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The Celtics Are Starting To Play Their Best Basketball Of The Season And It's About Damn Time

Maddie Malhotra. Getty Images.

3 in a row. 5 of their last 6. 10 of their last 14. You know what we call that in my house? Progress. The forward kind too. Not the very annoying and often frequent backwards progress (is that a thing?) we've unfortunately become accustomed too. I'll tell ya, these blogs are way more fun to do on my end when this team decides to not cause us insurmountable pain. As fans we asked them to show us signs of life and they beat up on easy competition. It was nice, but we all said that heading into this week and the games against MIA and CHA would tell us a little more about what we were seeing. Well, they kicked the shit out of the Heat by 30 points and just beat the Hornets. They have officially won the season series against the Heat (and Cavs) and are up 2-1 on MIA/TOR/CHA. Given how close records could end up being come the Spring, that's pretty important. 

After failing their three similar previous tests in January, the Celts taking both of these games is extremely encouraging. Having said that, they are by no means out of the woods yet. They still have a mountain the size of Everest to climb to get out of the play in, but we're seeing more and more encouraging signs that they have the ability to do just that. Turns out when this team has their normal rotation they can be pretty good! Who knew? Oh right, anyone who was willing to look at this team objectively and with context. Not exactly a rare concept that when a team has their best players available, they play better and more importantly…win games. 

What we're witnessing is by far the best basketball this team has played at any point this season, and the good part is this isn't even the best basketball they are capable of playing. We'll see if they can snag the ever elusive 4th win a row tomorrow, something they haven't done all year, but what this current stretch tells us is maybe things aren't as doom and gloom as the trolls want you to think. Have they underachieved? Absolutely. Anyone who denies that isn't being genuine. Repeatedly we saw a team that did not play up to their potential, and their record reflected that. Now, we're seeing what that looks like when the do play to their potential and I'd say you would agree that it is MUCH better.

Here's the thing though. It's not about showing signs of life and getting to 3 games over .500. That record still stinks. It's about continuing to build. It's about finally putting together prolonged stretches of good basketball, something they haven't done all season but appear to be getting closer to. Part of that is schedule, part of that is health, part of that is Ime, and part of that is the players performing like we expect them to. 

The hope is that they can keep this train rolling, but first, it's time to talk about last night.

The Good

- Lot of candidates for this top spot. That's always a good problem to have, especially in a big game. It's a welcomed sight to see so many players step up and come through, and it's even better when it's mostly the supporting cast. That's where I'm deciding to begin. With perhaps one of the most impactful supporting cast players not just on the roster, but fuck it, in the league.

Marcus Smart missed the previous matchup against the Hornets, and boy was he missed. He came back on 1/23 and this team really hasn't been he same since. They are 5-1. They have the 7th ranked offense in the NBA to go along with the 1st ranked defense and net rating. Their AST% is 63% and ranks 9th. That 5-1 record? That trails only the Golden State Warriors for the most wins in the entire NBA. 

It would be incorrect to say that all of those awesome things you just read are solely due to Marcus Smart. That is not the point I am trying to make. My point is it is becoming pretty undeniable that he is an extremely valuable piece to the puzzle. That when this team finds success, Smart is a big time contributing factor. We know he can defend, last night was more of the same

and yes, his efficiency is on a high right now. That's going to come back down to earth, we all know that. But what we are watching is a guy who has fully embraced his role. This isn't exactly new either. People are trying to make it seem like this is a new way that Smart is playing. No. This is what he's done all season. The only difference is now his shot is falling, so people think he's playing better. Not really, his jumper is just finding the bottom of the net. The defense, the unselfishness, the shot selection and decision making has been vastly improved all season long. I would argue that we're seeing the exact type of point guard fit that works best next to Tatum and Brown. Someone who is not a defensive liability, a legit playmaker and facilitator who also has the ability to knock down open looks…on occasion. At least to the point where defenses will still have to keep an eye on him. That gravity is important. 

Even on a night where neither Tatum or Brown had it going offensively, Smart still kept himself in check and only took 11 FGA. He spent the entire first quarter facilitating, finishing with 4 assists and just 2 FGA and guess what? They looked great to start this game! So, I'm sorry for those who for some reason still want Smart off this team or think he's the problem. It's actually the complete opposite.

