If Kyrie Irving is to be believed, the Boston Celtics are keeping up their astounding 16-game winning streak simply by listening to their coaches, sticking to their game plan and not giving in to the idea that huge scoring runs are necessary to thrive in the modern NBA.
“Teams make their runs, and we just stay the course,” Irving told reporters after Boston’s 110-102 overtime victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Monday. “We’re just unwavering in our approach.”
But how long can the Celtics’ streak last? And what does it mean for their future if they keep it going?
Already tied for the 22nd-longest winning streak in NBA history, Boston has a stretch of manageable games ahead of them and has a realistic chance of joining the short list of teams to win 20 straight.
Boston does have at least one naysayer: Brad Stevens, their coach, who thinks his team’s streak has had more to do with good fortune than anyone has acknowledged.
“We haven’t played well enough to consider this win streak to be valid, in my opinion,” Stevens told reporters before the team’s victory over the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday. “We’ve figured out ways to win games. We’ve got to play a lot better.”
The numbers, however, indicate that Stevens may not be giving his team enough credit. Boston’s scoring differential, when worked into the concept of Pythagorean standings (a formula that calculates expected winning percentage using points scored and allowed), suggests they should have expected to go 14-4 so far — not far from their actual record, 16-2.
The Celtics have succeeded by slowing down the game. An offense led by Al Horford, Jaylen Brown and Irving is in the bottom half of the league, with 103.1 points per 100 possessions, but that is more than enough when the team has locked down opponents to the tune of 95.8 points allowed per 100 possessions, which leads the NBA.
The streak is especially impressive considering it began after the team lost Gordon Hayward, Boston’s prized offseason acquisition, in the first game of the season. Expected to lock down the small forward position for the next several years, Hayward became a high-priced cheerleader for Jayson Tatum and Brown, who had a combined one year of NBA experience before this season.
At 16 wins, the Celtics are on the verge of some historical benchmarks over their next few games. Boston’s next two opponents are Miami (7-9) and Orlando (8-9) — two teams the Celtics have already beaten during their streak. No game in the NBA can be considered a guaranteed win, but Boston should be heavily favored in both, which could get them to 18 straight wins, a figure reached by 15 teams.
After Orlando, the Celtics travel to Indiana to play an entertaining group of youngsters in the form of the rebuilding Pacers. Having traded away Paul George, the Pacers were expected to fall apart, but instead, they have thrived thanks to spectacular play from the players they acquired for George, Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, as well as the hard work of Myles Turner, a potential franchise star.
Entering Tuesday, the Pacers were the No. 8 team in the Eastern Conference, which would match them against Boston in the first round of the playoffs if the standings did not change. This game seems like a difficult one for Boston, with the Pacers most likely hoping to prove themselves and the Celtics coming off a game against the Magic in Boston the night before. But a veteran-laden team should be equipped to handle those factors and push the streak to 19, a figure reached by 10 teams.
To be the seventh team to win 20 straight, however, the Celtics would need to beat the East’s other darling this season, the Detroit Pistons, on Monday. The underlying statistics suggest that Detroit, at 11-6, has slightly more offense, but not nearly as much defense as Boston. But coach Stan Van Gundy is always up for a challenge, and if a 20-win streak is on the line for his opponent, he will certainly have his team prepared for an all-out attack.
The concept of getting beyond 20 straight wins may be too abstract to analyze at this point. Four teams have accomplished the feat, and three of the four went on to play in the NBA. finals. Most recently, the Golden State Warriors won 28 consecutive games in a streak that spanned the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, but then went on to blow a 3-1 lead in the 2016 finals to Irving’s Cleveland Cavaliers.
But here is a hard reality check for any Celtics fans wondering if the team could be on the verge of a record winning streak: Boston, with more than a month of not losing, is not yet halfway to matching the record of 33 straight wins set by the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1971-72 season. Even if everything were to go right for the Celtics, the earliest they could match Los Angeles’ record would be Dec. 21 against the Knicks, which would mean they would have gone two entire months without a loss. That would seem to take a lot more than just staying the course.