The Team That Refused to Tank: Meet the Surging Boston Celtics

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 18, 2015

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Ignorance is truly bliss for the Boston Celtics.

While the rest of the basketball world dismissed them as not-so-subtle tankers, the Celtics acted as if they were completely unfamiliar with the term.

"What is that word, 'tank?'" Jae Crowder said, per Mark Murphy of the Boston Herald. "I know the meaning but I don't even know how to say that. A lot of guys maybe want to do that (on other teams), but we just move forward."

Tanking isn't a preferred pastime for any NBA player, but a few front offices have been known to dabble in the unsightly deed. Celtics President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge and his staff sure seemed willing to play their part.

Franchise cornerstones were shipped out for flotsam—or even less. In two separate transactions, Boston turned assist machine Rajon Rondo and prolific perimeter scorer Jeff Green into five seemingly forgettable players and three future draft picks.

Of the five players acquired in those trades, only Crowder remains on the roster.

Those seemed like the final sacrifices in an organizational reset that had already seen the departures of Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Doc Rivers. With no superstar on the roster, the Celtics went head-first into asset-collection mode, hoarding trade chips and prioritizing flexibility so they'd be ready to pounce when one became available.

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But the players had other ideas. What should have been a midseason demolition instead laid the groundwork for the most surprising rise in the Eastern Conference.

While embracing their youth movement—and adding to it with 26-year-old spark plug Isaiah Thomas—the Celtics created an NBA juggernaut as powerful as any over the last seven weeks. Since Feb. 3, Boston has played some of the best basketball across the entire league.

The 5 Most Successful NBA Teams Since Feb. 3
TeamWLWin%ORtgDRtg
Indiana Pacers134.765105.697.9
Golden State Warriors165.762108.198.9
Atlanta Hawks135.722103.499.7
Portland Trail Blazers125.706107.2101.2
Boston Celtics146.700102.3100.4
NBA.com

"It's probably the most inspiring stretch of Celtics basketball since [Rajon] Rondo morphed into a Terminator in the spring of 2012," wrote Comcast SportsNet's Rich Levine.

As incredible as this story already sounds, it gets even more unbelievable the deeper you dig.

Matchup nightmare Jared Sullinger, a 260-pound bulldozer in the low post with three-point range, hasn't played since Feb. 11 and won't return this season due to a stress fracture in his left foot. Thomas, the team's leading scorer, has missed the last four outings with "swelling near his tailbone."

The Celtics never really replaced the 25.9 points, 12.4 assists and 11.8 rebounds that Rondo and Green collectively provided on a nightly basis. Losing Sullinger and Thomas cost this club another 35.8 points, 10.8 boards and 7.8 assists per game.

Boston no longer knows where its production will come from—and somehow, that's become a good thing.

"It could be anybody," Avery Bradley said, per Adam Himmelsbach of The Boston Globe. "We don't have one star. We just have a lot of good players, really good players."

During the team's five-game winning streak, four different players have led it in scoring. The only one to pull off the feat twice, Tyler Zeller, arrived as a throw-in during last summer's three-team trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Brooklyn Nets.

"If [Zeller] develops into a serviceable rotation player, Boston will have gotten a steal in this trade," ESPNBoston.com's Chris Forsberg wrote at the time.

That's how low the bar was set for Zeller, who has averaged 22 points on 76 percent shooting over his last two games.

BOSTON, MA - MARCH 16:  Tyler Zeller #44 of the Boston Celtics shoots a free throw during the fourth quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers at TD Garden on March 16, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Celtics defeat the 76ers 108-89. NOTE TO USER: User ex
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Success stories similar to the 7-footer's can be found all over this roster.

Thomas was deemed the expendable piece in the Phoenix Suns' overcrowded point guard rotation, and he's already cleared the 25-point mark three times in 10 games with the Celtics. Bradley, whose four-year, $32 million contract was heavily criticized last summer, has found a steady offense to complement his dogged defense and has emerged as the team's emotional leader.

Crowder, the 34th pick in 2012, has bolstered Boston with his energetic play and defensive versatility. Brandon Bass, a seemingly out-of-place veteran on a youthful roster, has quietly contributed 16.1 points and 7.5 rebounds per 36 minutes. Jonas Jerebko and Luigi Datome have helped stretch the floor with their three-point cannons.

Consistency has been an issue for rookies Marcus Smart and James Young, but both have found ways to contribute. Sophomore Kelly Olynyk's stock hasn't exploded the way some might have hoped, but he's still a tough cover as a sharpshooting 7-footer.

Bradley was right, though: There are no stars on this roster. But there might be one occupying the premier sideline seat inside TD Garden: 38-year-old head coach Brad Stevens.

"Players are almost unanimously quick to give him the credit for their improved play, which has included giving them free reign (sic) and the kind of freedom on the floor that very few coaches in the NBA have afforded them in the past," Comcast SportsNet's A. Sherrod Blakely wrote of Stevens.

BOSTON, MA - FEBRUARY 06:  Brad Stevens of the Boston Celtics looks on during the game against the Philadelphia 76ers at TD Garden on February 6, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Celtics defeat the 76ers 107-96. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The second-year signal-caller has helped instill the same "why not us" mentality that made him a coaching star at mid-major Butler University.

This team could have been torn apart by the roster changes and outside noise. But Stevens held this group together with the belief that it is capable of shocking the basketball world.

"We set our mind to it and started speaking it into existence," Bradley said, per MassLive.com's Jay King. "We never thought we didn't have a chance to make the playoffs. And now we're right there."

The Race for the East's Final 3 Playoff Spots
TeamWLWin%Games BackLast 10
6. Milwaukee Bucks3433.507+3.52-8
7. Indiana Pacers3036.455--7-3
8. Miami Heat3036.455--5-5
9. Boston Celtics3036.455--7-3
10. Charlotte Hornets2937.4391.06-4
11. Brooklyn Nets2738.4152.54-6
NBA.com

Stevens' secret—outside of his intricate after-timeout designsis simplicity.

All he asks is that his players compete with a team-first attitude. To further that whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts mentality, only 6.5 percent of Boston's offensive possessions end in isolations. Just seven teams resort to hero ball less frequently.

As Stevens said via Forsberg, he just wants his guys to understand how to play the right way:

I just want to play good basketball, and I think our guys just want to play good basketball. ...

I think, as a result, you have a lot more fun when you spray the ball around the way we're spraying it around and when you're competing together and pulling for one another and five guys playing together on a string defensively.

In the me-first world of professional sports, Stevens has his players chasing something bigger than themselves. They are living the principle of five players acting as one.

Thomas leads them with only 5.4 assists per game, yet the Celtics rank fourth overall with a 62.6 assist percentage. Boston averages 311.8 passes a night, the ninth-highest mark in the league. No one tallies even one block per game, but the Celtics sit a respectable 14th in defensive efficiencyand fifth in the month of March.

Teamwork can be hard to quantify, but those numbers tell you everything you need to know about how well the revamped Celtics have jelled.

If this group secures a seat at the playoff table, it's capable of causing some havoc. Smart, Bradley and Crowder are all defensive pests. Thomas is an incendiary scorer off the dribble. Boston's bigs can shred a defense on the perimeter or outwork its opponents on the interior.

No one wants to draw this team in the postseason. The Celtics were ruled out of this race months ago, so they're entering a pressure-free stretch run and playing with house money.

And it's all thanks to their unwillingness to accept a fate so many had set aside for them. With a simple "tanks but no tanks" response to the outside world, Boston set its sights higher than anyone could have imagined.

And it's creeping closer to that target with every unexpected triumph.

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.