The only characteristic this year’s Celtics share with last year’s basketball bust is that both were sorely misjudged from the outset on the outside.
The shambolic Kyrie Irving Error (intentional spelling) Celtics were hailed as championship contenders coming off back-to-back Eastern Conference finals appearances and buoyed by a brilliant point guard and an embarrassment of riches on the wing. Instead, they were just an embarrassment.
Maybe we were just off by a year and a point guard with a five-letter first name starting with K. At the unofficial midpoint of the NBA season, the All-Star break, Kemba Walker’s Celtics have picked up the basketball baton that last year’s team dropped and then kicked under the stands. They’ve exceeded expectations and returned the joy.
They’re not the creme de la creme of the Eastern Conference. That distinction belongs to one rather talented Greek gentleman and his Milwaukee Bucks. But these Celtics are legitimate contenders featuring a fierce foursome of Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and a reborn Gordon Hayward. They are enjoyable, formidable, and emotionally invested in the team and each other.
With old friend Doc Rivers and his Los Angeles Clippers gracing the parquet Thursday night for Boston’s final game before the NBA’s midwinter hiatus, a 141-133 double-overtime instant classic won by Boston behind Tatum’s 39-point tour de force, it was hard not to highlight the juxtaposition between this year’s Celtics and last year’s. It was after last season’s February visit from Rivers and the Clippers, which resulted in the Celtics blowing a 28-point lead, that a frustrated Marcus Morris famously declared that the 2018-19 Celtics weren’t having “fun.”
The basketball universe has a sense of humor because Morris was back at the Garden as a member of the Clippers, who picked him up at the trade deadline. He doesn’t speak before games, but his words from last season stand as the defining book jacket summary of why the Irving-inspired bonfire of vanity Celtics were doomed.
“I watch all these other teams around the league and guys are up on the bench — they’re jumping on the court; they’re enjoying their teammates’ success,” said Morris last February. “They’re enjoying everything. They’re playing together, and they’re playing to win. And when I look at us, I just see a bunch of individuals.”
In hoops hindsight, the misgivings from last year’s underachieving Green probably set artificially lower expectations for this year’s group than there should have been, considering the assemblage of talent, the excising of harmful egos such as Irving and Terry Rozier, and the coach, Brad Stevens. This year’s team is a much more harmonious hoops outfit, on and off the court, reflected from the levity in the locker room, to the chemistry on the court, to the advanced metrics on the computer screen.
This is despite the Celtics juggling injuries and rarely having their top five players — All-Stars Walker and Tatum, breakout player Brown (out Thursday with a calf contusion), Hayward, and the redoubtable Marcus Smart — available at the same time.
They’re the No. 3 seed in an Eastern Conference that’s deeper than the aisles at a cavernous big box store. They have three players averaging more than 20 points per game — Tatum (22.1), Walker (21.8), and Brown (20.2) — and the luxury of employing Hayward as a fourth option who can toggle between distributing and scoring as needed.
There have been few bumps in the road for Boston. Certainly, nothing like the bickering and backbiting that plagued and ultimately consumed last year’s team. That team needed a psychologist’s couch instead of a bench for games it had so many issues. Walker is the anti-Kyrie in both temperament and approach with his young running mates. Tatum and Brown, who chafed at being restrained by their roles last season, have blossomed in the absence of Irving, Al Horford, and Morris.
“Last year was tough for everybody. Nobody could really get into a groove, and it was tough,” said Smart, who poured in 31 points. “This year, everybody is just playing freely. We’re just going out and playing the way we know we can play, not really thinking too much. We’re just letting our game talk for us.
“I think that’s what it was last year for us was a lot of people didn’t really know their roles. They didn’t really know where they fit. This year we’re really all on the same page.”
The Parishioners of the Parquet warmed to this year’s team full of character and characters such as Enes Kanter and rookie Grant Williams quickly. But there remains a degree of chariness when it comes to embracing Boston’s potential to best the Bucks and emerge from the East. Part of that caution has to do with the Celtics’ lack of size up front and an overachieving center tandem of Daniel Theis and Kanter. Part of it resides in the inactivity at the trade deadline to boost a bench that entered Thursday ranked 28th out of 30 teams in bench scoring. Part of it has to do with scars from last season and the preseason expectation that this was a transition year.
When Irving fled to Brooklyn, leaving scorched earth and the smoking ruins of a contender that never was and basketball ballast Horford absconded for the rival Philadelphia 76ers, the Celtics were pretty much left for dead as legitimate contenders, even when they managed to break their free fall with Walker.
By any reasonable measure, Boston enters the All-Star break as a legitimate contender. The Celtics entered Thursday night with the third-highest net rating in the league (plus-6.9 points), trailing only the Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers. The Celtics were top five in the NBA in both offense rating at 112.5 points per 100 possessions (fifth) and defensive rating, 105.6 points (third).
This team isn’t overachieving. It’s achieving, and, as Walker stated, it hasn’t played its best basketball yet. We’ve seen LED-bright glimpses of what the Celtics can be at full strength and full force — the blowout win over LeBron James and the Lakers on Jan. 20 and the domination of the Warriors. They’ve beaten the Bucks, the Heat, and the 76ers when they were missing a member of their core quintet.
What they can do when everyone is healthy — or at least available — at the same time remains tantalizing. Aesthetically, the Celtics could be spiritual heirs to the erstwhile Warriors that went to five straight NBA Finals.
If there’s a totem for this year’s redemptive Celtics it’s Hayward. In my line of work, predictions are an occupational hazard. No player would spark more OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) complaints than Stevens’s Butler University pupil. We were wrong about Hayward returning to form last year and wrong to write him off as permanently damaged and diminished this year.
Returning from the gruesome injury that snapped his ankle like a twig less than six minutes into his Celtics career, Hayward displayed glimpses of his former self but was largely inconsistent and diffident last year.
When he struggled the Celtics the doubled down on his comeback, causing some grumbling behind the scenes about playing time. That led people to write off Hayward permanently, believing he would never approximate the player who dragged the Utah Jazz to the second round in 2017.
He is now at least 85 percent of that player and has been the Celtics’ most efficient perimeter player. The Hub’s hoops Lazarus entered the final game before the All-Star break averaging 17.2 points on a career-high 51.4 percent from the field while shooting 39.3 percent from 3-point range. He ranked third on the team in both assists per game (4.1) and rebounds per game, averaging a career-best 6.6.
The Celtics have defied expectations the last two seasons. This season that’s a good thing.