A friend of mine (a Knicks fan) asked me the other day if I thought the Celtics had what it takes to win it all this season. I paused for a split second because some small part of my mind always triggers a fight or flight response to questions that could be considered a “jinx.”
Then I always remember that Red Auerbach literally lit victory cigars on the bench well before the end of games.
My short answer was, “yeah, I think they can.” And I went on to explain that our bench is going to be led by Malcolm Brogdon, Derrick White, and Grant Williams. Those three guys would be starting on most other playoff teams.
But it got me thinking a little more, and I thought I’d jot down a few more reasons why I believe in this team.
Elite Shot Makers
It all starts with the stars, doesn’t it? You don’t win a title without a guy who is in the conversation for MVP. And that guy can’t do it alone, so it typically requires at least one other elite player. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have made huge strides in the last year and a half in terms of playmaking, taking care of the ball, and trusting their teammates. But in the playoffs, when defensive effort is ratcheted up and opposing teams have had time to scout out and adjust to every wrinkle in your playbook, sometimes you just need a guy to go get a bucket.
Tatum has shown that he’s a three level scorer. There are times when he starts off slowly, going 1-for-7 in a half. I’m seldom worried because like an AI bot, he’s always learning. Take away options A, B, and C and he’ll just start destroying the defense using X, Y, and Z. Suddenly, you look up in the middle of the 4th quarter and he’s got 30 points on an “off-night.” (Update: or like last night, he’s hitting the game winner to finish off the Sixers)
Jaylen Brown is relentless. Sure, there are times when he gets in his own head, but that’s not going to stop him from attacking. We’ve seen him have awful shooting nights where he turns the ball over and misses defensive assignments, only to hit a game saving 3-pointer and dominate in overtime. He’s become elite in the midrange, too. The game has largely gone away from midrange shots for all be the best in the game, and Jaylen is in that conversation, which is all the more effective because defenses are taught to protect the rim and the 3-point line at the expense of the midrange.
Having two guys on the wing that can simply go out there and get buckets is a huge advantage for the Celtics.
High End Bench Talent
As I alluded to earlier, the Celtics have the luxury of having guys on their bench that would be starters elsewhere. Derrick White struggled at points in the playoffs last year, but you can chalk at least some of that up to joining the team later in the season. Both he and Malcolm Brogdon have had a whole season to integrate with the Celtics and are doing so at a very high level. Grant Williams has been around longer but has really added extra elements to his game this year making him more than just the spot up shooter that he was last season.
A string of injuries have forced the Celtics to go deep into their bench that have forced these guys into larger roles. But assuming reasonably good health and tightened playoff rotations, these three could be playing the bulk of the bench minutes. There just aren’t any weak spots in the Celtics top 8.
And if short term injuries crop up, the Celtics can still call on Payton Pritchard, Sam Hauser, Luke Kornet, Blake Griffin, and Mike Muscala. Having that level of outside shooting to call on in a pinch is another luxury.
Defense Wins Championships
The Celtics currently rank in the top-5 for both offense and defense. That typically is a great model for championship contenders. Considering how slowly they started the season on defense (hey, they were blowing teams out) their top-5 rating on defense is even more impressive.
It makes sense when you look up and down the roster, too. The traditional starting 5 (which hasn’t had a chance to play much together) has no glaring defensive holes. Marcus Smart is the reigning DPOY and you could make the case that Robert Williams III might have even more impact on that end. Al Horford is like Yoda. Sometimes he looks like he’s pacing himself, but when he throws the cane aside, you know you’re going to get a show.
Facing Embiid? We’ve got waves of bigs to throw at him. Need to slow down Giannis? Form a wall. Donovan is heating up? Marcus can make his life more difficult. Working the ball to the 2nd or 3rd option? Watch as Tatum and Brown beat them to the spot. Think you’ve got White beat off the dribble? Oops, he’s just blocked you from behind.
The trend this year has favored offenses. Scores are up across the league. Which makes it that much more important to get stops in the postseason. It is going to be a lot of fun watching this team defend in the playoffs.
In the regular season you can sometimes get away with sticking to a script and executing it on an elite level. When the playoffs start and teams have a chance to make adjustments, not just game to game but quarter to quarter and sometimes play to play.
That means a title contender has to be able to adjust on the fly and excel with several different looks. Many times, teams have to pick their poison. To get more shooting on the floor, they sometimes have to sacrifice defense or to “go small,” they have to give up rebounding.
As mentioned, the Celtics have no glaring weak spots on defense, so they can mix and match on offense and still feel confident in their matchups on the other end. They have elite double-big lineups. They can go small with waves of dynamic guards and wings and still grab boards. Against man defense they can hunt mismatches and create driving lanes with screens and ball movement. Against zones they can find Horford or Rob in the high post and pick the defense apart with passing, cutting, and shooting from all around the arc. There’s just a lot of ways this team can thrive.
Caveat: Still Need Luck
As much as I’d like to continue gushing in this love letter to my beloved obsession, I do have to admit that this team isn’t flawless. They can be streaky, careless, unfocused, and downright confusing at times. They are human and mistakes are made.
Also, no title has been won without some level of luck going the team’s way. Sometimes that just means “most of the key players are relatively healthy.” Other times it means a team that poses a difficult matchup gets knocked out in an earlier round by another team. Sometimes it is just the right bounce of a ball (right, Kawhi?). Any number of bad luck things could prevent a team from winning a title. Thankfully this one has a bit of history with good luck.
So yeah, I believe in this team.