's go.
- How about the ball movement? 31 assists on 43 baskets? Am I dreaming? Four separate players with at least 4 assists? Against a legit defense in MIL? That shit was so beautiful to watch I was getting emotional watching it.
The best part was the Basketball Gods rewarded them for their unselfish play. Finally, we saw guys make open threes at the end of that great ball movement. When they don't, that shit is so deflataing. All game I was waiting for those momentum threes to drop, and they finally did in the fourth to seal the win. All coming off good ball movement. It was perfect.
- I mean the first quarter wasn't exactly what I would call good. Offensively the Celts scored just 21 points and shot 39/27%. Not exactly surprising, but then you see they gave up 30 points on 57/42% and yeah it's OK if you were a little nervous at that time that a blowout was on the horizon.
The issue was they got killed in the non-Giannis minutes. That was lucky. He did not score in that first 12 minutes yet the Celts couldn't score/defend. It ultimately didn't cost them, but they need to be better against these good teams. A total of 4 TOs in the first 12 minutes, that's way too careless.
- Not the most efficient night shooting the ball from the starting backcourt. Smart and Schroder combined to go just 3-16. Smart was 1-6, Dennis 2-10. Again, the Celts were lucky here that it didn't burn them. Combined they were 1-8 from three. Dennis only had 2 assists and 2 TOs in his 25 minutes.
The Celts are able to overcome that inefficiency when guys like Jaylen are back and Grant is hitting shots, but that still doesn't mean both Smart/Schroder don't need to be better. Ultimately 3-16s are not going to cut it from your starting point guard and 6th man who is supposed to be an offensive sparkplug. I don't expect them to shoot 50% or anything, but I need a better showing than 3-16.
- One thing to remember moving forward when playing the Bucks is to stop trying to attack Jrue Holiday off the dribble. That's not going to work, and it didn't last night. Jaylen did it back to back possessions and turned it over both times, there simply has to be other ways to attack the Bucks defense where you don't dribbel against an All NBA defender. Need better recognition from everyone in that regard.
- I don't know what it is, but the Celts remain the worst fastbreak team in NBA history. I had them down for at least 3 fastbreaks that a normal NBA team scores on 99.9% of the time. The Celts? They went 0-3. The Tatum behind the back pass to Brown was awful yet hilarious, but this is seriously a weird issue this team has. Can they practice 3 on 2 breaks or something? There is no excuse for this team to be this bad in transition.
They rank in the 24th percentile in transition offense. That's pretty bad.
- Watching Dennis hold the ball and do literally nothing with it for 15 seconds drives me insane. He doesn't dribble, he just sort of stands there and holds it. It's like he can't make up his mind what he wants to do, and then by the time he passes it whoever has the ball next has like 3-5 seconds to figure something out. I really hope they go over this on film, because he needs to make quicker decisions. I have no problem if he drives to the rim, or even if he's decisive and takes a three. I just can't have him standing there holding the ball for over half a 24 second possession. That's not helping anyone.
Thankfully, we can all exhale today and enjoy ourselves until Friday. They win that game, I think we'll all start feeling better about things. The truth is, the Celts are 5-3 against the top 6 teams in the East. They are 2-1 vs the top 2 seeds. Maybe, just maybe we should let this team play things out now that guys are back before declaring it's time to blow things up or trade major pieces. I know that's hard for some people to do, but last night was the latest example of why maybe you should.