Celtics Survive and Advance, But Not Without Concerns

The Eastern Conference Finals began as a series of big swings and injuries and it ended with a tightly contested game 7. Despite the oft-heard commentary that the Celtics led wire-to-wire, the game was anything but a guarantee for the green and gold. Yes, they did lead from start to finish, but not without intense drama down the stretch. The final 3 minutes of the game consisted of a desperate comeback from Miami and a complete lack of offense from the Celtics. The game seemingly hinged on a Jimmy Butler 3-point attempt with just 17 seconds remaining that would have given the Heat their first lead of the contest. Thankfully, the shot bounced out and the Cs were able to hang on by their finger nails and punch their ticket to the NBA Finals vs the Golden State Warriors.

After dispatching the Heat, the Celtics have completed their “revenge tour” through the Eastern Conference. Prior to this year, the previous three teams to eliminate them from the postseason were the Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks, and Miami Heat. Now the Celtics can say they were responsible for beating all three teams enroute to their 22nd Finals appearance. The Cs are now just one step away from hanging banner #18 in the TD Garden rafters. As a franchise, the Celtics have been very tough to beat when they reach the Finals, losing just 4 times in those 21 appearances, but they haven’t been there since the 2009-2010 season when they lost to the Los Angeles Lakers. This is obviously an entirely different squad from 12 seasons ago when the big 3 of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen owned the parquet. The last time the Celtics were in the finals, the core of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were in middle school and Smart was early in his high school career. The old man on the team, Al Horford, was in his 3rd season in the NBA that year with the Atlanta Hawks. Now, 141 playoff games later, he’s in the NBA Finals for the 1st time in his career.

Despite being one step from the pinnacle of professional basketball, the Cs aren’t without a few significant concerns. Against the Bucks and Heat, the Celtics had multiple instances of difficulty when trying to close out games. With a pass-first point guard in Marcus Smart, the offense grinds to a halt when the team tries to milk the clock in late-game situations. The Cs need to continue to play their aggressive attacking style, even when they are in situations to kill the clock. No offense to Smart, but he should not be taking the final handful of shots without running the offense when trying to close out a game. The ball needs to run through Tatum and/or Brown and then if it ends up back with Smart or someone else for a shot after a good offensive possession, great. I can almost guarantee the Cs will be in similar situations in the Finals and if they play the way they did in Miami, you can kiss the banner goodbye.

Another concern is around ball control and not making mistakes. There were stretches of the last 2 series when Tatum and Brown were turning the ball over with insane regularity and seemed to be forcing the action which led to more mistakes. Tatum made a number of poor decisions and at times would drive to the basket when their wasn’t a lane, play for contact and a foul rather than finishing the shot, and then complain to the refs when the foul never came. He seemed to be easily thrown off his game when not getting the foul calls and it would take him a while to get back on track. In the Miami series, Tatum was averaging 4.7 turnovers per game and had 3 games of 6+ in the 7 game series and all three of those were losses. Brown also had 7 turnovers in their game 3 loss and 4 in their game 6 loss. If the Cs can take care of the ball and make smart decisions, they are really difficult to beat.

My final issue is around offensive rebounding, especially against smaller lineups. The Heat had a significantly smaller lineup on the floor the majority of the time and the Cs were allowing 11.5 offensive rebounds per game in the series and 40 total rebounds per game, while they were only pulling in 8.5 offensive rebounds and 43.8 rebounds per game. Against a lineup that is significantly smaller, allowing 11.5 offensive rebounds per game is a killer. Even worse, they allowed a total of 40 offensive rebounds in games 4-6 (13.3 per game) and were out-rebounded in 4 of the 7 games in the series, including 2 of their 3 losses. The Cs will have a tougher time with the Warriors on the glass, but if they can limit 2nd chance possessions for the Warriors, their odds of winning the series will increase exponentially.

