The 2019-20 NBA season went on hiatus on March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic . The season will return on July 30 and NBA.com‘s writers are taking an updated look at each of the league’s 30 teams.
* * *
Record: 43-21, No. 3 in Eastern Conference
Season summary: After losing five rotation players over the summer, the Celtics are right back among the best teams in the Eastern Conference. In fact, they’re the only East team that ranks in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The Celtics have had their top five perimeter players together for only 14 of their 64 games, with four of the five having missed 11 games or more. With the departure of Kyrie Irving, they’ve actually seen the league’s second-biggest drop in assist percentage, recording assists on only 55.4% of their field goals (the league’s sixth-lowest rate). But with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum both taking steps forward and with the league’s best effective field goal percentage (49.0%) on pull-up jumpers, the mix has worked better than expected. Daniel Theis has held things down on the frontline, and the Celtics have had the league’s best defense (106.0 points allowed per 100 possessions in 17 games) vs. the top 10 teams in offensive efficiency. This team might just be a year away, or it might have the goods to win the East right now.
Breakout player: Tatum was named to his first All-Star Game on Jan. 30, and then he got better. After averaging 21.5 points on an effective field goal percentage of 50.1% over 24 games before the All-Star announcement, he averaged 28.6 points on 57.1% over 17 games between the announcement and the league’s hiatus. That latter stretch included 39 points in a double-overtime victory over the Clippers in the last game before the All-Star break and 41 against the Lakers in the second game after the break. For the season, Tatum has averaged 23.6 ppg, up from 15.7 ppg last season. That (7.8 points per game) is the fifth-biggest jump among 234 players who have played in at least 40 games in each of the last two seasons. He’s cut down on mid-range shots, has seen a big jump in 3-point attempts, and has shot 39.9% on pull-up 3-pointers, the fifth-best mark among 60 players who have attempted at least 100. Looking like a future MVP candidate, Tatum has raised the Celtics’ ceiling in the present.
Statement win: Lakers-Celtics was the marquee game on Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 20, but it wasn’t much of a contest. The Celtics took control with a 12-1 run in the second quarter and led by 25 by the midway point of the third. They finished with 139 points on 101 possessions, making it both their most efficient game of the season and the most efficient game that any team has had against the Lakers’ third-ranked defense. Tatum led all scorers with 27 points, shooting 5-for-8 from 3-point range, but the Celtics’ offense clicked at a new level. They scored 50 points in the restricted area, recorded 31 assists on 52 field goals, and four of Tatum’s teammates scored at least 16 points. The Celtics are 5-4 against the four teams with better records than they have, and this was surely the biggest win of the five.
Most exciting game: The Feb. 13 game between the Clippers and Celtics last game before the All-Star break was Tatum’s real coming-out party, and he got started early, scoring 14 points (as Kawhi Leonard scored 15 on the other end of the floor) in the first quarter. The Celtics led most of the game and by eight with less than seven minutes left in regulation, but the Clippers kept it close and Marcus Morris tied it with a second-chance 3 with 45.9 left in the fourth quarter. The Celtics had a chance to win at the end of regulation, but Kemba Walker missed a step-back jumper. Tatum scored eight of the Celtics’ 13 points in the first overtime, but missed a game-winning, step-back 3 in the final seconds. The Celtics finally closed the deal when they held the Clippers to just six points on 12 possessions in the second OT. Tatum finished with 39 points, and all 10 of his overtime points came at the rim (with a drive around Leonard and a tough finish over Montrezl Harrell) or at the free throw line. Marcus Smart added 31 and Williams had 35 for the Clippers, but it was Tatum’s night. “He made every big shot,” Walker said of Tatum afterward. “He was the best player on the court tonight.”
Memorable moments: In the fifth game of the season, the Celtics struggled to take care of business against the Knicks, and they blew a five-point lead in the final minute. But with 4.7 seconds left in that Nov. 1 game, they inbounded the ball to Tatum, who got some separation from RJ Barrett on the right wing and drained a 21-footer with 1.3 on the clock. The Knicks had no timeouts left and couldn’t inbound the ball cleanly. The victory was part of a 10-game winning streak (six of the wins were within five points in the last five minutes) that came to an end when Marcus Smart’s runner rolled off the rim in Sacramento on Nov. 17. There was a March 3 game vs. Brooklyn, one the Celtics led by 17 points at the start of the fourth quarter — and one in which they allowed the Nets to score 51 in the final 12 minutes of regulation. That included Smart committing a terrible foul sending Caris LeVert to the line for the game-tying free throws with 0.2 seconds left. With Tatum out, Gordon Hayward and Brown injured in regulation, Walker on a minutes limit, and Smart fouled out early in overtime, the Celtics scored just two points in the extra period. After winning 23 of their first 28 home games, they lost their last four at TD Garden before the season was stopped.
Three nights before the Brooklyn game, it was the Celtics who pulled off a miracle to send a game to overtime on Feb. 29 against Houston. With Boston down three, the Rockets intentionally fouled Tatum with 5.1 seconds left. He missed the first free throw, and then missed the second one on purpose. Tatum kept James Harden from getting a clean rebound, Smart deflected the ball out to the top of the arc, and it landed in the hands of Jaylen Brown, who drained a 3 at the buzzer to send the game to overtime. Alas, Brown’s shot for the win in OT fell short and the Rockets won, 111-110.
Team MVP: It’s Tatum, whose contributions go beyond his offense. He’s one of the best defenders on the league’s fourth-ranked defense, ranking seventh in total defensive win shares and one of 12 players who have totaled at least 50 steals and 50 blocks. The Celtics have been 11.3 points per 100 possessions better with Tatum on the floor (+10.3) than they’ve been with him off the floor (-1.0). That’s the sixth biggest on-off-court NetRtg differential among 218 players who have played at least 1,000 minutes for a single team. Tatum has also been a go-to guy down the stretch, and his effective field goal percentage of 61.1% in the clutch (score within five points in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime) is the second-best mark among 28 players who have attempted at least 50 clutch shots. His second season was somewhat disappointing, but he has made up for it by making a huge leap in Year 3.
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.