About a month ago, my venerable colleague Bill Sy wrote that these Celtics were hard to watch. His critique wasn’t about stats or success, but rather aesthetics. Analytical bully-ball was often very successful, but came at the cost of the beauty of ball and man movement.
Out of the quagmire of endless Celtics-watching, Bill dug out the point exactly: we don’t just want the Celtics to be good, we want them to look good too. We want to tell our kids about this team, how they soared around the court with precision and intention, unlike anything we had ever seen.
What we don’t want to tell them was how these Celtics won 65 games because about 79 percent of the time they drowned their opponents in an unending tempest of threes, and how the roster was constructed to relentlessly exploit that advantage.
“When I was your age, the Celtics had size and shooting everywhere. Not only that, but they shot the highest volume of threes in the league to create favorable matchups!”
“Wow, that’s so cool, Dad!”
When Bill planted his flag, the Celtics were 15-5 and had just lost to the Indiana Pacers in a pretty unwatchable game. But presumably spurred by someone in the Celtics locker room printing out copies of the piece and plastering it on everyone’s lockers, the Celtics immediately ripped off 11 wins in the 13 games since, complete with some super-watchable performances out west and a Derrick White All-Star campaign. Who doesn’t love that?
December was such a fun month of Celtics basketball that I wanted to revisit the notion of the Celtics’ watchability in the name of having a growth mindset. On vibes alone, the Celtics have been very watchable recently, save for a few truly horrid quarters that can bring about distressing images of the 2023 Eastern Conference Finals. But on balance, I’ve personally had remarkably few aesthetic notes.
It’s true that December gave us more time with a team that was probably a bit too new in November. The Celtics are overwhelmingly talented, capable of obliterating opponents but also of confusing themselves. Last year, a Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown search-and-destroy isolation was usually the best option in a pinch. Derrick White hadn’t yet asserted himself, and Marcus Smart was a less-efficient but no-less-willing offensive creator. They had some big guns, but nowhere near enough guns.
Before the offseason, the Celtics had just finished losing one of the most inexplicable playoff series in franchise history, falling down 3-0 to a Miami Heat team given a three percent chance of winning by the ESPN Basketball Power Index before the series began. It was easy to feel like the sky had fallen directly on TD Garden, but also hard to justify making any drastic changes since the Celtics would still be one of the favorites in the East if they just stood pat.
But President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens is an avid knower of ball, and realized that the league would pass them by if they weren’t aggressive. So, he initiated an Eastern Conference arms race by trading the Celtics’ beating heart for Kristaps Porzingis and a couple of picks. The world will try to forget how shocked the city of Boston was about that trade, since Porzingis’ impact may prove more than worth the price on paper.
It was and remains a hyper-aggressive move, but it undoubtedly gave the Celtics a new dimension of watchability. Forgetting his ridiculous basketball abilities, Porzingis just looks like someone you don’t want to mess with. He’s somewhere between 7’2” and 7’4”, though the exact number doesn’t matter much when he’ll basically be taller than everyone on the court not named Victor Wembanyama.
There’s something visually satisfying about having the biggest dude on the court, especially if he’s used in the butcher-knife-sized Swiss Army knife role the Celtics have carved out for him. The worst version of Porzingis is an unusually tall three-point specialist, something he became in Dallas when the Mavericks’ offense ran exclusively through Luka Doncic.
That’s weird to say, because Porzingis actually posted up at a higher rate in Dallas than he has in Boston, from 20.4 percent to 16.1 percent, albeit with a much smaller sample size. But the Mavericks had no plan for him, merely throwing the occasional entry pass and letting him “go to work” with sketchy degrees of success.
The Celtics have used Porzingis much more intentionally. They don’t just toss him the ball down low and ask him to go Hakeem Mode on whatever center is parked in the paint. Sure, he’s probably taller than that guy, but you know who he’s even more taller than? Guards and forwards.
