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Friday, September 24, 2021

The Boston Celtics Are Peaking When It Matters Most

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The Celtics were 8-3 in their first 11 games this season. It was a promising start to what was set to be an unconventional campaign, but things quickly went south. After beating the Washington Wizards to improve to 7-3, Boston was hit with a slew of health and safety protocol absences, which forced the postponement of its next three games. The following two-and-a-half months were anything but smooth.

Boston’s rocky stretch left questions about this team’s resolve, effort and overall on-court engagement. I’ll be the first to admit that I was as low on this group as anyone. The trade deadline saw the Celtics ship off their starting center, Daniel Theis, in a move done solely to get them below the luxury tax. On the bright side of things, they brought in Evan Fournier, who provided a sure-fire boost to Boston’s offensive ceiling. But with the underwhelming on-court performance and limited salary cap flexibility over the next few years, it was difficult to be positive. The latter concern certainly still looms, however in the short-term, the Celtics seem to have righted the on-court ship.

Winners of seven of its last eight games, Boston is playing with what feels like new life. Their energy is almost incomparable to where it was roughly one month ago, while the increased engagement on the defensive end has significantly raised this team’s floor. On offense, Boston is moving the ball — something it did not do for long, stagnant stretches of this season — which has noticeably helped the top of the roster find some rhythm on that end of the floor. With about four weeks left in the season, the Celtics are hitting their stride at just the right time.

Boston has a relatively favorable chance to carve out some space as the Eastern Conference’s No. 4 seed over the next few weeks. The Celtics moved into a tie with the Atlanta Hawks for that No. 4 spot with their win over the Lakers on Thursday night. The Charlotte Hornets, once a threat in the middle of the conference, have lost three straight after a series of injuries decimated any offensive firepower they once had. As they continue to inevitably slide, it appears the three most likely suitors for the No. 4 and 5 seeds are the Celtics, Hawks and Miami Heat.

The rest of the Celtics’ schedule should put them in a good position as they push toward the postseason. Just six of their remaining 16 games come against teams with records above .500. No, that doesn’t mean they’ll make a run at a top-three seed, but that’s not the point. The takeaway here is that this team bounced back and now has a shot to sit in a much better postseason position than it once seemed. They’ve responded — something that felt like an impossibility at various points this season. The signs of life we’re seeing from Boston are a positive in a year where it looked like a play-in team for extended stretches of games. The aforementioned resolve should serve as a win in itself.

With all of that in mind, however, the Celtics remain on the outside looking in at the Eastern Conference’s elite teams. The Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers are in a league of their own right now, and that likely won’t change this season. This isn’t to completely damper the Celtics’ recent turnaround, but it should temper expectations a bit. As much as I was probably too low on this team two months ago, we shouldn’t get too high as they trend in the opposite direction, especially when you take a big-picture look at things.

This team does have room for further improvement, as Fournier will ideally return at some point in the next week. Romeo Langford continues to find his rhythm and should serve as a valuable rotation piece with his defensive versatility, especially when you consider Boston’s lack of wing depth before his return and the addition of Fournier. Despite the positive swing, their margin of error remains small. A return of the injury bug could quickly throw this team off the rails. It’s an unfortunate thought, but one that is relevant amid this injury-plagued season.

Again, if all goes well, this team still isn’t on the same level as the Nets, Bucks and 76ers. Yes, the Celtics have held the postseason advantage against Philadelphia in the past, and that psychological element undoubtedly is relevant. But the 76ers’ defense has been extremely impressive this season, and with a healthy lineup, they should be able to take a potential seven-game series against Boston. Can the Celtics make some noise? Of course they can. Jayson Tatum is playing at an All-NBA level right now and Jaylen Brown has looked great over his last five games. With those two playing well, the Celtics will be a tough out for any opponent, and that gets amplified when Kemba Walker is on his game.

So yes, the Celtics’ ceiling may be capped, but with increased health, among other things, there appear to be plenty more bright spots than we may have assumed. I was wrong about this team, and it feels good to be incorrect because this version of the Celtics is significantly more fun to follow. Time will tell what this rejuvenated group does with its limited time.

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