Celtics

Celtics face early test in new-look Atlantic Division

951557.jpg

Celtics face early test in new-look Atlantic Division

The NBA season is just about a month old, and as I type, the Milwaukee Bucks are the only team in the Central Division with a winning record. This leads to the obvious question: OK, great. Who cares? But hold off on that for a second. I promise youll have another chance to ask.

Down in the Southeast, Miami and Atlanta are both above .500, while the Bobcats barely hang on after a surprising start (although if were being fair, shouldnt Mondays loss to the Thunder count for at least five? OK, good. So the Bobcats are actually 7-10). Out West, the Clippers and Warriors are the only two Pacific teams with a winning record. Same goes for the Spurs and Grizzlies in the Southwest. And in the Northwest, youve got the Thunder, Nuggets and Jazz all sitting above .500, with the Blazers and Wolves both lurking.

OK. All together now: Who cares?!

Now just the ladies: Who cares?!

Now just the seven-foot Serbians with a uniform number in the 90s: . . .

Oh, right. But seriously, who cares? Its November. Its early. Of the 30 teams in the league, only two have even played 15 games. Despite all thats happened and all weve learned since Opening Night in Miami, were still living in the Land of Small Sample Size where nothing is real. Not yet at least. So to try and draw any crazy conclusions based on the state of the current NBA standings is just stupid.

But . . . while nothings completely real at this point, in many cases, theres been enough evidence to help confirm some things that we already believed to be real.

For instance, right now Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony are the leagues Top 3 leading scorers. On one hand, no one can say for sure that those guys will finish the season in the Top 3, but on the other, that would make a lot of sense. It lines up with our pre-season expectations and leaves us feeling pretty damn confident that Kobe, Durant and Melo are going to score a ton of points this year.

That's real.

And in those terms, so is the Atlantic Division.

After just about a month, the Atlantic is currently the only division in the NBA that features four teams with a winning a record. And on one hand, once again, its early. Im not saying that its going to stay this way all season, and Im definitely not saying that the Celtics, Knicks, Nets, 76ers and Raptors comprise the most talented and dominant division in the league.

But at this point, theres no question that it is, and will be, one of the most competitive. That after five years of significant Celtic dominance, the Atlantics officially up for grabs. Of course, this doesnt come as a surprise. This is what everyone expected this season. But now its real.

Entering tonights game against the Nets, the Celtics are in fourth place in the Atlantic. And obviously, thats not a big deal when you consider that theyre also only a game and a half out of first. But at the same time, its hard to argue that theyve been any better than the divisions fourth best team.

The Knicks are 9-4 with wins over Miami, San Antonio and Philly (x2). The Nets are 9-4 with wins over the Clippers, Knicks and Celtics. The Sixers are 9-6 with wins over Denver and Utah, plus that big one a few Fridays back at the Garden.

Here in Boston, the Celtics have just been surviving. Theyre 8-6, but only two of those wins have come against teams with a winning record. One of those was last Friday against Oklahoma City, and theres still hope that that game was a sign that the Cs are finally ready to break out of their uneven, month-long funk and start looking like the team that we spent all summer talking up as a legitimate threat to Miami.

But at best, its still just a sign. Were still waiting for the actual proof. And the Celtics have real nice opportunity to provide some tonight.

Want to hear something crazy? If the Celtics lose this game to the Nets, theyll fall to 1-3 in the Atlantic Division. Thats as many division games as they lost COMBINED over the first two seasons with KG and Ray, and as many they lost in each of the two seasons after that. Back then, a divisional game was something that the Celtics had to force themselves to care about. And even though they always got the job done, it was rarely pretty.

Honestly, how many absolutely awful CelticsNets games do you think you sat through over the last five years?

And I mean awful. I mean where the Nets were unwatchable, the Celtics werent trying and the whole experience just ruined your night.

I. Mean. Awful. And it came down to the fact that the Celtics just had nothing to prove. Thats their Achilles heel. If weve learned one thing about this team over the years its that having something to prove is the motor in their engine. It starts with Rondo. Its always been that way with Pierce. When theres no challenge, theres no Celtics. And for the last five years, that was the case pretty much every time they took the floor against the Nets.

