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The Celtics Have Suddenly Decided To Stop Playing Like Assholes And The Wins Keep On Coming During This Crucial West Coast Trip

Sam Forencich. Getty Images.

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When the Celts dropped their 3rd straight back on March 6th, as you can imagine there was a section of the Celts fanbase that declared the sky was falling. The season was a failure, the #1 seed was gone, the team was a fraud, blah blah blah. After that Cavs game I tried to explain that this little skid was nothing we hadn't seen before from this very team during this very season. Every single time it happened, the team immediately responded. All you had to do was look at their schedule and understand that in the NBA, teams sometimes go through mini-slumps. It doesn't invalidate everything you saw prior, and it doesn't mean everything to come is going to be terrible. If you don't remember, here's the reminder from my early March blog

The Celtics find themselves at a bit of a crossroads at the moment. It's important to remember that this is not the first time this team has faced some adversity this season, and it will for sure not be the last. To start the season with back to back losses, including a brutal OT home loss to CLE, the Celts responded by winning 9 straight. When they lost 5 of 6 in mid December, they responded by winning 4 in a row. After back to back losses a few weeks later, they ripped off 9 in a row. Then came the three straight losses at the end of January, followed by winning 9 of their next 11.

Since that 3rd loss, let's have a look at what the Celts have done

And one quick look at where the standings sit entering today's game

Hm, so wait. I guess the #1 seed is still alive? And it would appear that the Celts have immediately responded after their 3 game skid? Who could have seen this coming!?!?!

This is all a way to say that maybe, just maybe there was a bit of overreaction over the last few weeks. I mean shit, the Bucks are 2-2 over their last 4 and just blew a double digit lead at home to the Pacers who didn't have their best players. Welcome to the NBA in March. 

Now don't get this confused with the idea that the Celts have been playing their best basketball. They haven't. Often times they've played like assholes and deserve the proper criticism when that happens. But heading into this 6 game road trip pretty much everyone agreed how important it was for this team to stack wins, and last time I checked it doesn't matter how you win. You can win ugly, you can win by a blowout, it's the same green W. You don't get a different shade of green based on how much you win by. You don't get more credit for it in the standings. The goal is Ws. Period, end of story.

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What we did see last night in Portland was one of the best all around team performances since maybe the 3/1 Cavs win? My point is, seeing as how it's March 18th, it's been a long time. Finishing this trip (UTA/SAC) strong is crucial, I'd even almost say both are close to must wins, so the hope is the Celts are able to ride this momentum and finish things out strong before the sprint to the finish to end the year.

But first, let's talk about this win. Boy did my mental health need it.

The Good

- As I've often said, the best part of having both Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum on your favorite team is the fact that you have both Jaylen Brown AND Jayson Tatum on your favorite team. Considering they are the best duo in the NBA, that seems like a big deal. Especially when they go out and do this

There's nothing like the games where both Jaylen and Tatum show up. It's a nice reminder of what a wagon this team is, because as we've learned this season, very few if any defenses have enough quality defenders to handle these two when both are locked in and playing the right way. The Portland Trail Blazers certainly do not, and we know this because when these two teams played 10 days ago we saw Tatum 30 in 31 minutes on 11-17 (6-10) shooting. With no Jerami Grant in last night's game, no shit they both were dominant.

A cool 61 points combined on 20-43 from the floor, this was a night where the Celtics two best players made sure to not only pull their weight, but set the standard for the entire team. Especially Jayson Tatum. Watch those highlights and then compare that 1st quarter effort to what we saw in HOU and tell me that's the same player. No fucking chance. The guy in HOU didn't have a pulse, the guy in POR imposed his will right from the opening tip. While playing all 12 1st quarter minutes, Tatum finished with 15 points including going 8-9 from the FT line. It was very clear we were watching a "no fucking around" Tatum approach. He was consistently aggressive on drives, he repeatedly went to the post, all which helped earn him 17 FTAs. How rare is that number?

