Boston’s Jayson Tatum had a fourth straight game with 30-plus points on Monday, the second-longest stretch of his career. Charles Krupa/Associated Press

BOSTON — It’s been an eventful first two months of the regular season for Ime Udoka as head coach of the Boston Celtics.

The team stumbled out of the gate with a 2-5 record that featured some heartbreaking overtime losses and some public critiques of the team’s All-Stars. Since then? Boston has steadied itself with an 8-3 record since the slow start, including a blowout win over the Houston Rockets on Monday night.

The uneven play has led to a 10-8 overall record, leaving some to wonder whether this recent turnaround under Udoka’s watch is a flash in the pan or a sign that the ship has been righted this regular season. A closer look at the numbers shows there may be plenty of substance behind this rise in the Eastern Conference standings for Boston.

Celtics’ preferred starting five has a net rating of plus-21.1

There was a bit of a question of whether the Celtics starting five – featuring double bigs in the frontcourt with Al Horford and Robert Williams – would be the best option for Ime Udoka. A long list of injuries have kept that group broken apart for much of the first two months of the season. However, a reunion on Monday night in Jaylen Brown and Williams’ return to the court reminded everyone how special that group can be on the defensive end.

Boston Coach Ime Udoka, in his first year, has the Celtics at 10-8 after starting the season 2-5. Tony Dejak/Associated Press

The five-man unit held the Rockets to an anemic 59 defensive rating over their 13 minutes played together, fueled by a dominant 24-3 run in which Houston was held to just one made basket over seven minutes. That type of stingy defense has been the main constant with this group of starters.


Offensively, there is plenty of room for improvement as Marcus Smart and Al Horford start reverting to their career averages from 3-point range. Even with those struggles, for now, the group has a plus-21 net rating on the year thus far. The team’s length and improving communication on that end of the floor make it a steep challenge to score against and that’s what will keep Boston in most games almost every night with that unit on the court.

Jayson Tatum looks like his All-Star self yet again

For the past week, the 23-year-old looks like one of the best players in the NBA yet again, something this Celtics franchise is banking on as it tries to build back toward contending. Monday’s win over the Rockets marked Tatum’s fourth straight game with 30-plus points, the second-longest stretch of his career. He scored five straight 30-plus games in March 2020 right before the NBA season came to a halt due to coronavirus. Now, he’s not just scoring but he’s doing it efficiently, averaging 33.5 points per game over Boston’s last four wins on 50 percent shooting from the field. He also had a season-high nine free throws in Monday’s win.

“I mean, the shots that he was getting, he’s knocking them down now, being extra aggressive, I think, attacking the basket a little bit more, getting more free throws that happened over the last few games,” Udoka said. “But still doing what he did early, getting the same shots that he was missing that we knew would flip eventually. But he’s also finding guys passing the ball extremely well. So very well-rounded games, in general. The scoring is there because of the made shots but we never overreacted to that in the first place.”

The defense is elite and isn’t going anywhere

Boston had the 27th ranked defense in the NBA after it fell to 2-5 overall with a disastrous loss to the Chicago Bulls at TD Garden earlier this month. That type of slow start was shocking since the defense was an area Udoka insisted this group would hang its hat on since training camp.


The head coach has followed through over the last 11 games as Boston has jumped 21 spots in defensive efficiency to sixth overall in the NBA after Monday’s win over the Rockets. The Celtics have the second-best defense in the NBA behind Phoenix (winners of 12 straight) in their last 11 games, allowing just 100.1 points per 100 possessions, four points better than their season average.

The Williams/Horford front line has been imposing and with plus defenders coming off the bench now in the backcourt with Josh Richardson and Dennis Schroder, the Celtics have few exploitable weaknesses. Udoka has found the right mix of switching from a scheme standpoint after a tough adjustment period in the first couple weeks of the regular season but Boston has the horses now to stay in games with its defensive fight, something that was not the case last season.

“We’ve got to stay consistent defensively, but the potential for this group is really good, so we’ve just got to keep building on it,’ Brown said after Monday’s win.

After scoring 18 points off the bench in Monday’s win overe the Rockets, Dennis Schroder – in his first year with Boston – is averaging 17.9 points per game despite only starting 11 of Boston’s 18 games. Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Dennis Schroder is looking like a reliable third-scoring option

This was one of the biggest question marks on the Celtics roster entering this season after Kemba Walker was shipped away in a trade and Evan Fournier signed with the Knicks. However, the former Laker fell into Boston’s lap in free agency and has seemed to find his comfort level with the Celtics. After scoring 18 points off the bench against the Rockets, Schroder is averaging 17.9 points per game despite only starting 11 of Boston’s 18 games.

He’s taken his offense to another level during Boston’s recent 8-3 stretch, averaging 20.5 points per game on 50 percent shooting from the field. He’s found a strong balance between seeking out his offense and setting up others for easy looks and he’s currently flirting with a career-high by shooting 45.8 percent from the field. The point guard’s 3-point shooting hasn’t come around (33 percent) but his interior finishing is a crucial weapon this team has needed for years with Marcus Smart’s struggles at the rim.


All of this production has taken some pressure off Tatum and Brown (when healthy) and helped other supporting players stick to their roles rather than trying to do too much offensively.

Committing to the glass

The Celtics have been the best defensive rebounding team in the NBA, which has helped propel them to one of the top defenses in the league. The main contributors on that front have been a mix of surprising names. Tatum has been using his size effectively to put together some of the best rebounding numbers of his career (8.6 per game) but another frontcourt mate has been an even bigger help.

At age 35, Horford is posting the best defensive rebounding rate of his career, providing a huge boost on that front as he splits time between power forward and center. Udoka’s shift to bigger lineups have undoubtedly helped on this front with Enes Kanter getting minutes in recent weeks and three guard lineups lacking length essentially disappearing.

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