Opinion: Have the Celtics finally put their early-season struggles behind them?

As they have experienced season-long inconsistency and a recent winning streak, the Boston Celtics have traveled two parallel tracks.

On one, they can usually rely on Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown as they've blossomed into All-Stars. In the Celtics’ 119-114 victory over the Golden State Warriors on Saturday at TD Garden, Tatum finished with 44 points to compensate for Brown's absence and to offset Stephen Curry’s 47 points. At other times, Brown has carried the team.

"We’re just trying to stay the course," Tatum said. "It’s been a weird year, obviously, and we’ve had our fair share of ups and downs. We’re just trying to be there for each other for everybody in that locker room."

On the other track, Boston rarely knew what it would receive from the rest of the supporting cast. Against the Warriors, Kemba Walker (26 points, eight rebounds) and Marcus Smart (16 points, nine rebounds, six assists) stepped into the role. Walker drilled a 25-foot step-back 3 for a 116-11 cushion with 24.8 seconds remaining. Smart grabbed a key offensive rebound and drained a 3-pointer to give the Celtics a 111-109 lead with 1:16 left. Jabari Parker (11 points) and Payton Pritchard (11) also contributed.

☘️ 44 POINTS for Jayson Tatum
☘️ 10 REB, 16-25 FGM
☘️ 6 straight Ws for @[email protected] x #BleedGreenpic.twitter.com/IpgNAVL8z0

But with significant injuries this season to Walker and Smart, the Celtics never had a definitive third guy to represent a Big 3. The rest of Boston’s roster represented a handful of veterans (Tristan Thompson), rookies (Pritchard, Aaron Nesmith) and other young players (Grant Williams, Robert Williams III, Romeo Langford, Carsen Edwards), all of whom showed mixed progress.

"I don’t rank guys. We just try to win basketball games and all play together," Boston coach Brad Stevens said. "We’re not looking for first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth. It’s just how can we all make the right basketball play. So we need them both to be very good and we need everybody around them to be very good."

So what should we make of the Celtics (31-26) and their fourth-place standing in the Eastern Conference?

After advancing to the conference finals three times in the past four years, are the Celtics underachieving this season? Or after winning six consecutive games and eight of their last nine, are the Celtics finally showing their true identity? Or is the reality somewhere in between?

"I don’t think our record shows the kind of team we are," Tatum said. "I think people know that. It’s been a weird role. Obviously, we’ve dealt with a bunch of things."


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