We are now 20 games into our 82-game schedule, marking the 1/4 mark. We knew coming in that this was a huge season...after last season's heartrendingly close Finals loss, and the impending "free agency" of Doc, Truth and Ray, this summer was a turning point. Danny decided to re-load instead of re-build, bringing everyone back plus adding twin O'Neals to the mix. But there were big question marks as well...age, injury, chemistry, last season's regular season fade, "Super Teams" in LA and Miami...what were we to expect coming into the year? Well, 1/4 of the way in, we have at least preliminary answers to some of the questions.
1) The team looks great. I mean really, really great. As Jeff points out on the front page, we've been spoiled by ridiculous starts for 4 straight years now. Essentially, at the 20-game mark this team always is on an 80% win pace with huge scoring differentials. But this one just feels a little different...in '07 I think everyone was just overwhelmed, enjoying the ride. In '08 there was a bit of a post-championship sense of been-there/done-that. In '09, after the injuries killed the previous year, there was a sense of breath-holding as we waited to see if a certain knee held up. But this year? This year feels more like '07, if anything...it feels like the team could easily be undefeated if that were the priority, because we're just clearly and distinctly better than everyone else. Plus, there's a bit of the magical feel again, as the players are consistently outperforming expectations and re-proving to us what maybe we had forgotten: this team is REALLY special, and if all goes well should be remembered as one of the all-time greats.
2) We have the best defense in the league again. The backbone of our championship squad in '08 was the defense. That defense was one for the record books, swarming and holding down opponents to a degree that in some ways had never been done. The 98.9 defensive rating was so far beyond the second-best defense that it looked like an outlier, and it was the main reason we were able to overwhelm the Lakers, Cavs and Pistons on the way to the ring. Over the last 2 seasons the defense has been good, especially early on, but injuries and effort and whatever other factors had combined to drop that DRating to 102.3 (2nd) and 103.8 (5th) in those years. And with the architect (Thibs) and enforcer (Perk) of the defenses absent and the anchor (KG) supposedly declining, the defense was a major question mark entering the season. Instead, through 20 games, the Celtics defensive rating of 99.7 is once again the best in the NBA. Of course we'll have to see if it is maintained (especially through the January doldrums that Jeff pointed out), but right now we aren't defending like we have the last 2 years with Thibs and Perk around...we are defending much BETTER than we have since 2008.
3) Rajon Rondo is arguably the best distributor in the NBA. I'm not going to get into the "who's the best point guard?" debate, because there are so many different ways to be a great PG these days that such a discussion could derail this. What I WILL say, though, is that there are very few players in the NBA that could distribute the ball around this line-up with the volume, accuracy and game-generalship that Rondo has shown through 20 games. He's gotten attention for the possible assists record, and rightly so, but to me it's more about "how" than "how many". And the "how" is that Rondo is consistently making the right decision in every situation. He waits for the play to develop, then hits the cutter at the rim (it's amazing how many of his assists are layups). He gets the defense off balance, then hits the right shooter for an in-rhythm feet-set jumper. He flies down the floor on the break, then rewards the big man for running with him. Yeah, you could look at the numbers (14.1 assists/game, about 4 more than the Paul/Williams/Nash trio at second; 53.1% assist rate edging out that same trio), but from watching the games you don't even need the numbers. Rondo has clearly come of age as a distributor this season, and may just be the best one in the league.
4) Paul Pierce is quietly having a huge year. Much has been made of how KG/Pierce/Allen had to sacrifice individual numbers in '07 for this team to work. But not much has been made about how they had to RE-Reinvent themselves after 2008 once Rondo began to take a larger role. For Rondo to be optimized, he had to have the ball. That meant that the others had to move off-of-the-ball. While also huge transitions for KG and Ray, it completely changed how Pierce plays. Instead of initiating many of the sets, Pierce is now more of a finisher. And to his credit, he is finishing at an incredible rate right now. His current 51.7% FG and 62.1% true shooting percentages would both be career highs, and the FG% would OBLITERATE his previous high of 47.2%, which he set last year. Pierce's game looks so easy and smooth right now, almost like he's floating through the game until we need to score, then he's right there with a big bucket. It's not surprising to me at all that through 20 games the team is a whopping +19.6 points/48 minutes when Pierce is on the court as opposed to when he's off. He also had one of the best on-court/off-court +/-s in the league in the 07-08 season, but this year he is doing it in a slightly different way.
5) Allen and Pierce are merging. Ray and Pierce had a lot of similarities to their game before combining onto one squad. Both were 25/5/5 guys that were big offense initiators for their teams. But for 07-08, with Pierce already in place here, Ray moved more off the ball into a shooter/finisher roll. But this year, with Pierce also embracing that role, Ray has actually moved back the other way towards a slightly more complete game. For the first time as teammates, Allen has caught and even slightly surpassed Pierce in assist percentage. Ray is doing more driving now and coming off curls inside the 3-point line in a decision-making capacity than he has been. He's still Sugar Ray from downtown (current 41.7% 3-point percentage would be highest since 2001-02 for Ray), but he's doing more things for the team as well. He and Pierce are becoming more and more alike, again.
