Are the fun comeback Celtics back... and here to stay?
Photo of Brad Stevens courtesy of David McCollester
The Boston Celtics’ Wednesday night game against the Milwaukee Bucks started off in brutal fashion. There wasn’t much promise aside from maybe Marcus Smart who was good throughout the contest. I was ready to overreact and throw in the towel on Eastern Conference Finals aspirations. Losing to the expected top two seeds in the East early on would have pushed the Celtics to a third place ceiling.
Yea, I know. I was jumping the gun a bit about 14 quarters into the 2019-20 season. I won’t apologize. This is sports. I’m passionate. I’ll continue to wear my emotions on my sleeve. And as I overreacted so negatively in one direction, I certainly have the ability to pull a 180° turn after an impressive couple of quarters of play.
The Celtics played a near-perfect half of basketball on Wednesday which turned a 19-point deficit earlier in the game to an 11-point victory. If you don’t remember too many of these games from last year that is because these comebacks were hard to come by.
The Celtics win probability Wednesday night bottomed out at 7.1% midway through the 3rd quarter.
They only had 3 comeback wins like that all last year..none at home.
Celtics Wins when Win Probability dropped under 8%
Using win-probability as a metric, the Celtics had only three such comebacks last year. That is compared to 10 the year before, which can be viewed as Kyrie Irving’s honeymoon period. And before the Kyrie era, you may remember the Isaiah Thomas-led fun comeback Celtics. IT was the King of the Fourth and it was so enjoyable to watch.
Fourth quarter scoring was IT’s calling card during the 2016-17 season. He was a close second to the league’s MVP, Russell Westbrook, in points per game in the final frame. Westbrook averaged 10.0 points per fourth quarter that season, and IT poured in an impressive 9.8. Can this year’s Celtics team run by a similar model?
Kemba Walker is sixth in the NBA (for players with three or more games) in fourth quarter scoring at 9.0 per game. You may have heard of the other guys slightly ahead of him - Damian Lillard, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook and Devin Booker.
The impressive fourth quarters are not new to Kemba. He ranked 13th (6.2 ppg) in the league in scoring in the last quarter in 2016-17 for guys who played over 50 games. Kemba followed that up in 2017-18 with the same points per fourth, which ranked him twelfth. Last year, using the same criteria, Kemba took a jump to second (8.0 ppg) in the NBA sliding in behind James Harden. Having an elite scorer to lean on for a big bucket makes things a lot easier for the team.
The Celtics will have other games where they find themselves behind and in need of a comeback. Unlike me, Brad Stevens will not overreact.
"The key is how do you handle good nights and then how do you handle the storms that are coming inevitably in the season,” said Stevens. "I’m really encouraged because when this team was in halftime, they were saying all the right things, they were thinking all the right things. - NBC Sports Boston
It’s a good sign for this team. They need to have some things go right for them early in the season to further forget about last season. They’ve moved on. They’re ready to be the fun, comeback Celtics that we deserve so we can wash out the bad taste left in our mouths from last season. Kemba’s comments are a far cry from what we may have heard in the locker room after a game a year ago.
“We’re tough. We’re not going to shy away when things go wrong,” said newcomer Kemba Walker. "We’re going to win as a team, and we’re going to lose as a team. When things are going bad, what I’m going to try to do is keep us together. That's the most important thing for this year. - NBC Sports Boston
Paraphrasing Danny Ainge from his spot on 98.5 SportsHub this morning, he said something along the lines of: I never questioned the fight or compete with this team, I just wasn’t sure if we’re talented enough.
That comment from Ainge certainly sounds a lot like the 2016-17 Celtics. They had good talent, just as this team does, but the compete level outweighed the talent which allowed them to have a fun, competitive season. I don’t know about you, but I’m excited to watch this team battle for victories for the remainder of the season.
I’m on Twitter @Mike_Auc if you want to give me a follow.