The Cleveland Cavaliers, powered by LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love and the Toronto Raptors, led by Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, are the two favorites in the Eastern Conference. But could the Celtics be the sleeper, that dark horse that upsets either team and makes it to the conference finals?
For a team that prides itself on teamwork, equality, and defensive intensity, Boston relies heavily on All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas. The last overall pick in the 2011 draft has proven his doubters wrong and has put together his best season yet. In doing so, he has managed to lead the Celtics to the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.
Thomas holds the Celtics record for most consecutive games leading the team in scoring, logging 18 such games with 20 or more points. Beyond scoring, Thomas is also averaging 6.2 assists per game (tied for 14th in the NBA) and may potentially get a nod on one of the All-NBA teams. The problem for Boston is that if an opponent can shut Thomas down, it will be pretty difficult for the Celtics to manufacture points.
Another thing going for the Celtics is Brad Stevens, who has established himself as one of best coaches in the league. The Celtics benefit from his meticulous game planning and this will likely be even more important in the postseason where Stevens will be able to focus on one team. When an opponent finds a way to attack the Celtics, Stevens and his staff are as capable as just about any other coaching staff to adjust, an understated but important part of playoff basketball.
Stevens has coached Boston into a top team as the Celtics are eighth overall in total point differential and fourth in the Eastern Conference. Additionally, Stevens preaches ball-movement unselfishness and discipline. As a result, the Celtics are sixth in assists per game and rarely turn the ball over. Boston is tied for sixth in assist to turnover ratio with the Atlanta Hawks. Their 1.78 ratio is only behind the San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, Charlotte Hornets and Dallas Mavericks. This sort of discipline will be especially important in the playoffs, where electric crowds and elevated emotions can lead teams to make careless mistakes. If any team can keep its cool and take advantage of those mistakes, it’s these Celtics under the steady leadership of Stevens.
Hard, swarming defense is a staple of the current Celtics squad and another reason they could make a deep run.
They are fifth in opponent field goal percentage, holding opponents to 43.9 percent (only behind the Hawks, Clippers, Warriors and Spurs). Additionally, they are second in opponent three-point percentage, holding their opponents to only 33.3 percent behind the arc, which ranks only behind the Indiana Pacers (33.1 percent). Both of those defensive metrics are difficult to achieve and maintain over the course of a season and are quite impressive.
The Celtics are great at causing havoc and turnovers. They cause their opponents to turn the ball over a league-high 15.9 times per game. Additionally, they generate the second-most steals per game (9.3), just behind Houston (10.0). However, they don’t get many blocks, as they are 23rd in the league, averaging only 4.2 a game as they don’t have an elite rim protector on their roster. While having a great rim protector isn’t an absolute necessity in creating a strong defense, it is important. Not having a strong rim protector could hurt the Celtics in the postseason.
With an active, disciplined defense and Thomas running the offensive attack, the Celtics have their method for success, but what is their path towards the conference finals?
Path to a deep run out East
Seemingly, the Cavaliers have all but locked up the number one seed, with the Toronto Raptors securely in second. Also, the Detroit Pistons seem to be the seventh seed and the Indiana Pacers are on the verge of securing a playoff berth and keeping the Chicago Bulls out of the postseason. That just leaves the third through sixth seeds to be determined between the Celtics, Hawks, HEAT and Hornets.
As things stands, these teams can only face each other in some combination in the first round. More importantly, the four squads are still vying for only two home-court spots, which is always important in the postseason.
As of now, the Hawks and Celtics are tied (Hawks have the tiebreaker) and the HEAT and Hornets are a game back of them (HEAT have the tiebreaker).
The Celtics have a tough remaining schedule as they still have to play at Atlanta and at home against Charlotte and Miami. These are all games against opponents they are jockeying with for seeding and therefore each team has something to play for.
Meanwhile, the Hawks have that home game against Boston, then go play in Cleveland (who has nothing to play for and might rest players), then in Washington (who has nothing to play for except to play spoiler in the final game of the season).
The HEAT first host the eliminated Orlando Magic, then travel to Detroit (who will still be trying to hold off the Pacers so they don’t have to face Cleveland in the first round), then go to Boston for their final game. The Hornets have two games against eliminated teams in Washington and Orlando and a matchup with the Celtics.
