Expectations can derail a team's season. Just ask last season's Boston Celtics.
Entering the 2018-19 season, there weren't many people picking a team other than the Celtics to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. It was practically Celtics across the board, as the team - on paper - had arguably the most talented roster in the NBA.
Unfortunately for them, games aren't played on paper. A combination of astronomical expectations, team chemistry issues and too many cooks in the kitchen resulted in falling short of their goal, being eliminated in the Eastern Conference Semifinals by the Milwaukee Bucks.
You could argue that this team entered the 2019-20 season with less talent than they had last season. They're playing a lot of inexperienced players, lack frontcourt depth and aren't exactly gifted with elite defenders. But all of that goes out the window with the way this team plays together. That shows in their league-best 11-2 record.
MORE: Where are Celtics in latest power rankings?
Playing together is something you hardly ever saw from the 2018-19 team. It was a lot of "your turn, my turn" on offence and they weren't completely bought in defensively every night.
This season, it's night and day.
The Celtics almost play hot potato on offence and they rarely turn it over. According to NBA.com/Stats, their 1.98 assist-to-turnover ratio is the best in the league.
They share the wealth, which is represented by almost having four players averaging 20-plus points per game - though you could put an asterisk next to that with Jaylen Brown's scoring production (19.5 ppg) spiking once Gordon Hayward (18.9 ppg) went down with a hand injury.
MORE: What Hayward's injury means to Celtics
On the other end, it doesn't matter that they lack prototypical elite defenders because they make it look like they've been playing together for years, not just 13 games, and they work hard and take pride in stopping their opponents from scoring.
The Celtics rank in the top-10 in steals and blocks per game and top-five in opponent points in the paint and opponent points off turnovers. Boston is also one of four teams - along with the Bucks, Denver Nuggets and Toronto Raptors - that rank in the top-10 in both offensive and defensive rating.
But enough of me telling you about how well this team moves the ball on offence and rotates on defence - it's time to show you.
Take a look at this offensive possession from earlier this season against the Cleveland Cavaliers:
Hayward was on fire in this game. He had 34 points shooting a near-perfect 15-for-18 from the field to this moment in the contest, and Boston was working to get its hot hand an open look on a side inbounds play. Marcus Smart set the down screen and Daniel Theis worked his way to set up a dribble-handoff, staggered screen to free up Hayward for a jumper.
On a night where everything is falling, it would have been easy for Hayward to take that first contested 3-pointer. Last season, he probably would have taken it. Any player on the team would have taken it. This season, it's different - he wants to find a better shot.
Hayward drives and kicks to Kemba Walker, who's also open before a late close-out from Cavs defender Cedi Osman. Again, Walker could have pulled up and that would've been a good shot, but this season, they're looking for great shots.
He passes to Smart, who also gets a good look at the hoop but is looking to move the ball again. Extra pass to Brad Wanamaker. Another extra pass to a wide open Hayward in the corner who buries the game-sealing jumper to put Cleveland away.
It's possessions like this where in 2018-19 that ball would have been shot four different times before it would have ended up in Hayward's hands in the corner. This season, they're making the extra pass and playing selflessly, putting the team's success over individual agendas.
Now, on the defensive end:
This is a perfect example of not having the most gifted defenders on the floor but still finding a way to make it work.
Walker and Semi Ojeleye switch the pick-and-roll as the New York Knicks look to either get Marcus Morris with a mismatch on the block or free up sharpshooter Wayne Ellington for a 3-pointer. Daniel Theis rotates over to switch with Walker to avoid the mismatch with Morris. Meanwhile, Wanamaker jumps out on Julius Randle and Walker scrambles frantically to recover on Ellington.
Walker's effort gets him there in time, as Ellington sees a mismatch he likes with Randle posting up Wanamaker. Theis spots the problem from the opposite side of the court and runs over to bring a double-team, leaving Morris wide open. Morris cuts to the hoop, but at the same time, Ojeleye drops down to close off that passing lane.
The double-team gets Randle to throw a bad pass. While Ojeleye should have came up with a steal, he gets the deflection. The strong defensive possession takes time off the shot clock and forces the Knicks to take a quick and contested shot on the following inbound, which resulted in a miss and a defensive rebound for the Celtics.
These two plays showcase how unselfishly they play on the offensive end and how well they communicate on the defensive end.
And with winning plays like these, it's no wonder Boston is off to this hot, unexpected start to the 2019-20 season.
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