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.

Celtics-Suns Takeaways: Smart was great. Rest of the Celtics? Not so much

Celtics-Suns Takeaways: Smart was great. Rest of the Celtics? Not so much

BOSTON -- Trailing 98-88 in the fourth quarter, Boston’s Jayson Tatum had the ball in hand, with a potential 1-on-1 opportunity to score at the rim. 

Before he got there, he had one last inside-out, dribble-drive move to make. He made it, but the ball took an unexpected hop, hit his shin and rolled out of bounds. 

It was that kind of night for the Boston Celtics whose struggles continue with Saturday’s 123-119 loss, their sixth in the last nine games. 

There are many avenues to take that’ll lead you to why the Celtics (27-14) lost this one, for sure. But this loss, like most of the others, comes down to defense; specifically, the Celtics not playing very well at that end of the floor. 

And it isn’t just the perimeter players or the team’s bigs. It’s the entire squad, delivering about as much force as a feather all the while getting picked apart from the opening tip to the final horn. 

As we’ve seen so many times with the Celtics, they made a frantic rally in the closing minutes as Phoenix’s comfortable double-digit lead was down to just seven points (114-107) with 1:16 to play.

A pair of free throws and a dunk by Daniel Theis brought Boston within 114-111, only for a short fadeaway jumper in the lane from Mikal Bridges hung on the lip of the rim before falling. That increased the Suns' lead to 116-111 with 36.9 seconds to play. 

Coming out of a Celtics timeout, they called a lob pass to Gordon Hayward, who caught it cleanly and took an uncontested lay-up that rimmed out. A chorus of boos rang out immediately. 

It was a fitting last-second play for the Celtics. Once again, they did a lot of things that looked good and should have worked. But ultimately, they came up short yet again. 

‘D’ IN DEVIN BOOKER STANDS FOR DOMINATE

Booker puts up a ton of points, but the Celtics continue to be the one team he loves to torch more than others. And what we saw for most of Saturday night was consistent with what we usually see from Booker when he’s playing against Boston. 

Saturday was another big night for Booker in Boston. He led the Suns with a near triple-double of 39 points,10 rebounds and nine assists. 

Boston used a slew of different defenders at him but it didn’t matter. Booker is that good and the Celtics defense lately … isn’t. 

WALKER’S ABSENCE PAINFULLY OBVIOUS

Marcus Smart did his best Kemba Walker impression, making a slew of 3’s — and mostly doing so in a very efficient manner 

But in the end, as the Celtics failed to make the necessary plays at either end of the floor, Walker’s absence was painfully obvious.

As impressive as Boston’s knack for players stepping up to fill the void might be when missing one of their stars, there's a cumulative effect that, over time, will make going that route a losing proposition. 

The Celtics need their core guys healthy, ready to go. And when you look at their schedule, a taxing January schedule, and the fact that they have been able to survive way more than they should with this “next man up” brand of basketball, it shouldn’t come as too big a shock that they are coming up short when one of their best players (like Walker) isn’t available. 

MARCUS SMART DOING SMART-LIKE THINGS ALL GAME

It was very much a bittersweet time for Marcus Smart. He was giving the Celtics what the franchise and the fans have been clamoring for — a consistent 3-point shot. 

Smart was having the best game of his life shooting the ball against the Suns. He finished with a career-high 37 points scored, including a career-high 11 made 3’s. He also had eight assists and five rebounds. 

There are going to be very few nights when Smart plays this well, this locked in offensively. 

Even after many fans had headed to the exit, there was Smart, engaged, encouraging as ever, trying to will this team to a victory that they had no business getting.  It was the kind of leadership and big-game play that we’ve come to expect from him. 

And as impressive as it was, the end result was a Celtics loss. This one can be blamed on many factors and many players … but Smart ain’t one of them. 

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Lakers, which begins Monday at 6 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live. You can also stream on the MyTeams App.

NBA Highlights: Career night for Smart, but Celtics lose third straight, 123-119, to Suns

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USA TODAY Sports Images

NBA Highlights: Career night for Smart, but Celtics lose third straight, 123-119, to Suns

FINAL SCORE: Suns 123, Celtics 119

IN BRIEF: Without Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown in the lineup, the Celtics played from behind (for most of the night). Marcus Smart carried the offense, finishing with career high’s in points (37) and a franchise record for three-pointers made in a game (11 for 22), thanks to a torrid first half that saw him complete 6 of 10 three-pointers. 

Smart's outlet to Daniel Theis for a breakaway slam with a minute left cut the Suns' lead to three. Jayson Tatum's three with 4 seconds left cut it to 121-119, but Devin Booker made both his free throws at the other end to seal it.

BOX SCORE

CELTICS RECORD: 27-14 (3rd in Eastern Conference)

HIGHLIGHTS

SIX FIRST-HALF 3’S FOR SMART

ANOTHER STOP SIGN?

THEIS DROPS THE HAMMER

HAYWARD TO KANTER

UP NEXT:

Vs. LA Lakers, Monday, 7:30 p.m., TNT

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Lakers, which begins Monday at 6 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.