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.