Anything can happen in the final week of the regular season with so many matchups between these organizations jockeying for seeding.
How do the Celtics stack up with these teams?
Boston, of course, wants home-court. But with or without home-court advantage, they’ll be playing one of the three other teams previously mentioned in the first round. So how have they stacked up this year against the potential first-round opponents?
In the Celtics-Hawks matchup, Boston is down 1-2 with one game remaining. In November, the Celtics won by 13 at home, then 11 days later lost in Atlanta by 24 points. The other game was in December where the Celtics lost by eight at home. Unfortunately, this doesn’t tell us much about the matchup since the games were played so long ago. Each team has gone through ups-and-downs, injuries and other issues, so we may not know much about how they stack up until the next time they meet. What we do know is that the Hawks have been firing on all cylinders defensively over the last few months, which could be problematic for the Celtics’ offensive attack.
In the Celtics-HEAT matchup, Boston is up 2-0 with one game remaining. The first game, played back in November, was a 10-point victory and the second was a 12-point victory back in February. Based on this, it would seem Boston has a slight upper-hand, but Erik Spoelstra is another top-tier coach, evidenced by his ability to adapt on the fly after losing All-Star forward Chris Bosh.
In the Celtics/Hornets matchup, Boston is also up 2-0 with one game remaining. Both games were in December pre-Christmas, so there isn’t much to glean, but the Celtics won by five and 13 points.
That’s just the first round. Then logically they’ll either have to face the Cavaliers or the Raptors in the second round, depending on seeding.
The Celtics are 1-2 against the Cavaliers this season including a 12-point December loss, a one-point February victory, and a 17-point March loss. It’s not the greatest matchup for Boston, but they have to face them eventually if the hope to advance. The Cavaliers are a talented, but volatile team. In a potential matchup, the Celtics have to hope that the Cavaliers fail to maximize their huge talent, giving Boston a chance to level the playing field.
Boston is also 1-2 against the Raptors this year. These included a six-point January loss and a 16-point March loss, followed five days later by a 12-point victory. This could be a good matchup for the Celtics. They may prefer either the third (or sixth) seed in order to face the Raptors in the second round. Still, Lowry and DeRozan have been playing better than anyone reasonably expected all season and will be difficult to contain (though the Celtics’ perimeter defenders are better-equipped to handle this assignment than most teams).
Celtics can hang with anyone
The Celtics have the ability to play up to their competition. For instance, Boston almost broke the Warriors’ streak back in December. In Boston, it took 38 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists and 2 steals from reigning MVP Stephen Curry and double overtime to preserve the Warriors’ stream (24-0). Draymond Green also had to contribute 24 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists, five steals and five blocks. Notably, Klay Thompson was out with a sprained ankle for that game. The Celtics were led by Kelly Olynyk’s 28 points off the bench and five other players were in double figures scoring in a team effort.
The second game was on April 1, at Oracle Arena in Oakland on the second night of a typically brutal road back to back (following a loss in Portland to the Trail Blazers). The Celtics came away with a narrow 109-106, victory snapping the Warriors’ 54-game home winning streak, which dated back to last season. The Celtics were led by Jared Sullinger, Isaiah Thomas and Evan Turner, who all had 20 or more points. They were without probably their best defensive and most versatile player, Jae Crowder, who was out due to injury.
Other playoff teams the Celtics have beaten this season include the Atlanta Hawks, Toronto Raptors, Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets, Miami HEAT, Charlotte Hornets, Indiana Pacers, Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies, Detroit Pistons and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The list of the current playoff teams the Celtics haven’t beaten at least once this season includes only the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks. And they wouldn’t face either of those teams until a hypothetical Finals matchup.
Considering all of this, it seems fair to reason that the Celtics can be that dark horse in the East. They have a top-level coach in Stevens, an All-Star point guard that leads their offensive attack, versatile perimeter defenders, solid role players and a disciplined approach to the game. They don’t have the star power that most of the other playoff teams have, but with a steady leader in Stevens and an aggressive style of play that could fluster opponents, especially in playoff atmospheres, the Celtics seem to have a viable chance at making a deep playoff run.
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