With the Sixers on tap after we collectively forget the disappointing loss to Detroit Monday night, let’s take a look at what the keys have been to the Celtics surprising start to the 2017-18 NBA season.
1. The Backcourt
This entire story could have been dedicated to the performance of Kyrie Irving. He has been downright phenomenal averaging 22/5/3 on 47/38/89 shooting splits to begin the season. Just last week he messed around and threw up 47 points on the Mavericks while pulling the Celtics out of a big fourth quarter deficit (again).
On the year he has been downright silly in the clutch:
Kyrie Irving in final 5 min and score within 5 this season:
– 38 mins
– 65 pts
– 24-39 FG
– 13-16 FT
– 11 drawn fouls
– 32 pts in the paint
– 10 assists
– 0 turnovers
– Plus-minus of +40
Dude is the literal definition of clutch.
— Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13) November 21, 2017
For as magnificent as Irving has been it would be a disservice to not mention Jaylen Brown. In his second year in the league the Cal product has been thrust into a primary role and he has not disappointed.
Brown has gone over 20 points six times already this season. He is still throwing down thunderous dunks in the lane like he was last year. Now, on top of that, he is drilling spot up threes, creating separation in the mid range, and seeking contact on drives to the basket.
The 1-2 combo or Irving and Brown has been fun to watch. It feels a bit arbitrary to call them an all-star back court, it has not been even 25 games yet, but if they keep improving the sky is the limit.
Irving is this productive while still acclimating to Boston and the system, while Brown still needs to improve the nuances of his game. Regardless, they have been huge in several of Bostons win.
Irving is a lock for an all star. Brown may not get there this season, but if he continues on his current rise he will be there sooner rather than later.
2. Brad Stevens
The current coach of the year resides in Boston. Yes, the season is young, but no other coach has done more to help their team than Brad Stevens has done for the Celtics.
All of his old tricks have not changed. He is still a wizard in after time out situations, he knows how to get creative with subs, and he is elite in halftime and mid game adjustments.
Terry Rozier on what Brad Stevens told Celtics during timeout when it was down by about 15 points:. “He knew that we was going to win the game and the crowd was going to feed into it and it was going to get crazy and that’s exactly what happened. We just all fed off the energy."
— Bill Doyle (@BillDoyle15) November 11, 2017
Stevens has had to deal with a roster of 12 new players, injuries to Al Horford and Kyrie Irving, and of course the catastrophic Gordon Hayward injury. He still has not missed a beat.
All seemed lost when Hayward went down. Rather than allow the Celtics to fold, Stevens lifted them and has put them on this streak. It helps him that his player’s have performed well, but he is the one that continually puts them in position to succeed.
The decision to start Jayson Tatum and not Marcus Smart following Hayward’s injury was perfect, as was the decision to shift Marcus Morris into the starting lineup when he returned from injury.
Stevens manages games well, controls egos, and always remembers the human element of the game too. His support for Hayward has been inspiring and uplifting.
Lastly, the Celtics are not amongst the league leaders in team defense if not for the schemes of Stevens and his ability to connect with players and get them to buy in.
He has constantly been mentioned in the Coach of the Year race since the Celtics turned around their play, but this very well may be (and should be) the year that he gets to take home the honor for good.
3. The Rooks
Jayson Tatum is the big one. He is right behind Ben Simmons in the rookie of the year race, putting up 14 points and 6 boards a night, while also making a bundle of clutch plays early on.
He is cool, calm, and collected in all situations. He is only 19 years old and is making plays like this:
Jayson Tatum. Again. Lawd have mercy. pic.twitter.com/s8wJAFkp3q
— Rob Perez (@World_Wide_Wob) November 21, 2017
Jayson Tatum vs. the entire city of Atlanta. Man. pic.twitter.com/O0RT7Lujd9
— Rob Perez (@World_Wide_Wob) November 19, 2017
Similar to the Kyrie and Jaylen Brown backcourt it would be a disservice not to mention the other rookies.
