Celtics

Here's what's fueling the Celtics' best start ever under Brad Stevens

Here's what's fueling the Celtics' best start ever under Brad Stevens

Don’t miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Cavaliers, which tips off Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. ET with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Scal have the call of the game at 7:00 p.m. You can also stream the game through the MyTeams App.

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BOSTON — Brad Stevens doesn’t look or sound all that different than he did when he first arrived from the college ranks six-plus years ago. 

But the Stevens that we see pacing up and down the sideline these days for the Boston Celtics has a much better command of the NBA game, a game that is about more than just X’s and O’s. 

If it were just about that, Stevens would have no problems or issues to speak of. 

But as we all know, there’s more to this NBA head coaching gig than just that. 

And the more you watch Stevens at work, the clearer his evolution into this job is powering both his own individual success and that of the Celtics. 

Kemba Walker scoring 32 or more points in each of the last three games for Boston has been huge in the team’s success. Ditto for Marcus Smart’s leadership, Jayson Tatum’s improved scoring, Jaylen Brown’s all-around play and the contributions that seem to be pouring in from the likes of Daniel Theis and rookie Grant Williams. 

But overlooked in the team’s success this season has been Stevens, who has the Celtics (4-1) off to their best start in nearly a decade. 

Here are five factors that have been at the heart of Stevens’ success this season with the Celtics: 

1. CONNECTING WITH KEMBA

While many would give Kyrie Irving a slight edge over Kemba Walker when it comes to talent, the NBA has shown us time and time again that success involves more than just having good players. 

The meshing of talent with chemistry, particularly when it comes to the head coach and the best player, is critical. 

And while Stevens and Irving didn’t have any significant philosophical differences, the connection that Stevens has with Walker absolutely blows away the bond that he had with Irving. 

Part of that stems from Irving’s "mood swings" as detailed in a recent ESPN article, something that Stevens and his Celtics players from the last couple seasons know all too well. 

With Walker, the Celtics know exactly what they are getting everyday from a player who is generally upbeat and whose emotional pendulum rarely sways too far. 

And that steady-as-you-go demeanor aligns well with Stevens whose consistent demeanor is very much like that of Walker, which is why their ability to connect from day one has been a big part of Boston’s early success. 

2. ESTABLISHING IDENTITY

With so many changes to the roster, no one had any idea what to expect from the Boston Celtics to start this season.

  • How will all those wings co-exist?
  • Who will be the leader?
  • Will Jayson Tatum take the leap so many, himself included, are expecting?

But beyond the burning questions, the biggest issue impacting this team was going to be establishing a style of play and identity. 

The Celtics have talked about the importance of defense for years, but it was due to take a hit this year after losing Al Horford (Philadelphia) and Aron Baynes (Phoenix) — not to mention assistant coach Micah Shrewsberry, who returned to the college ranks (Purdue) after being the architect behind the team’s top-shelf defense for years. 

But what we’ve seen thus far is a group that will struggle on the boards, but play a scrappy brand of basketball that will keep them in most games. And as the game goes on, their play at both ends of the floor seems to get better. One of the more telling stats about this Celtics team is the stark contrast between their offensive rating in the first half of games (91.4, dead-last in the NBA) versus the second half (122.7, tops in the league). 

Even though the offensive goes from worst to first from one half to the next, the defense has been solid, with a defensive rating that ranks among the top 10 in both first and second-half play and overall, and is ranked ninth (101.4) in the NBA. 

3. NO CONTRACT ISSUES

The four-year, $115 million extension Jaylen Brown received before the start of the season was huge on so many fronts for both Brown and the Celtics. 

For Brown, it’s generational wealth and security that all NBA players hope to cash in on by steadily improving and exhibiting their worth as a player, which Brown has done in his three-plus seasons in Boston. 

For the Celtics, it removes a potential distraction that, as we saw last season, has the potential to become a major problem.

When you look at their core group now, there’s Kemba Walker, who is in the first year of his four-year, $141 million contract. Jayson Tatum is eligible for an extension this offseason, and will most likely get a max contract extension. 

The only player with an uncertain contract status coming into this season is Gordon Hayward, who has a player option on the final year of the four-year, $127.8 million deal he signed with Boston in 2017.

