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Whatever You Do, Do Not Take This Version Of The Celtics For Granted

Alex Goodlett. Getty Images.

The Boston Celtics woke up today 51-14. They own a 9.5 game lead (10 in the loss column) over the #2 seed in the East, and a 6 game lead over the entire NBA. Since the first day of the season, they've been the very definition of dominant. At home, on the road, fully healthy, a bunch of guys missing, it hasn't really mattered. They feel like a machine.

A great example of this is how this team has performed against teams under .500. You know, the trap games. The ones where in years past we'd see the Celts overlook a bad team, have a bad loss that should have never happened, and in turn, they made life much harder on themselves than it needed to be. Losing that mental focus was a flaw, that in my opinion, we saw bleed into their last playoff run. 

So, why do things maybe feel different this time around? It's not that complicated really. Just look at how the Celts ended this West Coast trip.

In Portland, it was a wire to wire professional ass kicking. There was no overlooking the opponent coming off a nice bounceback win over the Suns. They were focused, they executed, and they did not fuck around.

Last night, in a back to back while missing 3 of their top 6 rotation players, it was a wire to wire professional ass kicking. There was no overlooking the opponent or maybe looking ahead to finally being home after this trip. They were focused, they executed, and they did not fuck around.

On the season, the Celtics are now 24-1 against teams below .500. Last season, they were 24-10. Their Finals run year, 23-10. In 2021-22, they had the 2nd most losses against bad teams of any top 6 seed. Last year, they were once again tied for the 2nd most losses against bad teams. If we're being honest, it was a bad habit for them. 

If you want to put yourself in a position to rest up and get ready for the postseason, handling your shit against the bad teams in the league is an important step. Here we are with around 17 games left and the Celts can now do whatever the hell they want. Part of that is because of their NBA leading 27-13 record against teams .500 or better, but it's the fact that they have not screwed around against the bad teams that has allowed them to have this insane cushion. 

Looking at previous playoff runs, most notably last season, that was something that stood out to everyone right? The Celts were playing more games than they should have been, and it put more miles on important players who ultimately faded as the playoffs went on. While we don't know what will happen in that department this time around, everything we've seen through 65 games suggests the Celts have figured out how to stop fucking around.

To me, that says a few things. First, the roster is really really really good, even when some stars sit. Brad cooked as few have cooked before. Second, Joe has this team focused and locked in, regardless of the opponent. Third, maturity. Respecting the game and your opponent to the point where you are consistently bringing it every night is a sign of maturity and something they've lacked. 

Previous versions of this team split these final 2 games of a West Coast road trip. There's some sort of letdown where they take a step backward after trying to build momentum. 

This version? Well, let's talk about it.

The Good

After his performance against the Blazers, there was this narrative that Jayson Tatum "stunk" or was in a slump. In yesterday's blog I didn't really understand that because Tatum was pretty engaged and played well, he just missed a ton of bunnies at the rim. In my opinion, Joe said it perfectly

Fast forward to the next night, on a B2B without 3 rotation players. A game in which Jayson Tatum was going to have to put the team on his back and carry. What did he do?

Ah yes, 38/6/2 on 13-25 (4-10) while playing just 34 minutes. The best player on the floor and it wasn't particularly close, as he should be. On one hand, the fact that Tatum laces them up and plays every night is why I love him. You simply do not see that anymore in today's NBA, especially with the elite talents. You literally have to cut his leg off in order to get him to sit a game, and that's something that should be commended.

At the same time though, please rest. We've seen enough. Tatum is nowhere close to missing the 17 game cutoff for All NBA, and seeing as how the Celts are up a billion in the standings, it's time to be smart about Tatum's minutes from here on out. If he plays, keep it like last night and under 35. Given the Celts have one of the easiest remaining schedules in the league, it's time to tie him to a chair and force him to rest. He's the most important piece, and the Celts need to do all they can to prevent any sort of burnout over these final few weeks.

I also loved seeing Tatum get back to not missing everything at the rim. Much, much better in that department last night as well.

As I said yesterday, who gives a shit if Tatum's MVP campaign is dead. That means nothing to me. I care about him being healthy, rested, and playing the best basketball of his season heading into the playoffs because all I know is if the Celts can get the version of Tatum we've seen all year and then again last night, that will result in a much more important type of MVP.

