With the playoffs just around the corner, Boston sports fans will undoubtedly hop onto the Celtics bandwagon, especially with a first-round series against a familiar foe. It's an opportunity for fans to loath King James and the Cavaliers, but they should also try to renew their love for their hometown team.
The blossoming Celtics have flown under the radar with so much media attention placed on the epic failure of the Bruins, the trial of former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, and the start of a promising year for the Red Sox.
But the Celtics are arguably the best story of all of them, with the NBA's sixth-best record since February 2, after a year of tumultuous change highlighted by departures of Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green. Boston was last in the playoffs in 2013, but there are only three existing players from that roster: Avery Bradley, Brandon Bass, and Jared Sullinger.
For fans that haven't been paying much attention, just who are these Boston Celtics?
"We don't have the most talent in the NBA. We have no superstars, and [playing hard is] just our model," a smiling Isaiah Thomas said Tuesday. "If we don't play hard, we're not even close to half the team we are. We're not a good team if we're not playing hard, playing with each other, and having fun. We know our recipe to success is to outwork the other team and play as hard as we possibly can."
Most fans have forgotten about former captain Rondo, since Thomas has been such an electric scorer since Danny Ainge stole him in a lopsided trade at the deadline. He's averaging 26.4 points per 36 minutes, which ranks amongst MVP candidates like Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden.
Thomas is a Sixth Man of the Year candidate, but he's been more than a spark plug for the Celtics. When Thomas is on the court, the Celtics have a 109.2 offensive rating, which would rank second in the NBA. He brings speed and shiftiness that lights a fire under his teammates and the fans attendance.
But Boston began to click in early February, even before the Thomas trade, because they started to play high-intensity team defense after trading passive Jeff Green. That deal opened up more minutes for the eccentric Jae Crowder, who previously came to the Celtics as a piece in return for Rondo.
If Tuesday's thrilling win over the Raptors was your first time viewing the Celtics this season, then you saw Crowder hit an unfathomable shot to put his team ahead. But huge shots like that isn't the reason for Crowder's success, it's his complementary offense and versatile defense that helps the team the most.
"We play together. We fight. We have fun. We get the crowd into it and we play with a lot of pride," Crowder said when asked how to describe the Celtics to a new fan. "I think that sums it up about what we do. We play for one another."
The Celtics have had 22 different players suit up this season, so history would suggest there'd be a lack of team chemistry, but that is anything but the case. After so many trades the Celtics have a locker room full of players that love and fight for each other. Much of the credit for that should be given to Brad Stevens.
"Our environment is excellent and I think that's a really good thing moving forward," Stevens said Tuesday. "We've got hard working guys, guys that are giving it their all. I think we've got guys that are committed to team."
The second-year head coach is quickly gaining a reputation as an elite after-timeout play caller because of his creativeness, but the players also deserve praise for executing so well. Some players have poked fun at Stevens since he's so even-keeled on the sidelines, rarely showing any emotion, but they also explain that this behavior is what helps them perform smoothly late in games.
No player has been more composed than Evan Turner, who has played every game this season and hit a number of game-winning shots.
Evan Turner is shooting 63.2% with less than one minute to go in the fourth quarter. That ranks 2nd behind only Anthony Davis (min 30 FGA).— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) April 15, 2015
Stevens has used Turner as the go-to guy in crunch time, but for the most part he has played a point forward type of role for the team. Turner has always been knocked for his inefficiency, but he has a career-high assist-to-turnover ratio in his role. For his reliability and for his clutch play in big moments, Turner is likely the MVP of the Celtics.
The Celtics have no All-Stars on the team, but nearly every player was highly ranked coming out of high school, or played huge roles on their college or European teams. Stevens has done an exceptional job of creating a culture that forces players to leave their egos at the door.
No player better exemplifies that than Gigi Datome, who was an Italian League MVP but only sparingly plays for the Celtics. However, when he does get an opportunity, he typically takes advantage by hitting shots from all over the floor.
"Teams can win without being friends off the court, but I think it helps to be friends," Datome explained. "Nothing has to be forced. It's more natural, you can be spontaneous. But you've got to be lucky to have this type of team."
Before Tyler Zeller hit a miraculous game-winning layup against the Jazz, Datome advised Zeller that he had enough time to stay patient and pump-fake underneath the rim, which is precisely what happened.
Despite receiving zero minutes that night, Datome made an impact by being a consummate teammate and sharing his wisdom. He says that you have to be lucky to have a team that are truly friends with each other, but the Celtics are also fortunate to have him as one of those glue guys.
One player that has won over the hearts of Celtics fans is Marcus Smart. The 21-year-old rookie defines the Celtics as, "tough, determined, strong-minded, and willful," and that description also stands true for his own style of play. Smart is an exceptional defensive player, as even the best scorers have been flustered when guarded by him.
The Celtics will have their backs against the wall when they face off against the Cavaliers, but like the citizens of Boston, they will grind, battle, and do everything they can to beat the odds.
"Everybody likes a team that goes out there and plays hard like their life is on the line," Smart added. "People can relate to that."