Forsberg: What's trending up, down for the C's so far? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
For all the consternation about the Boston Celtics early in the 2020-21 season, the team has quietly won four of their last five and -- outside of a Christmas Day drubbing from Brooklyn -- has had a chance to emerge with a win every night.
Sure, there’s still plenty of room for improvement, especially against lesser competition, but the Celtics are trending in the right direction after their preseason and early season woes. All while we wait to see when Kemba Walker will rejoin the mix and how different this team might look later in the season.
Let’s see what’s trending up and down through eight games:
🔼 BENCH MOB
The Celtics felt one rotation-caliber player short throughout last year’s playoff run and, with Gordon Hayward’s departure forcing Marcus Smart to elevate to a starting role, it was fair to wonder what the team would get from a youth-filled bench this season.
On Monday night, while playing without both Smart and offseason bench addition Jeff Teague, Boston got maybe its best performance of the season from its reserves.
We’ll get to rookie Payton Pritchard and his season-high 23 points in a bit but it was guys like Semi Ojeleye, Grant Williams, and Robert Williams who also helped turn the momentum of the game with their hustle and grit.
It’s wild that Ojeleye was as good as waived for at least a 24-hour span in November before Hayward signing in Charlotte forced the Celtics to reconsider. He’s routinely given Boston solid minutes this season and he made 7 of his 12 3-pointers in the recent back-to-back. He’s always had coach Brad Stevens’ trust on the defensive side but he’s shown a bit more offensive ability this season, which has kept him ahead of Grant Williams on the depth chart.
Credit to Grant Williams who, after logging a DNP in Detroit, gave the Celtics much-needed energy against Toronto. Playing with an obvious fire, Williams finished with 14 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 blocks and was a team-best plus-28. A lot of us had Grant Williams penciled in as a potential starter this season and he didn’t play to his bubble standard out of the gates. But it’s a great sign for Boston if he and Ojeleye are pushing each other for playing time.
And Robert Williams? If he just keeps bringing energy then good things are going to happen.
⬇️ GOODBYE, TWO-BIG LINEUP?
Stevens admitted before Monday’s game that the team was unlikely to lean very heavy on two-big lineups later in the year but has routinely noted that he wants to give it early run because 1) Getting data and knowing the value of 2-big sets could be important further down the road, and 2) With a glut of healthy bigs, starting two of them affords more minutes to those coming off the bench.
But Stevens finally relented in the second half against Toronto, dispatching Ojeleye in place of Daniel Theis. The two-big lineup simply wasn’t good enough defensively to justify going back to it again. In 74 minutes, that group was giving up 118 points per 100 possessions and had a minus-16.1 net rating overall.
The Celtics seem to benefit from putting more shooting around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The lineup did not struggle solely because of Theis and/or Tristan Thompson, but we’d expect to see more traditional or smallball lineups going forward.
🔼 PAYTON PRITCHARD'S ROOKIE OF THE YEAR CANDIDACY
Walker’s eventual return is going to bite into just how much Pritchard plays later in the year, so we’re not actually injecting him into the Rookie of the Year conversation. That said, it’s undeniably notable that Pritchard produced the highest-scoring game by a rookie this season with 23 points (and 8 assists) in Monday’s win over Toronto.
If Celtics fans were worried that Pritchard’s early success was a bit of a fluke, it’s clear now it’s not.
The 26th pick plays with a poise and confidence unbefitting of a late first-rounder. His readiness for this stage, coupled with the opportunity with Walker sidelined, has allowed Pritchard to assert himself out of the gates.
We still marvel at his poise with the ball, especially his patience when attacking the basket. He uses that "FastPP" speed to get past the first line of defense, then can find space to get off a shot in traffic, or he’ll simply maintain his dribble in a Steve Nash-like way while hunting for a better opportunity.
If Pritchard keeps playing like this, it could make it easier for Stevens to keep Smart with the starting group even after Walker returns.
⬇️ ANYONE WRITING OFF NESMITH
The Celtics’ top pick Aaron Nesmith has made only three of his first 12 shots through three appearances. His head looks like it’s spinning a bit, especially defensively, when he’s gotten early run. But dismiss his potential to help this team at your own peril.
We maintain that it’s important for Stevens to keep finding even small bites of playing time for Nesmith. He always seems more confident in his second turn on the court. It’s encouraging that he hasn’t gotten bashful even when shots don’t fall. They will eventually, and it’s his defense that remains the key to unlocking playing time down the road.
A healthy Romeo Langford, in addition to any moves the Celtics make later in the year, could limit how much Nesmith plays. Which only makes it more important that Stevens calls on him now and lets him play through some mistakes. Nesmith can help his cause by not getting whistled so frequently when he gets in the game.
🔼 TATUM GIVING THE GAME WHAT IT NEEDS
If this recent back-to-back hammered home anything, it is Tatum embracing the idea of simply making the right play.
In Detroit, he put up a career-high 12 assists and didn’t turn the ball over. In Tampa, he nearly got a new career high in scoring and his relentless attacking the basket was a welcome sight after not getting to the line at the start of the year.
Tatum is most dangerous when he’s taking what the defense is giving him. Late in that Detroit game, he had four jerseys around him on a late drive and kicked it to Brown for a go-ahead 3. When Blake Griffin stumbled on Boston's final possession, Tatum went up with the game-winner -- this while not settling for a deep stepback.
We also love the quiet bravado that Tatum is operating with. Asked if it was disappointing to not get his career high against Toronto, Tatum said simply, "Nah, I’m going to get there soon enough.”
⬇️ NBA’s PLAYER OF THE WEEK VOTING
NBA players probably don’t lose sleep over the league’s “Player of the Week” honors but it was a bit of a head-scratcher to see the league give the East nod to Tobias Harris this week over Brown.
The NBA tends to err on the side of rewarding players/coaches with the best records in their weekly and monthly awards. The Celtics kicked away a chance at a 4-0 week with Friday’s loss in Detroit, but here are Brown’s numbers for that span: 29.5 points over 33.9 minutes per game while shooting 66.2 percent from the floor and 51.9 percent beyond the 3-point arc while the Celtics went 3-1.
Brown is still tops in the NBA in total field goals (86) with Tatum one spot behind (77). He’s second in total points (215) behind only Steph Curry (224). Brown is going to be in the running for far loftier honors (All-Star, All-NBA, Most Improved) if he keeps up his level of play from the first eight games of the year.