BOSTON — Less than a week ago, people were wondering if first-year Celtics coach Brad Stevens was beginning to regret his decision to leave the cozy confines of Butler University for a job with one of the worst teams in the league. At halftime of Monday's 120-105 win over the Orlando Magic, the word "playoffs" was thrown around the press room, and not entirely in a joking manner for a team that is suddenly tied for first place in the Atlantic Division.
"Where we at in the Eastern Conference? That's more important. I ain't worried about this division," Gerald Wallace said. "Our main thing is we want to improve. The main thing we want to take is that we felt like we gave the first four games away. It's a learning experience."
OK, deep breaths all around. It's not even the middle of November, after all.
What we can say after eight games is the Celtics clearly weren't as bad as their four-game losing streak to open the season seemed to indicate. They probably aren't as good as this four-game winning streak looks, either. Until they find their equilibrium, we really don't know what to make of this team.
All of which brings us back to Stevens. If equilibrium had a face, it would look a lot like Stevens. As advertised, his steady demeanor has been evident since the moment he took over. He may be the first coach in NBA history to go through a season without getting a technical.
"We just focus on what you can control, don't get too high," Stevens said. "I haven't seen like these unbelievable celebrations in the locker room or anything else. They're just pretty matter-of-fact, move on to what's next, and the better teams that I've coached have been that way."
The Celtics shot 60 percent against a Magic team that was second the league in field-goal percentage defense coming into the game. They had 28 assists on 51 field goals while holding their own on the boards and limiting their turnovers. They did all that with Jordan Crawford running the point to the tune of 16 points, 10 assists and zero turnovers and Avery Bradley scoring 24 points on 15 shots without so much as a single made three-pointer.
On the one hand, the Celtics are an oddly configured collection of wing players and undersized power forwards who lack consistent deep threats and an interior presence. On the other, they pushed the pace at every opportunity and took advantage of mismatches when they were available. They are becoming a Brad Stevens team, and whether that's good enough to be taken seriously or not isn't really the point at this juncture.
"The way that I always say it when we walked back into the locker room: We looked like a basketball team," Stevens said. "There have been other games, specifically in the preseason, where we didn't look like a basketball team. But how far we've come since Oct. 1 is we've made good strides, we've made the right strides, but we have a long way to go and there's a lot of things to improve."
After the first four losses, Stevens made an important adjustment. He took Bradley off the ball and started Crawford, while also giving rotation minutes to rookie Phil Pressey, who brings tempo and energy to a second unit with arguably as much talent as the starting five.
Crawford has been a revelation as a starter, shooting 50 percent from the floor and handing out 23 assists against only five turnovers.
"Y'all just now noticing that, huh?" Crawford said. "I was blessed with court vision. When a teammate's open, you find him."
It wasn't just Crawford. The Celtics made multiple passes in their halfcourt sets -- Wallace especially -- and that allowed seven different players to score in double figures. The are playing an enjoyable form of basketball and developing the players that need to develop.
Stevens started rookie Kelly Olynyk at center, noting that his cold shooting to open the season was likely to turn around. Sure enough, Olynyk made seven of nine shots and finished with 16 points, seven boards and five assists. Jared Sullinger also hit seven of nine and after three quarters, Bradley, Olynyk and Sullinger were 21-for-26 from the floor.
Will it last? Probably not. They lack an elite rim protector and consistent outside shooting, the last two games notwithstanding.
But their play does lead to an interesting question: What happens when Rajon Rondo returns from his torn ACL? The Celtics newfound commitment to the running game plays right into Rondo's strengths, and with younger players on the wing who can keep up with him in the open court, the Celtics might -- might -- just be good enough to hang around the fringes of playoff contention. The East is a jumbled mess at the moment beyond the Pacers and Heat, and somebody will have to emerge from the morass of mediocrity.
Whether that plays into the long-term plan is another matter, but at 4-4 they're still as close to the lottery as they are to the postseason. Earlier this summer, GM Danny Ainge said developing a culture that players wanted to be a part of was one of his main goals this season. Eight games into the season, that culture is just beginning to take shape. That's the real point of this season.
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