BOSTON — Ime Udoka set out to break the habits instilled in this Celtics team this season, yielding inconsistent returns in his first half season. It won’t happen overnight, he repeated.
He’s called the group out for effort, isolation play, getting downhill and withstanding runs. A 25-point collapse in New York exasperated him, taking him to the next level of challenging their mental toughness. Momentary successes have rarely satisfied him, stressing consistency, until Tuesday after the Celtics scored their second blowout in a row, by the second-largest margin in team history, 128-75 over the Kings. Udoka sounded proud.
“Everybody kind of follows (Brown and Tatum’s) lead. They’re buying in on both sides of the court, guarding extremely well, and then carrying over from last game offensively, that was great to come out and see,” Udoka said post-game. “They are the two pillars and leaders of the team. When they come out and play with that intensity, everybody seems to follow suit. Everybody has a role, obviously Robert’s huge out there, Marcus is doing some of the same things, but those guys really set the tone offensively. The effort that they’re giving on defense, and holding a team to 30 in this day and age in the NBA is obviously high level defense in the first half.”
The Celtics’ recent opponents, two fragile defenses in Washington and Sacramento, should be considered in evaluating these victories. Still, Udoka looped in the group’s progression from blowout wins over the Knicks and Pacers, late-game and overtime heroics in the first Pacers win, along with stealing a win in the final moments over Chicago. They’ve now won 7-of-10. Slip-ups, like Friday’s 11-point meltdown, show how far the Celtics have to go.
In terms of habits, they’re checking some boxes, and have been in enough fourth-quarter situations that practice could never provide to establish a blueprint for solving that issue.
The biggest progress might be visual, less Jayson Tatum time on the bike separated from the team and more along the sidelines, laughing with Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart during a rare Gino Time at TD Garden on Tuesday. Winning and shot-making finally looked fun for an exhausted-looking roster instead of relief.
Grant Williams’ jovial bench displays were a constant during the past two games, to pair with his decisive and active efforts on the floor. Josh Richardson continues to hype up Aaron Nesmith for his spot appearances, while Smart’s ominous message of love to his teammates flowed into 13 assists and only 12 shot attempts over his last two games, posting a +36 +/- in back-to-back games. Tatum talked about how much he loves playing with Robert Williams III.
“Facts,” Williams III said at practice on Wednesday. “You know, I love playing with JT (too). I think it’s just bond that we’ve built on-and-off the court … I know what spots he’s trying to get to on the court … got a pretty good feel for where the other’s gonna be.”
Smart swiped Deuce Tatum away from his dad as they chatted with former teammate Tristan Thompson post-game, taking fake swipes at each other along the sideline when he let Deuce down. Grant and Tatum shared their own fake boxing match along the sideline, and Tatum even took part in the t-shirt toss.
Tatum hit the Auerbach Center late on Monday night to get treatment and shots up before the Kings game, while a group including Richardson, Grant, Brown and Williams III lifted in the Garden following the win on Tuesday. None of it is any assurance that the group would stay together through a spirited comeback by a good team and end the snowballing. It is, nonetheless, a step.
“It’s just something to build on,” Tatum said. “Hopefully we continue to look forward and not backtrack. We’re feeling good about ourselves, but we’ve got a long way to go and we’ll take it one game at a time.”
On the court, Tatum found Brown for his first three baskets after Brown’s decisive defensive mistake in the Portland game and continued struggles in Washington. Both hit the 30-point mark by the fourth quarter, comfortably assisting each other and pushing the pace. Their connection in the passing game is now rarely a question following months of emphasis, now up to 9.5 passes per game between each other (15.5 in January).
Udoka more recently stressed getting the ball up the floor, the Celtics recording their season-high in kick-ahead passes during the first half, with the staff counting 18. They’ve shown film repeatedly where the Celtics can get out on the fast break, which Udoka said he believes can propel Boston’s offense into the top-10. Even Tatum, typically slow-paced and bent on breaking defenders down in the half court, has committed to a faster style.
The team moved ahead of Dallas into fourth in the NBA in defense (106.4 rating), now seventh in net rating (+3.1) ahead of the Grizzlies. The scrutinized Smart, Brown, Tatum, Al Horford and Williams III starting unit is posting an unimaginable 91.3 defensive rating, the best in the NBA by over two points per possession for lineups with 170 minutes together. Tuesday marked their second consecutive game setting a tone in their own end and turning stops into early offense that Washington and Sacramento never overcame.
It’s all working well now, but what about when the schedule ramps up again? When things fall apart in a fourth quarter? We only have to look back to Friday to find an example there.
When Tatum starts missing shots and isn’t as happy? When an injury arises? Udoka and the group have long lauded what they’d look like as the full version of themselves. They’ve struggled to sustain even a single injury or COVID case to a key player.
“With the full roster, it feels like we can come in layers and waves, so to speak,” Udoka said. “With all of our guys back off the bench and guys kind of in their normal role that they played in earlier in the year. So we don’t have to rest and guys don’t have to take those breaks on the court.”
That’s part of the fortitude, focus and toughness conversation with the Celtics, beyond their ability in the clutch. Boston still ranks 21st in offense and 23rd in defense in the fourth quarter. They’ve basically been the Trail Blazers (-4.0 net rating) when it’s mattered most and both teams court their best lineups, and even that’s an improvement over their pre-January mark (-9.6).
Games against bigger centers (Jusuf Nurkic), drop defenses (Jonas Valanciunas and Joel Embiid), more consistent traps and teams that successfully take the ball out of Tatum’s hands hurt the Celtics most this month. Those still project to be an issue for Boston, even if Tatum got some reps against horrific Sacramento doubles and follow-up rotations.
Shooting is the grey area. Udoka favors downhill movement and spreading the ball to the perimeter, increasing Boston’s free throw rate in year one, but regularly running into a three-point shooting wall. He wants the team’s shooters to remain confident despite the lagging results. Those threes began falling over the last two victories, the Celtics attempting 45 (at 44.4%) over Sacramento and 49 (at 48.7%) at Washington.
They’ve enjoyed open looks all season from deep and their 34.3% mark is within a percentage point of league average, warranting their roughly league-average attempts. The shots at the rim are what they need to ramp up, and transition offense could be part of solving that problem too.
This is all to say this collective is trying. They’ve put the effort in over recent months, hitting enormous bumps and amounting to another disappointing season. Their inconsistency on offense defines them until further notice, and the head coach’s rigidness and possible front office stagnancy may render this all moot in terms of any long-term direction.
Reports still indicate offloading activity in process, and it may be too late to save any contention hopes this season. A long-term view would be wise, and that’s also something that’s been a struggle from the coaching perspective. It took until several minutes into the fourth quarter with a 40-point lead in hand to spill Payton Pritchard and Romeo Langford into the game. The way Grant and Langford tensed up in a key fourth-quarter spot playing off Tatum against Portland is concerning for their progression.
This was always about the ground floor for Udoka though. Implementing new habits and changing the way this group players together. That’s what makes these last two wins encouraging.
“I think that we have improved in a lot of areas,” Brown said at shootaround. “Offensively, as a team, as a coaching staff, players. I think we’ve gotten a little more comfortable. Now, we’ve got to keep that sense of urgency.”