By Kevin Cook
So far this season, hardly anything I’ve told you has wound up being correct on the surface. I kicked things off by raving about the offseason developments, only to see things immediately fall apart (at least seemingly) in the form of a devastating injury. I built up Marcus Smart to be a changed player and suggested he was more likely than not to be given a contract extension. I then conceded that the season, in the context of championship aspirations at least, was likely over.
Since then, the Celtics have built upon what I believe was a 2 game winning streak at the time and turned it into a 15 game streak. They sit loftily atop all with a league-best record and as more time passes, it becomes more and more evident that this is a very serious thing we are witnessing, at a time where the league feels up for grabs in a fairly unrivaled manner when looking back upon recent years.
The wins are rarely pretty. They pull it off without important pieces. It is awesome, but confusing. So how is this surreal win streak continuing to chug along and why is this team cementing itself as a real contender for this NBA season? Let’s take a look:
Defense – it’s gotten hard to actually recognize good defense in professional basketball. It emerges so sparingly, its great moments are so few and far between. When a team does it subtly in a play-by-play fashion, as do the Celtics, a product adds up that totally changes the landscape and it happens right under your nose. The stats that we’re seeing right now – blowing the rest of the league away in opponents’ points per game and having virtually the entire roster in the upper echelon of individuals in the league in defensive rating – may fall off a bit over time, but it is getting easy to recognize that this is a group collectively bought into what Brad Stevens is selling them and that the roster reconstruction composed by Danny Ainge has greatly aided the feasibility of that.
While the rest of the league is wasting their time trying to figure out how to make more threes than Golden State, the Celtics are simply doing what all of our parents and high school coaches asked us to do – play defense. At its core, it’s simple; but it’s also very dangerous to the rest of the league because it’s going against the grain. Opposing teams are showing up ready to have a scoring contest and the Celtics are playing a different game.
Meeting Expectations – looking up and down the roster, nearly everyone is playing as well as they were expected to going into the season and many are playing a bit better than expected. Importantly, though, nobody is playing out of their minds. So, the dynamic we’re witnessing is sustainable. Again, this is a team bought into what it’s being coached to achieve and everyone is holding themselves and each other accountable.
Finding Ways to Win – in an epic moment of humbleness and staying grounded, Brad Stevens actually disparaged the win streak the other day, saying that the team has to get much better and that in many cases they are just finding ways to win. This is true – it feels like a virtual certainty lately that they will fall behind early and be forced to claw their way back later. While the rash of bad luck with injuries seems to have subsided, the middle of the streak was packed with wins where concussions and facial fractures were making us look like a G league roster. But, this is what winning teams do…they find ways to make it happen. They maintain confidence and faith. They don’t get too high or low. They make great adjustments mid-game. Everyone is able to do it on occasion, but when you build a track record of it, it starts to simply be who you are and it starts to feel like the success is more about the system than it is dependence on individuals. It starts to feel like the Patriots.
The Impact of Kyrie Irving – we shouldn’t lie to ourselves, Kyrie has not been his best yet. But that’s beside the point. More often than not, he is lulling us to sleep throughout the game while cruising towards 20, 25, 30 points…really, just wherever he winds up. Very little feels forced with him and such behavior enables a team effort night after night. While I’m not sure I’ll ever encounter thrills like the ones Isaiah regularly delivered last year, in hindsight, it felt like he was on a hell-bent mission every game to get to 35 points or more. It wasn’t really his fault, the team just needed him to do it. At least they needed it based on the way they were built to function. This team doesn’t need that from Kyrie, so he doesn’t push for it. And in the end, while we probably won’t see him defy logic with his 4th quarter scoring average, he is every bit the closer that Isaiah was…an age-old key in just finding ways to win games.