As of now, the Celtics have the 2nd best record in the Eastern Conference. That alone is a nice accomplishment and cause for optimism. If the Celtics can hold onto that seeding, it will help them with home court advantage through the first 2 rounds of the playoffs. However, it isn’t enough to guarantee future success.
Bill Parcells famously said “You are what your record says you are!” Of course he was trying to drive home the point that there would be no excuses accepted for his team’s inability to win games. Now we have Brad Stevens singing the opposite tune.
“Well, we’ll see,” Stevens told the Herald. “We’ll see. I’ve said all along that we’re not as good as our record. And until we play with better poise and we play with better purpose all the way through, then we’ll have nights like that (against the Clippers).
How can you not be as good as your record? There are a lot of non-team-specific reasons why this could be. Every team plays the same amount of games, but there are different travel schedules, different numbers of back-to-back games, and different rest periods between games. In addition, opponents are not always at full strength (due to injury or rest) so they are a harder matchup on some nights than they are on others.
However, after 82 games a lot of those competitive inefficiencies tend to even out enough to be lost in the noise. Some teams have an easier road than others but really good teams overcome those obstacles anyway.
So are the Celtics a really good team or have they been fortunate? A quick look at the wins and losses tells some of the story.
One big knock on the Celtics is that they haven’t been able to get “signature wins.” The Celtics did defeat the Cavs a week ago, but that game was the exception, not the rule. In fact, the Celtics are just 2-6 against teams ahead of them in the standing (Cavs, Warriors, Spurs, and Rockets).
In a way, that makes sense. The best teams have great records against everyone. What might be more troubling is the Celtics record against their direct competitors. In the East, the Wizards, Raptors, and Hawks are all within 5 games of the Celtics. Unfortunately, Boston is just 3-6 against those 3 teams.
Doing a little math shows that the Celtics are 35-12 against the rest of the league. So they are good at beating up the worst teams in the league and winning games that they “should” win. That’s one of the first steps to being a good or great team. Win the games you should win.
With that said, I think what Brad is getting to is the concept that results aren’t always the best indication of a team’s performance. In other words, you can play well in one game and lose it based on a bad bounce or a bad call or a series of unfortunate events. Likewise, you can play poorly and simply catch some breaks that allow you to win.
This seems to be what Brad is hinting at in the following quote.
“I think the biggest thing is we’re 28-14 in close games,” Stevens said. “Usually you don’t have quite that discrepancy.
“We’ve been fortunate. We have to get better. I think that everybody talks about chasing other teams or whatever the case may be. We have a long way to be what I think is competitive at a necessary level to be really good when it’s all on the line.”
That’s an admirable stat and it does speak to this team’s “clutch” ability to pull out close games. But as Stevens alludes, it also means they’ve been lucky.
One more stat to throw at you: The Celtics are tied for the 5th best record in the league but they are just 8th in Net Rating (Offensive Efficiency minus Defensive Efficiency).
I do not have the stats on how injuries have impacted this team (and I welcome someone to run the numbers and put up a FanPost about it). So I don’t know how Boston ranks against other teams in terms of games without their starting lineup. I would imagine it is rather high since we’ve lost guys like Al Horford, Jae Crowder, Isaiah Thomas and others for stretches this season, but I don’t know for sure. I do know that the Celtics are 7-7 in games which Al Horford was unavailable and 33-17 with him. So he seems pretty important.
So where does that leave us? The Celtics are still a very good team. Brad is a coach and coaches like to makes statements to motivate or inspire their team. Based on the stats above, he’s absolutely right though. This team can’t become content with their seeding and lay down for teams like the Suns or blow big leads against the Clippers.
The Celtics need to finish strong in order to maintain that 2nd seed but once the playoffs start, they’ll have to step up their game another level. Teams like the Raptors, Wizards, and Hawks are still difficult matchups for the Celtics and they can’t have the attitude of “the favorites” if they expect to win. In fact, I would argue that this team’s identity has been built upon being underdogs who have been second guessed or counted out for much of their careers. Doubt and shade seems to light a fire under their backsides and fuels positive results.
So yeah, I approve of Brad’s message. This team isn’t as good as their record. But they can be better than what other people think if they can keep their focus and rise to the occasion.