Much has been said about the Boston Celtics’ early season woes that had them lingering close to .500 for most of this season.
It was a disappointing start for a team with high expectations stemming from the presence of their two talented and highly-coveted wing scorers Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Nothing seemed to click for them and the few wins that they managed to eke out were more because of their talent rather than their team’s overall play.
However, their fortunes have suddenly taken a 180-degree turn that has coincided with a renewed commitment to the defensive end. The Celtics have won nine of their last 10 games, including seven consecutive wins, and they now find themselves back in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Boston has only allowed three of their opponents to score more than 100 points during this stretch. Their opponents have averaged a mere 93.5 points per game over their last 10 games which is quite impressive considering that the 30 teams in the league average 109 points per game this season. They have limited their opponents to just 38.6% and 28.6% field goal and three-point shooting, respectively, and have an overwhelming plus-minus of 19.5.
The willingness of the 6’6 Brown, who has always been well-regarded as a defender, and the 6’8 Tatum, who has bought in and grown more active on that end, to buy-in defensively has helped spur this turnaround. This is especially crucial given their clear-cut status as the best players on this team.
While this All-Star duo is the lifeblood of the Celtics on offense, their direction on defense actually stems from Marcus Smart and Robert Williams–both of whom are elite on that end of the floor. Smart’s value goes beyond his 1.8 steals per game and he is one of the peskiest one-on-one defenders in the league today. His relative lack of height at 6’3 is compensated by his 220-pound frame which allows him to compete with much bigger players on a regular basis.
Meanwhile, Williams has finally come into his own in his fourth season in the league and his first as a full-time starter. The darling of per-minute statistics enthusiasts over the past few years has competently handled the added responsibilities that come with being their primary center. He has managed to limit his fouls, previously the biggest obstacle that he faced with regards to receiving more playing time, and it has allowed him to average career-highs of 9.8 points, 9.5 rebounds, 0.9 steals, and 2.2 blocks in 29.2 minutes per game.
This foursome has come into their own as a group in these last few weeks under their head coach Ime Udoka and it seemed like the only remaining obstacle that was holding them back was the uncertainty on the fifth member of their closing line-up.
The 35-year-old Al Horford remains solid in his 15th year in the league, although it is difficult to rely heavily on him given his advanced age. On the other hand, Dennis Schroder and Josh Richardson have proven to be too inconsistent to depend on nightly while Grant Williams is only effective in certain match-ups.
They finally solved their problem at the recently concluded trade deadline with the acquisition of Derrick White from the San Antonio Spurs. Boston also reacquired back-up big man Daniel Theis of the Houston Rockets who was a crucial role player on some of their teams that made it to the Eastern Conference Finals not too long ago. In exchange, they only gave up two rotation players in Schroder and Richardson who were already becoming more of a liability than asset at this point in time.
The 27-year-old White fills several gaps for the Celtics as a defensive-minded 6’4 guard. He is averaging an impressive 0.9 blocks per game along with 14.4 points, 3.5 rebounds, 5.6 assists, and a steal this season. His ability to run an offense for extended periods of time fills a major need for them as well and alleviates that role from Smart who is not an ideal lead guard in this context.
In his debut for the Celtics, White contributed right away and filled the fifth spot in their closing line-up that brought home a 108-102 victory over the Denver Nuggets. He played 28 minutes off the bench and tallied 15 points, six rebounds, and two assists. They did not waste any time and flashed their potential as a switchable line-up with five players capable of covering for one another.
The pairing of Smart and White immediately becomes one of the toughest defensive backcourts in the league and will be especially crucial once the postseason rolls in. Their turnaround has been lightning quick and remains under the radar around the league, but they are slowly approaching the East’s best teams in the standings. They are now 32-25 and are surprisingly only 4.5 games behind the first place Miami Heat.
White’s arrival, coupled with the continued growth of Tatum and Brown, bodes well for the outlook for this team over the stretch run of the regular season. While they remain a young team, they already have a trove of playoff experience and it would not be surprising if this new gritty mentality of theirs leads to a deep run.
These Celtics are maturing by the day and it looks like the turbulent winds of November are finally behind them. This year’s East race is already crowded with a handful of legitimate teams, but they will have to make room for one more as Boston storms back into the playoff picture.