After defeating the Dallas Mavericks last Wednesday 110-102, the Boston Celtics celebrated Thanksgiving with a record of 16-2, good for a 0.889 win percentage. That is better than the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls who (0.878) and second only to the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors (0.890). Arnold Auerbach never lit a victory cigar in the first quarter. There is a lot of basketball left and the Celtics have already gone 2-2 since that 16-2 start. That doesn’t mean Celtics fans can’t take a time out to reflect on a few things that have already gone well this season.
1. Record: Defense. Wins. Period.
On Monday, the Celtics gave up 118 points to the Detroit Pistons. That is 10 more than they had given up in any game this season. They lost. Before that, the Celtics had held as many teams below 90 points (7) as had scored over 100.* They had the best defense in the league. At 18-3, they had the best record in the league too.
Heading into Tuesday’s games, the Celtics still led the NBA in defensive rating at 98.3. That is over 4 points better than the next best Eastern Conference team, the Toronto Raptors, at 102.5. The Celtics also still boasted 4 of the top 12 players in terms of defensive winshares (3. Marcus Smart, 4. Jaylen Brown, 11. Al Horford, and 12. Jayson Tatum). As it turns out, the Celtics (18-4) still had the best record in the league, 1 game ahead of the Houston Rockets (16-4). Defense may win championships but it works pretty well in the regular season too.
Honorable Mention: The 16-Game Win Streak. As mentioned above, the Celtics were 16-2 on Thanksgiving. After an 0-2 start, it took a 16-game win streak to get there. The streak included a win over the defending champion Warriors, wins over rivals for the East Conference crown (Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks), and even overtime (November 21st at the Mavericks). While fun, it wasn’t even half way to the longest win streak in NBA history, which was set by the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers at 33 games. It’s time to start another streak!
2. Roster: Trader Danny Trades the No. 1 Pick.
Before the draft, Trader Danny traded the No. 1 pick to the Philadelphia 76s in exchange for the No. 3 pick and a future first-rounder. The 76s drafted Markelle Fultz and the Celtics drafted Tatum. Fultz has played in 4 regular season games and is averaging 6.0 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 1.8 assists in 19.0 minutes. He has been out indefinitely since October 23rd and is garnering headlines like: “‘This is Not Normal’: Markelle Fultz’s Injury, Reasons Behind It Confound NBA,” “The Fultz in Our Stars,” and “How Markelle Fultz’s shoulder became the ugliest, most confusing debacle in the NBA.” Ouch!
While the 76s may wish they had that trade, or at least pick, back, the Celtics definitely don’t. Not only is Tatum’s jumpshot not broken, but he has played in all 22 of the Celtics’ games and is averaging 13.7 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 1.5 assists in a whopping, for a rookie, 30.6 minutes. With Gordon Hayward going down for the year 5:15 into the season, the Celtics would be nowhere near the best record in basketball without Tatum. The fact that Tatum and Hayward both started on opening night is misleading. Tatum has started at the 4 only one other time this season: a loss in the very next game to the Milwaukee Bucks. He has started at the 3, Hayward’s natural position, every other game this season. Just look at the Celtic’s depth chart. Without Tatum, the Celtics may be starting Semi Ojeleye or Abdel Nader at the 3. Before pointing out that the Celtics could play Brown at the 3 if they drafted Fultz, rememember that Fultz has a broken jumpshot. And is out. Indefinitely.
Honorable Mention: Trader Danny Trades for Kyrie Irving. After the draft, Trader Danny traded Isaiah Thomas, next year’s Brooklyn Nets’ first-round pick, Jae Crowder, and Ante Zizic to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Kyrie Irving. Many Celtics fans, myself included, didn’t like the trade when it was made. How do you trade a 2x All Star who just finished 5th in MVP voting, and played last postseason within days of his sister being killed and with a hip injury that ultimately ended his year early? Although Thomas now expects to return from his injury in mid-December, he has played even less games than Fultz. Meanwhile, Irving has played in 21 of the Celtics’ 22 games and put up 22.8 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 5.3 assists all while ranking 17th in defensive winshares. This may change if the King of the Fourth returns next month but, for now, the best ability is availability.
3. Schedule: Less Back-to-Backs Is a Good Thing (And Not Just for the Reason You Are Thinking).
This season, the NBA eliminated stretches where teams play four games in five nights, reduced back-to-back games, and evened out the number of back-to-backs each team plays. While the changes apparently made Charles Barkley angry, the schedule is healthier for players and fairer for teams. It’s also better for the fans. Fewer back-to-backs are expected to mean less nights when star players rest despite being healthy. It has also meant the Celtics playing with a relative regularity of every other night. Including today, the rule that the Celtics are playing tonight if they didn’t play last night has worked all but twice so far this season. Celtics fans have always been able to generally predict when the Patriots and Red Sox are playing without consulting a calendar. So far this season, they’ve finally been able to do the same with the Celtics.
Honorable Mention: First to 22 Games. After last night’s games, no other team had played as many games (22) as the Celtics. While most teams had played either 20 or 21, several teams, I’m looking at you Milwaukee Bucks and Chicago Bulls, had only played 18. As it turns out, the Celtics also played on the League’s opening night and will play on the final day of the regular season. Add those two facts together, and the Celtics have more off days the rest of the way than any other team in the league.
So while there are reasons for concern, I’m looking at your shot Marcus Smart, there is already a lot for Celtics fans to be thankful for so far this basketball season.
* In regulation. The Celtics held the Dallas Mavericks to 96 points in regulation on November 21st but the Mavericks scored 6 points in overtime to bring their total to 102.
Note: All stats are were pulled prior to games on Tuesday, 28 November.