By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — There are plenty of reasons to be impressed with the 2017-18 Boston Celtics.
You can start with their 34-10 record, the best in the Eastern Conference, which no one could have predicted when Gordon Hayward went down just minutes into the new season. There’s their NBA-best defense, leading the way with a 99.6 rating while holding opponents to 43 percent shooting and just 97.7 points per game (one of only two teams allowing less than 100 points per game). With the way offenses are exploding these days, those numbers are downright silly.
Then there are the comebacks. Boy, have there been comebacks.
That’s why when the Celtics dug themselves into a 22-point hole to the 76ers on Thursday in London, no one on the Boston roster was really sweating it. They’d erased such a deficit before this season, and against much better opposition. They calmly chiseled that deficit to nine at the half before completely dominating the final 24 minutes, improving to an unreal 8-5 in games that they had trailed by 13 or more points.
“We stayed the course, and we’ve done that all year,” Mr. Cool, Brad Stevens, said following his 200th career victory. “We’ve come back before. There was no real panic, but we had to play a lot better.”
While the reputation of being comeback kids isn’t terrible, it’s certainly not a great practice to fall behind by so much so often. It’s something that could absolutely sink them come the playoffs. But for now, we’ll enjoy their propensity to turn those big deficits into dramatic wins. They do it with a fantastic mix of clutch play, stellar defense, and a whole lot of luck, treating us to 48 minutes of frustration and exhilaration. It’s probably taken a few years off all Celtics fan’s lives, but we’re all going to go some day anyways.
Here’s another look at all those times the Celtics did the improbable:
December 28: 26-point comeback vs. Rockets
This was Marcus Smart’s magnum opus.
The Rockets opened the game with a 12-0 run and had a 62-38 advantage at halftime, leading by as many as 26 points. And that was with James Harden struggling from the floor (he still had 16 first-half points).
It looked grim for the Celtics, but they outscored Houston 31-16 in third as Kyrie Irving poured in 12 of his 26 points. They continued to chip away and were down by just a point after a Smart driving layup with 13.5 seconds left. A pair of Harden freebies got the Houston lead back up the three, but in an incredibly uncharacteristic moment for these Celtics, they settled for a Jayson Tatum dunk instead of a three with 7.5 seconds left to make it a 98-97 game.
That’s when Smart went to work.
He drew an offensive foul on Harden on the ensuing inbound with 7.3 left to give Boston the ball back. Al Horford followed with a fancy hook shot to give the C’s their first lead of the game, and the Rockets never got a chance to answer as Smart pestered his way to another charge on Harden. Houston’s superstar was incredulous, to say the least.
It was improbable. It was preposterous. But it was what we’ve come to expect from the Celtics when they’re down big.
January 11: 22-point comeback vs. 76ers in London
The Celtics looked like a group that had way too many crumpets to start their London tilt with the 76ers, but from the 4:30 mark of the second quarter to the 3:10 mark of the third they outscored Philly 44-16. It was quite the treat for NBA fans across the pond.
November 3: 18-point comeback @ Thunder
This is the one that started all the magic. The C’s had won six straight heading into their Friday night affair in OKC, but found themselves in a big hole as Irving started the night 1-for-9 from the floor.
But he scored 22 of his 25 points in the second half, including 13 in the fourth quarter, to outduel Russell Westbrook and Paul George to a 101-94 road win.
November 10: 18-point comeback vs. Hornets
This was impressive because of who wasn’t on the floor for Boston. Horford sat out the game and Irving played for just two minutes before he broke his face on an inadvertent elbow by teammate Aron Baynes. That soon led to an 18-point hole for the Celtics, but thanks to a career night from Shane Larkin (16 points), it was only a 12-point disadvantage heading into the fourth quarter.
The C’s opened the final frame on a 16-3 run and never looked back after taking an 80-79 lead with 5:29 left. Not too shabby without their top two players.
November 16: 17-point comeback vs. Warriors
The Celtics have been one of the few teams to play the Warriors tough over their recent run of otherworldly success. If their first meeting of the regular season was indeed a preview of the NBA Finals, it’s going to be a heck of a fun series.
The Celtics had won 13 straight heading into their matchup with the defending champs but found themselves in a 17-point hole midway through the second quarter. But a 15-3 run to close the half had them back within five, a deficit they had erased by the start of the fourth quarter. Irving went out and scored 11 of his 16 points in the final frame, securing the 92-88 win for the C’s with a pair of free throws in the closing seconds.
It’s one of just two times this season the Warriors have been held to under 90 points.
November 18: 16-point comeback @ Hawks
The Hawks are the worst team in the Association. For whatever reason, they’ve given the C’s some problems this year.
But after erasing a big hole against the Warriors a few nights prior, doing the same against the Hawks was the expectation. Atlanta’s 16-point lead had evaporated by the third quarter and Boston started a three-game road trip with a 110-99 win thanks to 30 points from Kyrie and a career-high 27 points from Jaylen Brown.
November 20: 13-point comeback @ Mavericks
It shouldn’t have been so hard against the lowly Mavericks, but the C’s made it three comebacks in as many games when they eked out an overtime win in Dallas.
The Celtics started hot and led by 15 at one point in the first half. Then they were not-so-hot and Dallas outscored them by 20 points in the second and third quarters. They led 87-74 with 7:47 to play.
But Kyrie scored eight and Jayson Tatum poured in six of his own to close out regulation before Irving went off for 10 points in overtime. He finished with a season-high 47 points to give the C’s another improbable victory.
November 26: 13-point comeback @ Pacers
Compared to the others, this was just kind of a ho-hum comeback win, with the Celtics outpacing the Pacers 37-16 in the third quarter. They turned a 56-47 hole into an 82-70 advantage in a 10-minute span, as Kyrie finished with 25 points and Horford added another 21 on the way to a 10-point victory.
December 18 @ Indiana
While 20+ point comebacks are improbable in their own right, what the Celtics pulled off on their second trip to Indy was pretty remarkable.
They trailed by four points with 19 seconds on the clock, when Irving drained a deep three to make it 111-110 with 10 seconds to go. The Pacers inbounded the ball, but for whatever reason, Bojan Bogdanovic threw a high pass to Victor Oladipo at midcourt rather than just waiting to be fouled.
Terry Rozier did a great free safety impression when he saw Bogdanovic was throwing a pass, plucked it out of the air and finished with an open court slam with 1.5 left to give the C’s perhaps their most improbable win of the season.
An Almost Comeback Opening Night In Cleveland
We probably should have known what we were in for this season when the C’s nearly came back from a 18-point deficit on opening night. Once the dust had settled from Hayward’s horrible injury, Boston battled back in Cleveland and even held a lead with 2:04 left. They had a pair of chances to send things to overtime, but Kyrie and Brown both missed three-point attempts.