But tonight, the Celtics are looking at their new reality. A big game against the Nets, in which they not only have something to prove, but also desperately need to prove it.

OK, for the 5,000th time, its early. But its not that early. The season's slowly coming into focus, and before the Celtics can even think about the East, they've got to prove that they can handle life in the new look Atlantic.

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

Streak reveals depth even Celtics didn't know they had

Streak reveals depth even Celtics didn't know they had

Coaches in all sports will tell you that winning is not easy.
 
Making the Celtics’ 16-game winning streak even more impressive is that a number of the victories have involved Boston turning to some unlikely sources of production.

MORE CELTICS:

And that has provided a glimpse into a franchise that’s getting the best of both worlds: quality play from its core group while developing reserves who have contributed to the team reeling off 16 straight wins in a variety of ways.
 
Because coach Brad Stevens has gone deeper into his bench this season than past years, it has created a roster with minutes more evenly distributed and with that, less wear and tear on the bodies of key players.
 
And while this team is led by Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, there has been at least one other Celtic to emerge as a top-three performer every night...and often it’s not the same player.
 
“Much more unpredictable now,” a league executive texted to NBC Sports Boston. “That number three guy, is it [Jaylen] Brown? [Jayson] Tatum? Sometimes it’s Marcus [Smart]. You don’t know who it’s going to be because a lot of times, I don’t think they [Celtics] know who it will be. It’s why they’re so good, man.”
 
Here are five under-the-radar storylines heading into tonight’s game in Miami with the Celtics trying to push their winning streak to 17:

KYRIE FOR MVP
It’s one thing for the home crowd to get into the ‘M-V-P’ chants when you’re at the free-throw line. But it’s a completely different matter when those same cheers are being heard on the road. That’s where Irving was following the 110-102 overtime win at Dallas, a game in which Irving dropped 47 points, 10 in overtime. It’ll be interesting to see if another strong game by Irving will lead to another serenading of ‘M-V-P’ chants for the most dominant player on the team with the league’s best record.


 
TURNING DOWN THE HEAT
The streak is the talk of the NBA right now, but streaking was going to be part of the conversation leading up to tonight’s game regardless. The Celtics come into tonight’s game having won eight in a row over the Heat, their longest current winning streak over any team. Boston has dominated this matchup for years, posting a 70-44 record all-time against Miami in the regular season.
 

DUKE CONNECTION
College basketball just kicked off and Duke is once again among the game’s top teams, a school that consistently produces NBA talent at a relatively high level. That’ll be very apparent tonight when you consider this Boston-Miami matchup features three players (Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum for Boston, Justise Winslow for Miami) from Duke who will all be in the starting lineup and a fourth (Boston’s Semi Ojeleye) who attended Duke but later transferred to SMU.


 
JUSTISE WINSLOW
Every front-office executive has that one player they tried – and failed – to acquire that, in hindsight, not getting him was a really good thing. Winslow is that guy for the Celtics. While he hasn’t been necessarily a bust, his impact at this level hasn’t been enough to have warranted all the assets Boston was willing to part with on draft night in order to move up and select him. Still, he’s healthy now and starting to play better which is evident by his numbers in most offensive categories on the rise, while his defense has been relatively solid.
 

THREE-POINTERS
The Heat have made the 3-point shot a much bigger part of their offense this season, evident by Miami ranking seventh in the league in 3-point makes (11.2) this season. In Boston, one of the keys to their top-ranked defense has been their length, which has come in real handy defending the 3-pointer. In fact, Boston has limited opponents to just 32.1 percent shooting on 3’s this season, which ranks third in the league.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE


 

WATCH: Celtics vs. Heat

stream-celtics-heat.jpg

WATCH: Celtics vs. Heat

Tune into NBC Sports Boston to watch the Celtics play the Heat in Miami. You can also click here to watch the Celtics livestream presented by Nissan on the NBC Sports App. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live Presented by ACE Ticket.

- Game preview: Will Celtics be drained by emotional comeback win Monday in Dallas?

- Channel Finder: Make sure you know where to watch

[SHOP: Gear up, Celtics fans!]

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE