When Winter Storm Jonas not only forced the Boston Celtics-Philadelphia 76ers game to be postponed Saturday, but left Boston catching a last-minute flight to Philadelphia on Sunday morning in advance of the rescheduled contest, some wondered how the Celtics would fare while making a rare same-day dash.
The answer? Boston fared just fine. Celtics coach Brad Stevens said his team was "really business-like in our approach," as Boston built an early lead, maintained its defensive intensity so that cushion never dipped below 15 in the second half, and emerged with a 112-92 triumph at the Wells Fargo Center.
Not that many back home were paying much attention to Boston's plight. For the casual Boston sports fan, basketball season doesn't truly begin until football season ends. So as New England Patriots fans come to grips with Sunday's loss to the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game, the Celtics have room on a bandwagon the team hopes is bound for the playoffs.
The Celtics enter the final week of January at 24-21 overall and have quietly shimmied up to sole possession of the No. 5 seed in a log-jammed Eastern Conference. Winners of two straight and five of their last seven overall, the Celtics are only two games behind the two teams directly ahead of them -- the Chicago Bulls (a team Boston beat on Friday) and the Atlanta Hawks.
The 2015-16 season has been a bit of a roller coaster for the Celtics, one that has seen Boston neither win nor lose more than four games in a row. The Celtics have proved they can hang with anybody (taking the then-undefeated Warriors to double overtime early in the season) but have also had some unforgivable losses, including two to Brooklyn, a high lottery team that will deliver an unprotected first-round pick in June.
The Celtics nearly gave away a game to these same 76ers when they visited Boston in November. Philadelphia, in the Ish Smith era, has played better basketball recently, but Boston dominated Sunday's game from start to finish. The Celtics harassed the 76ers into 24 turnovers (leading to 25 points) and shot well beyond the arc (11 of 25 overall, 44 percent). Boston pushed its lead as high as 29, rested most of its starters in the fourth quarter with a back-to-back looming in Washington on Monday, and gave its 2015 first-round picks (Terry Rozier, R.J. Hunter) some rare late-game run with the win in hand.
Asked Saturday if the Celtics were frustrated at their ability to put together a sustained winning streak, second-year guard Marcus Smart said, "A little bit. But our time is going to come. As long as we keep doing the right things and playing the right way, our time will come."
The Celtics played the right way Sunday. The question is can they sustain it against the caliber of opponent that it will be jockeying with for postseason position? Boston visits Washington, a team lurking near the playoff pack in the East, on Monday. There is also a home-and-home with the similarly situated Orlando Magic -- a team that thumped Boston on the road in late November -- soon after.
Statistical projections remain rosy for Boston. The Celtics rank seventh overall -- and third among East teams -- in ESPN's Basketball Power Index. Boston projects at 45.7 wins, which would leave it jockeying for a top-4 seed and potential home-court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs (New England fans know just how valuable home court can be, right?)
Isaiah Thomas should be an All-Star (reserves will be announced Thursday), Jae Crowder has been the team's best two-way player, and Avery Bradley has been his quiet, consistent self. Amir Johnson, Boston's free-agent splurge, has been more impactful lately and more vocal, defensively. Even when his shots aren't falling, he impacts the game as he showed Sunday by grabbing a team-best 12 rebounds and adding five assists. Jared Sullinger, fast out of the gates, but less consistent recently, pulled down 11 boards and tied a career high with seven assists Sunday.
The Celtics have been searching for some additional offense from their bench and Smart, mired in an offensive slump, responded with 16 points on 6-of-11 shooting against the 76ers (including 3-of-6 shooting beyond the 3-point arc, where he was making less than 20 percent of his triples entering Sunday's game). Kelly Olynyk has been excellent recently, particularly beyond the 3-point arc (at least when he rocks a manbun over a headband) and Jonas Jerebko has carved out steady minutes with pure hustle and grit (Sunday he grabbed 10 rebounds in 21 minutes despite missing 7 of 8 shots).
The Celtics have cranked up their offense lately, in part while leaning on smaller lineups. Over its last seven games, Boston owns an offensive rating of 108.4, which 6.3 points per 100 possessions higher than its season average (102.1, which is tied for 16th in the NBA). Even with a small spike in its defensive rating in that span, Boston owns a net rating of plus-7.7 over those seven games.
Defense, however, is what the Celtics hope is their calling card. Boston ranks second in the league with a defensive rating of 98.9. Only the Spurs are better, though the Warriors are right on Boston's heels now. After two turnover-forcing performances against the Bulls and 76ers, Stevens is hoping his team is back to being a defensive pest, a team that uses its versatility and activity to disrupt opponents and fuel its offense in transition.
The question that lingers with the trade deadline less than a month away is whether these Celtics will look the same after the All-Star break. Last year, the Celtics fueled their second-half surge by importing players like Thomas and Jerebko at a low cost. Boston, which hasn't made a move during the 2015-16 season, is armed with a treasure trove of draft picks and also has a little bit of everything to offer on the trade market. That doesn't mean they necessarily have to make a move, though this crowded roster could benefit from a tweak or two, particularly if Boston can find a scoring big or a knockdown shooting to aid their playoff quest.
Boston is positioned well -- for this season and beyond. There's a chance to lure some of those Boston fans that need a new distraction after the Patriots' season ended and before pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers, Florida. Boston fans will perk up again when the playoffs arrive in April, but the Celtics need to show they are worthy of attention right now.