Your Morning Dump… Where the Celtics arrive at midseason going in the right direction

NBA: Boston Celtics at Toronto Raptors

Every morning, we compile the links of the day and dump them here… highlighting the big story line. Because there’s nothing quite as satisfying as a good morning dump.

Brad Stevens put tremendous emphasis on these four games, challenging his team both privately and through the media to win and end this half of the season on a high note. The process-oriented Stevens recognized how loud the noise had gotten around his team, and only winning was going to turn it down.

“After the game in Atlanta, when you looked in everybody’s eyes, like, we talked about these next four games are important and you knew we were going to be ready,” Stevens said after beating the Toronto Raptors. “And I think that is a sign of a team that’s going to stay together. And I think it stems from, you know, our best players embraced that. I’ve heard Kemba say it multiple times this week: ‘Nobody’s going on break until we go on break.’ And I thought that that was really important. So you learn a lot about yourself in those moments.”

Boston Sports Journal: Karalis: Celtics finally open up about season’s challenges as they head to break

How it started:

  • When this season began, logic said the Celtics might not come roaring out of the box.
  • Kemba Walker’s knee wasn’t right; he was going to sit out the first month.
  • Gordon Hayward had bolted and his only replacement was a trade exception, not a flesh-and-blood 6-foot-8 person with a jump shot.
  • Tristan Thompson and Jeff Teague were signed to replace others who had moved on, but these were essentially lateral moves, not difference-makers.
  • Thus, Boston’s roster was a bit weaker than last season’s; meanwhile the Sixers, Nets and Bucks all had made talent upgrades.

Logic may have said all that, but Celtics fans have a habit of ignoring logic as needed. We have that “three ECFs in four seasons” mentality and simply expect there will be more success. So when you’re watching a losing streak in real time, it’s difficult to see the big picture that it’s a long season, filled with ups and downs. It’s not easy to be patient.

How it’s going:

When the Celtics started out 8-3, that fed the expectations. But then Jayson Tatum got COVID-19, Marcus Smart tore his calf, Kemba returned and looked old, and Jaylen Brown’s knee got tender. Losses came, and suddenly the Celtics were in ninth place in the East, under .500. We could see that effort was inconsistent. The Jays were being called ball-hogs. Fans were demanding trades, firings and answers.

The only thing that cures all of that is winning. After playing 19 of their first 32 on the road, finally the Celtics had a home stand of four games. The Cs had fallen into a pattern of winning big but losing the close ones, and all four of these games came down to the final minute. Yet, in all four, the Celtics delivered in crunch time, climbing out of their hole, moving up to fourth place, and helping the fans to settle down, just a bit.

Thankfully, the win streak means that Celtics Nation won’t spend the mid-season break obsessing about what’s wrong on Causeway Street. Instead, the focus is turning to why is Scal so cranky how the roster can get some reinforcements. Smart and Romeo Langford will be organic upgrades when they return from injuries. And the TPE is still out there.

Will Smart’s return be enough to get Boston to find the consistency it has lacked on the defensive end? More importantly, can Boston get the big defensive stop when it needs it most? The C’s too often crumbled in crunch time, though Boston did win four straight clutch games – score within five points in the final five minutes – to close out the first half. […]

Injury woes didn’t help matters, but the Celtics simply have too much youth and redundancy with their roster. Ainge needs to not only infuse talent with the traded player exception but prune the edges as well. […]

Joel Embiid might be the league MVP. The Nets smoked the Celtics on Christmas even before they added James Harden. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the two-time reigning MVP and the Bucks have better pieces around him with the addition of Jrue Holiday.

Getting out of the second round of the East playoffs is going to be no picnic. It’s all the more reason why Ainge has to be aggressive in adding talent to this roster for the stretch run.

NBC Sports Boston: Forsberg: Six takeaways from rocky first half of Celtics’ season

Going back to the topic of logic, the Celtics now seem to be heading in the right direction. They should have a better second half than first, with some qualifiers.

