It's been a did-that-just-happen? year for Celtics
5 factors that have defined the 2018 C's
BOSTON – What a season this has been for the Celtics, a season that still has life in it for one reason and one reason only.
This team has no sense of basketball mortality, lifting itself off the mat time and time again when everyone outside their locker room has them counted out.
If this were Golden State or Houston or San Antonio or even Toronto, it wouldn’t be that big a deal.
Those are seasoned, battle-tested crews that were built to withstand the ups and downs of an NBA regular season.
But these Celtics?
After Gordon Hayward’s ankle injury just five minutes into the season, no longer was this season viewed as one about competing for a title.
It was about just trying to compete – at least, that’s what we were led to believe.
But instead of competing, this team crushed any and all preconceived notions about what it takes to build an in-the-moment contender.
Instead, we have a season full of did-that-just-happen? moments that more than anything else, have defined who this team has been.
Here’s a look at five such moments that have been factors in Boston defying the odds and expectations to not just have a successful season but position themselves to where they will finish no worse than No. 2 in the East.
HOUSTON, YOU HAVE A PROBLEM
The list of come-from-behind wins for Boston is at least 12 deep, but what the Celtics did to the high-flying Houston Rockets just a few days after Christmas (Dec. 28) stands out from the rest. I don’t care when or where it happens. If you go down 26 points to the team with the best record in the NBA and you come back and beat them minus your best two-way player (Jaylen Brown, out that night with a right knee injury) … there’s no way that should happen. But that’s exactly what the Celtics did to Rockets, fueled by timely shot making and a pair of clutch defensive plays by Marcus Smart in the closing moments to help lift the Celtics to a 99-98 comeback win. There were more dramatic rallies than this one for the Celtics, for sure. But considering the deficit and the opponent, without a doubt, this was a game Boston had absolutely no business winning.
STEALIN’ ON THE ROAD
When you look at teams that exceed expectations, there’s usually a few road upset wins along the way. But what Boston did to Indiana on Dec. 18 was basketball thievery at its finest. The Celtics jumped out to an 18-point lead in the first quarter, only to give way to what appeared to be a disappointing loss. Ahead 111-110 with just a few ticks left on the game clock AND with the ball, all the Pacers had to do was seemingly get it in-bounded and wait for the Celtics to foul. Bojan Bogdanovic had the ball and was being pressured by the Celtics. If he had held on to the ball for another second or two, there’s a very good chance he would have fouled. Instead, he tries to make a cross-court pass only for Terry Rozier to go into Deion Sanders mode, pick off the pass and finish at the rim with 1.5 seconds left that was the game-winning basket. I’m sure Brad Stevens had a slew of ways he thought Boston might find a way to win. A Rozier steal and lay-up at that point probably wasn’t one of them, but does serve as yet another example of a whacky Celtics win.
RECENT WEST COAST TRIP
Having already planned to be without Marcus Smart (right thumb), the Celtics then added Kyrie Irving (left knee) to the list of players out for the rest of the regular season. And remember, Gordon Hayward (left ankle), Daniel Theis (left knee) were already out for the season and Jaylen Brown (concussion) was still on the road to recovery with no definitive timetable for his return. Boston went into this trip with only two rotation regulars in Jayson Tatum and Terry Rozier. And before you know it, we’re talking about Semi Ojeleye making game-winning passes and Shane Larkin sparking unexpected road wins. And mind you, two of the teams Boston beat during this recent West coast swing – Portland and Utah – were thirsty for a victory to help bolster their playoff aspirations. And while Sacramento and Phoenix are lottery-bound again, they have rosters full of players who are using these last few regular season games as auditions for their respective teams and the league as a whole, for next year. So for the Celtics to be as short-handed as they were and still win games against teams with great motivation and better health, only strengthens the narrative that this team believes it can win anytime, anywhere regardless of who is healthy.
As a former first-round pick with NBA experience, no one should be totally shocked at the way Shane Larkin has played. The bigger shock? That he's even on the Celtics roster. When he signed with Boston, he took significantly less money than he would have made overseas. And he signed at a time when Boston's backcourt was led by Isaiah Thomas with Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier right behind them. An undersized guard who is fourth on the depth chart ... those guys usually don't get much run. But injuries created an opportunity for him to showcase his talents. Credit Larkin with helping spark a handful of wins for the Celtics this season by swinging the game's momentum in Boston's favor with his scoring, play-making and better-than-expected defense. He is maybe the best example of how the role you are in upon arrival, can dramatically change at any time. And to Larkin's credit, he has been ready when called upon.
When the Celtics drafted Jayson Tatum, one of the first things that jumped out wasn’t his ball-handling or shooting or length. It was his thin-as-a-twig frame which raised questions among some NBA scouts and league executives as to whether he could withstand the physical pounding his lithe frame would be exposed to as a rookie. Does Tatum get banged around some? Absolutely. But he’s clearly a stronger player now than what we saw at the start of the season, showing an ability to use his length to help mask what he lacks in body mass. And that has allowed him to do what no other Celtics starter has done which is to play in every single game this season. And he’s not just out there taking up space, either. The 6-foot-8 rookie is nearing the end of his best month this season at scoring (16.2) and setting up others (2.3 assists) which could potentially mean Boston’s chances at a deep postseason run will be spearheaded by a 20-year-old rookie. It’s crazy. It shouldn’t be that way. It won’t work. It’s … oh wait a minute, it’s the Celtics. Never mind.