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Here Come The Celtics

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Boston Celtics have gone through some bad times this regular season, most recently in early January, when they blew a huge lead and dropped a game to the Knicks, and head coach Ime Udoka called his players a bunch of soft babies. It looked then like the Celtics were doomed to the Eastern Conference play-in, and eventually a reckoning with the limitations of their core and their coaching staff and the organizational roadmap that had them hoarding resources for years, punting expectations down the road again and again, and finally topping out as a dreary also-ran.

But Udoka appears to have pushed the right buttons when he went in on his team’s mental toughness following that brutal Knicks loss, and has continued to push them in the weeks since. The Celtics won three in a row and five of six, got their act together against a softer stretch of opponents, ripped off nine straight wins heading into February, and are now one of the two or three hottest teams in the conference. Their defense is up to second in the NBA by points per possession; over the last 15 games they’ve produced a 102 defensive rating, more than five points clear of second place. Boston’s defense has actually slipped a tad since they acquired Derrick White and Daniel Theis in bold Deal Zone trades, but their offense has taken off: Since the trade, the Celtics lead all Eastern Conference teams in points per possession. Now at 38–27 on the season, they’ve played their way comfortably clear of the dreaded play-in. The Boston Celtics, it brings me no pleasure to admit, are good now.

Thursday night they went out and bullied around the Memphis Grizzlies. Such is the groove that they are now enjoying that they don’t even need to be at their best to hold off a very good team. For big chunks of Thursday night’s win, if you’d removed all chyrons from my television screen I would’ve told you the Grizzlies were comfortably ahead. The Celtics were a little loose with live-ball turnovers, and a little bit vulnerable on the defensive glass, and Ja Morant was getting into the paint with ease. But every time the Grizzlies drew within a bucket or two, the Celtics would rip off a sequence of transcendent ball movement, or their defense would stiffen noticeably for a handful of possessions, and suddenly they’d be nursing a double-digit lead.

Annoyingly, the Celtics are now capable of stringing together some strikingly cool and thrilling sequences. There was a two-minute stretch of the third quarter Thursday night where Robert Williams III suddenly became Neo. He collected a steal and finished the ensuing possession with an alley-oop dunk; a possession later he threw home an even cooler alley-oop dunk on a completely different offensive action; and then on the subsequent Grizzlies possession he ranged across the paint to reject a Jaren Jackson layup and send the Boston crowd into a roaring frenzy. Williams finished the game with a combined six steals and blocks, to go with a good old fashioned points-and-rebounds double-double. Udoka subbed him out soon after the third-quarter block, and Theis, his replacement, immediately got in on the act:

I truly do not want to be showing you Boston Celtics highlights this morning! And yet I must direct your attention to this clip of 35-year-old Al Horford leading a fast-break and throwing a pinpoint alley-oop pass to Jayson Tatum!

The Celtics did all this with Jaylen Brown in street clothes due to a sprained ankle suffered in Tuesday’s win over the Atlanta Hawks. They’re still not the deepest team—Aaron Nesmith started for Brown but rolled his own ankle and was held to just five minutes of run—but their main guys are all playing at incredibly high levels. More than that, the mojo is soaring, and you simply cannot overstate the importance of mojo. Jayson Tatum senses it: “I think watching us now, we play with a lot more passion. We just seem like we’re having a lot more fun.”

Brown should be back in the fold in a matter of days, and then the Celtics will have roughly a month left in the regular season to see how high they can fly with their new additions, and their terrifying defense, and with an offense that suddenly looks like the Lob City Clippers. The top of the East has sagged somewhat from earlier in the season, and the Celtics, once mired deliciously at the bottom of the playoff pack, now have the best point differential in the conference and are just 4.5 games behind the top seed. Disgusting! Prepare yourself for a fast-arriving future where the Boston Celtics are the East’s team to beat.

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