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Celtics Check-in – Third Quarter

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Boston Celtics guard Kyrie Irving, left, drives past Denver Nuggets guard Gary Harris in the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Jan. 29, 2018, in Denver. Boston Celtics guard Kyrie Irving, left, drives past Denver Nuggets guard Gary Harris in the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Jan. 29, 2018, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

It shouldn’t be any sort of surprise that the Celtics have cooled off considerably since their blazing hot start to the season. This was never going to be a team that demonstrated that kind of dominance over the course of an entire year; the inevitable regression plus the elevation of performance by other teams has changed the dynamic of the conference considerably.

Going into the All-Star break – the NBA season’s “midway point” even though it’s essentially three-quarters over - Boston’s record sat at 40-19. It’s a solid record, though they’ve been overtaken for the Eastern Conference lead by the surging Toronto Raptors and have a reenergized Cleveland Cavaliers quad nipping at their heels.

The Celtics have been decidedly meh since the season’s actual midpoint – they’ve managed a .500 record (a notch below that, really). They’ve maintained their defensive strength (albeit not to the extremes of their early season performance), but their offense has dipped significantly. There’s no reason to panic – we knew that this team wasn’t going to win 60 – but there are some causes for concern.

Still, this is a very good team. They’re well-coached and are led by an elite talent. No one is going to want to face this group in the playoffs.

Let’s check in.

Again, the conversation has to start with Kyrie Irving. He continues to be revelatory in his work on the floor, while the deal that brought him to Boston continues to look better and better for the team and for general manager Danny Ainge. His scoring acumen is undeniable – he’s up to 24.7 points per game for the year (good for 10th overall) after dialing it up a bit in the last 15 games or so. He’s just shy of 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three and 90 percent for the free throw line. He continues to facilitate playmaking with his five assists per game average, he’s pulling down over three-and-a-half boards per game and he’s playing quality defense. He’s playing like a star.

Al Horford continues to be quietly excellent. His percentages are elite – 50.8 percent from the floor and a team-leading 43.6 percent from three. He’s averaging 13.3 points per game, which is just fourth on the Celtics, but he’s doing that while leading the team in rebounds (7.7), assists (5.1) and blocks (1.2). All that plus defensive presence and top-notch floor leadership. He’s proving to be both comfortable and wildly productive in Irving’s shadow.

Jayson Tatum looks to have maybe hit a bit of a wall as his rookie season has progressed. It’s pretty typical – he’s already played more games this season than he has in any season in his life. His field-goal percentages – both total and from three – have dropped, but he’s still among the best rookie shooters. He’s still scoring, though not quite as prolifically. He’s pulling over five rebounds a game and hanging in on D. Jaylen Brown continues to get it done. He’s the team’s second-leading scorer at 14 per game; he’s shooting decently from the floor and from three, though his work at the free throw line is less than ideal. Both guys are pulling their weight on defense.

They aren’t the only contributors – guys like Greg Monroe (9.6 ppg/7.1 rpg/2 apg), Marcus Morris (12.2/5.4/1.3) and Terry Rozier (10.1/4.5/2.4) are getting it done. The return of the injured Marcus Smart will only serve to deepen their bench capabilities.

As always, we continue to give a lot of the credit for this team’s success to head coach Brad Stevens. It has been remarkable to see Stevens ascend so quickly to the upper echelon of the NBA coaching ranks, but there’s no denying the results. He has built this group into a team, seamlessly integrating the talents of Irving while also putting the unfortunate Gordon Hayward injury into the rearview and helping the Celtics focus on the now rather than the then. His commitment is evident in every game and he’s one of the best scheme guys currently going.

This most recent stretch hasn’t seen Boston playing their best basketball. They’ve dropped a bit in the standings and might drop even more before it’s all said and done. That being said, this is a team that has a chance to make some noise in the Eastern Conference. Sure, they might wind up with a win total in the low 50s, but that’s OK – that’s at least one home playoff series and maybe more.

There’s still plenty of season ahead of us, but we’re in the home stretch. It remains a good time to be a Celtics fan.

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