Jack Simone: Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown need to score efficiently. The defense is there, and it’s elite. It goes without saying that they need to keep up their intensity on that end if they want to be successful. But the real win condition for the C’s this year is their two stars’ offensive success. Boston’s defense has kept them in it and won them a few games, but if they can pair that with consistent scoring from the two pillars of their organization, not many teams would be able to compete. Once Tatum and Brown begin to score efficiently on a consistent basis (and make sure to play within the offense and not force things), then the C’s will become true title contenders.
Tim Sheils: To echo what Jack said, I believe Boston’s pathway to contention relies heavily on the performance of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. The star duo has been under heavy criticism this season, but as time has gone on, the team has drastically improved, becoming statistically the best defensive team in the league.
A big part of that turnaround has been Brown and Tatum getting more consistent on offense and setting the tone in terms of energy on both sides of the ball. Both Al Horford and Marcus Smart have praised Jaylen Brown’s leadership and voice in the locker room, as he’s been pushing his team to be locked in from start to finish. There’s been a clear change in energy around the team, and in order for the Celtics to take the next step into contention, Brown and Tatum need to be more consistent on offense and keep their teammates involved.
We know that Boston’s stars are capable of coexisting, and the addition of another playmaker like Derrick White should make this much easier for the Celtics. Most importantly, Brown and Tatum need to be locked in, and the team will continue to thrive off their energy and leadership.
Mike Dynon: To be legitimate contenders, the Celtics must be able to close out games consistently. Yes, they need to acquire a long-range shooter and perhaps a veteran point guard or big for some depth, but roster add-ons won’t matter as much as reliable late-game execution.
Obviously, these Celtics have let too many winnable games get away, but the recent nine-game win streak suggested they’d started to figure out the formula: a stifling defense plus aggressive offense predicated on ball movement equals wins. Actually, the Celts were so good in their streak, almost every game was a blowout.
They finally had a close one versus the young Pistons, who hung tough with hot three-point shooting and an absurd 17-2 advantage in second-chance points. Boston was up 8 with 4 minutes to go when they inexplicably stopped moving the ball, missed several threes, added a bunch of turnovers, and were outscored 12-2 to fall behind. The eventual 1-point loss illustrated how easily they can fall back into bad habits.
We know that anything can happen in the NBA. You can win one night by 48 on the road and the next night lose at home to the team with the league’s worst record. The Celtics are 11-18 in crunch time games (per NBA Stats), 26th among the 30 teams. So, the question now is: over the last quarter of this regular season, when games come down to the final minute, will we see the share-the-ball Celtics or the hero-ball Celtics? The answer might determine if they are in fact legit.
Neil Iyer: In order for the Celtics to win the East, Derrick White and Al Horford must shoot 40 percent from three for the remaining twenty-two games and playoffs. This team is good at several things, but three-point shooting isn’t one of them. They’re second in both rebounds per game and free throw percentage. They’re first in defensive field goal percentage, they allow the fewest assists per game and second fewest shots at the rim, reflecting how their switch-heavy defense mucks up any ball movement and forces consistent bricks. Their defensive rating is second, and while their offensive rating ranks 16th, it’s been a top-five mark over the past 30 games.
Three-point shooting is their primary weakness. At 34.4 percent, the Celtics rank 21st in three-point shooting. Over the past ten years, the 2019-2020 Lakers are the only Finals team to finish bottom-10 in three-point percentage. Derrick White will get more open looks with Boston than he ever did in San Antonio. He’s certainly not hesitant about letting it fly, averaging 6.5 attempts in four games, but he’s shooting a paltry 23.1 percent. That’s likely to increase as he becomes more acclimated with the offense. Horford is having a horrible three-point shooting season, but he’s improved over the past 15 games, connecting on 37.3 percent. When defenses collapse on Tatum and Brown, Horford and White must hit enough threes to open up the floor. The Celtics attempt the sixth fewest shots at the rim, likely because defenders don’t respect their shooters. Grant Williams is shooting an insane 44.6 percent from deep, but he’s the only above-40 percent shooter on the roster. If Horford and White become reliable outside threats, the offense will catch up to the defense and this team is a legitimate contender.