Touching All the Bases

How Are the Streaking, Starless and Downright Enjoyable Celtics Doing This?


Actually, dear readers and unnamed person who wrote that goofy headline, we have a very good idea of how they're doing it:

There it is: Protect the ball. Protect the basket. Profit.

In an analytic and observational sense, it really is that simple. Those fundamental basketball tasks have been consistently fulfilled to the point that they have been a reliable formula for success -- unexpected, is-this-actually-happening-and-is-that-bearded-dude-really-named-Gigi? success.

The Celtics have won seven of eight since that date and take a five-game winning streak into tonight's matchup with the Kevin Durant-less Oklahoma City Thunder.

At one point, the Celtics were 20-33. Now they are 30-36 and fighting with the Heat for the eighth-best record in the Eastern Conference.

Yes, they're still a decent distance below .500, and I'll admit, I'm trying hard to avoid dabbling in hyperbole in praising their progress. But I also want the progress to be praised, because it is encouraging, enjoyable, and I am certain, legitimate.

And did I mention unexpected? Did you see this coming? This season was expected to be an uninspiring but necessary slog toward the accumulation of many losses and many ping-pong balls.

Instead, watching this team of -- well, I think it's fair to categorize the vast majority of them as hard-working role players -- has become a joy, one that is anticipated during the afternoon of a game day.

Tell me you haven't looked forward to watching Marcus Smart attempt to lock down Russell Westbrook tonight.

At the beginning of this season, the suggestion of a playoff berth would have prompted a Jim Mora imitation. Now? Here's to a first-round matchup with the Hawks, and maybe even putting a scare into the Sharpshootin' Korvers.

Don't buy it from me? Try this: I suspect you'd agree that one of the reasons that Mike Gorman is so respected as the Celtics' television voice is because he's mastered the balance between caring about the team and candidly assessing it.

Hyperbole is his broadcast partner Tommy Heinsohn's thing for sure. But it has never been part of Gorman's repertoire. Anyone who accused him of embellishment or overstatement here ...

... simply has not been paying attention.

No, of course the Celtics are not hanging Banner 18 this year. They may not even make the playoffs, though a relatively easy schedule and common sense based on recent performance suggest they will.

But in context of expectations -- whether those from before the season or those after the trades of veterans Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green -- something special is happening. Celtics Voice don't lie.

Which brings us back to the question posed in the headline: How? We know they've done it with relentless defense and an offense that protects the ball.

But how are they doing it doing it, if you know what I mean.

How has this roster become so efficient, so capable? How are they winning with a collection of skilled but limited players such as Evan Turner, Luigi "Gigi" Datome,Tyler Zeller, and Jae Crowder taking turns in the spotlight? How are they continuing to do it without Isaiah Thomas, that sub-6-foot-tall contradiction, that efficient chucker whose game isn't always aesthetically pleasing but who somehow fits seamlessly with the green-and-white's other misfit toys?

How are they doing it without stars?

Maybe the answer is more obvious than it seems upon first glance.

They have a star. It just happens to be the coach rather than a player.

The Celtics, as the intrepid Paul Flannery pointed out in a thoughtful examination of the Celtics today, have "managed to field a competitive team, while also building up a war chest of assets in draft picks, cap space and trade exceptions."

General manager Danny Ainge is responsible for accumulating assets for the future and interesting if flawed pieces for the present. But it is Stevens who must assemble those pieces into a coherent five-man unit, and in his second season in the NBA, he has demonstrated a remarkable aptitude for putting players in a position to play to their strengths, whether that's using Turner as a ballhandler or running a late-game play for Zeller or dusting off Datome and letting him prove he can shoot here like he did overseas.

The Celtics do not have a franchise player, though I'll dream on Marc Gasol or Kevin Love coming aboard this summer just like the rest of you. But they have a franchise coach, and that's a hell of a swell place to start.

It's one reason I'm glad they're winning at the expense of a few bonus ping-pong balls. Stevens will be coveted by every major college program in America that has an opening. The losing had to weigh on him. This year's relative success has to temper any potential discouragement during this rebuild.

Perhaps this recent stretch of excellent play will be revealed as a mirage. Beginning with the Thunder tonight, the Celtics play five games in eight games, including a matchup at San Antonio Friday. It's a fairly hellacious stretch, ending in a showdown with serious playoff implications against the Heat next Wednesday.

Maybe they'll hit some turbulence by then, and some of this enthusiasm will be tempered. But I don't think so. These Celtics -- these weird, mismatched, wildly fun, winning Celtics -- don't just make you look forward to watching them play. They fulfill the anticipation.

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