One of the great satisfactions in the Celtics’ 12-2 start is the realization that Danny Ainge nailed all of the small moves in putting this roster together while we were paying attention to the big moves.
Of course our eyes were drawn to the summer’s fireworks: Winning and then trading the No. 1 overall draft pick in June for the No. 3 pick that would become the mesmerizing Jayson Tatum; signing All-Star free agent and early Brad Stevens disciple Gordon Hayward in July; then the grand finale of transactions, sending Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the last Brooklyn pick to Cleveland for disgruntled dynamo Kyrie Irving in August.
The Celtics finally had acquired the genuine, conventional stars to join all-around stalwart Al Horford and make daydreams of an 18th championship banner realistic again. When Ainge was done dealing, only four players remained from last year’s Eastern Conference finalists, but the brilliant and accelerated rebuild from the end of the New Big Three era in 2012 had culminated.
We couldn’t wait to see how they played together, how they meshed and developed their identity as a team. For approximately 6 minutes in the first quarter of the first game of the season, we got a taste. Then Hayward, the most complete player on the revamped roster, went up for an alley-oop, ricocheted off LeBron James and Crowder, and when he landed, his left foot was pointing west when the rest of him was looking north.
His injury seemed to defer the dream of a truly memorable season before it really even began.
The Celtics lost that night, to the Cavaliers, despite a feisty and unexpected second-half rally that now looks like a foreshadowing of this team’s never-quit resilience. They lost the very next night in their home opener versus the Bucks, with the pall of Hayward’s injury still palpable. That was on Oct. 18. They have not lost since.
How can this be? Well, it’s the stars, even sans Hayward. Horford is having a phenomenal season so far (he’s averaging 15.7 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 4.7 assists while playing lock-down defense and shooting 48.7 percent from 3-point territory). And Irving . . . well, we knew he was arguably the best ballhandler and in-traffic finisher in the league, and we knew he was dazzling, but it’s a whole different treat to watch him do it on a nightly basis.
Tatum plays like an elongated Paul Pierce; Markelle Fultz can become the next James Harden and no one is going to complain about this special kid. And of course the coach is a star, too. Pulling Stevens away from Butler might have been Ainge’s greatest move of all.
But it’s not just the stars. Amid those long-awaited fireworks, Ainge found a few sparklers to add to the show. When the Celtics signed Daniel Theis from the Brose Bamberg squad in Germany’s Basketball Bundesliga, I thought, “Cool, a new Red Claw.’’
Fourteen games into his career, it’s clear Theis is never coming to Maine unless he makes a wise vacation choice some summer. The 25-year-old is relentless on the glass, finishes at the rim with confidence, and is athletic enough to block shots on the move without committing a foul, as he did to the Raptors’ Delon Wright late in Sunday’s win. He does all of the helpful stuff Celtics fans always wished Kelly Olynyk would add to his repertoire.
His strong performance in that win led to an amusing conversation between Mike Gorman and Tommy Heinsohn late in the game.
“This guy here is like . . .,’’ said Heinsohn, and I was just waiting for him to compare Theis to a legend, like his past Greg Stiemsma/Bill Russell and Olynyk/Dirk Nowitzki comps of Heinsohn Hyperbole. But he caught himself.
“Who is he at the start of the season?’ he asked Gorman.
“He’s a first-round draft pick is who he is,’’ said Gorman, meaning he’d be a high draft pick if he had come into the league via conventional route.
“That’s right,’’ said Heinsohn, sounding vaguely like Tony the Tiger.
I’d really love to know to whom he was about to compare Theis, though. Probably a righthanded Dave Cowens or something. God bless Tommy. It’s no sillier than me thinking Theis was nothing more than the next Semih Erden.
Another find who looked like roster fodder when the Celtics signed him is Shane Larkin. He was a first-round pick not so long ago, but he broke his ankle in summer league during his rookie season with the 2013-14 Mavericks and quickly fell into journeyman status, bouncing from the Mavs to the lowly Knicks to the lowlier Nets before ending up in Barcelona last season.
Larkin, who wears a wristband that says “Fueled By Doubt,’’ wasn’t ready to give up on his NBA goals, and the Celtics hadn’t given up on him as an NBA prospect. It’s been a beautiful relationship so far. Larkin can play point guard or play off other point guards. He believes in his shot, and his ability to add instant offense was crucial in the come-from-behind win over the Hornets, when he had 16 points in 17 minutes.
Who else? Who else? Well, Aron Baynes has been the redwood in the paint that the Celtics have lacked since the sad day when Kendrick Perkins was dealt away. Semi Ojeleye is a defensive menace who is proving that second-round picks sometimes deliver real assets. G-League grad Abdul Nader hasn’t done much yet, but I’m telling you, he’s going to have a Leon Powe-like 15 points in 12 minutes one of these days.
It’s funny; top to bottom, the Celtics had a remarkably likable roster last season. And they were a very good team, one of the final four left playing in the NBA. The concern with all of Ainge’s changes was that the team might improve, but its appeal might wane. That hasn’t been the case.
Fourteen games into this season, it’s apparent that the Celtics are a genuine Eastern Conference contender. That’s no surprise, at least based on expectations before Hayward’s injury. Their collective likability so early in their formation is a surprise. This team has been a joy to behold, for the sparklers as much as the fireworks.