When the year 2015 gave way to 2016, the NBA was a much more uncertain place than it is now.
On the morning of December 31, 2015, chaos had not yet ceded its place in much of the Eastern Conference. The hierarchical structure that’s emerging in this half of the league had not yet begun to form.
How muddled was the East on the last morning of the previous calendar year? The Atlanta Hawks were in second place. The Orlando Magic were six games over .500 (19-13), tied with the Hawks in the loss column.
On the morning of December 31, 2015, seven non-Cleveland teams were at least four games over .500, but none were 10 games above the break-even point. The East was a bowl of thick pea soup. Visibility was zero as soon as you drove out of Cleveland and searched for other high places in the conference. No one really knew what was going to happen in the East when the new year arrived.
Now, clarity has visited several precincts in the conference… though not all of them.
Only four non-Cleveland teams are at least four games over .500. Two teams have managed to hit the 10-over-500 mark. The sixth through eighth spots figure to be the objects of a wild late-season scramble, but the East is now a lot more tiered and stratified than it was two months ago.
Toronto has joined Cleveland at the top. Miami and Atlanta are part of a modest middle class with at least some margin for error in the race for a playoff berth. Indiana, Chicago, Charlotte and Detroit are locked in a desperate struggle for a final postseason slot. Washington leads the list of teams under .500, trying to improve its position before a final finishing kick in early April.
There’s one team we haven’t mentioned yet. It’s a team sandwiched between the upper classes from Cleveland and Toronto, and the middle class from Miami and Atlanta. It’s a team which — on the last morning of 2015 — was one tree in a vast forest, impossible to distinguish from the rest of the non-Cleveland (and non-Philadelphia, non-Brooklyn) East. It was a team in trouble, a team trying to find an identity and a way to replicate its best performances.
It’s the only East team other than Toronto to make 2016 a year of revival.
On the morning of December 31, the Boston Celtics had just lost at home to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Shredded for 112 points by a bad team, the Celtics clearly didn’t put forth the level of effort which was necessary for them to move ahead of the large and indistinguishable pack in the East. Two days later, on January 2, Brook Lopez of the Brooklyn Nets exposed Boston’s defense for 30 points and 13 boards. Brooklyn’s one of the five worst teams in the league, but it handled the Celtics in Boston. On January 6, the Celtics lost yet again in their own building, but Detroit is a talented team led by a smart coach, Stan Van Gundy.
The consecutive losses to the Lakers and Nets offered cause for alarm in New England. The Celtics might not have the roster of their dreams, due to a steady and responsible rebuilding effort under Danny Ainge, but it’s a roster which has no business losing to the likes of the Lakers and Nets.
After the loss to Brooklyn on Jan. 2, coach Brad Stevens flatly said this:
“I’ve got to hold guys accountable at a better level. We’re not playing as well as we think we are, so we’ve got to be better.”
There’s no time for anyone to become complacent, but it’s clear that if Stevens needed more accountability, he got it. A more vigilant team does not let down its guard at home. Accordingly, the Celtics have now won 10 straight home games. They own the fourth-best home record in the East. They’re very much the favorite to get the important third seed in the conference, which would steer clear of Cleveland until the East Finals.
The days of giving away home games to bad teams appear to be over. It’s just another example of how Brad Stevens is establishing himself as one of the premier coaches in the league.
Boston has the fourth-highest-scoring offense in the league, at least on a per-game basis. Naturally, a number of the triumphs in the Celtics’ 10-game home winning streak were achieved due to outstanding offensive performances: at least 117 in three separate victories. However, accountability most centrally emerges at the defensive end, and Boston is putting in the hard yards so that aspiration is met with an equal measure of accomplishment.
After shutting down Miami on Saturday in a 101-89 win, the Celtics have pieced together four home wins on this streak in which they allowed no more than 95 points. Sure, the Celtics become extremely tough when everything about their offense is humming, but they’re now winning home games even without their best and most cohesive offensive performances.
The bad giveaway losses have ceased to exist. The odds-on choice for the 3 seed in the East has emerged from the clutter of December 31, 2015.