4. COLLEGE TALK SQUASHED

Having had such a successful coaching run at Butler before coming to Boston, it made sense that Stevens’ name would come up whenever a high-profile head coaching job in the college ranks opened up. 

But the last couple of years, such talk has died down considerably, to the point where talk of Stevens returning to the college ranks rarely comes up anymore. 

Part of that has to do with Stevens’ repeated insistence that he’s not looking to return to the college ranks. 

But also helping kill those questions is the fact that Stevens has now been an NBA head coach longer than he was at Butler, a subtle but important reminder to all that him being an NBA head coach isn’t just a passing fancy. 

5. 'DEEP DIVE' PAYING OFF

When last season ended, Brad Stevens was one of the first to be accountable for his role in the team’s underwhelming season. 

"I’ll be the first to say that, as far as any other year that I’ve been a head coach, it’s certainly been the most trying,” Stevens told reporters following Boston’s Game 5 loss to Milwaukee in the second round of the playoffs last season. “I think I did a bad job. At the end of the day, as a coach, if your team doesn’t find its best fit together that’s on you. So I’ll do a lot of deep dives into how I can be better.”

And we’re seeing the fruits of that labor of discovery, here at the start of the season. While many Celtics fans and media pundits have been quick to pin the team’s struggles last season on now-ex Celtic Kyrie Irving, Stevens has been steadfast in holding the responsibility for what happened last season on the entire team. And along that same line of thinking, getting back on track is going to have to involve every Celtic. Stevens’ past players have talked about his ability to be an effective communicator with them, we’ve seen a lot of that with his younger players like Grant Williams, Carsen Edwards and fan favorite Tacko Fall. The team’s success defensively has been as much about the collective sum of the players, than any individual.

And that speaks to the “deep dive” Stevens took this offseason, which is paying off in a big way to start this season for the Celtics. 

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Celtics season is bringing the best out of Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum

Celtics season is bringing the best out of Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum

BOSTON — While TD Garden lost its collective mind as his 3-pointer splashed through the twine, Jayson Tatum stared deep into a courtside TV camera and confidently skipped his way back towards midcourt. 

Jaylen Brown, who had lit the crowd’s fuse a possession earlier with a rim-rocking dunk, rushed over for an emphatic back bump to celebrate his team’s lopsided lead over the visiting Denver Nuggets.

In a way, it felt like the 2018 playoffs again. Tatum and Brown spearheading the Boston Celtics' offensive attack. The Jays. Ying and yang. Fire and ice. Peaches and Herb (you know, because they’re reunited and it feels so good).

OK, so Tatum and Brown were never really separated. But the construction of last year’s team didn’t quite allow their talents to ever be on full display. And neither player really put his best foot forward, either, given the conditions.

But Boston’s offseason roster overhaul, and the lessons learned last season, have provided Tatum and Brown a new opportunity to showcase their talents. They’ve both responded by playing at an All-Star-caliber level while stating a strong case as the best young duo in the NBA.

Tatum and Brown partnered up for 47 points on Friday night, helping Boston to a  108-95 triumph over a Nuggets team that has lingered near the top of the west for much of the first quarter of the season. Tatum and Brown combined for seven 3-pointers against the NBA’s top-ranked defense — two more than the Nuggets made as a team — and helped Boston really tear the game open in the second half.

This is what Celtics brass hoped was possible entering the season. In the aftermath of signing Kemba Walker this summer, it was fair to wonder if the team might be overstocked with perimeter players and, at that point, Brown’s future was a bit uncertain (before the extension he would eventually ink). The possibility of moving a wing player didn’t seem farfetched.

But the message from those inside Boston’s front office was consistent. The team wanted to see how Tatum and Brown performed together, especially outside the calamity of last season. The Celtics had hoped that the new roster makeup would open avenues for Tatum and Brown to thrive in ways that better resembled the 2018 playoffs than the 2018-19 regular season.

At the quarter pole of the new season, things couldn’t be going much better for the tandem. Tatum is averaging 21.2 points, 7 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and 1.4 steals over 34.3 minutes per game, all while putting up the best on/off splits on the team. Brown is up to 20 points, 6.9 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 1.2 steals over 33.4 minutes per game.