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With Jaylen, it was really just more of the same. He's been awesome basically every night since he came back with his mask. I know that shit has to be annoying as hell to play with, but we're reaching a point of no return. The powers are too strong. This playoff run needs Masked Jaylen because that guy is playing at like a 2nd team All NBA level. Jaylen continues ti be this team's best 4th quarter player, and frankly it's not even relatively close

We're at the point where Joe needs to make sure he doesn't let Jaylen disappear in these final 12 minutes. I think that's why having Smart on the floor in these moments is important, because his connection with Jaylen, especially on those back door cuts, is what keeps him engaged. We saw it time and time again last night.

On long road trips like this when you're entering the back half and you've already been on the road for more than a week, these are the games your best players need to step up and carry. That is what these two did for a full 48.

- I really hope people finally see what I'm talking about when I say that how the Celtics do basically comes down to what version of Marcus Smart they get. The good version vaults them into becoming a basketball juggernaut. The bad version turns them into legitimately the worst basketball team on the planet regardless of what anyone else on the floor does. 

In this game, we didn't just get the good version, we got the great one

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The best way I could describe this version of Smart is that it looked like pre-injury Smart. You know, the guy who was having one of the best seasons of his career for a team that basically never lost. It also has nothing to do with his 5-8 (3-6) shooting numbers either. I don't give a shit about that the same way I wouldn't if they were 2-8. It never has been and never will be about Smart's shooting. It's about his approach and his decision making. It's about his defensive energy and playing within himself while getting the best out of those around him.

That is when Smart, and the Celtics, are at their best. That can come on a 5-8 night or a 2-8 night, that part isn't what matters. We first saw his approach change in the MIN game, where he finally looked like his old self on both ends. He was passing up good looks for great looks, he was aggressive, he was smart with the ball late, and he defended at a much better level. 

The same is true for last night. Smart finished with 15/2/6/4 including probably the biggest defensive play of the game, and I thought his pace was so much better than it has been for about a month now.

The 4 TOs are still an issue, especially because there were some live ball ones in there, but overall? I'll take a team best +15 in 36 minutes. What we saw is example 23462574218263 of why you want Marcus Smart on the floor to end games. Against the Wolves, it was his late game offense. Against the Blazers, it was his defense. This is exactly how he needs to play not only for the rest of the trip, but for every game for the next 2-3 months.

- Pretty much every day I wake up and thank God for allowing Al Horford to be in my life. To be honest you probably should be doing the same thing because what this man is doing in Year 16 at his age is legitimately the stuff of legends

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There's just something about Al Daggers that hit different, I don't know how to explain it

Maybe it's because we finally get to see Al talk shit which is just very funny given who he is as a human and a player. I'm telling you, we're getting closer and closer to Playoff Al time and as we know that guy is an unstoppable force. He even said he may play tonight for his first B2B of the season, and while I appreciate that, I also don't really want to fuck with his load management plan that is clearly working.

- The Celtics are at their best when the ball is moving and they are loving and trusting. We know this. That's why it was great to see them finish with 29 assists as a team, with three guys finishing with at least 5 assists. Tatum/Brown combined for 9 so they did a good job of keeping their eyes up and finding their teammates, and Smart/Al took it from there. The biggest thing is the ball didn't stick and guys shot the rock with confidence once they got it. If the Celts continue to do those things, they'll be just fine.

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- Much better job on the glass (52-37) and the 2nd chance points (14 vs 4), two areas that have certainly been an issue as of late. In fact, it was the Celts this time around that feasted on the offensive glass, and all the credif for that goes to Blake Griffin and Sam Hauser. They combined for 10 of the 18 OREBs the Celts snagged, and I'm really impressed with the way Hauser gets his nose dirty and fights for the ball on basically every rebound. That's the type of energy and effort that swings games.

- Derrick White didn't really do much offensively outside of making 8 FTs, but defensively? We witnessed a masterclass. One of his best performances of the year on that end in my opinion whether it was staying with Dame (0-5), or limiting everyone else (4-10), he was much more solid on the perimeter than we've seen Celts guards be as of late, and his ability to maintain verticality on transition plays remains elite. We even got some blocked from behind jumpers because his ball pursuit is relentless. 

