The Celtics enter Thursday night’s anticipated clash with the reigning and probable future champion Golden State Warriors with a 13-2 record. My calculator tells me that’s a 71-win pace.
Why, that is quite an impressive pace, especially for those of us (hello there) who had them pegged for 40-something wins after Gordon Hayward dislocated his ankle and broke his leg in the first quarter of the first game of the season. This isn’t just a pleasant surprise. It’s an exhilarating one.
I think the math is missing a variable there, though. As you know, the Celtics have won 13 in row. If they make it 14 against the phenomenal likes of Steph Curry and Kevin Durant, I will have no choice but to believe 71 wins is a serious underestimation of this Celtics team.
Oh, I can’t say they’ll go 80-2 – there’s probably a night where they’ll all shoot like Marcus Smart and lose to, say, the Spurs in triple overtime. We must be realistic and humble, like certain sports radio hosts demand you to be whenever something is going much better than expected and you’re happy about it. So let’s put ‘em at 78-4. They’ll probably lose to the Warriors at their place, I guess.
OK, c’mon, you know we’re being facetious, about all of it except for the finger-wagging radio-host part. The Celtics aren’t winning 40-something, as I solemnly suggested post-Hayward. But 70? Let’s put it this way: The 1985-86 Celtics, the greatest basketball team ever assembled, didn’t win 70; they went 67-15. The 2008-09 Celtics, who took a 27-2 mark into Christmas, didn’t win 70; they went 62-20. Even the 1972-73 Los Angeles Lakers, who won a record 33 straight games, didn’t win 70; they stalled at a meager 69-13.
The 2017-18 Celtics aren’t winning 70. I’ll hear you on the low-60s, though. I believe what we’re seeing. This is the best team in the Eastern Conference, and I say that knowing full well that the power and presence of LeBron James sometimes is enough to singlehandedly overcome excellent opponents and his own mediocre teammates.
That 0-2 start feels like it occurred in a different season. They’re already overcome so much, as Celtics.com’s Mark D’Amico pointed out in a detailed Tweet Wednesday – the loss of Hayward, Kyrie Irving’s facial injury, Al Horford’s concussion, Marcus Morris’s early-season absence, and 18-point deficits in wins over Oklahoma City and Charlotte. And that’s only part of it.
Obstacles Celts have overcome during 13-gm streak
-No Hayward AND Horford
-No Hayward AND Horford AND Kyrie
-Trailed by 18 in OKC
-Trailed by 18 vs CHA w/o Hayward/Horford/Kyrie
-Shot < 42% on FGs 6x
-Bench totaled 12 pts 1x
-Won by 7 or fewer 7x
— Marc D'Amico (@Marc_DAmico) November 15, 2017
Yet they roll on, with virtually every player on the roster contributing. This is the same kind of fun Celtics fans had early in the 2007-08 season, when Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen were united and Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins emerged as reliable sidekicks.
I wrote after the Hayward injury that his absence will linger like a cloud over the entire season. Fourteen games later, and even that has changed. We look at the roster now – especially the thrilling revelation that 19-year-old Jayson Tatum is already on the brink of stardom – and say, wow, if they can play like this without Hayward, just imagine what they will be with him.
His absence is no longer a source of sadness, but one of anticipation. The Celtics are not a true championship contender yet, like that 2007-08 basketball beast was en route to hanging Banner 17. But this could be a genuine championship contender when Hayward returns next season. Danny Ainge sure knew what to do with those assets, didn’t he?
There is one team that will be in the building Thursday night that is capable of winning 70 games. The Warriors have done it before, of course, winning 73 games in 2015-16 to surpass the 72-win 1995-96 Chicago Bulls for the most regular-season wins in the league history. Achieving that record came with an unexpected and disappointing coda – the Warriors did not win the NBA championship, losing to James and the Cavs in seven. It’s similar to the 2007 Patriots, who went 18-1 but will never be regarded as the greatest single-season team ever because of a cruel plot twist at the end.
The Warriors come into this one at 11-3 – a 64-win pace – but riding a seven-game winning streak. They’re winning by an average of 11.8 points per game, a sign of their dominance. But it’s hard to fathom 70 wins is an aspiration. The lesson was learned after the achievement two years ago – regular-season feats matter little if they do not lead to the ultimate achievement, a championship. They rest their stars now. They run Nick Young out there for entertainment purposes. They play for June, not November.
But I guarantee the Warriors go full-throttle in this one. The Celtics have had relative success against them in recent years. In the past, the Celtics could play with the Warriors in part because Avery Bradley locked down on Steph Curry. Now the dynamic has changed, but now it is perhaps even more intriguing. It’s a duel of superstars. Remember, that 73-win season ended in disappointment when Kyrie Irving hit a shot to win a championship in Curry’s face, and not vice versa.
The Warriors are capable of winning 70 games, but they won’t. The Celtics won’t either, of course. That we can ask the question under even a slight guise of seriousness tells you all you need to know about this franchise, it’s satisfying current status, and its golden days to come.