Last night’s game was a very rare one in terms of how Celtics fans felt afterwards. It was an exhausting game that took a ton of energy from the fans just to watch from our couches, and it obviously ended in the type of gut punch that left us with way less energy to actually do something fun on Friday night. But despite the feeling of being exhausted and then ultimately beaten down with the loss, there’s encouragement. That paradox is incredibly rare in sports, and it’s a huge plus of being a fan of the 2016 Celtics. Before the game yesterday, I wrote that it was more important to see how the Celtics measured up with a championship team than how they did on the scoreboard. Before you accuse me, no, I did not say that to have a built in silver lining if the Celtics lost… But I guess it kinda worked out that way. Let’s analyze how the what the Celtics told us about the core of the team and its championship aspirations. Team stats won’t provide as much clarity as determining whether individual players have the chops to play on the type of team the Celtics want to become within 2-3 years, because the roster will change dramatically over the next few seasons and Danny Ainge has to know which pieces will fit and which won’t.
- David Lee is nowhere near the most important guy to look at from last night’s game, but dammit I’m gonna start with him anyway. Why he got 16 minutes is baffling. You might think, “Well, his minutes are gonna be inflated in a little bit with a double OT game,” but not a single Celtic other than Avery Bradley (whose minutes have zero effect on Lee’s) had more than 3 fouls during the game. Oh yeah, and the Celtics’ deepest spot by far is in the frontcourt. Tyler Zeller isn’t close to what he was last year for whatever reason, but wouldn’t you rather have him get 8 of David Lee’s 16 minutes instead of Lee getting all of those? Last night, Lee was a nightmare during his long stretch in the 2nd quarter, but he was actually serviceable in the 4th. Lee demonstrated that he’s exactly in the unfortunate no-man’s land for the Celtics. He’s good enough to play and provides some value when he’s not guarding a great offensive player, but he’s not good enough to take away any minutes from the Celtics’ young bigs. Danny needs to either trade Lee to a contender or buy him out, because Lee could have some value as a 4th big man to a playoff team that can use him as a DH and offensive spark for their 2nd unit.
- Avery Bradley is an animal. The guy went toe to toe with Steph Curry, and actually outplayed him by far in the 2nd half. His shooting cooled off in the 2nd half, but that’s not at all concerning despite the fact that his shooting progression will be a humongous part of his development. Covering Stephen Curry is probably the most difficult task in the NBA this season, and I’m not surprised if Bradley’s legs were a little tired on those 2nd half jumpers after chasing around the best player on the planet. Curry shot 9/27 for the game, and you could tell that even he was showing respect to Bradley as a worthy opponent. Avery demonstrated that he’s either a much bigger trade chip than previously thought or (hopefully and more realistically) a vital part of the next Celtics contending team.
- So is Jae Crowder. Signing Crowder for 5 years at just $7 million per year was an awesome move from Ainge this past summer. Think about this, for this year and the next 2, the C’s have Bradley, Crowder, and Smart all under 26 years old for less than $19 million per season. That’s a hell of a starting point for a quick rise to contention for a title. If and when the Celtics get a true #1 option on offense and don’t need to rely on guys like Crowder and Bradley to carry an offense as much, Jae will be a perfect complimentary piece for a contender.
- Kelly Olynyk also showed that he belongs. I’ll admit, Olynyk’s game last night made me rethink what I’ve said about him not being a significant part of a future contender. Draymond Green, who was the best player on the Warriors last night, guarded Olynyk much of the time and Kelly still went 11-21 with 28 points. When you’re 7 feet and can shoot, you have a spot in the NBA. The fact that he’s 7 feet and only grabbed 6 rebounds in 37 minutes still scare me, as he’ll have to improve the non-offensive part of his game moving forward.
- Jared Sullinger is what we thought he was before the game. He pulled down 13 rebounds, which is instrumental against a team like Golden State who buries its opponents if given 2nd possessions. But he shot 3-11 and couldn’t do much offensively besides take moderately contested jumpers. He’ll have to improve his shooting and post move, but if he does, he’s a key piece to have.
- Amir Johnson concerns me. He was the Celtics’ biggest free agent signing, mainly because of his defensive ability, and he played just 19 out of 58 minutes against the best offensive team of our generation. I get that Olynyk was awesome and Sullinger was really good other than his shooting, but something gives me the feeling that Danny Ainge would have expected Stevens to be able to rely a lot more on Johnson during a game like this when he and Amir were inking the contract last July. Couldn’t he have at least taken 8-10 of David Lee’s minutes? If Sullinger and Olynyk keep improving quickly, the Celtics could use Johnson and his affordable contract as a trade asset next year and open up more minutes for the young bigs.
- JAMES YOUNG SIGHTING! The 20 year old held his own and provided another offensive option for the Celtics, and last night helped convince me that Young has a floor as bench sparkplug on offense even if he doesn’t become the consistent starter that we all hope for.
- Isaiah Thomas. I honestly have no idea whether or not Isaiah will or should be in Boston for awhile. Thomas unequivocally proved that he has some value to a team when he heads the 2nd unit against the opponent’s 2nd unit. If he plays about 12-15 of those minutes per game with 7-8 minutes sprinkled in against the 1st unit of the opponent, he can have value to a contender. He showed that much last night when he was the Celtics’ entire offense with the bench unit at times. But he won’t be any more than that, and he shouldn’t be in during crunchtime and DEFINITELY should not take the last shot of the 4th quarter and overtime in the same game. The Celtics need another offensive creator whether or not Isaiah is on the tema long term, which makes Marcus Smart’s offensive development crucial.
- Finally, Evan Turner changed some opinions, mine included. I thought that Turner was pretty much replaceable for good teams. that he’s a good guy to have, but not a priority for a team with real aspirations. Turner proved me wrong last night. WHile the Celtics can’t prioritize his usage above the development of Smart, Young, Hunter, Rozier, or any other young’uns they bring in. Having said that, Turner’s many uses prove valuable to a contender. Last night against the best team the NBA has seen in awhile, Turner ran the offense respectably, covered the best player on the planet with not much of a drop from Bradley to Turner, and finished with 13 points on 6/12 shooting, 9 rebounds, and 6 assists in 36 minutes. Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens love versatility, and Evan Turner showed them that he can be not just a versatile piece on the 45-50 win team that the Celtics are, but a versatile piece on the type of team the Celtics are becoming.
Yeah, the final result last night sucked. But you should feel very hapy with the heart the Boston Celtics showed — or, as we say around here, the Grit and Balls that they showed. They have now played the Warroors closer than any team did in their first 23 games, and the gained true respect from the NBA’s greatest. The Celtics are on their way to a title run because they have the individual pieces that belong on a team like the Warriors.