You want the temperature of the Celtics, 10 games into the new season? Does on fire and refusing to cool count as a temperature? Because, Fahrenheit or Celsius, they are scorching.
You want the state of the Celtics so far through this eventful beginning, which arrived with high hopes, collided with apparent devastation on opening night, and somehow in the aftermath have raised hopes even higher? Does mesmerizing count as a state? How about thrilling?
The Celtics have burned through the haze of gruesomely losing Gordon Hayward 5 minutes and 15 seconds into his tenure, won 8 in a row for the first time since the Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce/Ray Allen era, and own the best record in the NBA with the mighty Golden State Warriors coming to town 10 days from now.
Imagine how fun this team would be if Danny Ainge knew what he was doing, huh?
Yeah, not a lot of chirping from the #fireainge bird’s nest full of NBA-know-nothings nowadays. I long suspected that those who didn’t respect Ainge’s savviness and degree of difficulty in rebuilding without tanking in the post-New Big Three era had brains the size of the pea in a referee’s whistle. I consider the silence as this team, with just four holdovers from last year, rapidly gels into arguably the best team in the conference, as confirmation.
Ainge got it right. All of it. Is there anyone who thinks Jaylen Brown was a reach with the third pick in the 2016 draft? Is there anyone who would trade Jayson Tatum for Markelle Fultz now? Does anyone prefer RJ Hunter to Terry Rozier now? Heck, does anyone wonder why he signed scarcely known Daniel Theis?
In the quest for a conventional superstar, Ainge pursued, at various times and stages, Kevin Love, Jimmy Butler, Paul George, and Kevin Durant. Those potential transactions never came to be. They were teases, and that could be frustrating. But he did not hoard his assets. When the right deal for the right player at the right time came along, he paid a steep price to make it happen. Isaiah Thomas – that unconventional superstar, flawed but beloved for life in Boston – plus Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and a Brooklyn pick went to rival Cleveland.
That is a lot. The return? The one and only Kyrie Irving. Any regrets so far? Why would there be? At just 25 years old, Irving has a remarkable basketball pedigree. He was the first pick in the draft. He’s been Rookie of the Year, an All-Star Game Most Valuable Player, a four-time All-Star. He’s also a champion by his own hand, having hit the winning shot on the road in Game 7 of the finals to beat a 73-win team. He is the definition of a conventional superstar.
Yet he’s doing things here that he’s rarely done with consistency before. There were questions about his passing. No one whips the ball around the perimeter to open teammates with Irving’s precision and vision. There were questions about his defense. He leads the NBA in steals per game, and the effort does not appear to wane.
Brad Stevens – who is never allowed to leave this job, by the way – will get much credit for bringing out the best in Irving. There will be some truth there, and it’s a joy to watch Stevens deploy a superstar after getting so much out of flawed players through the years. But Irving deserves credit for bringing it out of himself.
If you’re familiar with his work and NBA history, you know it is not hyperbolic to suggest there may not be another guard in NBA history that finishes in traffic with Irving’s grace and clever use of geometry. He is the best ballhandler in the league. And he might be the Celtics’ most effective shooter with his weak hand since the days when Larry Bird would play lefthanded just to keep himself entertained.
But the most fulfilling thing about having Irving here has been his connection with Al Horford. They play the two-man game like they’ve been teammates for 10 years rather than 10 games, with Horford often finding Irving on cuts, and Irving reciprocating by setting up Horford for open 3s. The long-range shot is a relatively new addition to his game. He took just 29 total through his first seven seasons. But what a weapon that shot has become. Since the beginning of last season’s playoffs, Horford is shooting 44 of 85 (51.7 percent) from 3.
If you don’t recognize that Horford is an excellent, winning basketball player, you’re either trolling, cannot admit that an earlier assessment was wrong, or couldn’t identify a basketball if I left you on the doorstep of Dick’s Sporting Goods.
The season is still new, and yet there are so many reasons to watch. Tatum has such a silky, unhurried game. Brown is all kinetic energy, but he’s trying to harness it (love watching him workshop the Eurostep), and Aron Baynes is the kind of burly big guy Celtics fans have wanted since Kendrick Perkins was traded. Semi Ojeleye is a reminder that second-round picks can have real value. Marcus Smart is struggling with his shot but remains a ferocious presence on defense.
Last year’s Celtics team was one of the most likable non-championship teams in recent Boston sports history. This team has them beat. It’s a better team, and a team I already like better. The talent is better. The can-do attitude remains. The rally from down 18 points at Oklahoma City Friday night confirmed their collective resilience. They played well together even when circumstances looked grim.
Conclusions, 10 games into the season? Sure, I’ll give you conclusions, because I believe all of them. Danny Ainge has put together a deep and talented roster of immensely likable players. Brad Stevens is the best young coach in professional sports. Kyrie Irving is the superstar who is worth all of the assets he cost. Al Horford is the fulcrum of the offense, defense, and locker room, and he’d better get his due. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are the future , and they happen to be having a sensational present.
This is what Celtics fans waited for. Actually, let me amend that. This Celtics team is a thrilling prologue to the greatest fun. If they’re this appealing now, just imagine what they’ll look like when Gordon Hayward returns for his second Celtics game and beyond.