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Opinion: Have the Celtics finally put their early-season struggles behind them?

Mark Medina, USA TODAY
·10 min read
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As they have experienced season-long inconsistency and a recent winning streak, the Boston Celtics have traveled two parallel tracks.

On one, they can usually rely on Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown as they've blossomed into All-Stars. In the Celtics’ 119-114 victory over the Golden State Warriors on Saturday at TD Garden, Tatum finished with 44 points to compensate for Brown's absence and to offset Stephen Curry’s 47 points. At other times, Brown has carried the team.

"We’re just trying to stay the course," Tatum said. "It’s been a weird year, obviously, and we’ve had our fair share of ups and downs. We’re just trying to be there for each other for everybody in that locker room."

On the other track, Boston rarely knew what it would receive from the rest of the supporting cast. Against the Warriors, Kemba Walker (26 points, eight rebounds) and Marcus Smart (16 points, nine rebounds, six assists) stepped into the role. Walker drilled a 25-foot step-back 3 for a 116-11 cushion with 24.8 seconds remaining. Smart grabbed a key offensive rebound and drained a 3-pointer to give the Celtics a 111-109 lead with 1:16 left. Jabari Parker (11 points) and Payton Pritchard (11) also contributed.

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But with significant injuries this season to Walker and Smart, the Celtics never had a definitive third guy to represent a Big 3. The rest of Boston’s roster represented a handful of veterans (Tristan Thompson), rookies (Pritchard, Aaron Nesmith) and other young players (Grant Williams, Robert Williams III, Romeo Langford, Carsen Edwards), all of whom showed mixed progress.

"I don’t rank guys. We just try to win basketball games and all play together," Boston coach Brad Stevens said. "We’re not looking for first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth. It’s just how can we all make the right basketball play. So we need them both to be very good and we need everybody around them to be very good."

So what should we make of the Celtics (31-26) and their fourth-place standing in the Eastern Conference?

After advancing to the conference finals three times in the past four years, are the Celtics underachieving this season? Or after winning six consecutive games and eight of their last nine, are the Celtics finally showing their true identity? Or is the reality somewhere in between?

"I don’t think our record shows the kind of team we are," Tatum said. "I think people know that. It’s been a weird role. Obviously, we’ve dealt with a bunch of things."

Jayson Tatum and the Celtics have climbed to fourth place in the Eastern Conference with their season-high six-game win streak.
Jayson Tatum and the Celtics have climbed to fourth place in the Eastern Conference with their season-high six-game win streak.

The Celtics had three games postponed because they did not have enough healthy players due to the NBA’s safety protocols, including Tatum, who missed five games after testing positive for the coronavirus. Tatum has since compiled two Eastern Conference Player of the Week awards, including last week when he averaged 31.5 points and 8.5 rebounds over four games. But Tatum revealed that he has had breathing issues ever since contracting COVID-19 and that he is "very close" to feeling normal.

"It takes a long time. I take an inhaler before the game since I tested positive to help with that and open up my lungs. I never took an inhaler before," Tatum said. "That’s something different. I for sure feel better now than I did a month ago."

The Celtics also experienced absences elsewhere. Walker missed 17 games to strengthen his left knee after dealing with various complications during last year’s bubble. Smart missed 19 games, many of which stemmed from a torn left calf. Thompson missed 14 games after testing positive for COVID-19.

"The No. 1 reason for our little run is we’ve been, for the most part, healthier," Stevens said. "We just missed lot of guys earlier. I know that sounds like an excuse. I hope it doesn’t. But we tried to stay afloat as well as we could and hope we get to a time where we’re a little bit healthier and put together some weeks of good basketball. Through all of that, our guys have done an incredible job of staying together."

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The Celtics have become accustomed to dealing with roster turnover, even during their recent runs to the East finals.

After the Celtics used the No. 3 pick in subsequent drafts on Brown (2016) and Tatum (2017), they saw those two young players develop while struggling to maintain the additional talent needed to make a title run. The Celtics thought they did that after acquiring Kyrie Irving from the Cleveland Cavaliers and signing Gordon Hayward as a coveted free agent. But Irving offered mixed results with his locker room leadership and health. Hayward also stayed sidelined with various injuries. Then in consecutive years, Irving (2019) and Hayward (2020) left as free agents without the Celtics yielding anything in return in possible sign-and-trades.

Boston still added some key pieces last summer by signing Thompson after he helped the Cavaliers win an NBA title out of four Finals appearances. The Celtics may have missed on signing LaMarcus Aldridge or Andre Drummond on the buyout market. But they acquired Evan Fornier from the Orlando Magic for struggling Jeff Teague and two second-round picks. Fornier has played only four games thus far and been mostly sidelined because of health and safety protocols, but he is expected to boost the Celtics’ secondary scoring sometime this week after recently clearing quarantine. Boston also signed Parker, a former No. 2 pick that can offer scoring, though he has labored through right knee injuries during his career.