Now that the Cs have a few days to rest before the finals kick off on Thursday night in San Francisco, I’m hopeful that the pre-game injury report will be more of a formality than a must-see headline. Nearly every game of the Heat series involved more than a few anxious moments as the inactives were announced, for both teams. It was constant chatter around if Marcus Smart and/or Robert Williams would play and be healthy enough to contribute significant minutes. If the entire group can remain healthy for this series, then it will be a lot easier for Ime Udoka to lengthen his rotation and give the starters more rest throughout games. The bench has been terrific for the Cs when the starting 5 is Williams, Horford, Tatum, Brown, and Smart. Having Grant Williams and Derrick White ready to play substantial minutes off the bench and Payton Pritchard and Daniel Theis able to spell guys for a handful of minutes a game, it quickly becomes a pretty deep team.

I’ve been saying this for a few months now and will continue to say it: If the Celtics play their best basketball, they can beat anyone in the NBA, including Golden State. The Warriors are a formidable opponent, but the only way the Cs lose the series is if they beat themselves, which has happened too many times this postseason. They’ve matched up against defensive-minded teams the last few rounds and will see another solid defense in the Warriors. The Warriors are a better offense than the Heat and Bucks, but I think the Cs matchup well against their defense. This series has a strong potential to stretch into 6 or 7 games and the longer the series goes, I think the more likely the Cs win.

My Prediction

The Cs split the first 2 on the west coast and ultimately win #18 in 6 or 7 games. I think Robert Williams and Al Horford will have a big impact inside and on the glass, while Jayson Tatum carries the momentum from game 7 against the Heat and proves that he’s a superstar on the biggest stage going toe-to-toe with Steph Curry it the top scorer department. A healthy Marcus Smart will show everyone why he won defensive player of the year and we’ll see significant contributions off the bench from Grant Williams and Derrick White once again. The key takeaway from the series will be that the Cs outlasted the Warriors enroute to the NBA title.

Celtics Continue Red Hot Streak 🔥

After a big win against Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies on Thursday night, the Celtics moved to 13-2 in their past 15 games. They are running on all cylinders and playing extremely well as a team while racking up the Ws, continuing to build on their solid January and incredible February records. Ime Udoka has the green playing well, even when key pieces are missing from the lineup (i.e. Jaylen Brown on Thursday) and they are looking more and more like a team that could make a strong and potentially deep playoff push. It’s been a fun turnaround for the Cs after a rough start to the season and now there are 16 games left in the regular season to see how high they can rise in the standings.

The home cooking has been good to the Celtics this year. They are 22-11 at the TD Garden on the season, while just 16-16 on the road. It’s not a shocking revelation that a team plays better at home than on the road, but it’s worth noting that the Celtics are now at .500 on the road. Through the first 40 games of the season, the Cs were just 7-13 on the road and struggling against both good and bad teams. In their last 12 road games, the Celtics are 9-3 and have been playing much better basketball. They had the benefit of a few games in Detroit and a game in Orlando, but beating a mediocre team on the road is still an important W. The Cs have 2 road trips remaining this season (not including 2 one-off road games against Charlotte and Toronto), including a 4-game stint in mid-March that includes the Golden State Warriors and a tough and potentially season defining 3-game trip to end the regular season against teams in the top 4 of their conference, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Memphis.

Thanks to a big loss for Cleveland at home against Charlotte, the Cs have moved into 5th place in the Eastern Conference and are just 1 game behind the Bucks and 2 games behind the 76ers and Bulls who are in 2nd and 3rd in the league respectively. The top of the Eastern Conference is pretty jam-packed, with the top 6 separated by only 5 games. For reference, in the Western Conference the top 6 teams are separated by 14 games. The green have already finished their season series with the 76ers and split 2-2, but they have important opportunities with head-to-head matchup against the other teams in front of them in the standings. For now, the Celtics just need to keep winning and hope for stumbles from the teams ahead of them in the standings to put themselves in the best position once the playoffs begin.

