Celtics

The Celtics are 20 games in and what a difference a year makes

The Celtics are 20 games in and what a difference a year makes

After the Boston Celtics’ 20th game of the 2018-19 season, Marcus Smart was speechless. And not in the good way.

On that night in late November, the Celtics lost for the fourth time in five games while dropping to 10-10 overall. A smoldering Smart, who had already bristled after a rough road trip out west earlier in the month, considered his team’s general lethargy and fumed, “Until we [change our ways], we’ll continue to get our ass whooped.” Kyrie Irving wondered if the team was near, “rock bottom."

Fast forward a year and, no longer encumbered by the heavy burden of expectations, it’s all sunshine and puppy dogs in CelticsLand. The 2019-20 Celtics are 15-5 and, despite being pegged a Tier 2 team in the East, they have asserted themselves as a legitimate East contender even while playing at less than full strength for nearly the entirety of the season.

And therein lies the biggest difference between last year’s Celtics and this year’s squad. When last year’s team encountered adversity, or things started to go sideways, that group splintered and cracked. When this year’s squad hits bumps in the road, the players stick together.

Take Wednesday night against the Heat as an example. Boston, playing without two starters, fell behind early by double digits. Last year’s team probably would have packed it in; this year’s team ripped off a late first-half run and controlled the rest of the game against a team that had been ahead of them in the standings.

That resiliency is a particularly endearing trait of this year’s team. This year’s Celtics squad competes every night. Take away a jagged opening-night loss in Philadelphia and Boston has stuck close in every other game this season, their other four losses coming by a combined 13 points.

It’s almost certainly unfair that we keep comparing and contrasting last year’s Celtics team to this year’s version. This year’s version has stressed a desire to focus on the now. Alas, the juxtaposition is undeniably stark and you can’t acknowledge where the Celtics are now without remembering what they went through.

Last year’s team internalized their struggles, which caused unnecessary friction and things always seemed tense around the team. This year’s squad gets contributions throughout the roster, celebrates each other’s successes, and then engages in a playful team snowball fight.

How this year’s team reacts to large-scale adversity remains to be seen. Boston’s longest losing streak is two games and, even then, the Celtics came away encouraged with the fight they showed while losing to the championship-favorite Clippers out west and fighting back after Kemba Walker’s injury scare in Denver.

The next few weeks will tell us a lot more about this year’s team and its resiliency. A rematch with the Nuggets looms Friday night and then a challenging Indiana-Philadelphia back-to-back highlights next week’s schedule. A visit to Toronto awaits on Christmas day.

Boston could soon be back at full strength, with Gordon Hayward seemingly trending toward an early return as he rehabs from a left hand fracture. Jaylen Brown has been so good in his absence that the only question is whether there are enough shots to go around for four star-caliber players the way Walker, Hayward, Brown, and Jayson Tatum have all performed this season.

That visit from Philadelphia could help answer the question of whether Boston truly needs to make a move for another big, the sort that could engage in hand-to-hand combat with the likes of Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Games against Indiana and Toronto will tell us if Boston is definitely a top-tier team in the East or part of the pack trying to get on Milwaukee’s level.

But even with the question marks that remain, the outlook is a lot rosier than it was a year ago through 20 games. Last year’s Celtics squad actually played their best ball after that 10-10 start, performing so well in the stretch that followed that Danny Ainge kept the roster intact the rest of the season.

The next few weeks will tell us if Ainge needs to make any changes for this year’s squad. We’ll get a better idea of where this team stands. And, maybe most importantly, we’ll see just how long these positive vibes can persist fr the 2019-20 Celtics.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Nuggets, which tips off Friday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Tommy have the call at 8 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Defense is what's fueling the Celtics' strong play of late

Defense is what's fueling the Celtics' strong play of late

BOSTON -- The Los Angeles Lakers came to town and got crushed by the Boston Celtics. 

Up next was Memphis, a red-hot team on the rise with a next-level rookie leading the way, who got one of those back-of-the-woodshed beatdowns. 

The Celtics are coming off their best back-to-back performances this season and are looking to continue that strong play away from the TD Garden with the next three games on the road, beginning with Friday night’s matchup at Orlando. 

LIVE stream the Celtics all season and get the latest news and analysis on all of your teams from NBC Sports Boston by downloading the My Teams App.

Indeed, there is an undeniable amount of pressure on them to continue on their winning ways. 

And the key to that success lies in their defense; specifically their ability to apply pressure at a consistent level. 

The last two games have seen the Celtics deliver the defensive hammer in a way we have not seen with this kind of consistency. 

Yes, it’s only two games. 

But here’s the thing. 

You can probably count the minutes in those two games that Boston hasn’t played with a sharp edge defensively, on the one hand. 

And the numbers only amplify how well they have ratcheted up their play at that end of the floor lately. 

In the last two games, Boston’s defense has averaged 25.0 points off turnovers which is tops in the league, 22.5 fast-break points which ranks second in the NBA in the last two games, and they are limiting opponents to just 10.0 points via fast-breaks which is the league’s fifth-lowest average in the last two games. 

Blanketing teams with pressure defensively has been something Celtics head coach Brad Stevens has been imploring his players to do all season. 

“Without any resistance, they catch it inside the three-point line or at the three-point line without any resistance, then we’re in trouble,” Stevens said. “Our best rim defense is keeping the ball away from it.”

And lately, the Celtics have done this at an elite level with their position-less brand of basketball paying dividends by being able to switch constantly defensively and not being burned by a bad matchup. 

Daniel Theis has been particularly impressive recently. 

This season, Theis has a defensive rating of 103.4 but in the last two games, his defensive rating is a strong 78.9. 

And when you start looking at Boston’s other core players, they too have seen a noticeable improvement in their defensive ratings such as Jayson Tatum (101.8 defensive rating this season, 80.2 in the last two games); Gordon Hayward (104.7 this season, 91.3 defensive rating the last two games); and Kemba Walker whose defensive rating of 108.6 has taken a major nose dive the last two games, to 94.8. 

“We have to be a defense-first kind of team; we are,” Hayward told NBC Sports Boston earlier this week. “When we let our defense leads the way for us, good things usually happen.”

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Magic, which begins Friday at 6 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, followed by tip-off at 7 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Celtics rookie Tacko Fall gets seven player votes for NBA All-Star Game

Celtics rookie Tacko Fall gets seven player votes for NBA All-Star Game

Tacko-mania isn't just for fans. Apparently, some NBA players are in on the craze too.

Tacko Fall has been among fan voting leaders for the 2020 NBA All-Star Game, and he managed to snag a few votes from his NBA peers despite appearing in only four games with the Boston Celtics this season. He's spent most of his time in the NBA G League with the Maine Red Claws.

The 7-foot-5 phenom received seven player votes, topping teammates Gordon Hayward (six) and Enes Kanter (four). Fellow C's rookie Grant Williams earned two votes from players.

LIVE stream the Celtics all season and get the latest news and analysis on all of your teams from NBC Sports Boston by downloading the My Teams App.

Considering the amount of attention Tacko has received throughout his rookie campaign, it's really no surprise he's faring well in the popularity contest that is NBA All-Star voting. While it's all fun and games for some, Celtics head coach Brad Stevens made it known he isn't a fan of Tacko-mania extending into the voting process.

Celtics star Kemba Walker was named a starter for the All-Star Game on Thursday. Reserves will be announced on Jan. 30.

Forsberg: This is no passing fancy with Smart

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Magic, which begins Friday at 6 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, followed by tip-off at 7 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.