By Sean Sylver, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Boston Celtics will return from the All-Star break winners of eight of nine. They’re 1.5 games out of second place in the East - just behind Toronto after the Raptors recently ran off 15 consecutive wins. It's in Boston's best interest to get that second seed and home court advantage through the conference finals. With 28 games left, let’s take a walk down that road.
The upcoming schedule features a Friday night tilt in Minnesota, followed by road games with the Lakers, Blazers and Jazz before closing out February welcoming the Rockets to TD Garden. So, after a date with Karl-Anthony Towns and D'Angelo Russell, that’s three upper echelon Western Conference opponents, plus a Portland team that's always tough at home.
This stretch will be an instant referendum on Danny Ainge’s performance (or lack thereof) at the trade deadline. Faced with the opportunity to move a cornerstone for a double-double caliber big man, he stood pat. Considering what someone like Andre Drummond fetched in return (a weak draft pick and cap filler), perhaps he felt moving Marcus Smart or Gordon Hayward to match salary was a fool's errand. But he also clearly believes in his current model.
You can argue Ainge should’ve added a bench scorer, as Boston’s pine is mostly bereft of guys who can fill it up. The dropoff from the starting five has been substantial, which is why Jayson Tatum sees so much time with the second unit. Brad Stevens may have to integrate mutliple core pieces with his subs when the intensity ratchets up in the playoffs.
Perhaps we'll see some help arrive via the buyout market, but Ainge has thus far poured water on potential sparks. For now, the Celtics are what they are. Is it enough?
Sky's The Limit and Space is the Place
The model only works if Tatum is elite. Tatum has been cooking over the last month, averaging 26.7 points on 49 percent shooting. Boston is 9-2 in those games (he's missed three due to injury). Kemba Walker is averaging over 20 points during that stretch, with Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward playing efficient, highly productive basketball as well. But it's more evident than ever before that Tatum is Boston's key to whatever success the team hopes to experience this year and in the years ahead.
Looking back at the last 20 years of NBA Finals matchups, no one has won a championship without a top 10 (All-NBA first or second team) player. Only three teams (the 2010 Celtics, 2005 Pistons and 2000 Pacers) have even made the Finals without such a distinction, and all three lost.
It almost goes without saying, but the elite NBA talents are the gatekeepers of the place the Celtics want to be. You can argue the Bucks (Giannis Antetokounmpo), Heat (Jimmy Butler), and Sixers (Joel Embiid) each have players in the midst of top ten seasons. Walker was third team All-NBA last year and it looks like he’ll be there again. Is Tatum on the fringe, or will he be top ten when all is said and done?
In response to the chorus of "too many wings," Ainge held firm in his belief that the mix of Walker, Tatum, Brown and Hayward is way better than the latter three players deferring to Kyrie Irving, or sacrificing a dynamic perimeter player to try and beat Philly, Indiana, or another big team at their own game.
With the right game plan, an emerging stud in Tatum could push the Celtics to a level they haven't reached in a decade.
Saturday Night’s Main Event
Bam Adebayo walked away with the All-Star Skills Challenge crown on Saturday night. Tatum’s Skills Challenge win last year was nice, but everyone knows it's the undercard to the two heavyweight bouts later in the evening. The dunk and three-point contests have been staples of All-Star Weekend for decades, and while no Celtics appeared this year (if you ask me, Javonte Green should've been there), the organization has experienced a better than average success rate in these events over the years.
Dee Brown was Boston’s first dunk contest winner, memorably pumping up his Reeboks during the 1991 All-Star Weekend in Charlotte. Gerald Green took home the trophy 13 years ago. Other Boston dunk participants through the years have included Greg Minor in 1996 and Ricky Davis in 2004.
Boston Celtics forward Larry Bird shoots a free throw during a game against the Detroit Pistons at the Pontiac Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan. Get premium, high resolution news photos at Getty Images
The Celtics set the standard in the early days of the three-point contest, with Larry Bird hoisting three consecutive trophies in the 80’s. Danny Ainge was often there as well. As the franchise declined in the 90’s, so did Boston’s visibility on the big stage, with Dana Barros the only participant in that decade.
Jim O’Brien’s three-happy offense brought Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker back to the contest in the early 2000s, with Pierce eventually taking home the trophy as a grizzled vet in 2010. He was joined by Ray Allen in the 2011 competition, the last time a Celtics player made an appearance.
Showcase of the Immortals
Boston Celtics forward Kevin Garnett warms up before an NBA game between the Boston Celtics and the Dallas Mavericks at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, TX Boston defeated Dallas 102-93 Get premium, high resolution news photos at Getty Images
We've talked at length about Kevin Garnett's announced number retirement. It's been occasion to note that the C's have retired way too many of them. But I'm all for it. KG is one of the game's all-time greats and his most impactful contributions to basketball came in Celtic green.
With the Celtics hauling down championships throughout the 50's, 60's, 70's and 80's, the Garden hosted number retirement ceremonies almost as frequently as the circus. But the team has added just two numbers to the rafters in the past 22 years: Cedric Maxwell in 2003 and Paul Pierce just a couple seasons ago. I'm not saying to go nuts and put Scot Pollard's 66 up there, but I am excited to honor the principals of quality Celtics basketball in recent decades. And yes, that would include Ray Allen.