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The Celtics have no ceiling

Boston has ditched malaise for hope at the start of a new season.

Marcus Smart and Kemba Walker exchange a high-five during the Celtics game.
The Celtics are invigorated with hope at the start of the season.

Ten games is the traditional moment when we take a look at the NBA standings and begin to make assessments. There is nothing magical about the number 10, but it’s more than a little and less than a lot so it will do as a starting point.

After 10 games, we can say with some degree of certainty that the Lakers are for real, the Suns are better than we thought, and the Cavs are feisty. We might also add that the Blazers are in trouble and the Pistons’ treadmill of mediocrity is headed toward a dark date with obsolescence. Some of those things won’t be true after 20 or 30 or even 60 games, but most of them will hold up over the 82-game season.

It’s in that spirit that we take stock of the Celtics midway through November. After getting drilled on opening night by the Sixers — the presumptive Eastern Conference favorites — the C’s have rattled off nine straight wins en route to claiming the best record in the league.

A few weeks ago, it was suggested by me that competing for a championship was not a realistic goal for this team. That may still be true but we can only weigh the evidence as it comes to light. At this point, it would be foolish to place restrictions on what this group is capable of achieving.

Still, there are reasons to suggest this won’t hold. Their strength of schedule ranks in the lower third, per basketball-reference, and they are about to head out on a five-game West Coast road trip that will test their resolve with matchups against the Clippers, Nuggets, and Suns.

Their defense remains the prime concern. While it has been better than advertised, it’s certainly not elite. Scoring 140 points against the Wizards was nice. Giving up 133 was not.

The C’s rank 12th in points allowed per 100 possessions, which is fine. It’s even a bit surprising considering they lost Al Horford and Aron Baynes in the offseason roster shuffling. Third-year big man Daniel Theis stepped into the breach and became a shot-blocking menace. He’s also been banged up and this is the first time in his NBA career that he’s being asked to play more than 12-13 minutes a night.

They also rank in the lower third in defensive rebounding percentage, which figures to be a season-long problem. After gobbling up steals and deflections in the opening weeks, their turnover percentage has leveled off. Ending possessions will be a major theme of their season. Especially since the Celtics do an admirable job of defending initial attempts, ranking sixth in effective field goal percentage defense.

They also have Marcus Smart who is an early entrant in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation. Smart is simply everywhere. When not taking charges, he’s swiping at loose dribbles and mixing it up with big men under the glass. You know how analysts always talk about the ability to guard one-through-four? Smart actually does it, and doesn’t mind adding fives to his repertoire.

On offense, Smart is an underrated ballhandler and unselfish passer who has become a better-than-average long distance shooter. Smart no longer gives back on offense what he has taken away from opponents on defense. Perhaps most importantly for this perimeter-heavy team, he has no qualms about starting or coming off the bench. Smart has reached the point in his career when he knows exactly who he is and what he’s about. Those things simply don’t bother him.

You can make a case that Smart is the Celtics most valuable player, even if he’s not technically their best one. That honor might belong to Kemba Walker or Gordon Hayward. Some nights it’s Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum. Those four plus Smart are the core of this Celtics’ team and it will be fascinating to see if such a perimeter-heavy group can sustain their winning formula over 82 games.

Where the C’s have truly excelled is on the offensive end. They rank first in offensive rating thanks in large part to the play of their perimeter scorers. All four are averaging 18 points a game or better, and all four are getting between 14-18 shots per game. That’s a twist on the traditional Brad Stevens formula that has typically combined excellent defense with so-so offensive results that relies on or two playmakers.

Walker has been as advertised, a big-shot maker who soaks up possessions in an efficient manner. Before suffering a fracture on his left hand, Hayward looked every bit the player the Celtics signed from Utah three summers ago. Brown has been fantastic, combining an improved handle with the freedom and confidence to create offense that was lacking last season. Tatum has struggled amid occasional signs of brilliance.

It says a lot about this team that they haven’t had to rely on any one scorer to carry the load. With so much depth, they can pick each other up when one is out with an injury, like Hayward or Brown, or when one of them shoots 1-for-18 as Tatum did against the Mavs. Perhaps the most important thing to watch this season is how well all four are able to play together when everyone is healthy.

What we have learned about the Celtics through 10 games is they will play hard and defend their home court. They have also displayed an admirable togetherness despite early-season injury adversity. There is so much more left to discover, but one thing is absolutely certain — last season’s malaise is gone and that alone is reason to take them seriously.