Tomase: I may hate everything, but I love this Celtics team

John Tomase
December 29, 2017 - 1:35 am
Al Horford hugs Terry Rozier.

Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports

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My heart is black. My soul is empty. I despise kittens, loathe the royal wedding, and interrupt John Dennis out of pure malice. I am clearly a monster.

And yet there is one thing I cannot hate.

The Boston Celtics.

If you watched Thursday's 99-98 victory over the Rockets, you must be with me. The Celtics trailed 12-0 before fans had settled and by 26 in the second half. Playing the second night of a back-to-back against the rested visitors, the C's had every reason to punch out and regroup for Sunday's tilt against Brooklyn.

Instead, they punched the Rockets and superstar guard James Harden in the face, upping their intensity for no other reason than it's all they know. Reserves Shane Larkin, Terry Rozier, and Abdel Nader hounded Houston's ball-handlers. The Rockets' wide-open looks disappeared. The Celtics chipped away.

All still seemed lost in the closing seconds with the C's trailing by three before a Jayson Tatum dunk. But Marcus Smart drew TWO offensive fouls against a frustrated Harden off inbounds passes. The first set up Al Horford's go-ahead half hook with three seconds left for Boston's only lead of the game. The second denied the Rockets a chance to win.

When it was over, the Garden erupted, Kyrie Irving sprinted the ball to the Celtics bench, and Horford embraced Rozier like they had just won it all. Meanwhile, standing at midcourt, a catatonic Harden stroked his beard in disbelief.

The Celtics improved the East's best record to 29-10. They did it without second-year guard Jaylen Brown and against a small Rockets lineup that basically rendered big men Aron Baynes and Daniel Theis spectators. They did it with Larkin energizing the bench and the crowd by getting run over at halfcourt and somehow being whistled for the foul that might've killed Tommy Heinsohn if it weren't a TNT game. They did it, as they've done all season, with All-Star swingman Gordon Hayward in street clothes.

They did it because it's what they do. In a town that sometimes feels like it openly roots against the Red Sox, wants someone in Foxboro to blame over trading Jimmy Garoppolo, and remains indifferent to the red-hot Bruins, the Celtics are the one cynicism-proof team we've got.

The derisive term for their fans is Green Teamers, but it does them a disservice, because the genuine affection the locals have developed isn't simply a product of mindless devotion. It has been earned by the collective brilliance of Danny Ainge, Brad Stevens, and Irving.

No team in the NBA has done more with less over the last four years. Not even Hayward's injury has kept them down, and the roster boasts one superstar (Irving), one All-Star (Horford), and at least one future star (Tatum), if not two (Brown). Watching them is a nightly exercise in anticipation, not just of how they'll improbably win, but of how good they could be for the next five years. They're only beginning.

Ainge has often described the task of rebuilding a contender as taking aim at a moving target. If that's the case, then he has basically nailed a series of bullseyes in a mine shaft from a hang glider.

He turned the decline years of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett into multiple lottery picks, stole Isaiah Thomas, used him to recruit Horford and Hayward, and then shipped him to Cleveland for Irving. Along the way, he drafted well (Brown, Tatum, Smart, Rozier), made shrewd signings on the fringes (Baynes, Larkin), and even unearthed a solid rotation player via Germany (Theis).

None of it would work without the right coach, however, and Ainge nailed this one, too. It's safe to say 2018 will be the year Stevens is finally recognized as Coach of the Year. On his watch, the Celtics play beyond their talent night after night, month after month, year after year. They have no business leading the East right now, just like they had no business winning it during last year's regular season, just like they had no business even making the playoffs two years before that.

Stevens' teams are hard-nosed, which is a surefire path to our hearts. They simply wore down the Rockets on Thursday, blitzing Harden with so much pressure that he finally snapped. They gang rebounded, attacked 50-50 balls like the one Tatum secured to guarantee a crucial late-game possession, and even watched Irving follow one of his own 3-pointers right to the rim for an offensive board.

But all of Stevens' motivational and tactical skills wouldn't necessarily mean anything without the right superstar leading the way, and Irving, for all of his idiosyncrasies, appears to be that guy. He constantly leads cheers from the bench, he's an alpha with the ball, and he knows how to make shots in crunch time. The next time the Celtics play, watch him after the game. He's the guy opposing stars seek for a hug and a handshake. He's clearly well-liked, which certainly bodes well if the Celtics ever find themselves in a position to woo a free agent again. He belongs on that very short list of stars other stars want to play alongside.

On Thursday night, everything likable was on display. The C's scratched, punched, clawed, and ultimately willed themselves to another shocking victory in a season that looked over five minutes into the opener.

It's enough to make even the most miserable among us shrug our shoulders and declare, "I'm all in."

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