The Boston Celtics came speeding into the quarter turn of the 2022-23 season with no consideration for hitting their brakes.
Already owning the best record in basketball, the Celtics punctuated their first-quarter-of-the-season dominance with an utter shellacking of what was essentially a souped-up version of the Greensboro Swarm. Boston piled up 140 points, 40 assists, and 24 3-pointers en route to their 17th win of the season.
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Marcus Smart flirted with a first-quarter double-double; Blake Griffin hopped in a time machine for a pair of dunks, including a tomahawk alley-oop that had Mfiondu Kabengele’s eyes ready to bulge out of his head; Luke Kornet delivered a Stromile Swift homage; and Jaylen Brown, enjoying a night off due to neck stiffness, spent the entire half smiling and laughing while watching his team’s absurd offensive output.
Monday’s win highlighted Boston’s dominance through its first 21 games. The Celtics are now three wins better than any team in the league. Boston’s offense, already on a historic pace with an offensive rating of 120.9, is a staggering five points better than its closest rival (Phoenix, 115.9).
"I think we enjoy each other’s company off the court. I think that’s a big piece of what the results have been on the court. We’re a team that laughs and talks in the locker room. Everybody can laugh at themselves. We laugh at each other. We have a good time on the bus, on the road. I think you see the results during games and our trust, being able to enjoy playing with each other."
Remember when we were all fretting about the potential for a slow start? Remember the consternation amid the Ime Udoka scandal? The stomach punch when both Danilo Gallinari and Robert Williams III needed surgery just before the start of training camp?
There was a little dark cloud hovering over the Celtics at Media Day in September, but Boston has accelerated out from underneath them faster than anyone could have predicted.
With that in mind, here’s a quick-hit thought on all the major players through the first quarter of the season:
Boston’s second-year president of basketball operations made a big-splash move to acquire Brogdon this summer and shored up one of the team’s biggest weak spots from last year’s playoff run. But unearthing Sam Hauser, banking on Luke Kornet to be a steady contributor, and adding Griffin’s veteran leadership were under-the-radar moves that delivered a much more consistent and impactful bench this season.
Thrust into somewhat of an impossible position, Mazzulla has responded by shaping the greatest offense in league history. Yes, he inherited some talented pieces. But Mazzulla has pressed all the right buttons to start the year. What’s more, he has a Stevens-like demeanor and kept the focus on improvement even after Monday’s dominance.
The MVP frontrunner is getting it done on both ends of the court. Tatum now impacts the game even when his shot isn't falling and his desire to defend other superstars in key spots has only strengthened his position as one of the league’s top two-way players.
Often overshadowed by Tatum's exploits, Brown has quietly stated a strong early case for both All-Star and All-NBA consideration. Brown’s offensive game continues to evolve and he’s a beast when he relentlessly attacks the basket. Eliminate the turnovers and Brown is among the NBA’s elite on the offensive end.
The "Marcus Smart isn't a point guard!" squad has been awfully quiet lately. Smart had a very bumpy start to the season but we’ll keep saying it: He’s the best quarterback in New England right now.
Boston’s offense purrs when Smart is in distribution mode. He’s averaging 9.1 assists per game over his last 11 outings. Smart cranking it back up to DPOY-level intensity on the defensive end could help Boston shore up that end moving forward.
We’d suggest that Griffin and Horford are both sharing the same time machine but Horford isn’t just turning back the clocks, he’s smashing them with a hammer and defying all logic. At age 36, Horford is shooting 48.7 percent on 4.5 3-pointers per game. That’s 12.2 percent above his career average. It’s nearly 6 percent higher than his last All-Star season in Boston back in 2018.
The Celtics are pacing him with hopes of keeping that high level of efficiency through the postseason.
Among players averaging at least 26 minutes per game, here are the top three players in net rating:
- Nikola Jokic: +14.0
- Grayson Allen: +13.2
- Derrick White: +13.0
Sure, he’s always been an analytics darling, but White’s fingerprints are all over Boston’s early season success, even as he ping-pongs between bench and starting roles. White has a more consistent 3-point shot, he’s a charge-taking machine, and he’s exactly the sort of unit stabilizer that Brad Stevens coveted when he sent out a first-round pick last season to land White.
It still doesn’t seem fair that the Celtics were able to trade what was essentially the end of their 2022 bench and a first-round pick for Brogdon. It’s the sort of trade that NBA2K would reject. But Brogdon has been exactly the sort of missing piece that has delivered far more consistency to Boston’s bench.
The pressure he can put on defenses attacking the basket has created a bunch of quality looks for all the bench shooters the Celtics have put around him.
The Celtics are blessed with versatility and the team has the luxury of shuffling Williams into the starting five when it wants more size. He gleefully jousts with defenders of all sizes and has shown an expanded offensive toolbox. Sure, he still complains too much but his impact is undeniable.
Kornet is joy personified. He went from being a key part of Boston’s end-of-the-bench celebration unit during last year’s NBA Finals run to logging key big-man minutes with Robert Williams III sidelined to start the season.
From the mind-twisting efficiency of the "Kornet Kontest" to his catalogue of celebrations that leaves the bench doubled over in laughter, Kornet has far exceeded most expectations.
Despite a limited role to start the season given Boston’s guard depth, Pritchard might have saved two wins (Oklahoma City, Sacramento) with pure energy and grit. He’s a turbo shot when needed and necessary depth given the injury history of Boston’s veteran guards.
He’s shooting 48.9 percent on 4.5 3-pointers per game. And that feels low. His shot form is impeccable and it feels like the shot is going each time it leaves his hand. Any concerns fans had about big-wing depth after Gallinari’s injury have been alleviated with Hauser’s play. And he’s been even better than advertised on the defensive end as teams try too hard to hunt him at times.
What a luxury to have a veteran who is content to simply be an elite teammate on nights he has DNPs, but can also elevate to a starting role and make TD Garden roar with a throwback tomahawk slam.
Robert Williams III
The Celtics are doing all of this and Williams III isn’t even on the court yet. My goodness. Imagine the possibilities when Time Lord is back flying around the rim.
If there’s one quibble about Boston’s play thus far, it’s the downturn in defensive intensity, and Williams III can help restore that.