The Celtics have had more drama this season than an entire season of The Walking Dead.
- They lost their best two-way player 5 minutes into the season.
- They went on a 16 game winning streak that included electrifying comebacks and elite defense.
- Irving broke his face.
- Rookie Jayson Tatum led the league in 3 point percentage for over a month, forcing talking-heads to start asking questions about his ROY candidacy.
- 2nd Year player Jaylen Brown lost his best friend (RIP) and came back to propel the Celtics to a huge win over the Warriors. Brown had multiple important baskets, a blocked shot against Durant, a blocked shot against Thompson, and a steal from Curry.
- The Celtics have played 4 games more than anyone in the NBA.
- The Celtics have rotated through 6 rookies this season.
- The IT vs. Ainge and Irving saga offers ongoing drama building anticipation of the Eastern Conference Finals.
- The ongoing whispers of trading for Anthony Davis (or another big name) give a constant low current buzz around the Celtics.
Although the Celtics started 16-2, its actually been the last 23 games (15-8) that will prove to be the most important stretch of the season for the Celtics.
Why? Because of player development. Because new players continue to get comfortable in the Celtic system.
Terry Rozier is a prime example of this. The Celtics have relied on Rozier to learn how to score off the bench. He’s been wildly inconsistent all season, but Brad Stevens has committed to force-feeding Rozier in the second unit.
Rozier is averaging 10 points per game on 45-43-76 shooting splits over the last 23 games. Also, his turnovers are down, his rebounds remain high, and he is figuring out how to create for others.
Smart’s shooting splits 27-26-78 through the 16-2 stretch were terrible, but he has 40-33-63 shooting splits over the last 23 games. That doesn’t make him a shooter, but it does make him respectable. Combine that with Smart’s increasing mastery of the pick-and-roll game and upper-tier defense, and Smart is a key cog to to move the Celtics into title contention.
Brown has learned how to pick his spots on the court better as well. Brown is shooting 49% from the floor overall and 41% from three over the last 23 games. Although he has struggled more with foul trouble and his free throw shooting in that stretch, his offensive efficiency has taken a step forward.
But it’s not just young guys. It’s also veterans who are improving their comfort within the Celtic system. In the last 23 games, Kyrie Irving has averaged 27 points per game with 50-43-90 shooting splits.
Horford’s assists are up over that stretch. Theis’ fouls are down. Baynes’ efficiency is up. Yabusele is getting good minutes. Semi is working out his shooting jitters. Larkin has figured out how to be a timely scoring punch off the bench. Even Nader has played an important role as an energy guy.
The only players whose numbers are essentially the same are Jayson Tatum (rookie) and Marcus Morris (injuries make it a small sample size).
The Celtics are the sixth youngest team in the NBA this year. Four of the top five are not playoff teams. The other one is the about-to-be-blown-up Blazers (19-18). Meanwhile, the Celtics have a .76 winning percentage, which is 2nd in the NBA.
There are other reasons why the Celtics have struggled over the last 23 games, but one unexplored possibility is that Brad Stevens is force-feeding development. That’s always painful because it costs wins (just ask the Wolves, Sixers, and Suns), but it’s also necessary to win in the long run.
If the Celtics can get the same level of production from their team over the last 23 games (15-8), while figuring out how to leverage that production into wins, then they can compete with anyone in the playoffs.