6) Shaq has been a breath of fresh air. As KG once analogized (as only he could), Shaq's presence has brought a fresh aroma to this team. Center was a huge question mark for us entering the year...nobody knew when Perk would be back or how healthy he'd be, Sheed retired, Jermaine was signed but admitted he'd been playing injured...and then there was Shaq. Shaq, who had played on 3 teams in the last 3 years and was credited as a divisive force for each of them. Shaq, who at age 39 no longer could move enough to play defense, even if he wanted to. Shaq, who was so detrimental to the Cavs last year that Doc actively wanted him on the court when we played them. Shaq...who through 20 games, has been outstanding on AND off the court. As I pointed out above, even with Shaq starting at center, we are currently sporting the best defense in the NBA, better than we've been in years. So his defense hasn't been an issue. But on offense? Offensively, Shaq is shooting 68.4% from the field. No, that's not a misprint. The only reason he's not dwarfing the NBA for league lead (Nene leads at 62.4%) is because he doesn't have enough attempts to qualify, but he is absolutely killing it. Rondo and Garnett, especially, but really the whole squad make it a point to spoon-feed Shaq for easy layups/dunks all game. The trick is, he never has to post up anywmore...all he has to do is stand near the rim and be ready, and with his soft hands/huge size/still lethal touch within 3 feet he can dunk all game. And his presence absolutely opens things up for everyone else, which shows up in our team offense being a whopping +16.7 points/48 minutes with him on the court as opposed to when he's off (according to 82games.com's last update). And that's not even getting into the positive effect his levity has had on the locker room, or the on-court enforcer persona he has embraced with the no layup rule. Through 20 games, Shaq is completing Voltron in a way that I don't think many foresaw.
7) Kevin Garnett. I don't really know what to put for KG's bullet point. For one thing, he's currently healthy. Which leads to everything else. From there I guess I could go to the defense. Before the season I had a pretty spirited debate with a few posters about whether or not KG was still the best defensive power forward in the NBA. 20 games in, we need to re-frame the argument...KG is back to being arguably the best defensive PLAYER in the NBA. With all due respect to Superman in Orlando, the last Defensive Player of the Year is healthy again and back for another challenge. The Celtics and Magic are 1-2 in the NBA in defense, Howard and Garnett are 1-2 in Basketball-Reference's estimated Defensive Rating (clearly separated from everyone else), and are also 1-2 in B-R's Defensive Win Shares. But those are all team based and/or box score based estimates. If you cruise over to 82games.com, you'll find that Garnett's actual Defensive Rating (99 pts/100 possession) is really better than Howard's (102 pts/100 possessions). Not only that, but when Howard leaves the court the Magic's defense doesn't really suffer that much (1.2 pts/100 possessions better off court)...but when KG leaves the court Boston's defense falls off (8.4 pts/100 possessions worse off court). Now, it's early in the year, these numbers could change, back-up situations are different, all of that. I'm not here to prove positive that KG is the best defensive player in the league again. But what I AM saying is that once again it's a debate...which is HUGE for this team.
But really, defense is only part of it. KG is crashing the boards again at a rate that we haven't seen since his Minnesota days, something very few if anyone expected to see again. On his shoulders, the Celtics as a team are 3rd in team defensive rebounding percentage, up from 14th a year ago. Also, Garnett is back to finishing alley-oops and operating in the post, 2 much missed aspects of our offense. He is passing well of late. There are a lot of things about KG's game combining to have him at a team high +21.4/48 minutes with him on the court as opposed to off of it.
8 ) This team has a chip on it's shoulders. Whether it's Rondo's thirst to prove himself the best PG in the league, Shaq's desire to go out on top, KG's hit list of those that took advantage of his weakness, or maybe it's "just" the searing agony of coming so close to the goal only to fall a smidgeon short to their ARCH ENEMIES on that enemy's home court, having to listen to the crowd celebrate and watching Kobe frickin Bryant jump on tables to celebrate...whatever it is driving this team, it is obvious that SOMETHING is driving them. They are playing with an attitude. They are slapping down anyone that dares challenge them. In fact, so far the only way to beat this team seems to be to let them overlook you then try to sneak attack at the end. Other than that, this squad is kicking tail and taking names. And it's been a joy to watch.
So, that's what I've seen through the first quarter of the season. As Jeff pointed out, the second/third quarters have traditionally been the most challenging one for this squad, and the team is still old with definite injury question marks. This is by no means a done deal. But right now, 20 games into the year, I frankly couldn't be more happy with how things have gone or more excited about what could potentially be coming. If we stay healthy, #18 is a reality. Point-blank period. And like the vets on the squad, I'm just enjoying the ride as I know that this type of team isn't something that we get to witness and enjoy just every year.