The All-Star break could not have come at a better time for Boston. Going into it, the team were on a three-game losing streak and had won just five of the previous ten, giving up over 120 points twice in consecutive games. Of all the teams in the top eight in the East, only the Heat were in poorer form, so the days off were an opportunity for coach Stevens to resolve their problems and gear up for the season’s finishing stretch.
Now that the business end of the season is upon us, the team need to pick up the pace. Celtics fans who study the schedule will know that the team is running out of games to get back into form ahead of the playoffs, and though sports bettors who like to wager a bet on Stakers.com will find the Celtics toward the top of the betting markets for the Eastern Conference, those who watched the team going into the break know that there is some work to do.
The recent slump in the Celtics’ fortunes was in sharp contrast to the way that they started the season. A 16-game winning streak that included victories over San Antonio, Golden State, and Miami took them to the top of the Conference, and with Cleveland struggling, there was a great opportunity to dominate the East. However, it didn’t quite happen. They had a shaky patch in December and then seemed to hit a wall in the middle of January, losing nine out of 15 and slipping to second in the standings behind Toronto.
What went wrong? Well, for a start, Marcus Smart punched a picture frame in his hotel room. Fortunately, the glass embedded in his hand didn’t hit a tendon, but Smart was out for three weeks and the defense suffered. The Celtics gave up 121 points to Cleveland and 129 to the Clippers, and suddenly opponents were finding it too easy in the paint. As they scrambled to correct the problem, the defensive foul count began to creep up, which also cost them.
The other main problem was more complicated and trickier to resolve. During their bad run, Boston’s bench players didn’t step up enough, leading to an inconsistent run of results. Too many times they threw in unforced errors or didn’t bring the required level of intensity to the court. To an extent, this was not their fault. Earlier in the season, while the likes of Kyrie Irving and Marcus Morris were absent, the likes of Abdel Nader and Semi Ojeleye enjoyed plenty of game time, but the return of the big guns meant that they’ve been required to spend more time on the bench and that has made it harder for them to maintain form and confidence.
The final problem that underlay the Celtics’ bad run was a tendency to rely too heavily on Irving. The team’s main source of points, he regularly puts his body on the line for the Celtics, but in his absence, they were dramatically poorer at both creating and scoring. Clearly, he needs front-line support, which helps to explain the Celtics’ apparent interest in Tyreke Evans ahead of the trade deadline earlier this month, and is almost certainly something that Danny Ainge will be aiming to address in the offseason.
Can the Celtics regain their form? The early signs are encouraging. With Smart back in the team, Boston kept things tighter to beat Detroit, and followed that up with a win at the Knicks to leave them just half a game back behind Toronto and with a 6.5 game lead over a revamped Cleveland side pushing hard to return to the top in the East.
While the tendency to rely too heavily on Irving could ultimately cost them against the likes of Cleveland and the Warriors, the Celtics will feel confident of beating anyone else they come up against and have every chance of overhauling the Raptors to head into the first round of the playoffs on top of the Conference, for the second time since 2008.
There are some vital games coming up, particularly the early run of fixtures in March. The Celtics will take on the West’s leading side, Houston, and the playoff-bound Timberwolves, followed by two of their closest pursuers, Washington and Indiana, and the month ends with the first of two crucial games against the Raptors, which could determine who tops the Conference. However, with Smart back in the team and momentum returning, the Celtics look in good shape to correct their January slump and head into the playoffs at the top of their form.