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 Show Strength and Wear Down Bucks in Game 7

If you are a fan of NBA basketball, the Celtics vs Bucks series had it all. It was filled with glorious comebacks, superstar performances, unlikely heroes, awful refereeing, and grueling defense on both sides. From the opening tip, the series was a test of wills and thanks to a deeper roster, the Boston Celtics were able to knock off the defending champs convincingly in game 7 to take the series. Now the Celtics will make their 21st appearance in the conference finals, the 2nd most of any franchise all-time. Let’s take a look at how the Celtics got here.

Heading into their conference semi-final date with the Bucks, the Cs absolutely crushed the Brooklyn Nets in a 4-game sweep. While Boston was obviously favored in that matchup, they faced some tough individual matchups. The Cs were able to shut down Kevin Durant at times and weather big scoring numbers from Kyrie Irving in order to take care of business. The Celtics defense showed that when they needed to clamp down, they could stifle the Nets offense and force them into a tough shot. In the NBA, it’s really hard to actually shut down a star with your defense, but if you can force a top-tier player into a tougher shot, it will benefit the team overall. That philosophy worked against the Nets, but against Giannis Antetokounmpo, it’s easier said than done.

The Cs got slapped with a quick dose of reality when Milwaukee crushed them in game 1. Their defense was not good enough to limit Giannis (triple-double) and allowed 25 points to Jrue Holiday. The Cs got outscored in 3 of 4 quarters and after holding a lead early in 2nd quarter, never really sniffed it again. Behind a 30-spot from Jaylen Brown, game 2 was a reverse of game 1, with a 23-point Cs win to even the series and salvage a game at home. The Cs held Giannis to 28-points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists, which for most players would be an epic performance, but not for Antetokounmpo. Game 3 was the first actual close game of the series, with an absolutely electric finish. After taking the lead with about a minute left for the first time since early in the 2nd half, a Giannis basket, Jaylen Brown miss, and Holiday basket led to a 3-point lead for the Bucks with 11.2 seconds left. After drawing a foul, Marcus Smart stepped to the line and hit the first free throw to bring the game within two. Down two, with one free throw to go and just 4.6 seconds remaining, Marcus Smart intentionally missed off the rim and a frantic series of missed shots and offensive rebounds ensued, ending with an Al Horford tip in coming just a fraction of a second after the buzzer leading to a 103-101 victory for the Bucks.

Game 4 was the Al Horford game. It’s arguably his best postseason game as a professional basketball player and potentially one of his best overall performances. Horford scored 30 points, secured 8 rebounds, distributed 3 assists and was a +20 in the 8-pt win for the Celtics. Horford was an absolute beast after Giannis gave him a long stare-down following a dunk that led to a technical foul on the Greek Freak. Horford was an absolute monster, taking over the game in a way we’ve really never seen before and it’s because of him that the series was tied after 4 and a best of 3. After a game 5 victory for the Bucks thanks to a disastrous final few minutes from Marcus Smart and a few great plays from Jrue Holiday, the Celtics’ backs were against the wall needing 2 straight Ws. If game 4 was the Horford game, game 6 was the Jayson Tatum game. Tatum was absolutely dominant in game 6 on the road, dropping 46 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists and was a +21. The Celtics took a 10-pt halftime lead and never let the Bucks back in the game fully, holding the lead for the final 3 quarters. That setup a game 7 in Boston for all the marbles.

Looking back, the Celtics not tanking for an easier path in the postseason and the #3 seed, set them up for home court in game 7, which proved to be quite useful. The first half of the game was a difference in quarters, with the Bucks taking the first by 6 and then the Celtics punching back in the 2nd. Thanks to a game-changing shift late in the 2nd quarter, the game swung handily in the Cs direction. After a basket from Bobby Portis, the Bucks were up 43-42 with about a minute left in the first half. Grant Williams hit one of his 7 big 3s to take the lead at 45-43. After Tatum picked up his 3rd foul and Holiday missed a 3, the Cs had the ball with 25 seconds remaining. Brown missed a jumper with 8.4 seconds remaining and the Bucks had a chance to tie or take the lead before half, but Marcus Smart had a great defensive play, forced the turnover on Giannis followed by a foul on Giannis, his 3rd. Beyond that, Smart went up for a shot as Giannis fouled him, giving him 3 free throws. Smart hit all 3 and the Celtics walked into halftime with momentum, 3 fouls on Giannis, and a 5-point lead at home in game 7. While there was 24 minutes of basketball remaining, the court felt tipped in the Cs direction and the beginning of the 2nd half proved that as the Cs pulled further out in front after an 8-2 run and never looked back, crushing the Bucks by 28.

