Oct. 17 was supposed to be a special night for the Boston Celtics. After an offseason full of turnover, Danny Ainge was eager to see if he had made the right moves. A 53-win team returned only four of its 15 players from the previous season.
Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and the last Brooklyn pick was traded for Kyrie Irving; who had recently requested a trade out of Cleveland.
The Celtics also got their star of choice when Gordon Hayward agreed to sign a four-year deal in Boston and reunite with his college coach.
Beloved defensive-stopper Avery Bradley was shipped to Detroit for Marcus Morris.
Boston also traded its rights to the No. 1 pick (Markelle Fultz) in the draft to Philadelphia for the No. 3 pick (Jayson Tatum) and an additional pick. The Celtics finished their offseason by signing Aron Baynes, German-born Daniel Theis and Shane Larkin.
All this turnover created a new influx of hopes and aspirations for the 2017-18 season. The Celtics felt they had made the moves necessary to compete with Cleveland and beyond.
Fast-forward back to Oct. 17, and things took a scary turn. The newly-signed Hayward leaped to catch a lob thrown by Irving. Multiple defenders collapsed on Hayward, giving the All-Star nowhere to land. Just 20 seconds later, the Celtics’ season was deemed “over.” Hayward fractured his leg and dislocated his ankle in one of the more gruesome on-court injuries ever seen. The Celtics (and the Cavaliers) were mentally shaken. This wasn’t supposed to happen, this is not how this should go. A dark cloud was cast over the Celtics in a game they would lose after making it close. The loss on their record meant little in comparison to the loss of their teammate. Boston would lose the following night in Milwaukee, but then things got interesting. The Celtics rattled off a 16-game winning streak and put themselves right back on the winning path.
Halfway through the season, things are looking good.
The Celtics currently stand at 31-10, good for the best record in the East and the most wins atop the league. The guys in green have made a name for themselves as the best defensive team in the league. They have the guys, and the stats are backing it up.
Celtics defense has surged right back into the top spot in the NBA, now a full 1.3 points per 100 possessions ahead of the second-place Spurs.
— Adam Himmelsbach (@AdamHimmelsbach) January 4, 2018
Kyrie Irving is playing like an MVP candidate. It is clear he made the right decision in requesting to leave Cleveland. He is the Celtics’ leader and the best player on the team. Al Horford has raised his game to an even greater level of all-around success. At this point if Irving went down, I’m convinced Horford might be able to run point. Not really, but the man can do it all.
The youngsters have made leaps and bounds. After a shaky start to the season, Terry Rozier is continuing to show why Danny Ainge will not ever trade him. The best third-string point guard in the league outscored Lebron James the other night in only 20 minutes. Rozier has found his shooting stroke as of late, and it started after he started dunking on fast-breaks. In his last five games, Rozier is averaging 15.6 points and 5.4 rebounds; all while shooting over 50 percent from deep. I think Kyrie Irving and his tutelage has a lot to do with improvements from Rozier.
Even Lebron commented on Rozier’s improvements. “He’s getting more and more confidence every single night and it’s his third year. He’s picking up more habits, better habits. He’s very quick, shoots the ball extremely well and he’s very aggressive, too.” High praise from an all-time player.
Marcus Smart continues to make winning plays for the Celtics. Smart is officially elite at getting under players’ skin. Just ask James Harden how he feels about Smart. While frustrating to watch at times, he always finds a way to positively impact the game.
The Celtics are still a very young team, with the average age around 25 years old.
A huge reason for the Celtics success comes from two players that hold a combined age of 40.
Enter Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Of all the reasons to get excited as a Celtics fan, this one takes the cake.
The 21-year-old Brown has made vast improvements in his second year in the league. He has raised his scoring by eight points and is starting to refine areas of need and turn them into strengths. Last year, Brown was hesitant at times, which led to fewer opportunities to show what he could do. He took a backseat to other players. After “honing the pressure” this offseason, Brown has played like a new man. Shooting 40 percent from downtown and rattling off dunk after dunk, Brown is one of the most exciting players in the league. Oh, and he is also top five in defensive rating. Jaylen is developing into one of the better two-way players in the league right in front of our eyes. The sky’s the limit for this kid.
— NBA (@NBA) January 4, 2018
If the sky’s the limit for Jaylen, then the moon might be a more accurate limit for rookie Jayson Tatum.
Raise your hand if you were freaking out in July when Danny Ainge traded the No. 1 overall pick to Philadelphia. Yeah, me too. I was so dead-set on Markelle Fultz. I thought he was the greatest thing since sliced bread. I watched hours and hours of Fultz highlights just to see Danny trade the pick. I was angry at the time.
Now, five months later, I’m starting to think Ainge might be the second-coming of Jesus. Danny absolutely fleeced the 76ers. While Fultz has been recovering from a shoulder injury and a broken jumper, Jayson Tatum is proving Ainge right.