Semi Ojeleye has not played a ton, but he has shown flashes of an elite 3 and D player. He has checked the likes of LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo,and Carmelo Anthony and he has held his own. His shooting has not been great, but that will come around with confidence and minutes. Ojeleye was a steal with the 37th pick in the draft.
Daniel Theis has also been a pleasant surprise. He is no typical rookie being that he is 25 and has played professionally overseas for seven years, but he has still contributed. He rebounds well, makes use of the verticality rule, finishes hard with dunks, and has hit some big threes. Theis was another great find by the Boston scouting department.
Tatum has been the stud, and the crunch time menace. However, the Celtics do not win several of the games they have without the efforts of Theis and Ojeleye.
4. Marcus Smart
Please do not close out this story after reading his name. Yes, Smart has been shooting on the level that if he fell out of a boat in the middle of the ocean he would fail to hit water. Still, he has one of the highest impacts on winning in the NBA.
Smart is shooting 26% from the field (yuck) and 26% from three point land (double yuck). It is painfully bad to almost be shooting a better percentage from three than the field, yet here Smart is nearly doing it.
Now, forget the box score. Look at some more advanced stats curtsey of Celtics radio play by play voice, Sean Grande:
If you were wondering, Marcus Smart's Twitter angst-inducing performance Monday (missing 12 of 15 shots, 9 of 11 from three) did end up affecting his place among the NBA's leaders in Net Rating…
…he went up two spots. pic.twitter.com/72Fw89utik
— Sean Grande (@SeanGrandePBP) November 21, 2017
Smart, despite all of his horrors shooting the basketball, makes the Celtics better every single time he steps on the floor. The offensive rating and defensive rating improve for the team when he steps on the floor.
He’s sixth in the league in net rating which is a combination of a player’s offensive and defensive rating per 100 possessions and how the team is playing when they are on the floor. Smart sits at +12.6 on the year.
Defensively, Smart is first in the league at defensive win shares at +0.075. He is second in defensive rating with a rating of 92.9. So, Smart is still a defensive menace, one of the best defenders in the league. Still, his offense being so atrocious should not allow him to be as high as he is in all advanced statistical categories.
It really is difficult to explain. Smart does very little on offense. Sure, he can run the pick and roll well and is a good facilitator for the team. Still, the threes are bricks, his post ups (which were a good source of offense last year) have become a disaster, and he does not draw a ton of fouls.
The impact on winning stems from the little things he continues to do night in and night out. The save versus Dallas for a late Kyrie triple, the clutch offensive rebound and score vs Golden State in the fourth quarter, and the intensity he brings to the floor every night.
Smart is the longest tenured member of this team. As crazy as that is he is one of the leaders and the team feeds off of him. They respond to his passion and the level of urgency he has in every game.
There is no other player in the NBA who could have such a high impact on winning while displaying such poor shooting numbers and a lack of contributions on the offensive end.
If Smart’s shooting ever picks up, which seems near impossible at this point, watch out. The Celtics could enter another level even higher than where they are now if that happens.
All throughout the off season and the pre season the key word surrounding the Celtics was patience. New faces, multiple alpha dogs, and the teams longest tenured player was still on his rookie contract.
Now in late November the word patience has been forgotten. The meshing of the team so quickly really cannot be pin pointed to one specific area.
Steven’s has been a wizard as mentioned, Irving has gone into takeover mode at some points, and the role players have pulled them out of some games over the course of the seasons beginning.
Still, this should not have happened so quickly. The Irving and Horford pick and rolls have been a thing of beauty, and the Brown and Tatum lobs look like a pair of vets connecting, not a 19 and 21 year old who just started playing together.
Even against a team as good as the Warriors the Celtics did not falter in a late game clutch situation. They executed and were able to walk away with a win.
Part of this chemistry is the dominance of Irving in the clutch, but also the team as a whole is on the same page. The defensive performance shows how connected they are.
No one, not even the experts, foresaw the Celtics getting out to the start that they have. Time will tell if it has been a fluke, or if Boston is a legitimate title contender moving forward.