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Celtics flash tantalizing potential in first few games

The Boston Celtics are off to a 2-1 start after an impressive road victory over the Charlotte Hornets on Saturday night.

As expected, the Celtics already look better than last year. That never seemed to be a question coming into the season. What people wondered was just how good Boston would be and whether or not it would truly be able to take that next step into the upper echelon of the NBA.

It’s obviously very early, so it’s difficult to draw any concrete conclusions, but let me just say this: the C’s look darn good.

Growing pains are visible, as new faces are still being integrated and the players are becoming accustomed to new lineups. The defense has not been quite up to snuff (this should not continue) and neither has the rebounding, but there have been flashes of brilliance, especially offensively.

The biggest concern for the Celtics coming into this season was their offense. They weren’t exactly a great offensive team in 2015-16, relying heavily on Isaiah Thomas to carry the scoring load and essentially produce all of the offense for them, whether it meant putting the ball in the basket or setting things up for others.

Now, it looks like Boston has an actual offense outside of just handing the ball to Thomas and getting out of his way. The ball movement has been spectacular, and thanks to the addition of Al Horford, the C’s can actually run legitimate offensive sets that involve more than just one or two viable threats.

Horford’s ability to spread the floor has been on full display through the first three games, and it has opened up the paint, strengthened the Celtics’ pick-and-roll game and poked holes in opposing defenses. Horford may only be averaging 12 points per game so far, but it’s his presence more than his ability to score that is helping improve Boston’s offense.

His passing has also been brilliant, as he is averaging 4.7 assists a night thus far.

I said right from the beginning that the biggest payoff from the addition of Horford would be on the offensive end, particularly in the high screen-and-roll, and that has been the case early on. Defenses are used to trapping Thomas in those scenarios and having an extra defender shadow him into the paint, forcing him into difficult looks. They didn’t have to respect the other scorers on the Celtics last year because, well, the Celtics didn’t really have any.

Things are a bit different this time around. Just look at what Horford’s presence is doing for Avery Bradley, who poured in 31 points against the Hornets and is off to a terrific start.

Boston Celtics' Avery Bradley (0) reacts to making a three point basket against the Charlotte Hornets in the second half of an NBA basketball game in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, Oct. 29, 2016. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

AP Photo/Chuck Burton

It doesn’t just stop at Big Al, though.

Other Boston players have been stepping up, including rookie Jaylen Brown. He is looking absolutely terrific, playing under control and demonstrating a fluidity on offense that most did not anticipate right off the bat when he entered the NBA. While most understood his potential, they viewed Brown as a very raw prospect at California, and a large faction of fans and pundits thought that it would be at least a couple of years before he was ready to seriously contribute at the professional level.

Again, it’s early, but he has shattered those expectations so far and looks genuinely prepared. The fact that Brown is actually a threat on offense makes the Celtics’ bench that much more dangerous, and remember: Kelly Olynyk and Marcus Smart have not even made their season debuts yet. Olynyk is out until mid-November while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, and Smart is nursing a sprained ankle (he will return this week).

So, Boston is essentially missing its first two players off the bench. When they return, the C’s will have even more weapons. They are incredibly deep, and it’s not like last year when they just had a bunch of average players up and down the roster and were called “deep.”

No. This time, they actually have good players like Thomas, Horford, Bradley and Jae Crowder and improving youngsters like Terry Rozier. Boston has ample talent from top to bottom, and for the first time since Kevin Garnett roamed the TD Garden parquet, the C’s look close to being a championship-caliber team.

Are they there yet? No, but most of the pieces are in place, and there are wildcards that we still don’t know about.

Last year, the Celtics were more of a scrappy, novelty act than anything else. Were they decent? Yeah, but they weren’t scaring anybody in the postseason. They just did not have enough talent.

This year, Boston just has that look, and now we wait to see just how much better the Celtics can get.

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