Amid all the noise, Celtics offer a reminder of where they stand

Amid all the noise, Celtics offer a reminder of where they stand originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Joe Mazzulla doesn’t believe in statement games. He believes in Jesus, coffee, and jiu-jitsu (and wore the T-shirt Thursday night to prove it). He believes in four factors and steady progress towards a desired goal.

So if the Celtics sent a statement on Thursday night in Miami, it was simply the byproduct of playing the right way. On a national stage against an opponent that always seems to be a thorn in their side, the Celtics produced one of their better offensive games of the season, taking advantage of mismatches at every opportunity and shooting absurdly well beyond the 3-point arc.

The Celtics know all too well the obstacles of playing the second night of a back-to-back against a rested, talented opponent. In the same way that the team didn’t overreact to its lopsided loss in Milwaukee, it won’t get too amped about rolling the Heat on Thursday.

But in a week where all of Boston’s so-called rivals made waves — from the Heat acquiring Terry Rozier, to the Bucks firing their coach and replacing him with old friend Doc Rivers, to Joel Embiid’s 70-point game for the Sixers — the Celtics simply let their play do the talking.

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Boston quietly produced a 3-0 week on the road. As they return home for a seven-game homestand in a building in which they’ve posted a 20-1 record, the Celtics sit 3.5 games up on the Bucks and five games up on the 76ers. All the other move-makers in the East are barely in Boston’s rearview mirror.

In advance of Boston’s visit to Miami, Mazzulla bristled at the notion that everyone in the East is chasing Boston. He wondered out loud what the Celtics had won to earn that designation, considering they haven’t raised a banner since 2008. If he’s trying to prevent his team from getting complacent with success, that’s understandable. As Mazzulla would plead after the Miami win, none of Boston’s excellence matters if the team doesn’t bottle up those lessons for when games really matter from April to June.

We’d be OK, though, if Celtics players want to balance some humility with a little bit of swagger.

One of the most notable characteristics of the 2022 team that stormed to the Finals was the way they embraced absolutely dominating teams at the finish line of the 2022 season. When everyone started fretting the possibility of Boston having to play Brooklyn in Round 1 that year, coach Ime Udoka boldly suggested the Celtics were not a track team and that they weren’t running from anybody. Players embraced that mentality, then navigated the most grueling path possible to the Finals.

The Celtics need to find that sweet spot of knowing that they haven’t accomplished anything yet — and really can’t until June — but also being OK with puffing out their chest and believing they are the best team in basketball.

The NBA trade deadline awaits in early February and much of the conversation the next couple weeks will center on the moves that teams will make. The Celtics can feel confident in their collection of talent, but much like they can’t be complacent with success, they must look to see if upgrades can be made. Watching Kristaps Porzingis limp off in the second half of Thursday’s game — even if the ankle roll seems less severe than it did in the moment — was a reminder that every bit of depth helps.

(Shout-out to Luke Kornet, who promptly entered and legitimately dominated for a solid couple of minutes as everyone was fretting Porzingis’ status).

Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens doesn’t usually tiptoe around roster construction. From the Kemba Walker-for-Al Horford deal that started his tenure as general manager, Stevens has made bold choices with the goal of ending Boston’s banner drought. His offseason additions of Porzingis and Jrue Holiday have helped position the Celtics as title favorites.

Boston’s limited assets to add talent at the trade deadline will make it difficult to definitively upgrade this roster. It feels a bit like last season when the Celtics made a minor tweak in adding Mike Muscala, who helped the team navigate the second half of the season but didn’t factor into the primary playoff rotation.

The Celtics have an NBA Trade Deadline gift card in the $6.2 million Grant Williams trade exception. But even using that comes with a host of service fees as Boston’s luxury tax commitment will likely grow (though some of that could be mitigated by some end-of-the-roster tweaking).

What do the Celtics need? Stevens has publicly said the Celtics could use a big wing. The desire to pace Porzingis and 37-year-old Al Horford could motivate the team to add big-man depth. Do the Celtics trust that Payton Pritchard can hold up in the playoffs when teams might target his size? To his credit, Pritchard is tied for 2nd in the NBA in net rating at +12.2, sharing that spot with Porzingis (and one spot behind NBA-leading Derrick White at +13.7), and has fought to be super competitive on the defensive end this year.

Everyone is focused on the changes that all of Boston’s rivals are making. The Celtics just keep winning games.

Boston should feel good about where it stands. There’s still room for progress and Mazzulla will make sure his team doesn’t get complacent.

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