BOSTON – Despite fan and media expectations for the Boston Celtics projecting an Eastern Conference Finals or Bust attitude, there was perhaps no better fitting beginning to the season than seeing their four games being decided by seven points or less. The Celtics found themselves in 49 games decided by ten points or less in last year’s regular season (and four more in the playoffs). It’s only appropriate that one of those wins came against the Brooklyn Nets — whose pick the Celtics own — and that another win came on Wednesday against Chicago whose point guard, Rajon Rondo, won a title in Boston.
Symbolic or not, what the Celtics are trying to accomplish is a lot more far reaching. Sure they’re trying to succeed in the most basic notion of winning games and trying to get the playoffs. But beneath that, the Celtics are attempting to defy the now conventional wisdom that says a team with no fewer than three superstars can win a championship in 2016-17.
“We want to be great,” said Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas. “We want to be one of the top teams in the league.”
To call the fifth game of the season an important game would be foolish, but an early meeting between two teams aiming for the conference crown comes Thursday night in Cleveland on the reigning champ’s home court in the first of four regular season meetings this season.
The NBA is a player’s league, which makes the Celtics’ rapid rebuilding more compelling. They’re a front office construction, the foundation of which is Head Coach Brad Stevens. Without a marquee star — this is certainly not to marginalize All-Star caliber players Thomas and newly acquired Al Horford — the Celtics have managed to become more than just interesting, but one of the league’s best. Rather than a roster with an inverted pyramid of talent, the Celtics brass put together a collective of players that fit a specific role within a system rather than a system tailored to the talent.
This front-office formula became successful faster than any fan or member of the media thought it would have, even if it harkens back to earlier eras of basketball (and, in a lot of ways, what Stevens was able to accomplish when he was the head coach at Butler). Bereft of a recognizable face, but stockpiled on draft picks and cap space, this figured to be a process, not unlike their Atlantic Division rivals down 95 in Philly, rather than a quick ascension. However successful, Boston, like the rest of the league, is still chasing down a giant.
As long as LeBron James is playing the NBA, he is going to be the lure, the mechanical hare racing in front of a pack of starving, sprinting greyhounds. This is as true in Boston as it is in Golden State or San Antonio or any other city with a playoff-caliber basketball team. To beat LeBron is a litmus test no one in the Eastern Conference has passed in more than half decade.
The team to do so? You guessed it. The Boston Celtics, but that was an entirely different team with an entirely different genetic makeup. Zero players or coaches remain from that year. Only the front office remains the same.
In the city of Boston, there’s more than just the inevitable showdown against Cleveland. There is the haunting omnipresence of banners. Seventeen of them to be exact. Most of this generation’s fans hold no recollection of any but the latest in 2008. Boston in the 1980s was a basketball town, thriving on a working-class persona embodied by a Hick from French Lick who irreparably ruined his Hall of Fame back paving his own driveway during the offseason.
For the newest generation of die-hards, though, a return to success doesn’t mean harkening back to Bird, Parish, and McHale. It means another Big Three: Pierce, Garnett, and Allen. That team was different that this one, but only superficially. They had the names upon which a marketing campaign could be built, but that was a team in the autumn of their basketball years, all three stars seeking a crown. They played unselfishly from the first tip and employed a ferocious, team-minded defense en route to a 17th banner.
The NBA is better when the most famous franchises compete for crowns. If the Celtics are going to match the expectations set by their fans, the local and national media, and, to a degree, themselves, they’ll do so on the strength of that same team-first mentality, that top-tier defense, and the depth of their bench (which is a big upgrade from that 2008 team).
Only one was on display as the curtain opened on a new season: Boston’s 36 assists — on 48 made field goals — opening night was the most assists in a season opener since 2001. It was the brightest spot on the stat sheet.
“I thought that was really good,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “They were blitzing a lot of screens, so they were going to be tight on us and we were going to have to draw two and move it to the next guy. Our guys have done a good job of that.”
“We would have had more assists if you count all the open shots we had,” said Thomas.
Thomas is right. Shooting was the Celtics Achilles’ Heel last season. They shot just 43.9 percent as a team in 2015-16. For contrast, the Nets, one of last year’s worst teams, shot 45.3 percent. The Bradley and Horford pick and roll or pick and pop, if run effectively, will surely help.
Defensively, Boston should return to their 2015-16 form (fourth in the league in total defense) with the return of Marcus Smart, who played in his first game against Chicago Wednesday night. The former lottery pick, in his third year out of Oklahoma State, is the Celtics most versatile defender and earned votes for All-Defensive Team last season.
Stevens looked unnerved at the defense poor execution and poor rebounding to start the season (“Yeah, not good,” he said after the Nets game). At other times, the Celtics have looked like a premier defensive team inside and outside. Between Bradley and Smart, the upgrade of Horford, and welcoming back a healthy Jae Crowder, Boston has a shot to be historically great on defense if Stevens can deliver his defensive message effectively year-to-year. With so much of defensive success relying on effort and desire, it’s critical that Boston doesn’t rest on last year’s laurels.
“You’re not good at defense because somebody says you are,” Stevens said. “You are good because you do all the little things and you fly around.”
Backup point guard Terry Rozier has logged valuable minutes, as has lottery pick Jaylen Brown. Both showed flashes of promise: Rozier as a second-team leader who is a much-needed upgrade at shooter from Smart and is a precise perimeter defender, and Brown as the uber-athletic swingman who attacks with the ball. No one on the court brought the fans to the edge of their seat more than Brown when he had the ball on opening night.
“We have a lot of players that can have a great night, offensively or defensively,” said Boston guard Avery Bradley. “We have to make sure we’re playing team basketball. That’s what’s going to win us games.”
Much ado has been made about the Celtics depth and assets, which prompts the basketball world to speculate on another move, whether via trade or holding off until free agency or even the loaded 2017 NBA Draft. A move seems inevitable. Popular opinion suggests it’s the best formula if they’re going to beat the Cavs. And to pretend Boston is content would ignore the consistent trade rumors matching Boston to just about any star who is reportedly on the block.
“We’re prepared to build on what we have if that’s the best path,” said Celtics GM Danny Ainge told The Ringer earlier this month in a possible attempt to throw the dogs off the scent.
That’s a pretty important if.
In the meantime, the Celtics, who won a surprising 48 games last season, aren’t going to sneak up on anyone this year, when they beat both NBA Finals teams on their home courts. Like last year, fans should expect a well-coached, disciplined, and defensively-minded team that makes no attempt to hide their affinity for the extra pass. They’re hoping the addition of Horford will be just the move they need to get over the hump.
They believe they are — or will be — one of the best teams in the league.
“[We] showed flashes of it tonight,” said Bradley after the season opening win. “We shared the ball really well. We were making shots. We were making the next play. We were making plays for one another. Just fun basketball.”
To catch Lebron, though, there’s this league-wide belief that a team is only as good as their stars, rather than the sum of their individual parts. If the Celtics really believe the opposite is true, they’re likely going to have to get through James to prove it.