Both players are right on the heels of Walker for the team lead in scoring. Only Gordon Hayward, sidelined for the past 13 games, has grabbed more rebounds than the duo this season. And there’s still the possibility that this tandem has just scratched the surface of their overall potential.

Regardless of how the cast around them looks, it’s becoming clear that the cornerstones of the Celtics team deep into the future centers on Tatum and Brown. And the players seem acutely aware of that fact.

"I think, definitely, the responsibility — a lot of it is on us, so we have to handle that kind of accordingly,” said Brown. "Just each and every night, I don’t think there’s no extra pressure that needs to be added to it. Just come out and play basketball, do what we’ve been doing. And I think everything will take care of itself.”

Brown knows his game complements Tatum’s well.

"I guess I’m more aggressive. JT’s kind of more laid-back,” said Brown. "I like to get to the basket and JT likes to step back and shoot jumpers. So a lot of times, we both mix it up a lot, sometimes I shoot 3s and sometimes he gets to the basket like today. But for the most part it’s kind of like polar opposites.”

However you want to compare and contrast, it’s working. And that’s what matters to Tatum.

"It's a lot of fun. When we're playing hard, playing together, making the right plays and he' doing things like that, it's hard not to get excited,” said Tatum. Later, he was asked about their friendship.

"It's grown a lot. I mean, we spend so much time together, obviously, over the course of 2 ½ seasons. We’ve been in some tough battles and we trust each other. I know what he's capable of and you know what he's going to bring to the table. You know what I'm going to bring to the table, especially in the toughest times. I’d go to war with him any day.”

It helps both of the Jays to have a veteran anchor like Walker alongside and empowering them to take the scoring baton when they have it going. Marcus Smart, who has seen the Jays progress, beams with pride discussing their developments.

"I think everybody sees the steps that they’ve taken towards becoming better basketball players, and it shows,” said Smart. 

Celtics coach Brad Stevens is quick to note that there’s still plenty of room for growth for both 23-year-old Brown and 21-year-old Tatum. "That story will be told down the road, right?” said Stevens. "Those guys are still getting better."

But the coach knows everybody in the organization is rooting for them to stay on this path towards tandem stardom. 

"Everybody wants them to do really well,” said Stevens. "I think the great part of the whole situation is all the players, all the coaches, all the front office, the whole city, we all want Jayson and Jaylen to do really well. It’s on us to all bring out the best in them and help them continue to grow through tough times or success, and they’re having a lot of success right now. 

“With that comes the different challenges of new defenses and more attention and how do you handle that, and those guys have shown themselves well thus far.”

Yup, Tatum just keeps skipping (“That's like my thing. I try not to get too excited, but that's my thing,” said Tatum) and Brown will happily exult after a loud slam, or simply blow kisses after a big 3.

"I guess we feed off each other,” said Brown. "Kind of different games, kind of opposite, but it makes sense. Like fire and ice.”

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Cavaliers, which tips off Monday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Tommy & Mike have the call at 7:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

See why the Celtics' win over Denver was extra special for the Green Team's starters

See why the Celtics' win over Denver was extra special for the Green Team's starters

BOSTON -- We’ve seen a starter or two from the Boston Celtics’ first unit get hot on any given night. 

But all five starters?

That was indeed the case on Friday night in Boston’s 108-95 win over the Denver Nuggets. 

For the first time this season, all five starters for Boston (16-5) shot at least 50 percent from the field. 

  • Marcus Smart 4-for-5 (80 percent)
  • Daniel Theis 3-for-4 (75 percent)
  • Jaylen Brown 8-for-15 (53.3 percent)
  • Jayson Tatum 10-for-19 (52.6 percent)
  • Kemba Walker 8-for-16 (50 percent)

The previous high this season for Celtics starters shooting at least 50 percent from the floor, is four which Boston did on two separate occasions (at San Antonio on Nov. 9 and vs Dallas Nov. 11).

But what made Friday’s performance so special was that Boston did it against a Denver team that came into the game limiting teams to just 42.9 percent shooting from the field which ranked fourth in the NBA. 

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Cavaliers, which tips off Monday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Tommy & Mike have the call at 7:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.