The Boston Celtics are one of the trendy teams in the NBA. Even though they are fresh off an offseason in which they snagged emerging superstar guard Kyrie Irving and All-Star Gordon Hayward, this year’s expectations didn’t have to be championship-or-bust. Unfortunately for Boston and Irving, Hayward is likely a non-factor this whole year, as he is recovering from a fractured ankle he suffered on opening night against the Cleveland Cavaliers. That was a crushing blow for the Celtics, but they have adjusted well since dropping their first two games. Boston has now won 10 straight games and owns the NBA’s best record. For now, it appears that General Manager and President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge has made savvy moves to put together a team with rising expectations. Along with that, head coach Brad Stevens has more weapons than he’s had before.
Boston is a very deep team, and their energy and toughness have meshed well with the pure-scoring ability of Kyrie Irving. Stevens had a similar isolation scorer last year with Isaiah Thomas, but Thomas has not had nearly the same year-to-year production of Irving, and Irving has improved his playmaking this season. His assist percentage has increased this season, despite not having the talent of LeBron James around him, and his turnover percentage is at a career-low, according to NBA.com. Much of that credit should go to Stevens, but also to the supporting cast.
An integral part of Boston’s success is the play of veteran do-everything big Al Horford. Horford is averaging a robust 14.6 points on 53.1 percent shooting, and he’s leading the Celtics in rebounding at 9.2 per game. He is also third on the team in assists, just behind primary ball-handlers Irving and Marcus Smart, and he leads Boston in plus-minus at plus-9.0 for the season. Most notably, however, he has shown impressive chemistry early on with Irving. That was evident throughout a comeback win against the Oklahoma City Thunder on the road.
These first 12 games are likely just the tip of the iceberg for what’s to come between Irving and Horford, and even though Horford is now currently out of the C’s lineup with a concussion, it appears these concussion symptoms “aren’t as bad as last year’s,” according to A. Sherrod Blakely of NBC Sports Boston.
The aforementioned supporting cast goes way beyond what Horford has done on both ends, though. Two-way wing Jaylen Brown is establishing himself as one of the primary scoring options on this roster in just his second season, accounting for 14.8 points per game and shooting 38.2 percent from three. He can make plays in a variety of ways and is only going to get better from here on out. Irving has found him for open three-point and transition looks on a number of occasions through penetration and eventual ball movement. That will happen more and more.
Another player ahead of schedule is rookie Jayson Tatum, who is putting up 13.5 points per night and leading Boston in three-point percentage at 52.9 percent. Hopefully, he is back healthy after leaving last night’s game early against the Los Angeles Lakers with right ankle soreness, courtesy of Mark Murphy of the Boston Herald. That was not the only injury of the game, though, as free-agent acquisition Marcus Morris had to leave that one early as well, due to recurring left knee soreness that’s plagued him to start the season. When Boston has Horford, Tatum, Irving, rookie Semi Ojeleye and Morris in the lineup, they have so much matchup versatility, and overall, they have plenty of two-way players who can contribute in big ways at both ends of the floor. Even Irving is playing better than in previous years on the defensive end, and he currently leads the NBA in steals, courtesy of Basketball Reference.
Again, last night’s game against the Lakers showed how Boston’s grit and resilience alone can get them wins throughout the season and potentially even in the playoffs. Rotational big man Aron Baynes, another signing in the off-season, had a career-best 21 points and 8 rebounds. He was converting on quality decisions in mismatch entry-passes from Smart and Irving and was setting quality screens.
Aside from Gordon Hayward, who has barely played, Baynes leads the Celtics in defensive rating this year, courtesy of NBA.com, as he’s done a great job of protecting the paint and cleaning the glass. Baynes and rookie Daniel Theis have made quite an impact with their bench minutes and have brought newfound rim protection this season, which was a glaring weakness, especially against LeBron and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs. With switchy wings, youth, unselfishness, and one of the best coaches in the NBA in Stevens, this Celtics team looks much more versatile than it was last season, in which Isaiah Thomas was the majority of the offense. They now have perhaps the best isolation scorer in the NBA in Irving, and one of the better offensive systems in the league which utilizes great ball movement as a counter to Irving’s wizardry.
Obviously, James and the Cavaliers are hard to figure out in the regular season, especially with Thomas still sidelined, but their defense is going to be an issue all year. Cleveland’s defensive rating is last in the NBA, and Boston has the best, and they have more reliable three-point threats than the Cavs do. James is playing like a league MVP, but his supporting cast is going to have their struggles, even in the playoffs, because of their older age. Kyrie Irving’s move to Boston seems to be going about as well as possible, even without Hayward. The Celtics look like the team to beat in the East with their two-way depth, even though James and Giannis Antetokounmpo are amazing.
[Featured Image by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images]