By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — As the Celtics inch closer to the midway point of the season, they’ve just about erased an early-season hole they fell into in the Eastern Conference standings.
Boston sits just one game back of the Toronto Raptors for the lead in the Atlantic Division and, more importantly, second place in the Eastern Conference. The C’s have a chance to pull even in the standings when they visit the Raptors on Tuesday night, but it’s not going to be easy, especially if the Celtics continue to struggle on the defensive end.
Yes, the Celtics are catching the Raptors at just the right time. Toronto has hit a bump in the road, dropping five of their last seven games. Granted, three of those losses came during a four-game trip out West, but they’ve allowed 112.7 points per game over that stretch. The Rockets just torched them for a season-high 129 points their return to Toronto on Sunday night, with James Harden going off for 40 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds for his 10th triple-double of the season. The night before, Jimmy Butler lit them up for 42 points in an overtime win by the Bulls in Chicago.
Meanwhile, the Celtics have won eight of their last 10 games and 10 of their last 12, lighting up the scoreboard in the process. That offensive surge has been led by Isaiah Thomas, who missed Boston’s lone matchup with Toronto earlier this season but is on an incredible scoring streak with 21 straight 20+ point games. He must be chomping at the bit to light up the scoreboard on Tuesday night, averaging 31.4 points per game since returning from a groin injury. In his four games against Toronto last season, Thomas put up an average of 22.3 points per game.
With the Celtics offense firing on all cylinders during their streak, it appears things are trending in Boston’s direction on Tuesday night. But unfortunately for the Celtics, putting a boatload of points on the scoreboard might not matter if they can’t keep the Raptors from doing the same.
Like the Raptors of late, the Celtics have been equally woeful on the defensive end of the floor. Their offensive explosion (and winning, of course) has masked those struggles to some extent, but Boston hasn’t had the same chemistry that the gritty Celtics defense of last year showed on a nightly basis. Their lack of cohesiveness on that end of the floor has led to some easy buckets and some ridiculous final scores, with opponents are averaging 109.5 points over their last 10 games while shooting 47 percent from the floor and 36 percent from three-point range. For comparison’s sake, Boston has allowed 104.4 points per game (same as the Raptors) on 45 percent shooting from the floor and 26.6 percent from downtown for the season.
“We haven’t been very good, and there’s a lot of things that go with that,” head coach Brad Stevens said Monday before the team departed for Toronto. “We’ve been good at times in games but not as good as we need to be ultimately. We’re guarding at a high level about half the time. And we have to be a lot better than that if we want to be a good team.”
It’s safe to say the scoreboard operator will be busy Tuesday night during what should be an offensive battle, especially with Avery Bradley missing his second straight game for the Celtics. Bradley’s absence makes the task of slowing Toronto’s dynamic backcourt of Kyle Lowrie and DeMar DeRozan even more daunting for Boston, as both have had their way against the Celtics. Lowry scored 21 of his season-high 34 points in the second half of the C’s 101-94 loss to the Raptors in Boston, and DeRozan has averaged 25.5 points per game against the Celts over the last two seasons.
Boston has struggled against the Raptors since Stevens took over, boasting just a 4-9 record against their rivals up north. Without Thomas on the floor back on December 9, the Celtics blew an eight-point halftime lead and were outscored by the Raptors 59-44 over the final 24 minutes. They’ll look to turn those fortunes around Tuesday night, pulling even with their main competition for that “second tier” in the East in the process.
It’d be nice if they could pull that off, but it’d be even nicer if they did it while playing a little defense.