BOSTON (CBS) - The Celtics are on top of the Atlantic Division. That's a sentence most NBA fans didn't expect to be see written at any point this year, much less a quarter of the way through the season.
After battling through one of the most brutal travel months any team has faced in the NBA, the Celtics remain in the thick of it amidst an underperforming Eastern Conference.
Playing without Rajon Rondo for the first 20 games of the season, the Celtics have grinded their way to a respectable 8-12 record behind the leadership of new head coach Brad Stevens. Given the tough circumstances, even he would have to be somewhat pleased with the Celtics start, right?
"It means nothing. We're pretty close to last place," Stevens said of the team's early record, "so it doesn't mean a lot. It really doesn't. I don't' think we should gauge ourselves on it, nor should we focus on it, because it's very fleeting if you do that."
How about the fact you are on top of the division, Brad? You should feel good about that though, right?
"I know [the standings]," said Stevens after the win Tuesday night. "But it has no bearing on my life. Literally, none. You can take a snapshot of where you stand versus the competition, but it has nothing to do with your preparation on your next opponent, it has nothing to do with getting better tomorrow, it just has what's happened. So yeah, I do, I know, but I have no reason to know."
Celtics At 7: Are You Happy With The C's Start?
That kind of attitude shows exactly why Stevens is a great coach for this team both now and for the future. He's not going to sugarcoat things, and he's not going to be satisfied with small victories early in the season, like a meaningless division lead.
The truth about this Celtics' team is that while right now they are exceeding expectations of most fans, they probably aren't exceeding Stevens' expectations. The only real reason Boston is receiving praise is because the rest of the Eastern Conference is awful. If even half of the teams in the East were playing up to their capabilities, Boston would be close to the cellar. Instead, they are currently in-line to host a first round playoff series.
"Everybody is really optimistic, this head above water thing…we're 8-12 so I don't know [about that]," Stevens deadpanned. "We stayed pretty even as far as our approach. Our guys are coming to work. Their attitudes have been good. We've been able to tweak on the fly because of their attitudes. Hopefully that continues."
With this in mind, Stevens blocks out the now and has his mind set on the bigger picture of how this team can improve for the long run.
"We have to be careful how we gauge improvement," said Stevens. "I think we made a lot of strides during that six-game losing streak. Because I thought it revealed some things we could work on, it revealed some things that we could potentially address should we come back around to a tough stretch again. There's just a lot that that we can build off. I think the biggest thing is, I said it earlier, is that mindset, that attitude of being accountable and doing your job. And just growing everyday. Just really embracing that and not concerning ourselves with the record or where we stand."
That kind of a philosophy is exactly why Stevens was brought into Boston. He knows it's a marathon, not a sprint, and he's in for the long haul.
The best part of the job Stevens had done 20 games in isn't the Celtics' record, though. It's the fact he's gotten everyone on this mismatched roster to buy-in quickly, from seasoned veterans like Gerald Wallace to former knuckleheads like Jordan Crawford.
They are all playing hard for Stevens, and that's usually one of the toughest battles a coach with no NBA experience can face. This crew already trusts Brad, and that includes the veterans on the bench who are waiting their turn to play. Stevens knows getting everyone on the same page will be crucial in seeing if this team can continue to improve.
"We learn everyday about our team and we're not completely well-versed in it. There's a different sense of teamness and different sense of knowing each other now [compared to the start of the season]. We've only spent two months together, but we've gone through a lot already, both wins and losses. Hopefully we can still build on that," Stevens explained.
Read: Celtics-Nuggets Preview
With eight of the team's next 11 games coming at the TD Garden, the opening is there for the Celtics' to sustain their "strong" start and remain atop the division.
"I'm an optimistic guy generally about where we can go. It doesn't have a lot to do with where we are in the standings, compared to everyone else. We're not lighting the world on fire here. We also had a tough month and we've gotten a chance to get our legs back and play fresh again. We can get better, we can get a lot better," Stevens explained.
So what exactly will satisfy Stevens? You should probably talk to him when Boston's over the .500 mark.
The fact the Celtics' even have a chance of getting there tells you all you need to know about the job Stevens has done.
Brian Robb covers the Celtics for CBS Boston and contributes to NBA.com, among other media outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.
MORE SPORTS COVERAGE FROM CBS BOSTON
for more features.