Checking in on the Celtics: roster adjustments, improved play provide a spark

Celtics+forward+Jayson+Tatum+celebrates+in+a+road+game+against+the+Charlotte+Hornets+at+Spectrum+Center+on+March+9%2C+2022.

Courtesy Celtics.com

Celtics forward Jayson Tatum celebrates in a road game against the Charlotte Hornets at Spectrum Center on March 9, 2022.

Tucker Paquette, Staff Writer

Several weeks ago, when the Boston Celtics seemingly epitomized the term ‘average,’ it was unthinkable to consider that in March, they’d be right in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race. But, due to many notable improvements, the team appears to be hitting their stride at the perfect time.

In the past month and a half, the Celtics have experienced a positive change in results. According to NBA.com’s Advanced Team Stats, the Celtics have had the highest defensive rating and the highest net rating in the league over their last fifteen games (stats as of March 11th). Over this stretch of games, the team’s record is 13-2, which is also the best mark in the NBA. So, what’s behind this recent run of strong play? As it turns out, there are several contributing factors.  

First, while the Celtics’ acquisitions at the trade deadline weren’t present for the start of the team’s hot streak, they most definitely are a significant reason for the continuation of this stretch of strong results. The most notable move President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens made at his first trade deadline in the Celtics’ front office was acquiring guard Derrick White from San Antonio. In return, the Celtics gave up wing players Josh Richardson and Romeo Langford, Boston’s 2022 first round pick, along with giving San Antonio the right to trade first round picks with the Celtics in 2028 (as long as Boston’s pick isn’t first overall). 

If the price the Celtics paid to acquire White sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. They gave up a solid rotation piece, a bench player with (possible?) future upside and one (and maybe two) first round picks. So, it begs the question: was the trade worth it? While it’s impossible to judge a trade-off of a limited sample size, the early returns are quite promising. 

The defensive abilities of White have come as advertised: he has been a very good defender thus far in Boston, just as he was in San Antonio. On offense, he has proven to be effective at scoring in the paint and passing, as he is averaging 11.2 points and 3.3 assists per game so far in Boston. For a Celtics team that has settled for far too many contested, early-in-the-shot-clock threes over the past few years, his scoring skills close to the basket have been a welcomed sight.

White’s main flaw is his lack of a reliable three-point shot (a problem that also plagues most of the backcourt). I believe the Celtics will just have to be content with what White is: a highly-skilled defender, passer and inside scorer.

Considering how essential those three skills are, it makes sense why the organization had no problem looking past White’s one deficiency and dipping pretty deep into their available trade assets to bring the 6’4” guard to Boston. 

Along with players coming and going, another primary reason for the Celtics’ recent surge is how cohesively they are playing defense. The team swarms defensively, flying to contest shots and communicating effectively on switches. Head coach Ime Udoka is undoubtedly a key part of Boston’s strong play on defense, as the first-year coach has a reputation for being defensive-minded, dating back to his days as an assistant coach in San Antonio.

However, in addition to the team defense and what Udoka brings to the table, the team is also full of more-than-capable individual defenders. Guard Marcus Smart is one of the best defensive players in the league, with his tenacity and propensity for causing turnovers continuing to shine through this year. Likewise, all-star wing Jayson Tatum has taken great strides on that end of the court, holding his own in isolation against several quality scorers. 

Along with players coming and going, another primary reason for the Celtics’ recent surge is how cohesively they are playing defense. The team swarms defensively, flying to contest shots and communicating effectively on switches. ”

— Tucker Paquette

When examining the Celtics’ offensive strengths, one thing that continues to stand out is the team’s effective ball movement. The Celtics haven’t moved the ball well enough for parts of the past couple years. While watching their games, I have found myself several times saying, “Make the extra pass!”. This wasn’t happening nearly enough at times, but it absolutely is now, and it’s beautiful to see.

A large part of the team’s newfound offensive prowess is because of Tatum. He’s been on a flaming hot stretch as of late, including a 54-point performance against Brooklyn on March 6th. He’s also driving to the paint more frequently, which only further helps him and the team. If Tatum keeps this up, I truly believe the Celtics’ ultimate ceiling is much higher than many (myself included) previously thought. 

The Celtics are getting higher-quality shots (partially due to Tatum’s paint scoring) and keeping the defense on their toes due to this uptick in selfless play, and I firmly believe this, coupled with their great defense and trade deadline acquisitions, are the three main reasons behind their recent resurgence. 

Looking ahead, I have no reason to doubt the possibility of the Celtics making a deep playoff run. The Eastern Conference is relatively wide-open, and it’s hard to find any team I don’t give the Celtics a chance against in a playoff series. Such a statement is a testament to the parity in the conference, but also to how well Boston is playing heading into the home stretch of the regular season. 

How far will the Celtics ultimately go in the playoffs? Is there any chance they make the NBA finals? These questions have no answers yet, but one thing is abundantly clear: the process of determining those answers is likely going to be a LOT more fun (and fruitful) now than it was mere weeks ago.