Here’s the deal, Celtics, and I’m not talking about trade rumors real or imagined. I’m talking about what it will take to believe, without hesitation, in the players and team that is already in place.
Beat the Nets. Throttle them Tuesday night. Rough up the latest team Kyrie Irving has broken. Treat them like they were supposed to treat you when they assembled their superfriends trio of Kyrie, Kevin Durant, and James Harden.
If the Celtics, winners of five in a row, seven of eight, and 12 of 16, can hand the ailing and comically dysfunctional Nets a ninth straight loss, that’s when I’ll believe that the recent run of success is real, and those early season problems have been repaired.
Thump the Nets, surpass them in the standings, and make it six wins in a row, and then we’re in. But not until then. In the meantime, here’s our periodic evaluation of the state of the roster, player by player …
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown: You know what? I’m going to consider them as a tandem here, because they’re finally playing like one. In the more frustrating moments this season, Tatum and Brown have both reiterated that they enjoy playing together and will make this work. But the commitment necessary to make it work — mainly, eliminating the my-turn iso ball when a game’s outcome was still being decided — wasn’t always there. It has been lately, and along with Robert Williams’s ascent and Marcus Smart’s inspired play, it’s one of the primary reasons for the Celtics’ recent success. Tatum is playing downhill and attacking the basket more consistently rather than settling for step-back 3-pointers. Brown, whose year-to-year improvement sometimes goes overlooked, has made a clear effort to involve his teammates more. This is the progress we weren’t sure we’d see. Now we need to continue seeing it.
Robert Williams III: Two questions: How come Danny Ainge doesn’t get any credit for stealing him with the No. 27 pick in 2018? And are we sure he’s only 6 feet 8 inches? He plays like he’s an athletic 7-foot-2. I’m not ready to declare him the Celtics’ Third Star quite yet, but the last few weeks have been one impressive audition. By the way, he’s shooting 73.9 percent from the field this season. The Knicks’ Mitchell Robinson is the only player in NBA or ABA history with a higher shooting percentage over a full season.
Marcus Smart: Since returning to the lineup Jan. 23 after missing six games, Smart is averaging 10 points, 6 assists, 4.3 rebounds, and 1.4 steals per game. He’s shooting 53.7 percent from the field on just 6.8 attempts per game, and has an average plus/minus rating of plus-17.3 in those eight games, seven of which the Celtics have won. This, my friends, is how you play when you don’t want to be traded.
Dennis Schröder: I’m as inconsistent with my thoughts on what they should do with him – keep him for the remainder of the season or trade him – as he is on the court. I’m leaning toward keep him right now. He’s like Russell Westbrook as a perimeter threat (he’ll fire up an off-balance brick with the utmost confidence) but his ability to get to the hoop is something the Celtics have lacked the last few years.
Al Horford: What’s that Toby Keith lyric? I ain’t as good as I once was/But I’m as good once as I ever was. At age 35, Horford is shooting a career-worst 43.6 percent from the field and 29.5 percent from 3-point territory. He’s slowed a step on defense, too. But he still does a lot well, and his 13-point, 11-rebound, 5-assist performance Sunday against the Magic was his best since the calendar turned. Also, I’m really sorry to have brought Toby Keith into this. It won’t happen again.
Josh Richardson: After starting 263 of 268 games over the previous four seasons with the Sixers and Mavericks, he’s come off the bench in all 43 of his appearances for the Celtics so far. He’s been exactly the kind of versatile, confident veteran wing that the Celtics have been lacking the last couple of years. Bet you didn’t know he’s shooting 40 percent from three.
Grant Williams: The Celtics’ assessment when they drafted him with the 22d pick in the 2019 NBA Draft that he’d have a 10-year career as a reliable role player was as spot-on as a Williams corner triple.
Romeo Langford: When he’s playing well, he makes it look easy. When he’s not playing well, he looks like he’s not even trying, though he is. I suppose that’s the definition of an NBA enigma, but I still like him. His improved 3-point shooting (35.4 percent, up from 27.8 percent last year and 18.5 percent as a rookie) is a sign that he’s putting the work in.
Payton Pritchard: He’s limited and then some defensively, but he can help as a shooter if he gets consistent time. That hasn’t come lately – he hasn’t played 12 minutes or more in a game since the Jan. 14 loss to the Sixers.
Aaron Nesmith: He needs to play more … in the G League. His hustle is admirable and potentially useful when it becomes a little less chaotic, but save for summer league, the reports that he is a dead-eye shooter have been a severe case of false advertising.
Enes Freedom: Gets a bucket, gives up a bucket. Gets a bucket, gives up a bucket. Nothing new this time around other than his last name. He’d have been a 20-and-10 guy for the Sacramento Kings in 1987.
Bruno Fernando: In his forever enjoyable “The Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball” series of annuals from the 1970s through the ‘90s, author Zander Hollander would sometimes refer to end-of-the-bench players as “roster fodder.” That always made me laugh. I suppose Fernando might get that designation now, though at least the Celtics have far less roster fodder than they did a year ago.
Sam Hauser: What do the Celtics need more than anything else (besides the second coming of Bob Cousy to run the offense)? Right, shooting. Hauser is shooting 41.2 percent from 3-point territory on 10.8 attempts per game in Maine. If he can play just adequate defense, there should be a secure place for him in the league for a half-dozen seasons.
Brodric Thomas: He’s shooting 11.1 percent, having hit 1 of 9 shots over 28 minutes played in seven games. I still think Juancho Hernangomez shooting 5 for 27 (18.5 percent) during his hapless 18-game cameo as a Celtic is worse.
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