As the Celtics enjoy a Christmas break courtesy of their brilliant young coach, it’s clear that the first 29 games of this transition season have been interesting and motivating for the team’s faithful.
With tanking out of the question — the Celtics now are the likely favorites to win the Atlantic Division with the 76ers and Raptors in rebuild and Knicks and Nets in disarray — it has been a wildly successful first seven weeks, for many reasons.
First is the impact of coach Brad Stevens, who appeared lost at times in the first handful of games but soon picked up the NBA style and motivated his ragtag bunch to play with feverish passion most every night.
Any potential tension over lack of playing time from such an evenly talented roster has been soothed with Stevens’s version of fireside chats with players. The latest came Sunday when the coach pulled aside Courtney Lee and discussed his concerns with being removed from games when his shot is falling. It is encouraging that players feel comfortable approaching their coach before the media.
Second, the players who were given an opportunity to flourish following the retool have done so. Avery Bradley has turned into a confident and dependable outside shooter — a stunning turnaround considering his erratic and insecure nature when he entered the league.
Jordan Crawford has become a reliable and sometimes flashy distributor after arriving in Boston nine months ago with the reputation of being a self-consumed scorer who sulked his way out of Washington.
It was interesting that after the Celtics lost to the Wizards Saturday, Crawford sought out Washington’s second-year guard Bradley Beal and embraced him, since there had been speculation that Crawford resented Beal because his presence cut into Crawford’s playing time last season.
Crawford undoubtedly has matured as a player and a person, and dramatically increased his free agent value if the Celtics decide not to bring him back.
Crawford’s next test will come when Rajon Rondo returns and Crawford becomes a backup point guard. This is a critical position, especially in Boston. The Celtics lacked a dependable point guard throughout the Big Three Era, trying journeymen such as Stephon Marbury, Carlos Arroyo, Nate Robinson, and Keyon Dooling over the years, with little success. Crawford could become the team’s most valuable reserve.
Jared Sullinger, meanwhile, has become the organization’s most untouchable player. His development after having back surgery has been impressive; he has five double-doubles in his past 16 games.
Confidence never has been an issue for Sullinger, who vowed to thrive against bigger players despite his 6-foot-9-inch frame. While he has struggled against behemoths Brook Lopez and Roy Hibbert, Sullinger has fared favorably against other centers.
One of the club’s biggest concerns entering the season was the center position. Stevens experimented with Vitor Faverani as a starter but saw that the Brazilian’s transition to the NBA would be slower than anticipated.
Sullinger has become a legitimate low-post threat as well as a better-than-expected 3-point shooter. He is still a few months from his 22d birthday, making him a potential cornerstone given his improved conditioning and expanded offensive arsenal.
The Celtics are devoid of a go-to guy, a pure All-Star talent, besides Rondo, but Stevens has been able to work some irregular pieces into a working model through 29 games. He also has made the tough decision of sending Gerald Wallace to the bench and relegating MarShon Brooks and Keith Bogans to nothing more than cheerleaders.
While roles have been blurred at times, the Celtics created chemistry through trying times. There has been occasional confusion, some misunderstanding of schemes and responsibilities, but otherwise, a team that was expected to be in turmoil or doldrums has been surprisingly positive.
Indiana coach Frank Vogel said Sunday what other coaches have noticed: The Celtics are one of the hardest-playing teams in the NBA, and they must be in order to compete. Throughout the league this season, we have seen shining examples of what can happen when a team believes in its system and plays with purpose.
Look at the Phoenix Suns, with former Celtics executive Ryan McDonough now in charge. Not only were the Suns expected to be one of the league’s worst teams, they were expected to tank because of the allure of players available in the 2014 draft. The Suns are currently in fifth place in the Western Conference with a 17-10 record following a shellacking of the Lakers Monday.
While there are a handful of Celtics fans smarting over the team’s success — which dims the chances of grabbing a premium prospect in the June draft — they should be grateful that things have worked out so well, and that the transition from old guard to new guard has gone so smoothly.