It seems the Celtics have found their identity over the last stretch of games, with balanced offense and top-tier defense. They have been working hard to create good shot opportunities, especially down the stretch and are getting offensive contributions nightly from different parts of their roster not named Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown (when healthy). On Thursday night Al Horford had his best performance of the season offensively to help lift the Cs over the really strong Grizzlies with 21 points and the night before against Atlanta, Grant Williams and Derrick White both dropped 18pts in the victory. Generally, the Celtics are middle of the pack offensively, but have looked much stronger these past few weeks, exceeding their average points per game this year (109.3) in 5 of their last 7 games. The eye-test tells me that they look confident and should continue to roll.

Defensively, the Cs are continuing to sit near the top of the NBA in many categories. The allow the 3rd fewest points per game for their opponent, have held opponents to the 4th lowest 3pt percentage, and have held opponents to the lowest number of assists per game in the league. Their ability to rebound, especially on the defensive end, has been huge. The Cs currently sit 3rd in the NBA in rebounds per game at 46.5 and were able to outrebound the best rebounding team in the NBA on Thursday. It’ll be critically important that the Celtics are strong on the defense and limit 2nd chance possessions if they want to beat the top teams in the NBA and move up in the conference standings.

Things are looking up for the Celtics, but with several tough games left on the calendar, the verdict is still out.

Celtics and Trader Brad Very Active at Deadline

Now 56 games into the Celtics season, it’s been an up and down battle. There have been stretches thanks to injuries and COVID that have produced some terrible basketball and some other stretches, like the past few weeks, where the Celtics have played extremely well overall. Sitting in 7th in the Eastern Conference, the green would surely like to continue their run of successful play and move up in the standings down the stretch. They are just 1 game back of the Toronto Raptors, 2 games back of the new-look Philadelphia 76ers and only 5 games back from 1st in the conference. With all of that in mind, GM Brad Stevens went to work before Thursday’s trade deadline and made some significant deals that greatly impact the Celtics roster.

In 2 separate trades, the Celtics brought back fan favorite C Daniel Theis and brought in G Derrick White. Theis was brought to Boston in order to beef up the solid interior play of the Celtics and White will get plenty of playing time at the different guard spots, particularly point guard given his great assist-to-turnover ratio and perimeter defense, which fit the Celtics really well. Stevens was not afraid to shake up the team and sent Josh Richardson and Romeo Langford to the San Antonio Spurs in the White deal and Enes Freedom, Bruno Fernando and Dennis Schroder to the Houston Rockets in the Theis deal. The mass exodus from Boston leaves only 8 players on the roster as of Friday morning, forcing Stevens to bring in 2 players, either those on two way deals or by signing two players to reach the minimum of 10 before their home game with the Denver Nuggets on Friday night.

Overall, Stevens dumped some expiring contracts and some underperforming bench players to improve the roster. He cut bait with Langford, who had a lot of expectations when he was drafted 14th overall in 2019 by Danny Ainge, but has yet to grow into a decent NBA player and hasn’t been good enough to get any consistent minutes. Stevens has shown a willingness to move on if something isn’t working and this was a great example. With an eye toward staying competitive, but also remaining under the luxury tax, to me Stevens had a very successful trade deadline. White is under control until 2025 and is instantly a better fit for the Celtics than Schroder given his skill as a facilitator and Theis is better than Freedom and Fernando combined, providing more offense and solid defense alongside the strong core already on the team in Robert Williams III and Al Horford. Stevens addressed some needs in two effective trades without hamstringing the team in the future.

Now it’s time for the Celtics to really gel and build on their 6-game win streak. While it will take a bit for White to get comfortable with his new teammates, he can contribute day 1. Unlike White, there is hope that Theis can jump back in and pick up where he left off in his last stint with Boston. The Celtics now have 26-games to show us if a deep playoff run is possible in 2022.