The Boston Celtics have put the rest of the NBA on notice.
For much of the past 10 weeks it was reasonable to be skeptical. It was fair to wonder if the Celtics were legitimate title contenders. But this team has answered just about every question over the past 72 days and has been manhandling opponents while posting a 26-7 record since January 7.
People wanted to see the Celtics beat good competition. Boston is now an Eastern Conference-best 22-14 against teams over .500. Only the Phoenix Suns (23-9) have been better. The Celtics are 21-4 in their last 25 games overall with 13 of those wins against playoff-picture opponents.
People wanted to see Tatum take another step in his ascension. He’s slowly muscling his way into the MVP conversation not just with his elite scoring but with his playmaking skills that have leveled up multiple times this season. Tatum’s new signature "Kiss of Death" celebration -- blowing kisses to the crowd with both hands after game-sealing baskets -- has become the defining image of Boston’s second-half surge.
The Celtics’ deadline dealings decluttered the roster and left Ime Udoka with a nine-man rotation that he could confidently embrace without fear of a defensive dropoff with any player dispatched. Boston brought in Derrick White, who enhanced Udoka's ball-movement desires, and added a familiar face in Daniel Theis to provide frontcourt depth that has taken minutes and stress off starters Robert Williams and Al Horford.
The biggest concern among some Celtics fans at the moment might simply be that the team has rocketed up the standings so briskly -- surging from 11th on January 7 to a virtual tie for the third seed after Boston’s win in Denver on Sunday night -- that it’s brought some potentially unsavory matchups into play.
But the Celtics are playing at such a high level lately that no matchup seems unendurable. Yes, there are superstar talents on the Nets and Bucks that no team would prefer to see across the court in a playoff series -- especially not early rounds -- but the Celtics have proven they can hang with anyone.
The Celtics own a league-best net rating of 13.4 since January 7. A once-sputtering offense ranks fifth in the NBA during that span while posting 116.4 points per 100 possessions. Boston’s assist percentage spiked 5.3 percent comparing the first 39 games to the last 33. The team’s true shooting percentage is up 4 percent from the same splits.
Boston is now knocking on the door of the top 10 in offensive rating. They sit 13th overall at 112 points per 100 possessions (but a one-point increase would surge them to seventh overall).
If Boston maintained its winning percentage from the past 2.5 months throughout a season, it would be on a 64-win pace. If the Celtics hadn’t stumbled so often at the start of the season, they’d be jockeying with the Heat for the top spot in the East, but the fact that they’re shuffling towards ensuring homecourt to open the playoffs is a remarkable feat of its own.
What’s even crazier is that, despite all of Boston’s recent success, players still believe there’s potential for even better basketball ahead. All while not putting a ceiling on what this squad can accomplish this season.
"[Winning] feels nice. But I’ll keep saying just taking one game at a time," said Brown. "Our goal is to continue to get better in the things that we need to get better at. It’s about us not about the other team ...
"We just gotta take it one game at a time, stay healthy, and then the sky is the limit. Beyond this sky, to be honest. So I’m excited."
Brown tweeted before Boston’s surge that, "The energy is about to shift." He downplayed any prescience when pressed about the suggestion later. After Sunday’s win in Denver, Brown tweeted, "Winter always turns to spring."
Pressed on his choice of quotes, Brown coyly noted Sunday was the spring equinox. But then he hinted it might be a shot at those that doubted this team and a nod to a squad that endured the many bumps in the road.
"That’s one of my favorite quotes, one of my favorite metaphors," said Brown. "When things are not always going well, sometimes just have hope that winter always does turn to spring."
It certainly has for Boston. And the rest of the league needs to take notice as everything blossoms here.