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Despite Popular Belief, The Boston Celtics Are In Fact Not Dead

Chris Coduto. Getty Images.

Given how the last two losses went, I think we all needed a bounce back game like this. The fans, the players, everyone. The Suns without Booker, the Celts without Porzingis, it wasn't a case of both sides being at their full powers, but it was a case of the Celts going on the road, to a team that had been on a bit of a roll even without Booker (just beat DEN), with a chance for the Celts to say enough of the bullshit, it's time to stop the bleeding and get back to the business of stacking Ws. Especially in the midst of the usual "sky is falling" media circus that comes with every Celtics loss, regardless of how it happens. 

Remember, the Celts lose a single game and this is what happens

You'll never believe this, but after a game in which the Celtics showed up and executed in the clutch to win on the road, with Jayson Tatum having 13 4th quarter points on 5-10 shooting, my guess is it won't be national news. You won't get any type of emergency pods talking about how they're back to having playoff hope. The truth is, a Celts loss happens so infrequently this year that when they do trip up (which they will do again, every team does) people have to empty the clip because they have no idea when it might happen again, regardless of how insane the take is. The more insane the better, because that's what drives clicks. By now we all should know how this works. 

The bigger point is, they didn't let this snowball. Two losses in a row was more than enough, and here we are in nearly mid March and the Celts are yet to lose 3 games in a row. The only contending teams who can say that so far this season are BOS, OKC, and MIN. Not a bad group to be in if you ask me. Last night was the Celts' East leading 20th road win, and they are now an NBA best 27-13 against teams .500 or better. No other team in the East has 20 of those types of wins. 

This is all a way to say, take a deep breath. If anything, last night was a reminder that even coming off two brutal losses, the Celts just so happened to be pretty good. A win like last night, which included things we'd seen the Celts struggle with in their most recent losses, is a positive. Getting back into the win column to help close out the West Coast trip strong is a positive.

The good news? They can still be even better. 

The Good

- The best players have an expectation to not just talk the talk, but to back that talk up by also walking the walk. Can't just talk about it, they also have to be about it. Lead by example. Consistently handle their shit in a way that translates to winning basketball. Everything this team does starts at the top of the food chain with their two best players. They are the tone setters, and that will always be the case.

Since returning from the All Star Break, Jaylen Brown has done nothing but show incredible leadership. Not just for what he says after games or his mindset, but how he consistently has gone out and played some of the best basketball of his entire career. Every night, regardless of the opponent. On the road, at the Garden, it hasn't mattered

Tatum will get a lot of praise for his final line and his fourth quarter, but let's not get too confused here. Jaylen Brown has been the best Celtic to touch the floor since the games started back up again, and I'm not even really sure it's close. We are seeing a version of Jaylen that is beyond locked in on both ends of the floor right now. See for yourself

There's a lot to love in that graphic, I won't fault you if you can't choose a favorite part. Maybe you are partial to the 55/42% shooting splits with 2.7 3PM a game. Those are pretty sweet. Maybe you're a fan of the 28.3 points a game, which isn't too shabby for a #2 option. Maybe you're a fan of his passing leap, with nearly 4.0 assists a game. I sure as hell know you don't love the 65% FT%, because that shit stinks.

Me? I lean more towards his 1.4 TOs a game since the break. That is a GREAT number for a player who as you can see, has been ultra aggressive. Of these 7 games, only 1 has seen Jaylen finish with more than 2 TOs. I know Jaylen can score, I know he can be efficient, that's shit we see all the time. The ball control? The decision making? That's what will matter most in a few weeks, and it's pretty clear that Jaylen has cut the shit now that the games are back.

What I continue to love about this stretch from Jaylen is that even in these games where it's so clear he has it going, he's showing that he has no problem shifting his role at any given moment into what the game needs. Early, with Tatum struggling, it needed his scoring. His 18 points on 15 FGA were a big part of why the Celts had that 12 point halftime lead.

In the 4th? When it was clear Tatum was starting to heat up? We saw Jaylen adapt. He took only 4 FGA, finished with 3 AST, and played great defense. There was no "tunnel vision" or "this is my night, I'm forcing shots no matter what" that often gets Jaylen into trouble, and that's been the most noticeable part of his season this year. He's aggressive, but also in control. He's better at recognizing the situation and giving the team what it needs. That's his leap, and it's made a world of difference.

- With no Porzingis in the lineup, that meant this could not be another game in which we saw the Celts get poor guard production. The play of the Celtics starting backcourt is probably the second most important factor of this win for me. As we saw against DEN, when the Stock Exchance no shows on both ends of the floor, things don't look as great. This has always been true of the Tatum/Brown era in my opinion. As important as they are, what makes the Celtics able to reach that untouchable level is their guard play. 

