Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens said last week that he hoped Wednesday's first-half closing win over the Eastern Conference-leading Atlanta Hawks would give his team some extra motivation to get back to work after an extended All-Star recess. The Celtics are 7-5 over their last 12 games, sit just 1 ½ games back in the quest for a final playoff berth, and had many members of the team lobbying to keep the band together for a potential postseason push.
Boston's ability to hang around in the playoff hunt likely will dominate the headlines around the team over the final 31 games of the season, but here's what we'll be watching for over the final two months of the regular season regardless of how the team fares:
DEADLINE DAY AND BEYOND
The Celtics will reconvene for practice on Wednesday evening in Sacramento. The biggest question is whether the same group on the court that day will be on the floor for a second offday workout after the trade deadline passes on Thursday.
After Boston traded away Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green earlier in the season, many expected Danny Ainge to move the rest of the team's veterans before the deadline. But with Stevens and his players making a public pitch for continuity, it makes you wonder if Ainge might take the cautious approach. Now, if a team comes along offering a first-round pick for Brandon Bass or Marcus Thornton, Ainge should run not walk to the checkout line. But there seems little reason at this point to settle for a mid-to-late second-round pick when the Celtics are likely to have to take back salary to complete a swap.
With a couple of potential lingering logjams, it could benefit Boston to move one of their veterans. And it'll be interesting to see what happens with Tayshaun Prince, who has acknowledged from the time he arrived here that all options remain in play with his future.
Lost in Boston's success over the past 12 games has been that second-year big man Kelly Olynyk has been missing for nearly all of it. Olynyk suffered a bad sprain of his right ankle landing awkwardly on an opponent's foot in Portland and was in the locker room by the time Evan Turner made the last-second 3-pointer that ignited Boston's recent surge.
While Boston has cobbled its way through while shorthanded on bigs -- and the blessing in disguise has been an increased opportunity to examine the small-ball lineups that have reinvigorated the offense -- getting Olynyk back will add another scoring option off the bench while providing some additional frontcourt flexibility.
Remember that, even when Boston was struggling earlier in the year, Olynyk had some of the best on-court numbers on the Celtics' roster. After he shakes the initial rust, Olynyk will give Boston a nice boost.
The lingering question with his return is how exactly Stevens will shuffle the big rotation and distribute minutes. With that in mind ...
WHERE DO THE BIGS FIT BEST?
With Olynyk's return, Stevens has some lineup questions to ponder. Does he go back to a starting lineup that features Jared Sullinger and Tyler Zeller up front? The Celtics struggled to generate consistent offense with that pairing earlier in the year. The Sullinger/Bass combo actually has been worse, with an offensive rating of just 91.2 points per 100 possessions in 200 minutes of floor time together over the last 12 games, but it's hard to argue with the results.
Let's start with a closer look at Boston's big-man combos this season:
Finding the right combination
A look at Boston's frontcourt pairings this season, with offensive and defensive ratings (points forced/allowed per 100 possessions) and the net differential:
Stevens probably can maintain the current lineup while reintegrating Olynyk off the bench, though he might be tempted to go back with the Sullinger/Zeller combo. Over their last 12 games, that duo has a 115.8 offensive rating in 50 minutes together (diminished slightly by a 112.7 defensive rating). The Celtics have had success with the Bass/Olynyk combo off the pine, but could also stick with small-ball lineups with reserve groupings if Olynyk can thrive as the lone pure big.
STICKING WITH SMALL BALL?
If the Celtics elect to stick with small-ball lineups, it's going to put a crunch on frontcourt minutes. But Stevens acknowledged before the break that Boston has to stick with what's working.
"We’ll figure it out when we get there," Stevens said. "I think the small lineup has been one of our better lineups ... we’re going to do whatever’s best for our team."
When paired together, Olynyk and Jae Crowder have produced some quality offensive numbers, though there's usually been with another big on the floor. It will be interesting to see if the Celtics can be as successful with a lineup with those two at the big spots as they have been with other small bench lineups.
YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS
Rookie James Young continues to make a strong case for more playing time, though Boston is still overstocked at the wing position.
Regardless, the eye test suggested that Young's defense has gotten better this season. We wanted to see if the stats confirmed it, so using the league's player tracking data, we examined Young's defensive numbers for his five appearances (and 75 total minutes of floor time) so far in the month of February.
What we found is that Young is limiting his opponents to 42.1 percent shooting in that span, 2 percent below those players' season average (any number in the negative is a quality number). In fact, Young is limiting his opponents to 36.4 percent shooting inside the 3-point arc (a mere 11-shot sample size, mind you) and his biggest issue right now might simply be defending the 3-point line (opponents are 50 percent on 4-of-8 shooting in that span).
Pull back and examine Boston's last 15 games -- eight appearances by Young and 107 minutes of total floor time -- and his numbers are even better while holding opponents to 40 percent shooting (10 of 25) and 4.2 percent below their season averages. The Celtics have found some success matching Young with undersized 2s, allowing him to utilize his length while he improves his individual defense.
There's still plenty of room for advancement for Young on that end of the court, but he's deserving of more floor time regardless of how Boston's roster looks at the end of the week.
As we wrote on Friday, rookie Marcus Smart has made some very encouraging progress throughout the season, leading the team in minutes since returning to the starting lineup the past five games. His ability to develop as a point guard, especially attacking the basket off the pick-and-roll, will be a huge focus over the second half of the year (and into future seasons). ... One thing that we'll really be watching moving forward is how the Celtics utilize Sullinger. He's in a little bit of a 3-point funk, shooting 21.5 percent in the 22 games since the start of the new calendar year. The past few games, Sullinger has really excelled around the basket. Not only is he shooting a robust 63.5 percent around the hoop this season, but he's shooting a career-best 42.8 percent from 3-10 feet. The Celtics have to find the right balance of Sullinger on the perimeter versus near the hoop.
WHO IS BOSTON'S NEXT ALL-STAR?
A final question as we wrap up a Celtics-less All-Star weekend: Who will be Boston's next All-Star? The Celtics were one of only a handful of teams that didn't have a participant in any portion of All-Star weekend (unless you count an injured Olynyk watching the Rising Stars). But let's forget all the sideshow attractions: Who will be the next Celtics player to actually appear in Sunday's main event?
There are those who will contend that recent top draft picks Sullinger, Olynyk and Smart still have a ways to go until they will be considered. There's no arguing that. And you can certainly make the case that Boston's next star might be more likely to be plucked from outside the organization using the team's looming cap space and/or its stash of tradeable draft picks.
Here's the one thing that lingers with us, especially with the Atlanta Hawks sending four players to Sunday's game: Boston's next All-Star is most likely to come when the team is playing well enough for the rest of the league to take notice. The Hawks got four stars in large part because of what they accomplished as a team, and if Boston makes strides back toward contender status, then a lot more folks will take notice of its young nucleus. Sullinger seems the most likely candidate currently on the roster with potential to play double-double ball, but Smart is turning an awful lot of heads early in his career.