The Boston Celtics‘ winning streak had recently reached double digits and, after a satisfying win over the Toronto Raptors, coach Brad Stevens was doing his best to downplay the growing hype around his team’s run.
These Celtics, Stevens pleaded, were not sitting around talking about their accomplishments. Inside the Celtics locker room, that sentiment was relayed to third-year guard Terry Rozier, who pondered it for a moment.
“We don’t talk about [the streak],” Rozier started, before a smile appeared and he slightly amended his statement. “When [Stevens is] not around we do.”
The Celtics have now won 16 straight games, and the entire league is talking about Boston. Celtics players are well aware of the absurdity of the streak, particularly the way this team has routinely rallied from double-digit deficits.
Boston was supposed to sink from the top of the Eastern Conference after Gordon Hayward‘s season-ending ankle injury just minutes into last month’s opener at the Cleveland Cavaliers. Instead, it has been more than a full calendar month since Boston lost a game, and the Celtics stand three wins shy of matching a franchise record for consecutive wins.
With a win on Wednesday night at the Miami Heat, the Celtics would match the third-longest winning streak in team history (17 games, 1959-60 season). While Stevens won’t let his team look beyond Wednesday’s contest, the only teams with longer streaks in Celtics history were the 1981-82 squad that won 18 straight and the 2008-09 team that took 19 in a row.
How exactly did these Celtics get here? Here are 16 nuggets from Boston’s 16 wins:
1. The defense never rests: In a league where triple-digit scoring is en vogue (the NBA scoring average is north of 105 points per game, per ESPN Stats and Information data), the Celtics are winning with defense in holding teams to an absurdly low 94.8 points per game. Boston owns a league-best defensive rating of 95.8. For the sake of comparison, the San Antonio Spurs led the league last season with a defensive rating of 100.9. Boston traded away two of its best individual defenders in Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder, but it has thrived after replacing them with stretchy wings Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Early in the season, Boston guards would scour postgame box scores to see who was winning a steals competition while embracing the defensive end.
2. The offense starts slow: The Celtics are basketball procrastinators, only cranking up their offense when they have to. Boston has ranked in the bottom third of the NBA in offensive efficiency all season. The Celtics have a propensity to start painfully slow, as evidenced by an offensive rating of 95.2 in the first halves this season (only the Sacramento Kings and Chicago Bulls, with a total of seven wins between them, have been worse). And yet Boston owns an offensive rating of 111.2 in the second halves of games, which is second only to the Golden State Warriors (119.7).
3. No deficit is too big: After the Celtics rallied from 13 points down in the fourth quarter to top the Dallas Mavericks in overtime on Monday, Stevens was asked about how his team has routinely rallied. “Because we’re always behind,” Stevens deadpanned. The Celtics have trailed by double digits in six of their 18 games, including each of their past three outings. What’s more, Boston has trailed by at least 16 in five of those games and rallied to win all but the opener in Cleveland. The Celtics have trailed in the fourth quarter in half of their 16 wins. According to ESPN Stats and Information research, nobody else in the league has more than five wins in which they’ve trailed in the fourth quarter.
4. It all started when … : Things looked particularly bleak when the 0-2 Celtics went to halftime trailing the Philadelphia 76ers in mid-October. It was then that Kyrie Irving directed a profane outburst — one that cost him $25,000 — to a fan who loudly inquired about the whereabouts of Irving’s former teammate LeBron James. In a sign of how Boston would lean on its entire roster during this streak, it was emergency G-League call-up Jabari Bird who provided an unexpected spark in the second half against the 76ers.
5. Most improbable win versus Hornets: Yes, the Celtics rallied from 18 down on the road to beat the Thunder in early November and would twice come back from 17 down to beat the Warriors. But in between those games, Boston found itself devoid of stars when Irving absorbed an inadvertent elbow from teammate Aron Baynes and suffered a facial fracture against visiting Charlotte. Boston already was playing without Hayward and Al Horford (concussion). Stevens was left with a 12-man roster featuring seven players who weren’t in the NBA last season (six rookies and Shane Larkin, who played overseas). Somehow, Boston rallied from 18 down to keep its streak alive. If the league had decided to present Stevens with its Coach of the Year Award in the aftermath, few would have argued.
6. Hayward stays involved: Whether it’s shooting from a chair at the team’s practice facility or sitting behind the bench at last week’s Warriors game, rehabbing Hayward has been around the team more lately. Even when he’s not, Hayward has posted celebratory messages on Twitter after recent wins. Just when it seemed like even he was running out of words to describe Boston’s victories, he dubbed Irving’s play on Monday night “something special” and joked, “These close games are stressing me out.”