- With nearly 50 points of offense sitting on the bench last night, it meant that others were going to have to step up and be effective in order to support Tatum. 

Enter Derrick White

Given the two way dominance we witnessed, this may have been one of Derrick's best all around performances of the season. Finishing with 24/6/3/1/3 on 8-17 (7-11) and a team best +15 in his 35 minutes, he was everywhere. 

As a reminder, White has 6 blocks over his last 2 games. As a point guard. I'm not sure people are truly grasping how ridiculous White's rim protection has been this season. The best part is these blocks are coming against every type of player. He has an elite ability to navigate screens and block guards from behind, he has the elite ability to bait wings on drives and meet them at the rim, he has the elite ability to time blocks against bigs perfectly. He blocks people in transition, he blocks people off screens, he blocks people after OREBs, it's really unlike anything we've ever seen.

But that's also only half the story. What has made the Derrick White jump so impactful is the confidence in which he shoots the ball. When he's at his best, there is no hesitation. Sometimes that's a C&S opportunity, sometimes that means making the defense pay by utilizing his dribble pull up 3. It's all in the video above if you're looking for some examples. 

When White shoots the ball with confidence, everything changes. It's how the Celts become a tidal wave where suddenly you look up and you're down by 15 and you have no idea how the hell it happened that quick. 

In a game like this given who was missing, the guard play became extremely important. This was not a game where the guards could no show or play tentatively. They had to be aggressive, they had to be effective, and that is exactly what happened.

- You see, it wasn't just Bald Derrick. Part of what makes this roster so devastating is just when you think you might get a break on either end when White sits, here comes Jrue Holiday

Aggressive? Check. His 12 FGA were his most since 2/9. Effective? I dunno, what would you call 16/5/8/2/1 on 6-12 (2-7) shooting with only 1 TO? I'd call that pretty effective. Defensively, he held his most common matchup (Collin Sexton) to just 1-4 shooting, so he was bringing it defensively as well.

I don't think it's an accident that the Celts feeling more mature this season has come in a year in which Jrue Holiday is on the roster. That doesn't mean he won't have his CTE moments or make mistakes, but there's no bullshit that comes with Jrue's game. He shows up, puts in his work, makes a winning impact and then goes about his day. 

As I said of Derrick yesterday, the guards on this team make a loud basketball impact while being as quiet as a church mouse on the floor. There's no complaining, there are no loud antics, just hoops. 

- Are people ready to start giving Joe Mazzulla credit yet?

Again, they were without Jaylen Brown, Kristaps Porzingis, Al Horford………..and still put up 70+ in a half. This might have been one of the most Mazzulla Ball performances we've ever seen when you realize that their final tally is exactly what things look like when all the stars play

Maybe, just maybe Mazzulla isn't just a roster merchant? Maybe he knows what the hell he's doing? Granted I know narratives die hard, but it's time for those who are weird about Joe to accept defeat. Putting up that type of production on the second night of a B2B with that much firepower missing is patently ridiculous. 

Add in the 24-1 record against shitty teams this year and I simply do not understand how there are some out there that truly believe Joe is a bad coach or not the right coach for this group. What the hell are you watching?

- Here is your reminder that Sam Hauser makes $2M a year and is capable of doing this

Hauser finished 10-21 from deep over these final 2 games from the trip and is currently shooting 46.9% from deep since the All Star Break on 4.9 3PA. That type of production on that type of volume is insane, and seeing as how he's more than a passable defender, it feels like he's reached a point where it's time to have him in the playoff rotation.

To piggyback on the maturity growth, there's something to be said about always being ready for when your time comes. That's maybe the biggest takeaway from these final 2 games of the trip. Hauser, Pritchard, and Kornet stay ready at all times, and there never seems to be a dropoff in their play when they get their opportunity. That's not easy to do, but it makes all the difference in the world.

- I mean, Luke Kornet was the best center on the floor last night, and it wasn't particularly close

I never really understood why some Celts fans hate on Luke Kornet. He's about as good a 3rd center as you're going to possibly find in the NBA. He's been incredible on the offensive glass, his rim protection is impactful, and while he's 1000000% going to get cooked in space by an elite perimeter player, so does every 3rd big on a roster.

