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It Appears The Celtics Have Very Quietly Fixed One Of Their Most Glaring Issues And It Pretty Much Saved Their Season

MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images. Getty Images.

By now you've probably heard the numbers, but they are so fun to type I'm going to do it again. Since 12/31 (29 games), the Boston Celtics currently rank

  • 2nd in the NBA in wins
  • 1st in the NBA in +/-
  • 8th in the NBA in offense
  • 1st in the NBA in defense
  • 1st in the NBA in net rating
  • 10th in the NBA in AST%
  • 6th in the NBA in TS%

The list goes on and on. I'll be honest, I'll never get tired of typing all that out. Not after what we all lived through during the first 35 games (16-19). But we're now at the point where we've seen this new level of play for nearly half of their total games played. Sometimes the sample size transitions into who you now are. Teams change and develop over the course of the year, or at least you would hope they would. I think it's OK to suggest something like that is currently happening for our beloved Celtics. 

There are a lot of causes or reasons you could point to for this turnaround. Health, a lighter schedule, the defense taking a massive leap, Tatum and Brown getting back to their normal shooting splits, the play of Marcus Smart etc etc. All that stuff has gotten plenty of talk, both on this fine website and other places. But as I sit here like I do every day and spend way too long looking into what the hell is going on with this team to help find tangible evidence to support how I feel, there's absolutely some very real improvement in areas that for my money might be the most important aspect of the new look Celts. 

Allow me to explain.

If you had to ask me what the #1 issue was with the Celtics when they played a brand of basketball that brought shame and embarrassment to an entire fanbase and organization, my answer would be pretty simple. They sucked all sorts of ass at the end of games. It didn't matter what they looked like for three quarters, the game would shift to the fourth quarter and the team as a whole would immediately forget how to play basketball. If it was a clutch time game, things were even worse. Their inability to finish games is what played a huge role in them being stuck in that under .500 hole. 

I keep going back to that 12/31 date, because that's when everything changed, seemingly for good. They are almost unrecognizable as a team and one of the areas we truly see this is when it comes to what I considered their most glaring issue. Prior to 12/31, this is how the Celtics ranked as a team in the 4th quarter

  • Offense: 24th
  • Defense: 24th
  • Net rating: 29th
  • AST%: 27th
  • +/-: 29th
  • Points: 19th
  • FG%: 27th
  • 3P%: 27th
  • AST: 29th

I think it's safe to say they were one of if not the worst fourth quarter teams in the NBA. That's definitely the case for any playoff team. If you went even more granular and only focus on "clutch" games, things were even worse

  • Record: 6-14
  • Offense: 22nd
  • Defense: 22nd
  • Net rating: 20th
  • AST%: 22nd

It was the same old story. Bad isolation basketball, low efficient shots, no defense, collapse after collapse after collapse. Some of the most frustrating shit you'll ever see when you sit down to watch this team play. It seemed inevitable. Well, allow me to show you how this team has done in the fourth quarter since that 12/31 date

  • Offense: 7th
  • Defense: 4th
  • Net rating: 3rd
  • AST%: 8th
  • +/-: 3rd
  • Points: 7th 
  • FG%: 12th
  • 3P%: 4th
  • AST: 7th
Giphy Images.

Not only that, they are 5-4 in "clutch" games in 2022. That might not seem like a big deal, but when you go from a .300 winning percentage to a .555 winning percentage, that's the progress we can all get behind. This is not to say the Celts have been perfect in this area these last two months. Far from it. There was the 25 point collapse against the Knicks, the late game collapse against the Blazers, and the fourth quarter against the Pacers was gross. But we're talking about a 29 game sample here and the results have improved drastically. How else can you say it? Look at those rankings again. From the bottom of the league to the top of the league in one of their biggest weaknesses. 

So what happened? Well, before the deadline, part of it was Ime's lineup and rotation choices. We stopped seeing the Dennis/Smart pairing down the stretch which was big. They committed to a style of Rob being the closing big and then inserting whichever role player was playing well, whether it was Grant or JRich. Since the February 10th trade deadline, here are the Celts most used 4th quarter lineups

You'll notice, you see a lot of the name D.White in more than a handful of those successful lineups. This is where you have to remember the direction that Brad and the front office chose at the deadline. They wanted more defense/ball movement, especially late in games. This has allowed Payton Pritchard to see the floor way more in the fourth quarter, and his shooting is proving to be more than enough to make up for what they lost in JRich. Whites two way play has proven to work, especially when it comes to the ball movement. Again, look at the AST% and AST numbers we're now working with. 

It also doesn't hurt that this team put together a stretch where they were kicking the shit out of everyone they played. But even in those games, they did not let up in the fourth quarter. That shows me more signs of progress. Coming through in tight games and blowouts in those final 12 minutes is all about continuing to build better habits, so when you find yourself in a high pressure situation in the playoffs it's all just muscle memory. You won't have to think, you can just play. As a basketball player, everyone knows you start to fuck up when you spend more time thinking than actually playing. 

I think it's fair to say fully trusting this team can be hard if you can't rely on them to show up when things matter most. Good teams finish games strong. It took a while, but the Celts are finally starting to do just that and it's changed the entire vibe of their season. I go from dreading the final 12 minutes to now only sort of being nervous for it. That's a change I did not expect to happen, but here we are. 

It might not get the headlines, but this might be the most important part of the Celts current turnaround. Lord knows it had to happen, and I feel confident in saying it saved their season. Credit Udoka for figuring it out and credit the players for buying in. Wild what can happen when you mix those together.