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 injuries: Kemba Walker (knee) out Sunday vs. Lakers

Celtics injuries: Kemba Walker (knee) out Sunday vs. Lakers

The Boston Celtics will have to take on the Los Angeles Lakers without Kemba Walker on Sunday afternoon.

The C's guard will miss his second straight game due to a sore left knee, the team announced Saturday. Head coach Brad Stevens revealed earlier this week Walker's knee swelled up and had to be drained. Walker also had his knee injected with Synvisc, a pain relief treatment used for knee soreness.

Robert Williams remains ruled out with a left hip bone edema, though there is hope the big man will return to the court after the Celtics wrap up their road trip.


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.

Celtics-Lakers tips off Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET. When these two teams last faced off on January 20, the C's cruised to a 139-107 victory.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Lakers, which begins Sunday at 2:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 3:30 p.m. You can also stream on the MyTeams App.

Celtics' Brad Stevens the rare college-to-the-pros coaching success story

Celtics' Brad Stevens the rare college-to-the-pros coaching success story

LOS ANGELES — No matter what Brad Stevens does from here on out, he'll be remembered as one of the winningest coaches in Boston Celtics history. 

At 309 victories (and counting) after Friday’s 127-117 win over Minnesota, only three men — Red Auerbach (795), Tommy Heinsohn (427) and Doc Rivers (416) — have won more games pacing the Celtics sideline than Stevens. 

Making the milestone even more impressive is that Stevens came directly from the college ranks, where success has been a rarity. 

The most recent college-to-the-pros coach to struggle with the adjustment is Cleveland’s John Beilein. The former Michigan coach stepped down as the Cavs' head coach to assume a yet-to-be-determined job within the franchise. 

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.

Figuring out the secret sauce to Stevens’ success isn't easy.

He’ll be the first to tell you that a number of factors have come into play that allowed him to find success where so many of his college-to-the-pros brethren struggled. 

One of the reasons college coaches get opportunities to lead NBA teams is because of the track record of success they build up at the college level. Stevens led the Butler Bulldogs to a national runner-up finish in back-to-back seasons (2010 and 2011), a remarkable accomplishment for a mid-major program. 

For Stevens, preparing for the worst when it comes to wins and losses, was challenging at first. The lack of success Cleveland (15-40) has experienced this season was a major factor in Beilein’s decision to no longer coach the Cavs. 

“I find losing very challenging and this year has taken a much bigger toll on me than I expected,” Beilein said in a statement. “I grew concerned for the consequences this toll could potentially take on my own health and my family's well-being down the road. I was not certain I could be at my best for the remainder of the season and in the future. That would not be fair to the players, coaches and support staff."

Indeed, Stevens recalls how difficult dealing with all the losing in that first year was for him. 

As a rookie head coach with the Celtics, Stevens’ squad finished 25-57. To put that in perspective, Stevens won more games at Butler in five of his six seasons than he did in Boston as a rookie, and did so in less than half of an 82-game NBA season. 

“That first year was hard,” Stevens told NBC Sports Boston. “I remember being miserable because I never lost like that. But that’s part of it. You learn a lot about yourself, so when you get to that second year you feel a lot different.”

Those early struggles did not catch Stevens off-guard.

“Our first year was expected to be really hard,” Stevens said. “It was expected to be hard for a couple years.”

But a series of trades during the 2014-2015 season gave Boston just the jolt of confidence and talent needed to make a late-season charge. That ended with them getting the eighth and final playoff seed, where they swept in the first round by the top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers. 

Sure, getting swept was disappointing. But that balanced out with the fact that Boston had found a brand of basketball that would serve as the foundation for the team’s future success. 

“We found a team that competed well together,” Stevens said. “We were able in year two to find our way, at least establishing a little bit with that group, how we wanted to play.”

Stevens is quick to credit the Celtics’ front office, ownership and his assistant coaches for providing the kind of support on and off the court, that a college coach making a jump of this magnitude, absolutely has to have. But maybe more than anything, a college coach making the jump to the NBA has to trust that the process of establishing a comfort level and a culture takes more than just one season. 

For Stevens, that’s the great disappointment in how things have played out with Beilein. While there’s a certain element of uncertainty that comes with making the jump to the pros, Beilein did his research in advance. Stevens was among the coaches he spoke with prior to taking the Cavs job. 

Beilein also spoke with Oklahoma City’s Billy Donovan, who also made the jump from a successful career in college to the NBA. 

"I talked to Billy the year before at length," Beilein told reporters earlier this season. "For like an hour on the phone. He encouraged me that he really liked (the NBA). He liked the pace of it. He really liked the coaching. He also said, ‘It’s a long season. You gotta be able to stay in there and hang through the tough times and just keep coaching.’ He encouraged me to do it." 

So did Stevens, who felt Beilein’s strength in working with young players, coupled with his innovative style of play, would make him an ideal head coach for a young Cavaliers squad. 

There’s a fairly high amount of trial and error that first year as well. 

“When I first got the job, I’m watching film of the Celtics from the year before and nobody is going to be back. This doesn’t make sense,,”Stevens recalled. 

Shortly before Stevens accepted the job, the Celtics traded away cornerstone players Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, leaving Rajon Rondo as the only starter with the team at that time, from the 2008 NBA title squad. 

But with each passing season, Stevens became more comfortable with the NBA. 

“You are in front of the media, in front of the cameras and you have to answer and do that every single day while preparing your team to play their best,” Stevens said. “It’s just a really challenging gig.”

And now in his seventh season, there’s little doubt that Stevens is comfortable with the league, its players and his role in moving Boston closer towards Banner 18.

I asked Stevens if there were one or two tips he had for a college coach who was contemplating a move to the NBA as a head coach. 

“What I always tell the college guys that are interested is, the summers are great,” Stevens said. “The middle of the season is going to throw a bunch of storms at you. That’s part of it. But that’s ... it’s a lot of fun if you keep the right perspective.”

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Lakers, which begins Sunday at 2:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 3:30 p.m. You can also stream on the MyTeams App