Dec 30, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) leaves the court after scoring 52 points during their 117-114 win over the Miami Heat at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
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With the New Year upon us it is time to look back on an inconsistent and injury riddled first half of the season. The Boston Celtics have held their own and fought through the adversity, but still are not quite satisfied with where they are as a team.
The Celtics have had some bad loses, but, fortunately, they have had more big victories. The Celtics have proven that they can be one of the most clutch teams in the NBA, and Isaiah Thomas continues to grow into the very best the Eastern Conference has to offer at the point guard position.
The Celtics have had games where their bench has stepped in and given them a spark, but they have also had games where the starters needed to do more than ever to make up for that second unit.
The Celtics can be satisfied holding the third best record in the East behind the Cavaliers and Raptors, but it is concerning that they have yet to seriously threaten the Raptors for that positioning. It is also concerning that they are one bad stretch of games away from plummeting into the depth of the Eastern playoff race.
These are five games that the Celtics can look to and build on in order to get the separation they need from the rest of the East, and close that gap between them and the Raptors in the Atlantic Division.
Apr 11, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics guard Avery Bradley (0) fouls Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker (15) during the first half at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
The Celtics faced adversity immediately when the season started. With both Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk sidelined with injuries, their second unit was exposed quickly against the Nets. They secured that first victory but after a loss to the Bulls, they knew they were heading into their first big test of the season against the Hornets.
The Celtics wanted to stay above .500, and they knew the way they had played in the first two games would be unacceptable against their toughest opponent in the early part of the season.
After Thomas lead the team in scoring for the first two games, it was Avery Bradley who stepped in and carried the load for their first most important victory of the season. Bradley finished with one of his most complete stat lines of the season with a team leading 31 points and 11 rebounds, and the four assists were an added bonus for the shoot first player.
Bradley was not only the most prolific scorer, as he was also the most efficient scorer. In a game that set the tone for the rest of his season, Bradley hit an incredible eight three pointers, and finished with a phenomenal shooting line of 11-19 from the field.
Bradley took command of this game but he was not alone. It was truly a great back court effort. Thomas did not have the best day shooting, but his 24 points and seven assists gave them the duo they needed to take down the Hornets on a night when Kemba Walker was as good as it gets.
The Celtics needed to overcome his 29 points on just 16 shots. They took Walker’s best shot, and with their second unit once again being outperformed, Bradley could not have had a better time to break out.
The Celtics had to overcome tough injuries early on, and they had an even more difficult task of playing without Thomas at the beginning of December. After a tough loss to a top Western Conference team in the Rockets, they Celtics knew they could hold their own without their best player, and they knew a loss to the Magic would be unacceptable.
It may not have been the most exciting game of the season, but it was the most convincing. The Celtics got their best game from the second unit and had no problem overcoming Thomas’ absence.
This was truly a complete team effort, with seven players scoring in double digits, but none scoring more than 23 points. It was the best game of both Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown‘s season. Rozier stepped in with Smat going to the starting unit and his 16 points ended up being the third most on the team. Brown came in right behind him with 13 points, finally showcasing the young talent on their bench. The best part about both their performances was combining to shoot 11-21.
The Celtics also managed to get their biggest wining margin of the season, despite shooting just 26.9 percent from three. 29 assists as a team certainly helped with that. Al Horford led the way with eight assists, but with no one else having more than four, the Celtics were getting offensive contributions from anyone in their most complete and dominant victory of the season.
Dec 25, 2016; New York, NY, USA; Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) dribbles while being defended by New York Knicks guard Courtney Lee (5) during the second half at Madison Square Garden. The Celtics won 119-114. Mandatory Credit: Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports
While many expected the Celtics to be far ahead of the Knicks this season, they went into that Christmas day matchup right next to each other in the standings. The Celtics knew that they needed separation from them, and they could not afford another divisional loss.
The Knicks had a furious fourth quarter comeback, but clutch defense was able to secure the victory for them. The Celtics took some of the very best the Knicks could throw at them. Kristaps Porzingis had 22 points, Carmelo Anthony had 29 points and Derrick Rose had 25 points. The Knicks got the production they wanted from their stars, but that was still not enough against the Celtics.
Thomas lead the way with his 27 points, but that game would not have been won without Horford, Smart and Olynyk. Both Smart and Olynyk scored more than 15 points off the bench, good enough to top the entire Knicks bench combined. Jae Crowder also had one of his most efficient games, shooting 5-9 from the field for 16 points. Add on a truly complete game from Horford with 15 points seven rebounds, five assists, three steals and two blocks, demonstrating how he did everything he could to secure that victory.
The Celtics put on display the multiple ways that they can beat you, and the balance they established on offense and, at least to close the game, on defense, ensured that the Knicks’ comeback would fall short on christmas day.
Dec 30, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) reacts to the crowd after scoring during the second half against the Miami Heat at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
The Heat are far rom a powerhouse in the East, and they went into this game without their top point guard Goran Dragic. The Celtics, however, were also shorthanded as Bradley missed his first game of the season. Without his usually back court mate, Thomas took over this game in a way that has never been seen before.
The Celtics needed every bit of it in a three point victory as Thomas hit a new career scoring high with 52 points. The best part of the game, however, was the final frame. Thomas had the most clutch performance of the season with an unprecedented 29 fourth quarter points. A mark that fell just two shy of Wilt Chamberlain’s all time scoring record in the fourth.
Thomas carried the Celtics in a way that people may not have though possible, and it allowed them to go into the New Year on a high note.
Thomas once again showcased his unbelievable scoring arsenal. As is expected in a 52 point performance, Thomas shot an incredibly 15-26 from the field, an even better 9-13 from three and a percent 13-13 from the free throw line. Thomas continues to improve for the Celtics and in this victory he truly established a new standard of greatness for himself.
Dec 20, 2016; Memphis, TN, USA; Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) is fouled by Memphis Grizzlies guard Mike Conley (4) while driving to the basket in the fist quarter at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports
While Thomas may not have scored quite as much as the Heat game, it was the comeback and the overtime win that makes this the best victory of the season for the Celtics. Trailing by as much as 17 points against the leagues top defense, the Celtics appeared to have no chance at winning. A challenge from an assistant coach after a 10 point half from Thomas may have been the difference maker, as he finished with 44 points and added on a team high six assists.
Not only did Thomas command the remarkable comeback for the Celtics, but he had an answer any time the Grizzlies tried to put them away. Mike Conley tried his best to out do Thomas, but Thomas matched everything he could attempt, and then some.
Thomas put up one of the most unique and special stat lines of the NBA season. His 44 points were on just a lowly 16 shot attempts. His seven three pointers were combined with a Celtics record 17-17 from the free throw line. Thomas had his most efficient game of his career and it is so sweet that it lead to that comeback and victory.
The Celtics also needed someone to counter Marc Gasol, who finished with 24 points seven rebounds and six assists. Insert Horford, who finally had a great game on the boards with 14 rebounds, and his 17 points was all the help Thomas needed to secure the victory.
In what may end up being looked at as a turning point of the season, the Celtics proved that they can score and compete with anyone in the league, and it would be the most foolish of assumptions to ever think that this team is out of a game.