Celtics went through many obstacles during up-and-down first half of season – Enterprise News


Greg Dudek
 
| The Enterprise

Late in February the Boston Celtics were in a tailspin.

Walking off the floor after getting blasted by the Atlanta Hawks, the Celtics were two games under .500 and losers of eight out of 11, including blowing a 24-point lead to the New Orleans Pelicans en route to another demoralizing defeat. The team looked in complete disarray and far away from any type of title contender.

Young stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were struggling under the excessive burden they carried to pull along a roster with a myriad of shortcomings. There was a sense of frustration from the two All-Stars while they, the players around them and the team collectively underperformed.   

But a week and a half later, fresh off sweeping a four-game homestand to close out the first half of the regular season – the performances weren’t dominant by any stretch as the Celtics won the four games by a combined 19 points – the sky doesn’t feel like it is falling at the moment.

And if you listen closely, you can hear the Celtics exhale a sigh of relief.  

“We showed a lot of resolve to stay together and to tackle this challenge together instead of pulling apart,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens as Boston is in fourth place in the Eastern Conference at 19-17. “Any of these four games could have gone the other way and I think that’s important to remember. We have a lot of work to do to be the kind of team we ultimately want to be.”

Nothing really could have fully prepared the Celtics for their first 36 games. Boston played its final game of the 2019-20 season on Sept. 27, falling to the Miami Heat in Game 6 in a hard-fought Eastern Conference finals. Less than three months later, the Celtics were back on the court, competing in their season-opener on Dec. 23.

The severely shortened offseason didn’t catch up with the Celtics immediately, but playing a condensed schedule with pieces constantly in and out of the lineup and being shut down for a week due to health and safety protocols after Tatum and Robert Williams tested positive for COVID-19, took its toll on the team.

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“Just coming right into the new year after having a tough playoff stretch and the testing twice a day and all the other adversity, we knew that was going to be a challenge,” Brown said. “And the mental challenge of not being complacent. Sometimes when you separate from things you’re able to get that itch again. But not having an offseason, we didn’t really have that chance. So we battled it mentally as well.”

After winning seven of eight during an early-season stretch, the Celtics regressed and lost their identity.

It certainly didn’t help matters that Tatum missed five games after contracting COVID-19, something he said he is still feeling the effects from. Kemba Walker didn’t look like himself either coming off a nagging knee issue that caused him to miss the first 11 games and keeps him from suiting up on the second leg of back-to-backs still.

Then Marcus Smart, who the Celtics usually derive their energy and toughness from, went down after tearing his calf against the Los Angeles Lakers on Jan. 30 and hasn’t played since.

The spotlight was fixated on Tatum and Brown while trying to lift the Celtics out of their struggles. The dynamic duo in their young 20s are still growing as players and especially as leaders.

There was no Al Horford or Gordon Hayward, and with Smart sidelined, to take on some of the leadership role. Everyone looked to Tatum and Brown for answers. They did their part on the floor as two of the top 20 scorers in the NBA.

But as their games ascended individually, they didn’t help elevate the players around them. It’s a learning curve Tatum and Brown are both still adjusting to and performing better over this recent stretch.

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“This is a different team than it was last year and we recognize that,” Brown said. “I think we’re building a lot of good habits and making winning plays. It’s not about scoring 25 or 30 points a game. It’s about playing the game the right way and trying to find ways to win. That’s the most important.”

Now with hindsight, the 127-112 drubbing the Celtics took from the Hawks on Feb. 23 was rock bottom. But no matter how deep the hole is, the response to get out of the situation is what matters most.

The loss could have permanently fractured the team, but Stevens said he saw the opposite in the locker room following the beat down as they banded together to turn things around.

“We just continued to stay the course and playing hard, playing together. Believing in one another,” said Jeff Teague. “I think our game in Atlanta woke us up. Getting beat how we did and not competing at a high level.”

With a third straight defeat that culminated with the loss to the Hawks, the outside noise surrounding the Celtics was deafening. But the voices of the team’s leaders were louder.

Even when the Celtics got back on track with quality wins over the Indiana Pacers, Washington Wizards and Los Angeles Clippers over the last week-plus, a loss to the shorthanded Toronto Raptors in their final game before the All-Star break would have been a severe blow. But the Celtics learned not to lose focus even with a much-needed break ahead of them.

“I heard Kemba say it multiple times this week, ‘Nobody’s going on break until we go on break,’” Stevens said. “I thought that was really important. You learn a lot about yourself in those moments.”

The leadership from the likes of Walker helped raise up the confidence of Boston’s supporting cast. With Tatum and Brown struggling to find their shot recently, the Celtics bench has played an important role. In the 132-125 win over the Raptors, the second unit, led by 17 points from Grant Williams, tallied 51 points on 20-of-26 shooting.

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With Boston’s ancillary pieces stepping into more prominent roles, it has helped the younger players develop. Robert Williams with his freakish athleticism emerged into an impact player off the bench – averaging 9.1 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.3 blocks over the last eight games – which has earned trust from Stevens to play him at critical junctures. Payton Pritchard has taken on a lot of responsibility for a rookie, but has shown to be a reliable shooter.

Teague has delivered lately as well, displaying he has a pulse after a disastrous first half of the season by scoring 14 points on three separate occasions over the last five games.

“We’re a group who has a lot of talented players come off the bench and any given night anybody can help us,” Teague said. “I think that’s the beauty of our team.”

As the Celtics get the All-Star break to catch up on rest before opening up the second half of their campaign on Thursday at the Brooklyn Nets, they can use the time off to reflect on a topsy-turvy start to this season.

Boston got through its rough patch, but the four-game winning streak hasn’t solved all their problems. There’s a reinforcement awaiting on the horizon in Smart, but the Celtics know they can’t merely replicate what they’ve done going forward.  

“The way that we got there was a little unique,” Stevens said. “I thought we had some really tough stretches and some games that were really good. But we know we can play a lot better. We know we need to play a lot better.”



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