Just what in the name of Sam Adams is happening in Boston these days?
Left for dead and getting booed off their home court on a semi-regular basis through the first 50 games of the season, out of nowhere the Celtics have somehow cobbled together one of the greatest turnarounds in NBA regular-season history. Boston was a .500 team last season and .500 again through 50 games this year before going on the mother of all tears – winning 21 of 24, including a 28-point beatdown of a good Jazz team on Wednesday in a game that wasn’t anywhere near as close as the final score indicated.
The early part of Boston’s current streak drew little attention as NBA eyes were focused on James Harden shooting his way off another team, Ben Simmons refusing to play at all and the Lakers being either hurt or pissed at the world (sometimes both). But as the Celtics have surged past team after team in the East, the outside world is paying attention.
Boston opened the year at +4000 to win it all, a number that has melted to +1000 in some books. FWIW, Stephen A. Smith is starting to blow Boston’s horn as the team to beat, and the number-crunching basketball folks at 538.com have been saying for nearly a month that the Larry O’Brien Trophy will be heading to Beantown come June.
So what gives?
Offensively the Celtics have ridden the coattails of forwards Jayson Tatum (who has been a 30-ppg machine of late) and Jaylen Brown. But the real work is done on the defensive end. Boston has the NBA’s best defense, and the gap between the Celtics and No. 2 is gaping. Marcus Smart is a dog on the perimeter, and finally-healthy big Robert Williams is fast enough to guard the 3-point line and recover to defend the rim when Boston is caught in transition. The Celtics haven’t had a shot-blocker like Williams since Bill Russell.
[It’s interesting to note here that the best defensive players on the best defensive team aren’t getting much love from oddsmakers in the Defensive Player of the Year discussion. Robert Wiliams (+1100) is fourth, behind heavy favorite Bam Adebayo (+115), Rudy Gobert and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Smart (+4000) is a distant eighth.]
The rest of the rotation, which was tightened after mid-season trades sent rotation players Dennis Schroder and Josh Richardson out of town, includes rejuvenated veteran big Al Horford, emerging 3-point shooters Grant Williams and Payton Pritchard; and glue guard Derrick White, who came over from San Antonio at the trade deadline.
For the first few months of the season rookie coach Ime Udoka (a Gregg Popovich disciple) must have wondered why he took he took the job. Tatum and Brown had continued the My Turn / Your Turn ISO play that Celtics fans had witnessed nightly since the Celtics lost to the Heat in the bubble in the Eastern Conference finals. That style of play led to a 61-61 record over the next year-plus – until everything came together in late January.
Ripping through the soft underbelly of the schedule and playing against weak teams and teams dealing with Covid player absences, Boston ran off nine straight wins and then continued white hot post-All-Star break. The dismantling of the Jazz was Boston’s fifth straight, and came on the heels of a 4-0 road trip that included wins over Golden State (yes, the one in which Steph Curry got hurt) and Denver. The Celtics won those four games by an average of nearly 20 ppg.
Boston’s surge, combined with periodic inconsistent play by Miami, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Chicago and Cleveland, moved the Celtics to within shouting distance (1.5 games) of first place in the East – a stunning 180 for a fan base which only a few months before had been talking about trading one, or both, of the J’s and embarking on a complete rebuild.
Can Boston continue its Sherman-like march to the sea, get out of the East and possibly get that elusive championship banner No. 18, its first since the Garnett-Pierce-Allen title team of 2008? Oddsmakers still like Brooklyn to at least get to the Finals, and the Bucks, 76ers and Heat are all listed higher than the Celtics (+550) in the conference.
At a minimum, though, Boston has shot its way into the conversation. And as any talking head this side of Charles Barkley will tell you, offense can come and go but defense and effort are more permanent and can take you far. Last year the Celtics were doused in five by the Nets in the first round after winning the 7-8 Play-In Game. But that was long ago, and in a galaxy far away.