None of this should be happening.
In a battle between plans and processes for the future of the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics are running off script.
General Manager Danny Ainge spent years painstakingly accruing prospects, draft picks and cap space, culminating into last summer’s haul of Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving. The plan led to a collection of young talents and useful vets orbiting the trio of Al Horford, Irving and Hayward.
All of that was dashed when Hayward, Boston’s $128 million man, was lost five minutes into the season.
Prognosticators went back to the drawing board, number crunching Boston’s win total projections to fall under 50 wins. Questions (understandably) reared up about the Celtics’ outside shooting and size on the wings.
For many, Boston dropped from possible Finalists to a middle of the Eastern Conference pack.
Bucks will be the 2nd or 3rd seed , with Hayward out, the Celtics will probably fall as low as as possibly the 5th seed #PrayersforHayward
— TrueStyle (@NaisinGeng) October 19, 2017
I have faced the facts, Celtics will be a 5th seed this year without one of the best 2 way players in the eastern conf 😭
— Gino Gallizzi (@GinoGallizzi) October 20, 2017
Barkley just said the Celtics are now a 4th or 5th seed without Hayward. He and Shaq are talking like their season is already over. Rough.
— Frantz Paul (@LSN_Frantz) October 18, 2017
One thing: no one told the Celtics their season was over.
It took Boston two tough losses to the most physically dominant wings in the NBA to reboot after the gruesome Hayward injury.
Heading into their showdown with the reigning champion Golden State Warriors, the Celtics hadn’t lost since Giannis Antetokounmpo dropped 37 on their heads on Oct. 18. And despite owning a 13-game winning streak and the NBA’s best defense, a win against a healthy Warriors team on a seven-game win streak wasn’t supposed to happen either.
The beauty of Ainge’s plan is in the fact it isn’t all-in on anyone except for Brad Stevens.
Boston has staved off the gloom and doom prognostications because Stevens makes good use of every single tool afforded to him, and Ainge has provided him with a lot of tools.
Besides the growing chemistry between remaining offensive hubs Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, free agent big men Aron Baynes and Daniel Theis have come out of nowhere to combine for about 10 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks in 32 minutes a night. Rookie Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have started since day one and guard anyone you throw in front of them while hitting three-pointers and attacking the rim. Beyond that, four guys come off the Celtics’ bench to average at least 14 minutes per game.
And while the Celtics have many ingredients, perhaps the most potent in the Celtics’ streak is an ever-present stick-to-itiveness. Boston can misfire all day and make mistakes, but they never lay down. In recent years, Boston was derisively labeled a “try hard,” team—a group winning more on effort than talent.
truer words havent been said about the boston tryhards. pic.twitter.com/3vh0yod82K
— William Lou (@william_lou) November 14, 2016
This year’s iteration has certainly lived up to that descriptor. Against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Kyrie Irving fueled an 18-point comeback for the seventh win in the streak. With Horford already out with a concussion against the Charlotte Hornets, Boston lost Irving early just two minutes into the game to friendly fire (AKA, an Aron Baynes inadvertent elbow). The Celtics fell into another 18-point hole, yet clawed back for a 90-87 win on the back of 31 combined points from reserves Shane Larkin and Terry Rozier.
The game against the Warriors was supposed to be the ultimate litmus test of that.
Golden State has established itself as the gold standard by which every other team is aligning themselves to. Kevin Durant’s summer of ‘16 decision to join the Dubs kicked off this past summer’s player movement insanity. Hayward or no, the Warriors were sure to be the ultimate measuring stick.
And measure up Boston did. Kevin Durant did Kevin Durant things and Andre Iguodala turned back the clock while the Celtics misfired, ballooning the Warriors lead to 17 on several occasions.
Boston didn’t blink.
As the backcourt struggled (Irving, Smart, and Rozier combined for a ghastly 5-for-28 shooting performance), the national TV audience got introduced to Jaylen Brown.
The second-year wing played superstar Kevin Durant to a virtual standstill, matching Durant’s 24 points, three rebounds and three assists with 22 points, seven rebounds, two steals and two blocks.
Here he is trailing off of a screen to elevate and block one of KD’s seemingly unblockable jumpers.
— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) November 17, 2017
There Brown goes, picking Steph Curry’s pocket clean then rocketing down court for the dunk.
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) November 17, 2017
Watch Brown hound Durant into a backcourt violation, then rip off eight straight points on his own, part of a 19-0 Boston run that got them right back into game.
— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) November 17, 2017
Jaylen Brown game to play tonight pic.twitter.com/OrAVxKSpaQ
— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) November 17, 2017
It wasn’t until after his monster performance that we learned about the burden Brown carried into this game; he learned of his best friend passing away the day before and played with a heavy heart.
And once again, the Boston Try Hards just tried harder than the team in front of them. Kyrie Irving ditched the protective mask and his rocky start (2-for-10 shooting through three quarters) to score 11 points in the final 4:24, slamming the door on the Warriors.
Rookie phenom Tatum, overwhelmed for most of the evening, scored seven of his 12 points in the fourth, including five clutch free throws in the end game.
The streak lives on.
Add Steph Curry (3-for-14, nine points) and Klay Thompson (5-for-18, 13 points) to the string of subpar performances against the defensive stalwart Celtics, along with Kristaps Porzingis (3-for-14), Joel Embiid (4-for-16), Kemba Walker (5-for-16), and Russell Westbrook (7-for-20).
It seems almost crass to assign the term silver lining to anything arising from an injury such as Gordon’s, but there’s no denying how the Celtics have evolved without their All-Star swingman. This isn’t the final form of Celtic basketball Ainge envisioned back in July, but an iteration that, in the wake of Hayward’s season-ending injury, is taking the league by storm and exceeding all of the newly recalibrated expectations.
With Hayward out, Boston’s season isn’t exactly going to plan. But with depth, unique chemistry and stellar coaching, everything is still falling into place.