The Boston Celtics have exceeded our wildest expectations with a second half run that has vaulted them into the postseason. As recently as January we were focused on how many ping pong balls we could gather in the draft lottery. Now we find ourselves trying to talk ourselves into the idea that this team might have a (slight) chance of taking down the mighty LeBron James and his merry band of Cavaliers.
As the regular season draws to a close, it's time to look back and recognize those that have put the Celtics in this position. That's right...
It's time to hand out some awards!
MVP: Brad Stevens
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The Celtics don't have a dominant superstar to lead them. This team has thrived on the system implemented by coach Brad Stevens, which has managed to put his players in the best position to excel. Stevens may be young and lacking in experience, but he's quickly developing a reputation as one of the league's most brilliant play designers. His ATO's (after timeout plays) are a thing of beauty and have been responsible for several last second victories this season.
Boston's roster has seen an unfathomable amount of turnover, with the team using a staggering 22 players on the court over the course of this season. Of those players that remain as the current core of this rotation, six of them weren't even on the team last year. It took time for the Celtics to settle their roster to allow this group to gel, but now that they have, the C's are rolling. Entering the season finale on Wednesday, Boston has gone 23-12 since February 2. No other team in the East has piled up more wins in that span, while only Cleveland has a better winning percentage. Credit for that goes primarily to the head coach.
The two best teams in the East the last two months will meet in the first round. pic.twitter.com/vnvwRnjBkI— Sean Grande (@SeanGrandePBP) April 15, 2015
If you prefer a more conventional choice by actually naming a player as MVP, I'll go with Avery Bradley. In a season with numerous changes, Bradley has been the one constant in the starting lineup. He's averaging just shy of 15 points per game since the All-Star break, while providing his usual strong perimeter defense.
Sixth Man: Isaiah Thomas
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You could argue that Thomas has taken over as the team's best player, despite his role coming off the bench. I didn't factor him into the MVP discussion because he has only been in Boston for 21 games, but he has led the team with 19.0 points per game since his arrival.
Thomas has been invaluable with his ability to create his own shot and get to the basket at will. He's averaging 6.5 free throw attempts per game in a Celtics uniform, which is more than double the amount of anyone else that is left on this roster. Thomas may not start games, but he's among the best at finishing them. He's averaging 6.2 points in the 4th quarter this season, which ranks 6th in the league.
Naming Thomas the team's best sixth man is an easy call, considering he should get strong consideration from the league for the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year.
Most Improved: Tyler Zeller
The Celtics gave up literally nothing to acquire Zeller last offseason in a three-team trade that Cleveland used to dump salary in order to clear room to sign LeBron James. It may not have looked like much at the time, but it has proven to be a brilliant move by general manager Danny Ainge. The 7-footer has flourished in Boston, turning himself from an afterthought in Cleveland to a key starter for the playoff-bound Celtics.
Zeller has set career-highs in points (10.2), field goal percentage (.549), assists (1.4) and matched his career best in rebounds (5.7). Not bad for a guy that a struggling Cleveland team couldn't find more than 15 minutes per game for last season.
Rookie of the Year: Marcus Smart
What, you were expecting James Young?
The No. 6 pick in last summer's draft has been inconsistent on the offensive end, which is no surprise for a rookie that can't shoot. He has shown flashes of improvement over the course of the year, but still has a ways to go.
On the defensive end, Smart has been a beast. He's arguably one of the best rookie perimeter defenders that we have seen in quite a while. Clearly our own Kevin O'Connor agrees.
Marcus Smart is having one hell of a game. I've said it before but he's definitely one of the best rookie perimeter defenders I've seen.— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) April 15, 2015
Best Addition by Subtraction: Rajon Rondo
Rondo played his last game in a Celtics uniform on December 19, at which point Boston had a 9-14 record. Since he was shipped to Dallas, the C's have gone 30-28.
Granted the drastic improvement can't all be attributed to the departure of Rondo, but it's clear that he was never a great fit for the system Stevens has implemented. The fact that Rondo has struggled to acclimate to his new environment in Dallas suggests that Boston may have sold high on a player that no longer resembles an elite point guard.
Brian Scalabrine Award: Luigi Datome
This award goes to the end of the bench player that gets the TD Garden crowd inexplicably excited whenever they get the opportunity to contribute. "Gigi" plays less than 10 minutes per game and averages just over 4 points, yet the fans go nuts for him. Whenever he gets the ball with an open look, Celtics fans beg for him to shoot it. Considering he's hitting a blistering 48.3 percent of his shots from beyond the arc, perhaps he should be shooting more.
Best Hair: Kelly Olynyk
No contest, as the long flowing locks of the sophomore center win in a landslide.
We Hardly Knew Ye: Jameer Nelson
Did you forget that Nelson was on this team at one point? You can be forgiven if you did, considering he only played in 6 games for the Celtics after being acquired from Dallas in the Rondo deal. His stay in Boston was brief, he never seemed satisfied with his decreased role and he produced a putrid 8.7 PER in his 20.2 minutes per game.
Team Most Likely to Fear Us: Cleveland Cavaliers
The regular season is coming to an end, but now it's playoff time! Don't sleep on this Boston team. Of course Cleveland will be heavily favored, but that doesn't mean the Celtics will be an easy out. They have played as well as anyone in the Conference during the final stretch of the season and could give the Cavs a tougher fight than they anticipate. Bring it on, LeBron.