The Boston Celtics ended their West Coast road trip with a 4-0 record following their March 21 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder.
With that win, the Celtics entered a three-way tie for second place in the Eastern Conference along with the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks. It’s been a remarkable turnaround for the Celtics over the past three months, and the current version of this team looks almost unrecognizable from the one that struggled to implement their will onto their opponents to begin the year.
Suddenly what seemed like a frail Celtics team is now the best defensive unit in the NBA, and since the turn of the year, a top-10 three-point shooting roster. The turnaround has been striking and has begun to earn rookie head coach Ime Udoka consideration for coach of the year honors.
“Udoka, what he has done, this guy is a legitimate top-two coach of the year candidate. When you look at what he has done – this team, look at them defensively, they’re like a bunch of piranhas. They switch everywhere, you’ve got five guys, they get out on shooters better than anybody I have seen,” Stephen A Smith said during a recent episode of ESPN’S First Take.
Smith Believes The Celtics ‘Are The Team to Beat’
With the Celtics in their current form, it’s easy to begin dreaming of a deep playoff run. After all, offense wins games, but defense wins championships, and right now, there isn’t a better defensive unit in either conference.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown’s sudden improvements have also gone a long way in convincing people that this Celtics team is for real, and if Grant Williams continues to improve at his current rate, he may find himself knocking on the door of the first team before the start of next season.
“Jrue Holiday, (Khris) Middleton, what they can give you, who’s a team that can combat that because of their defensive prowess, that would be the Boston Celtics. When you look at the Miami Heat with Herro, with Butler, even with Bam (Adebayo) because he’s like an undersized big, very athletic, great in the open court. But you’ve got a guy like Robert Williams a guy like that there, the pick-up of White has really brought this team together as well and elevated their play defensively.
And in the meantime, while all of that has transpired, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have elevated their level of play. So I want to see it be more consistent because you weren’t that way at the beginning of the season. But when it comes to the playoffs, the game slows down a little bit, you don’t get as many half-court opportunities, teams are able to get back and set their defense. And nobody wants Boston to do that, because if they do, that makes their defense even more formidable,” Smith said.
It would seem that Smith doesn’t consider the other big teams in the East to have enough firepower to overcome the Celtics’ stifling defense, which is why he feels that Boston is currently the team to beat in the East.
Celtics Finding Their Rhythm
All season long, people have discussed the lack of perimeter scoring on the Celtics roster. Many believe that the lack of elite-level shooters off the bench is eventually going to be the team’s downfall, and while that may be true, we’re starting to see shots fall from multiple sources.
Payton Pritchard is currently on a tear and is shooting 40.3% from deep this season, Grant Williams has been one of the best corner shooters in the NBA this year, and according to Cleaning The Glass, is currently knocking those shots down at a 49% clip and 43% from deep overall.
Add in Marcus Smart’s growth as a shooter, with him now hitting 38.6% of his threes since the turn of the year, and Boston suddenly has a reliable group of guys to help spread the floor. Of course, the Celtics can also call on the likes of Sam Hauser, Nik Stauskas, Aaron Nesmith, and Luke Kornet – all players who have a reputation for three-point proficiency.
Factor in the impact of Tatum and Brown on teams defensive schemes, along with havign to account for Al Horford and Robert Williams, and Boston quickly looks like a deep roster capable of hanging with any team in the NBA. Luckily, we won’t have long to wait until the post-season is upon us, as the Celtics only have nine regular season games remaining.