Optimism can be a beautiful thing. The Boston Celtics had barrels full of it entering the 2017-18 season. It had just signed Gordon Hayward. It drafted Jayson Tatum in the draft. It even acquired Kyrie Irving in the 11th hour of the offseason. Life was good for the Celtics. It finally had a team that could legitimately compete against the NBA’s elite.
Here’s the thing though with optimism. Just as it is beautiful, it’s also fragile. One second you’re brimming with it and the next second your on your knees, lamenting how the winds of fate could change course so quickly.
The Celtics found that out the hard way five minutes into the first game of the season when Hayward leapt to catch a wayward alley-oop pass from Irving. Whatever scene unfolded next has been branded in the minds of those who’ve seen it. Hayward lost his balance, fell hard on the floor, and suffered arguably the most gruesome on-court injury this side of Paul George’s broken leg.
Just like that, any and all hype surrounding Boston’s championship aspirations were thrown into chaos. Hayward was supposed to be one of the team’s alphas, signed away from the Utah Jazz and reunited with his Jedi master, Brad Stevens. With him out, the C’s somehow found themselves in turmoil...and the first quarter of the first game hadn’t ended yet. Would Hayward’s devastating injury cast a season-long cloud of despair over this team? Would it be able to recover from seeing one of its leaders with his left ankle bent sideways and him writhing in agony?
Twelve games into the season and so far, the answer is a resounding yes.
The Celtics, despite losing Hayward in the season opener and coming up on the short end in their first two games of the season, are the sole owners of the league’s best record at 10-2. The team has won 10 games in a row, a staggering feat in it of itself given the circumstances that befell them in the season-opener that’s compounded by all the madness we’ve already seen from all over the league. Somehow, someway, the Celtics have remained the constant in a three-week old league that has already seen the almighty Golden State Warriors look vulnerable, the Cleveland Cavaliers look like a defenseless one-man show, and the Oklahoma City Thunder look like a convoluted mess.
This isn’t how the season was supposed to go for Boston after the trauma of Hayward’s injury. They were still pegged to be a good team, but nowhere near the standard-bearer that they’ve become. And yet here they are, rip-roaring through the season and showing no signs of turning back.
There’s enough credit to go around within the organization, but the smart place is to start is up-top. While he’s had his stinkers throughout the years—trading Kendrick Perkins for Jeff Green being one of them—Danny Ainge deserves a load of credit for assembling a roster that’s taken to heart the deep-seated essence of Celtic Pride.
Some of the names on this team won’t move the needle of a marquee, but guys like Aron Baynes, Daniel Theis, and Semi Ojeleye have embraced their increased roles and have thrived in filling the defensive void left behind by Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder. Baynes has been a mountain on the defensive end. Theis has never seen a play he’d quit on. Ojeleye is turning into a defensive pest, evoking memories of a certain “Grind-Father” (who himself started his career in Celtic green) before our very eyes. It’s easy to forget that even though Baynes has a San Antonio Spurs pedigree, both Theis and Ojeleye came to the team as obscure rookies, one undrafted in 2013 and another a second-rounder in 2017.
For his part, Jayson Tatum is far from unheralded. He was drafted third overall in the same draft as Ojeleye and his arrival in Boston came with expectations of stardom in the future. Turns out, Tatum may not even take that long to get to that level.
With the exception of Ben Simmons and Kyle Kuzma, no rookie has adjusted to the pace of the NBA better than Tatum. It’s hard to imagine that the kid is only 19 years old, but he’s already playing like a five-year vet. He’s measured in his pace, confident in his shot, and doesn’t do too much for the sake of doing too much. There’s a steadiness to his game too that you rarely see in a young player, let alone a rookie that’s still two years away from being allowed to legally drink in the US.
It’s not relevant to the story, but Jaylen Brown is 21 years old. He’s allowed to drink now. He’s also been allowed to expand his role in the team in the wake of Hayward’s injury and he’s thrived at it. Outside of Irving and Horford, no player has embraced his increased responsibility than Brown. It doesn’t always appear on the stat sheet as he’s still prone to having clunk-fest games, but his relentlessness is on full display every time he takes the court, whether it’s by crashing the boards or chasing after guys through one screen after another. Brown’s turning himself into the versatile, do-it-all player the Celtics hoped he’d be when they drafted him third overall in 2016.
It says a lot about a team’s success when young players and role players are thriving in their own spaces. But the Celtics are 10-2 largely because of Irving and Al Horford. Isn’t that jarring to even think about, considering how divergent their careers have been before they became teammates?
Irving is a flashy offensive maestro on the level of Steph Curry. Horford, on the other hand, is the blue-collar, do-what-needs-to-be-done-type of star. He’s cut from the same cloth as Marc Gasol, two centers who thrive on making winning plays more than showing off to a captive audience.
Their strengths as players are important to remember because when Boston conceived of its Big Three, it was supposed to be Hayward who would act as a bridge between Irving’s dynamic playmaking and Horford’s business-like approach to winning. But when that bridge burned in the first game of the season, Irving and Horford still found a way to connect. It is shocking to see how the two have even managed to form a clear understanding of each other’s strengths in such a short amount of time and coalesced it with the other’s own style of play.
Watch a Celtics game and you’ll see the mind tricks these two play on opposing teams. The small nuances of how they read each defender’s reactions to certain plays is fascinating to watch. Oftentimes, you don’t even see these two any visual or verbal contact to understand the kind of play that needs to be run. It’s the kind of two-man, wink-wink mind-meld that Irving never had with LeBron James. At the very least, it gives you a peek into one of the reasons why he was itching to get out of Cleveland.
As successful as the Celtics have been and as smoothly as Irving and Horford connected, this ship would’ve sunk a long time ago if not for the team’s true MVP, Brad Stevens. If credit were a pie, Stevens deserves the biggest slice of it, not only because he’s installed a system that caters to the strengths of all of his players, but mostly because he was the one that righted the ship when it found itself in choppy waters after Hayward’s injury.
Far too often, an injury as devastating as Hayward's turns into an anchor that irreparably weighs down team morale. Some coaches aren’t above that emotion and they get sunk into despair themselves. But Stevens kept his head above water long enough to understand that his team needed him to take the wheel of the ship and guide them through the storm, even if it meant spinning Hayward’s injury into a rallying call, a chance for the rest of the guys on the team to take opportunities presented to them and make the most out of it. That’s what he did, steering a rudderless team back on course with a brand of leadership that very few coaches in the league possess.
The Celtics are sailing smoothly now, separating itself from the storm that has swallowed up the league. If for nothing else, the team is proving that amidst doubt and uncertainty, optimism can (still) be a beautiful thing.