After taking losses in three of their last five games, Celtics fans can no longer tease the rest of the NBA community over things like being atop the league standings, or being the lone remaining one-loss team in the league. Currently, they sit at 12-4 — tied with Miami and Toronto, and 1.5 games back of the 14-3 Milwaukee Bucks for the East lead. The struggling Sixers are right on their tail at 11-6, and are bound to figure things out themselves sooner rather than later. A 2-3 record on the Celtics’ West Coast road trip has effectively served as a reminder that things can change quickly in the NBA, and while some of these early season games may not feel important at times, every one counts.
Although the month of November has been anything but smooth sailing for the Celtics, they’ve been nothing short of impressive in the way that they’ve fought through the adversity that this young NBA season has already thrown at them. With 16 games in the books, the Celtics still have about 80% of their season remaining, yet, it feels like they’ve had to deal with almost every possible situation already.
It only took a few games for the infamous “Hospital Celtics” term to resurface, as Jaylen Brown caught an illness 3 games into the season and missed games against Milwaukee, New York and Cleveland. In just the second game after he returned, Gordon Hayward — who had arguably been the team’s best and most consistent player up to that point — broke his non-shooting hand in a collision with San Antonio’s LaMarcus Aldridge. Nearly two weeks later, Kemba Walker was stretchered off of the court and transported to the hospital in Denver after running head first into the brick wall that is Semi Ojeleye’s stomach.
The moment was shocking and terrifying as Kemba remained on the ground motionless for well over five minutes before having his head and neck stabilized and being stretchered off. On his way out, he didn’t give the crowd the typical thumbs up or wave that we often see players give to the crowd as a sign that they are alright. Instead, fans pointed to the slight movement of his feet as the only positive sign. As we waited for updates from the team, it was hard enough to even finish watching the game as a fan, let alone play in it. In fact, it would have been totally understandable if the Celtics players had let the game get out of hand amongst the fear and uncertainty regarding their teammate’s well-being. Instead, they fought back from a 19-point 3rd-quarter deficit to make it a 1-point game with under 2 minutes remaining in the game. They would ultimately lose by 4, but the comeback effort was yet another testament to the one point that this team continues to hammer home: that they couldn’t be more different than last year’s team. This year when things have gotten tough, there hasn’t been sulking, finger pointing, or blame distribution. Instead, there’s an overwhelming feeling of cohesiveness and a next man up mentality.
As the team sits at 12-4, fans can take comfort in knowing that even with all of the obstacles they’ve faced, they have yet to lose a game where it didn’t feel like they could or should have won. In the season opener, the team shot 20-34 from the free throw line and 33-90 (36.7%) from the field– an abnormally bad night that I like to think can be chalked up to opening night nerves and rust. Yet even on a night where they couldn’t buy a shot, they entered halftime down by just 1, ended up losing by 14 and it felt like they were one hot stretch from getting back into the game at any given time. Not to mention, Jaylen Brown got into such bad foul trouble early on that he was only able to play 11 minutes through the first 3 quarters of the game. In their second loss of the season, a Marcus Smart floater at the buzzer bounced several times on the rim before falling out in heartbreaking fashion, resulting in a 1-point loss in Sacramento. Their 3rd loss of the season came in Los Angeles against arguably the best team in the league– the Clippers. The Celtics had the task of being the first team that faced the duo of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, and played them tough as nails. Thanks to some clutch play from the Clippers’ role players and a little help from the refs, Boston saw a 7 point lead evaporate in the final 2 minutes of regulation, and eventually lost in overtime 107-104. It was a gutting loss, but a hell of a wake up call to the rest of the league as to just how legitimate this Celtics team is, and will be once fully healthy. Lastly, there was the latest loss in Denver following Kemba Walker’s injury scare. All in all, the Celtics have lost just one game by more than 4 points, and the average margin of defeat in the four games they’ve lost has been just 5.5 points.
If you aren’t one to celebrate moral victories in losses, instead focus on what they’ve done in the games they’ve won. Their 10 game win streak topped the longest streak that they went on last season of 8 games. Their 8-1 record against sub .500 teams shows that this team won’t play down to the level of their opponents like they may have in the past. Last season, the Celtics went 32-8 against sub .500 opponents on the year, or in other words, lost one out of every five games they played against such opponents. If they can continue to handle these weaker teams at this rate, even when teams like Golden State and Washington come out swinging like they did, that could be the difference between winning something like 48-49 games or pushing closer to the 55-win mark. After a 12-4 start, they’re currently on a 54.6 win pace.
It should also be noted that we have yet to really see the full potential of this team. They’ve only played 4 full games with all of Kemba, Gordon, Jaylen and Jayson healthy, and one of those was the game against Philly in which Jaylen was significantly limited due to foul trouble. While it’s fair to question whether or not all four of those guys can play together cohesively, the limited data we do have suggests that they absolutely can. In the 64 minutes that the 4-man lineup of Walker, Hayward, Brown and Tatum have spent on the court together, they’ve posted an offensive rating of 116.8, a defensive rating of 92.8 and a net rating of +24.0. Of the ten 4-man lineups on the Celtics that have played at least 50 minutes together, those numbers rank 1st, 6th and 1st on the team respectively. Kemba Walker is probable to return tonight against Brooklyn, but we likely won’t see Hayward back until closer to Christmas despite the encouraging videos of him nailing shots in pre-game warmups with the team. With how much respect this team has already earned for themselves this season despite being shorthanded in most games, I’m beyond excited to see how seriously they’re taken as contenders once they’re fully healthy for a stretch.
In the meantime, the C’s will have to continue to have guys step up across the board as they’ve done so far. Nobody would have expected that the team would be forced to do things like start Semi Ojeleye or call up Tremont Waters from Maine and play him 20 minutes, but they haven’t let those challenges slow them down. With a matchup tonight against Brooklyn — even without Kyrie in attendance — it feels like as good a time as any to be appreciative of the resiliency that has once again become a part of the organization’s culture.
Photo: Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports