Young Celtics Shine Together for First Time
NEW YORK – Any win is a good win for a rebuilding franchise. Tuesday’s Celtics victory in New York, however, held a bit more meaning.
It would be accurate to say that nothing particularly special occurred on this night. No records were broken. No blowout victory was logged. But something did make this night a noteworthy one for Boston.
For the very first time, the Celtics watched their young players – the guys who are the fresh cornerstones of this franchise – soared to their strengths in unison.
Marcus Smart has played well at times this season. Jared Sullinger and Avery Bradley have, too. Never have they done so together at this level, and never have they done so while James young was doing the same.
Smart was inserted into the starting lineup Tuesday night and he made an immediate impact. Boston, a team that had consistently struggled during first quarters, jumped out to a 14-2 lead to start the game.
What spearheaded hot start? “Marcus Smart and the way he played defensively,” Sullinger stated.
Smart finished the night with 13 points, four rebounds, three assists and two steals. The Celtics outscored the Knicks by 16 points while he was on the court.
He had plenty of help. While Smart lit a fire under the team with his defensive tenacity, Sullinger and Bradley torched the Knicks at the other end of the court.
Sullinger looked like a legitimate star throughout this contest. He did it all, from scoring (22 points), to rebounding (game-high nine boards), to assisting (game-high six helpers). He made the type of shots - like unguardable turnaround fadeaways along the baseline - that mark the difference between great players and good players.
“He’s got great touch with the right-hand hook. He’s got a left-hand hook,” Brad Stevens said of Sullinger. “But he’s got a nice counter over his right shoulder when he fades a little bit. You’ve got to have a move and a counter move if you want to be a great post player.”
Sullinger was certainly that Tuesday night. He shot 11-of-16 from inside the arc, including 5-of-8 from the restricted area and 4-of-6 from the blocks.
While Sullinger was making noise down low, Bradley dazzled from the perimeter. His shooting performance, which included 11 makes on 14 attempts and a 3-of-5 effort from long range, was what you’d expect from such a beautiful stroke.
It was actually a surprise when Bradley missed a shot during this game. Everything was expected to hit the bottom of the net. It was also a surprise that he didn’t set off the Madison Square Garden fire alarm system with his 26-point night, because as Stevens said, “He was smoking from everywhere.”
What wasn’t a surprise? The Celtics outscored the Knicks by 13 points while Bradley was on the floor.
The last of Boston’s youthful first-round picks, Young, did not sprinkle the box score with impressive numbers. He instead shined in other ways.
Stevens has rarely called Young’s name this season. Prior to Tuesday, the rookie had logged more than 10 minutes of playing time on only three occasions. Stevens and the Celtics have taken Young’s development slowly, but it appears that he is ready to contribute.
Young played 17-plus minutes Tuesday night, but more important was the timing of the bulk of those minutes. Stevens left Young on the floor for a stretch of eight minutes and 42 seconds that spanned from the end of the third quarter until midway through the fourth. It can be argued that Young was on the floor for Boston during the most important juncture of the game.
The Celtics led by as many as 16 points Tuesday night, including a 15-point lead during the third quarter. That advantage dwindled all the way down to four points just a few minutes into the final period.
And yet Stevens stuck with the seldom-used rookie, leaving him on the court alongside Smart, Sullinger, Bradley and Jae Crowder. The decision paid off in a big way.
“He only hit one jump shot, but the jump shot James Young hit was big,” Stevens said, alluding to the two points Young put on the board to bump Boston’s lead back to eight with 10:15 remaining. “That was a big, big shot.”
One that Young wouldn’t have made as recently as a couple of days prior, simply because he wouldn't have the opportunity to do so. He did Tuesday night, and he nailed it.
Young and Smart are in similar positions. Both are proving themselves to be worthy of a larger role, which is why Smart is now Boston’s starting point guard, and why Young is now garnering playing time at critical moments.
These are major steps in each player’s respective career that cannot go overlooked. As Sullinger put it, “James and Marcus are growing up right before our eyes.”
Modest, Sullinger is, but he and Bradley, too, are growing up in front of our eyes. Sullinger made star-like plays against the Knicks, and Bradley looked the part of the elite shooter the Celtics envision him as becoming.
Each of these young Celtics, all of whom are 24 years old or younger and also home grown, looked the part of a young franchise cornerstone. They showed progress. They showed development. They showed promise. All in unison.
That’s why Tuesday’s win wasn’t just another triumph for the Boston Celtics. It was much more than that; a victory that gave us a glimpse of what these young and talented players are capable of accomplishing together.