BOSTON — It wasn’t long ago that the Boston Celtics stood at the top of the basketball world with a league-best 10-1 record.
The hot start had the national media praising Kemba Walker and the rest of the new-feel Beantown crew, and seriously contemplating whether or not this was truly a group that could contend for an NBA championship.
Ten days later the Cs found themselves at 12-4 following Monday night’s pulsating 103-102 win over Sacramento back at TD Garden, thanks to 24 points from Jaylen Brown and another 20 from Jayson Tatum.
This, after going just 2-3 on a recent five-game West Coast road trip.
To the average hoop fan, it might appear as if they’ve come back down to earth. But anyone who actually watched Boston play during that stretch would know that’s not the case.
Here’s a quick recap of the recent road stint.
Friday, Nov. 15: Boston beats Golden State, 105-100, to improve to 10-1 with their 10th straight win. Tatum scores 24 points and pulls down eight rebounds with his late game dunk, all but sealing the deal. All is well in Boston.
Sunday, Nov. 17: Boston falls to Sacramento, 100-99, despite a all-around effort. This one stung as Marcus Smart was called for a blocking foul with 13 seconds remaining, which allowed the Kings to take a one-point lead with a pair of free throws. Smart proceeded to miss a floater in the lane at the buzzer, finishing the night with just five points on 2-of-16 shooting (1-8 from three). Chalk it up to bad luck; win streak over, but Celtics will bounce back ...
Monday, Nov. 18: Boston beats Phoenix, 99-85. Despite playing on the second night of a road back-to-back after a tough loss, the Celtics turned in their best defensive effort of the season. Tatum goes for 26 points and 11 boards; the Green-and-White are back on track.
Wednesday, Nov. 20: Boston falls to L.A. Clippers, 107-104, in OT. This was their biggest test of the young season and, despite the loss, the Celtics passed with flying colors. Sans Hayward and going against a Clippers team that finally had a healthy Kawhi Leonard and Paul George at the same time, Boston still had every opportunity to close it out in regulation. Uncharacteristic turnovers from Walker (4-for-17 for 13 points, with 6 turnovers) down the stretch ultimately allowed a very talented Clips team to capitalize. But we did get to see a special performance from 21-year-old Jayson Tatum (30 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocks and one nasty crossover, step back triple over a falling George). You have to think that if Hayward were healthy and they had another guy to go to in crunch time, the Cs could’ve pulled this one out in a tough environment.
Friday, Nov. 22: Boston falls to Denver, 96-92. Another gritty performance was marred by a scary head/neck injury to Walker in the opening half. At first, the incident appeared to suck the life out of Celtics players as Denver seized a 19-point lead late in the third quarter. But Boston battled back to get within a point on two occasions in the fourth quarter before the contest was ultimately decided at the free throw line in the final seconds. After the game, it was reported that Walker had told coach Brad Stevens, “I’m fine. Tell them to go win.” The Celtics nearly did that.
So while the Cs won just twice on the five-game trip, at least two of the three losses (Clippers and Nuggets) came with valiant efforts. The Kings game should’ve been theirs, but it just shows that anyone can win on any given night in the NBA.
Boston’s three losses were by a combined eight points, all of them were without arguably their best player in Hayward, and the other was on a night Cs fans feared the worst when Walker fell to the floor.
The bench has filled in admirably in recent games, most notably 30-year-old guard Brad Wanamaker, who had scored in double figures in three straight games (before failing to do so Monday) and five of his last eight contests overall. Most importantly he’s been efficient throughout, shooting over 50 percent in all but five games this season.
Bottom line: At no point during last year’s vastly disappointing campaign did the Celtics look this good and this together. They’re motivated, they’re confident, and with everyone healthy they might just be the best team in the Eastern Conference.
Hayward on track, Walker day-to-day
Prior to suffering an unfortunate hand injury against the San Antonio Spurs Nov. 9, Gordon Hayward was playing his best basketball in over two years, averaging 18.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists on efficient shooting clips (55.5 from the floor and 43.3 from deep). That included a 39-point outburst on 17-for-20 shooting in a win over Cleveland.
His elevated play alone helped change the outlook on Boston’s potential this season and luckily, it appears he’s on schedule to return within that original six-week timetable. That would put Hayward’s target return date for Sunday, Dec. 22’s home game against the Charlotte Hornets — although there’s a good chance we’ll see him before that. He was on the court early Monday evening getting shots up before his team’s game.
Meanwhile, Kemba Walker didn’t play Monday against the Kings but was with the team in Boston and is listed as day-to-day with a neck strain.
Great news is Walker certainly avoided anything serious and the concussion protocol was simply taken for precautionary measures. According to team physician Tony Schena, who spoke on Walker’s behalf prior to Monday’s game, Walker will practice on Tuesday and be reevaluated prior to Wednesday’s game against the Brooklyn Nets.
Nick Giannino, a staff writer at The Salem News, covers the Boston Celtics for CNHI Sports Boston. Follow him on Twitter @NickGiannino_SN and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.