IF the Celtics stay healthy, and IF they play hard every time, and IF Danny Ainge uses the TPE or makes some other deal to bring in a veteran scorer or two, and IF Brad figures out his best lineup rotation and sticks to it, then we can expect the Celtics will finish in the top four of the East, and head into the playoffs as a team that no one wants to play.

That’s the kind of logic we can get behind.

Related – Globe: Here are midseason evaluations of the Celtics’ starters

On Page 2: Speaking of the TPE…

Kemba Walker’s continuing return to form has dramatically changed the shape of the team. Marcus Smart and Romeo Langford returning from long-term injury should make a similar impact. That should go a long way to bringing the Celtics back to their initial projection at the top of the second tier in the East.

But that’s not where the Celtics want to be now or in the future. They have the ability to be at the very top, and after losing Gordon Hayward in free agency, they are still trying to climb to the peak with one hand tied behind their back. The time is approaching for Danny Ainge to use the Hayward traded player exception (TPE) and make good on the promise to set off fireworks instead of taking a reported Pacers trade offer — one including Myles Turner — at face value. […]

A failure to do so would be catastrophic.

He knows that. Ownership knows that. It was fine for the Celtics to fall short when their top picks were still developing. They pivoted from Kyrie Irving and Al Horford walking away to flipping Terry Rozier for Walker and getting a healthy Hayward back last year. They maintained the talent level that put them at the top of the league. They then let a borderline All-Star leave and kicked the can down the road on the necessary flipping to remain competitive. If they don’t get something good in this window, the chain of moves will finally end.

The Athletic: How Danny Ainge spends trade exception will determine Celtics’ future

No pressure, Danny. Just the fate of the entire franchise – not to mention the psyche of Celtics fans around the world – depends on you getting this right.

And don’t take too long. The clock is ticking toward the TPE expiration, and the longer you wait, the less leverage you’ll have. And the more frantic the fans and media will become.

And, finally… Over-rotating

One of the most encouraging parts of this run is how much of it was fueled by their bench, which averaged 38.5 points per game, a big boost from the 29 points they averaged when the Celtics dropped eight of 11 games over three weeks in February (good for fourth-worst in the NBA).

The Celtics are still getting an overwhelming majority of their scoring from their starters, who average 79.2 points per game, but the recent bump in bench scoring has been a godsend for a team whose two main threats, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, are desperate for some time off. […]

[Grant] Williams, who admitted to not handling the mental challenges of this season well, acknowledges that bench players need to be ready for either big minutes, or no minutes.

“That’s the benefit of having such a talented team,” he said. “You never know when your number is going to be called. So Brad (Stevens) entrusted me tonight and threw me in there and I was able to perform at the level we needed.”

Boston Sports Journal: Boston Celtics Notebook: Bonus bench production, LeBron James’ praise, & Jayson Tatum vs. Jaylen Brown

Brad can’t stop experimenting with his lineups and rotations. That’s why Grant didn’t play against the Clippers on Tuesday, then had 21 minutes vs. Atlanta on Thursday. Why Jeff Teague was benched for several games, then had a spot start, and Thursday night got 27 minutes. Why Aaron Nesmith was invisible for two months, then was the first sub off the bench for two weeks, and now is back to DNP-CD.

When bench guys produce, they deserve to keep playing. Against Toronto, Teague and Grant got their minutes because they combined for 31 points on 13 of 16 shots. But that won’t guarantee those minutes next time.

Fortunately, Brad has seen the light with Robert Williams, using him consistently in recent games, including a season-high 23 minutes against the Raptors.

Still, the point remains, almost every bench guy has been used erratically. It’s hard to say who’s a rotation player because the rotation keeps changing. Maybe there’s a method to Brad’s madness, but nevertheless, I’d like to see him pick nine or 10 guys and stick with them. Then they can build continuity and cohesion…and we can stop wondering about it.

Related – MassLive: Jeff Teague, Grant Williams and the Celtics’ bench has come to life, giving Boston a boost during win streak

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