The Boston Celtics may be the best team in the NBA this season, and their current record shows it. The team that got to the Eastern Conference Finals last year as the first seed saw an exit that many predicted, but what happened after is confusing and shocking. That Celtics team all but vanished over the offseason, with only four returning players from the previous season, and 4 new starters. While most would think this amount of turnover would create a lot of adjusting for Boston, the team somehow is playing better than ever in recent history. This is due to what could be the greatest accumulation of young and veteran potential hat the Eastern Conference has seen in a while. This raises many questions, with a specific one that most didn’t expect to ask this season. Can the Celtics win a title this year?
If there is one surefire indicator of a team’s success, winning consistently is one of the best ones out there in the regular season. After losing the first two games of the season, the Celtics were somehow able to go on a long winning streak that not many saw coming. They strung together a 16 games win streak, including a victory and strong defensive showing against the reigning NBA Champion Golden State Warriors. This was especially surprising on the heels of losing one of their star players in Gordon Hayward. There is one large factor in how the team has led the league in victories to this point that translates game to game: defense.
Boston has led the NBA in the majority of defensive statistical categories up to this point in the season according to NBA.com, which can be traced back to great coaching and players buying into a system. The most important ones for the team defense however could be Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Al Horford. They all play unique roles in a versatile defense. According to Kyle Wagner of 538.com, Smart’s “all over the floor, hounding ball handlers, bodying up on bigger players in the post and bumping cutting players he isn’t even guarding”. Kyle Wagner of 538.com also points out how a player like Jaylen Brown is able to be so important in Boston’s defense:
“He can fight over screens (or just outright avoid them) to allow the defense to keep its shape, and he has the quicks to shut down first steps with the length to challenge pull-up attempts.”
The third player listed, Al Horford, also plays a huge role as the team anchor aside from being a versatile defender. Outside of his defense, his spacing and passing have been huge contributions to the Celtics as well. While his stats don’t show off many outstanding things on paper, Horford provides a lot across the board in intangibles, as evident by being sixth in plus minus rankings per NBA.com.
Put this altogether and you have a team that’s ranked top five in opponent field goal percentage and top five in opponent three point percentage; who also leads the league in wins and holds a top defensive rating, per NBA.com. While all these things mark the greatness for the defense, you have to score points to win a game. That’s where Kyrie Irving steps in.
Kyrie Irving is waking up to his true potential. While his numbers may not look very different on the surface, those numbers are one of the crucial factors that’s driving the Celtics offense. According to NBA.com, he’s leading his team in scoring, while averaging the eleventh most points per game in the NBA this season. This creates a huge force for the Celtics, as well as being able to generate extra attention while handling the ball. This allows the other players better chances at better shots in Boston’s motion offense. This could be part of the reason for such a good rookie season for Jayson Tatum as well as far as scoring goes, who should not be ignored as one of the best scoring rookies in the NBA this year. Combined the dynamic scoring duo could end up winning awards for both MVP and ROTY for the respective pair of Irving and Tatum.
Irving’s real awakening though comes in a spot that many thought he was bad in that the Celtics are great at: defense. Throughout the first part of the season so far, Kyrie is actually registering in the top 20 starters with 10 games played in the season so far in defensive rating, per NBA.com. This is a huge improvement considering his reputation as a bad defender while with Cleveland, and how a team’s system can change a player.
Obviously the selling point is team defense and efficiency for the Celtics, and that all stems from their Coach: Brad Stevens. He used to be an up and coming coach but has proven himself to be one of the best in the NBA at such a young age. Leading his Celtics to three straight playoff births as the seventh, fifth, and first seed respectably over the past three years, Stevens has proven he has what it takes. Even other well reviewed head coaches have taken notice, such as Steve Kerr of the Warriors.
Steve Kerr on Stevens: “We have a lot of respect for each other…You can tell he’s the smartest guy in the room, but he doesn’t have to tell anybody.”
— Jared Weiss (@JaredWeissNBA) November 16, 2017
With the job that Brad Stevens had done along with the spot the Celtics are in this season, a title run wouldn’t surprise anyone now. It may not be as easy as the current season progress suggests though.
Stevens admitted that there’s no guarantee that the winning streak is a reflection of how the Celtics will be the rest of the season and come playoff time. With so many new pieces, this Celtics team may take some time to mold together and mature some.
In addition to the new pieces, they’re missing one of their biggest in Gordon Hayward. While there is a minuscule chance he could make a return during the playoffs, it is probably Boston’s intent to insure his full return to health so that he can perform at the best of his abilities throughout his entire contract. This likely eliminates any chances of him coming back when not completely healthy and conditioned. Only time will tell though.
One final obstacle that many are expecting is an Eastern Conference that was considered weak, but will still contend with the Celtics and make the road a bit harder to the finals. They’ll also have to run through the team that’s gone to the NBA Finals from the Eastern Conference these past couple of years: the Cleveland Cavaliers. While they may have lost an important piece when Irving was traded to the Celtics, fans know how deep the Cavs are this year, as well as how great LeBron James has been playing his season. Having had their own winning streak after a shaky start, they’ve figured out how to play as a team while actually being able to keep games close and win them without James on the floor all the time. Winning a series against them won’t be an easy task.
The Celtics were able to steal a game last Eastern Conference Finals against Cleveland, but with both teams reloading and changing their rosters around, it’s still up in the air how the two will match up if they face each other in the Eastern Conference Finals (assuming both teams end up there).
The Celtics may have everything they need to be NBA Champions this year, but they’ll need a lot of luck to win it all this season. If everything goes their way though, the Celtics will be holding the gold together if they can string those 16 playoff games together this upcoming postseason.