As the administrators of the biggest beatdown Steve Kerr’s Warriors have ever absorbed in Oakland, they looked happy, cohesive, and dangerous. Then they built on that a night later by going up to Sacramento and making a sequence of critical plays to outlast the young, spunky Kings, validating the statement made with a couple of wins by overcoming their season-long difficulties in both back-to-back situations and on enemy courts.
It’s been a good week after a series of rough ones for the Celtics, who enter a weekend matchup with LeBron James and the Lakers as winners in three of four tilts to this point in March, when their lone loss came to the rising Rockets and James Harden. In the process they appear to have left behind the lows of the four-game losing streak that preceded this surge, and so now the question begging to be answered is how they’ve so suddenly flipped a switch. Or, better yet, whether they can sustain it.
But maybe the answer isn’t so complicated.
Maybe it’s as simple as the realities of this make-or-miss NBA.
Consider this: Against both the Warriors and Kings, the Celtics made better than 39 percent of their 3-point shots. After those wins, they’re now 20-3 when doing so, with one of those defeats coming when scoring 128 points against the Lakers.
This season, the Celtics have attempted essentially the same number of 3s in wins (35.2 per game) as in losses (34.5) — but have made an average of nearly three more in victories (13.9) than in defeats (11.0). They were right in line with those this week, hitting 14 on Tuesday, then 13 on Wednesday.
So, the magic elixir curing things at the start of this road trip could simply be better shooting.
Of course, then, in the modern NBA, it stands to reason that defending the 3-point shot matters, too. The Celtics did that against the Warriors, then got away with not doing it as well against the Kings, who hit 44.8 percent from beyond the arc that night. Boston survived it, but the win improved the Celtics to just 5-13 when allowing an opponent to shoot better than that 39 percent plateau on 3s.
Defense was the Celtics’ biggest problem while going 5-6 in February, allowing January’s average of 104.7 points allowed to balloon to 112.2 the next month. Thus far, it’s back down to 103.3 in March — but in the end, the results may come down to whether or not the Celtics can defend the 3-point line and at the other end cash in on the good looks they create for themselves.
Here’s a look at the players Brad Stevens is counting on to make that happen in our latest edition of the Celtics power rankings:
14. Brad Wanamaker (No. 12 in last edition): In other recent games when the Celtics have been without Irving, Wanamaker has played a backup role at point guard — but he never checked in against the Kings’ speedy backcourt. It marked his seventh DNP in eight games since the All-Star break.
13. Guerschon Yabusele (14): That the rest of the guys were so exaggeratedly excited for every contribution he made in the garbage-time minutes of the win at Golden State speaks highly of him as a teammate. The starters reacting like the scholarship varsity does when the walk-on gets some run isn’t quite as good a look for what the team’s current expectations are of him as a player. Boston’s former first-round pick has played a total of 28 minutes, while accumulating 16 DNPs, since Jan. 15.
12. Robert Williams (13): His cameo against the Wizards — when Stevens summoned him just to defend an out-of-bounds play in the final minutes, then watched his rookie get worked in the paint for an uncontested dunk — was his only action in the past week. He hasn’t blocked an NBA shot since Jan. 13. Hope of him adding a presence around the basket in the postseason is practically extinguished.
11. Daniel Theis (10): With Aron Baynes back and Al Horford playing well, Theis’s responsibilities have been significantly reduced — but that could be a good thing. He’s at his best as a burst of energy who isn’t afraid to be aggressive defensively or on the glass, and this month he’s averaging 3.5 rebounds and 2.5 fouls in 11 minutes of action. That’s a good role for him.
10. Semi Ojeleye (11): Per 100 possessions, the Celtics are 12 points better than their opponents when Ojeleye is on the court, which is the highest rating on the team. Stevens continues to reserve the small forward’s opportunities for specific matchups, typically at the defensive end, but among the players at the end of the rotation Ojeleye might have the biggest chance of making an impact in a playoff series.
