By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — It’s never safe to form an opinion of a team just 11 games into a season. It’s such a small sample size of an 82-game schedule, and with all the ebbs and flows of a NBA season, you run the risk of looking kind of silly to declare a team great before the quarter mark of the year.
But it’s pretty safe to say the 2017-18 Boston Celtics are pretty damn good. They’ve overcome the loss of Gordon Hayward and their 0-2 start, now winners of nine straight. There is no denying they are the best team in the Eastern Conference, and are well on their way to cementing that claim throughout the season.
It wasn’t particularly pretty on Monday night, as the Celtics edged out the lowly Hawks in the second leg of a road back-to-back. It’s not so much that they won the game, but how they did it.
The Celtics were expected to be an offensive juggernaut after Danny Ainge’s offseason transaction gorge, but if they’ve proved anything during their current streak, it’s that they’re one of the best defensive teams in the league. That in itself is pretty shocking, but here they are, holding opponents to just 95.9 points per 100 possessions to sit atop the NBA. Their dominant D was a bit amiss on Monday night, no doubt a victim of their three games in four nights stretch, as the Hawks became the first team to reach triple digits against the Celtics since their last loss nearly three weeks ago.
With Atlanta proving to be a pesky out, erasing a double-digit Celtics lead by the midway point of the fourth quarter, Boston turned to Kyrie Irving and told him to go nuts on the offensive end. The guard continues to prove that he can indeed lead his own team, scoring 12 of his season-high 35 points in the final frame, icing the game with a feverish final few minutes. He’s never afraid to take a hero shot, and though he has his share of frustrating misses, he hits more than he clanks.
With the Hawks up by two with 1:37 left, Irving calmly drained a triple as the shot clock expired to give the Celtics a 104-103 lead. Boston never looked back after that, but the Hawks wouldn’t go away. So Irving iced things with a beautiful midrange floater with 20.3 seconds. The Hawks really didn’t stand a chance.
Irving is the de facto leader on offense, a threat to explode at any moment. But it all boils down to a full team effort with the Celtics, and for that, they turn to Al Horford. The big man did everything (again) on Monday night, falling an assist short of his second career triple-double with 15 points, 10 boards and nine assists. He fed Irving the ball on that go-ahead three, giving him room to get the shot off with a perfect screen. It happens every game, and teams can’t do anything about it.
Not to be lost in the avalanche of love for Boston’s two “old guys” (on the C’s roster, a 25-year-old and 31-year-old are considered “old”) is their 19-year-old rookie. Jayson Tatum found himself alone in the corner when the Hawks focused on a driving Marcus Smart, who easily found the open man for a three with 47 seconds left. He scored 21 points on the night, Tatum’s third 20+ point game in his first 11 NBA games, to go with eight rebounds. With teams putting most of their focus on Irving and Horford’s two-man game, Tatum is getting great looks and he’s making most of them. Between him and Boston’s other young star, 21-year-old Jaylen Brown, chances are one of them is going to supplement Irving and Horford on a given night. It’s a lethal mix for Boston, one the rest of the league is still trying to figure out.
Yes, Monday night’s win was over the 2-9 Hawks. The Celtics struggled on the defensive end and nearly let a fourth-quarter lead slip away, which they did in each of their two losses to start the season. But when they realized they were going to need an offensive eruption to gut out an exciting, somewhat ugly win, Irving, Horford and the rest of the Celtics cast was up to it. It’s that kind of balance that has everyone shaking their heads (or sending out angry Instagrams), wondering just how good this team can actually be.
It’s another layer to Boston’s early season success, and leaves no doubt that Boston is the best team in the East. They’ll have to continue to improve to hold on to that label as other teams figure out their own problems and adapt to Boston’s success. But if one thing is certain, these guys are really good, and they should continue to get better as the season progresses.