A helping of TD Garden animosity will make the Warriors feel out of place enough for Thursday’s matchup of the NBA’s two conference leaders. And playing a team with a better record one month in? That’s a new feeling.
How has Boston—without Gordon Hayward, and having temporarily lost Al Horford and Kyrie Irving—managed a 13-game win streak? NBA executives will say the black (green?) magic of Brad Stevens, but that wouldn’t exist without an 11-deep rotation of average Joes and Terrys and Semis that he’s made into legitimately helpful role players. It’s hard to get past Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, and for good reason:
One is 21 and the other 19, and they’re both amazing. But the band of unsung heroes behind them has spackled any potential holes that could’ve ended the streak.
It begins with Rozier (who, as an admitted Louisville fan, I will love unconditionally no matter his performance). Before this season, Rozier’s trademark was being the bench player to whom Danny Ainge had a seemingly irrational attachment. He was rumored as being off-limits in any trade proposal, even though Boston was shopping for an upgrade all summer. But the hints of ferocious energy on defense and his affection for sinking last-second shots—despite ending 2016-17 shooting 36.7 percent—have come together this season and turned Rozier into a solid backup for Kyrie Irving.
The 6-foot-2 Rozier plows into under-the-basket throngs to rebound like he’s 6-foot-7, a quality the Celtics lack by starting Al Horford. In 15 games this season, Rozier has a rebound rate of 11.2, which is fifth-best in the NBA among qualified point guards.
And despite all logic (he’s shooting 32.4 percent from 3 overall), those late-quarter 3s keep falling:
Ojeleye, a second-round pick in this year’s draft, is also becoming a respectable threat from deep, but is making what noise he can in 14.1 minutes a game through his defensive assignments. Stevens has trusted the SMU product with defending the likes of Paul George, LeBron “King of N.Y.” James, Kristaps “Already the King of New York” Porzingis, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak was perhaps the biggest validation for the 6-foot-7 Ojeleye, whose humble 6-foot-10 wingspan was often a knock on him leading up to the draft; he has quick feet, all right, but can he handle lengthier players? He can use Giannis as a resume reference for that one.
Daniel Theis and Aron Baynes
Big men Theis and Baynes were two offseason additions targeted in the hopes of solidifying the defense, and so far Stevens has squeezed exactly that out of them. Baynes quietly led Detroit to its best defensive rating last season, and he replaced Andre Drummond in big moments during the latter’s poorest games. For all of Baynes’s raw strength and made-to-bully body, his best quality on the floor is his communication. Though he’ll likely defend against more second units this season than last, Baynes still holds one of Boston’s best (out of many very good) individual defensive ratings, at 91.2. He pairs nicely with Horford, as well: Of the two players that have played over 130 minutes together, Al and Aron give Boston its top defensive rating, allowing a league-best, superhuman 85.3 points per 100 possessions.
Baynes was less of a surprise than Theis (pronounced, coincidentally, like “nice”). The concern with the 25-year-old heading into the season was the same for all rookies: How soon will he be able to adjust to the league? Theis went undrafted in 2013, and took his talents back overseas, despite the Celtics saying the organization had apparently been keeping its eye on Theis for “nearly six years” prior to signing him in July.
Theis won the German League’s best defensive player award the season before he headed back to the U.S., and in less than 14 minutes a game, the 6-foot-9, 215-pound big man is already a mineable source of high-energy rebounding, rim protection, and a whole lot of dunks:
Shout-out to Larkin, who after a tough go with the Knicks and Nets was picked up by the team with possibly the league’s heaviest guard rotation and still managed to squeeze out a 17-minute, 16-point performance in Irving’s absence last Friday. Larkin might be the best example of Boston’s circle of unsung heroes. He is in the deepest crevice of the bench, and Stevens still has found a way to utilize him.