It’s been just three weeks since Gordon Hayward’s ankle bent like a wet noodle in Cleveland.
In the initial minutes, hours, and days after the gruesome injury, most pundits declared that the Celtics’ 2017-18 season was already dead.
“And that is how quickly a season can change,” TNT play-by-play announcer Kevin Harlan said right after the play.
TNT analyst Charles Barkley painted an even more grim picture.
“The thing that really sucks is, their season’s over,” Barkley said at halftime. “We knew going into the season it was the Cavaliers (at No. 1), the Celtics (at No. 2), the Wizards (at No. 3) and Toronto (at No. 4). Now the Celtics … it’s going to be very difficult for them even to be in the top four or five in the East.”
It’s not even Thanksgiving yet (i.e. it’s still extremely early in the NBA season), but the Celtics look like they’re going be just fine without Hayward. Right now, at least, they’re proving critics wrong and are absolutely thriving.
The C’s have won nine games in a row and haven’t lost since falling to the Bucks in their first full game without Hayward. After an initial hiccup in Brad Stevens’ offense, Kyrie Irving looks more than comfortable now as he leads the Celtics in points (22.3), assists (5.7) and steals (2.2) per game. While his scoring average is a shade below what he was averaging with the Cavs last year, Irving has shown signs in the past week that he’s ready to put up a 40 or 50 point night soon. He pumped in a season-high 35 points on Monday against Atlanta and was sterling down the stretch of the Celtics’ highly impressive 101-94 victory at Oklahoma City last Friday night.
Al Horford has been sensational in his role as the Robin to Irving’s Batman this season as he’s averaging 14.6 points and 9.2 rebounds per game. Horford averaged just 6.8 rebounds per game last season and his defense has greatly improved as well this year. It was seen as hyperbole even just a couple weeks ago when Stevens mentioned Horford as an elite NBA defender, but even the most cynical Celtics fans are starting to buy in on that notion.
“A lot of names get thrown around in defensive talk around the league,” Stevens said two weeks back. “I mean there’s a lot of really good defenders but Al’s up there and doesn’t always get mentioned, and that’s OK with Al. I think that he’s kind of proven that he’s OK with just contributing to winning whether he gets talked about or not.”
The Celtics are statistically the best defensive team in the NBA when it comes to points allowed. The C’s are giving up just 94.5 points per game, which is a pretty impressive mark in today’s NBA in which final scores are regularly in the 100s. Consider that the Celtics’ primary competition in the East – the Cavaliers – are giving up 113.4 points per game. The Wizards? 109.2 points per game.
It’s entirely possible that tonight’s Celtics (9-2) versus Lakers (5-5) matchup is a preview of the 2018-19 NBA Finals. Think about it - if LeBron James jumps to the Lakers this coming summer (which has been heavily rumored) and he gets, say, a Paul George or a Chris Paul to join him – then LA will pose a legit challenge to the Warriors out West.
A Celtics – Lakers NBA Finals with Kyrie and LeBron (no love lost there) as the focal points would take this rivalry to an entirely different level.
While that aspect of the rivalry is still mostly a dream, young cornerstones of each franchise will square off for the first time tonight.
The No. 2 and No. 3 overall picks from the 2017 NBA Draft, Jayson Tatum and Lonzo Ball, will meet for the first time, and both have lived up to their billing thus far. Tatum has been sensational for the C’s as he averaging 14.3 points per game and came up with a crucial 3-pointer in Monday night’s win over Atlanta. The pass-first Ball is averaging 6.9 assists and 8.8 points per game. He also had a 29-point outing on Oct. 20 against Phoenix.
Tatum and Ball are two of the favorites to win NBA Rookie of the Year, along with 76ers stud Ben Simmons.