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.

Marcus Smart, Danny Ainge chirp each other in hilarious Twitter debate over Jaylen Brown's epic dunk

Marcus Smart, Danny Ainge chirp each other in hilarious Twitter debate over Jaylen Brown's epic dunk

Jaylen Brown has gotten a lot of attention for his dunk over LeBron James. And rightfully so. The dunk was an epic one that sparked the Boston Celtics and their fans in their 32-point win over the Los Angeles Lakers.

But not all appeared to be impressed by the dunk. And that prompted a reaction from Marcus Smart.

On Tuesday night, Smart took to Twitter to shout out Brown's effort while also hilariously chirping Celtics GM Danny Ainge for his lack of reaction to the play.

Smart does have a point about Ainge being rather unimpressed with the play considering the massive impact it had on the crowd.

But as Ainge pointed out, he's "hard to impress" and had another favorite play from the game.

And once Smart heard that, he had one message for Ainge.

Unfortunately, it doesn't look like that will be possible.

Ainge tweeted that Celtics assistant GM Mike Zarren confirmed it would be a "salary cap circumvention" to buy the players' lunch. But Smart wouldn't have it.

Zarren then came in as a part of Team Smart, revealing that Ainge may be going to a "local plant-based competitor" instead. Smart then chimed in referring to that knowledge as a "Game of Thrones level scandal".

And Ainge's response to those scandalous accusations?

This is a pretty funny exchange all around and it's good to see that the Celtics are continuing to give off good vibes, even if it is just in a Twitter chirp-off about dunks and Chipotle.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Grizzlies-Celtics, which begins Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, followed by tip-off at 7:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Celtics Talk Podcast: Reaction to Jaylen Brown posterizing LeBron James

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NBC Sports Boston Illustration

Celtics Talk Podcast: Reaction to Jaylen Brown posterizing LeBron James

The Boston Celtics had one of their best wins of the season on Monday night against the Los Angeles Lakers. And with it came one of the biggest plays of the season.

In the Celtics dominating 139-107 victory, Jaylen Brown had a monster dunk over NBA legend, LeBron James. The play sparked the TD Garden crowd and helped to put an end to any comeback momentum the Lakers were building in the third quarter.

Here's a look at the play, via the Celtics on NBC Sports Boston Twitter account.

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On the latest episode of "The Celtics Talk Podcast," Abby Chin and Chris Forsberg discussed how amazing the dunk was by Brown and how the C's swingman felt while making the play.

Chin spoke to Brown about what he was thinking about the dunk, and she also noted that he was more fired up than usual in the locker room after the game.

I asked him in the locker room if he knew he was dunking on LeBron as it was happening. And he said that he didn't, but he did know that it was a huge moment and loved every second of it.

Meanwhile, Forsberg marveled at Brown's athletic ability and how he was able to finish over LeBron.

Most guys jump and they come down. Jaylen went up, hit LeBron, and went higher. And I was like... that doesn't even make sense.

For more on the Celtics against the Lakers, Brown's dunk, and an exclusive 1-on-1 interview with Jayson Tatum, check out the latest episode of the Celtics Talk Podcast, which drops weekly as part of the NBC Sports Boston podcast network.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Grizzlies-Celtics, which begins Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, followed by tip-off at 7:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.