On the surface, this is a bit of a silly question. Of course the Celtics are better this year, right?
Last year the Celtics finished 40-42 and surprisingly made the postseason as a 7th seed. This season the Celtics will finish with at least 47 wins, and the playoffs have been a foregone conclusion for more than half the season.
Then again, you almost have to split last season into two parts. They finished out the year 24-12 and established an identity of defense, smallball, and Isaiah Thomas. The Cavaliers were simply much, much better and proved as much in a 4-game sweep.
This year, the Celtics have been a bit more consistent but are they really that much better?
At least one writer is skeptical. Matt Moore wonders if this team is for real or just a "playoff fraud."
They were swept last year by the Cavs with essentially this same roster, remember. The only addition, the only addition, is Amir Johnson, continuity and player development. Those things help tremendously; they made Boston into a 47/48-win team this season. But is that going to make them considerably a better playoff squad?
Instinctively I want to argue strongly against this notion, but when you step back and remove the ire-inducing word choice of "fraud" and focus on the question, you can at least see where he's coming from.
Amir Johnson is the only player that will see playoff minutes that is different from last year's team. A healthy Amir patrolling the paint should make a difference on defense, but he's not going to help our offense if it falls into another one of those maddening scoring droughts.
Continuity is important because everyone knows their roles. Even with a deep rotation (that may or may not continue into the postseason) players know what to expect, not just from the coach and the system but from each other.
Player development is very important, because a lot of these guys legitimately are a full step ahead of where they were a year ago. Isaiah Thomas went from being a 6th-man award candidate to a legitimate All-Star. Jae Crowder went from being a surprising contributor to being the team's all-around MVP. Jared Sullinger went from out-of-gas to key contributor. Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk, Evan Turner, the list goes on. Each one is better than they were. That does matter, and it should make a difference in the playoffs.
But how much will it matter? Will it translate into better results? It depends.
Thankfully the Celtics' record will spare them a 1st-round rematch with LeBron. It remains to be seen who their opponent will be, but the Hawks, Heat, and Hornets are all quality opponents that could match the Celtics toe-to-toe in a 4-game series.
I like the Celtics' chances against any of them, but it isn't hard to see any of them getting on a hot streak and knocking Boston out of the playoffs once again. Then all the feel-good narratives about this up-and-coming team courting the top free agents on the market kind of fall a little flat. All of a sudden we become a two time one-and-done playoff team.
All that can change in the blink of a firework this summer, but that doesn't help us in this year's postseason.
The playoffs change everything. Does anyone remember that the Raptors had home court advantage the last two years? Nope. They lost in the first round both years and were embarrassed by the Wizards last year. They can erase that stench with a solid performance this year, but they have earn that by winning.
Same goes for the Celtics. The only way they will make believers out of the world is by proving it in the playoffs. Isaiah Thomas has to shine on the brightest stage and not be taken out of his game by the other team's best defenders. Jae Crowder needs to shake off the remaining rust and get back to being the heart and soul of this team's identity. Can the team still create spacing when teams daring Evan Turner and Marcus Smart to shoot the 3 and clog up the lane in the half court?
Brad Stevens is David Blaine in an open-collar dress shirt and jacket, but it almost always boils down to the talent. The players have to step up and play the best basketball that they are capable of.
We've see this team go on streaks where they can beat anybody, including (arguably) the greatest team ever. But the last two games have highlighted the fact that the well can dry up quick.
Think about the annual playoff parables. Rotations tighten up in the playoffs, and pace tends to slow down. There are fewer turnovers and thus fewer easy-offense opportunities.
None of that sounds particularly comforting for the Celtics. Granted, the Celtics do have the defensive chops to challenge that conventional wisdom. They just have to be on point to do it. They have to prove it by executing their style of play and making the right kind of adjustments over a 7-game series.
This is what they will ultimately be judged on. This is why they play. The regular season is important in its own way, but the playoffs are what matters in the long run.
So will this season be a legitimate step in the right direction, or will it be just another year of waiting for fireworks? Let's find out.