Isaiah Thomas and the Celtics will look to finish out the regular season as a top-tier team in the East and make a deep run in the playoffs (Bob DeChiara/USA Today)
With 51 games through the regular season, the Celtics (33-18) have the second-best record in the East and will look to finish strong and make a deep run in the playoffs. WEEI.com’s Josue Pavon and Logan Mullen recap the highs and lows of the 2016-17 season, and make predictions for how far the C’s will go and what needs to happen for them to get there in this Celtics midsesaon report.
(Josue) Isaiah Thomas averaging 30 points per game
When the Celtics signed Al Horford over the summer, guys like Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley were destined to see a bump in their scoring average. However, Thomas becoming the NBA’s second-best scorer (29.9) isn’t what I had in mind.
According to basketball-reference.com, he’s averaging 43.2 points per 100 possessions this season and his fourth-quarter scoring has made him an MVP candidate behind Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Thomas is averaging a league-leading 10.7 points in the fourth quarter and is easily the biggest surprise of the season for the Celtics.
(Logan) Fourth-quarter Isaiah Thomas
Even the biggest flag-waving Isaiah Thomas supporter probably wouldn’t have guessed that he could do what he has in the fourth quarter. But it’s a good thing he did, having bailed the Celtics out of numerous potential losses.
While a big season was absolutely on the docket, his fourth quarter performances alone blast everything else out of the water.
After finishing last season as one of the best defensive teams, the Celtics entered the 2016-17 season with lofty expectations. Adding big man Al Horford certainly had a lot to do with those assumptions, however, the slippage falls on the entire roster.
Last year, the C’s were great defensively because it was a group effort and made the difference in narrow victories against last season’s top-notch teams. Although scoring is up across the league this year, it still doesn’t prove why there’s been such a dramatic drop off. It could be a combination of Amir Johnson having a down year compared to last season, Jae Crowder not being the same lock-down defender he was a season ago or the fact that the small-ball lineup – while it’s effective offensively – welcomes mismatches that favor their opponents.
One of the biggest differences between last season’s team and this year’s is their decline in forcing turnovers. The Celtics finished second in forced turnovers last season – averaging 16.3 per game. This year, they’ve dropped to 14th in that department.
(Logan) Marcus Smart’s offense
The discussion has become an offseason staple: will Marcus Smart ever become an offensive threat? It has gotten better, but not much mind is required with the ball in Smart’s hands.
With defense as his calling card, it is not so much an issue that Smart struggles offensively, but his shot selection is what is most concerning. At times it seems he has trouble discerning whether he is hot or not, leading to wasted possessions with plenty of time on the shot clock. He’s shooting a rough 35.6 percent from the field on nine attempts.
He asserted constantly over the summer that he’s working on his offense, and while at times his playing validates that, on many occasions it hasn’t. He’s proven his value to the team countless times this season, but if only his offense could consistently stay at a high level he would be entering a whole new strata of NBA players.
Jaylen Brown becomes a go-to scorer off the bench
Not making the Rising Star Challenge at All-Star Weekend left a foul taste in the rookie’s mouth. Determined to prove that he is one of the best prospects of his draft class, Jaylen Brown scored a season-high 20 points the day after the rookie and sophomore rosters were announced and is averaging 10.3 points in his last three games.
Brown’s work ethic, along with his athleticism, will push him to become a reliable scoring threat after Aver Bradley returns and further down the road – just in time for the playoffs.
(Logan) Jonas Jerebko becomes a long-term replacement for Amir Johnson in the starting lineup
Jerebko has finagled his way into the starting lineup fairly consistently of late, and I think that trend is here to stay. While Jerebko and Amir Johnson do many things quite similarly, there’s one thing Jerebko does much better: shoot free throws. The value of free throw shooting this season — with all the close games the Celtics have been a part of — can’t be forgotten. Jerebko is more reliable at the line, and can shoot from a broader range than Johnson (save for his 3-point deluge at the beginning of the season).
And let’s not forget Jerebko’s perfomance in the postseason last year, underscoring that he can play down the stretch. If Jerebko continues to play solid in a supporting role, he may earn the trust of a nightly appearance in the starting lineup.
