Yeah, it's about that time for a "don't panic because the Celtics are playing .500 basketball piece."
Last year, around this time, we were lamenting another early season injury to Marcus Smart, leading the team to lean elsewhere (Evan Turner . . . yikes) for bench production and defense. They messed around with a .500 record up until some early January losses to teams like Brooklyn and the Los Angeles Lakers (yikes again). They went on to win 48-games last season, tied for the third seed in the Eastern Conference. This year, the team has been missing both Jae Crowder (low ankle sprain) and Al Horford (concussion) for a big part of the early stretch of the season, and because of it, the team is a mere 6-5 out of the gates despite high pre-season expectations.
You know what, though? They're fine. Really, the Boston Celtics will be okay, and they still will likely win 50+ games. Don't panic. Even if the team were forced to lean on Tyler Zeller for the entire season (and that's really the worst-case scenario), they'd be okay and would still make the playoffs. Some of you might point out the very tangible weaknesses the team has, and some of those issues won't be resolved just by adding back two of the team's top-four players back into the lineup. Al Horford has never been much of a rebounder (though he did have a decent preseason on the glass), and that issue has plagued the Celtics mightily early this season. Something is different this year, though.
For once, the Boston Celtics have a functioning offense. Crazy, I know. Isaiah Thomas has been a tiny mammoth this season, averaging 27.2 points and 6.6 assists a game. He's scored 20 points or more in each of the team's 11 games this season so far. He scored 22 points in Wednesday's win against the Dallas Mavericks . . . in just the fourth quarter (30 points on the whole game. He's not the only one; Avery Bradley (18.5 points and a whopping team-high 8.7 rebounds), Marcus Smart (woo! Offense!), and Kelly Olynyk (in his limited action since his return) have contributed. The Celtics had the 10th best offense in the league last season, but this year, they've climbed up to 8th largely without two of their top-four players, Horford and Crowder.
The defense is definitely an issue. Before the last four games, Boston was dead last in the league in defensive efficiency with a rating of 112.3. They've climbed up to a (pretty) respectable 93.3 in the last four games, but that's some genuine fool's gold. They've played the New Orleans Pelicans (bad, bad loss), the Dirk-less Mavericks, the Paul George-less Pacers, and the mostly Melo-less Knicks (that was a murder). As of now, they still sit 25th in the league with a defensive rating of 109.1 which is not ideal. Adding Al Horford and Jae Crowder to lineups that already include Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart, two of the best perimeter defenders in the league, will definitely bring those numbers up, but other guys on the roster need to help out. Kelly Olynyk never passes the eye test but somehow he consistently is a net positive on the defensive end. That trend must continue.
With the Celtics' improved offense that's only set to continue improving along with the added defense that missing players will provide, the Celtics will be just fine. Although they could be entering the matchup shorthanded, the Cs have a good test tonight against the Golden State Warriors. It's still too early to make any tough and permanent conclusions, but their performance against the league's elite could function as a solid barometer for the team. Until the team is at full strength, though, stay patient. You don't win championships when you think lightyears ahead. Ask Golden State; they should know all about that.