There was the unexpected starting lineup on opening day that featured Vitor Faverani and the meltdown against Milwaukee in the home opener and strong showings in back-to-back games in Detroit and Memphis. The pairing of Jeff Green and Gerald Wallace sort of came and went, the "Avery Bradley as a point guard" experiment failed, and Kelly Olynyk became a starter. The team then blew out the Jazz, won in another Orlando bar fight, SHOCKED THE HEAT, and saw a near triple-double from now cult hero Jordan Crawford.
And we're only at Game #9.
A lot has happened in two weeks and it's hard not to get excited about the future of this team in the short and long term...unless you're Brad Stevens of course. He's been preaching process from the tip and it's been echoed by the players in every win and loss. Cough up a 22 point lead to the Bucks? We can do better. Beat the Heat in Miami? We can do better.
These aren't your Big Three era Celtics. They don't celebrate and-1's or pound the parquet before a big defensive stop. It's all business and it's a beautiful thing. Sure, it's only eight games, but the team has improved incrementally after each one and you can see them developing an identity and building something. So many had already thrown this season away as Boston transitioned with this collection of role players and budding young talent while Rondo recovered and rehabbed. Tankers can't wait to get their hands on one of last night's fabulous freshmen Jabari Parker, Julius Randle, and Andrew Wiggins (Ainge was at the State Farm Champions Classic) because any one of them could shortcut the rebuild in the drop of a ping pong ball.
Instead, Stevens has put on his hard hat and made sure everybody has a shovel and a hammer. Right now, he's settled into a balanced 10-man rotation with Kris Humphries moonlighting here and there. The only players that haven't really played are Keith Bogans (who missed much of the preseason with a thumb injury) and MarShon Brooks.
Whether it's been Gerald Wallace coming off the bench--reluctantly, at first--as our "7th man" or Brandon Bass being rock solid with his mid-range jumper, everybody's pretty much contributed. It's been great watching this team grow, but I'm wondering what's next and like Stevens, I'm not even concerned about wins or losses. I'm just excited about what the next evolution is. There have been so many story lines already, but here are a couple I'm (hopefully) looking forward to as the season goes on:
Olynyk's Inside Outside Game
If Kelly's going to fulfill his destiny of becoming the love child of Kevin McHale and Dirk Nowitzki, he's going to have to be a more willing shooter. Don't get me wrong: I love what he's doing out there, but he's passed up on a few open jumpers. He had some rough nights at the start of the season and maybe that's why he's been a little gun shy, but he may have turn a corner against Orlando. He hit 2 of 3 from downtown and finished 7 for 9 from the field. Most of his buckets came in transition and spot ups because in the starting lineup, he's been used in high pick-and-rolls with Bradley and Crawford, but I'd like to see him get some low post looks going forward. He showed some back-to-the-basket prowess in the summer league, but we haven't seen much of it since.
Pivot, pivot, pivot, lay up.
Love the extra pass, but just let it fly, kid.
Sullinger the Playmaker
We've seen some of this already. As he gets into shape following back surgery, his minutes have increased along with his assist totals. He's been a +/- monster--leading the team at +30--but that stat is a little bit misleading. It's not like he's exactly making his teammates better by. That's not a condemnation of his game at all; he's just been a beast in the paint. According to Synergy Sports, he ranks 5th in the league in the post, hitting 50% of his shots and generating 1.08 points per possession. He's still hitting the offensive boards and added the three point shot to his repertoire, but the next step could see Sully more in a facilitator role.
Since utility man Gerald Wallace joined pacemaker point guard Phil Pressey on the second unit, the bench has been an injection of energy and intensity. Courtney Lee has rejuvenated his game and gone from trade chip to valued scorer. According to TeamRankings.com, the Celtics have averaged 13.2 points in transition this season, 17.3 in the last three games, and 20 points against Orlando. We're trending quickly in the right direction.
Return of the Pit Bulls
Avery Bradley took another bite out of Jameer Nelson Monday night and the team as a whole has been ferocious on the perimeter. Chew on these numbers: the Celtics are 8th in the league in opponents' assists per game, 9th in turnovers, 1st in opponents' three pointers made and attempted, and 3rd in defending the corner ball three. They're good signs that the team is aggressively hounding opposing players and rotating well on defense. Tenacious perimeter D is a staple of the pack line defense Stevens utilized at Butler and it has translated nicely so far in the NBA. (If any reader can find a site that tracks 24-second shot clock violations, I'd really appreciate it. To me, this is like the team collectively getting a charge call and I'm curious where the Celtics rank.)
After tonight's game against the Bobcats, the Celtics wrap up their homestand against a good Trailblazers team, then hit the road in Minnesota, Houston, and San Antonio, and then welcomed back in the Garden by the undefeated Pacers. These first eight games have served as a good litmus test for the young C's, but let's see how they withstand this trial by fire. Take down some of those Goliaths and that will really shut up the haters.
Maybe the next curve ball from this team doesn't come from the court. Maybe it comes from the front office. This is worth mentioning: one of the three players that hasn't cracked the rotation is Keith Bogans. Because he was technically acquired via sign-and-trade this summer, he isn't eligible to be traded until December 15th, but his contract combined with Kris Humphries and MarShon Brooks is $17 million of expiring deals. There are seventeen games until then and the looming return of Rajon Rondo. If the team keeps this ball rolling, what does Danny do?