Here's a preemptive strike:
No, this column will not be about how the Celtics beat the Heat to improve to 3-4 and are therefore a good team. They're not, at least not by the definition we've come to get used to around these parts.
The C's aren't a contender and their odds of even creeping into the playoff hunt are slim – unless Rajon Rondo really does return in the next month or so, then maybe the latter is possible. The Eastern Conference really is that bad. But even as a purgatory-housed eight-seed, all that would wait is a first round throttling by the two-time defending champs. If there’s to be a ninth rolling rally in June, it’ll belong to their Garden roommates. No 2013 Red Sox magic to be found here.
Still, seven games into the Celts' season, the discussions about tanking the season for a high-lottery pick have grown louder and louder while the club's compete level has risen to be equally off the charts.
If we've learned anything, above all else, through these first contests, it's this:
The C's are playing to win. Whether fans like it or not, these players are going to bust their butts to no end to prove they aren't the on-court embarrassment we'd all said they would be, or should be.
And, you know what? It's gonna be mighty fun to watch.
Hell, it already has been.
After a four-game skid to open the year, the Celts are winners of three straight. If only there had been fans in Miami to notice their team’s first home loss.
Boston has held a lead in the fourth quarter of every single game and, more often than not, very late. Conceivably, these Rondo-less, Paul Pierce-less, Kevin Garnett-less, Doc Rivers-less Celtics could be 7-0, just like the Pacers. Not a single game, no matter the deficit has been out of reach in the late minutes.
The reason? That emotionless-looking guy on the sidelines, who didn't so much as pump his fist or crack a smirk when Jeff Green buried his heroic buzzer beater in Miami Saturday evening. I've seen more excitement on someone's face when the signal changed at the crosswalk.
Expression aside, the credit for this metamorphosis belongs to Brad Stevens.
Not Green, the seemingly perfect choice to lead a team to the lotto on account of his inconsistent play and general lack of visible fire.
Not Brandon Bass, the MVP of the team thus far, with a rising and attractive stock to potential suitors.
Not Jordan Crawford, the wild shooter but adept passer, busy eating minutes at the point guard position in Rondo's absence – and in far less erratic fashion than when he was first acquired.
Not the bench, which has grown to be unusually deep – relative to how it appears on paper, anyhow.
Nor the veteran presence of Gerald Wallace or Kris Humphries, neither of whom could be very happy with a reduced role on a rebuilding team, though that didn’t hamper the production for either in the club’s most unbelievable triumph.
Nope. It's the man they all play for. The man they are playing every single one of those 48 won’t-quit minutes for. The man they are playing together for. The man who’s inspired hard-fought, united, egoless basketball.
“I just want to help my team as much as possible,” rookie Kelly Olynyk said following the C’s streak-starting survival of the Jazz last Wednesday. “Whether it’s coming off the bench, starting, whether it’s passing, whether it’s scoring, whether it’s rebounding, whether it’s playing defense…whether it’s cheering on the bench. You want to be able to help your team as much as you can and contribute to every win possible.”
“It’s awesome to see a team-win,” noted the second-year Jared Sullinger after a narrow, two-point victory in Orlando on Friday that featured Stevens’ favorite moment in Boston, when Crawford dove on a loose ball. “It wasn’t just one player. It was multiple efforts and multiple players, and we’re going to build on it from here.”
“We trust each other,” Avery Bradley added the next night in South Beach. “I think that’s the main thing. If you have guys that go out there and play for each other and trust each other, everything works itself out, and that’s how we play.”
Stevens spoke after the game of camaraderie and the importance of playing with high spirits, while also noting the need to immediately get back to work. After all, this is the same guy who said he’d celebrate his first career NBA win for a whole 12 minutes before moving on to scout the Magic.
Had Rivers not wanted out, he’d still be on the Boston bench – but he wouldn't have this team at 3-4. He wouldn't have something to prove the way Stevens does and, frankly, he'd almost assuredly be generally disinterested in the development process.
Stevens is trying to build something of his own while rebuilding something that was great not so long ago. He signed a six-year deal in the offseason to leave Butler. His job is safe, no matter what the Celtics do this year, the next, or the season after, and he expected a bumpy road when he took the gig.
“We’re not gonna have many games where we’re ahead by much at the end,” said the coach before departing Florida. “We’re gonna be in a lot of close games, so it should be a goal for us to pull those out.”
That’s where an abundance of fans disagree. To think many organizational supporters and single-season haters were actually upset when Green hit that shot in LeBron James’ face. LeBron’s. And there was anguish. Amazing.
But it’s the winning culture, self-pride, and motivated attitude that Stevens is cultivating that has his team striving for every ounce of achievable greatness that made the win possible. Well, and Dwyane Wade’s poor decision-making.
If the C’s truly wanted to finish at the bottom of the league this year, Stevens was the wrong hire. He wasn’t automatically bound for the NBA this year. Danny Ainge may have been able to bring him on to start next season, a top college recruit or two already in tow. Less intelligent, talented, or capable replacements for Rivers were available. Even, ehem, aspiring coaches like Antoine Walker.
A Bobby Valentine-like break-it-down-before-putting-it-back-together hire wasn’t preferable, however. Instead, Ainge chose the coach of the future now in Stevens – the man who couldn’t have possibly known how quickly and compelling his influence would be.
Win or lose – and there will likely be a lot of losses – this team has shown it's going to work and play hard. That's what the fans should want: A head coach who demands respect from his players, and the desire to put a championship mentality, if not the wins that go with it, in place.
Moreover, each one of the men on the roster, from the 22-year-old rookies to the veterans of more than a decade, has something to prove. Not one of their jobs is as safe as that of the coach, and that’s unlike most anywhere else in the NBA. Auditions for seats on the next duck boat parade are underway.
The Celts may only win 25 games, turn the ball over too frequently, and get crushed on the glass as players discover and get acclimated to their roles. But damn it if they aren't going to be enjoyable to watch compete night-in and night-out on the way to those inevitable shortcomings.
Embrace it. The C's are playing with house money. They're our new lovable losers, and they deserve your attention.
If they win, they're like that cute new puppy that eats your shoe. It's tough to get mad because, shucks, they don't know they're doing something wrong and they really just want to feel closer to you. If they lose and take you one step closer to Secaucus, well then collect your treat!
In short, wins are wins and losses are wins. And, under Stevens, the Celtics are never going to roll over and play dead.
Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman
The author is solely responsible for the content.
About this blog
Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.
Send Adam Kaufman an email.