This ever-changing second season under Brad Stevens, one in which president of basketball operations Danny Ainge admitted he held low expectations because of a patchwork roster, was apparent Friday when 20-year-old Marcus Smart assumed the role of the last Celtic announced in the starting lineup.
That role had been reserved in the past for Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, Jeff Green, and even Jared Sullinger, and now Smart, the prized rookie, is considered the franchise’s most identifiable player. That is a glaring example of how much Ainge has changed the roster, and Stevens has desperately tried to maintain consistency and decorum in an environment that has hosted nothing but upheaval.
Yet 56 games into the season, with nine of 14 players on the current roster having joined the team since October, the Celtics are finally establishing an identity, moving on from Rondo, Green, and the Big Three era, reaching that point where they are playing hard nightly, becoming a formidable opponent while their cornerstones are beginning to emerge. Ainge’s work is coming to fruition.
There was no better example of that than Friday, when the Celtics rallied from a 16-point deficit and raced past the Charlotte Hornets, 106-98, in front of a sellout crowd at TD Garden. Who could have imagined in October — when Rondo, Green, Marcus Thornton, Jared Sullinger, and Kelly Olynyk were major rotation players — that the fourth-quarter lineup would be Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Jonas Jerebko, Smart, and Avery Bradley?
The future is here and reinforcements are coming with two first-round picks in June. Stevens is now able to develop the team’s offensive and defensive personality with stability setting in. The trade deadline is over.
And since there were no expectations from the beginning of training camp, the Celtics can make their playoff run in a carefree environment that will stress improvement and chemistry. The latter already has been established, with Thomas becoming the offensive general with his mastery of the pick-and-roll.
After an uneven first half Friday, Thomas scored 21 points on 6-for-13 shooting with 4 assists and no turnovers in the second half. He attempted eight of the team’s 10 free throws and used his ability to get to the rim to set up offensive opportunities for teammates.
“He just picked them apart,” Bradley said. “We have a lot of great shooters and everyone was just making big plays, knocking down shots.
“This is like a fresh, new start for us. We have a brand-new team. We get a chance, the second half of the season, to prove ourselves again. I feel like our identity is a lot different. We’re a way better defensive team and way better offensive team with the players that we have on our team now.”
The early portion of this Celtics season was littered with fourth-quarter collapses, mental breakdowns, and playing down to the level of the opponent. The Celtics couldn’t get off to fast starts with their methodical ways. Green took quarters to get warmed up. Rondo wasn’t an offensive threat and the defense was inconsistent.
But Ainge gathered a bunch of players with personal agendas, which is a good thing. They all have something to prove. Jerebko, who scored 16 points Friday, is a free agent at season’s end and playing for a new contract. Crowder wants to show he is more than just an average rotation player, and Thomas is determined to show he can not only score but make winning plays and be part of an emerging team.
The growth under Stevens is evident, though it took five months to get here. The Celtics are learning Stevens’s free-wheeling system on the fly and embracing it, while those who have been here all season are adjusting to the roster changes and remaining positive, even though minutes could be slashed on any given night.
The result of this makeover has been a hungrier and more competitive roster with no one feeling entitled. And after Friday’s win, the Celtics are .003 percentage points out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 26 games left. Ainge’s acquisition of Thomas in the final moments before the trade deadline was a sign he had no intention of this team tanking for a better draft pick.
While he would much rather have a shot at a top-five pick, he can’t be unhappy with the Celtics’ progress and how quickly they have separated from a 25-57 initial season under Stevens.
The Celtics are still rebuilding, that’s for certain. But the organization can see better days ahead and that wasn’t always the case — even as recently as December.
“The hard part — I’ve said it all year and I even said it when we were, at the start of the year and losing all those games — I know structurally we’re way better,” Stevens said. “Offensively and defensively I felt really good about that. Obviously when you have personnel change, that can go both ways, but I’ve always felt good about it. And I feel really good about the way that we approach things.
“I think we still have a lot of room for growth, and we’ve got to get a lot better, there’s no question about it. But we approach improvement the right way, and that’s big. I mean, that’s not just the new guys, that’s the guys that have been here . . . they’ve really done a good job.
“And, hey, we’re 23-33, so it’s not like, again, we’re setting the world on fire. I don’t want to overstate it.”
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.