Potential deadline move
(Josue) Trade for Tyson Chandler
The veteran big man is the prototypical center the Celtics really need down low. At 34, Chandler can still protect the rim, grab boards and run the floor at an efficient rate. He’s having one of his best rebounding seasons of his career, averaging 11.7 a night and would put the C’s in good position to make a deep playoff run this year. Chandler’s contract expires in 2019 – giving the Celtics a serviceable center for the next two years.
Amir Johnson’s $12 million expiring contract and the Celtics’ 2019 first-round pick would free up cap space for Phoenix this summer and give them a second first-rounder in the latter years of their rebuilding phase.
Celtics will most likely need to get a third team involved in this speculative deal but if they can pull it off without giving up any of their core guys, Danny should pull the trigger.
(Logan) Tyler Zeller is the only player moved at the deadline, and it’s part of a three-team deal
Tyler Zeller has somewhat put himself in a “if a tree falls situation.” Brad Stevens giving him minutes is nothing beyond a mere formality at this point, with Zeller oftentimes not even seeing the floor.
He doesn’t provide anything the Celtics don’t currently have, but he is not totally worthless on the trade market in terms of skill. He is capable of grabbing rebounds, and a team could be willing to take a chance with him as an off the bench option if he is, in fact, part of a three-team deal.
Where you reach a problem is his contract. Zeller is in his first year of a two-year, 16-million dollar deal — not exactly team-friendly given what he brings to the table. If the Celtics were to move him they would likely have to eat some of that contract.
With Isaiah Thomas putting the team on his back at the end of games, the Celtics should have enough offensive firepower to close out wins against sub-.500 teams. Although they dropped a couple of games that they shouldn’t have, the C’s had a favorable January schedule.
Aside from Thomas’ absurd numbers, it’s the biggest reason why they’re sitting comfortably in second place in the East. Their toughest games from here on out will be one last meeting against the Raptors, one against the Warriors, two against the champion Cavaliers and other opponents like the Wizards and Bucks – teams that always give the C’s a good fight.
Still, I say they finish out the season, 20-11.
Here’s the good news: the Celtics are starting to figure out how to beat good teams.
The problem is, they are not totally adept at it, and after a softer stretch in late February/early March, they are going to see a lot of quality teams come their way. I don’t think they will totally fade, but I sooner trust Toronto to answer the late season call than the Celtics.
(Josue) Lose in conference semifinals
Brad Stevens will reach the next step in his NBA coaching career by winning his first playoff series. The Celtics will push the Raptors to six games in the conference semifinals but ultimately bow out against Toronto in what will be a very entertaining series.
(Logan) Lose in conference semifinals
While the East has grown in talent exponentially since, say, four years ago, there are still plenty of less than average teams that will get into the playoffs. If the Celtics do finish third and play the current six seed, it would be the Pacers. Not a huge problem.
From there, any remaining team could conceivably give the Celtics a run in a seven game series. If they were to draw the Hawks or Wizards, for example, they could absolutely compete. Cavs or Raptors? Not so much.
The Celtics are getting better, and I would not be astounded to see them make it to the conference finals, but depending on the matchup, I think conference semifinals will be as far as they go this season.
(Logan) James Harden
Let me preface this by saying it should be Russell Westbrook. What he’s done to put the Thunder on his back after Kevin Durant’s departure is nothing short of stunning, and the way he’s proven to crank out triple-doubles is equally impressive. The Thunder just don’t have the notoriety and power anymore for Westbrook winning to really be a logical option.
Harden, however, has carried a Rockets team that looks poised to make a deep run in the West. Still far from a shutdown defender, his consistency on offense (28.9 points, 11.4 assists, 8.2 rebounds) on a nightly basis has helped blast the Rockets into a legitimate competitor in the Western Conference.
(Josue) Russell Westbrook
Not only has Russell Westbrook stuffed a stat sheet better than anyone this year, he’s doing it on a playoff-bound Western Conference team that has no business reaching the postseason. While averaging a triple-double (30.9 points, 10.2 assists, 10.5 rebounds), Westbrook has lead the Thunder to a 30-23 record – good enough for seventh place out west.
To put that in perspective, if they were in the east they would be fighting with the Wizards for the fourth seed. Wow, that’s impressive, considering the fact the Thunder’s only other viable scorers are Victor Oladipo (16) and Steven Adams (12.1).
Yeah, not a whole lot of other options after those guys (was this the reason why Kevin Durant left?). Either way, there isn’t another player who is more valuable than Westbrook. Mr. Oklahoma City does it all.