Heading into the 2016-17 season, Celtics fans' expectations were incredibly high.
Unfair or not, this storied franchise and their loyal fan base are patiently craving greater things than just a narrow three-point win over the lowly Miami Heat on Friday night.. but as they say, good things come to those who wait and Boston fans, it may be time to get excited.
After some early-season struggles that led to a 3-4 start, the Celtics led by their pint-sized point guard, Isaiah Thomas – who was deservedly awarded the Eastern Conference Player of the Week recently, are finally hitting their strides to sit third in the East with a 20-14 record and are transforming their potential into a team that many expected to challenge the Cavs in the Eastern Conference.
"We are not that comfortable yet," Thomas told ESPN. "We know we are getting there. We are going in the right direction. We got a long way to go but at the same time, with that starting five healthy, we know we can be scary in the East."
"We're not on that level yet. We're not on Cleveland’s level so we got work to do. And we gotta figure it out."
After a three-game slump, they have won seven of their past nine games including an emphatic Christmas Day victory over the New York Knicks in front of a national audience. The statement win showcased the Celtics' potential and announced their entry as soon-to-be Eastern contenders.
The Celtics went down 124-118 to the Cavs afterwards but showed great fight and confidence by battling back from a 20-point deficit to only trail by two in the final minute before Jae Crowder missed a go-ahead three-pointer.
While the loss drops the Celtics to a worrisome 0-9 record against teams with a better standing, there are promising signs for this team that has battled through a gruelling month in December to post a 10-6 win-loss total.
Thomas has been beyond spectacular in amping up his play from last season, especially in the fourth quarter, and he ranks fifth in the league within the superstar echelon of Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and James Harden with 27.7 points per game.
Of his unforgettable 52-point performance against the Heat, Thomas set a franchise-record with 29 points in the fourth quarter to beat Larry Bird’s record of 24 points in 1983. His 29 points is also the second-highest fourth-quarter effort behind only Wilt Chamberlain who scored 31 in his iconic 100-point performance.
Thomas went off for nine three-pointers, six of which came in the fourth quarter as he became the seventh player in Celtics history to reach the 50-point mark. Thomas was properly serenaded by Celtics fans with MVP chants during every trip to the free throw line.
Only legends Larry Bird (60, 53) and Kevin McHale (56) have scored more points in Boston’s storied franchise history. It’s understandable Thomas dished no assists as he single-handedly put the team on his back and pushed the Celtics to victory.
Boston showed obvious effects of an exhausting month as they committed sloppy turnovers, missed box outs and key defensive errors in half court before they called a timeout trailing Miami 89-84 with 9:27 left to play. With Thomas lifting the team on his shoulders, the Celtics went on a 9-0 run out of the timeout and avoided a devastating loss.
This performance came just a day after scoring a team-high 31 points against the Cavs, and 10 days after Thomas set a career high of 44 points against the Memphis Grizzlies. Furthermore, it marks 18 consecutive games with 20 points or more, extending a streak that is the best in the NBA this season.
Boston’s sluggish start is largely attributed to key injuries to their starting five in to Thomas, Al Horford and Crowder. In support of Thomas’ ridiculous tear, with a healthy starting unit finally available, the Celtics are 13-5 and have one of the best net ratings this season and with their chemistry developing like Brad Stevens optimistically predicted, the men in green are gaining in confidence and belief.
There’s plenty of time between now and the playoffs. And don't forget, there's something about that Celtics mystique... and if Danny Ainge ever pulls the trigger on a big trade or free agency pick up to get that final piece, there is no doubt that the talk will shift from are the Celtics contenders to can they win it all?