If the first couple weeks of the 2020-21 NBA season have taught us anything, it’s that we probably shouldn’t overreact to small sample sizes.
The Celtics looked utterly putrid during a brief two-game preseason slate, their offense an abomination, and many rushed to temper expectations for the new campaign. Of course, Boston responded with an offensive clinic during a thrilling season-opening win against the Bucks and a July duck boat parade has been put back on the calendar.
Overreacting is what we do best in these parts and there will be no shortage of it on Christmas Day, especially with Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets in town for a holiday soirée.
In one corner, you’ve got Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum taking the reigns of the Celtics' sleigh and trying to deliver the team to a championship stage after being denied at the doorstep in three of the past four years. In the other corner is a potential new roadblock in that quest with the reloaded Nets. Brooklyn seemingly has a healthy Kevin Durant and a happy Kyrie Irving, who decided (at least) 18 months ago that he didn’t want to be part of the Jays’ journey.
It’s just one game between two very unfinished products. And yet the Christmas Day stage and the early season nature of the showdown only amplifies the clash. We’re eager to tear a bit more of the wrapping paper off both these teams and find out what they look like underneath.
Can the Celtics build off the positives from their win over the Bucks? And where do they rank against a team that — at least based on early returns — should be a legitimate contender to emerge from the East?
So much went well for Boston on Wednesday night. Jayson Tatum hit the winning shot; Jaylen Brown changed the entire complexion of the game with his offensive exploits starting late in the second quarter; Marcus Smart played a disciplined game in which he had as many charge takes against Giannis Antetokounmpo as shot attempts (3); Jeff Teague still hasn’t missed a 3-pointer; Semi Ojeleye gave you 19 unexpected good minutes off the bench; Brad Stevens picked the perfect spots for timeouts; and Boston toppled a team that has dominated the East standings in recent seasons.
So what’s a mirage and what’s sustainable? Friday’s holiday matchup should tell us a bit more. As Tatum noted after the Bucks win: "We're still trying to figure things out and it's going to be a process. We've got 71 games left.”
So much of the focus — especially given the national spotlight — will fall on Irving being back in Boston. Celtics fans can’t even be in the stands to boo Irving so they might as well put their energy into celebrating the young core they’ve got instead of fretting what could have been.
For their part, the Jays were able to shrug off a quiet preseason and combined for 63 points in Wednesday's win. This is yet another chance to show they’re ready to lift these Celtics when the spotlight is brightest.
To tee up that Bucks opener, we wrote about how the Jays continue to push each other. One quote that got left on the cutting room floor is this one from Kemba Walker that only emphasizes their desire to be great.
"What I love about them the most is they love to work,” said Walker. "They do the extra work, they ask questions. Those two dudes are special. I rave about them all the time but it’s true. The kind of people that they are for their age, it kind of blows my mind.”
It’s easy to get caught up in the game-by-game grind and make bold proclamations based on how a player or team performed on that day. Walker’s quote is a reminder of how the Jays’ progress is viewed from the inside. Both Tatum and Brown noted how they’ve learned to embrace the journey and Celtics fans should do the same. When you step back and take a look at their progress from the 10,000-foot view, it’s remarkable how far they’ve come in such a short time.
Undoubtedly, there are many question marks around the Celtics this season, not the least being the long-term health of Walker. Those questions won’t be answered for a while.
Other answers could come sooner. On opening night, Tristan Thompson and Teague seemed to patch some obvious holes the Celtics had last season. Is that sustainable? A bench that too often struggled to impact winning a year ago actually helped change the complexion of the game on Wednesday. Which bench players can consistently aid Boston’s core?
Friday’s game will allow us to rip off a bit more of that wrapping paper as we try to figure out what’s inside.
NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Nets begins with Celtics Pregame Live Friday at 4 p.m. Come back to NBC Sports Boston after the game for Celtics Postgame Live.