For the Celtics, the All-Star break offered a chance to rest, regroup and start preparing for this season’s stretch run that holds more promise than a few months ago.
Coach Ime Udoka returned home to Brooklyn for a few days, but it was hardly a vacation. He said he wanted to “dive in” and examine what was working well for his team before the break, and what needed to be fixed in order to make a deep playoff run.
When he looked back on the film, he found that the team’s departures which had been a problem at one point this season had improved significantly. Of course, it helped to have his regular starting lineup available. And his study just reaffirmed just how dominant the group of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Robert Williams and Al Horford has been.
“Our numbers are out of the ordinary at both ends of the pitch,” Udoka said.
The unit has an offensive rating of 115.3 and a defensive rating of 88.8. To put those numbers into perspective, this offensive rating would put Boston just behind the league-leading Jazz (115.9 points per 100 possessions) and the defensive rating would be almost 16 points per 100 possessions better than the leaders Warriors. of the league (104.6).
“Offensively, keep playing with the pace and sharing the ball,” Udoka said. “And you look at passing numbers from simple things like passes per game and assist percentage, it just means we’re doing the right thing. We have increased in all of these areas. The shots are starting to drop, obviously those assist numbers are increasing. But passes in general have gone from 27th at some point in the last 20 games or so, into the top 10. So only ball movement in general, less isolation and more team play, has been beneficial for we.
The Celtics resurrected their season with their recent nine-game winning streak that propelled them to sixth place in the Eastern Conference, last place above the play-in tournament 7-10. Although they suffered a slight disappointment last Wednesday when the streak was cut short by a home loss to the lowly Pistons, the team is convinced that was just an aberration.
Additionally, Smart (ankle) and Williams (calf) both missed that game and were cleared to face the Nets on Thursday.
“Really, I was just looking forward to coming back, man,” said Williams, who has been out for two games. “I can’t wait to get out there and race today. The coaches kept asking ‘Am I okay?’ And I tell them I’m ready to go. So, just ready to get that feeling back, a feeling of victory.
Thursday’s game against the Nets was expected to provide a significant test to start that home stretch. But Brooklyn, which dropped to eighth in the East, will remain significantly shorthanded, with starters Kevin Durant (knee), Ben Simmons (personal), Kyrie Irving (vaccine warrant) and Joe Harris (ankle).
Unlike the meeting between these teams earlier this month, in which the Brooklyn roster was completely decimated, the Nets will have at least some reinforcements. Guard Seth Curry and center Andre Drummond, who were acquired from the 76ers as part of the Simmons/James Harden deal, are expected to be available. And the Nets recently signed veteran guard Goran Dragic, who could make his debut.
“Approach it the same way we approached the last game we played them,” Williams said. “We approach every game the same way. Coach Udoka always tells us that it doesn’t matter who they have. Each team has gone through trials and triumphs throughout this year. So approach every game the same way and try to win.
The Celtics don’t really need bench depth anymore, especially considering how Udoka has reduced his rotation to eight players most nights. But there will still be some new faces on Thursday.
Boston signed forwards Malik Fitts and Kelan Martin to 10-day contracts on Wednesday. Martin, who was recruited by Butler by Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens before Stevens was hired as Celtics coach, played 93 games in three NBA seasons with the Timberwolves and Pacers, with an average of 5.6 points and 2.4 rebounds. Fitts has played in seven games for the Jazz this year, averaging 0.9 points and 1.4 rebounds.
“We’re looking for a specific skill set with these guys, how they fit into our team, and we like how they fit into that role,” Udoka said.
The Celtics had to fill two of their three empty spots because their two-week grace period below the 14-player minimum had passed. Udoka said the Celtics could also explore the buyout market in the coming weeks. Players who are canceled before March 1 will be eligible for the playoffs, regardless of when they are signed.