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Tim O’Sullivan column: Optimists and pessimists can agree, Celts are on the upswing

Last modified: 12/18/2015 2:52:54 AM
BOSTON – Extreme conclusions, occupying opposite ends of a spectrum, could be made from the Celtics’ double-overtime, heart-pounding, 124-119 loss to defending champion and history-chasing Golden State.

The fan with Larry Bird on his socks who is voting for Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart as All-Stars right this instant thinks Friday’s loss proves what he’s known all along – the Celtics are inches away from Banner 18. The cynical and spoiled New Englander who thinks the Patriots are done after losing two in a row and that David Price isn’t worth the money believes Boston was fortunate to hang with the undermanned Warriors and a true contender would have found a way to win that game.

The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in the middle. And that’s good news for Celtics fans.

Maybe it’s unfair or outlandish to compare Boston with Golden State. The Warriors are busy making a case they’re one of the greatest teams of all time. The Celtics are busy rebuilding enough to get out of the first round of the playoffs.

But the ultimate goal is to become the champ, especially in history-rich Boston. And there are comparisons to be made between the two teams that put on

the double-overtime performance at TD Garden on Friday.

First, before the cynical start hollowing, the caveats. The Warriors were missing two starters – Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes – and their superstar – Stephen Curry – did not play at peak level. And they still won in Boston. The Celtics don’t have anyone close to the quality of Curry (no one in the league does), Thompson or Draymond Green, Golden State’s third-best player. Shoot, Barnes and Andre Iguodala are probably better than anyone on Boston’s roster.

The Warriors are in a different stratosphere than anyone in the league right now and the Celtics aren’t even a step below them. It’s more like two or three steps.

Still, Boston shares some of the qualities that make Golden State so good, qualities that also make the Warriors the next step in basketball evolution. Like the champs, the Celtics play cohesive, team basketball. They defend with tenacity and purpose. They are loaded with versatile players. They play with pace. And they have a great coach.

“They’re good. We knew that coming in,” Golden State assistant coach Luke Walton, who is filling in for Steve Kerr while he recuperates from surgery complications, said after Friday’s game. “(The Celtics are) a team that’s coached very well, they get after it on defense, they have versatile players that can switch, they run a lot of good sets, and they’re really good at home. So we knew all of that coming into this game, and they just showed what – they just kind of confirmed what we knew about them.”

“They were amazing,” Green said of the Celtics. “We knew they were comin’ in to play this way … They’re a good team, a good ball club, and they’re gonna continue to get better. We knew how that would turn out, and it happened exactly how we thought it was.”

Clearly the Warriors have been paying close attention to how (surprisingly) well Boston has played through the first quarter of the season. Basketball-reference.com has a Simple Rating System that uses point differential and strength of schedule to rank teams. Golden State is tops with a 13.06 followed by San Antonio (9.74), Oklahoma City (6.29), Indiana (5.39), Charlotte (5.27) and … Boston (5.02).

Sure, it’s early, and only the diehards wearing shamrock shades think the Celtics are actually better than Cleveland. Still, Boston has looked dangerous for the last two months and the numbers back that theory, especially the defensive numbers.

The Celtics have the fourth best defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) in the league at 97.1. They are seventh in opponent 3-point percentage (33.0) and ninth in opponent field goal percentage (43.3).

Those numbers held true against Golden State. With Bradley hounding Curry and Jae Crowder leading the team defense into hounding everyone else, Curry connected at just 33.3 percent, his worst shooting performance of the season, and the Warriors shot 39.3 percent as a team.

Bradley, and Evan Turner, were so tight on Curry all night he stepped out of bounds with the ball three, yes three, different times. He probably doesn’t do that three times in a month.

The offensive numbers, and eye test, aren’t quite as good for the Celts. They’re 17th in offensive rating (101.4) and 21st in field goal percentage (43.6).

However, Boston is third in assistant percentage (the amount of field goals made with assists) at 64.1 percent, trailing just Golden State (67.8) and Atlanta (64.1). This demonstrates the Celtics’ willingness to share the ball and speaks to the diverse offensive talents of the players. Not only are most of them good passers, the team also has enough capable finishers to make those assists stick. After all, a good pass means nothing in the box score if the shot isn’t made.

That showed up on Friday night in the form of Kelly Olynyk’s team-high 28 points. Olynyk doesn’t start and he’s only the team’s seventh leading scorer. But he was feeling it on Friday, both inside and outside, so his teammates, all of them, kept feeding him.

The cohesion on both sides of the ball can be traced back to one man – Brad Stevens. Boston’s coach has optimized individual potential and created a team that’s greater than the sum of its optimized parts. And he wasn’t satisfied with giving the Warriors the tightest game they’ve had all season.

“I think we can improve,” Stevens said late Friday night. “We can play better than we did tonight. You know, you probably have to maximize all the little things a little bit better than we did to beat them. By an inch, I guess.”

The Celtics have more than an inch of work left before they become a true contender. Danny Ainge needs to acquire more talent. Young players like Smart and Olynyk need to reach their potential. Veterans like Thomas and Bradley need establish consistency and leadership.

Still, the building blocks are there for Boston. Just ask the Greatest Team on Earth, which needed 10 extra minutes to escape Boston with its historical run still intact.

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


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