By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
Last spring, the Celtics and 76ers rekindled a decades-old rivalry in a second round playoff series featuring a boatload of young talent, some premature confetti, and Boston reigning victorious in five games, despite being down two of their best players.
Seven months later, the two teams are set for a Christmas Day matchup. The rosters have changed rather dramatically, with Philly adding an All-Star in Jimmy Butler. And while Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward have returned to the fold for Boston, they're still searching for an identity nearly halfway through the season.
For many, the NBA doesn't really kick off until Christmas. If so, the Celtics can discard an uneven start to the campaign, one that saw them at .500 through 20 games, following that up with an eight-game win streak, then dropping three straight before Sunday night's blowout victory over the Hornets.
The nationally televised Bucks loss Friday night was perhaps the most visible failure for the Celtics so far. Milwaukee out-rebounded Boston 55-36, marking the third consecutive game the Celtics dealt with a rebounding deficit, while the defense hemorrhaged 115 points per game over that span. Further, Boston’s lack of offensive creativity resurfaced, resulting in a bevy of clanged three-point attempts (just 32 percent over those games).
It’s easy to overreact to a small sample size, just as one might have overstated the significance of an eight-game run of victories over sub-.500 teams. The Celtics weren’t just winning these games, they were blowing out those opponents, with an average margin of victory of 23 points. For the first time, the green machine appeared to be running smoothly, as nearly everyone got the numbers we’d expected from them at the optimistic outset of the season.
Kyrie Irving continued to get his, tallying 24 points and seven assists a night on 50 percent shooting, while Gordon Hayward played his best basketball as a Celtic, posting 13.5 points, five rebounds and five assists on 49 percent shooting and 60 percent from beyond the arc. Jayson Tatum looked like that elusive second option, averaging 18 points on a sharp 53 percent from the floor, boosting his three-point percentage as well. When Horford played, he contributed.
Even the much-maligned Jaylen Brown, himself missing half of the games during the streak, posted 17 points on 47 percent shooting and 41 percent from downtown. Celtics fans would gladly take those numbers. Brown proceeded to close out the mini-streak with a three-game run where he shot 6-for-25. We still don’t know which version of the player is going to show up on a given night.
A couple weeks back, I surmised if the Celtics went 7-3 over a 10-game stretch in December, they’d be right back in the thick of things in the Eastern Conference. They actually went 8-2 and the good news is, things aren’t any worse. The Raptors remain the team to beat in the East, with a 4.5-game cushion on Boston and no signs of letting up. Milwaukee stands in hot pursuit, but a three-game deficit for the Celtics isn’t all that bad for the second seed.
Philadelphia and Indiana are right there, with Philly's Christmas trip to Boston the start of a five-game road swing that sends them to the West Coast and some of the same cities where the Celts struggled last month. A win for the Celtics and a so-so road trip for the Sixers might bump the Green up the standings again.
But Philly is 13-6 since the Jimmy Butler trade and Boston has some hurdles of their own: not only dealing with Joel Embiid, but also Marc Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge and Karl-Anthony Towns as the calendar flips. Al Horford and Marcus Morris provided positive contributions in the Sunday night blowout, but health in the frontcourt can’t come soon enough.
It’s not just the injuries. A lack of consistent effort and cohesion persists. Brad Stevens juggled the rotation and, for a moment, things looked better. Then, some of the same old concerns crept back in while they struggled to adapt to an apparent big man plague. That’s the difference between last year’s MASH unit and this one.
That group was able to find an identity. This one had a 36-minute, closed-door team meeting after Friday's game, with another one to follow. Irving later alluded to trust issues. Whatever it was, it proved to be at least a temporary salve on Sunday night.
A statement win against Philadelphia could go a long way toward convincing the Celtics faithful that everything is going to be all right. But Boston's schedule isn't exactly forecasting a holiday vacation. They'll have the added physical hurdle of finding a way to win against bigger teams, or risk falling back to a pack from which they just spent the last three weeks trying to break away.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.