- Hand up. I did not think Josh Richardson would be this good. I was excited for his 3&D potential as a two way wing, but this is way better than even I imagined and I mainline Celtics Kool Aid

Is it a bit of a prayer that he went 6-7 from three? Absolutely, but I apologize for nothing. It's about damn time the Celts were on the good end of one of these type of shooting prayers. Lord knows every no name player seems to find a way to make 6 3PM against them so we deserved this. Much like Smart, JRich coming through like this offensively last night was beyond massive. I feel confident in saying they don't win this game without it. 

The thing is, JRich has been pretty damn consistent. Not make 6 3PM every night or anything, but exactly what you're looking for in terms of a reserve wing. How good has he been over this current stretch? How about 10.8/3.0/1.0 on 54/45% splits with 1.8 3PM a night over his last 6 games. It's why honestly I'm not in a rush to move him at the deadline. If you can bring in a no doubt about it upgrade shooter and you need his salary? Fine. But outside of that, I'd rather hold onto him. If anything, use his money in the offseason if an opportunity presents itself. But I'm not unloading JRich just to unload him. Not only is he playing some of the best basketball of his career, but he's clearly a culture and locker room fit. As we know, that' stuff matters.

- Robert. Where do we begin with Rob. This is now the second game he's saved by blocking a three, something he's pretty fucking awesome at doing

He's another guy that missed the last meeting between these two teams and boy what a difference he makes as well

10/8/3/2/3 on 5-6 shooting and a team best +9 in his 35 minutes. I know Rob technically isn't untouchable but man is he making a case for himself. Remember, he's only 24!! I just love everything about him. The energy he plays with is contagious, we're seeing him dive on the floor repeatedly just to save possessions and then pop right back up to set a sceen, his weakside defense is becoming a legit weapon and his ability to defend guards is downright insane. It didn't matter whether it was Terry or LaMelo, any time they got Rob in space he held his own. That's crazy and just goes to show you how legit his lateral quickness is. Then when it came time for the game saving block, we saw how valuable his leaping ability and reach is. He's mastered the ability to challenge these threes without fouling which is a pretty valuable skill in my humble opinion. 

The question with Rob was always availability. Well we're seeing him not only play every night, but play 35+ minutes and his body is holding up. That has to be one of the better surprises of the season. Now that we know he can withstand this workload, the sky is the limit. We know Tatum loves playing with him and it's pretty obvious why. Rob rules. He does insanely cool shit on a nightly basis. He's another guy that knows his role and flourishes in it. Rob gets it. 

- Let's give credit to where credit is due. Ime is learning, he's evolving. Nowhere is that more apparent than his closing lineups

It's taken him some time to figure things out in terms of his rotations, but they're getting better, especially at the end of games. They aren't perfect, the team still has some bad collapses on their resume (including last night), but it's clear Ime has seen the light.  At no point in the 4th quarter last night did we see Smart/Dennis lineups. When we saw Al, he was paired with a floor spacing big in Grant or a floor spacing wing in JRich. 

It was also pretty clear the team was ready to play and had an actual plan to start this game. I think the reason we're seeing this positive uptick in play is partially because Ime has done a good job of holding up his end of the bargain. He's not setting them up for failure like it felt he did at times earlier in the year. That's all stuff you expect to see as a first time head coach figures things out.

- You can go ahead and inject 31 AST on 41 FGM directly into my veins thank you very much. 

- I debating putting him in this section, but given how he closed the game I think it's warrented

19/6/9 and a team best +9 in his 32 minutes, when this team needed Tatum to deliver late, that's exactly what he did. What I loved most about his approach was his recognition that with no Plumlee in the game to close, it was time to feast at the rim. In a quarter where the Celts basically did nothing but shoot threes, when the game got tight and they needed points, Tatum got to the rim. He either finished with a floater or got to the line where he went 4-4 in the fourth. 

In a game where he shot just 6-16 (1-7), it was nice to see that he didn't really let that impact his energy/effort. That's a problem at times. Instead he continued to be unselfish and make plays for others, and when it came time to step up and come through as their best player, he did. 

