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On basketball

Celtics’ progress has been outstanding

Jordan Crawford has turned into the team’s best distributor, its clutch shotmaker, and its assist leader.

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

Jordan Crawford has turned into the team’s best distributor, its clutch shotmaker, and its assist leader.

The Celtics finished their work night — a 108-100 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks at TD Garden — percentage points ahead of the Toronto Raptors in first place in the Atlantic Division, a position they never expected to occupy after 20 games.

The season is 25 percent over and what we know about these Celtics is they play admirably hard under their new coach. They are prone to mental lapses and turnovers. They are inconsistent.

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But the players who were left over from the team’s demolition and those who were acquired as temporary placeholders as the Celtics prepare for their next title run, are running with their opportunity.

Jordan Crawford was considered nothing more than a shotaholic who would contribute little to the Celtics’ progress, but he has turned into the team’s best distributor, its clutch shotmaker, and its assist leader.

Jared Sullinger was coming off back surgery and a brush with the law in September and he has emerged as the Celtics’ top rebounder and post threat. Meanwhile, Jeff Green and Avery Bradley have shown signs of fulfilling their long-awaited potential and are definitely improved from last season.

The Celtics are a mere 8-12, having lost to Milwaukee twice, with losing streaks of six and four games, yet they are here, at the top of their division because they are better than expected and the rest of the Atlantic is putrid.

A win by Toronto over Golden State on Tuesday would have given the Raptors the top spot, but they fell, 112-103, to drop to 6-11. The 5-13 Nets are making the 2011 Red Sox appear functional, and the 3-13 Knicks are exponentially worse than imaginable.

Tanking discussions are being replaced by the distinct possibility the Celtics could make a playoff push. Besides Indiana and Miami, the Celtics are capable of beating any of the other teams in the Eastern Conference on a given night.

While they also are capable of losing on those nights, the Celtics have proven they are not a pushover, and if they continue to play with the same passion under Brad Stevens, they will remain in the postseason chase.

While that scares scores of Celtics fans, it’s reality.

The Celtics have played 11 road games, tied for the most in the NBA, and have played a non-glamorous schedule that reflects their return to the league’s also-rans. Yet the Celtics have continued to improve gradually, which is a sign of the bright mind of Stevens and a roster of players willing to humble themselves enough to listen to his direction and who realize their best path is to work feverishly, not relent under the difficult circumstances.

“The growth has been pretty good, considering we haven’t practiced very much,” Stevens said. “Guys have gotten better off film; guys have adjusted in the course of a game, like tonight, pretty well.

“Milwaukee countered something that we do pretty well, very well on their own, and we had to counter back with an adjustment and the guys did it on the fly. Part of that is because they’re getting used to the lingo and the verbiage and we’re getting used to each other, and I’m getting used to how they best play in what situations. We’re still getting to know each other, but our growth has been steady.”

After 20 games, the expectations and impressions of the Celtics have been adjusted. The playoffs are feasible, but the next 62 games will include peaks and valleys. The first 20 already have been gut-wrenching at times, but more enjoyable than expected.

What we have here in Boston is a competitive Eastern Conference team, one that is playing nightly with pride and showing its obvious flaws — but not from a lack of effort. That’s critical. Whatever record the Celtics finish at and where they will stand in the draft will be a byproduct of their talent, Stevens’s continued improvement and innovations as a coach, and the team’s attention to detail.

President of basketball operations Danny Ainge may change the roster dramatically by the trade deadline, but he put together a team that is scrappy and entertaining.

“I think we’ve gotten better as a team,” swingman Gerald Wallace said. “We’ve still got a lot of things to work on. Overall, we’re moving in the right direction, that’s the main thing you can say about us.

“Everybody is considerate of their own situation, but this is the league and you’re only looked at in regards to how your team does and how well you do with your team. You can average 40 [points], but if you’re on a team that only wins three games, that ain’t worth a crap.”

Every player on the roster has his own personal agenda, and that’s as it should be. They are playing for their future and their concern should hardly be whether the Celtics have a premium lottery pick June 26. Their concern should be the now, and they should be proud of the progress they have made.

And if this team manages to win the Atlantic Division, it should hang that banner right next to the 17 NBA championship banners because of its sheer unlikelihood. But this organization’s focus should be on improvement and development.

And the Celtics have received passing grades through the first 20 games in both categories.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.
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