NEW YORK — Don’t call these Boston Celtics underdogs in front of their coach, Brad Stevens. He bristles. As much as his mild-mannered nature will allow him to, anyway. And don’t suggest the expectations are different from last year, either, just because the team lost Kyrie Irving and Al Horford to free agency and because their bench is stocked with rookies.
Last season, the Celtics were expected by many in the national media, including me, to cruise to the NBA Finals on the backs of Irving, Horford and a healthy Gordon Hayward (in theory). They were to be helped along by dynamic young players like Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier. They fell short, though, losing to the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Now the team is considered to be on the outside of championship contention, even in the weakened East. Without those stars, the Celtics’ precipitous decline has been predicted by much of the basketball punditry — they are projected to finish no higher than (checks notes) third in the conference.
“I don’t feel any different,” Stevens said before the Celtics played the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Saturday. “I didn’t feel any different last year because I don’t think you ever look at your team that way. When you’re favored by everybody, I looked at it as, ‘We better be good at these five things on the court.’ When you’re not favored by everybody, ‘You better be good at these five things on the court.’”
If last season’s Celtics team was a test of how far a team focused on its talent could go, this season’s will be one of how far culture will get you. And the early results are positive. Boston won all of its preseason games — three of the four in blowouts. Yes, preseason results should be taken with a grain of salt, but last year, the Celtics lost three of their four exhibition games.
On Saturday, the Celtics thumped the Knicks, 118-95, giving Boston a 2-1 start to its regular season. If you believe in symmetry, last season’s Celtics also played the Knicks in their third game, also at Madison Square Garden. If you believe in signs, that was one of several bad signs to come, as the Celtics barely edged one of the worst teams in the NBA, 103-101. I won’t make the mistake of not seeing signs again.
This season’s team seems happier. (Asked whether he was happier, Stevens wouldn’t take the bait: “No matter what I say, everything is going to get compared to last year. I don’t really have any interest in talking about that.”)
Brown, with a recently signed extension in hand, seems to be relishing his new role as a Celtics alpha-dog (and no longer playing off the bench) as well as playing with Irving’s replacement, Kemba Walker. I couldn’t help but notice this quotation from Brown, referring to Walker, after a rousing win against the Toronto Raptors in Boston’s home opener Friday night.
“It’s great for me just to know that he has your back because you don’t always have that case or that scenario,” Brown said about a poor shot he took during the game. “Easily somebody could have said something or got upset or thrown a tantrum or whatever, but Kemba was like: ‘No, you’re good. Just play.’ It was the confidence I needed to make sure the next play was the right play.”
That’s not a shot at Irving’s leadership. But it’s certainly an indication of a different culture in Boston this season. Several of the Celtics, including Tatum, Brown, bulldog guard Marcus Smart and Walker, played on Team USA last summer, where they had ample opportunities to reset the team’s chemistry for the upcoming season.
“It’s ridiculous the camaraderie we have now,” Smart told MassLive in September. “And, getting ready to go back to Boston is going to continue to escalate it for us and be successful for us. I think it’s going to help us a lot.”
The Celtics’ rookies who are getting regular playing time — Grant Williams and Carsen Edwards — seem to have at least two fearless plays each game where you wonder how they do that. In the case of Williams, it’s his ability to be wherever the ball is, on either end of the floor. For Edwards, it’s his shot. The 7-foot-6 rookie Tacko Fall receives uproarious cheers whenever he does, well, anything on the floor. It’s becoming a craze in itself: Even Knicks fans were chanting for him to get playing time Saturday.
Teams led by Stevens have traditionally thrived as underdogs. These Celtics don’t have a top-10 player or the kind of power duo that contenders like the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers or Philadelphia 76ers have. The bench lacks a go-to scorer. The team goes through offensive droughts, even with a bona fide A-list player like Walker.
Then there’s the strange case of Tatum, who showed promise two years ago in his rookie season, which was punctuated by a dunk on LeBron James in the playoffs. Last season, he took a step back offensively. His shot selection, filled with midrange 2-pointers and isolations, was difficult to watch.
The early results this season haven’t been much better. He is shooting 34% from the field through three games, while taking 20 shots a game, by far a career high. The bright side is that Tatum is going to the hoop more: 39% of his shots have been at the rim, according to the NBA’s tracking numbers. Three games is a small sample size, but last season that number was 33%. He’s just not converting those opportunities. He is also shooting exceptionally well from deep at 46%.
Tatum is just one reason the Celtics will “surprise” some prognosticators this season, “surprise” being a completely relative term dependent on expectations. I would not be shocked, based on early results, to see an Eastern Conference finals run, but not because the Celtics are more talented than the top contenders in the NBA. They are not.
Their success will come based on predictable basketball norms. Tatum’s low efficiency near the basket is not going to last; he will start finishing around the basket more, especially in a season that will determine what his eventual contract extension will look like. Brown, given more time and confidence, will continue to develop. The team, relieved of the burden of expectations, will enjoy playing together.
Whatever the standings end up saying, this Celtics team is fun to watch, which will lead to an improved fan experience. Seeing how far Walker, Brown and Tatum take the Celtics is going to, with apologies to Marie Kondo, spark joy — because they seem to be experiencing joy.
Will it last if the Celtics end up as the fifth seed, as some have predicted? I don’t know. Can liking your teammates be enough to advance deep in the playoffs in the NBA? We’re about to find out. For now, I don’t care. I just want Tacko Fall to start.