WALTHAM – What is transpiring in Boston, since the organization traded away its two superstars and future Hall of Famers to the Brooklyn Nets, is the team that was left, the collaboration of journeymen, youngsters, potential standouts, and the still unproven, meshed into a scrappy bunch.
Scrappy is the best word to describe these Celtics. Their two best attributes are relentlessness and unselfishness. Since the team has no go-to guy or legitimate star, they distribute and share, and appear to be enjoying it.
Four consecutive wins have changed perceptions of the Celtics. When the club began 0-4 after troubling losses to Toronto and Milwaukee and fourth-quarter meltdowns against Detroit and Memphis, the Celtics were considered a ragtag bunch of misplaced pieces, unable to sustain any consistency because they lacked chemistry and the ability to execute.
Coach Brad Stevens was considered over his head in the NBA, learning on the fly. Yet, what usually happens in the NBA is the team that plays harder will win its share of games and the Celtics are hardly devoid of talent in comparison to a handful of other clubs in the Eastern Conference.
They are better than Orlando, which they have beaten twice already. Miami? Not even close, but the Celtics bridged the gap because they outhustled the Heat and played with more passion. They are better than 0-8 Utah.
The individuals on this team have so much to prove. Jeff Green wants to finally shake the tag of being a third-tier scorer. Avery Bradley wants to prove he can stay healthy and consistently hit a jump shot. Jared Sullinger is still angry 20 teams passed on him because of his bad back and wants to play a full season. Brandon Bass wants job security after playing for four teams in his nine-year career while Jordan Crawford wants a lucrative contract next season and to eliminate criticisms that have followed him throughout his career.
The players have an agenda and the coach is obsessive about improvement, which has blended into a positive mix. And the unselfishness, created because there is no dominant scorer, appears to have fostered the team’s development.
“When you come down to the end of the stretch, when you got three or four guys who are able to take and make that big shot, it makes the team hard to defend,” said veteran swingman Gerald Wallace. “Other teams just can’t key in on one guy. I think we’re doing a great job of being unselfish in those moments, getting the basket that we need, making the plays that we need to win ballgames.”
There was a real question about Stevens’s effectiveness as an NBA coach, whether the players – especially the veterans – would respond to his unproven philosophies at the NBA level. Veteran NBA players generally approach a new coach – especially if he’s unproven – with skepticism. The Celtics were unsure about Stevens, other than that he liked to have a lot of one-on-one meetings.
Stevens scored big when he bonded with Rajon Rondo, who has been one of Stevens’s biggest supporters. The other players fell in line, even if the season began with very few of them sure of their roles.
“Our chemistry is getting better, just figuring it out,” Green said. “The first couple of games, we made a lot of mistakes that we could control. Our defense wasn’t up to par. Our communication level was not there. Now, we’re trusting a little bit more, our team unity is a little bit better on defense, so it’s helping us out on the offensive end.”
Moving Bradley to shooting guard and inserting Crawford at point guard may be the most significant on-court difference between the first four games and the past four games. Bradley is a combo guard who is better when he can defend the opposing point guard and run freely on offense as the shooting guard.
Crawford has harnessed his talent well enough to control the offense and distribute the ball. And without a primary scorer, there aren’t rumblings in the locker room when players don’t get the ball as much as they desire. There are egos in every NBA locker room, but this one lacks the prima donnas or self-proclaimed leaders the Celtics have had in the past.
Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen had every right to feel that way because they were proven; they had been to All-Star games and had broken records. They were cornerstones, synonymous with the Celtics. This team lacks any of that star power; that’s probably its most attractive feature.
Danny Ainge has compiled a bunch of players with personal agendas and chips on their shoulders, knowing the outside basketball public expects them to purposely tank or collapse because of the futility. They are insulted by such thinking and, perhaps, that has galvanized them. While the Celtics are probably going to experience streaks, it’s apparent, at least through the first two weeks, that they are improving and developing an identity, which should make for more overall prosperity.
“The thing that guys like to do is win,” Stevens said when asked about the unselfishness. “And so these guys are smart enough to look out there and say, ‘we’ve got to play together if we’re going to win. And the minute we stop playing together, we’re probably not going to win.’ Hopefully we continue to do that because that is a large reason why we’ve been successful.”