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Celtics: 5 key observations heading into the All-Star break

The Boston Celtics came away with a thrilling 141-133 double-overtime victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday night in what may very well have been the best game the NBA has seen this season, and now, the Celtics can head into the All-Star break feeling pretty darn good about themselves at 38-16.

While Boston still has some issues that may prevent it from making it to the finals, it’s probably time to admit that this team is a legitimate contender and has a chance to make some real noise in the playoffs.

Here are five key observations about the C’s going into the break:

5. The bench is still a problem

Yes, we’re starting on a negative note.

There is no doubt that the Celtics have one of the NBA’s most talented starting lineups, but once you get past that, it’s rather slim pickings.

Outside of Marcus Smart and Enes Kanter, Boston does’t really have any reliable bench pieces. I guess you can count Brad Wanamaker, who has had a solid year, but the jury is out on him in terms of what he can do in the postseason.

Right now, the C’s ranked 28th in the league in bench scoring, which is not where we are accustomed to seeing the historically deep Celtics.

Barring a move on the buyout market, this is not something that is likely to change this year, and it can end up having rather significant ramifications come playoff time, especially if Boston has any injuries.

4. The frontcourt is not as bad as advertised

Going into the season, many wondered how the C’s would fare up front, as they lost Al Horford, Aron Baynes and Marcus Morris this past summer.

The Celtics re-signed Daniel Theis and picked up Enes Kanter in free agency, but things looked bleak on the interior.

While Boston could certainly still use some help up front, its frontline is not nearly as bad as many anticipated, as Theis is enjoying a terrific season and has flown under the radar as one of the more versatile defensive bigs in the NBA. Kanter has been Kanter, doing a fine job offensively and cleaning up the glass. Even rookie big Grant Williams has had his moments.

The X-factor here is Robert Williams, who has been sidelined since early December due to a hip injury. He is expected to return next month, which should provide the C’s frontcourt with a boost.

The Celtics could still use another bruiser, but the combination of Theis and Kanter has been solid.

3. Jaylen Brown is worth every penny of his contract extension and then some

Jaylen Brown did not play during Boston’s win over the Clippers due to ankle issues and a calf contusion, but when he has been on the floor this season, he has been brilliant, averaging 20.2 points and 6.4 rebounds per game while shooting 49.5 percent from the field and 38.1 percent from three-point range.

This comes after Brown landed a four-year, $115 million contract extension with the C’s just before the season began.

Brown is not only proving that he was worth his new deal, but he is actually exceeding expectations, as I’m not sure there was anyone out there who expected the 23-year-old to average 20 points per game this season.

He has also been terrific on the defensive end and appears to be developing into one of the best all-around shooting guards in the league.

Imagine if the Celtics didn’t lock him up? They would be looking at having to give him an even bigger deal in free agency this coming summer.

2. In case you didn’t notice a few months ago, Gordon Hayward is back

Yes, Kemba Walker has been a godsend for Boston’s locker room, and yes, Brown and Jayson Tatum have been absolute monsters this season, but let’s not forget Gordon Hayward’s part in all of this.

Hayward was the biggest X-factor for the C’s heading into this season. Point blank. Period.

No one really knew what to expect from Hayward, who had a roller-coaster season a year ago in his return from a devastating broken leg injury at the onset of the 2017-18 campaign.

But people did know that if he reverted back to his All-Star form, the Celtics had a chance to be really good.

Hayward has done just that, and on Thursday night, he flashed his versatility, coming up with key plays on both ends of the floor in the second overtime period to seal a Boston victory.

He did have a slight hiccup earlier in the season when he suffered a broken hand, knocking him out for several weeks, but otherwise, Hayward has been healthy and has delivered, registering 17.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game while making 50.4 percent of his shots, 39.2 percent of his triples and 88 percent of his free throws.

1. Jayson Tatum is flashing elite potential

My goodness, did you see Tatum last night?

If you didn’t, you missed what was probably the most impressive performance of his young NBA career, as he poured in 39 points and nine boards while going 14-of-23 from the floor and 5-of-10 from downtown against the Clippers.

And it wasn’t just that Tatum scored 39; it was how he scored 39, using a variety of moves, whether they were crossovers, hesitations, step-throughs, fall-away jumpers, etc. to burn whomever was guarding him, even if it was Kawhi Leonard.

In addition, Tatum was his usual disruptive self on the defensive end of the floor.

On the season overall, the 21-year-old is recording 22.4 points and 6.9 rebounds per game, connecting on 44.3 percent of his field-goal attempts, 38.2 percent of his treys and 81.3 percent of his foul shots.

This kid is special and is showing the world why the Celtics have long viewed him as a nearly untouchable piece.