The Celtics had just been blown out by the Golden State Warriors at home. It was an early game in the 2016-17 season, but one that everyone had circled on the calendar: Two of the NBA's best would go at it.
Instead, the Warriors went at the Celtics, and that was that. Boston fell to 6-6, a record that included a blowout loss to the Wizards and another one to the Pelicans.
Soon after, you started to hear it from all corners: What's wrong with the Celtics? Are they not as good as we thought they were?
Flash-forward to today, the Celtics are 10-7 and all of a sudden things are looking up. Boston rattled off three straight wins after that Warriors loss, lost by six at home to the Spurs, and then rebounded with a win in Miami. And we're now back to where we were at the start of the season, expecting the Celtics to win games like the one tonight against the Pistons, who are playing on the road for the second night in a row.
So what can we point to as to why the Celtics are playing better?
1. Welcome back, Horford and Crowder
This one is a layup, no pun intended. But the Pistons know very well how big Horford's return has been for Boston: he's the one who beat them at the buzzer two weeks ago in Detroit. Horford missed nine games recovering from a concussion, and the one in Miami due to the birth of his child. The Celtics are 5-5 in those games. With Horford on the court, it's easy to see how he makes it all work. He does it all - and the stats back it up as he's averaging 14.7 points, 6.9 rebounds, 5.1 assists, and 2.6 blocks per game. Don’t forget that Jae Crowder was absent for eight of those games with an ankle injury, and now he's returned as well. Crowder has found his long range as of late (9-for-20 from three-point range over his last three games). Gee, the Celtics are playing better with two of their best players returning? Who would have thought?
2. Bench play
Jonas Jerebko’s nickname here in Boston is “Swedish Larry Bird”, and over the last seven games he’s certainly earned it. Jerebko has been everything the Celtics have needed off the bench lately, and he’s shooting at percentages that make you do a double-take. While not a volume shooter, Jerebko is making his shots count, shooting 82-percent (18-for-22) from the field including 80-percent (8-for-10) from three-point range. His length allows him to guard multiple positions. And speaking of guarding multiple positions, Marcus Smart deserves plenty of praise. Smart injects life into the Celtics with his relentless style. He gets into opponents on the defensive end and under their skin, too. Smart still has to improve his shot – he’s shooting just 26.7-percent from the field over the last five games – but the fact that he’s averaging over 30 minutes per game in that stretch and the Celtics are 4-1 proves his worth in other ways.
3. The competition
The Celtics may be 4-1 over their last five games, but take a look at who they beat: the Pistons, Timberwolves, Nets, and Heat. Granted, all four wins came on the road, which isn’t easy, but there’s a good chance none of those teams are playoff teams. The best five guys at your local YMCA could give the Nets a run. So let’s see how the C’s do in December against the Raptors, Spurs, Thunder, and Cavs before we say they’re back.