The Boston Celtics have the best record in the Eastern Conference with less than a month left in the season. That is a fine accomplishment that should be recognized and admired for what it is.
However, the Garden doesn’t hang banners for being first place in March. There are still 8 games left on the schedule (including one against the Cavs) and the playoffs loom on the horizon.
The Celtics will have home court advantage in the first round, but (as any pundit will remind you) they have yet to make it beyond that first round under Brad Stevens’ watch. It doesn’t seem to matter that those were different teams in different situations. The narrative is what it is until something happens to change it.
Likewise, even though the Celtics have passed the Cavs in the standings, few will make the leap to believing that the Celtics are now the favorites. That title belongs to the Cavs, and deservedly so.
Will it matter in May, when the East's entrant into the NBA Finals is decided? LeBron James' teams have made six straight NBA Finals. His teams have been the East's No. 1 seed only twice in that span: last season and in 2012-13. The Bulls were the No. 1 seed in 2011 and 2012, the Pacers won it in 2014 and the Hawks took it in 2015.
LeBron's teams went a combined 12-3 against those No. 1 seeds in their respective playoff series.
Now the current Celtics are not those teams, but it bares remembering that no matter how fallible LeBron and his crew look during the regular season, they have been invincible in the Eastern playoffs for a half-dozen years. That is not permanent and it is not foretold. But it's what we know. As such, slow down before digging that grave for the Cavaliers. History indicates they'll get out of the East again.
LeBron and the Cavs have earned the benefit of doubt. They will be the favorites going into the playoffs regardless of seeds, regardless of home court advantage, regardless of their poor defensive rankings.
The Celtics will be seen as an underdog. They don’t have the track record to stand otherwise. There are some that even call into question the current record.
One article goes so far as to ask if the Celtics could be the “worst number 1 seed ever.”
The Celtics are on pace for 53 wins, but own an underwhelming (for a top team) average point-differential of plus-2.7 and a net rating of plus-3.1 per 100 possessions. Those numbers usually reflect the performance of a team in the high 40s, not in the mid-50s, and it's important to remember that point-differential is often a better predictor of future/postseason success than win percentage is.
To that point, in the 70-year history of the NBA, only nine teams have won 64.8 percent of their games - as Boston is currently doing - while posting an average point-differential worse than plus-3.0. And only three of those nine finished atop their respective conferences, with the most recent example being the 1975-76 Celtics.
Then there's the fact Boston has gone a combined 4-7 against the three other teams that make up the East's elite.
Good. I say “good” because I want the team to read headlines like that. I want someone to post a copy of it in Jae Crowder’s locker. I want Isaiah Thomas to hear about how the world is doubting him and his teammates. I want Brad Stevens to use similar stats to remind them that they aren’t as good as their record.
This team is at their worst when they feel comfortable (like say, when they are up 20 points on a sub-.500 team) and they are often at their best when they feel like they up against the wall or being doubted. They seem to feed on that underdog reputation.
Granted, talent still wins out and things like health, strategy, rest, and momentum factor heavily in. There are dozens of reasons why they’ve struggled against the “East’s elite” and there are good reasons to favor a fully healthy and engaged Cavs team in a potential future series.
But there are miles and miles to go before we have to worry about that. The Celtics need to get through the rest of the regular season healthy and in a good rhythm. They need to take care of business in the first round. They need to overcome a very good opponent in the second round. Then and only then can they hope to chip away at the narrative and stake a claim for the best team in the East. Even that distinctive title is only worth so much considering the powerhouse teams that will be fighting it out in the West.
We don’t know how good this Celtics team is and we don’t know how far they’ll get in the playoffs. All we know right now is that they are at the top of the East and few are going to give them much of a chance to stay there in the playoffs. I’ll take that for now.