Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 9, 2018

Have The Celtics Righted The Ship?

Now that’s more like it. The Boston Celtics trampled the Chicago Bulls 133-77 on Saturday, winning their fifth straight game. The 56-point margin set a franchise record, surpassing a 51-point trouncing of the Philadelphia Warriors in March 1962. Perhaps it was the embarrassment of that debacle that drove the Warriors out of Philly and all the way across the continent to northern California later that same year. While the Bulls may not be forced to relocate, they will join the 1986 Houston Rockets in the NBA record books as a home team losing a game by the most points in the history of the league.

The victory gives Boston its longest winning streak of the season, and none too soon for the team’s increasingly nervous fans. After cheering their team as it overcame the horrific season-ending injury to Gordon Hayward five minutes into last season’s very first contest and went all the way to Game 7 of the Conference Finals against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Boston faithful saw this year’s edition of the Celtics as a favorite in the conference and a legitimate threat to defending champion Golden State and other western powerhouses.

Instead through the first quarter of the schedule Boston’s play was often uninspired and the offense rarely seemed in sync. After an early four-game winning streak pushed the Celtics’ record to 6-2, Boston dropped eight of its next twelve to sit at .500 after twenty games. That 10-10 mark left the Celtics in a tie for sixth place in the Eastern Conference two weeks ago, a lot closer to being outside of the playoff-bound top eight than to the conference-leading Toronto Raptors.

That start was in contrast to last year, when all seemed lost less than halfway into the first quarter of the first game, with Hayward writhing in agony on the floor of Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena. Instead rookie Jayson Tatum and second year man Jaylen Brown stepped up and provided the support Kyrie Irving needed to propel the Celtics on a sixteen-game early season winning streak. That was the kind of play fans expected this year, with Hayward back and the roster fully restored. But Brown regressed through the first eight weeks of the new campaign, and while Tatum was not quite so missing in action, he fell into the bad habit of playing isolation basketball, going one-on-one too often rather than relying on his teammates.

Coach Brad Stevens also struggled to put a consistently effective group on the floor, juggling lineups from game to game in a frustrating effort to get 48 minutes of solid play from his charges. That began to change when Stevens moved Hayward into a sixth man role, using the player he coached in college as an offensive spark off the bench. In New Orleans on the Monday after Thanksgiving the Celtics stormed to an early 10-2 lead over the Pelicans, and never looked back, rolling up a 124-107 victory. Four nights later Boston trampled Cleveland 128-95 to the delight of a packed TD Garden, with seven players scoring in double digits.

Since then the Celtics have added a 9-point road win against Minnesota and a 28-point home dismantling of New York, avenging an ugly loss to the Knicks that happened on the parquet just two weeks earlier, before traveling to Chicago for the historic win over the Bulls. The winning streak, currently the longest in the league, has nudged Boston up the Eastern Conference standings. While the Celtics are still five games adrift of the Raptors, with the 76ers, surprising Bucks, and the Pacers in the way, Boston finally has some momentum in what has been an unpredictable early season throughout the NBA.

Toronto and Philadelphia were expected to battle with Boston for supremacy in the East, but Milwaukee has clearly improved over the team that snuck into the playoffs with the seventh seed last spring. Giannis Antetokounmpo is proving to be not just the “Greek Freak,” but a legitimate MVP candidate. Much farther down the standings, the Washington Wizards are trying to save a season that appears in greater jeopardy than Boston’s ever did. With John Wall trying to play through an injury, Bradley Beal has been carrying Washington, but every time the Wizards put together a couple of games where they look like the team that showed so much promise last year, they follow it with a clunker like Saturday’s 15-point loss to Cleveland.

The Western Conference has its own set of surprises. Golden State is on top, but the Warriors have looked anything but invincible amid public sniping between Kevin Durant and Draymond Green. Last year’s number one playoff seed Houston has collapsed to a sub-.500 record and a spot near the bottom of the division, while the Los Angeles Clippers, perpetually the “other” team playing at the Staples Center behind the glitz and glamour of the Lakers, are just a single game out of first place.

Roughly seventy percent of the NBA’s schedule remains to be played, so there’s plenty of time for early surprises, both positive and negative, to give way to predictability. Still in Boston at least, the last two weeks have had a calming effect on a fan base that was expressing its collective anxiety loudly enough to cause guard Terry Rozier to suggest “everybody can shut up, because everybody can be very annoying.” It’s true that the C’s winning streak hasn’t come against the toughest of foes. Only two of their recent opponents are .500 teams. But wins are wins, and five in a row has fans in New England breathing again, and even daring to dream.

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