- Tim Bradbury/Getty
- The Boston Celtics have won 13 games in a row, giving them the best record in the NBA.
- The Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said the Celtics look like “the team of the future in the East.”
- The Celtics’ trade for Kyrie Irving had paid off, but they’ve been helped by some young players who are part of their bright future.
The Boston Celtics’ season got off to one of the ugliest starts possible when star forward Gordon Hayward suffered a gruesome ankle injury that likely ended his season.
The Celtics dropped their first two games of the season, and suddenly a promising season looked to be in jeopardy.
Since then, however, the Celtics have won 13 straight games for an NBA-best record 13-2. They play the Golden State Warriors on Thursday, setting up an exciting showdown between the NBA’s two best teams this season.
The Warriors coach Steve Kerr on Tuesday expressed how good the Celtics have been so far and how bright their future still looks.
“It sure looks like Boston is the team of the future in the East, with the assets that they still have and their young talent and their coaching, and Kyrie [Irving] is amazing,” Kerr said. “That looks like a team that is going to be at the top of the East for a long time to come. Whether their time is now or the future, that’s to be determined, but they sure look like they want it to be right now.”
The defense has set the Celtics apart.
While the Celtics offense has been only average as they incorporate new pieces (and deal with Hayward’s injury), what has set them apart this season has been their league-leading defense. The Celtics have allowed just 95 points per 100 possessions, nearly three points better than the second-best defense of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Celtics’ roster is not dissimilar to the Warriors – they have several big, long, versatile defenders who can switch positions, step out on the perimeter, or handle opponents in the post. Head coach Brad Stevens’ scheme has them moving and communicating, going over and under screens when necessary and running people off the three-point line. The Celtics give up the second-fewest three-point attempts per game and allow opponents to shoot just 32% from three, the third-best mark in the league.
Kyrie Irving, frequently criticized as a weak defender, has been more engaged this season. He’s averaging a career-high 1.9 steals per game and leads the Celtics in deflections per game, per NBA.com/Stats.
The Celtics have the statistical profile of a good defensive team. They’re one of the best rebounding teams in the league, they don’t give up free throws, and they give up the third fewest “wide open” shots to opponents (no defender within six feet), per NBA.com.
The Celtics have had other players step up.
Hayward’s absence has also opened the door to some unlikely contributors. Second-year wing Jaylen Brown has improved immensely from a solid, but unspectacular rookie season. Brown is third on the team in scoring at 14.7 points per game and is hitting 37% of his threes.
Rookie forward Jayson Tatum has also been a revelation and is among the leading candidates for Rookie of the Year so far. Tatum is fourth on the team in scoring, averaging 14 points per game on 50% shooting, 49% from three. He has a composure on the floor rarely seen by rookies.
And, of course, there’s Irving, who provides heavy doses of scoring and playmaking. Free of LeBron James’ shadow, Irving has dazzled with his ball-handling, snaking through defenders to create his own shot:
And to create for others:
Horford, too, has been the Celtics’ rock – the type of player whose impact isn’t always noticeable upon first glance. He defends the rim, calls out defensive plays, switches capably onto smaller and faster guards, all while contributing on offense, scoring a tidy 15 points on 10 shot attempts per game and hitting cutters in Boston’s motion offense.
The Celtics still want to be the team of the future.
When the Celtics gave up Thomas, Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the coveted Brooklyn Nets 2018 first-round pick for Irving, it was a clear win-now move. The Celtics hoarded assets and famously withheld them when star players became available. They obviously valued Irving as a rare superstar worth chasing.
But they also held onto young players like Brown and Tatum and they have held onto their other draft picks. ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported at the time that, yes, the Celtics want to win now, but they also want to be the best team in 2020 “and beyond,” like Kerr alluded to.
Hayward’s injury could have sent Boston into a spiral. Instead, players have stepped up in his absence. The East is more wide open than ever, with the Cavaliers looking sluggish and teams like the Washington Wizards, Toronto Raptors, and Milwaukee Bucks perhaps looking a few pieces short of truly contending.
Boston may experience drops in production from players like Brown and Tatum; there’s still so many games left to play. But the early results suggest the Celtics are indeed the best team in the East now and the team to be afraid of in the future.