Robb: Celtics’ path towards contention may be ahead of schedule

(Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

In the wake of the Celtics’ 108-95 blowout win over the Nuggets on Friday night, Brad Stevens spoke about a modest goal he had for this group entering the 2019-20 season.

“It’s a special city to coach in, it’s a special city to play in,” Stevens said after thumping a 15-7 Denver team. “We said from Day 1 with this group, our No. 1 objective was to be a team that Boston liked. That’s it. So we’ll hopefully be that.”

Stevens can safely check off that item on that goal list since it's been achieved for a few weeks now. Even with the team’s best player through nine games sidelined (Gordon Hayward), the Celtics have remained likable and impressive in a highly competitive top half of the Eastern Conference. They cruised to their third straight win over the No. 1 defense in the league on Friday night with their lone All-Star (Kemba Walker) playing third fiddle (in a good way) to Jayson Tatum (team-high 26 points, 7 rebounds) and Jaylen Brown (21 points, 7 rebounds).

After improving to 16-5 overall and 8-4 with Hayward sidelined, the Celtics have not just held down the ship in his absence, they’ve continued to thrive. That stretch looks even better when you consider those four losses without Hayward came by a combined total of 13 points.

Friday’s victory also gave the Celtics a 9-0 home record, which is the best start for this team at the TD Garden since the 2007-08 championship season. Five of those wins have also come against five of the best seven teams in the NBA (Bucks, Raptors, Heat, Nuggets, Mavericks).

That kind of performance has even taken Stevens a bit off guard.

“I don’t know what we are now, but we’re way ahead of where I thought we would be results-wise,” he admitted. “Because the first part of the schedule, we played three more road games and those trips are really hard. But there’s a long way to go, so we’ll see how that all ends itself up, but our guys have done a good job thus far during that stretch. That’s what good teams do. When guys are out, Kemba was out the one night, Marcus was out the other night against a good team, you just find a way to win. Gordon’s out, other guys have to step up.”

While it’s important to note that the C’s are a clear tier below the top contenders in the NBA right now (Bucks, Lakers, Clippers), it’s safe to squarely put them now into the next level of teams fighting for a chance at the crown. Hot starts don’t last 21 games if a team is not legitimately good and that's what they are. The Celtics have their holes but the best pieces on the roster (Tatum, Brown, Walker, Marcus Smart) are playing some of the best basketball of their career. Brown and Tatum, in particular, were unstoppable at times against the Nuggets on Friday and have reached a tremendous level of consistency this year given their youth.

Brown's playing like an All-Star, averaging 26.7 points with 54 percent shooting in his last three games. Meanwhile, Tatum has scored 15 points in nine straight games, while playing some vastly improved defense