Sports Nut

The Boston Celtics Are Athlete’s Foot

Can they annoy their way to an NBA title?

Kyrie Irving of the Boston Celtics celebrates during the fourth quarter against the Golden State Warriors on Nov. 16, 2017.

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As his Golden State Warriors built a first-half lead over the Boston Celtics, Steve Kerr told TNT sideline reporter Rosalyn Gold-Onwude that the Celtics were “the best team in the league.” It seemed like dubious praise at the time, the words of a coach of an unbeatable team puffing up the opposition. By the time the Celtics had overcome a 17-point deficit to beat Golden State 92-88—Boston’s 14th win in a row, giving them a league-leading record of 14-2—that praise was starting to sound a lot more genuine.

Kerr had been lavishing the Celtics with compliments even before Thursday’s game. “It sure looks like Boston is the team of the future in the East,” he told ESPN’s Chris Haynes on Wednesday. “That looks like a team that is going to be at the top of the East for a long time to come.” But despite what Kerr says, the Celtics are not an exciting and spritely “team of the future.” They are a squad of Benjamin Buttons: fun young players who are all secretly seasoned vets.

Take rookie Jayson Tatum. He may be 19, but the No. 3 pick in the 2017 draft already performs with the maturity and intelligence of a ring-chasing 34-year-old role player. He even looks the part, and his dated mustache-goatee combo screams “paying the bills at the dining room table after the kids go to bed.” (The Boston media are of course handling him with the measured restraint for which they are known.)

Seven of the 10 players who took the floor for Boston on Thursday night—starters Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Kyrie Irving, plus reserves Marcus Smart, Semi Ojeleye, Terry Rozier, and Daniel Theis—are 25 years old or younger. They should be too callow to be winning like this. Yet here we are, mourning lost youth.

In Thursday’s win, the Celtics held Steph Curry to 9 points on 3-14 shooting, which is essentially like throwing handcuffs on a forest fire. And while Kevin Durant scored 24, he had to work through a squadron of Boston defenders to get every look, including on his baseline attempt in the closing seconds that would have sent the game to overtime. On the perimeter, the Celtics combine toughness (Smart is a pest, in a good way) with length and athleticism (second-year forward Brown, who had a terrific night under adverse circumstances) to funnel teams where they want them. It’s why the Warriors, who average 117.5 points per game, managed to score only 88 in 48 minutes.

Boston’s wrist-slapping, jersey-grabbing victory looked like of all the Celtics’ other wins. In a league in which only four teams allow less than 100 points per game, the Celtics—who lead the league in defensive efficiency—give up just 94.1. (The Cleveland Cavaliers, whose roster consists of LeBron James and the cast of The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, give up 112.1.) Boston also grabs a staggering 82 percent of its opponents’ missed shots. Annoying and persistent, the Celtics are like athlete’s foot. Long story short, they make you miss and then get the rebound. They are fungi.

Playing the Celtics is like traveling through a wormhole to an earlier era. The NBA in 2017 is all about playing fast and small. Boston, meanwhile, is ranked 22nd in pace and runs much of its offense through center Al Horford. It’s all rather unfashionable, but the Celtics make it work. They showed up to the first day of school after raiding their dad’s closet and now everyone’s raving about their elastic-waisted cargo pants.

The fact that Boston has managed to put together this win streak after losing star small forward Gordon Hayward to a gruesome injury in the first game of the season is nothing short of confounding. The way that they’re doing it may be even more surprising.

For the past three years or so, Stevens had the Celtics performing above their pay grade thanks to a ball-sharing offense and sturdy team defense. When they traded for Irving over the summer, the worry was that the electric point guard’s defensive shortcomings would become a liability in Stevens’ system. Sixteen games into the 2017 season, those fears look like silly bedwetting. Statistically, the Celtics are better defensively with Irving on the court than with him off it. Either Irving has Freaky Friday’d with mid-1990s Gary Payton, or people like myself who made wild predictions in August were wrong. I tip my cap to the benevolent witch responsible for the body-switch—clearly she wanted to teach Irving and Payton a lesson, and it looks like it’s working. Also, Brad Stevens seems like a very good coach.

If the Celtics really are the cream of the Eastern Conference, they will serve as a wildly different foil to the Warriors than the Cavaliers have the last three seasons. To say that Cleveland revolves around LeBron James is a cosmic understatement. If I may paraphrase Carl Sagan, James is the star stuff of which the Cavs are made. The Celtics lack this kind of charismatic paterfamilias. They are death by a million paper cuts, and the Warriors learned this annoying lesson firsthand on Thursday.

It’s only November, but the Celtics have at least proven that they will be a tougher out for the Cavs in the Eastern Conference playoffs this year than they have been in the past. There’s no point in predicting what will happen come April, May, and June, but we know how the Celtics will play once the postseason arrives. Should they go the distance in the East, their blueprint on how to combat Golden State will be more about negating heroics than relying on them.

The narrative surrounding the previous three NBA Finals has been Hannibal versus Rome, with LeBron leading his Cavs on a series of fateful marches to face the mightiest of opponents. The Celtics don’t have a Hannibal. They aren’t the hordes at the gates. They are administrative rot. Would you rather watch a mighty hero try to take down Rome, or would you rather see a great empire succumb to, say, contaminated aqueducts? I’m already getting excited for June—the promotional copy just writes itself.