Feelin’ Green, Week One

A Tragedy in One Act

CURRENT RECORD: 0–2 (.000)

GAMES THIS WEEK:

Oct. 17: Celtics 99, Cavaliers 102

Oct. 18: Bucks 108, Celtics 100

A powder keg of excitement, of anticipation — the draft tango with Philadelphia, the bidding war against Miami and Utah, the IT-Kyrie trade, dealing the Brooklyn Nets pick, the loss of Bradley, Olynyk, Crowder were just powder trails leading to the debut of the brand-spanking-new Boston Celtics. Danny Ainge chose not to bide his time and wait to divvy up the Cleveland Cavaliers’ estate next year. No — rather than inherit the Eastern Conference, Ainge chose to take the fight straight to LeBron James! What ho!

And then…

It looks like Ainge inadvertently dealt the Celtic luck in one of his offseason deals. Hard to dream up a worse start for the C’s. Injury quickly doused the fuse, and though the boys put up a valiant effort against the defending Eastern Conference Champions, the loss of Hayward has cast a sickly pallor over the next 81 games. First, let me say that I am heartbroken for Gordon, his family, and his teammates. He was starting a new chapter in his career, and I feel terrible that it had to start in such a way. I wish him a speedy recovery, and am hotly anticipating his return and proper debut.

Charles Barkley said it outright: though the Celtics remain a viable playoff contender, the East is now essentially wide open (excepting the Cavaliers). Hayward was to provide the offense and space that would compensate the loss of Bradley and Crowder defensively and Olynyk in the clutch. Without him, it’s quite difficult to imagine a playoff series against the improved, tenacious Wizards going the distance, to picture a showdown with the Toronto Raptors ending favorably, or, as in the case of Thursday night’s loss to Milwaukee, to envision the battered defense handling the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Yet, in spite of the city’s broken ankle, there was something reassuring about the Celtics’ outpouring of effort in the second half. Down 17 with two quarters to go, the team came out to play, and cobbled together a few one-point leads before folding to a late 7–0 run. Kyrie had some promising poise as the team leader, Tatum matured by about 4 years in the locker room, and Brown made his name known. I was relieved to see that the post-facelift, post-tragedy Celtics still had some grit to them.

Last year, this franchise ground out 53 wins and home-court advantage on the backs of a pint-sized star and a relatively pedestrian supporting cast. Losing spiritual leaders in Thomas and Bradley, gritty journeymen in Crowder and Johnson, and unexpected heroes in Olynyk and Jerebko, I was afraid that the team would be too reliant on star-power to buy into the culture of beautiful basketball — which only works if you have a cast of nobodies or an enviable collection of refined superstars (read: Golden State Warriors). I feared that the C’s, though certainly better on paper, would have lost the structural toughness and underdog tenacity that had won them games against the likes of Washington, Golden State, and Cleveland. After all, it is extraordinarily difficult to have an ‘everybody contributes’ culture when only the same guys contribute night after night.

The second half at the Q on Tuesday allayed most of my concerns. Irving was Irving, Smart fought for every 50/50 ball, and the kids… well, the kids were all right! The Celtics scratched and clawed, hissed and spat like your neighbor’s detestable Persian, and nearly pulled the rug out from under the top dog in the East. I don’t know just what they were told at the half, but boy— write a book, Brad Stevens.

I know, I know — I’m jumping the gun. It’s much too early to be predicting and analyzing. If Thursday’s less-than-inspiring home opener is any indication, Stevens has a lot of tinkering left to do with this group before they start winning games on the regular. But, at this moment, I do believe it is about ‘tinkering,’ and not ‘building.’ The scrappy, fighting spirit that sustained the most lovable Celtics team I’ve ever known has somehow made the leap to the new season, and looks to be in serviceable condition. I mean, give me a break — someway, somehow, we’ve got to keep the hope alive and do what we can to rationalize the gruesome image of Hayward hitting the floor five minutes into our season. And if that image is going to have to light the spiritual fuse for this team, so be it.

Early guess? Top-4 finish in the conference, second round exit. See you next week.

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