What a season so far for the Celtics. Think about how much has gone right over the past nine-odd months. In chronological order (roughly):
- Signed Al Horford: He hasn’t been a stud, but his signing proved that Boston is now an attractive landing spot for All-Star caliber free agents (with the exception of a few really big-time guys like LeBron, Durant, etc).
- Won more games than the previous season for the fourth straight year under Brad Stevens: Wouldn’t any fan sign to have their team improve by roughly nine wins each season like the Celtics have recently?
- Captured the one seed. No, this alone doesn’t mean they’re all of a sudden going to beat Cleveland when it really matters. But it still is a notable accomplishment, especially considering that Boston was just 25-57 three seasons ago. Plus, no one expected the Celtics to finish ahead of the Cavaliers before the season. Talk about surpassing expectations.
- Isaiah Thomas officially emerged as a star player. The one knock on Danny Ainge over the past couple of years has been that he has all those Brooklyn picks, but still no “go-to guy.” That changed this year after I.T. finished 3rd in scoring with 28.9 points per game and 7th in player efficiency rating en route to his second All-Star appearance. He also was arguably the NBA’s most clutch performer considering that he averaged the most 4th quarter points in the league. Not saying he is LeBron or Steph Curry, but he’s certainly earned the right to be called a star.
- Brooklyn finished with the league’s worst record. And speaking of those Brooklyn picks, another thank you to the Nets for giving us every one of their first round picks until 2038. The Celtics now have the best odds of selecting number one overall in next June’s draft.
There’s little else Celtics fans can realistically ask for right now. Except for one thing: a strong playoff run. With home-court advantage throughout this postseason, the rebuilding excuse, however legitimate it used to be, is no longer valid. It’s now time for the Stevens-era Celtics to get over that next hump.
The last two first round exits were excusable. First the C’s ran into LeBron and Kyrie Irving in 2014; then they lost Avery Bradley to injury and bowed out to a solid Atlanta team last April. A first round exit is obviously inexcusable this season. I’ll stop short of saying Boston needs to beat Chicago convincingly. After all, the ’08 Celtics were taken to a seventh game by a 37-win Hawks squad in the first round. But no one remembers those sort of things as long as you win the title. Nonetheless, it would be nice if Boston took care of business in no more than six games considering that the Bulls have underachieved and have been marred by chemistry issues all season.
The real breakthrough, however, would come if Boston beats the winner of Washington/Atlanta (likely Washington) to reach the Eastern Conference Finals. If they can do that, the Celtics will prove that their strong regular season was legitimate. It would also confirm that they can make a deep postseason run with the 5’9″ Thomas at the controls. And with more reinforcements coming in the form of either another high lottery pick or an acquisition of someone like, say, Jimmy Butler, I would have absolutely no bitter feelings if the Celtics lose to what I assume will be Cleveland in the conference finals. In fact, I’d sign for a loss in six games to the Cavs right now.
I’m cautiously optimistic this can happen. After all, there’s a lot to like about this Celtics team. Largely because of Thomas, Boston’s offense ranks in the top ten in both efficiency and true shooting percentage. Another strength is their perimeter defense. With Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart defending the wings, the Celtics held teams to the second lowest shooting percentage from three-point range this season. And another underrated element is their strong assist/turnover ratio, which ranked third in the NBA behind Golden State and Charlotte. In other words, the Celtics move the ball well (2nd in assists per possession), but aren’t careless with it (7th fewest turnovers per possession). I attribute some of this to Stevens’ coaching, which in of itself is unequivocally another strength for the Celtics in a Poppovich and Kerr-less Eastern Conference.
But there are a few concerns. For starters, they’re without question the weakest one seed in recent history, as evidenced by how their point differential (+2.7) ranks dead last among top seeds dating back to 2002. The Celtics really profile more as a two or a three seed. So expecting them to perform like the top-seed they really shouldn’t be is unrealistic. Moreover, they’re fatally flawed underneath. Boston ranked just 27th in rebounding rate during the regular season (FYI: rebounding rate is simply a percentage of missed shots a team rebounds). And while the Celtics’ perimeter defense is great (second in opponent three point %), their lower ranking in opponent shooting percentage suggests that they don’t provide much resistance to opposing big-men. Plus, I’m a little concerned that the Celtics are too reliant on Thomas in crunch-time. Even a moderate regression in his terrific fourth quarter play could puts the Celtics into some difficult positions.
Nonetheless, I still objectively think the Celtics will have a successful postseason. I like them to beat the Bulls in six and then defeat the Wizards in seven before falling to the Cavaliers. In short, Boston has a deep roster and I think Thomas is enough of a play-maker to carry them through. But it won’t be easy. Yet for all the talk about how the 1-seed is insignificant, I do think that home-court advantage will help greatly. Not only did the Celtics have one of the better home records in the NBA (30-11), but the three teams they’re most likely to play at some point later in the postseason, Washington, Cleveland, and Toronto, were each terrific at home and mediocre on the road. This is especially true for the Wizards and Cavaliers, who were 30-11 and 31-10 respectively at home, but under .500 on the road.
The Celtics’ last few years were about searching to become relevant once again. Now that opportunity to reassert themselves among the NBA’s hierarchy has arrived. And despite all the good that has come out of the last nine or so months for Boston, this season will ultimately be defined only by what happens starting on Sunday.