Five minutes and 15 seconds into the season and the unthinkable happens. The words "Hayward broke his leg" starts reverberating in our ears. The photo of his broken ankle and seeing Gordon Hayward in agonizing pain imprints in our minds. And then, it hits us. The Celtics' season may be over. Their big free agent acquisition, the player perfect in every way for the Celtics in all probability, would miss the season.
This wasn't in the script. This wasn't supposed to happen. Down 24 at the end of the 1st half, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal concluded that the Celtics are done. They go on to lose the game. The next night, an 8-point loss at home to the Bucks further amplifies that fact.
Or maybe it doesn't...
Nine games later, the Celtics are on top of the NBA standings with a 9-2 record. Pretty impressive for a team whose season was supposedly over 5 minutes into the season? So what's changed? For starters, they have the best defense in the league and their offense is making strides every game. Brad Stevens has worked up his wizardry once again and now the Celtics look like the team to beat in the East (at least until Cleveland figures its' gig out).
Al Horford looks like a DPOY candidate having shut down Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, and LaMarcus Aldridge and reasonably controlled Giannis Antetokoumpo in their win against the Bucks. He's even a legitimate threat to average a double-double this season, which brings me to the rebounding. Before the season started, it's safe to assume that the majority of the NBA and its fans expected the C's to be on the bottom rung of the rebounding charts.
They're currently 5th! A regression should happen sooner rather than later but being in the top 10 isn't out of reach either. This can be attributed to increased length this season. The Celtics' third-most used lineup last season was Thomas-Bradley-Smart-Crowder-Horford. All barring Horford can be said to be undersized which resulted in the atrocious rebounding numbers. This season their second-most used lineup is Irving-Smart-Brown-Tatum-Horford. Increased height and athleticism helped them here, especially with the 2 Jays'.
Let's begin with Tatum. When Danny Ainge traded the number 1 pick to the 76ers for the 3rd pick and a future 1st rounder (in all likelihood a top 5 pick), there was a lot of backlash for him. Three weeks into the season, that trade looks like daylight robbery. Fultz has been awful, to say the least (though some of that may be due to injury concerns regarding his shoulder) while Tatum has performed as the best rookie in this class. He's averaging 14.3 PPG on 50% shooting (52.9% from 3s) to go with 6.5 RPG and that's not even the best part. He looks like a great defender as well.
The 2 biggest question marks regarding Tatum in his scouting reports were whether he can defend at an NBA level and shoot the 3 ball well. So far, he has passed every test. He looks like a double-double threat and has also shown great passing ability in finding players for cuts along with some fine shot-blocking potential.
As for Tatum's partner in crime, Jaylen Brown, he has also been great this year. From a so-so rookie year where many questioned Ainge's decision to draft him, he has made the jump this year. It all started with him reporting in early this season and forcing Ainge to put him on the Summer League roster. He looks set to have a Most Improved Player campaign. He has improved his shot, rebounding and finishing ability along with his great defense. The results are there for all of us to see. He's averaging 15.4 PPG on 46.2% shooting (40.4% on 3s) to go with 6.4 RBPG.
Before going to Irving, a shout out to rest of Boston's supporting cast. Smart has continued to be a pest on defense and has improved his shot as well. Daniel Theis and Aron Baynes have added rim protection which has aided Horford to mount his DPOY campaign. Rozier has played some crucial minutes and even won them the game against San Antonio by leading the 4th Quarter barrage. Semi Ojeleye has proven that second round picks can have great value. Larkin has provided a spark off the bench whenever called upon. Even Marcus Morris who was making his return from injury against OKC, was an integral part of that 3rd Quarter comeback against OKC.
And now, * drum-rolls * let's talk about Kyrie. Many people thought that the Cs gave up a pick and player too many for Irving including yours truly. But once again it looks like Danny Ainge has pulled off a masterstroke. Brad Stevens' has once again shown that he can extract the most out of his players. His offense has been the level we expected it to be but his defense!
He ranks third in the league in steals and has looked a positive on D far from the cries of him being a taller IT. He has even shown his passing game, something which we didn't get to see that much due to LeBron James rightfully running the point in Cleveland. A great improvement from a player, who made the Cavs look awful, when he was running the show. The best thing about this situation is that Brad Stevens has just started scratching the surface of how good Irving can be. He's still working things out with Horford even though they already look like they've been teammates for five years rather than five weeks.
The future looks bright for the Celtics and the main reason is Brad Stevens. How he has led a team that had only four returning players and lost arguably its' best player just minutes into the season is something our common minds won't understand but it sure looks great.
However, thinking that this team is the finished product would be foolish, to say the least. They are still figuring this out. Their biggest test till date awaits them on November 15, in the form of a team called the Golden State Warriors.
Can they sustain this? Only time will tell but it'll certainly be entertaining watching them as the season unfolds.