Second Chance Season
Watching Gordon Hayward writhe in pain on the floor in Cleveland was not what many Celtics fans had envisioned in their minds for the NBA’s opening night in 2017. Unfortunately, it is exactly what happened. A collective breath was gathered and exhaled as a sense of shock washed over the team and their loyal fan base. “Would Hayward play again?” was the first question to stick into the subconscious of anyone invested with any stake at all in the C’s or professional basketball. And by play again, the question wasn’t so much about this year but ever. As heartbreaking as it was to witness, the fan’s mind (especially my own) went from sympathy and worry about Hayward’s condition to another natural question just as fast: “Oh shit…what do the Celtics do now?” Hayward, by all accounts, was going to be huge in terms of offensive value for Boston this year. He is not an easy piece to replace being a current top 25 NBA player and a landmark accusation in terms of the seismic shock it sent through the landscape of the league. And the hole he left became obvious quick. Despite a gut check comeback in the opener after falling behind by 17, the C’s fell just short. The second game the following night did little to relieve as the Bucks came to Boston and easily cruised to a win while Boston looked completely overmatched. Boston was 0-2 and what looked like a legitimate Eastern conference contender suddenly looked like disjointed, lost team with questions if they would be able to win 40 games, let alone contend for a spot in the Finals.
Fast forward two weeks later and as of the moment I write this piece, the Celtics are 7-2 and hold the best current record in the NBA having won 7 straight. How has this happened? The team in the first two games looked indecisive and defensively chaotic. Watching Terry Rozier miss switch after switch against the Bucks was cartoonishly hilarious while the rest of the defense seemed just as bewildered and off point. That same defense has since become the BEST defense in the NBA so far this year, something I didn’t think was at all possible even before Hayward’s untimely injury. During the current win streak, the C’s have yet to give up more than 94 points, with a total season average of PTS/G of 93.8, along with a defensive rating of 97.9, also an NBA best. Everyone expected the C’s to be an offensive powerhouse, outshooting teams and letting defense be the secondary part of their game but when dealt the loss of Hayward, Brad Stevens does what he does best and responded by reconfiguring what pieces he had to make the focal point of Boston’s game plan to become stingy and smothering on the other side of the ball. And since tweaking the game plan, the defensive contributions have come from everywhere. Currently there are 5 Celtics in the top 12 of defensive rating. Remember what I said about Rozier earlier? He is now the league leader in defensive rating showing how fast he has matured in 9 games on that side of the ball after his disastrous defensive play in the first two games. They have 4 players in the top 10 of defensive win shares including rookie Jayson Tatum and budding star Jaylen Brown. Brown is no surprise as he has always shown a natural knack for defending bigger, veteran players like LeBron James in last years ECF. Tatum’s contributions come as surprise only in terms of how new he is on the NBA scene. While it looked like Tatum’s offense would be his greatest positive on the roster in his young career, he has proved worth on the other side of the floor averaging 5 DRB’s and a DRB% of 5.3. Tatum has picked up many of the subtleties that it takes to become a good defender. His footwork and speed impress as well as his unwillingness to shy away from defensive challenges. And Marcus Smart is just being Marcus Smart, a pain in the ass pit bull, never backing or dialing back the effort per usual. In his 4th season, Smart has been a defensive leader and natural spark plug of a motivator, a role Boston brass were counting on him to fill with the departure of Avery Bradley.
Another aspect of why the C’s are on the winning side comes as a shock to anybody who has followed them regularly over the past few seasons. Last year the Celtics were ranked 26th overall in team rebounds with a lowly team rebound percentage of .485. So far this season the Celtics are 6th in the league in the same category with huge contributions from Brown, Tatum, and Al Horford. Horford finally looks comfortable on the floor in Boston. He struggled in large parts of last season with consistency. This year Steven’s has relied on Horford in key points of the fourth quarter including hitting two huge 3’s down the stretch last Friday against OKC. But what he has done underneath the hoop has been where it has counted. So far this year he has shut down Joel Embiid and Kristaps Porzingas with little resistance but his rebounding has allowed defenders along the perimeter to take risky chances in defending the ball. It doesn’t hurt that Boston has two things it has lacked greatly over the past few seasons in their new found defensive abilities: size and athleticism. Tatum and Brown are probably the two most athletic players Boston has employed in quite some time, using size and speed to close on shooters. The big guys in the paint have been invaluable as well with the addition of Aron Baynes, a sneaky solid player, along with Daniel Thies providing grittiness underneath the rim they have lacked. What I love about Baynes is his willingness to bang it out underneath, never quitting on lose balls and being selflessly involved in boxing out opposing players. At 6’ 10 and 260, Baynes is a formidable matchup for any player based on size alone. What I like about Baynes is that he knows his hands aren’t the best but banks on his strength to make opportunities for players with surer hands like Horford.
One last aspect of the Celtics that has them on the winning side is something touched on in this article but also in a piece I wrote earlier this year. The young players are getting things done. Brown has already elevated his gameplay from last year, being a more consistent scorer than in his inaugural year. Brown is also 3rd in +/- in the WHOLE DAMN LEAGUE. What Brown is bringing to the table in terms of two way performances is already having him looking like a guaranteed future superstar. Tatum is proving to be worth that 3rd pick and trading the #1 away as he is already contributing beyond what most can expect from a rookie posting 13.7 PPG alongside 6.6 RPG, good for 2nd best on the team. Tatum’s ceiling is completely unknown at this point and I’m willing to bet we have yet to see it meaning opposing teams are going to have fits guarding him as he matures thorough out this season. Horford said Tatum was the most NBA ready rookie he’s ever seen and what seemed like hyperbole before one minute of basketball had been played, looks pretty honest in my estimation. But one player that can definitely be seen as a surprise contributor is rookie Semi Ojeleye. While Ojeleye was slow to start he is averaging 7 PPG and shooting just over 60% in his last 3 games but with such a small sample size, it’s tough to see if this is the start of being a productive bench player or just a minor streak of production. No matter how you cut it, the young guys on the roster have made a positive difference for Boston in the infancy of this NBA season.
Will the Celtics incredibly effective brand of basketball they are currently serving up continue? Will Horford truly emerge as a DPOY candidate? Will this young core only grow from here, becoming better as the year goes on? It’s too early to go all in on the C’s right now but with Cleveland struggling and wins against a couple of the Western Conferences more formidable opponents already, the 2017-18 Celtics, although not packaged as advertised, are an impressive squad that should meet predicted expectations, displacing any concerns the season was broken along with Hayward’s ankle.