Therefore, the Celtics have downplayed whether their early-season struggles will have any big-picture implications. They've suggested as much with their six-game winning streak.

"That goes out the window when you start the playoffs. It’s all about matchups," Thompson said. "It doesn’t matter what your seeding is. As long as you’re healthy and match up with a team, you can win. Anything is possible."

Does that mean it is possible the Celtics can challenge the Eastern Conference elite?

"They’re an excellent team," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "I think the biggest thing now is they’ve finally gotten their main guys playing together at one time. They’ve been hit hard this year, as have a lot of teams. But they consistently had people out. I think it’s no coincidence that Boston has played well over the last couple of weeks because of their Big 4 — Brown, Tatum, Smart and Kemba Walker — have all been on the floor together. Really, really good team. Always well-coached. They’re going to be tough."

So will the rest of the Eastern Conference.

The Brooklyn Nets have three All-Stars in Irving Kevin Durant and James Harden. The Philadelphia 76ers have a dominant center (Joel Embiid), a versatile forward (Ben Simmons), an elite coach (Doc Rivers) and plenty of depth. The Milwaukee Bucks have seen better consistency in Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday. Then again, the Celtics could take advantage of some of those teams' vulnerabilities. The Nets’ All-Stars have only played seven games together. Embiid and Antetokounmpo have also nursed recent injuries. Neither team has the same continuity that Tatum and Brown have enjoyed.

Regardless, some around the league downplayed the Celtics’ earlier struggles and their inconsistent supporting cast around Tatum and Brown.

"I don’t know if there is necessarily a third guy," Los Angeles Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. "But I think Smart and Kemba are both big-time winning players."

Walker has failed to match the production in Charlotte that made him such a prized free agent two years ago. He is on pace to average the second-lowest scoring output (17.6) in his 10-year career. But as he has labored through an injury and shooting slump this season, Walker has credited his frequent work with the team’s training staff with helping him navigate his recovery. In turn, Walker has shown relative improvement in his shooting percentage from January (37.2%), February (39.2%), March (40.8%), and April (42.5). Who’s to say those numbers won’t continue to trend upward in May, June and possibly July?

"I just had to mentally get over not feeling things, if that makes sense," Walker said. "At one point in the season, I was feeling good. But because of how I was feeling in the past, I thought, 'If I make this move, I felt my knee hurt on this specific move.' It’s kind of tough to do. But it wasn’t hurting. I just had to mentally get over that hump. I’m there and feeling good and putting in my work to make myself to feel good every day. I just want to continue to feel good."

Smart’s limitations also have mostly stemmed from his injuries. He has cracked double figures in eight consecutive games. He has improved his 3-point shooting from February (25.8%), March (35.5%) and April (46.5%). For the past month, the Celtics have raved about his increasing presence on defense both with his effort as well as his accountability both for himself and his teammates.

"I’m just getting started to get back to where I was and proving people and letting people know not to forget who I am on that defensive end and what I do," said Smart, citing his two All-Defensive first team honors. "I heard the talk about me not being good with the injury, how it affected me and I lost a step. All kinds of things. It is what it is. I know what I can do. My teammates know what I can do. The league knows what I can do. Now it’s instrumental for me to go out and prove it."

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As for Tatum and Brown, they have not had to prove much.

The Celtics have raved about Brown’s increasing aggressiveness in scoring and playmaking. He remains on pace to average career highs in points (24.6), field-goal percentage (49.3%), 3-point shooting (40%) and assists (3.4). And he recently prevented the Celtics from squandering a double-digit lead to the Lakers by scoring 40 points, his second 40-point game of the season.

"I just play basketball and play the right way," Brown said. "Teams are doubling and blitzing. I got to get the ball out of our hands quick. I trust everybody on the floor to make plays. We’re just getting some more rhythm. Guys have been out and guys have had COVID all year. This is the most consistency we’ve had. So being able to play with guys on the floor every single night, you start to build more chemistry."

Tatum’s issues with COVID-19 aside, nothing else has held him back. The Celtics have liked Tatum’s steady leadership and efficiency. He also remains on pace to average career highs in points (25.6), field-goal percentage (45.8%), rebounds (7.1) and assists (4.2). And he has averaged 27.5 points while shooting 50.3% from the field and 41.2% from 3-point range in the past nine games, including a career-high 53 points last week against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

"We’re not going to win every game, but I think we’re playing the right way," Tatum said. "We’re for sure trending in the right direction."

For better or worse, the Celtics will soon find out where that direction takes them.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Have the Celtics finally put early-season struggles behind them?