That's why I don't really care about his 2-5 shooting or the 3 TOs. Derrick still found a way to make a winning impact, and it came on the defensive end. Nothing wrong with that if you ask me,

The Bad

- While it's true there were a bunch of areas the Celts were great in, that is not the case when it comes to ball security. Way, way too lose and careless for not just my liking, but anyone who wants this team to win games' liking.

Celts finished with 18 TOs that led to 19 Blazers points, and if you're looking for a reason as to why this game maybe got a little more tense than you may have been hoping for, you can start there. I mentioned the 9 AST for Tatum/Brown which was good, well they also had 9 TOs, so that's not great. Then you had 7 TO coming from the starting backcourt. Considering the Blazers defense isn't even good, that's slightly concerning. We already know by now that this type of ball security/points off TOs against a good team is most likely going to result in a loss. We know that because it's essentially how the Celts have lost each of their games since the All Star Break. 

If the Celts take care of the ball, they become untouchable. Last night it didn't burn them, but it will if they don't tighten up.

- As a team, the Celts shooting 35.7% from three is more than good enough. They're 37-5 on the year when they shoot at least 35%. Given that they also took 35 FTA, I can't imagine having too many issues with their approach in this game.

The concerning part of course is that Jayson Tatum finished 2-11 from three. His 3PT shot just hasn't been there for nearly a month now. If you look at his last 4 games (Cs 3-1), Tatum is just 9-43 (20.9%). If you look at his last 3, that number drops to 13.8%. The thing is, it's not as if these are all bad isolation side step 3PA. We're talking open/wide open ones too.

Since the break, Tatum is shooting just 33.3% on wide open 3PA. He's shooting 15% on contested 3PA.

This is about as clear a slump as you'll ever see. He'll snap out of it, and in the meantime as long as he diversifies how he's scoring the ball, it's a non-issue. We've lived through this exact slump every year for 6 years. It just usually doesn't happen in March. Good news is there's plenty of time left to snap out of it.

- Did not love at all how the team kind of started to play the clock with around 6 minutes left up 19 after Smart hit a big three. As you can imagine, that did not go well, it gave the Blazers (Dame) life, and we had to sweat out the final 4 minutes. This is the kind of shit that rubs people the wrong way and for good reason. There's no need to adjust your approach with 6 minutes left, just keep playing. Don't even give the opposition the ability to think a comeback might be possible.

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I'd say for 42 minutes, this team played near flawless Celtics basketball. The final 6? Assholes. That was asshole basketball. Poor shot selection, turnovers, fouls (AND1s), it's all how collapses happen. Fortunately, the Celts punched back at the end, but I'd prefer if they stopped playing the clock with half of a quarter to go. That's losing basketball.

The Ugly

- Speaking of that 4th quarter, we may as well just put that entire 12 minutes in this section. For starters, the Celts have up 42 points. That is beyond horrific. Not only that, but Damian Lillard nearly outscored the entire Celtics team (27) by himself (25). That….cannot happen. I know Dame is a Top 75 guy and he had been held in check all night so you knew there was a chance he was going to go off, but my God. He finished 6-7 from the floor, 4-5 from deep and 9-11 from the line. It's not like nobody was playing defense, but when Dame is doing Dame shit and pulling up for contested 35 footers and still making them

Alika Jenner. Getty Images.

I guess just tip your cap?

To me, this was just more of a slightly concerning trend when it comes to these super quick offensive minded guards. The Celts really struggle containing those guys. Dame, Mitchell, Brunson, etc, that's something that's plagued this team all year. Given what their playoff path might look like, that's an area that needs to be addressed and corrected. 

But hey, a win is a win is a win. Now we move to UTA which is another one of these games where the Celts cannot overlook their opponent. You're crazy if you think the Jazz are just going to roll over and die, especially at home. They'll beat you if you don't play the right way and have the right approach. It seems like the Celts have figured out how to get back to those things, and usually that means wins are coming. Love and Trust.