9. Aron Baynes (8): It’s been a sluggish return to the lineup for the big man, whose availability became highly anticipated as the Celtics struggled on the defensive end throughout February. Thus far he hasn’t made a major impact on that end, is just 1-of-5 offensively, and has rebounded at an average rate.
8. Terry Rozier (9): A 16-point effort against the Kings again showed what he can do in a starting role, but as a reserve he still hasn’t figured a way to be more consistent, even as his responsibilities seem to have steadied. Offensively there are ups, and there are downs, to the degree that he rates as the Celtics’ least-efficient scorer, and his defense has been average at best.
7. Marcus Morris (3): Morris averaged better than 18 points in December, when he played his way into the starting lineup by shooting the lights out. Since then he’s dipped to 12.6 points per game while shooting 32 percent from 3-point range and 42.1 percent overall. It may be time to move Morris back to the bench.
6. Marcus Smart (4): Not since his rookie year has Smart attempted more than half his shots from 3-point range — until this year. He enters the weekend with 62.9 percent of his field goal attempts coming from distance, and by hitting a career-best 36.4 percent of those he’s earning those chances. What’s noteworthy is that he isn’t actually shooting any more 3s than he did a year ago; but he’s shooting roughly half as many 2-pointers and has dipped to less than two free throw tries per game. He remains in the middle of things at the defensive end, but offensively he’s become much more restricted to the perimeter.
5. Jaylen Brown (7): As the Celtics have encountered the offenses of the Rockets, Warriors, and Kings over the past week, Brown has regularly extended his defense beyond the arc, dogging his mark out near the midcourt at times, and badgering opponents. He’s also in the midst of a nine-game streak of scoring in double figures. As opposed to Rozier, on most nights it looks like Brown has settled into his role nicely.
4. Gordon Hayward (6): It’s hard not to overreact in an assessment of Hayward after he follows up a 30-point performance by sinking a game-winner the next night. But those, the signature moments of his time as a Celtic, simply underscore his importance to the success of his team. When he makes at least half his shots, they’re 19-2. When he’s involved and aggressive enough to shoot it at least 10 times, they’re 18-6. When he makes at least two 3s, they’re 14-5. When he scores at least a dozen, they’re 20-4. The problem is that through 66 games he’s done none of those things more than 24 times. And in the five games before Golden State, he averaged 5.2 points on 31 percent shooting. He’s not yet the player he was — but at times he’s exactly the player the Celtics need.
3. Jayson Tatum (2): He’s the Celtics’ second-best player, though in the context of the league his 16.3 points per game is tied for 57th with the Rockets’ Eric Gordon. One spot ahead of them is the Raptors’ Pascal Siakam, and one spot behind is the Clippers’ Montrezl Harrell. Tatum is an excellent player who regular shows why his ceiling is so high — but it’s just his second year, and those reminders come regularly, too.
2. Al Horford (5): Consistency at both ends of the floor is something this team has sorely lacked, and what Horford has delivered lately. He’s been more aggressive in looking for his own shot (he averaged 14 field goal attempts a game over a stretch around the All-Star break) and he’s surpassed the 20-point plateau three times in the past 10 games. His minutes are up, and in Sacramento he grabbed almost 41 percent of the defensive rebounds available while he was on the floor. He’s earned his max-contract money in year three of the deal.
1. Kyrie Irving (1): He missed the Kings game with a left thigh contusion, and as a result has sat for seven of Boston’s last 19 contests. It could be that the oft-injured Irving is going through his annual ailments — but it seems more a case of Irving having already transitioned his focus beyond the regular season. He’s made comments suggesting as much, and that it’s really the playoffs that matter, so Celtics fans might just have to deal with whatever performance or attitude they get from Kyrie over the next 16 games, knowing that the postseason figures to be a truer test of Irving’s ability to lead this team to its promised objectives.