As one of the two most prolific franchises in the NBA, the Boston Celtics have been itching to return to the top of the mountain. The 17 championship trophies are a constant reminder of the expectations and team-first mentality required to wear the green jersey. Their core players have embodied those principles and welcome the challenge of getting the organization back to the Finals for the first time since the 2009-10 season.
That was the latest chapter in their storied rivalry with the Los Angeles Lakers, which includes 12 NBA Finals battles. Boston won the first eight showdowns, but the Lakers have won three of the last four, including that previously mentioned epic seven-game series in 2010. Another Celtics/Lakers Finals could be on the table this year, but Boston has more work to do before then.
The promise of last season was crippled with the injuries to Gordon Hayward, Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart, where they came up short in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The two seasons before that ended one step short in the Eastern Conference Finals. Boston’s last title came 12 years ago, in what was a legendary group of individuals. Guys like Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen were able to execute with precision while the role players did their jobs as well.
Led by Doc Rivers, the Celtics finished with 66 regular-season wins and were ranked first in defensive rating and second in opponents scoring. During that playoff run, they had a sensational seven-game series against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. They went through the best player in the world, and they will have to do the same thing again this year to make it to the Finals.
The Milwaukee Bucks have been steamrolling through this season. Reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo appears as though he might win the award for a second consecutive year. The Bucks have the best record in the league at 41-7 and have not really been seriously tested. Milwaukee currently ranks first in scoring, defensive rating and pace, and is second in offensive rating. This presents a major challenge for Brad Stevens and his squad.
Boston is ranked inside the top five in each of those categories with the exception of pace, where they are right in the middle. The good news is they have won six of their last seven games, which began with the 32-point beatdown over the rival Lakers on Martin Luther King Jr Day. They also have an easy stretch coming up where they will face Atlanta twice and Orlando.
Two weeks ago, Kemba Walker was named as a starter for the 2020 All-Star Game in Chicago. It is the second straight season he has been named a starter, but the first since joining the Celtics this past summer. Kemba was viewed as a player that may not have the same individual skills as Irving, but would be a much better fit within this system. Those assumptions have been proven correct, as he leads the team in scoring and assists.
Jayson Tatum has continued to blossom this season and was named as an All-Star reserve on Thursday night. The talented young forward is averaging 21.5 points per game through 43 games this season, while also leading the team in steals. Now fully healthy, Hayward has had an incredible bounce-back season. He missed some time early in the season with a broken hand, but has been flawless on the floor in all facets of the game.
Jaylen Brown signed his big contract extension this summer but has lived up to every penny so far. The 23-year old is averaging over 20 points per game while also posting career-highs in rebounds, assists, steals, free throw percentage and overall field goal percentage. Despite putting up these career numbers across the board, Brown was not selected as a reserve for the All-Star Game. The event is still two weeks away, so it is possible he could fill in for an injured player.
One of the greatest abilities that Stevens has as a coach is getting his role players to play with consistency and effectiveness. Smart has vastly improved over the past few years, but other players such as Brad Wanamaker, Javonte Green, Semi Ojeleye and Daniel Theis have been vital to their winning ways this season. The same could be said for the Lakers with their contributing role players – Danny Green, Avery Bradley, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard.
The Celtics are one of five teams vying for the No. 2 seed in the East. That is the coveted spot right now because the team who claims it will not meet the top overall seed (presumably Milwaukee) until the Eastern Conference Finals.
That’s why Friday night’s win was so telling. The Sixers have failed to live up to expectations so far, as many people thought the East would boil down to a two-horse race between them and Milwaukee. Injuries and inconsistent play have nagged them all season, as they currently sit sixth in the conference. A potential playoff matchup with Philly could be troublesome, as they don’t really have an answer for Joel Embiid.
Should Philly remain sixth or even move up to fifth place in the standings, a date with Boston could easily happen. The urgency for the Celtics to grab the second spot is real, but they will have stiff competition. Indiana just got its franchise star Victor Oladipo back, Toronto hasn’t missed a beat since its title run and Miami has been one of the biggest surprises this year with a talented roster.
Thursday’s trade deadline would normally be a place to look for contending teams like the Celtics to improve. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski however, big deals are not likely this season for a variety of reasons. With respect to Enes Kanter, the position of need for the Celtics is clearly at center, but the right deal simply hasn’t materialized yet. Danny Ainge continues to sit on a stack of draft picks, but those have been devalued over the last couple of years with teams like Brooklyn and Memphis improving.
The next place to explore would be the buyout market, but that may be dry too. The hot name all season has been Andre Iguodala, but Memphis is not budging on their asking price, and Boston doesn’t need another wing anyway. Dion Waters is another name out there, but he simply doesn’t fit with Boston’s culture at all. Looking at the big man market, the only serviceable guys that may become available are role players like Dewayne Dedmon.
Whatever route the Celtics end up taking, they should be in good hands. Even if they don’t make any changes, the roster is oozing with enough talent that is capable of getting them back to the Finals for the first time in 10 years.
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