One of the most watchable plays all season has been the advent of the [insert ball handler] + Porzingis pick-and-roll on the wing, aiming to get him switched onto literally anyone other than who the other team wants him to be guarded by. Usually this creates a hilarious mismatch, and he has so much firepower on the outside that he’s free to really dig in and—for real this time—go to work.
Porzingis’ wholesale destruction of smaller defenders allows us to indulge in our deepest fantasies of being unstoppable on a basketball court. Watching him operate against switches allows us to live vicariously through him, leading to supreme watchability. But even he was only the beginning.
If the NBA was a microcosm of world politics—which it’s not—the Celtics are a nuclear-capable nation that just underwent a dramatic expansion of its arsenal. Set in motion by the Porzingis trade, Stevens and the Celtics monitored the Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat, who both seemed poised to make a Damian Lillard-sized crater in the East if left unchecked.
The Bucks pulled the trigger first, but accidentally sent their favorite game-wrecker Jrue Holiday to the Celtics in the process. I imagine it was a bit of an awkward moment for Bucks fans, who were happy to get Lillard aboard and ensure Giannis Antetokounmpo remained happy, but also probably didn’t want Holiday to end up on their most threatening Eastern Conference opponent.
The Porzingis trade removed one of the Celtics’ two starting guards in Smart, and the Holiday trade replaced the apparently-annoyed next man up in Malcolm Brogdon. All that was left was White and Holiday, a backcourt with so much on-paper defense that opposing guards might as well take the night off.
It’s obviously not impossible to score on them, but it’s absurdly difficult for anyone but the absolute class of the league. Slashing guards and smaller wings simply do not expect to have their shot blocked from behind by White or the ball ripped from a lunging Holiday playing free safety.
As the two got more comfortable in December, we’ve been treated to an endless stream of exciting defensive plays. Both are capable of erupting in ultra-watchable glory at any time with a spectacular defensive play that no one but them saw coming.
They’ve managed to sustain the occasional defensive heroics that made Smart’s game so special. Just call Brad Stevens Brad Pitt in Moneyball, because he couldn’t replace Smart, but he could recreate him in the aggregate.
The Smart-Porzingis trade also had the perhaps-unintended-but-probably-intended effect of freeing White in a more expanded role. Holiday is still finding his sea legs offensively in his new environment, but I wasn’t prepared for the explosion of White’s awesomeness as a scorer and decision maker.
If you’ve been watching Celtics broadcasts or seeing fun graphics on X, you’ll probably know that White had a statistically outrageous December, joining the likes of LeBron James and Michael Jordan by hitting unheard of offensive and defensive marks last month. Forget 50-40-90, because White shot 50-45-94, leading to a tremendous viewing experience. I even started a cult.
Watching White ball is uniquely satisfying. He plays with so much certainty that one is forced to trust him completely. It’s not as if he makes zero mistakes, but never do those mistakes snowball into a full-blown meltdown. Sure, he can whip an errant pass straight out of bounds, but I never leave that possession wanting to take the ball out of his hands.
All this has caused watchability to skyrocket, even in losses like the recent nail biter against the Thunder. The All-Star additions of Porzingis and Holiday and the unlocked White have begun to gel around the existing structure of Tatum and Brown, with the illustrious Al Horford embracing his role as a sixth starter and remaining a certified hooper.
I’ve said to friends and family that this Celtics team has it, with it being what the last two years lacked in swagger, certainty, or whatever was causing the pit in my stomach to worry that this team would fall short again. There’s no pit this time around.
And as always, I’ve circled back to believing in the Celtics, which I’m going to shelve for now in favor of just enjoying watching games. A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I wrote a long manifesto about “competency” in sports, and how it might honestly be better than brief spurts of ultimate success surrounded by abject sadness and failure.
I’m not really sure if it makes any sense these days, but I stand by wanting my teams to figure out how to play likeable ball. If there’s a mathematical possibility of success but everything stresses me out, there’s no point to an 82-game season.
Thankfully—for now at least—this team has found the secret sauce to watchability. I’m just not missing these games, because who knows how often this type of team comes around? Even if it’s all for naught if the Celtics fall short again, we have to savor this team for the sake of telling our kids about it.