The start of the NBA season is full of odd scenarios. Injuries have plagued several teams as early as opening games. The Suns froze Eric Bledsoe for tweeting his utter disgust on being at a salon. The Pistons and the Magic are among the leaders in the East. The King looks frustrated with the Cavs (or maybe he just really likes Arthur). Giannis Antetokounmpo (it’s ‘Yannis Adedokoonbo’) is showing glimpses of MVP-level performances. The Lakers are looking like they are ready to compete in the post-Kobe era.
Perhaps, the most peculiar case is that of the Boston Celtics.
Three weeks ago, Boston’s season seemed over even before the opening night ended. Gordon Hayward suffered a freak injury that will most probably sideline him for the rest of the season. Boston had to deal away most of its core players to accommodate Hayward’s max deal contract, only to end up playing without him (for a few months, at least). Without Hayward, The Celtics certainly looked like they were sent back to square one.
But ironically, the Celtics’ opening game was a glimpse of the things to come in Boston. Against the Cavs, it would have been completely understandable if the Celtics didn’t feel like playing anymore. Just take the loss, walk away and check on their fallen teammate. But they stood their ground, clawed their way back to the game, and almost defeated Cleveland.
Today, the NBA hardwood is burning green.
Boston is the hottest team in the league right now. After dropping their first two assignments, the Celtics are on the midst of a ten-game winning streak to stand atop the entire league. They are doing so while defying all expectations after that opening game mishap.
It certainly looks like Brad Stevens is hitting pots of gold with whatever buttons he pushes. But it is taking more than just luck of the Irish for the Celtics to achieve such feat. This revamped Boston squad seems to have improved on some facets of the game this season as compared to the last.
As a team, Boston is having huge strides in terms of rebounding. The Celtics were fifth worst in rebounds (42.0), and seventh worst in rebounds allowed (44.5) per game last season. That problem aggravated during the 2017 playoffs, as they only managed to grab about 37.9 rebounds against 44.5 allowed per game.
Although it’s still a small sample, this year’s Celtics seem to have improved on cleaning the glass. They averaged 47.5 rebounds (5th in the NBA) and 42.1 rebounds allowed (9th in the NBA) throughout the first 12 games. It is also worthy to note that eight Celtics are averaging at least four rebounds per game, as opposed to five from last year.
Boston’s defense has also been razor sharp. Last year’s iteration relied on better offense to win games. They were seventh in team scoring last season (108.0), but limited their opponents to a pedestrian 105.4 points per game (15th in the NBA) on 45 percent opponent’s field goal shooting.
This season, the Celtics are limiting opponents to 42.9 percent on the field (3rd in the NBA). As a result, Boston allows only 94.6 opposing points per game—currently the best in the league. Boston has been particularly effective at defending from beyond the arc. At the age of pace and space, the Celtics are finding ways to limit opponents’ three-point attacks. They are currently third in three point attempts allowed (25.3) and opposing three-point percentage (31.7).
But as good as Boston’s team play goes, the big difference might be seen in the individual performances.
Losing Gordon Hayward means that the Celtics would be missing the services of a reliable wing who was able to put up 21.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists last season for the Utah Jazz. Boston’s other guys are stepping up to cover for Hayward’s supposed production on the floor. Terry Rozier is on pace to improve his scoring output from last season. Al Horford is doing way better at crashing the boards to start the year. Kyrie is doing Kyrie things in Boston while leading the team in scoring.
After Hayward’s injury, the spot at the wing position became wide open, and youngsters Tatum and Brown immediately pounced on the opportunity to show their skills. Both averaging around 30 minutes in 12 games (all starts), Boston’s young guns are showing why they deserve to be Boston’s top picks for the last two draft classes.
Jaylen Brown is on pace to more than double his production from his rookie campaign. This season, he averages 14.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and almost a steal per game. So far, he is shooting better at the three point area this year (38.2%) compared to last season (34.1%).
Jayson Tatum might be the player who is doing the greatest job of filling the void left by Hayward. He is so far proving that he’s worthy of being selected by Boston behind Fultz and Ball. He is averaging 13.5 points, six rebounds and 1.8 assists per game. He is shooting efficiently up to this point, with 50 percent from the field and 52.9 percent from the three point line. Anyone could make a case for him as an early favorite to become the best rookie in the 2017 draft class.
It’s still early in the season, and Boston’s remarkable play might just be a hot streak that will eventually cool down. Or maybe this is the new reality for Boston: they will do well even without Hayward. The latter is just a scary thought for the rest of the league. If they can play at this level without arguably one of the best forwards in the East, then how much more if and when he comes back?
But that question will be answered in the slightly far future. For now, the rest of the league must watch out, for Boston is on track to run the show in the East.
Photos from Getty Images, stats from Basketball Reference and NBA.com