All season long I’ve been shaking my head with an exasperated grin. “How do they keep doing this?” I ask myself. Yes, they are playing great defense. Yes, Kyrie Irving is an MVP candidate. Yes, Al Horford is an All-Star. But there’s something about the equation that doesn’t add up. The minute that Gordon Hayward went down, the expectations were lowered. But the Boston Celtics are playing like they never missed a beat, and there’s something intangible that this team has which is propelling it forward.
In theory, I’m supposed to understand things like this as someone who’s been covering this team for over a decade. Of course, I’d be lying if I said I had figured out the reason for the Celtics’ success this season. The best I can come up with is a mix of Brad Stevens, precocious talent, and a lot of luck.
The common denominators from this year’s overachieving team and last year’s overachieving team are Al Horford (a stabilizing leader), Marcus Smart (a destructive instigator), and Brad Stevens. Note that neither Brown nor Rozier were featured regularly in the rotations last season.
We’re way past belaboring the point by pointing out that Stevens is an amazing coach. Still, it bears repeating over and over because he continues to deliver results. There’s no gimmick, no catch phrase, no game-changing signature style to his coaching philosophy. In fact, he gleefully borrows and steals from other great coaches as much as he can.
Ultimately it still takes the players to implement the system, but a good coach holds the players’ attention and gets them to buy into what he’s preaching. An over-the-top personality can shock the players into line in the short term but lose them over time. An overly lenient coach may lack the players’ respect. The even-keeled and focused but fiercely competitive Stevens seems to strike a brilliant balance that resonates with the players and supports their success.
That balance is even more critical this year since Boston has so much young talent. Jaylen Brown has improved in giant strides, and Jayson Tatum has exceeded all reasonable expectations. The loss of Hayward thrust the two into larger roles, and they have delivered. That early success bodes well for the future.
In total, five rookies are part of the rotation, and Shane Larkin (who was playing in Spain last year) has played a key role. Yet none of them has shrunk from the moment. Of course each has had his own share of struggles (except perhaps the unflappable Tatum), but all have managed to step into their assigned roles and contribute to the team’s success.
Of course there’s also a little bit of luck involved. With the very notable exception of Hayward’s injury, a lot of things have gone well this year. Irving hit the ground running and has quickly stepped into the franchise-player role. In a way, the roster overhaul helped him because there was no established culture to which he needed to acclimate—it was all new for almost everyone, and not even mastermind Danny Ainge could have predicted exactly how the team culture would develop.
By being so young, this team gets into early deficits by making bad decisions early on or losing focus. But that youth also helps them bounce back quickly with enough energy to come all the way back. They are so young, in fact, they don’t understand that they aren’t supposed to be able to come back. They just decide that they don’t want to lose, and more often than not they don’t.
By putting themselves in position to win, the Celtics are effectively creating luck. But there are weird bounces, bad calls, and freak plays that swing dozens of games a year, for better or worse. If you were able to play the same season 100 times like you can in video games, you might get a standard deviation of about 5 to 8 games. It seems to me that they’ve already collected a number of those swing games in the win column this season.
It remains to be seen what this team can do from this point forward and most importantly in the playoffs. But up to this point the Celtics have done just about everything you could ask a team in their situation to do. We’re more than halfway through the season, and the Celtics have one of the best records in basketball. This is no fluke even if I can’t fully understand or explain it.
Sometimes you just have to sit back and enjoy the ride.