That's not even factoring in what Kornet does for the vibes. He's an elite vibes guy who just comes in and fills his role, something that should be appreciated. There's a reason Brad Stevens loves him, and a game like last night (12/9/6) is exactly why. Not only is he tall as shit, but he's a smart player. How many times do we see him find the corner shooter on the short roll in P&R? He seems to have a pretty quick ability to process things, and again as a 3rd big that's a luxury to have.

- Nothing all that flashy, but solid minutes from Xavier Tillman as well (7/8 in 26 minutes). I was a bit shocked to see him knock down his 3s (one with a foot on the line), and while I don't think that's something we'll see consistently, it's still nice to know he can do it. I'm intrigued given the limited minutes we've seen so far, and he's a guy that should play a TON over the final few weeks. Put Al on ice and let Tillman get the run and lets see what happens.

- It was a little crazy to see the Celts win the fastbreak battle the way they did (14-7) given they were on a B2B and the Jazz had been off since Saturday. That might have been the most impressive part of last night. If you watched this game you would have had no idea they played the night before.

- How about the 20-0 response with Tatum on the bench after the Jazz cut it to 2. Again, that's a 20-0 run with no Tatum, no Jaylen, and no KP. The Jazz didn't score for nearly 8 minutes! To me, that's a championship level type of response. They could have cratered, blamed it on tired legs and packed in it. Instead, they locked in and went to another level, all without their best player on the floor. 

If a 20-0 run in that spot given all the context doesn't impress you, grow up.

The Bad

- Perhaps it was just one of those nights, but I did not like how the Celts defended the 3pt line at all. The Jazz finished 15-32 (46.9%) and while part of it was guys making tough shots, there were also some mental mistakes that simply cannot happen. For example, someone please explain to me why Oshae Brissett is leaving the strong side corner like this

That's a big time no-no, plus you don't need to help Jayson Tatum there. He can handle it. 

- It took a while, but we finally saw the Celts give up 30+ points in a quarter. After going 8 straight quarters without doing it, they did it twice in this game. Obviously who was out impacted this, and the 16 point 4th quarter is what helped this score be a respectable 107, but I'm just bummed the streak is finally over. The Celts have been defending their dick off lately, so it was weird to see them give up a high point total quarter given it hasn't happened in quite a while.

- Perhaps it was the tired legs, but I didn't love the shot quality at all in the 3rd quarter. The Celts finished just 37/25%, and it wasn't that they took too many 3s or anything like that, I just felt like they kept settling for tough, low percentage looks. It's what allowed the Jazz to get some momentum and cut a 15 point lead down to 2, and those are the type of lulls I need this team to avoid in a playoff series. 

I can handle missing good looks. That happens to everyone. What I can't handle is not even generating good looks. That's bad, and it will come back to bite you in the ass. Just 2 assists on their 10 FGM, as great as the offense looked for the majority of the game, it was gross in that 3rd quarter.

- Pretty strange lack of ball security from Derrick White early. Maybe it's just me, but I'm always so perplexed when I see him throw a lazy pass/lose the ball. It's probably because he almost never makes mistakes, but it was a good example of how this team let's opponents hang around. If they turn it over, they will die when it comes to the playoffs. We've seen it time and time again.

So even though the Celts couldn't miss, it was their turnovers that allowed the Jazz to hang around, and call me crazy but I'm not going to always rely on a 20-0 run to bail the team out. They have to be smart with the ball.

The Ugly

- I dunno, this one is tough because nothing was really all that bad. Maybe Pritchard's 3-12 (2-9)? It's hard to really find anything that truly fits in this section, so I think we can call it.

A 3-2 West Coast trip isn't the greatest, but it's also not the worst. It was fine. A bad start mixed with a solid ending, and now they return home for a nice stretch before the showdown with the Bucks on 3/20. Granted they may be up 10+ games by that point so there isn't much at stake in terms of the standings, but given what happened the last time they played it's absolutely still a big game. Now winners of 3 straight, it's time to keep the momentum rolling.