Despite entering the playoffs controlling the #1 seed in their conference, despite having a legitimate MVP candidate leading their roster, despite building an amazing team from what was once considered spare parts, despite the well-regarded coaching acumen of Brad Stevens and all the savvy moves made by Danny Ainge and despite this being a Cinderella story several seasons in the making, the Celtics are still under-hyped.
In fact, the Celtics are maybe the most under-hyped first seed of recent memory. Ultimately they are so completely underestimated to the point of being summarily disregarded as genuine contenders.
Maybe this is because of where this team comes from. Boston is a city that has almost grown used to championships, and the Celtics are arguably the most storied franchise in all of professional sports. This is an organisation that has achieved greatness before and a city that thinks they know what it looks like. Using the almost mythic history of the franchise as a measuring stick can make the task of emulating similar success seem overly daunting and almost impossible.
But maybe it’s not the Boston Celtics’ past that is holding some back from believing in the team’s current success but rather the franchise’s future. The Celtics are still stacked with draft picks, and they already have a lot of young talent on the team, which means many believe the best is yet to come.
But while the past acts as an intimidating prologue and the future is seemingly bursting with possibilities, where the Celtics are right now is extremely impressive and ought not be disregarded or underestimated.
From placeholders to key pieces
During the Stevens era the Celtics have improved dramatically in every conceivable way. In a few short seasons, a team that was set to be on a long rebuilding path has muscled and hustled their way into contention and shocked the league in the process.
Within basically a single season this Celtics squad developed a never-say-die attitude and an all-for-one team identity that was the envy of the league. The addition of an undersized point guard as well as a few other key pieces in deals that few people initially paid much attention to changed the Celtics’ fortune in ways that almost no one predicted. Quickly the conversation turned from rebuilding to competing and from competing to contending.
But still these Celtics were underestimated. Isaiah Thomas was called a ‘fake All-Star’, and players like Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley, the heart and soul of the team, were valued around the league more for their underpriced contracts than their versatile skill sets.
After consecutive first-round exits it seemed shakeups were certain, but for the most part the Celtics organisation stuck to a team made up of supposed trade-bait. The Celtics added the anchoring presence of Al Horford—‘the Basketballer’s basketballer’—and used their highly valued draft pick to add another underestimated and undervalued guy to the roster in Jaylen Brown.
After a shaky start to this season the Celtics were again dismissed in some circles as not true contenders. Yet the team fought through injury after injury, tough scheduling, and some grueling games to come out on top of their conference. Despite all the doubt and all the dismissals this team of placeholders and trade pieces are heading to the playoffs as the Number 1 seed.
All-in on the Little Guy
Perhaps no one more exemplifies the surprising fortune of this Celtics team than their star player, Isaiah Thomas. ‘The Little Guy’, with his hesitation-dribbles, stutter-steps and circus shots has worked his way into the hearts of fans all over the league. His story is so perfectly appropriate for this current iteration of the Celtics that it seems destined to become a future piece of Celtics lore. Picked dead last in the draft, the pint-sized point guard battled for minutes and was traded twice before finding his way to Boston.
Now Isaiah Thomas is a two-time All-Star, discussed as an MVP candidate, and leading a team that is on top of their conference entering the playoffs. Arguments that his best role is as a spark plug off the bench seem like they were made a lifetime ago and have withered with time, proven wrong over and over again. His team believes in him more than ever, and if Marcus Smart’s recent article in the Player’s Tribune is anything to go by, they seem ready to follow Isaiah to hell and back or possibly to the Promised Land.
While Isaiah’s development has been perhaps the most outstanding, everyone on the team has stepped up this season. Al Horford has done what he is renowned for and made everyone around him better, sneakily improving this team in ways that are sometimes hard to quantify (particularly for those that obsess over salaries). Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley have maintained their roles as grizzled generals on the wings. Marcus Smart has stepped up as an on-court leader and helped rookies like Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier fit into Boston’s schemes. Amir Johnson has become one of my favourite players this season for his constant grit and grind.
While there’s more to say, a lot of it has already been said. This is a good team (that’s never really been a question), but what people are wondering is whether or not this is a team that can achieve greatness.
This Celtics squad has constantly exceeded expectations and continually proven their doubters wrong. Sometimes greatness comes from the unexpected places, sometimes it comes from defying the odds, but it’s rarely if ever easily earned and almost always hard won. For the hustle-era Celtics, greatness could be just around the corner, but they’ll have to push the past aside and forget about the future because their time is now.