Now, the Celtics find themselves in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat. The Celtics continue a revenge tour of sorts, since the last three teams to beat them in the postseason over the years have been the Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks, and you guessed it, the Miami Heat. The Heat reached the finals by beating the Atlanta Hawks in 5 games, then shutting down the Philadelphia 76ers in 6 games. The Heat have been led by Jimmy Butler, who is averaging 28.7 points, 7.6 rebounds, 5.4 assists, and 2.1 steals per game this postseason. In terms of scoring, the Heat have 5 players averaging double-figures in the postseason, besides Butler, Bam Adebayo (14.6), Tyler Herro (13.8), Max Strus (12.5), and Victor Oladipo (11.4) have all been contributing to the team’s 107.1 points per game. Most of that scoring is without Kyle Lowry, who has only played in 5 of their 11 games this postseason, but could potentially be back at some point against the Celtics. As of writing this, he is unlikely to play in Game 1.

The main thing that the Heat and Celtics both bring to the table is defense. This postseason, the Heat are 1st in points allowed per game and the Celtics are 3rd, which could make this a low-scoring battle of a series for both teams. During their 3 regular season matchups, defense at the forefront, so it will be interesting to see which team can create more opportunities on the offense-end with limited space.

Bring on the Heat!

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.

Trader Brad Strikes Again

To say this offseason has been eventful for the Boston Celtics is an understatement. Beginning with the surprising promotion of Brad Stevens to GM following the retirement of Danny Ainge, there has been a roster rebuild and restructure including several trades and player moves. While there is obviously still time to make more changes, it’s time to take a glance at the new-look Celtics roster.

Guards

In:

Out:

The group of guards and guard depth looks quite different for the Celtics going into the 2021 season. The first big move of the offseason was to unload Kemba Walker’s salary with a 1st and 2nd round pick for Al Horford and Moses Brown. While it saved salary, it opened up a glaring hole at point guard. It appeared they were considering a PG replacement by bringing in fan favorite Kris Dunn, only to trade him away for Juan Hermangomez. The PG move in the middle of trading for and trading away Dunn was free agent Dennis Schroder. We all know the story by now, but Schroder bet on himself and turned down a big extension from the Los Angeles Lakers only to find no market and sign for peanuts in comparison with the Celtics. The value is definitely there for the almost 28-yr old PG.

As often as Walker was injured, they got worse at the PG this offseason. I anticipate they will use Schroder, along with Payton Pritchard as a ball handler, with some Marcus Smart mixed in. Pritchard could very well take the next step and be a strong NBA PG, but he’s yet mostly unproven and other than Summer League and Pro-Am games, hasn’t consistently shown he can handle NBA competition.

As far as the SG is concerned, the Celtics lost Evan Fournier and brought in Josh Richardson, which depending on which you prefer, is either a wash or a slight downgrade. Fournier didn’t play a ton last year for the Cs and appeared in just 42 games combined with Orlando, but he had his best year shooting the 3 (41%). Richardson is not as strong of a shooter in general and gives up 2 inches on Fournier. All-in-all, I think this group has gotten slightly worse, but with Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart untouched as the top guards, I’m not sure the difference is significant enough.

Forwards

In:

Out:

Where I think the Celtics improved this offseason is in the small/power forward spots. The Cs parted ways with Tristan Thompson after the season, who was mostly a flop during his tenure with the franchise. Brad brought in 2 really interesting pieces to fill out the forward depth. Bruno Fernando is an interesting wild card that I think could be fun to watch. He’s not going to score a ton, but could give you a spark off the bench as a small center or power forward.

Most recently Brad traded away Kris Dunn and Carsen Edwards to bolster this group by bringing in Juan Hernangomez. Brad dealt from a position of depth and excess to add to a position of need and Hernangomez should add depth at the 4 as a 6’9″ body who can shoot a bit when called upon. He’s not going to wow anyone or put up huge numbers, but he is a solid piece off the bench. He joins Grant Williams and Jabari Parker in the power forward group and becomes, with Fernando, the tallest of that group. I definitely think the Cs got better in their forward depth.

Centers

In:

Out:

For my money, this is by far the best improvement on the roster. Lacking any real center depth last year, the Cs need support behind the newly resigned Robert Williams III. The Celtics did just that by bringing back fan favorites Al Horford and Enes Kanter to stuff the paint and mentor Williams. Horford is 35 and how much he has left in the tank is TBD, but Kanter is a great change of pace off the bench. They both love being in Boston and at very least, it’s age and experience depth which can be super valuable.

On top of those two, Brad let Tacko Fall go and brought in another 7-footer in Luke Kornet. As sad as it was to watch Fall leave the Celtics, Kornet is probably an upgrade. The question becomes who actually ends up on the final roster and if all 4 guys have roster spots.

Overall

While it’s a bit difficult to see the final layout of the roster, especially considering I wouldn’t be shocked if trader Brad is still looking for deals, but I think overall the depth on this team is stronger than it was last year. There are still plenty of questions on the starting lineup and I think there are definitely drop-offs in talent in the backcourt, but improvements in the frontcourt. Let’s see what this team looks like when the season tips off in just under 7 weeks.