Kenny Smith sees Warriors-type potential in the Celtics. During halftime of Boston’s 139-107 blowout of the Lakers on Monday, he told the TNT panel that Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum reminded him of a “smaller version” of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Kevin Durant. That’s where I assumed he was going with the analogy, anyway; Kenny couldn’t get past naming Steph and Klay without Shaq burying his head in his hands and Chuck loudly groaning.
Comparing these Celtics to the Golden State team that defined much of the last decade sounds hyperbolic. It is hyperbolic. But Boston is far better than anyone expected heading into the season, primarily because of its Big Three, which was a lowercase-b big three, at best, in October. This is true despite the Celtics’ recent slide, as they had lost six of their past eight games before Monday. And it’s certainly true after this Lakers ass-kicking, the most lopsided Los Angeles defeat of the season—and one that included the return of a healthy Anthony Davis.
Tatum and Brown finished with a combined 47 points, the most emphatic of which came when Brown dunked over LeBron and then let him know it. The Celtics shook off their recent streak of shaky starts, which was the beginning of an evening-long sense of security for this crew. They won the second quarter by 11 points, the third quarter by 10, and the fourth (with a garbage-time disclaimer) by eight. They went 16-of-34 from deep and outrebounded the Lakers 48-36. Kemba even beat LeBron for the first time in his nine-year NBA career.
LeBron James is 28-0 in his career against Kemba Walker (including playoffs).— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 21, 2020
But today, Kemba and the Celtics have handed the Lakers their largest deficit of the season (27) and are 15 minutes away from breaking that drought. pic.twitter.com/dPsP0t9S6W
Boston was set back over the past two weeks by lackadaisical play and difficult matchups at center, as it went against Al Horford, Brook Lopez (and, let’s be real, Giannis Antetokounmpo), and Deandre Ayton over that span. Their shortcomings in those games highlighted a recurring weak spot for the Celtics, who have struggled to defend in the frontcourt as a result of Horford and Aron Baynes’s departures and myriad injuries. And they fell into their recent funk when their headliners weren’t present to pick up the slack. Walker sat Saturday against the Suns because of a sore knee; Brown missed the past two games with a sprained thumb. All were losses.
Monday’s rout alleviated much cause for concern. And in true Brad Stevens fashion, Boston’s unexpected success didn’t stop with its stars. Gordon Hayward went for 16 points despite playing through a lingering foot injury. Marcus Smart showed what makes him such a fan favorite for the Celtics, as he has all season. This group continued to survive with Brad Wanamaker serving as the primary backup point guard and the combination of Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter—who went for 18 and 11 on Monday—taking over at the center spot.
Survival is no longer the aim, though. Boston has regained admittance into the Eastern Conference’s second tier, the coterie of playoff locks that have little hope of besting Milwaukee’s regular-season record: Miami, Toronto, Indiana, and Philadelphia. Just 2.5 games separate the second and sixth spots in the East, putting the Celtics in position to make a big move. They’re in danger of dropping; they’re also full of promise and could rise.
The February 6 trade deadline is fast approaching, and the right Boston acquisition could make a world of difference. The Celtics could desperately use a stronger and more experienced presence at center; though Kanter and Theis deserve credit for their efforts, the frontcourt as constructed limits this team’s upside. The point guard spot could also use a makeover, even for as lethal as the Walker-Brown-Smart combination has been.
Trade targets range from realistic to deliriously improbable: Andre Drummond (maybe; the Pistons should consider any change at this point, and Drummond has a player option next season, but it’d probably come at too large a cost for the Celtics), Steven Adams (Yes! Please! But the Thunder are also delightfully and unexpectedly succeeding); Horford (bring that old thing back), and Derrick Rose (the Lakers, coincidentally, are reportedly interested in Rose) have all been mentioned. There’s no cap on the rumors when Danny Ainge is at the helm.
It’s possible that one member of the East’s middle class will emerge to challenge the Bucks in the playoffs. And while the Sixers beat the holiday spirit out of Giannis Antetokounmpo on Christmas Day, and the Raptors and Heat have no quit, the Celtics may have the best chance. They aren’t just hinting that they could be that team anymore, they’re spinning one of those giant arrow signs on the side of the road. Monday’s blowout of the Lakers was a start. For Boston to take the next step, it will need to add a few more trusted pieces to its ranks.