BOSTON (CBS) — For the first time since 2008, when Kevin Garnett was screaming about anything being possible, the Celtics are Eastern Conference regular season champs.
This is no small feat, and one that most certainly will continue to be underplayed by those in Green. As head coach Brad Stevens noted when the Celts landed their first Atlantic Division title in his four years on Monday night, division championships aren’t the priority in Boston. Same goes for No. 1 seeds.
Whether you’re Danny Ainge, the coach, a member of the team, or simply a fan who’s watched the C’s masterful and staggering improvement from 25 wins in Stevens’ first season to 40, 48, and now 53, you want a banner.
You’re fooling yourself, though, if you believe the Celtics are a traditional top seed.
At 53-29, they did exactly what they were supposed to do. In late-July, ESPN projected Boston to win 51 games. In October, Bovada set the over-under at 52.5. In the remote chance you care, I nailed the 53 a couple weeks after Summer League play ended.
From coaching down to the new and returning talent on the roster, it wasn’t difficult to forecast at least a marginal regular season improvement.
What no one envisioned was the club sitting atop the East in mid-April. It’s a testament to the Celts’ hard work as well as the Cavaliers’ late-season struggles, resting of stars, and long-standing issues on defense.
The last team to claim the East with as few as 53 wins were 2006-07 Pistons. The C’s would’ve finished 14 games back of the Warriors in the West this year. Perspective is everything.
That ’07 Pistons team reached the conference finals and lost in six games to LeBron James and the Cavs. Who’d be surprised by that exact same outcome this spring for Stevens’ squad?
It’s true; within the scope of a season expectations evolve. Most agree the Celtics must, at a minimum, win one playoff series to consider the season a success. Those who don’t have set a higher bar – a trip to the league’s semifinals. With what we’ve seen to date and considering Boston’s good health entering Easter Sunday’s start of the second season with Chicago, both are reasonable.
The C’s season absolutely, unequivocally cannot end in the opening round. Only five No. 8 seeds have ever ousted a No. 1 since the league expanded to a 16-team playoff format in 1984. The 1999 Knicks are the first and only eighth seed to reach the NBA finals, where they fell to the Spurs. A third straight first-round loss for Boston would be a failure.
Two years ago, the Celts were swept out of the first round by the Cavs. Members of that team have since admitted they were just happy to be there. Last year, a struggle down the stretch and four-way tie for third in the conference resulted in losing home-court to start the playoffs and the worst possible match-up with Al Horford’s Hawks. An injury to Avery Bradley in Game 1 took him off the floor the rest of the series, and Jae Crowder and Kelly Olynyk weren’t themselves while attempting to play through pains of their own. Series over in six. If you were interested, there were excuses.
This year, no excuses. Not for a healthy top-seed with a starting unit that went 26-10 in limited action together. Not for a team that won 12 of 14 to cap the season. Not for a group that’s won 17 of 20 at home and 30 overall on its own floor to rank tied for fourth in the Association. Not when there are no more back-to-backs or difficult travel.
Doesn’t mean you won’t hear them if things go bad.
The Celtics don’t have a superstar. I know a two-time All-Star and the NBA’s third-leading scorer who would happily use such a remark to fuel his competitive fire. He should be a top-five MVP candidate, too.
The team’s defense isn’t good enough. The D’s inconsistent, yes, but the Celts have the fifth-best defensive rating since a few days prior to the Super Bowl. They have three of the game’s best perimeter defenders, not to mention a big man known for his defense who’s preparing for his ninth postseason.
They can’t rebound. Hard to argue that one. The Green tied for fifth-worst in the NBA with just 42 boards a game and only nine on the offensive glass. Since Feb. 26, a span of 24 games, Boston is 11th with an average of 44.2 rebounds. That’s one area the Bulls have been superior all season and particularly head-to-head. Chicago finished first in the league with 12.2 offensive rebounds a game and has held a roughly 49-39 rebound advantage in four meetings with Boston, which has led to a 16-9 benefit per in second-chance points.
But, generally, the Bulls aren’t very good. They won seven of their last nine to finish .500 and reach the playoffs on the final day of the year. Sure, if Jimmy Butler performs to his ability and we see Playoff Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade – a triumvirate that’s never perfectly co-existed – the Celtics could have their hands full.
Really, though, think that’ll happen?
This postseason couldn’t have shaped up better for the C’s. For a while, they could have wound up with the Hawks, Bucks, Pacers, Heat, or Bulls in the first round. They received the consensus ideal situation in a Chicago team that is older, poorly constructed, can’t shoot the 3, doesn’t have a very good coach, and let’s not even start with the personality problems.
Even better, the Celts will get to avoid the Cavs and Raptors the first two rounds.
Nothing about the next two weeks to two months (we can dream, right?) will be easy, but the Celtics are good enough to make a significant run. Thomas needs help on offense from Bradley, Crowder, Horford, and reserves like Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Kelly Olynyk at least occasionally. As a group, they must be more consistent and learn how to hold onto leads, big and small. Respecting their opponent shouldn’t be a problem this time of year.
One advantage the team does have compared to last — along with good health, more talent, and another year of development and experience — is having had the success it did while playing through so many injuries this season. Ten players averaged at least 15 minutes a game and saw increased roles at various points, which will better prepare them for anything unforeseen in the coming weeks.
No matter what happens, Ainge’s rebuild dating back to that blockbuster Nets trade has been expedited and his team is still reaping the rewards. If the Celts live up to their seeding, they will still be playing while the rest of us watch to see if the lottery balls bounce their way May 16.
Brad Stevens and his players don’t care about prized prospects Markelle Fultz, Josh Jackson, or Lonzo Ball, though. Or free agent to be and Stevens favorite Gordon Hayward. Not yet. They have work to do. Anything less than a championship will be unsatisfying to them, but anything short of the second round should be unacceptable for everyone. That was the case when the season started and nothing has changed.
And until we see the supremely talented Cavs as vulnerable in the playoffs as they were in the latter months of the regular season, they’re still the team to beat, not the top-seed Celtics.