When Gordon Hayward suffered a horrific injury just minutes into his Boston debut, the Celtics seemingly fell from NBA Finals contenders to a team that might finish in the middle of the playoff pack. Not so fast.
Boston lost that season opener in Cleveland and the next night at home to the Milwaukee Bucks. That Bucks defeat came on October 18. The Celtics had not lost since until Wednesday night’s defeat in Miami ended their stunning 16-game win streak.
We should have known better than to doubt Boston. This is a proud franchise and head coach Brad Stevens is a wizard, both in terms of his leadership style and the plays he draws up. He refused to let this group hang their heads after the Hayward heartbreak.
So how has this group, missing perhaps their best all-round player, left the rest of the league in their wake?
Boston are routinely holding teams to under 100 points. With an array of long, versatile defenders, they can switch assignments at any time. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have excelled against premier wing players, and Al Horford has been one of the league’s smartest defenders for years. Even Kyrie Irving, supposedly a one-way player, is giving his all. Remember, the Celtics held the juggernaut Golden State Warriors to 88 points earlier this month.
The Celtics gave up some of their depth in the trade for Irving. But Tatum has filled the void in his rookie season, big men Aron Baynes and Daniel Theis have provided gritty minutes and Marcus Morris’ return from injury has given Stevens even more options. The Boston head coach has not been shy about shuffling the pack, keeping his starters fresh for crunch time.
The longer the streak went on, the more confidence the Celtics showed in overcoming any deficit. They trailed by 18 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Charlotte Hornets, as well as facing a 17-point margin before rallying to beat the Warriors. This is a group that just keeps grinding, safe in the knowledge that Irving usually has some fourth quarter magic up his sleeve.
The streak - tied for third longest in franchise history - is over now, but the Celtics have demonstrated real toughness in overcoming that gut-wrenching opening night. More than that, they have proved that their status as an NBA Finals contender this season remains intact. With Irving and Horford, in particular, playing some of the best basketball of their careers, Boston could be the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.