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Brand New Boston: Identity Change Has Celtics Streaking

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The first half of the season in Boston did not go well. After a sluggish start and a few speed bumps along the way, the Celtics have suddenly emerged as a serious playoff team in the loaded Eastern Conference.

Brand New Boston: Identity Change Has Celtics Streaking

Things have gotten tight at the top of the standings in the East. With the All-Star break coming this weekend, the top six teams are separated by just 4.5 games. One of those teams is currently the hottest team in the league, riding an eight-game winning streak. The Celtics have won 10 of their last 11 games heading into tonight’s showdown with their division rival 76ers.

Early in the season, it appeared as though the Celtics were coming to a crossroads. The team was not able to gel and Marcus Smart voiced his displeasure with the lack of ball movement by their two stars, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Rumors began to swirl about the long-term future of these two wings, but the organization stood firm on their ability to play together.

The return of Al Horford was supposed to provide a solid veteran presence. The versatile big man has been a great fit alongside the emerging Robert Williams. Boston has been able to successfully utilize a lineup with these two on the floor together, which has been a major reason why their defense ranks 2nd in defensive rating.

Dennis Schroder was arguably the best bargain of the offseason but the veteran point guard just didn’t ever click in Boston. The Celtics moved Schroder (with Enes Freedom and Bruno Fernando) to Houston in exchange for Daniel Theis. The defensive big man returns to the team where he spent his first four seasons.

The best move that Boston made was sending Josh Richardson and Romeo Langford to the Spurs in order to get Derrick White. The 27-year old guard has already shown to be the perfect fit in Beantown, providing incredible value at both ends of the floor. In his first game as a Celtic, White scored 15 points and pulled down 6 rebounds in their victory over the Nuggets. He followed that up with a 14 point, 5 assist, 2 steals, and 1 block performance in a win over the Hawks on Sunday.

The arrival of White gives Boston an elite defensive unit with him and Smart in the backcourt. It is a small sample size, but the Smart/White combination has a plus 17.8 net rating in 36 minutes together. They also have four excellent frontcourt options in Tatum, Brown, Horford, and Williams. This allows the Celtics to match up against any of the elite stars in the playoffs. As a team that likes to switch on screens, their versatility on defense will make them a tough out in the postseason.

“Derrick is a threat,” Brown said. “You’ve got to respect him, you’ve got to guard him. He makes shots, plays the game like a playmaker. So it just opens the floor up for everybody else. Having Derrick out there as just another guy who just fits right in. Capable shooter, can also drive and make plays for others and is another guy on the defensive end who can help us get stops and take charges.”

White will help with their three-point shooting as well, as they rank 24th in the league in shooting from distance. The Celtics are also 18th in scoring and 24th in pace. Those are two areas that should improve as White takes over those minutes that were going to Schroder and Richardson.

After all of their recent moves, the Celtics now have a bunch of open roster spots to fill. The buyout market could provide them with even more depth as they try to round out their roster in the final 22 games of the regular season. Head coach Ime Udoka believes they need more perimeter scoring. “Obviously, shooting is what we’re looking for,” Udoka told reporters prior to Sunday’s game against Atlanta.

The team just signed Luke Kornet and Sam Hauser, and still has a few open spots to fill. Gary Harris is a player that Boston should be interested in if Orlando buys out his contract. Free-agent DeAndre’ Bembry is another piece that could be a solid contributor for the Celtics. Boston doesn’t necessarily need someone from the buyout market, as they are playing at an elite level right now.

During this eight-game winning streak, the Celtics have a 95.8 defensive efficiency rating. That is 9.5 points better than any other team in the league. Boston has also made 323 passes in those eight games, which is the second-highest total in that time span. It speaks volumes about their ball movement on offense, which has made them incredibly difficult to defend. Their offense has greatly improved, and they are playing much faster.

Boston currently ranks fourth in fourth-quarter net rating over their last 15 games. They are outscoring their opponents by more than 10 points per 100 possessions. “I think we’re just cooking,” Tatum said. “Obviously, this game and last game, it felt like we gave up too many points, and then the second half, we buckled down a little bit, made some adjustments and I think we locked down more in the second half and it really showed.”

A couple of months ago the Celtics were one of the most disappointing teams in the league. Now they are the hottest team in the association, thanks to the moves by Brad Stevens, the coaching of Udoka, and of course the players for making adjustments and playing better together. The pieces are finally coming together in Boston.