Everyone expected the Boston Celtics to be a fine team this season. Through the first month and change of the NBA season, they're better than fine. In fact, they're one of the best teams in the league by both record and statistical metrics. While they dropped a close one to the Los Angeles Clippers last night to fall behind the Los Angeles Lakers for the best record in the league, their performance over the opening 14 games of the season seems sustainable. The 2019-20 Celtics are no fluke.
The most impressive, and surprising, part of this early surge has been the team's defense. The biggest loss this offseason wasn't Kyrie Irving (going from him to Kemba Walker is as lateral a move as you're going to get when it comes to star point guards), but rather the departures of Al Horford and Aron Baynes and the interior defense they brought to the table. The Celtics couldn't do much to replace them, so they didn't try; they brought in Enes Kanter with their mid-level exception, who can do lots of things, but defending is not one of them, and otherwise stuck with last year's backup rotation of Daniel Theis and Robert Williams.
Theis has been the definition of solid, but neither he nor Williams have suddenly become elite rim protectors. Rather, Boston has crafted a defense built upon strong, lengthy defenders who move on a string to recover when one guy gets beat. It's remarkable to watch everyone scramble around if Walker gets beat on the pick and roll, as one wing crashes inside to help while the others rotate like madmen on the perimeter. Having defensive Swiss army knife Marcus Smart certainly helps matters. In their loss to the Clippers, they held Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to a combined 15-38 shooting. For two guys that tend to be held as models of efficiency on that end of the floor, that's a remarkable job by a team many thought would struggle to stop anybody.
That wasn't the only reason this loss to the Clippers can be considered encouraging. Walker had his worst day in Celtics green as the Clippers sicced the Leonard/George combo on him to force other Celtics to create, and create they did; Jayson Tatum scored 30 on 50 percent shooting, Smart posted 15 points and eight assists, and even Brad Wanamaker got in on the action with 14/5 on 4-8 shooting. This is the type of game Boston desperately could have used Gordon Hayward, sidelined with a fractured hand, as an elite secondary creator (not to mention his switchability defensively). But despite Walker shooting 4-17 with six turnovers, Boston led for much of the game early on and pushed L.A. all the way to overtime. This all happened despite what some might call questionable refereeing that resulted in Brad Stevens earning a rare technical foul.
This is the fourth game of a five-game West Coast road trip for Boston. It would have been easy to fold in the face of a team many consider to be title favorites. But they fought hard and made it work regardless.
Will the Celtics finish the season with the second-best record in the league? Probably not. But, along with the Raptors, Bucks, and Lakers, they're one of the few teams who have both a top-10 offensive and defensive rating. From what we've seen, there's no reason to think their pace isn't sustainable between the continually-improving skillset of their young players and how engaged everyone is on defense.
There is, of course, still a lot Boston needs to improve on. But any questions about their ability to hang with the best of the best should be put to bed. These Celtics are for real.