The Boston Celtics enter the NBA’s bubble restart as one of the top teams in the Eastern conference. The competition is expected to be fierce in the East with some of the NBA’s best teams in the conference. The 54 win Milwaukee Bucks are the cream of the crop and reside in a tier all their own. Boston, Toronto, Miami, Philadelphia and Indiana belong in a tier below of “would-be contenders” vying for the chance to take out Milwaukee. Being a life-long Celtics fan, I’m confident my team cannot only separate themselves from that second tier but also challenge Milwaukee to play for the right to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. Here’s why…
The Celtics possess a mixture of talent that few teams in the NBA can rival. They have young studs in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, veteran all-stars in Kemba Walker and Gordon Hayward and specialists in Marcus Smart, Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter. Kemba’s first season in green has been fun to watch. He’s getting less volume than in his Charlotte days but he’s still averaging 21 ppg with 5 assists and leads the team with 3 made threes per game. Hayward has had injury concerns most of the year but he’s shown enough flashes of brilliance to keep Celtics fans hopeful. He’s shooting 50% from the field and his ability to bring the ball up and act as a secondary ball handler has been huge this season.
Jaylen Brown made a leap in terms of his offensive game and he continues to be one of the Celtics best defenders. The 4th year guard/forward brought his scoring up from 13 ppg to 20.5 this season and he’s one of three Celtics players averaging over 20 ppg (Tatum and Walker being the others). However, Jayson Tatum is the reason this Celtics team can be mentioned in the same breath as the most talented teams in the NBA. Tatum emerged as a top flight talent this season with his high point coming in the month of February when he averaged 30 ppg going toe to toe against the likes of LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Tatum has inserted himself into the conversation as not only one of the games best young players but one of the best players period.
Health will be the single biggest X-factor in terms of the Celtics moving forward. Tatum’s emergence as a number 1 option has been critical with Kemba Walker’s recent injury woes but for the Celtics to be successful in the playoffs, they need both players to be playing at an elite level. If Kemba’s knee injury hampers him in any way, it’s going to be hard for the Celtics to compete. Gordon Hayward’s injury issues appear to be behind him (*fingers crossed) but he did sit out multiple games this year with a knee injury and he suffered a broken hand earlier in the year.
Hayward can’t seem to catch a break but as of right now, he looks good and ready to roll for the restart. A healthy Hayward and Walker are critical for the Celtics success but health up and down the roster is key as well. The Celtics are a young team and losing any of their rotation players will be a big hit as they are likely to be replaced by rookies and players with very little experience.
I believe this is the area where the Celtics can overtake the teams out in front of them. The Celtics best five is Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward. It’s a group built in the style of the Warriors vaunted “lineup of death” in that each player is a threat to score and each is capable of defending any player on the opposing team. Yes, it’s a small group (Tatum being the tallest listed at 6 ‘8) but they are active, long armed defenders with Smart, Brown and Hayward able to check big men in the post.
Going away from that lineup offers a different type of versatility for the C’s. Theis (the usual starting 5 man) is a classic rim-running, pick-and-pop big who’s made huge strides this season. Enes Kanter can be inserted for rebounding purposes and he’s also an elite post presence when the C’s need an easy bucket. Rob Williams offers athleticism and an upside nobody else on this Celtics team can match and Grant Williams is a do-it-all rookie with a penchant for big plays. The Celtics can go guard heavy with Kemba, Smart and Wanamaker or go supersized with Brown, Tatum, Hayward and a big. Brad Stevens is known for digging deep into his roster and this season he’s got a host of options to deploy.
Speaking of coaching, Brad Stevens continues to be one of the best coaches in the NBA. He accepted a lot of the blame for last season’s struggles and his reputation took a hit for it. There are some great young coaches in the NBA (in the Eastern Conference in particular) but I’d still take Stevens over any of them. Year after year, Stevens gets the most out of his guys.
He can be critiqued for his lineup choices at times but his willingness to try out different combinations shows the trust he has in his roster and that will go a long way in the playoffs. Every player on this roster will believe he is there to make a difference and that kind of confidence comes directly from Stevens. He’s also a brilliant strategist and in a series where the talent level is relatively even, coaching could end up being the difference.
The road forward will be tough. The East is a gauntlet of good teams starting in round 1 and through to the Conference Finals. The Celtics will need to use the 8 game “regular season” to round themselves into shape while also standing pat with their current seeding. At the number 3 slot, it’s going to be difficult catching Toronto. Let’s assume the Celtics perform well enough to stay where they are. That would give them a first round matchup with either Indiana or Philadelphia. In that scenario, Indiana would be the preference with the way Philly has beaten the Celtics to a pulp this year but the Pacers are no slouches either.
Round 2 would put Boston against a well rested and dangerous Raptors team with (most likely) Milwaukee in the Conference Finals. Based on the conditions and where the Celtics sit currently, I’m confident in a Brad Stevens-led group to navigate their way through the playoffs and challenge the Bucks. Would I bet my life-savings on it? Probably not but I firmly believe the Celtics have the pieces and the ability to come out of the East. Besides, who better to stand in the way of Lebron James and the Los Angeles Lakers than their arch rival?