25 points, 15 assists, 2 blocks, 5 TOs, and a 10-15 performance from the floor combined with All NBA caliber defense, while their box score numbers weren't exactly loud, their impact certainly was. 

You probably didn't realize it, but we're currently witnessing Derrick White's best stretch of playmaking of the season since the ASB. Pre-ASB? 241 assists in 51 games (4.7). In the 7 games post-ASB? 46 assists (6.6). All while almost never turning it over (1.3). White has finished with 7 assists in 3 of his last 4, and a big reason for this jump can be seen in some of those highlights. Watch his pace with he ball. There's no rush, no panic, he keeps his eyes up and is aware of his defender at all times as he makes his way into the paint and finds the right play. Hes' been better and better at that as the season as gone on, and it's part of what his leap looks like.

Last year, the leap was his jumper. This year confirmed what we saw last season, but with his new role came a new challenge. It's pretty obvious that Derrick sees the game unfold at a high level and is able to process things quickly, so when you give that player the ball more and allow him to execute what he sees, you see life for everyone get better. Luke Kornet is suddenly having the game of his life, and it's not because he morphed into Shaq. It's because of Derrick's eyes and brain. 

The same is true for a player like Jrue. Biggest play of the game was the Al Horford corner three. A huge shot in a huge moment that was created why? Because of Holiday's eyes and brain. He saw the slip screen was there, made an immediate decision and slid to the rim. Upon catching the ball, he saw the help come and Al wide the fuck open, and in an instant the ball was delivered right into Al's shooting pocket.

In a playoff series, you need players that can read the floor and process things quickly. Schemes, traps, weaknesses in a defense, you have to be able to solve those puzzles in a timely manner and then be good enough to go out and execute what you see. 

That is what the guard play gave the Celtics last night and look at what a difference it made.

- If these last few months are supposed to be a tune up for the postseason, there's one area that has looked pretty good since the game right before the ASB against the Nets. In those 9 games, the Celtics are putting up a 106.6 DRTG, good for 2nd in the league. Pretty much where theyv'e been all year in terms of rating. 

The bigger jump is in their points allowed. Over that stretch, opponents are scoring just 102.7 points a game, and these are teams with Luka, DeRozan, Brunson, Steph, Jokic, and KD. The Celts have held their opponents to 110 or fewer in 4 of their last 5. Teams are shooting just 44.4% from the floor (5th) and 31.2% from deep (2nd). 

They're doing this all defensively while being 30th in the league in forced TOs (11.8). 

Last night, even in a game in which KD had 45, the Celts never allowed a quarter of 30 points or more. As important as the offense will be in a few months, every deep playoff run is rooted in elite defense. Above all else, you have to be able to get stops, and you have to be able to finish those stops off cleanly with defensive rebounds. 

The Celtics are showing us that they are starting to lock in defensively since the break, and I don't think that should be overlooked.

- After a nothing burger against the Nuggets, the bench did bounce back in a huge way. 

I don't really understand the hate that Kornet gets from some Celts fans. He's the 3rd big and is as reliable a 3rd big as any player in that role in the league. Yes there will be maddening possessions, yes there will be times he gets exposed in certain matchups because again, this is the 3rd big. 

He's also really effective in that role, and for stretches was the best center on the floor. That's something that really happened. Bad look for the Suns, but I'll take it.

Then you add in Pritchard giving this team some spark, and the second unit's 27 total points is much more in line with where it needs to be. You can't have the 8 or 10 point performance like the CLE/DEN losses, this group needs to live in the low 20s in terms of point production. Especially if Tatum or someone starts off slow.

The trio of Hauser/Kornet/Pritchard was a +35 in their minutes, so it's no surprise their play felt so impactful.

- Then of course, there's the play of Jayson Tatum. More specifically, his 4th quarter

By his own admission, Jayson Tatum will tell you he sucked ass in this game, despite his 29/10/7 finished on 5-9 from three. 

I look at it like this. Compare what we saw last night to what we saw against DEN, they aren't even close to the same player. That guy? That guy can never happen. Last night, even with his early 2pt FGA shooting struggles, it did feel like Tatum was way more engaged in other areas of the game. There wasn't that same "check out" feel like we saw against the Nuggets. The energy and effort level was there.

He also was much better in the 4th quarter. 13 points on 5-10 shooting, Tatum essentially closed this game out once the score got within 5 with 3:55 left (Celts closed 10-5). It was your classic Tatum performance where he's definitely not playing his best, but when it came time to show up in the fourth quarter, he responded. As they say, it's not about how you start, it's how you finish.

