By Kyle Taylor, sports columnist
With a little over half of the NBA season in the books and All-Star weekend just a few weeks away, the Celtics have put themselves in a pristine position to close out the season. Celtics fans have had plenty to cheer about this year, and if taking the then-undefeated Warriors to double overtime is a testament, they’re doing far better than expected.
At the start of the season, I wrote an article that said the Celtics would have a 55-win season. While they have certainly lost games that they should have won, vice-versa is true, as well. Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder emerged as the leaders on the Celtics, both having spectacular seasons, and have time and time again been the spark and the playmakers needed when the game is on the line.
They have a soon-to-be All-Star – or All-Star snub – in Thomas. Thomas is the craftiest scorer in the league and an absolute work horse. You will find yourself saying “How did he do that?” multiple times while watching him make defenders look silly. He is the facilitator on the Celtics and has an amazing knack for scoring, especially considering he is only 5 feet 8 inches tall. While his defense leaves a lot to be desired, the Celtics would not have made it this far without his scoring capabilities. Thomas is one of the five players in the NBA that is averaging 20 points and 6.5 assists. The other four players are Damian Lillard, James Harden, John Wall and Russell Westbrook. Thomas has the highest plus-minus rating of the group and is ninth in the league. To leave him out of the All-Star game would be a major snub and a sign that the coaches fail to acknowledge the importance that Isaiah Thomas has to the Celtics’ overall success.
Jae Crowder has been critical to the team’s success as well. Crowder’s proven to be like red wine: he only got better with time. When the Celtics acquired Crowder from the Dallas Mavericks during the 2014-2015 season, he averaged 9.5 points and 4.6 rebounds on 28 percent shooting in 57 games wearing green. This season, Crowder’s numbers have been on an upward trend since the start. For the month of January, Crowder has scored 17 points per game, grabbed 5 rebounds, and has shot 46 percent. He is having a career year on all fronts, and in close games it has often been his plays that have given the Celtics what they need to tip the scale in their favor. His proficiency on both ends of the floor has hopefully made him indispensable to the system that head coach Brad Stevens has crafted, especially because he will become a free agent this year.
But it has not just come from these two. The bench has been superb, and when Crowder and Thomas falter, another steps up in their place. Kelly Olynyk has been great this season, spacing the floor and hitting the three well, especially in clutch situations. Evan Turner has aided the Celtics by providing matchup issues and playmaking.
Brad Stevens has been excellent this year, making the necessary in-game adjustments and late-game play calls to seal out wins. Since the start of the season, he has benched David Lee and Tyler Zeller after having them as the starting front court. Per the suggestion in my first article, Amir Johnson and Jared Sullinger have replaced the duo as power forward and center, respectively. Both Sullinger and Johnson have produced well, but the Celtics are still in need of a superior rebounder and interior defender to accompany the stellar backcourt defense they have in Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley.
David Lee has seen his minutes dwindle away into nothing as of late, and it is safe to say that the 11-year veteran will be looking for a new place to work come the offseason when he becomes a free agent. Without his hefty contract following him around, Lee can hope for a nice deal on a competing team.
Looking forward, the Celtics are the fifth seed in the East and are definitely on track to make the playoffs barring anything disastrous. While I stand by my statement that the Celtics still don’t have what it takes to win a championship this season, I could not be much happier with the team I am watching. With a plethora of young talent developing nicely, the Celtics have options on how they want to play their cards in building a championship team. There is no need for any “tanking” in hopes of a better draft pick, since they already hold the sure lottery pick of the Brooklyn Nets. All they have to do is compete.
The Celtics are just a hop, skip and a jump away from being contenders once again. At this point in the season, the Celtics have a high possibility of landing anywhere between 50-55 wins. If the missing pieces can be put together, the Celtics may be popping champagne in the locker room again, sooner than anyone would have thought.