As they prepare to take on the Cavs tonight, the Celtics are 30-10, first in the Eastern Conference standings, first in the NBA in total wins, and can already claim a 16-game winning streak to their name early on in this season.
Since the aforementioned winning streak Boston is 14-8. Not a bad record by any means, but they are a few breaks away from being a lot closer to a .500 record in that span.
They escaped with a miracle win in Indiana and a wild comeback at home versus the Rockets that required a lot of good fortune. Take away those wins and the team is 12-10 instead.
Back in September, I had written that the Celtics should not be expected to get out to a fast start. That belief was also held by many fans and experts alike.
With so many new faces, a point guard still learning the system, and a rookie and second year wing in the starting lineup Boston was supposed to need time to mesh. After their 0-2 start it seemed everyone was correct.
Then, they ripped off 16 in a row and displayed tremendous late game execution across that stretch. Now, over the past 22 games after the streak was snapped Boston looks like what they were supposed to in the first month.
They are not always starting games quickly, there execution is not consistent, and the late clock, fourth quarter situations have become an isolation show.
The big argument for the Celtics right now is the schedule. Making excuses at the NBA level is never a good thing or all that acceptable, but the schedule has done no favors for Boston.
On 12/30, the Celtics will play their 40th game. Nearly half the schedule in 2.5 months. By the time they play the London game on 1/11/18, they will have played 43 total games. A couple more weeks of the compressed schedule, then things lighten up significantly for Boston.
— Keith Smith (@KeithSmithNBA) December 22, 2017
The Celtics will have played half of their games by the early part of January. For comparison, they have played six more games this season than the second place team in the East, the Toronto Raptors.
The other defense of the struggles is injuries. Of course Gordon Hayward is out, but recently the Celtics have been without Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris, and Semi Ojeleye. For a team that started the season with concerns over playing time for all their wings, they were down to almost none.
The Celtics are certainly worn out from their schedule and have been forced into unconventional lineups due to injuries, but those excuses do not matter. It’s still the NBA and they have to play the games they’ve been given.
Looking at the past 20 games or so, Boston does not look as sharp as they did early in the season. The most obvious regression has been defensively. Boston still stands second in the league in defensive rating at 100.7 and second in points allowed at 98.3, but the intensity and execution has slipped.
A mockery can be made of former Celtics coming in and giving it to their former team. The “Jerebko Game” and “Olynyk Game” were not good looks for Boston’s defense.
Early in the season the C’s were flying around, communicating, and making crisp rotations. Now, they are a step slow and the effort has waned on that end of the floor.
Fourth quarter execution has been the other big issue. During the 16-game winning steak when the Celts pulled off all the miraculous comebacks the theme was execution and multiple players making big time plays.
Throughout December it has become a lot more of design a play, botch the execution, and toss it to Kyrie with 5 on the shot clock and watch.
A good example was the Miami game. If you check video courtesy of MLG Highlights on YouTube you can see Boston”s comeback efforts versus Olynyk and Miami come up just short.
On the final play, the Celtics throw the ball into Irving. He catches and everyone spreads out. Irving has the ball up top with 6 seconds to play with and Brown, Tatum, Smart, and Theis on the court.
No one moves at all and Irving drives to his right before taking a tough, contested jumper that catches front rim and Boston loses. Maybe this was on Coach Stevens. He might have just allowed Kyrie to go with a straight isolation, he is after all one of the best in the league at that.
Still, some decoy movement off ball would have helped, or even just a simple on ball screen to help out Kyrie. That sort of play late in games has been the trend for Boston in December.
The struggles this month are normal, they are just coming at an unexpected time. Back in September it was believed that it would show on the court that the Celtics had a ton of new players, a young bench, and their most senior member of the team was Marcus Smart (a fourth year player).
Instead, all of that is showing in December now. Still, they have 29 wins, and the toughest stretch of the season is over. There is no where to go but up in the second half of the season in terms of ironing out execution.
In a season full of surprises, the Celtics did it again displaying their problems midway through the year rather than at the start.
However, there is no reason to panic at all. It was not realistic to expect Boston would maintain a 60-win pace all year. They are still in a good spot now and can gain even more chemistry moving forward.