“Their season is over.” That was what came out of Charles Barkley’s mouth on TNT after the Celtics lost Gordon Hayward to a gruesome leg injury on opening night. It was a sentiment pondered by many in Boston. I wasn’t sure we could truly win the whole thing this year in the first place. After Hayward’s injury, I thought even 50 wins was probably ambitious. Oops. Even without Hayward, it’s clear already that this roster is more well-rounded and has a higher ceiling than last year’s team.
When you’re a Celtics team with just four players older than 25 (Hayward, Al Horford, Aaron Baynes and Marcus Morris) entering the season, veteran leadership can go a long way. Through all of the changes this roster endured over the summer, two key pieces remained: Horford and Brad Stevens. While the two are complete opposites in terms of demeanor, the fact is Horford is patrolling the paint and directing a top notch defense the same way Kevin Garnett did for the Celtics at the end of last decade. And his leadership has been on full display with this young group. His presence will be missed as he recovers from another concussion. As for Stevens, well, you don’t do what he did at Butler without prioritizing defense, especially on the perimeter. One of the only questions about Kyrie Irving coming in was his defense. It’s clear from both watching him and listening to him that Stevens has challenged him on that end.
There are probably some diehards out there who are not surprised by the Celtics’ success thus far. That’s fair. But I think everyone has to be somewhat surprised by HOW they are doing it. It seemed natural to assume that the defense would slip a notch or two after losing Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder, two of the game’s most physical perimeter defenders. However, through 14 games, the Celtics are holding teams to a league-best 94 points per game. To really drive home how impressive that is, consider that no other team in the East is holding teams to under 100 per game. The next closest team in the league is Oklahoma City, at 98.5 pts allowed per game. They’re 6-1 on the road, with the only loss occurring at Cleveland after the young team had to play more than a half of basketball in a haze after losing Hayward so cruelly. How are they doing it?
The best kept secret about the Celtics’ off season might be the fact that while they lost a host of their tallest players in Kelly Olynyk, Amir Johnson, Tyler Zeller and Ante Zicic, they actually got bigger at almost every starting position. Kyrie Irving is bigger than Isaiah Thomas. Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart are both bigger than Avery Bradley. Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum are bigger than Jae Crowder, ditto for Horford and Baynes compared to Amir Johnson. Morris is 6′ 9″, while Daniel Theis (aka Theis, Theis baby), 6′ 9″, has played well early. The Celtics might lack front court depth, but they no longer lack LENGTH.
Everyone knows rebounding was the Celtics’ biggest weakness last season. However, Baynes represents the bruiser the team has not employed in recent years. Per 30 minutes over the past two seasons, he’s averaged around nine boards per game. He’s a clear upgrade over Johnson in that area. Through 14 games, the Celtics are second in the entire league in rebounding percentage. After being outrebounded in three of the first four games of the season, they have not been outrebounded since. They doubled up the Kings on the glass a week and a half ago, a feat that simply would have not occurred with last year’s squad.
One thing has not changed: The Celtics are still a very young team. The last third-plus of the Celtics bench entered the season with zero NBA experience. Most championship teams do not rely on a host of early twenty-somethings. That is the reality. These young Celtics, however, are playing in almost comic defiance of that truth. The team’s past four first round picks in Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have all been fantastic. Rozier and Brown have shown clear improvement from last year.
Injuries are the natural disasters of sports. The only difference is, you can’t forecast them in athletics. Whether it’s been Hayward, Irving, Horford or all three out of action, these young Celtics just keep winning. That’s a scary thought given the young Celtics have 80% of their season yet to play and inevitably grow. Brown and Tatum in particular have been leaned on heavily the past two games and stood up to the challenge, something the Celtics have to be thrilled about. Brown missed 11 shots Friday night, but snared 13 boards. That’s the sign of a winning player. Dominating another area of the game when you’re having an off night scoring. As for Tatum, I mean the poise and his ability to fit in so seamlessly are remarkable traits for a teenager competing against grown men.
This team does not lack for motivation after having been counted out after a half of ONE GAME of an 82-game basketball season. All the best regarding a full recovery for Hayward. However, the reality is that it’s forced Stevens to expand the roles of both Tatum and Brown. They have met the challenge thus far, a huge reason the Celtics have the best record in hoops after 14 games and are riding an incredible 12 game winning streak. There will be growing pains for sure. Thus far, though, the youngsters and the Cs as a whole have put the NBA on notice that they are ready to win right now.