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Celtics Check-in – First Quarter

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Celtics Check-in – First Quarter (AP photo/Michael Dwyer)

It has taken me a while, but I’m starting to come around on the NBA.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not like I’ve never paid attention. But my interest has largely been part of my general sports fandom rather than any specific love for basketball. I’m a Celtics fan by nature of geography, but even when I’ve been largely checked out, I’ve always had a general sense of what the basketball picture in Boston looked like.

But now? Now, the picture is VERY clear.

The Celtics have had as hot a first-quarter as we’ve seen from them in years. As of press time, they’re sitting atop the Eastern Conference with a gaudy 18-4 record – a record that includes a 16-game winning streak. That’s some good basketball.

Let’s check in.

Offensively, the C’s are led by point guard Kyrie Irving, who with each game looks more and more like the best trade acquisition of the offseason. Those naysayers who thought Danny Ainge gave up too much have largely been silenced, courtesy of Irving’s per-game line - 22.8 points, 5.3 assists, 3.2 rebounds, 1.6 steals – and an unquestionable alpha-dog presence on the court. He’s stepped up his defensive efforts and become a real leader of this team. Kyrie might believe the Earth is flat, but he can ball.

But he’s not alone.

Ainge heard plenty of questions about his move to trade down from the top spot in this year’s draft; so many people thought Markelle Fultz was THE guy. Instead, he moved down to three – Fultz went to the 76ers, Lonzo Ball to the Lakers, leaving the Celtics to take Jayson Tatum with the third pick. All he’s done is average nearly 14 points and over five rebounds while making nearly half his threes and playing solid D.

Jaylen Brown has developed into a legitimate weapon on offense. He’s second on the team in scoring with nearly 16 points per game and pulling down over six boards. Brown has shot over 40 percent from three-point range and also been a high-effort guy on the defensive end. He has broken out in a major way.

And then there’s Al Horford. Teaming up with Irving has been a huge boon to Horford’s performance. He’s got a great-looking line – 13.6 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.9 assists – and is shooting over 50 percent from the field and over 43 percent from three. He has become a do-everything weapon for this team, putting together what might wind up being the best all-around season of his entire career.

All this, plus role player types like Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier and sneaky-good offseason pickup Marcus Morris all doing anything and everything to help the team win – playing strong defense, pushing for rebounds, making smart passes. Heck, they’re even scoring when they need to. While the top five on this roster might not be the league’s best, you could put their 1-12 roster up against just about any team in the league.

But while the efforts of players like Irving and Horford and Brown and Tatum have been hugely important in pushing this team to the top of the standings in the season’s first quarter, we have to make sure to give coach Brad Stevens his due.

Yes, Stevens had already ensconced himself in the upper echelon of NBA coaches through his previous work, he has done something truly special with this team. Think about it – the Celtics lost star free agent pickup Gordon Hayward FIVE MINUTES into the season. They had the guy who was slated to be their at-worst second offensive option, the guy who they wined and dined and signed to a nine-figure contract, for less than a quarter. It would be hard to fault any team for struggling after such an ignominious blow; you’ve basically just watched your season go up in smoke. Of COURSE you would struggle.

But the Celtics … didn’t. They just didn’t. And while a lot of that has to do with the talent of Irving and Horford and the rapid development of Brown and Tatum, one simply can’t overstate the quality of work put forth by Stevens. He has pushed this team to reach heights no one could have anticipated.

Is this team going to maintain its current pace? Almost certainly not – this isn’t a squad that’s going to win 67 games. They simply won’t stay this hot. But could they win 60? Absolutely. And considering the state of the conference, that number would almost certainly land them the top seed – they were first last year with 53 wins.

The Celtics have set themselves up for success. Despite a rather daunting tipoff to the season, this team looks poised to go the distance, though we can’t forget that there is still a whole lot of basketball yet to be played.

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