The Boston Celtics Still Play Like They’re Underdogs

Reality check, we should expect winning more than we hope for it.

While dashing through the jungle of NBA centers to recover lost double-digit leads, Isaiah Thomas has been key in closing games for the Celtics this season. Such has been the case since he came to Boston, but the Celtics roster has evolved since then. They should be able to slam the door on teams like Brooklyn, Philly, and Minnesota earlier in the game than they did. Quick reality check—our-max-player-has-only-played-in-half-our-games Boston Celtics are currently two games out of first place in their conference. It’s time to face the music, they’re no longer the lovable underdogs. 

Still, we find ourselves on the edge of our recliners at the end of each game thinking “Please, for all that is holy, Isaiah, don’t let us lose to the 76ers, who currently don’t have Joel Embiid or any other formidable talent for that matter.” Lucky for us, Isaiah is one of the best fourth-quarter players in the league right now. His 7.9 points per final period only trail Damian Lillard (8.2) and, of course, Russell Westbrook (9.9). Isaiah scores more points at the free throw line (3.6) than any other Celtic scores in the fourth quarter from anywhere, apart from Al Horford (3.7) and Avery Bradley (4.7).

When the games are so close, you start to look at the little things that could give the Celtics the extra push. Obviously, the discussion revolved around free throws and rebounds all year but how about shot selection? How many times have we seen Kelly Olynyk try to pump fake a defender on an uncontested three-pointer, followed by a drive and an awkward pass? How many more times will Terry Rozier slice through the defense and still look to pass back to the outside? Olynyk and Rozier have the skills to put the ball on the floor and get to the rack, but neither of them has done it quick like Jonas Jerebko has done recently.

This video starts off exactly how I don’t want it to. Terry Rozier blows by three defenders, encountering a fourth defender still ahead of him near the basket, all the while the final potential defender is nowhere nearby. You may notice that the defender near the basket does not commit to blocking the shot, and yet no shot was attempted. Still, Rozier still does the next best thing by finding an open Jerebko in the corner, who fakes and makes his move. It’s a little contradictory to show a highlight to make this point, but Rozier turning down an uncontested layup is undoubtedly the wrong decision here. The move Jerebko makes is what more Celtics should be looking to do – take advantage of the opening instead of looking to make another extra pass. Note that Jerebko has two defenders close by, but neither stop him because a moment of indecision leaves them both wondering if their teammate will contest the shot. Capitalization on these moments can win games, just ask Patty Mills.

The Celtics now play their games with a target on their back. Teams aren’t going to ignore the opportunity to stuff them just like Miami’s defense did somehow twice on the same play. Plenty of teams would’ve gladly added Al Horford last summer, but he chose Boston, so you better believe they’re going to want him to regret it. 12-8 is not an illustrious record, but it still puts them two games out of first place in the east. In the rear-view, the next seven teams in the standings are all within 2.5 games. It’s a weird place to be when you expect to be a top five team by the end of the year, but are unsure if you can edge out a win against Philadelphia. Among other things, look to see if the Celtics can be more decisive with the ball in the coming games.

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