Sixteen games into the 2020-21 season, the Boston Celtics are finally ready to make their season debut. The real one, that is: their first game with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker in the starting lineup together.
Reaching this point was always going to be difficult, but the Celtics’ road has been far bumpier than could have been reasonably anticipated. Walker’s absence was expected after getting a stem cell injection in his knee in the offseason; a week’s worth of COVID postponements and positive tests for Tatum and Robert Williams were not. We knew the wing depth would be tested with Gordon Hayward departed for the Hornets; Tacko Fall serving as backup center for a game was a surprise. Not only have they been short-handed — they’ve been short-handed in punishingly unique ways.
They could be forgiven for limping out of the gate, given all that’s happened. I even wrote about expecting such a thing here on CelticsBlog before the season kicked off. And yet, apart from a few missteps (we don’t need to talk about the Knicks game), the Celtics have rolled. They’re sitting pretty at 10-6, tied for second in the Eastern Conference with the would-be conference favorite Milwaukee Bucks. As has often been the case during the Brad Stevens era in Boston, they’ve persevered through their struggles.
The result is a team that, at full strength, may have a much higher ceiling than we expected coming into the year. Contributors have stepped up in unlikely places, and now the Celtics can reap the benefits with a fully healthy roster.
In the absence of Hayward’s all-around competency and Walker’s dependable scoring punch, Brown leveled up into a bona fide number one option in the offense. Now, between him, Tatum and Walker, there will almost never be a circumstance where the Celtics have to trot out a lineup that doesn’t feature an elite offensive player.
The top three being healthy raises Boston’s ceiling the most, but the role players they discovered during this opening month also raise their floor. Robert Williams, Semi Ojeleye, Payton Pritchard and Javonte Green have all looked like legitimately useful contributors, taking big steps forward from their play last season. Now, with the starters finally assembled together, they get to contribute towards winning in more appropriate roles. Green now gets to wield his prodigious athleticism against predominantly second unit players, rather than starters, and Ojeleye will have his most wide-open looks of the season with yet another elite scorer for him to play off of.
That’s to say nothing of the younger players who saw valuable minutes in the early going that they may not have otherwise. Carsen Edwards looked like a sunk cost after his disastrous rookie season, and on Monday against Chicago, he was the first substitution off the bench. There are still more reinforcements to come, too: Pritchard should in a couple weeks after spraining his knee against Philadelphia, and it likely won’t be too much longer until Romeo Langford, Boston’s 2019 first round pick, returns to play as well. All of these players could plausibly contribute in some fashion as the season moves along. There’s also the largest TPE in league history that Danny Ainge could utilize at the trade deadline if he sees an opportunity to dramatically change the course of the team.
This was the biggest danger zone for the Celtics this season. It was entirely possible for them to have limped out to a slow start and dug themselves a hole to climb out of. Just ask the Toronto Raptors — winners of 5-of-7 yet still mired in 10th in the conference — how that feels. Instead, the Celtics remain in prime position to contend in the East, and have the look of a team that can return to the conference finals.
This isn’t to suggest that the work is done for the Boston Celtics. As we’ve seen in the past, taking the next step towards contention can be as tough — if not tougher — than overachieving when expectations are low. They’ve also struggled against the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers, dropping both their contests last week (though obviously without Tatum on the court). The Brooklyn Nets loom large as they work to build chemistry with their new Big Three, and the Milwaukee Bucks are as formidable as ever. This team has plenty still to prove even after proving so much already.
At the moment, though, it’s enough to celebrate that the Celtics are finally back to full strength. The “treading water” phase of the season is over, and now we get to see just how good they really can be.