This Celtics winning streak is reaching the point where it’s conceivable to call them the best team in the Eastern Conference.
They prevailed in the final moments again Sunday afternoon at TD Garden when they forced a DeMar DeRozan miss in the closing seconds for a 95-94 victory over the rival Toronto Raptors.
This 12-game streak is hardly luck. The Celtics are a team that has started this season in midseason form, unlike many other contenders who have been maddeningly inconsistent and vulnerable, perhaps because of the shortened preseason.
The Celtics aren’t using Gordon Hayward’s gruesome injury as any excuse, and against the Raptors they moved forward without leading scorer Kyrie Irving, who missed his first game because of a facial fracture. Once again, the Celtics fielded whatever healthy team they had and played harder than their opponents.
This was a quality win, perhaps the best of the streak because it was without Irving and the Raptors were whole and rested. Toronto has gotten the better of the Celtics the past several years, and although Boston retooled in the offseason by adding Irving and Hayward, the Raptors still carry the psychological edge because they have dominated the head-to-head series.
And again, the Celtics went through multiple offensive skids — including missing 17 of 23 shots in the second quarter — yet trailed by just 5 at halftime. They are winning with defense and timely offense.
The Raptors were 5 for 18 from the field in the fourth quarter, and what was encouraging for the Celtics was that they defended exceptionally well in the final minutes, without fouling. Countless times DeRozan has finished off Boston with his stepback midrange jumper. He dribbles, creates space, pump fakes, and then swishes.
He missed two in the final 19 seconds that would have put Toronto ahead. You can attribute that to luck perhaps, but both of those jumpers were contested, the first by Al Horford and the second by Jaylen Brown.
The Celtics are in the right place at the right time defensively most of the time. That is coaching. That is execution. That is understanding tendencies.
And all of this without a practice since Oct. 23 because of their game schedule and travel. All of this with Horford missing two games, and Irving one. Marcus Morris missed six games. And Brad Stevens put together several makeshift lineups and stuck with rotations that were effective.
Stevens is already being mentioned for Coach of the Year, and it’s no surprise. He is putting players in positions to succeed. He is trusting his rookies. He is giving players who were used to getting quick hooks after mistakes more playing time to work through those errors and build confidence.
“When you win some games, I think it builds a desire to be even more focused just because you see some positive results out of that,” Stevens said. “I haven’t heard any of our guys talking about [the streak]. Certainly we’re not talking about it. These guys are all professional basketball players. They’re all really prideful. They all believe in themselves, and rightfully so. We’re not going to make up for Kyrie Irving by somebody trying to be Kyrie Irving.”
It’s far too early to begin discussing playoff positioning, but what the Celtics are doing with this winning streak is building equity, picking up key games on rivals such as the Raptors and Cavaliers. And they are building an identity, a process that could have taken months following the injury to Hayward.
Irving has become the leader, a position he clamored for but was never going to assume in Cleveland. The younger players have each taken a significant step forward in talent and confidence, especially Brown and Terry Rozier, who scored 16 points Sunday off the bench.
Perhaps most impressive about the streak are the plays that don’t necessarily make highlight reels, such as Daniel Theis’s defense on Serge Ibaka or Marcus Smart avoiding an Ibaka screen and then contesting a Kyle Lowry 3-pointer. Smart then raced down the floor against the smaller Toronto point guard, posted up, and drew Lowry’s fourth foul.
Lowry, who has battered the Celtics over the years, scored just 5 points in the second half after tallying 11 in the first seven minutes of the game.
“They are the best team in the NBA right now, 12 in a row,” Lowry said. “They’re playing unbelievable, everyone is picking up slack. They lose Kyrie, and he doesn’t play, Rozier is smart and those guys step in. Tatum stepped up. They all played aggressive.”
Regardless of when this streak ends, the Celtics have established themselves as one of the league’s elite, a favorite in the Eastern Conference. When fortunate things repeatedly happen — such as DeRozan missing two midrange jumpers — eventually that has to be attributed to execution. Luck doesn’t last for those who don’t work hard.
The Celtics have been working hard, establishing a defense-focused style that will win a lot of games, especially on nights when the offense is sporadic.
“We have a group that we’re trying to take it game by game and enjoy this journey that we started on,” Horford said. “I know it’s early but this is as good as I’ve seen [us] as far as staying in the moment and respecting each opponent. That’s important.”