The Celtics nearly squandered a 20-point lead, but held off the Suns 115-110 Monday night on the heels of a second straight compelling performance from new guard Isaiah Thomas. The former Phoenix reserve scored eight of his 21 points in the final two minutes to help close out the win.
With the victory, Boston improved to 21-33 with 28 games to play in the regular season but, because the Cís play in a dreadful Eastern Conference, the club is just two games out of a playoff spot.
That in mind, what should we expect from Brad Stevensí group in the second half of the season? A realistic playoff push, or another look to the draft lottery?
Our Boston.com panel of Celtics insiders weighed in.
Jessica Camerato: For the past season-and-a-half, the Celtics have been in dismantling and rebuilding mode. Trade players, receive picks, repeat. Now it's starting to come together.
The second half of the 2014-15 season will offer a glimpse into the new direction of this team. The Celtics have compiled a group of young players to grow with, and after trading away key veteran pieces, the opportunity is here for them to develop.
All of the statistical leaders from the beginning of the season are gone: Rajon Rondo (assists) and Jeff Green (scoring) were traded while Jared Sullinger (rebounding, scoring) suffered a season-ending foot injury.
Avery Bradley, become a consistent offensive contributor. Marcus Smart and James Young, learn the ropes of the NBA. Isaiah Thomas, welcome to the Celtics with your multi-year contract (which breaks the norm of the Celtics acquiring players on short-term/expiring deals). The revolving door of players is slowing down and those on the roster can begin to take shape in their roles.
The remainder of the season is also important for head coach Brad Stevens. Since being hired last season, he has been tasked with maneuvering a constantly-changing group of players, including some who were here today, gone tomorrow. At this point Stevens can assess the team and formulate rotations he can implement with longer-term vision.
The Celtics still have an overflow of draft picks and movement will pick up again, but now that the trade deadline has passed the team can focus on the players at hand for the rest of the season and shape the group they would like to see in the future.
Gary Dzen: My answer for what to expect from the Celtics in the second half changed drastically Sunday morning when an e-mail with the subject line, "Jared Sullinger Injury Update" popped into my inbox. The news that Sullinger is out for the season is devastating on two fronts. Acutely, it will be difficult for the C's to secure a playoff spot and do anything once they get there without their best low-post presence. The arrival of Isaiah Thomas indicates that the Celtics are done bottoming out, and no matter how hard a certain segment of fans is rooting for the team to lose as many games as possible for a better draft pick, it would have been fun to see what Boston's entire young core was capable of in a playoff series. The other downside of Sullinger's injury is his own development. Sullinger might have a ceiling as an All-Star player, but not if he keeps taking two steps back every time he takes a step forward.
It would be unfair to put an expectation on wins and losses for this crew, but it's fair to expect some individual improvements. In addition to wreaking havoc on defense, something he does best, Marcus Smart should get better at something he's not so great at, like finishing around the rim. James Young should begin to earn some of his increased minutes, rather than just be handed them. And the team as a whole should start to lock in defensively, at least in spurts. The core of the Celtics is nowhere near complete, but some of it is in place. We should start to see some tangible results.
Jeremy Gottlieb: Believe it or not, I really thought the Celtics had a solid shot at the playoffs for a minute there. But without Jared Sullinger, who, it sort of pains me to say, is indeed that important on this particular team, it's lottery land ho again. That's OK though because we'll get to see them go lose 20 or so of their last 30 games with Isaiah Thomas going to the basket, getting to the line, playing with some edge and making the Celtics as fun to watch and as exciting as they've been in a long time.
I may have said this already at least once or twice but I love Isaiah and I'm pretty irrationally excited that he's here. The worst part of these past two years of rebuilding for me is how dull it's been. The Celtics have made themselves more interesting this year just by virtue of being a little better as well as the fact that they've developed a penchant for coming back. But there's still just a malaise, a sense of inevitability to their games that's made watching them feel like a chore.
Thomas brings instant excitement (as long as refs with itchy trigger fingers leave him alone). The inevitable landslide of losses coming over the next couple months will at least have a pulse. He and Marcus Smart are dynamic, young guys who play with energy and abandon. It's tough to take your eyes off either one of them. Meaningless games will feel meaningful because of them and I'm looking forward to it.
Adam Kaufman: Iím not a proponent of tanking. I wasnít last year, so Iím sure as hell not this season when the next NBA draft class doesnít project to be nearly as good. I want the Celtics to make a playoff push, even if that means a short five or six-game series before a long summer. The experience in that atmosphere would be invaluable for both Bostonís young players and its coach. Plus, itíd be nice for Brad Stevens to feel heís actually building toward something in the wake of so much losing.
However, I donít think itís realistic. Even with explosive and energetic scorer Isaiah Thomas now in the fold, the Cís have lost Jared Sullinger, their leading scorer and rebounder, for the season. I wonít miss Sullingerís propensity to heave up shot after shot from the perimeter but the team will miss his interior presence beyond what Kelly Olynyk (whenever heís healthy) or new acquisition Jonas Jerebko can provide.
In addition, other middling teams in the East have improved enough to edge out the Celts, even if thatís just by a narrow margin. If Dwyane Wadeís health holds, the Heatís move for Goran Dragic will be enough to account for the loss of Chris Bosh. At this stage, the Nets are better with Thaddeus Young than Kevin Garnett. The Pistons addressed a need with Reggie Jackson. The Pacers could get Paul George back. There are too many hurdles to overcome.
The master plan hasnít changed. The rest of this season is about development; getting Thomas integrated with the offense, growing Marcus Smartís game, and finding time for James Young. A couple playoff games at the Garden would be nice, but hoping to land one of the many big men expected to go in the first half of the first round of the 2015 Draft wouldnít be the end of the world.
Brian Robb: One thing you can expect from the Celtics is plenty of entertaining small ball. With the season-ending injury to Jared Sullinger, combined with the addition of Isaiah Thomas via trade, the majority of the healthy talent on the roster now lies in the backcourt. Brad Stevens has already found some success going with small lineups while Kelly Olynyk (ankle) has been sidelined and that trend should continue with Sullinger out of action. Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley can wreak plenty of defensive havoc alongside Thomas, and James Young should continue to see some regular minutes for seasoning as well.
Stevens will have some interesting choices to make in the frontcourt upon Olynykís return as well. Will he keep the Brandon Bass-Tyler Zeller pairing in place or move Olynyk into the fold to give the starters more outside shooting? Will Jonas Jerebko have a chance to be a factor? There are more questions than answers at this point.
One thing that is already clear is this team will keep playing hard and improving under Stevens. Now that Danny Ainge canít trade anyone else until July, Stevens will have roster continuity for a couple months for the first time in a long time. With some future core pieces in place, instead of veteran placeholders, this group should develop and hang around in the Eastern Conference playoff race the rest of the way.
More from this blog on: Celtics