Since dropping their first two games of the season and losing prized free agent Gordon Hayward to injury, the Celtics have won 12 straight games. It’s an improbable turn of events for a team that was expected to sink into the muck of mediocrity that is the East, but there are several indications that there’s something deeper happening here.
They’ll go for 13 Tuesday night in Brooklyn before returning home to host the Warriors on Thursday in what will be the biggest game of the regular season to date. How did we get here? Let’s count the ways in this week’s List.
It’s the defense. Back in September when I caught up with Brad Stevens, I was surprised to hear him talk so excitedly about his team’s defense. “We’re way ahead defensively of where we thought we would be,” he told me. “I’m looking forward to this team defensively.”
OK, sure, but let’s talk about that offense again, Brad. With the additions of Hayward and Kyrie Irving, big things were expected on that end of the floor. Our own Mike Prada went so far as to predict the Celtics would have the second-best offense in the whole freaking league.
Celtics generated 21 threes in that first half, many in half-court situations. They should be the NBA's second-best O this year.— Mike Prada (@MikePradaSBN) October 3, 2017
Without Hayward, the C’s are right around league average offensively, but it turns out Stevens was right about the defense.
They say defense wins games ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ pic.twitter.com/f72sQ6eyNE— Boston Celtics (@celtics) November 13, 2017
They took over the top spot in defensive rating a few games into the season and have held steady ever since. It starts with Al Horford who’s been sensational. Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier are terrors on the ball and even Irving is engaged. It’s also the scheme. They switch everything they need to switch with long interchangeable forwards, which allows them to run teams off the three-point line while cleaning up on the glass.
All of this has been frankly astounding. Defense was supposed to be the team’s calling card last season but they were bad early, better in the middle, and good enough at the end. On balance, they were mediocre and inconsistent. Can they keep this up? That’s the key question. It’s the defense that makes them legit.
They are huge. You don’t really think of the Celtics as being a big team. There are no 7-footers on the roster, Horford plays a lot of center, and they don’t have a bruising power forward. Yet it’s their size that opponents mention first when preparing the scouting report.
What they have are hybrid wings who are long and versatile. That presents a number of problems for opposing offenses. Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Marcus Morris can all guard multiple positions, as can Smart and Rozier.
That allows them to switch at will and keep teams out of the paint where opposing ballhandlers are met with length, length, and more length. They also contest everything and generate a ton of steals. (While not a fast-paced team, they thrive in transition.)
The Celtics go-to counter last season was lineups featuring three guards, Horford, and Jae Crowder who attempted to run larger players off the court. Now Stevens can roll out lineups with both size and speed that don’t leave them exposed physically. They are a far more versatile team than last season.
They are deep. There was so much attention paid to the starting lineup both before and after Hayward got hurt that we overlooked the amount of depth lurking beneath the surface. Even without Hayward, the Celtics are 11-deep. No one plays more than 32 minutes a night, and Irving is the only high usage player among them. Beyond the Hayward and Irving additions, Danny Ainge had quite the summer.
Perhaps the biggest revelation has been the center combination of Aron Baynes and Daniel Theis. Baynes supplies nasty brute strength and range out to 15 feet, while the long-limbed Theis offers paint protection and an awkwardly effective offensive game. They can both play with Horford, or hold down the middle without him on the floor making them a massive upgrade over Amir Johnson and Tyler Zeller.
Consider, as well, the contributions of Shane Larkin and Semi Ojeleye. A still-young journeyman who spent last season in Europe, Larkin came up big in a win over Philly that kickstarted this streak and filled in admirably for Irving while leading a comeback victory over Charlotte last week. Ojeleye, a rookie second-round pick, plays like a 10-year vet. He’s handled huge defensive assignments and knocked down threes at a respectable clip.
This is where Stevens’ coaching gets lionized and rightly so. No one is being asked to do too much. One night it might be Rozier who sparks the club off the bench, another game might feature Theis. Then there’s Tatum, who is talented enough to be a late-game scoring option, but is one of seven players who takes at least nine shots per game.
That depth has allowed them to compensate for injuries to Horford and Irving during this winning streak. It should also keep them fresh and engaged throughout the regular season.
They rebound. This is, by far, the biggest difference from last season’s team and the best indicator that this run is not as fluky as it might appear. The C’s were such a bad rebounding team last season that Stevens essentially conceded the glass and went small. Without a dominant rebounder on the roster, few saw that changing coming into the season.
This has been nothing short of a complete reversal. Horford, who had the worst rebounding season of his career last year, is gobbling up boards. Morris has been a monster on the glass. The backup bigs are both solid rebounders as are Brown and Tatum. The freakishly athletic Rozier lives to grab defensive boards.
This is truly a team-wide concern that goes beyond individual contributions. The C’s box out as aggressively as any team in the league and because they switch so much they are rarely caught behind the action recovering from double teams. There are fewer cheap points to be had and they are so fast and athletic that they can still run in transition without leaking out for fast breaks.
It’s all connected, as they say.
The schedule has been kind: Behind every long winning streak is a favorable slate of games and the C’s have played a relatively comfortable schedule. They got the Kings and Knicks at low points and survived poor performances against the lowly Hawks and rebuilding Lakers. They got the Spurs on a well-timed back-to-back and the Raptors on a Sunday afternoon.
The competition will get tougher in December, but they don’t go to the West Coast until January and you have to go all the way to March before they play more games on the road than at the Garden in any given month. Still, they have notched a number of impressive wins including an 18-point second half comeback against Oklahoma City, as well as victories over Eastern Conference foes Philly, Milwaukee, Miami, and Orlando on the road. Laugh now, but all four are viable playoff contenders.
We still don’t know how good this Celtics can be, of course. We don’t know whether that defense will hold up in a seven-game series or whether their depth will matter as much in the playoffs when rotations get shorter. We don’t know if the rookies will be able to push through the wall or perform under the harshest postseason pressure.
What this winning streak has taught us, however, is that they are a legitimately good team with the inside track of locking up the top spot in the Eastern Conference again. That’s an amazing turnaround from opening night, but it should no longer be considered surprising.