Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 14, 2017

Surprising Celtics Defy The Doubters

The Boston Celtics staggered back to TD Garden at midweek, glad to be home after a miserable long weekend on the road. The three game road trip began last Friday in Texas with a contest against the perennial Western Conference power San Antonio Spurs. Boston led by five after one quarter and by the same margin after three, but San Antonio rallied over the final twelve minutes, with the ageless Manu Ginobili hitting a game-winning three pointer with five seconds remaining. It was a test against the quality of opponent that the Celtics will have to beat in order to go deep into next spring’s playoffs, and at the end Boston came up short, losing 105-102.

On Sunday the C’s did better against the middling Detroit Pistons. After a few initial exchanges of buckets Boston moved out to a clear lead and then held on for a 91-81 win. Al Horford led a balanced attack with 18 points, as five Celtics scored in double figures. Defensively Boston held Detroit to just thirty-three percent shooting. But one night later and a couple hundred miles to the west, whatever hope the Pistons game inspired was dashed in a match against the franchise with the worst record in the NBA, the Chicago Bulls. With Kyrie Irving sitting due to a minor injury, the Celtics looked overmatched by a team that entered the game with only five victories in twenty-five games. Chicago’s Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis, previously best known for getting into a fistfight during a preseason practice session that left the former with injuries from which he has only just returned and cost the latter an eight-game suspension, combined for 47 points. The Bulls more than doubled up the Celtics in the second period, outscoring Boston 28-13, and coasted from there to a 108-85 victory. It was the worst thrashing administered to Boston this season.

If the 1-2 road trip was short on highlights for Celtics fans, it was also what many of the Boston faithful feared after Gordon Hayward was lost to a gruesome ankle injury with the season barely five minutes old. No one could expect Irving to carry the load by himself and the widespread opinion, including here, was that Boston’s remaining lineup was too young and inexperienced to prevail night after night. Dreams of challenging the Cleveland Cavaliers for Eastern Conference supremacy were surely deferred for another year.

Except that through the first third of the NBA’s 2017-18 schedule, coach Brad Stevens’s players have refused to stick to the script that was seemingly written for them by the loss of their prized free agent acquisition. Back on their home parquet Wednesday night, the Celtics put the disastrous performance against the Bulls behind them with a 124-118 win over the Nuggets. Denver is one of the best offensive teams in the league, so Boston responded with its highest point total and best shooting night of the season. The Celtics shot sixty percent from the floor. They were led by Irving, who returned to the lineup and made twelve of nineteen shots, including four of nine from beyond the arc. Irving’s 33 points were followed by 26 from Jaylen Brown. Three other Boston players reached double-digits, including Jayson Tatum, who finished with 15 points on six of nine shooting.

With the win Boston improved its record to 24-6. That’s the best in the Eastern Conference and second in the league only to Houston, a team currently on an eleven-game winning streak. Rather than reinforcing doubts, the dismal road trip stands as an aberration in a surprisingly good season.

The Celtics rise to the top of the standings owes much to their own sixteen-game winning streak, which began with the season’s third game, after Boston had opened with a pair of losses. For just over a month, from October 20th until the night before Thanksgiving, the Celtics found a way to win night after night; seven times in front of their own fans and nine times on the road. In five of those games Boston faced deficits of more than ten points before rallying. Interspersed among wins over some of the NBA’s downtrodden were victories over the Bucks, Spurs, Raptors and defending champion Warriors, all squads near the top of their conference standings.

In addition to its obvious benefit, the winning streak gave a roster that could have doubted itself after the season’s unfortunate start a strong dose of self-confidence and cohesion. It also helped define Boston’s style of play. Boston allowed its opponent to score 100 or more points only three times in the sixteen games. Six times the Celtics defense held the opposition to fewer than 90 points, including a 92-88 win over Golden State, the team with the highest offensive rating in the league. Not surprisingly, Boston has the best defensive rating at 100.3, and the Celtics are fourth in overall net rating despite a middle of the pack rank for offensive efficiency.

Rookie Tatum and second-year man Brown have also stepped up beyond what fans dared hope when their roles suddenly expanded five minutes and fifteen seconds in the season. Brown is averaging 15 points per game and Tatum just under 14, and each are among the league leaders in field goal percentage.

Whether Boston’s youngsters can sustain that level of performance over the 82-game grind is still an open question. And as great as the Celtics’ start has been, they are just three games clear of the Cavaliers and four ahead of the Raptors. After a shaky start to their campaign, LeBron and company recently went on an extended winning streak of their own to right the ship in Cleveland.

But these Celtics have established themselves as an astonishingly resilient team. They are nowhere near perfect; Monday’s debacle in Chicago served as an ugly reminder of that. Still a season many thought over almost before it began is anything but. Perhaps the preseason predictions will prove correct, and the NBA Finals will feature Golden State against Cleveland for the fourth year in a row. But against very long odds, it’s looking more and more like the Celtics may have something to say about that.


  1. It would be nice to see a new team in the finals this year just to mix it up. Why not the Celtics?

    • Thanks Allan. They’re certainly off to a great start!


      Michael Cornelius

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