7. On the rebound: The Celtics were one of the worst rebounding teams in the league last season, and while they didn’t add much pure size this summer, part of the streak can be tied to improvements on the glass. Boston ranked 27th in both total rebound rate (48.5 percent) and defensive rebound rate (75.3 percent) last season. This year, the Celtics rank second in total rebound rate (53.2) and first in defensive rebound rate (82.0). Offseason additions Daniel Theis and Baynes have helped on the glass, while a versatile group of forwards — Marcus Morris, Tatum, Brown — and one springy guard in Rozier have aided the uptick.
8. Dressed for success: It might just be happenstance, but the Celtics were 36-12 (.750) last season when Stevens wore a tie. That trend seems to have continued this year, as the Celtics are now 11-1 when Stevens sports a tie. Boston also is 11-1 when they wear their green jerseys, which they’ve worn twice at home this year (against the Lakers and Warriors).
The Celtics need every bit of Kyrie Irving’s masked masterpiece to rally in overtime for their 16th straight win.
9. Horford has been the team’s MVP: Irving has been nothing short of spectacular in recent games, but Horford has quietly been the most important player for Boston. Horford, routinely matched up on the opposition’s top scoring big, is allowing 0.742 points per play, according to Synergy Sports defensive data. That ranks him in the 88th percentile among all league defenders. Horford is in a bit of an offensive slump over the past three games (11 of 27 overall); but he had been fantastic before that, especially with his 3-point shot. (He’s shooting 42 percent beyond the arc for the season.) Horford owns the best offensive rating (108.8) and net rating (plus-12.6) among Celtics regulars.
10. Minutes manager: It would be easy for Stevens to get caught up in the streak and lose sight of the bigger picture. Not only is he routinely challenging his team to tighten up areas of deficiency, but no player on the team is averaging more than Horford’s 32.6 minutes per game. For a team with aspirations of another long playoff run, managing minutes this time of year is solid long-range thinking. No Celtics player ranks in the top 45 of minutes per game this season, with Horford at No. 46 and Irving at No. 63 (31.5 minutes per game) after Monday’s win.
11. Kyrie in the Fourth: It’s not unusual to hear Irving get MVP chants while shooting fourth-quarter free throws at TD Garden. But now he’s hearing it arenas around the league, especially as Celtics fans invade opposing arenas, like in Brooklyn, Atlanta and Dallas. Irving ranks No. 1 in the NBA in clutch-time scoring (when the score differential is five points or less in the final five minutes). He’s shooting 61.5 percent (24-of-39) in that situation. Maybe more impressive, Irving hasn’t committed a single turnover in 38 minutes of clutch time this season.
12. The Smart Effect: While the casual observer is quick to point out that Marcus Smart is shooting a cringeworthy 26.7 percent from the field (and 26 percent beyond the 3-point arc, while hoisting nearly five treys per game), Stevens can’t pull Smart off the court in crucial situations because of the way he impacts winning. Whether it’s a big defensive stop (Smart leads the league in defensive win shares) or emerging from a scrum with a key late-game rebound, Smart makes up for his shooting woes in ways the box score can’t always quantify.
13. Everyone has a role: In the aftermath of Hayward’s injury, Stevens told his young team it couldn’t lean on inexperience as a crutch. Stevens has fearlessly thrown rookies into big situations. Whether that’s second-round pick Semi Ojeleye guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo for stretches or German-import Theis playing big minutes with the second unit, Stevens has let his players learn on the fly, and they’ve responded to that confidence with strong play.
14. Big things expected: Based on their early season success, the Celtics currently project at 61.5 wins in ESPN’s Basketball Power Index. That’s more than five wins better than their closest East rival. Following Monday’s action, BPI pegged Boston with a 76 percent chance to get back to the East finals and a 53.2 percent chance at making the NBA Finals. In fact, BPI offered a 39.4 percent chance at a Celtics-Warriors championship matchup.
15. Tatum in ROY conversation: Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge heard a lot of grumbles when he traded the No. 1 pick to move back to No. 3 and select Duke’s Jayson Tatum. Not only has Tatum started all 18 games this season, he’s averaging 13.9 points, while shooting nearly 50 percent from the floor and 46 percent beyond the 3-point arc. Ben Simmons is the Rookie of the Year front-runner, but among 2017 draftees, Tatum has been at the head of the class. And Boston might end up with a high lottery pick from the Lakers (or Kings) for their troubles in moving back. Ainge deserves credit for not only that move, but also for assembling a roster capable of withstanding these early-season injuries.
16. Brown: Star stopper: ESPN Stats & Information notes that Boston has faced 11 All-Stars from last season during its 16-game winning streak. Those players have combined for a 14.7 player efficiency rating, which is essentially worse than a league-average player (15 PER). That group features the likes of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Russell Westbrook, and Kemba Walker. Those players are averaging a mere 18.4 points per game on 42 percent shooting, per ESPN Stats & Information research. According to data from Second Spectrum, 21-year-old swingman Jaylen Brown has spent more time guarding All-Stars than anyone else on the team during the streak, and he has allowed just 88 points per 100 possessions in the half-court.