On Opening Night, barely more than five game minutes into the season’s beginning, all eyes were on the 2017-18 Boston Celtics. Unfortunately for coach Brad Stevens and company, it was for all the wrong reasons.
Prized free agent acquisition Gordon Hayward — a man whose half-court heave fell three inches away from leading Stevens’ Butler Bulldogs to an improbable 2010 NCAA Championship — hit the deck hard with a devastating ankle and leg injury. Hayward looked as if he’d seen a ghost, with the same applying to the players from both teams. All the air seemed to suddenly be snatched from Quicken Loans Arena.
Little doubt remained as to whether the star forward’s season would be done, again, just minutes into his Celtics debut. The intended pass, which came from Boston’s other high-profile offseason acquisition, Kyrie Irving, was on target, but weak-side defender LeBron James bumped Hayward just enough to cause him to land hard and awkwardly with his body weight crushing part of the Butler product’s left leg.
The Celtics recovered remarkably well to remain very much in the contest, ultimately falling by just three points to the reigning Eastern Conference champions. The resilient effort surprised few onlookers who’d been paying attention. Stevens-led teams, particularly since 2014-15, his second season coaching the Celtics, have displayed a unique grittiness. Often, they are undermanned or simply not as talented as their opponent, yet they will themselves to victory through smart, fundamental play, stout defense and collective team basketball.
So there was that. A common perception prevailed: This team would fight hard in Hayward’s absence, but it wouldn’t possess near the firepower required of an Eastern Conference contender. In short, Hayward’s injury meant these Celtics would not be ready for primetime. They would have to wait until next season.
Flash forward more than four weeks later, and these Celtics, riding a 13-game winning streak, have clearly taken such a notion as the backhanded compliment it was intended to be: “You’re a well constructed team that plays hard, but this is not your year.” To that, they’ve resoundingly retorted, “This really could be our year. Don’t count us out just yet.”
The detractors weren’t just hating from outside the club. They had good reason to doubt Boston’s prospects this season.
First, beyond the injured Hayward, only Al Horford and newcomers Irving, Aron Baynes and Marcus Morris could reasonably be considered veterans. At just 25, Irving was going to have to step up as a team leader in his first season in Boston. Only four players remained from the previous season, including Marcus Smart, all of 23, who instantly became the longest-tenured Celtic when Avery Bradley was dealt away. Simply put, this already extremely youthful roster grew much younger after Hayward’s season was lost. Rookie Jayson Tatum and second-year forward Jaylen Brown would both suddenly be thrust into the starting lineup with an expectation of considerable contributions on both sides of the ball. Even with a wide-open Eastern Conference, how would this work? This young team would certainly experience its fair share of growing pains, right? “Not so fast,” Boston’s inspired play has tacitly responded.
There was also the question of defense, a typical hallmark of a Stevens-coached unit. Defensive stalwarts Bradley and Jae Crowder had been dealt to make room for Hayward and Irving. Their departures meant, very reasonably, that the Celtics could be challenged getting their defense up to par, particularly in the early stages of the season. Even with occasional defensive liability Isaiah Thomas no longer on the roster, there appeared to be a problem at the point guard position. Thomas was being replaced by Irving, a player whose defensive willingness and ability have long been derided.
So far, Irving has bought into the team’s defensive system. Despite occasional lapses, he typically appears to know where he’s supposed to be on any given play. Nearly as important, he takes ownership when he misses a defensive assignment. As a team, this Celtics squad, one whose defense was widely questioned, leads the league in defensive efficiency, allowing a mere 95.8 points per 100 possessions. In addition to leading the league, it’s a vast improvement over last season’s 12th-ranked 105.5 points allowed per 100 possessions.
Hayward’s departure from the starting lineup created an opening for both Brown and Tatum to start. These long defenders have done an impeccable job getting into passing lanes and, more broadly, disrupting opposing offenses. Even physically gifted young players often face a steep learning curve on the defensive end. Whether Brown and Tatum are quicker learners or it’s more of the Stevens effect showing itself (or a combination of the two), defensive operations are running smoothly. Coming off the bench, Smart is averaging more than 30 minutes per game and playing his trademark in-your-face defense. Despite some of their physical limitations, Horford and Baynes are effectively playing smart, disciplined defense. And this trait flows down throughout the rest of the roster, where guys are playing defense on a string.
On the offensive end, despite a natural dip in the category, the Celtics still rank seventh in assist percentage. The near-constant ball movement allows the Celtics to compensate for not possessing a single big-time scorer aside from Irving. In fact, the scoring has been very balanced, with five players averaging at least 13.7 points per game and two others contributing 9.6 points per contest. While Irving’s 5.2 assist-per-game average may underwhelm — the team’s racking up assists collectively — his 1.9 turnover-per-game average is easily the lowest of his seven-season career. As a team, the Celtics rank fourth-best with a 14.5 turnover percentage, an area in which they’ve been routinely elite since Stevens’ second year at the helm.
Last but not least, the Leprechauns are finding ways to win close games, a phenomenon typically foreign to such young teams. While Irving’s presence may help calm his teammates, given his vast Finals experience over the past three postseasons, there is an unmistakable team-wide ability to buckle down and make the right plays down the stretch. According to NBA.com’s Clutch stats, the Celtics lead the league with eight wins and just two losses in games that meet the site’s definition of going down to the wire. Small sample size notwithstanding, Boston should be commended for its impressive 123.0 offensive rating, coupled with its 11.9 turnover percentage. In these situations, the Celtics are playing the league’s second-slowest pace but judiciously picking their spots to take advantage of the opposing defense.
Boston’s stingy defense, coupled with its pass-happy team ball and unexpected on-court maturity, has resulted in an impressive 13-2 start. All eyes fall on Boston yet again, this time for all the reasons Stevens and Celtics President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge had long been hoping. The Celtics don’t appear satisfied with waiting for the young guys to grow. They seem ready to challenge Cleveland and others for the Eastern Conference crown. Not at some undetermined point in the future, but now. This is their time, they believe.
But first, these young Celtics have a national TV date with the Golden State Warriors, a team that has dominated the league for three seasons and counting. Many will dismiss the Celtics heading into Thursday night: “Sure, the Celtics are playing inspired basketball and notching some quality wins, but they haven’t faced a juggernaut the caliber of the Warriors.”
While this sentiment is true, doubt the 2017-18 Celtics at your own peril. They’ve been proving skeptics wrong all season and beyond. The Warriors bring to the matchup their own active winning streak at seven games, while leading the NBA in point-differential at +11.9 per game. Certainly, the Celtics are aware of these objective facts. But are they scared? Not a chance. They’ve been through so much already.