(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
To put it lightly, the Celtics offense is hurting without Jae Crowder's versatility. They're also missing Jonas Jerebko's ability to spread the floor while Kelly Olynyk shakes off the rust from a shoulder problem. For a team known for its depth, one might think that injuries wouldn't slow them down too much. After watching them over the last several games, which include four consecutive losses, I've noticed that the team dynamic has changed so much over the course of this season that it makes them stronger as a whole, but weaker when divided. Allow me to explain:
Before this season started, the Celtics were projected to win between 40 and 50 games, and they've more or less lived up to those expectations so far. However, the stats-based optimism didn't come without some question marks. The team was still lacking a strong identity, as they were still playing the hero-by-committee offense early this year, dating back to February 2015. There were doubts as to if Isaiah Thomas was truly a star level player, and if he was, if the roster had enough firepower to back him up. By about mid-season, these concerns were more than justified as the team struggled to push their record beyond .500. 4th quarters were exciting but concerning, as we could only hope that one of the 10 players who could be given playing time in the closing minutes would catch fire and steal a victory. Back then, an injury would hardly dent the rotation as coach Stevens was still experimenting pretty heavily with line ups, and we could never assume we knew who would play in the 4th quarter.
It's a bit different now. We know that Isaiah is a star, and we know there are other scoring options to back him up. Crowder and Olynyk have emerged as guys who can shoot from just about anywhere as well as find opportunities to drive to the basket. There's much less debate now as to who should get the 4th quarter minutes in my opinion, as a small-ball unit of Thomas, Crowder, Smart, Bradley, and Sullinger brings suffocating defense to create opportunities for clutch offense. To add size and/or spread the floor even more, Olynyk and Turner can be swapped in for any two of those guys. Having two of the three best scoring options sidelined has proven to be too much to overcome.
With the rotation narrowed down, the Celtics went on an absolute tear, going 20-7 since their last four game losing streak brought their record to 19-19. As the team's core has strengthened, it has also become more vulnerable to injuries. If there's any silver lining to the recent losing streak, it's that it showed us how much they've improved just over the course of roughly 2/3 of a season.
A game against the 9-win Sixers stopped the bleeding and a quality win over Orlando, in part due to Olynyk’s return to excellence, has restored some of the team’s balance. After shooting 5 of 22 in his first three games back (1 of 10 from deep), Olynyk broke out for 22 points in 21 minutes (4 of 6 from deep) do go along with 5 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 steals. More importantly, his play was critical in helping the Celtics distance themselves from an opponent late in the game, something they have struggled to do recently. If Marcus Smart’s 4 of 25 three point shooting over his last five games is any indication, Olynyk’s shooting was desperately needed against Orlando.