After this latest stretch, and with lineup tweaks, these Celtics pass the eye test


It’s probably not a stretch to suggest that the Celtics have produced their most encouraging basketball of the season the past two weeks, particularly with two quality wins over an Indiana Pacers team they are likely to play in the opening round of the playoffs.

And, yet, if you’re slightly skeptical about whether this team can bottle up their quality play and carry it into the postseason, it’s understandable. Fans are Charlie Brown and the 2018-19 Celtics are Lucy, repeatedly pulling the good basketball away. Good grief.

Maybe we’re getting duped again but it’s hard to shake the feeling that these Celtics — maybe just maybe — might be peaking at the right time. For the first time all season, this team passes the eye test.

Make no mistake, the Celtics have had these encouraging stretches of play throughout the year. Heck, we’re getting deja vu just typing these words out. And, yet, even in those good stretches, this team was prone to maddening lulls and it was hard to know on a night-to-night basis who, outside of Kyrie Irving, was going to deliver a consistent performance.

While still far from perfect, things feel a little different the past few weeks. Brad Stevens (finally) shuffled an underperforming starting lineup, inserting Aron Baynes into a two-big lineup alongside Al Horford. Poof! Boston’s two-month defensive regression reversed almost immediately.

The Horford/Baynes combo has paired with Irving, Marcus Smart, and Jayson Tatum to start four of Boston’s last seven games. In that span, that five-man unit has played 45 minutes together, outscoring opponents by 21 points per 100 possessions in that span.

The Baynes/Horford pairing has played 76 minutes together over those seven games and Boston owns a net rating of plus-17.2 in that span, which includes a sizzling defensive rating of 98.1. More encouraging, the Celtics have deployed that two-big lineup against Indiana and found success in matching the Pacers’ physicality.

A chess match could loom in the postseason but Baynes has helped restore Boston’s defensive identity. The Celtics seemed particularly energized after Friday’s win in Indiana having held the Pacers under the century mark, maybe recognizing that much of Boston’s postseason success will hinge on its ability to ratchet up the defense.

It’s telling that Horford declared after Friday’s win that, “This was one of our better games this season by far.”

Horford continues to quietly be the glue that holds everything together for these Celtics. His on/off splits since the All-Star break are absurd, with Boston owning a team-best plus-9.0 rating in Horford’s 577 minutes of floor time. That number plummets to a team-worst minus-12.5 in the 479 minutes Horford has been off the court.

It happened again Friday night. Boston had a net rating of plus-34.6 in Horford’s 27 minutes, and it dipped to minus-2.2 in the 21 minutes he was on the bench. Only Gordon Hayward (plus-37.9 on, minus-11.0 off had more jarring splits in Friday’s game). 

Hayward, of course, is maybe the biggest difference in these Celtics recently. Since returning from a concussion, Hayward’s stat lines jump off the page. He’s averaging 16.4 points on 58.8 percent shooting to go with 6.1 rebounds and 2.9 assists over 28.8 minutes per game. On Friday night, Hayward didn’t miss on nine attempts and continued to attack the basket with a confidence that escaped him for much of the season.

Even before he harnessed this confidence and aggression, the numbers suggested that Boston was simply a different team when Hayward is something better than average. Consider this: The Celtics are …

* 17-3 when Hayward scores 15 points or more
* 25-3 when Hayward shoots 50 percent or better in a game
* 17-3 when Hayward has a Game Score better than 13

Game Score is a noisy metric that attempts to condense a player’s box score data into one easy to digest number. Here’s all you need to know: Hayward didn’t miss on Friday night and it was only his sixth highest Game Score of the season (20.9). More encouraging: Some of his best Game Scores have come against top competition, including Golden State (30.5) and Philadelphia (23.0). Hayward also had one of his top 5 Game Scores in Miami earlier this week (25.0). 

Hayward so frequently makes the right play when he’s out on the court and, when you pair him with another right-play-maker in Horford, good things consistently happen. It’s unfair to expect that Hayward can be a dominant force every night in the postseason, there’s still going to be times when his body balks or his shot doesn’t fall. But he’s making things easier on himself by attacking the basket and not settling for long jumpers. He’s getting to the free-throw line even more regularly with a renewed confidence and fearlessness to absorb contact.

And it feels as if Stevens is just waiting to crank the knob on his minutes in the postseason. Whether he’s in the current bench role or maybe elevates to a starter role in small-ball lineups deeper into a potential postseason run, it feels like 30+ minutes of Hayward could really make Boston a different team.

Like Hayward, the Celtics simply pass the eye test right now. They’ve less frequently allowed teams to go on runs, they more consistently look for good shots. They don’t crumble at the first hint of adversity anymore.

The Celtics have done all this while still dealing with minor maladies and maybe the biggest challenge for Stevens is simply figuring out how to keep all his guys playing at a high level, particularly when minutes become scarcer as the playoffs arrive.

This is not to suggest that the Celtics are going to storm the playoffs. While they are clearly a more talented team than Indiana, it seems fair to suggest that wins won’t come quite as easy as they did Friday night when the playoffs start. The Pacers are still going to make Boston work, particularly with their physicality.

Even if the Celtics advance, things get daunting in a hurry with a likely second-round matchup opening on the road against Giannis and the Bucks. But if fans were leery of a quick postseason stay a few weeks ago based on how the Celtics looked, then maybe there’s a bit more optimism about whether this team can push the East’s elite.

Lucy could still pull that football. Nothing about the Celtics’ 2018-19 season suggests that anything is a given. But we’ve seen more encouraging stretches of good basketball lately than at any other point in the season.

A month ago, when the Celtics were clinging to a “flip the switch” possibility, it was fair to laugh and suggest they didn’t even know where that switch was. Now, it at least feels like they have a floor plan and a general idea of where they need to get to.

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