These are the type of Tatum "stinkers" that I can live with. Not the DEN one. Play good defense, be engaged on the glass and as a passer, show up when it matters most. That's all I really need and it's really all the team needs. They are built to sustain Tatum shooting slumps as long as he's engaged and making an impact in other ways. It's when he no shows all areas of his game that it becomes too much. 

Of course, you won't hear too much about Tatum's clutch play or how he showed up in the 4th to win a game on the road like you did with his struggles. That stuff doesn't play to the masses. 

- We should acknowledge the clutch time progress though. Much better execution this time around because we saw a few things. 

1. Quick decisions

Pace is always going to be most important in these scenarios, and it felt like Tatum was quicker when it came to attacking off screens.

2. Getting the guards involved

I think we're at the point where it should be a $5,000 fine for every clutch possession that a guard does not touch the ball

3. High percentage looks

When you do #1 and #2, you get #3. When you get #3, you execute in the clutch and win a close game. It's not a complicated formula, the Celts just have to stop fucking around and do it.

- Another game with 60 points in the paint and 39 3PA. A nice little reminder that it does not have to be one or the other. The Celtics are capable of doing both, which is what makes them so devastating.

You need efficient shots to win, and you need 3PM to win. How they work together should be the focus, not which one happens more. 

The Bad

- I'm at the point where I am ready to do the research so I can find someone who is capable of giving Jaylen a FT shooting exorcism. I have no doubt he practices and puts in the work, but it's time to think outside of the box. This is too important of an issue to not turn over every stone, and if that means an exorcism so be it. If that means voodoo or some sort of dark magic, so be it. I cannot live in a world where he's missing 3+ FTs a night. Can't have it. Games are going to be too close and he's too important to not give the ball to, which means he has to cut the shit with this 65% from the line since the ASB.

I'm not saying he needs to become a 90% shooter, just give me 75% or better. In clutch moments, give me 100%. That's all I ask. 

At this point it's probably a little mental, which is understandable. I love how he remains aggressive which tells me he's not afraid to take FTs, but there's some sort of block there. This guy is an automatic midrange shooter and is shooting the ball insanely well right now, yet the FT line is a complete disaster. That's mental. 

- While he did hit the biggest three of the night, just keep an eye on Al's 3P shooting. His 1-7 last night looked pretty gross outside of the one make, and he's been in a bit of a rut over the last 3-4 games. He looks like a guy that could really benefit from a day off. Defensively he's still great and his rebounding has been fantastic, but given how flat his 3s looked, to me that says tired legs.

It's tough because the Celts haven't had a B2B in a while so there hasn't been a rest day for Al, but I'd love to see him get one soon.

- 9 TOs in the second half alone, there was a reason the Suns were able to climb back into this game, and it's because the Celts were careless. After being so good in the first half (3 TOs), to come out in the 3rd and immediately turn it over 4 times in about 3 minutes was a disaster.

While understanding no player will be perfect, to me it's not only about the TO number, but the type of TOs. If you step on the sideline or commit a charge, I can live with that. Those are dead ball TOs. But to throw lazy passes or passes into traffic which spark fastbreaks and easy buckets, those you cannot have. Now the crowd is juiced and momentum starts to swing.

So when the Celts are doing nothing but creating live ball TOs, it should be no surprise when their lead shrinks. 

The Ugly

- To play on that topic, this is where things were at their worst, and it did come in the most important time of the game. You get into the 4th quarter, possessions matter. Being careless and wasting possessions is how you collapse. So seeing shit like this

cannot happen. This is a time where the Celts want Tatum handling the ball every time down, and if that's going to be the case then he has to be better with his ball security. It's as simple as that.

The problem is, in these moments we as fans want the guards to handle the ball and initiate. That's why they are there right? Well if that's going to happen late in games, they too need to be on their shit when it comes to ball security

There is going to be ball pressure in these moments in a playoff game. The crowd is going to be going nuts. Things are going to be hectic. We need to be able to trust that there are players on the floor who can take care of the basketball and execute in these situations. If you don't, there is no title.

For years we were told this was the Marcus Smart problem. Well now he's gone and I'm seeing the same exact shit when it comes to late game ball security. It has to be cleaned up.

- Jaylen's tech is just the latest in a long line of pathetic NBA officiating decisions. Blatantly missed 3 fouls in a row, was told he missed 3 fouls in a row, and responded with a tech because he got emotional. Adam Silver doesn't think he has an officiating problem though. Makes sense.

With POR/UTA up next to end the trip, it is very important we don't see a Celts team overlook those games and start thinking about being home. You bounced back, got a nice road W, but you have to build on it and finish this trip strong. If you can, earn some early rest on those games by sitting the 4th quarter. But we've seen weird shit happen in both of those buildings on these West Coast trips, so maintaining the right amount of focus is the challenge.