After further review, the Celtics are capable of competing for the Eastern Conference crown. Nearly one-quarter through the season, the reshaped Celtics have been one of the surprise teams in the NBA, heading into Wednesday’s showdown with the Miami Heat with a 14-5 record.
That record has been accomplished with 12 of their 19 games away from TD Garden and already having endured a five-game West Coast road trip and 11 of those games without standout forward Gordon Hayward.
The Celtics are a harmonious bunch, having ridded themselves of the distractions and chaos of last season. Kemba Walker has been a better than adequate replacement for Kyrie Irving, primarily because he doesn’t demand to take over games down the stretch.
In Sunday’s win over the New York Knicks, the Celtics shared the closing-out duties. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown combined for 58 points. Walker had just 16, but scored when he was needed.
We have learned that chemistry is not overrated in NBA locker rooms. The Celtics could have been the most talented team in the league last season but never played like it and were unable to make the sacrifice to reach what was supposed to be the ultimate goal of a championship.
It’s been well chronicled that this team is different. But the differences are so apparent because the environment has allowed for everybody to share in the wealth of success. Tatum and Brown have each taken major steps forward because there is no scrutiny if they miss a key shot.
Walker seems so happy to be in a situation where he has a chance to win every night that he has no issue with his number of shots.
“I think we can get a lot better,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “And we’re encouraged by some of the things we are doing well. We haven’t played as well of late. Part of that is we’ve had a good stretch of tough games here and a lot of games on the road and the guys have shown that we’re capable of doing things, we just have to put it together. We haven’t played a 48-minute game yet.”
Stevens is right. The Celtics haven’t played as well lately and the schedule will only get more difficult with Miami, Denver, Indiana, Philadelphia, and Dallas ahead in the next two weeks.
This is how the Celtics can get even better because it appears the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference is up for grabs. Milwaukee, at 17-3 entering Monday, has won 11 straight games and looks to be the prohibitive favorite but there’s no reason why the Celtics can’t challenge them.
Here’s how the Celtics can improve:
1. Better center play
Stevens sent a message to Daniel Theis by playing him only seven minutes in Friday’s loss to the Brooklyn Nets. He replaced Theis with Enes Kanter, who is fully healthy and becoming more productive. Kanter posted his first double-double as a Celtic in just 16 minutes against the Knicks. Stevens said he has been shuttling his big men to find the right combination and it’s apparent he’s comfortable with rookie Grant Williams as an undersized center. Robert Williams is gaining confidence, although he didn’t return Sunday after his behind-the-back, no-look pass was intercepted by New York’s Taj Gibson for a score.
2. Better starts
The Celtics are 29th in the NBA in first-quarter scoring this season. They average 25 points, shoot 42.2 percent and 27.4 percent from the 3-point line in opening quarters this season. No one can figure out why the Celtics are starting so slowly. They trailed 7-2 Sunday against the Knicks and 12-4 Friday against the Nets. They are allowing teams to gain confidence early, forcing the Celtics to have to pull off challenging rallies to win. In three of their five losses — Sacramento, Denver, and Brooklyn — the Celtics fell behind by double-digits before having their rallies fall short.
Since its 107-93 opening night loss to the 76ers, Boston has lost four games by a total of 13 points.
3. Get Hayward Back
The Celtics’ recent cooling off has coincided with the broken hand suffered by Hayward, who is expected back later this month. Hayward is traveling with the team and is working out individually. He is taking passes and shooting jumpers without a splint on his surgically repaired left hand. The Celtics aren’t going to rush Hayward back but they can definitely use his scoring and playmaking, especially early in games.
4. More Wanamaker
Brad Wanamaker’s production has been hard to ignore. He’s been efficient each time he enters the game. He’s shooting 41.7 percent from the 3-point line and averaged 9.1 points and 20.5 minutes per game in 14 November games. Stevens is using Wanamaker in more situations with Walker, who shifts to shooting guard. And he may even consider using Wanamaker to close out games in an extra-small lineup with Walker at shooting guard. Wanamaker’s production brings another set of lineup possibilities for Stevens and he’ll definitely seek to maximize the potential of this roster.