Help me out here, would you, because I’m really not sure how I’m supposed to read this situation. Are we supposed to be frustrated or agitated that the Celtics punted away a 26-point first-half lead last night and eventually lost to the Warriors, 106-101?
Because I have to admit, I’m having a difficult time finding anything but unabashed enthusiasm for the way the Celtics played last night, even in defeat. Part of that optimism comes from the way they’ve been playing lately — they’ve won 7 of 11 and bust their asses every night, win or lose, to the point that they’ve become the most entertaining Playing For The Eighth Playoff Seed In A Lousy Conference collection of players that I’ve ever seen.
Actually, calling them a collection of players does them a disservice. The Celtics have had 40 players on their roster since the beginning of camp. Twenty-two have played at least one game. Established professionals such as Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green have departed. Tayshaun Prince and Jameer Nelson have come and gone. Dwight Powell and Luigi Datome have had cameos, Jonas Jerebko has a growing fan club after four games, and somehow Shavlik Randolph earned a sequel as a Celtic.
And yet through all the chaos and transition, this collection of players has gelled as a team. Much of that is attributable to Brad Stevens, a brilliant coach who has his well-compensated NBA players approaching each game with the enthusiasm, determination and relative discipline that reminds you of his giant-slaying Butler teams.
Credit also belongs to Danny Ainge, who has stockpiled assets — seriously, that Nets deal is going to be an all-time heist — while bringing in players who may not have the most natural talent but who thrive on competition. I still want to see the Celtics get a high pick in the lottery one of these years. They’re sure as hell due some luck in that regard.
But I also respect that a fine team can be built nowadays without such luck — the Warriors being a prime example. I’d love to see this Celtics team make the playoffs, just to be able to watch them do their thing and agitate a better team for a little bit longer. Here’s hoping the Nets picks turn into the lottery jackpots. I’m fine with this group playing to win, and I trust Ainge to find quality no matter where he is selecting in the draft.
I’m not a huge Isaiah Thomas fan — his conscience-free gunning is fun when the shots fall and exasperating when he’s getting his third straight pull-up 25-footer blocked back in his face. But he’s fearless for better or worse and does give the Celtics someone who can create his own shot. He seems to mesh well with Marcus Smart, too.
I don’t love the player, but there are times — such as during his 15-point first half last night — when it’s impossible not to love his game. I just hope Tommy Heinsohn stops comparing him to Tiny Archibald. That’s not as egregious as his suggestion a few years ago that Greg Steimsma blocks shots like Bill Russell in his heyday. But it’s on the spectrum.
The relative newbie I hope has staying power is Jae Crowder, who is just the kind of fierce role player the Pierce-Garnett-Allen teams could have used in the later years, after James Posey left. That guy belongs on a winning team. Whether he’s still here when the Celtics are legitimate contenders again remains to be seen, but don’t you feel better now about their direction than you did, say, six weeks ago?
Yeah, it was a bummer they couldn’t hold on against the Warriors, the league’s best team which, in the first half, looked weary for understandable reasons: It was their fifth game of a six-game road trip, and their second game in a stretch of three in four nights. But Golden State, behind assassin Stephen Curry’s 37 points, did what a team in a quest for a championship is supposed to do: It won a game on talent, sure, but also on a night when it had an excuse not to. I hope they win the title this year.
Besides, didn’t you expect the Warriors to rally? Didn’t everyone, even on the opposing bench? No lead is safe against Curry and Klay Thompson. Stevens said at halftime that a 15-point lead feels like three against Golden State, and he reiterated that point, albeit with some altered numbers, after the game.
“Twenty-whatever we were up in the first half felt like three to me,” Boston coach Brad Stevens said. “And 16 at halftime feels like two against those guys. They just come back so fast.”
They did, and the Celtics came up a bounce or two short — man, if only that late Crowder three had dropped rather than rolling out — from pulling off the surprise.
In one sense, the loss was a reminder of how far they have to go. But it was also confirmation that despite all of the turnover, Stevens, Ainge and this admirable collection of young players and basketball misfits have the Celtics headed the right way. If the Celtics are this fun to watch now, just imagine what it will be like when they have more talent.