The roller coaster cliche is too often used in sports and it’s just not fitting for this Celtics season. There have certainly been ups and downs on a game-to-game basis, but in totality, the year has more resembled a sky diver bouncing off a trampoline.
Let’s recap: a 2-5 start that included an epic collapse at home to the Bulls prompted Marcus Smart to publicly call out Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown then Brown missed thirteen games with a nagging hamstring injury then the team crashed and burned on a West coast road trip then Omicron then Boston could only muster a 6-14 record in clutch games.
But then the team got healthy. The fivesome of Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, and Robert Williams boast the highest net rating of 26.5 for all five-man lineups that have played at least 250 minutes together. They’re doing it with a historically stout defense and their core four players are all 27 years old or younger and signed long term. They have the best record in the Eastern Conference since the turn of the calendar that included a nine-game winning streak.
While this weekend’s All-Star break will provide respite for everybody on the team not named Jayson Tatum (who will be starting on Sunday in Cleveland), it catches Boston white hot and halts their momentum. However, as head coach Ime Udoka put it, there’s still work to be done. “Take a rest on your bodies and minds, and think about what we have coming forward,” he said after the visiting Pistons snapped Boston’s winning streak. “Nine is done. It would’ve been nice to finish it off the right way, but we still got big things coming up.”
Revisiting Preseason Best Case, Worst Case and Most Likely Case scenarios
My esteemed colleague Jeff Clark wrote this about the Celtics’ best case scenario before the season started:
The best case is always another championship. To get there a lot of things would have to break right. Jayson Tatum would have to be a top 3 MVP candidate. Jaylen Brown would be the topic of highly sophisticated fan debates contending that “well actually Jaylen is more valuable than Jayson.” Ime Udoka would be in the running for Coach of the Year by convincing the team to play elite defense and move the ball reminiscent of the Spurs “Beautiful Game” years.
Fifty games later, he might have been right. Tatum’s extremely slow start and the team’s standing in the Eastern Conference have dented any chance of being an MVP candidate unless Boston somehow rockets up to a top-2 seed. But if the 23-year-old continues this stretch and the Celtics keeps winning, who knows. Since the new year, he’s averaging 26 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists on 46% shooting, propelling Boston to a 17-7 run. Brown has been just as hot (24/7/4 on 47% shooting). The debates on whether the two can play together or who is ahead of the other in the team’s hierarchy have largely quieted down.
Frankly, we’ve already seen the worst case scenario for Boston. The Celtics closed 2021 two games under .500. A rash of absences from injury and in the league’s health and safety protocols prolonged the growing pains of implementing a new system on both sides of the ball, whether that was Tatum and Brown’s propensity to ISO on offense or communicating in their switch-heavy defense.
But to Udoka’s credit, he stayed patient and persistent with his approach and if they keep rolling into the league’s 10th easiest schedule after the All-Star break, we could see his name come up in Coach of the Year discussions. Back in October, Jeff predicted as a most likely scenario that he “could see the Celtics landing in the 3rd or 4th seed and making another run to the Eastern Conference Finals behind a big year from Tatum and Brown.” They didn’t get their act together until halfway through the season, but that goal is well within reach now.
Why we’re still excited for the rest of the season
At the trade deadline, President of Basketball Operations whittled down the roster and swapped out seven players for Derrick White and Daniel Theis. They’ve fit in seamlessly into Udoka’s eight-man rotation that is first in the NBA in net rating since January 1st and by far the best defense team over the last twenty-five games. Forget the cliche that “defense wins championships.” It’s also the most reliable habit heading into the playoffs and at this point, the sample size is large enough to rule out a fleeting trend. The Celtics are nasty and will be nasty for a long time. Also, nerd alert: if you’re a fan of FiveThirtyEight and Basketball Reference’s predictions, Boston has the highest probability to rep the East in The Finals.
Reviewing our preseason record and seeding predictions
The Celtics would have to go 15-7 to hit our prediction of 49-33. That seems reasonable and here’s a fun look at the rest of the Eastern Conference schedule:
CHI: @ MIA, MIL, @ PHI, CLE, @ MIL, @ CLE, MIA, MIL, BOS— Bill Sy (@deliberatepix) February 17, 2022
Four and a half games separate 1st and 6th. The Celtics will have a handful of games to determine their fate, but it'll also largely be up to other teams beating up on each other with Brooklyn lurking.
Boston took so many of their lumps early in the regular season taking on the East’s best and coming through it with an impressive 9-5 largely before their revelatory transformation into a legit contender. They’ll have three more statement games against Miami, Chicago, and Milwaukee to jockey for position, but they’ll also be perfectly happy standing on the sidelines watching their conference rivals duking it out.
Predicting win-loss record and playoff seeding at the All-Star break
Boston unexpectedly gets to 50 wins and they’re hosting a first round series in April as the #3 seed. Our friends over at DraftKings Sportsbook have the Celtics at +1100 to win the East and +2500 to win raise Banner 18. The Nets, Bucks, Heat, and 76ers are all still ahead of Boston
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