- Just go ahead and watch these defensive highlights. Remember, the Hornets are one of the best offenses in the league

- Most importantly, THEY DIDN'T BLOW IT!!! It came close (more on this in a bit), but at the end of the day they held on. Boy was that a nice change of pace. This was the exact game we've seen the Celts lose all year. The type of loss that has primarily made up their 28-25 record. Maybe this is a sign that they are truly starting to turn things around, I dunno. I'm just relieved more than anything else.

- Celts hit th 34% from three benchmark and guess what? They won! They finished 28% and made 14 3PM. Please Brad bring us a shooter, the bar is literally to be below average! Do that, and you win.

- What a difference it makes when we get Good Grant. When he's making his open threes (3-6) it changes the entire feel of the second unit. They showed up against MIA and they showed up against CHA. Two things that absolutely had to happen if the Celts wanted to win, and they delivered. 

The Bad

- Nothing infuriates me quite like turnovers do. All I ask is this team takes care of the ball, especially against good teams. That was not the case last night. The team had 18 as a group and Jaylen had 7 by himself. You want to know why this game was close? Those 18 TOs led to 21 Hornets points. That's bad, and frankly it's losing basketball. There will be times where you turn the ball over like this and JRich doesn't make 6 3PM and we all know how that ends. A lot of them are careless too. An inability to dribble, straight up passing it to the other team, just really gross stuff.

- Speaking of gross performances, that fits what we saw from Jaylen in my opinion. He did have some big buckets late including a huge jumper and a huge OREB putback, but this was not one of his better nights. The 7 TOs were an issue, the defense was spotty at best, and he only took 2 FTA so it's not as if he was all that aggressive. Jaylen ended up with the highest negative +/- at -4, so that wasn't great either.

I will say he deserves credit for finding plays for others (6 assists), but I think we all agree that he needs to be much better moving forward.

- One thing I didn't exactly love defensively is how often they let opposing guards into the paint. LaMelo feasted on floaters in this game and that's been an issue for some time now. Part of it is the fact that their bigs are in drop so consistently, and that's playing with fire. We've seen guys like Dejounte Murray, LaMelo etc exploit this time and time again. 

- Another night where I wouldn't exactly say we got good Dennis minutes. He finished 3-8, had 3 assists and 2 TOs and overall just didn't look like the quick and aggressive Dennis we've seen at previous points in the year. It's what makes Pritchard's DNP-CD all that more confusing. I get not playing the young wings because JRich was great, but that was not the case when it came to the backup point guard spot.

The Ugly

- While they didn't blow it, don't let that confuse you with the idea that this team wasn't really bad in the fourth quarter. They were. Again. 

It was everything we hate. Nothing but threes to start (even if they made them), turnovers, bad defense and then the regression offensively kicked in. Honestly, they were a bit lucky to hold on. I don't exactly walk away from last night's game feeling good about this team in fourth quarters just because they won. There is still a whole lot to figure out when it comes to those final 12 minutes. 

Then there was Tatum's tech. Horrible decision given the situation. It started with a bad Smart pass, and snowballed from there. Was it weak? Maybe, but you can't exactly throw shit. It's more a matter of knowing the situation and not doing anything that could jeopardize the outcome. Obviously the entire roster was frustrated with the type of whistle they got and I imagine the 27-17 FTA difference had something to do with it (even worse if you remove the end of game FTs), but you have to fight through that. Especially when the game was in balance.

Going from up 8 with like 3:08 left to being tied at 107 with 1:02 left was the type of PTSD I did not need in my life. Thankfully, Tatum redeemed himself and got to the line after Terry made that huge three to tie it. That still doesn't negate the fact that this team was once again dogshit in the fourth quarter. 

If you thought the MIA/CHA games were a test, they have nothing on the upcoming DET/ORL games. I'm not even kidding. We've seen the Celts beat good teams already. That's not new. You want to show me growth? Don't have a letdown against bad teams now that you are feeling better about yourself. That's true progress. This is usually where we see the Celts have a bad loss and take a step back. Take both of these next two games and let's build some real momentum. Lord knows they need it.