Celtics are for real
SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - November 18, 2017 - 4:00pm

This early in the NBA season, the Boston Celtics are making waves as the league’s miracle team, starting the campaign with two straight losses then rebounding to win 14 in a row to take pole position in the Eastern Conference. The Celts’ 14-2 record is in fact the NBA’s best and Boston is doing it with incredible defense, leading the league in this department by giving up only 94.1 points a game.

 What’s even more incredible is the Celts are mowing down the opposition despite losing star Gordon Hayward with a dislocated ankle and a fractured tibia in the first quarter of his debut in green since moving from Utah to sign a four-year $128 Million contract. Hayward, who averaged 21 points for the Jazz last season, has undergone surgery and is now rehabbing. He reappeared on the Boston bench for the first time since suffering the injury when the Celts stormed back from 17 down to beat the defending champion Golden State Warriors, 92-88, at home last Thursday.

 Boston was unbeaten in four preseason games but it was hardly a gauge of the Celts’ potential as their victims were lowly Charlotte twice and Philadelphia twice. When the season opened, the Celts lost back to back to Cleveland by three and to Milwaukee by eight. Then came the steamroll. Boston has now compiled identical 7-1 marks at home and on the road. In overall league standings, Boston is No. 2 in point differential at +7.9 to first placer Golden State’s +10.8. The Dubs are No. 1 in offense with a 117.5 clip but was held to only 88 by the Celts.  Among the teams whom Boston has bushwhacked were San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Miami and Toronto.

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Five Celtics are averaging in double figure points – Kyrie Irving at 20.3, Al Horford 15.5, Jaylen Brown 15.1, rookie Jayson Tatum 13.9 and Marcus Morris 13.4. Irving, Tatum and Morris weren’t on coach Brad Stevens’ squad that had a 53-29 record and bowed to Cleveland, 4-1, in the Eastern Conference Finals last season. Gone from the previous roster are Avery Bradley, Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Kelly Olynyk, Amir Johnson, Tyler Zeller, Gerald Green, James Young, Jordan Mickey, Demetrius Jackson and Jonas Jerebko. Bradley, Thomas, Crowder, Olynyk, Amir Johnson and Green averaged a combined 13.4 points so Stevens had to pull in fresh scorers to fill the vacuum. Three of Boston’s four leading scorers moved out in the offseason.

Also contributing to the Celts’ cause are Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier who’re averaging a combined 18.3 points. Irving is undoubtedly the reason why Boston is off to a dizzying start but credit Stevens for putting the pieces together. Sports Illustrated said “how quickly Stevens can develop and trust his youngsters will determine the Celtics’ ceiling this season.” The reference was to Brown, 20, Tatum, 19 and Rozier, 23 who contribute to the team’s versatility on both ends.

 Stevens, 41, is one of the youngest NBA coaches this season. Los Angeles Lakers coach Luke Walton, 37, and Cleveland Cavs coach Tyronn Lue, 40, are younger. Stevens is an economics graduate. His father Mark is an orthopaedic surgeon and mother Jan a university professor. He’s considered in the same mold as other Young Turks like Steve Kerr and Erik Spoelstra because of their orientation towards “position-less” basketball. Lindy’s Sports Pro Basketball writer Mark Murphy explained the approach: “Players who can’t guard more than two positions have been devalued. Tweener forwards – those stuck between the so-called three and four spots who weren’t a pure fit in either – are now preferable because of their versatility. That’s because at their best, the Celtics can put five capable three-point shooters on the floor who, down on the other end, can all switch on defense. That’s why Stevens has his own positional names – ballhandlers, wings, swings and bigs. Because of their style, they matched up against Golden State better than most of the rest of the league.

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 “The Celtics are evolving as a unit of interchangeable players – save for the main scorers – who can play three or four positions and switch defensively on anyone. More than ever, Stevens can put multiple ball-handlers on the floor along with multiple three-point threats.”

 Irving desperately wanted to break out of LeBron James’ shadow at Cleveland and strike it out on his own, finding Boston the perfect place to relocate. The Celtics gave up a fortune to land Irving – Thomas, Crowder, Ante Zizic, a 2018 first round pick and Miami’s 2020 second round slot. But the deal was worth it. Irving’s a special player with special skills. If he plays to his usual level, Irving will surely join Bob Cousy, K. C. Jones and Dennis Johnson as the best Celtic point guards ever. His performance against the Dubs last Thursday was a clear indication of his qualifications. Irving fired 11 of his 16 points in the fourth period to power Boston to the win.

To put into perspective what Boston has accomplished so far, the Celts are tops in the Eastern Conference while Cleveland, Irving’s former team, is tied for eighth with Orlando. The Cavs are struggling at 8-7 with Thomas, recovering from a hip injury, expected to make his Cleveland debut next month.

 

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