The Boston Celtics have the best record in the Eastern Conference and are in a virtual tie with the Golden State Warriors for the best record in the NBA. Yet, since I've started writing this column, it's been rare for a Celtics player to be listed in the "highlights" section. On those few occasions when it has happened, it's usually been Kyrie Irving -- which is actually a bad sign for the team. That's because the Celtics are at their best when they get balanced contributions from across their roster. If Irving is scoring 30-plus points, that often means that either the team is struggling or else outright losing.
On Thursday, the Celtics faced the Philadelphia 76ers in an international game, played in London, England. The 76ers jumped out to a big lead early, but the Celtics walked them down and eventually won by double-digits -- and they did so in their characteristic smooth, balanced way.
Here was the boxscore production from their four best starters on Thursday:
Irving: 20 points (7-20 FG, 3-3 FT), 7 assists, 6 rebounds, 3 3-pointers, 5 TO
Jaylen Brown: 21 points (8-15 FG, 3-5 FT), 4 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 assists, 2 3-pointers, 2 TO
Jayson Tatum: 16 points (7-13 FG, 1-2 FT), 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 3-pointer, 1 TO
Al Horford: 13 points (5-10 FG, 2-2 FT), 8 rebounds, 7 assists, 1 3-pointer, 1 block, 1 TO
Aron Baynes starts in the center slot, but he's typically more of a role player than a fantasy producer. The Celtics sometimes get fantasy-worthy lines from him, and also sometimes get contributions from bench players like Marcus Smart or Terry Rozier. All three of those players were relatively quiet on Thursday, but they did get their fifth strong contribution off the bench from Marcus Morris (available in 89.4 percent of leagues) with his line of 19 points (7-13 FG, 2-2 FT), 8 rebounds, 3 3-pointers, 2 assists and 1 steal.
While the Celtics' balance does prelude them from having any overt fantasy MVPs, they do have four starters that are all very good fantasy performers -- with Irving qualifying as a roto-league superstar and a very good points-league producer as well. The Celtics are also often good streaming targets, because of the tendency for their bench players to produce on a routine basis. Beyond fantasy, that balance is a strong part of why Boston is having one of the best regular seasons in the NBA this year.
Robert Covington, Philadelphia 76ers: 5 points (2-8 FG), 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 3-pointer, 4 TO
The most impressive player on the 76ers in London was JJ Redick (available in 41 percent of leagues), who turned in 22 points (7-12 FG, 3-3 FT), 7 rebounds, 5 3-pointers, 3 assists and 1 block in the game. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid were both slightly underwhelming by their standards. Embiid's shot was off (6-17 FG) and Simmons didn't do much on the glass or in the distribution game (2 rebounds, 3 assists).
The Raptors molly-whopped the Cavaliers on Thursday without starters Kyle Lowry (back) or Serge Ibaka (suspension) playing, so there were several good performances to speak of from unexpected sources. Valanciunas earned the top spot by dominating the glass and because he did so in only 19 minutes of action. CJ Miles (96.7 percent availability) knocked down 4 treys on his way to 16 points, 5 boards and 2 assists in 19 minutes. Fred VanVleet (99.1 percent availability) dominated garbage time off the bench, scoring 22 points (8-11 FG) with 6 3-pointers, 4 rebounds, 4 assists and 1 steal in 24 minutes. Pascal Siakam (99.2 percent availability) also turned in 16 points (7-10 FG, 2-3 FT), 8 rebounds, 4 assists and 1 steal while Jakob Poeltl (97.6 percent availability) notched a double-double with 12 points (5-8 FG, 2-3 FT), 12 rebounds and 3 blocks. Even Norman Powell (98.5 percent availability) showed up with 14 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 3-pointers and 1 block in 27 minutes off the bench.
The Clippers got both Blake Griffin (concussion) and Milos Teodosic (foot) back in the lineup, but lost DeAndre Jordan (ankle, see below). Griffin went for 18 points, 12 boards, 6 assists, 2 3-pointers and 1 steal, though he struggled with his shot from the floor (5-14 FG). Teodosic (92.7 percent availability) slotted back in with a near double-double thanks to 10 points, 9 assists, 2 3-pointers and 1 rebound. Montrezl Harrell (98.9 percent availability) was the surprise performer off the bench with 25 points (11-12 FG, 3-9 FT), 6 rebounds and 1 steal in 27 minutes. Still, Williams was the star again, scoring 30-plus points for the third straight game and the seventh time in his last 11 contests.
The Lakers got their season-high third-consecutive win on Thursday, taking advantage of an undermanned San Antonio Spurs team. They got good performances from Brandon Ingram (26 points, 11-21 FG, 2-5 FT, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 3-pointers, 1 steal) and Larry Nance Jr. (14 points, 6-9 FG, 2-2 FT, 10 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals and 1 block in 30 minutes off the bench -- 83.6 percent availability). However, Ball was the star -- and he just keeps chugging along with now 10-game averages of 14.3 points (43.8 FG%, 41.4 3-point%), 7.9 rebounds, 7.1 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.8 blocks and 3.3 TOs per game.
Thomas is really struggling with his shot as he tries to work the rust off his game. He has now gone 0-17 from the floor in his last two first halves and, on Thursday, he failed to make a 3-pointer for the first time in 60 games. Because Thomas is so important to what the Cavaliers want to do as a team, re-integrating him into the lineup seems to be throwing off the entire team, which has clearly hit some mid-season doldrums.
Injuries of note
DeAndre Jordan sprained his left ankle in the second quarter of Thursday night's game, and was unable to return. The severity of the injury has yet to be announced, so consider him day-to-day for now. On Thursday, his absence opened things up for Montrezl Harrell to pop.
Dion Waiters had been resting and rehabbing an injured left ankle, but on Thursday decided to undergo season-ending surgery. This move means that Josh Richardson, Tyler Johnson and Wayne Ellington should all continue in their expanded roles to cover the shooting guard minutes, even once Justise Winslow (knee) returns from his injury.
Isaiah Thomas played on Thursday, but will sit out on Friday for the second half of a back-to-back.
Analytics advantage for Friday
Cavaliers beat writer Mike Zavagno created a chart that showed how each team's Net Ratings (e.g. scoring margins with respect to their opponents) differ in back-to-backs as opposed to games played with rest. The league average shows a +0.7 net with rest, and a -3.1 net on the tail end of a back-to-back. The Cavaliers have a net rating of -5.4 on the second half of a back-to-back (down 9.0 points from when they are rested) while the Indiana Pacers have a net rating of +4.8 with rest.
As such, for Friday, the rested Pacers would seem to make good plays/streaming options against a Cavaliers squad that has struggled of late -- an average of 129 points allowed in their last three games, with each opponent shooting 50-plus percent from the field -- and is also on the second half of a back-to-back.
Top players to watch tonight
John Wall has been quiet all season, but in the last two weeks he has been making up for lost time. He's coming off a monster game on Wednesday and, on Friday, he faces an Orlando Magic squad that struggles with opposing point guards.
Chris Paul is another player who has been ramping into the "upper elite" over the last few games as he settles into life without James Harden. On Friday, he faces a fast-paced Phoenix Suns squad that isn't overly concerned with defense. If the game isn't a blowout, Paul could put a big number on the board.