The Boston Celtics are still flying quietly below the national NBA radar despite an intriguing young roster led by one of the game's best young coaches and a defense that lingers among the league's best.
Boston is 7-6, indicative of its inconsistent play through the first month of the 2015-16 season, and yet there's been more good than bad. After a 1-3 start, the Celtics have won six of their last nine games with an average margin of victory of 17.5 points per game in those wins.
The Celtics, bumped from their only scheduled national TV game last season (though they later picked up an ESPN broadcast against the Detroit Pistons), play the first of seven scheduled national TV games on Tuesday when they visit the Atlanta Hawks (TNT, 8 p.m. ET).
Boston has been dubbed the "Baby Hawks" for its team-centric style of play and potential to make a leap in the Eastern Conference this season. Before the Celtics step back into the national spotlight, we caught up with Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge for his thoughts on his team's early-season performance.
What are your impressions of your team 13 games into the season?
Ainge: I’ve enjoyed watching them play. For the most part, I think the team has played hard. At the same time, we’ve been inconsistent -- inconsistent throughout most every game. We have some explosive moments, we have some droughts, but I feel like our team’s effort has been pretty good with the exception of [Sunday's loss in Brooklyn].
The Celtics are on national TV for the first time this season against the Hawks, and it’s the appetizer before the Golden State Warriors go for an NBA record for consecutive wins to start a season. Are you excited for your team to be in a national spotlight again?
Ainge: I don’t know about that. Because I’m just in a world where I watch every NBA game and we live in such a world now where it doesn’t really matter if a game is on ESPN or NBA League Pass or watching it on my iPad as I’m traveling. I watch all the NBA teams a lot, so I don’t pay more attention to people that are on national TV or not. So I may not be the right guy to ask that question to.
Here’s the thing: When we’re in the locker room before a national TV game, your players all have new haircuts, they’ve got new sneakers. Hey, there was a whole “National TV [Rajon] Rondo" phenomenon during his time in Boston. Things might be different from when you were a player, but there must be some noticeable difference for national TV games now.
Ainge: Maybe [the players] are the ones to ask about it. I don’t know. I guess I was spoiled as a player because I played on [Celtics] teams that seemed like we were always on national TV.
The Celtics owned the NBA’s top-ranked defensive rating after Friday's win. Why has the defense been so successful this season?
Ainge: I just think that we’re playing hard. Our guys are giving a lot of effort. I think our depth has been a help in that regard, too.
With Marcus Smart out at least a couple of weeks with a lower left leg injury, how can your team make up for his absence?
Ainge: I think Marcus is a tough one to replace. He brings an intensity that maybe only Avery [Bradley] brings to the game. I just think that’s hard -- just like Avery is a tough guy to replace -- Marcus is a tough guy to replace against other teams, especially playing against bigger guards. But I think we have depth. We have Jae Crowder and Evan Turner, I think all of those guys have to step it up. And we’re going to need some production out of [rookie Terry] Rozier or R.J. Hunter -- one of those guys is going to have to step it up without Marcus.
You challenged Jared Sullinger to come back in better shape this season, and we all overanalyzed his role during the preseason, but now he's emerged as the team’s best big man early in the season. Are you happy with the way he appears to have embraced that challenge?
Ainge: Jared has played really well. I know what he’s capable of doing. I think Jared is still so young. I think that his best basketball is still ahead of him. But I do see a lot of great progress from Jared.
Ainge: Well, I think that Amir and David have been good additions. David has helped us win a couple of big games. I think he wants to play more. I don’t think he showed up to training camp in great shape, but he’s worked really hard since he’s been here and getting himself into shape. Amir, I think, is still trying to find his way with our team. But he’s the ultimate team guy. He really cares about his teammates, he cares about winning, he cares about doing the right thing. So I think Amir has been excellent, but as the season goes on, I think he’ll get more and more comfortable with our group and with the coaching staff and he’ll be a little bit more assertive.
Your fan base spends a lot of time obsessing about the first-round picks that other teams might deliver this June. Do you find yourself checking scores on the Mavericks (top-7 protected), Timberwolves (top-12 protected) or Nets (unprotected) any more often than usual this season?
Ainge: I do not. No. I mean, listen, it’s 82 games. It’s a huge schedule. Maybe on April 10 or April 1 even. Maybe those things will come into play more, but it’s way too early to tell. Really good teams are struggling. I think that small sample size doesn’t really mean a whole lot right now. So, no, I don’t allow myself to get too caught up in that stuff right now. It’s too early.
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in head coach Brad Stevens during his two-plus seasons here?
Ainge: Well, Brad is a great coach. It’s really the same things: He’s really smart, he’s really hard-working. I think this is a really challenging -- a different type of challenge for him than he’s had before. Last year we had a lot of changes, doing a lot of things mid-stream. This may be, I think by far, his toughest challenge, just because there are so many players and so many guys that are equal quality. He’s gotta try to figure out who best fits with one another during the season.
You've joked about it before, but are you ready to give him another six-year contract yet?
Ainge: [Laughs] Yeah.
You have to start thinking about that. Sure, we're only in Year 3, but you can’t risk letting a good coach get away.
Ainge: No, listen, he’s a keeper. He’s great. He’s great to work with. Like I said, I think he’s going to be -- if he stays in this game long enough -- he’s going to be one of the great coaches.
The refs have actually made the typically unflappable Stevens drop to his knees in disbelief a couple times the past two games, but he still only has one career technical from back in his rookie season (an ejection in Sacramento). What’s the angriest you’ve ever seen Brad?
Ainge: Well, first of all, I know that Brad has the fire burning inside of him. And so I don’t ever worry about that. But, hey, there’s been some situations that have caused me to drop to my knees wherever I am at.
When you’re on the road scouting college games [Ainge was calling Monday from New York, where he was preparing to scout LSU's Ben Simmons], how do you tend to watch your team? Do you hole up in your hotel room and watch League Pass on your iPad or do you venture out?
Ainge: Sometimes I’ll go out and watch it at a sports bar or a place like that, just watching it somewhere on my iPad.
Do patrons in these places recognize you?
Ainge: Yeah. Sometimes. Especially if I have my iPad out during the game.
Do they come give you some advice on running the team?
Ainge: Oh yeah.
[An aside here: One day this writer bumped into Ainge at a fast-food joint near the Celtics' practice facility in Waltham, Massachusetts. As he made his way through the cafeteria-style line where they were building his burrito bowl, a not-bashful store employee kept telling Ainge that he should trade Rondo to the Sacramento Kings -- and Isaiah Thomas was one of the names the employee mentioned getting in return. The people in Boston's front office often stress that Ainge takes all advice into consideration, and maybe even those outside the organization, too.]
Last question: Thanksgiving is coming up, what are you most thankful for regarding this basketball team?
Ainge: I’m just thankful for the opportunity to work with great people. For myself, working with [co-owners] Wyc [Grousbeck] and Steve [Pagliuca] and Brad and [director of player personnel and Ainge's son] Austin [Ainge] and [assistant general manager Mike] Zarren and [director of scouting] Dave Lewin and our entire staff, that’s what I enjoy about the job. I really like being around the players, too. The players of today are fun, energetic, a good group of people, and that’s what makes my job fun.