Elevating themselves like Blake Griffin bounding out of the time machine for a wait-he-can-still-do-that? tomahawk jam, your Boston Celtics haven’t so much been playing basketball games lately as they have been putting on breathtaking clinics on how basketball games ought to be played.
The standings and statistics tell some of the story. The Celtics are an NBA-best 17-4 after Monday night’s 140-105 zapping of the Charlotte Hornets at TD Garden, during which the hosts pogoed to a 45-19 lead after the first quarter and dropped 78 points in the first half despite playing without Jaylen Brown and Al Horford on the second night of a back-to-back.
Jayson Tatum, who has achieved total mastery of his vast array of skills, scored a casual 35 points in 30 minutes and finished plus-45, which is decent. Marcus Smart hit 8 of 11 shots, including six 3-pointers, dished out a Rondoian 15 assists, and finished plus-44, also decent.
Derrick White scored 15 points and added 6 assists. Luke Kornet chipped in with 9 points, 8 rebounds, and one hilarious wing-flapping celebration that Griffin dubbed “the Cornish game hen” even though it’s apparently a “Napoleon Dynamite” homage.
So many Celtics contributed Monday that I’m pretty sure the box score said that Jason Stone, Injury Lawyer, chipped in with 9 points and 4 assists. I’ll double-check on that.
They have now won four in a row and 13 of 14 since losing to the Cavaliers in overtime Nov. 2, one of their two OT losses to the Cavs this season. They’ve scored at least 125 points 10 times. Their average margin of victory during their four-game winning streak is 18.5 points. These are the statistics of a juggernaut.
And yet the standings and statistics do not come close to telling their story in full.
It’s not just that these Celtics are really, really good. They’re an absolute joy to watch, an aesthetic godsend. They’re reveling in sharing the basketball. They’re wearing out the bottom of the nets with their shooting. No matter who is on the court under what circumstances, they are playing complementary basketball in the spirit of Celtics Big Threes both original and sequel.
Their current top seven players —Tatum, Brown, Horford, Smart, White, Malcolm Brogdon, and Grant Williams — thrive at both ends of the court. The eighth, Sam Hauser, is the best designated sharpshooter they have had since Eddie House.
Farther down the bench, there is budding fan favorite Kornet, whom Brad Stevens was so right about, and Griffin, who is by all accounts a superb, perspective-laden teammate and who nearly brought the house down with his Lob City flashback Monday.
Stevens has built expertly on the foundation Danny Ainge built, bringing in White last year and Brodgon in the offseason, and the pieces fit. They fit to the point that interim coach Joe Mazzulla can send just about any quirky lineup on the court and it will be both intriguing and successful.
He had one out there Monday night that included Tatum, Griffin, and three guards — Brodgon, White, and Smart. I would have liked to check out that one a little longer. And I must admit, as much as I appreciate Smart — he is desperately trying to do the right thing on every possession, and I’ll defend him right through the day takes his final charge — a Brogdon/White backcourt is a blast to watch. Wouldn’t be a bad presidential ticket either someday.
That on-court connection translates off the court, too. Anyone who watches the players’ courtside postgame interviews on NBC Sports Boston, which almost always now feature cameos and interruptions from assorted celebrating teammates, knows they have the kind of camaraderie that cannot be faked.
The defending Eastern Conference champions, fueled by their loss to the Warriors in the Finals, are legitimate NBA title contenders as currently constructed. And, good health willing, it’s possible that they get better.
There is no need whatsoever to rush Robert Williams III back as he recovers from knee surgery, but it is impossible to resist pondering what the Celtics will look like when he does return. He’s a defensive force unto himself who gets easy baskets on the offensive end and is a much craftier passer than NBA fans outside of this market have realized.
He was compromised in the playoffs because of the meniscus injury and still found ways to contribute. That was admirable. Adding a healthy Williams to this team almost isn’t fair. Patience is necessary, but tell me you haven’t daydreamed about the reaction of the Garden when he throws down his first alley-oop or swats a shot into the fourth row.
I’ll continue to fight the temptation to look ahead and remember to appreciate what the Celtics are doing in the moment. But sometimes, as I watch this team play, I cannot help but look back.
To summer 2019, when playoff quitter Kyrie Irving bolted for the Nets, Horford accepted a massive Sixers offer, and Ainge’s championship blueprints were presumably left in tatters. Or even to 13 months ago, when a Nov. 1 loss to the Bulls dropped the Celtics to 2-5 and Smart told a blunt truth afterward: “Every team is programmed and studied to stop Jayson and Jaylen. I think everybody’s scouting report is to make those guys pass the ball. They don’t want to pass the ball.”
The last part of that quote got all the headlines. It seemed to tell a story of Celtics dysfunction. But what Smart said next foretold the future.
“That’s something that they’re going to learn,” he said. “They’re still learning. We’re proud of the progress they’re making, but they’re going to have to make another step and find ways to not only create for themselves but create for others on this team to open up the court for them later down in the game.”
Smart isn’t a synonym for prescient, but it’s close enough. Tatum has become the true superstar who enhances his teammates, and the dynamic Brown is getting there. They’re surrounded by versatile, savvy, talented players who thrive in their roles and bask in the success of others. This is how Celtics basketball is supposed to be.
A few years ago — even a little over a year ago — this might not have seemed a likely outcome. Now, as a certain Celtics champion informed us 14 years ago, anything is possible.