Name one part of Tatum’s game that is below average. I’m serious, name one. This kid can literally do it all and he won’t turn 20 until March. Tatum has stepped in and filled a lot of the holes left by Hayward’s injury.
Tatum’s shooting line is extremely impressive for any player, but absolutely unheard of for a rookie. The former Blue Devil is currently slashing 50/47/83 with 14 points and over five boards per game. He started hot, and he’s still sizzling. It’s mind-blowing what he has been able to do. He has a tight handle with either hand that has allowed him to get to the hoop. He uses his length and instincts to make an impact on defense. He is becoming more athletic and that has allowed him to finish with monstrous dunks on multiple occasions. Oh, and his biggest weakness in college has been his best NBA-strength. He wasn’t an overly efficient three-point shooter at Duke (33 percent), but he put the time in this summer to become a better shooter. He is not playing like a rookie, and his teammates do not treat him like one.
In last 10 games:
Jayson Tatum: 157 points, 334 minutes, 62.4 TS%, 19.3 USG%
Andrew Wiggins: 156 points, 348 minutes, 48.4 TS%, 21.6 USG%
— Michael Pina (@MichaelVPina) January 5, 2018
One of the bigger developments for Tatum has been his confidence. On the biggest stage, he has continuously performed. On Christmas Day when the Celtics lost to the Wizards, Tatum made a few big shots. Midway through the fourth quarter, Tatum hit a three that put the Celtics up by two. What he did next is a lasting image in my mind. He turned towards the crowd, put his tongue out and three fingers up, and mean mugged the Celtics crowd; and that was maybe the loudest I have heard the Garden get all season. This kid not only brings excitement, he is the excitement.
At the helm, Brad Stevens continues to be Brad Stevens. He might be the smartest head coach in basketball. He makes all the necessary adjustments. He puts guys in the right position to succeed, both for themselves and the team. He draws up the meanest and cleanest inbounds plays, and his players love playing for him. All without his friend Gordon Hayward, Stevens has turned the Celtics from a promising future into a true contender.
The most brilliant part of Stevens might be his minute-allocation and handling of players’ stamina. The Celtics played their first 41 games in 77 days. While great for the fans, the back-to-backs and packed schedule can be a lot for the players. Brad has done a great job managing player’s minutes all while winning and keeping a rhythm. Kyrie Irving leads the team in minutes per game, but he is only averaging just over 32 minutes a contest. Lebron James, by comparison, averages 37.2 minutes per game for the Cavaliers. Five minutes may not seem like a lot, but that can go a long way once the playoffs roll around. Over 80 games, that’s 400 minutes more rest.
Brad Stevens is so good at putting players in position to succeed. He knows each and every player-to-player matchup and where to best mask his team’s flaws and showcase their strengths. Stevens continues to make the Celtics look good and play better.
So who deserves more credit, Stevens or Ainge?
This is a really hard question. Ainge has given Stevens all the pieces and Brad has played them so well. Ainge brought Irving to Boston. He acquired Tatum along with a 2-5 pick from the Lakers that could very well convey this year. Ainge also kept Rozier and Smart while trading Bradley, which has proven to be the right move. The Bradley move netted Marcus Morris, who has been a good scorer off the bench when he is healthy. The lowkey signings of Aron Baynes and Daniel Theis have made tremendous strides in the C’s rebounding problems. Oh, and they still have that Gordon Hayward guy when he comes back.
Danny has truly made remarkable moves and has given Brad a lot of tools to use at his disposal.
But in the end I think you have to give Stevens a little more credit.
Does Gordon Hayward even look at Boston twice if Stevens is not there? A large reason Kyrie Irving was so excited to join the team was because of the brilliant mind of Stevens. Does he have that same interest with another coach? Ainge bought all of the toys, but Stevens has been the guy to assemble them in the right order. His basketball mind leaks into the players. They play smarter under Stevens, and they certainly play hard.
Brown and Tatum are not the same players if Stevens isn’t there. He gameplans around his players, which requires less adjustments from the team, and specifically the young guys. Even when Smart is shooting 11 percent from deep, Stevens finds another way for Marcus to impact the game. The situations he is able to put his players in is truly remarkable.
On top of all this, the Celtics simply love each other. They hangout on and off the court, and of all the struggles and turmoil they have faced this year, team chemistry has never been close to an issue. They are just fun to watch.
The Celtics just dismantled the Cavaliers the other night in Boston. They said before the game they wanted to send a message, and they did just that. Now, we do not know where the finish line is for Boston. A strong second-half could lead into besting Lebron James and the Cavaliers and going to the finals.
One thing’s for sure: this team wants to go farther than last year.
(P.S. I truly believe Gordon Hayward will be back this year.)