By: Drew Belton
The Celtics return from the All-Star break with its team intact following the NBA trade deadline. Boston faces off in Utah tonight at 10:30 pm as they take on the 26-27 Jazz. Many Celtics fans expected Boston to return from the All-Star break with a different looking team, but the only face that won’t be seen at the far end of the Celtics bench tonight will be David Lee. Lee agreed to a buyout today with Boston after not being dealt at the deadline.
The Celtics came into the All-Star break winning 8 of their last 10 games, ranking 4th in points per game (105.7) and 3rd in defensive rating (102.2) They will hope to carry this style of winning basketball displayed over this stretch into the remaining 27 games of the season. The Celtics sit at 3rd place in the Eastern Conference behind 1st place Cleveland and 2nd place Toronto. Only 4 games separate Boston from the 8th place Bulls who currently control the last playoff spot. The Celtics cannot afford to give any ground, as the playoff race remains very tight. A top seed and home-court advantage will be very important for Boston if they wish to advance to the second round and see what they can do from there.
By no means is this team expected to take out a Cleveland, or maybe even a Toronto, but for Celtics fans, advancing to a second round would be a start. Obviously getting to the second round is nowhere near the end game for loyal Celtics fans, but for where Boston is at, for now it should be set for the Celtics to achieve in a worst case scenario. If this team can prove they can play the type of basketball they exhibited during the pre-all star stretch, those expectations can be adjusted. But for now, that’s a realistic expectation.
The Celtics will try and keep the winning going without the improving Kelly Olynyk, whose scoring ability has been on display this season. Olynyk injured his shoulder against the Clippers after being fouled by DeAndre Jordan. Olynyk has been solid from the 3 point line all season, and seems to spread out the offense. He has shown an ability to score in different ways, having skills not seen in many 7 footers. Boston will try and stay in the 3rd spot as they make a playoff push without contributions from Olynyk for at least 10 games according to espn.com. Here are my top 3 players I believe will step up their performances while Olynyk attempts to return from injury.
#1 Isaiah Thomas– Yes, it’s easy to go with the All-Star coming out of the break, but IT has been playing great basketball as of late. Maybe I have Thomas’ huge step-back against the Clippers replaying too much in my head, but his numbers don’t lie. Thomas had a huge game against the Clips, dropping a game high 36 points and 11 assists. I can see Thomas coming back from his all star experience in Toronto with some extra confidence and putting up big numbers just like he did against the Clippers. Thomas has averaged 20.8 ppg in his last 10, a number that I think will rise as the rest of the season plays out.
# 2 Tyler Zeller– With Olynyk’s absence, some Celtics big man should see an increase in minutes. I think Zeller will have a great opportunity to plead his case for more time. Zeller has averaged 8 points and 3.4 rebounds in his last 9 games played, while averaging just 14.1 minutes per game. With more time for Zeller I think he’ll see an increase in rebounds as well as points per game and will put together a solid stretch before Kelly returns.
#3. Evan Turner– Smart was tempting in the 3rd spot, but Turner has been playing solid of late. Coach Brad Stevens has been providing Turner with good minutes lately. Turner has averaged 29.2 minutes per game in the month of February. Over that 6 game stretch, he has been a contributor in all aspects of the game. He has averaged 13.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 6.7 assists per game. Turner has been playing great defense as of late, and has been a reliable playmaker for the Celtics off the bench.
The Celtics have been a fun team to watch this season for fans. They are a likeable, gritty group of players that enjoy playing together. They have certainly earned the respect of the Boston fan base. But at the end of the day, all fans really want is a championship. This Celtics team seemed to be against the idea of breaking up the group they have established here in Boston, as Jae Crowder stated in an article by ESPN’s Chris Forsberg. “We just had an All-Star,” said Crowder, motioning to Isaiah Thomas seated nearby. “So I don’t know what other superstar you want. But there’s a lot of talk about we need a superstar and stuff like that. But all five guys on the court are so locked in and so engaged that we’re one superstar. We all play together. It’s a scary thing when a team don’t know who to match up to, whose night it’s going to be on the offensive end. And, defensively, we all fight together and play together. It’s a scary approach.”
For the Celtics roster and Crowder, it seems that they got what they wished for. But for now, the ball is in their court. With the trade deadline passed, and the Celtics roster remaining the same, if the Celtics want to prove they are “one all star” the time is now. The clock is ticking. No one knows what could happen to this roster come draft night. Except for maybe Danny Ainge that is. The long awaited “fireworks” Celtics fans have been waiting for could go off on or before June 25th, In the home of the Brooklyn Nets, whose 1st round pick the Celtics own. This potential top 3 pick makes the draft and the lottery ping pong balls that more interesting for Celtics fans.