The Celtics carried the second best record in the East into the All-Star break and are just three games behind the Cavaliers. Many Celtics fan’s entered the season thinking the team could make it as far as the Eastern Conference Finals and as the team heads into the season’s final stretch they’re looking to be on track to do just that.
What most fans probably didn’t expect was seeing Isaiah Thomas produce an MVP caliber season. They probably didn’t expect Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk to take such big steps toward being dynamic players. And they probably didn’t expect to see the team doing so well despite Avery Bradley missing much of the first half.
But as most fans are riding the positive waves into the second half of the season the team would be wise to not get caught up in the hype. Yes they are on the right track. Yes they seem to be much further along in the rebuild than was initially expected. But there’s still a lot to overcome on the road to the Eastern Conference Finals.
We’ve all been caught up in the amazing and historic season that Thomas has been producing, and justifiably so. We all know the numbers – 29.9 points per game is tied with Larry Bird as the most in Celtics history. He’s leading the league in fourth-quarter scoring. But while the numbers may be historic you need more than one prolific scorer to carry a team to the championship in today’s NBA.
Celtics fans can point to Al Horford, Smart and Olynyk to build their case for the C’s, but even with the team’s improvement the Celtics have yet to show that they have what it takes to make a deep playoff push.
Smart’s play has been noticeably better this season and he’s a solid defensive guard. On offense he’s up to 10.4 points per game with a three-point shooting percentage up to 31 percent, a six percent increase from last season. But even with the improvement Smart has the fourth worst three-point percentage in the league. (John Wall isn’t much better shooting .313 from beyond the arch)
Olynyk, despite turning it around in the month leading up to the All-Star break, is trending in the wrong direction. At 9.5 points per game he is down a half-point from last year despite averaging more minutes (21.5 to 20.2 last season). His rebounds per game are up to 4.8 but for a seven-foot center five rebounds per game is not going to cut it on a team that thinks they can contend for a title.
The hard truth for Celtics fans to accept is that the team is beating those that they should beat but they have struggled against teams that are competing for the second seed in the east. They are 1-2 against both the Wizards and the Raptors this season and the only time Boston has been able to best Toronto was when they were without DeMar DeRozan. Even that game, a 109-104 win, was a struggle for the C’s to close out. Against the Wizards the Celtics two losses have been by 25 and 15 points, not exactly close games.
The Wizards are only trailing the Celtics by two games and the Raptors are four games behind; but both teams have gotten better at the trade deadline. Toronto added big man Serge Ibaka and PJ Adams. Washington acquired swingman Bojan Bogdanovic and forward Chris McCullough from Brooklyn. Ibaka can make a big impact as a big that can shoot from the three point line (his .388 percent from beyond the arch is better than Celtics guard Marcus Smart and even slightly better than Isaiah Thomas’ 3.87 mark). For Washington, Bogdanovic has averaged a career-high 14.2 points per game this season and can be a quality depth player on a team that is clearly prepping for a long playoff run.
“Bojan is a very good and talented overall scorer whose versatility gives us an added dimension as we gear up for the stretch run,” Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld said in a statement. “He is a proven starter that will provide us an added boost off the bench and allow us to be creative with our lineups.”
The bottom line is that, while the Celtics have assembled a talented and scrappy team, they aren’t a legit two seed. They still have a chance to make a run at the Eastern Conference Finals but they will have to elevate their play to do it.
Danny Ainge clearly believes in the team or he would have made some sort of deal at the deadline, even if it wasn’t setting off fireworks that the fan base has been waiting for. Ainge believes in his squad now we have to wait and see if they can make believers out of the rest of us.
“I am excited, actually. I was watching practice today and I was very excited by what I saw,” Ainge told the Boston Globe. “I can’t wait to get back out on the road and start scouting and getting ready for the draft and continue to watch the NBA and get ready for the playoffs. I’m very optimistic and very excited about the rest of the year.”
Photo credit to CSNNE.com