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O’Sullivan: Even when they lose, these Celtics are still a blast

  • Even when they lose, like they did on Monday night to Tobias Harris (center) and the Detroit Pistons, Jayson Tatum (left), Marcus Smart (right) and the Boston Celtics showcase their potential and entertain their fans. AP

  • It took a performance for the record books from Detroit’s Andre Drummond (right) and an inspired effort from Avery Bradley (left) for the Pistons to beat the Celtics on Monday. AP


Tuesday, November 28, 2017

No NBA team has attracted more attention this season than the Celtics, and why not? There are so many good storylines and talking points that it feels like every basketball head out there has taken a turn, or multiple turns, writing, broadcasting or podcasting about Boston.

There’s Kyrie Irving shedding the shadow of LeBron James and silencing those who doubted his superstar status. There’s the emergence of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, two young stars-in-waiting that come complete with first names begging for a clever moniker. There’s the coaching wizardry of Brad Stevens, who has created a cohesive team out of a turned over roster. There’s appreciation for all-around Al Horford, the grit-and-grind of Marcus Smart and the wisdom of boss Danny Ainge.

The list goes on and on, just like the stories, talk radio segments and Boston wins. The season is only a quarter of the way done and already it’s getting hard to find a new angle on these Celtics, but it’s also hard not to talk about them.

I couldn’t resist the temptation to add my opinion to the pile, so I settled in for the Detroit at Boston game on Monday with pen and paper ready. I was going find a new angle, or at least come up with the perfect nickname for Tatum and Brown – TBJay? The Flying Jays? JayJay Dyn-o-mite?

Okay, so the nickname still needs some work. And after the Pistons beat the Celtics, 118-108, I was worried I had also dissected the wrong game to unearth new praise for Boston. But after sifting through the final stats and postgame reactions, it came to me – even when they lose, these Celtics still ooze potential. Even when they lose, these Celtics are fun.

First, let’s remember that after the win Detroit improved to 13-6, which was the second best record in the Eastern Conference (behind only Boston’s 18-3), and the fourth best record in the entire league (behind only Boston, Houston and Golden State). So it’s not like the Celtics were beaten by a bunch of chumps.

The Pistons are a quality team, yet it still took a historic effort for them to win in Boston. Their freak-of-nature center, the 7-foot Andre Drummond, was clearly hyped to be back in his old New England stomping grounds. Drummond, who grew up in Middleton, Conn., and played his college ball at UConn, finished with an incredible 26 points, 22 rebounds, six assists and four steals.

The last player to post that exact stat line was Charles Barkley … in 1990. If that coincidence doesn’t impress you, consider this – the last Detroit player with at least 25 points, 20 rebounds and five assists in a game was Bob Lanier … in 1977. If you need more evidence of just how much work it takes to beat the Celtics right now, here it is – the last visiting player to finish with at least 25 points, 20 rebounds and five assists in Boston was Wilt Chamberlin … in 1967.

Stan Van Gundy, who took over as Detroit’s head coach in May of 2014, said that was probably Drummond’s, “best game he’s played overall at both ends of the floor since I’ve been here.” Pistons guard Ish Smith had to leave reality to describe Drummond’s performance.

“Andre was unbelievable tonight. He was special. I think he finished the game with what 25, 21? I’m not even good in (NBA video game) 2K, but I guarantee if I play 2K with him I cannot get those numbers,” Smith said. “He was special tonight.”

He wasn’t the only Piston who had a special night in Boston. Detroit forward Tobias Harris is making a run at the Most Improved Player award this season by scoring 19.1 points per game, up from the 14.1 he averaged during his previous five NBA seasons. And on Monday Harris had a breakout game in his breakout season by shooting a season-best 68.8 percent from the floor and finishing with 31 points, his second-best point total of the year.

The Pistons also had the Avery Bradley Homecoming mojo on their side. As most Celtics fans know, Bradley is a pro’s pro who brings effort every night he suits up, but he had to be extra motivated in his first return to Boston since being traded to Detroit this summer. And that extra shot of adrenaline seemed to help Bradley stick to Irving, who shot just 37.5 percent and finished with 17 points, his lowest point total since Nov. 11 when he played only two minutes against Charlotte before fracturing his face.

“They tried to take the ball out of Kyrie’s hands,” Stevens said, “and they did so pretty successfully.”

So it took a historic performance, an improvement on improvement and extra focus from the hyper-focused to beat the Celtics on Monday. And even with all that, Boston held a 100-99 lead with 5:46 left in the game after a 3-pointer from Smart, who had his best offensive night of the year by finishing with 23 points. Yet Smart didn’t care about that.

“It’s all cool and all. I’d rather have the win,” Smart said. “Obviously it felt good to be able to get it in rhythm. But like I said, I’d rather have the win.”

That tells you about the mindset of these Celtics – it’s all about the team – which is obvious when you watch them move the ball on offense and help each other on defense.

It also seems obvious that because they are so young and so new as a team, they can learn and grow from games like this. Stevens will help Tatum figure out better ways to defend Harris, and how Brown can help Irving handle extra pressure, and how the entire team can deal with monsters like Drummond. Heck, they might figure it all out by Dec. 10, which is when they travel to Detroit for a rematch.

“I was all over him on defense and he hit some tough ones,” Horford said of Drummond. “Those are the ones you shake his hand and say it’s your night tonight. We’ll see them again in a couple of weeks.”

Yep, even when they lose, these Celtics are still a blast.

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)