The Boston Celtics have gone from being a stagnant, middle-of-the-pack group to one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference. Furthermore, they’ve become legitimate contenders to win the NBA Finals.
Boston is 50-30 — good for the second seed in the East. For perspective, they were once 18-21 and looked poised to be sellers at the NBA trade deadline. Ime Udoka’s first season as an NBA head coach has seen the Celtics return to being the contender they were just two seasons ago under now-team president Brad Stevens. Here are three reasons why this Boston team is on track for an NBA championship.
1. The Boston Celtics have developed offensive chemistry and a defensive identity
The Celtics struggled to pick up steam in the first half of the season, which was amplified when they blew a 24-point lead to the New York Knicks on January 6, 2022. Since that meltdown, the Celtics have been arguably the best team in the East.
This was always a talented team; they just weren’t clicking. Now they are. Jayson Tatum entered Boston’s April 6 matchup against the Chicago Bulls averaging a career-high 27.0 points per game. Leading the charge for Boston’s offense, he gets to the rim with ease and drains jump shots from all over the floor. Jaylen Brown continues to grow as a player, serving as a high-level source of offense and playing off some of the attention Tatum attracts.
Midseason pickup Derrick White has been a splendid, in-between piece for Udoka’s offense, scoring off the dribble and facilitating off the bench. Marcus Smart has been his defensive-savvy self while generating offense. Big men Al Horford, Daniel Theis, and Grant Williams are capable of picking up the slack for injured big man Robert Williams III on both ends of the floor. Youngsters Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith can score in a pinch.
While Boston has developed offensive cohesion, the defense truly stands out. They defend the perimeter and interior well and have general youth on their side. Boston entered April 6 first in the NBA in opponent points per game (104.3) and opponent field goal percentage (43.4%) and second in opponent three-point shooting percentage (33.9%). This is the best defensive team in the NBA.
The Celtics stymie offenses and have the sturdy scorers and players to be a hassle themselves. This franchise has other teams playing on their terms.
2. The 2021-22 Boston Celtics are similar to the 2020-21 Milwaukee Bucks
The makeup of this Celtics’ team is similar to the group that just won the NBA Finals. The 2020-21 Bucks had an offense centered around the ability of two swingmen/forwards, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, to get up shots and force the issue. The versatile, defensive-minded Jrue Holiday was by their side along with skilled shooters and big men. Bobby Portis, P.J. Tucker, Brook Lopez, and Pat Connaughton were among those players.
A lot of the Bucks’ rotation included players who were with the franchise their entire careers or at least some seasons beforehand. Most of those players remain on the roster this season. It’s the same deal with the Celtics from a background and philosophical standpoint.
Tatum and Brown, a pair of attacking scorers, are the Celtics’ engine. Around the two players are abrupt and versatile guards in White and Smart, a big man who can stretch the floor in Horford, and big men who can bang in the paint (Theis and Williams). They have a roster with several drafted players or ones who have been with the organization for a handful of seasons.
Of course, Tatum and Antetokounmpo aren’t carbon copies of each other. Meanwhile, Middleton is a better shooter than Brown. The point: How the Celtics’ offense is aligned and how they get their points is reminiscent of the defending-champion Bucks.
3. This Boston Celtics core has been there and done that
One year ago, the Celtics were experiencing an underwhelming season on the heels of an Eastern Conference Finals appearance. It concluded with Boston going 36-36 and losing to the Brooklyn Nets in five games in the first round of the playoffs.
All that said, the Celtics were better than their record indicated. Why? They had a deep-rooted core and a three-month turnaround from the NBA bubble. Sure, there have been moving pieces over the years. Heck, they’ve been a revolving door at point guard (Isaiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, and Smart/White). That said, this team’s core players are battle-tested in postseason play and continue to make strides. Last season they merely underperformed.
This is year one of the Udoka era. It has been a tale of two seasons for his group — but in a good way. They’ve progressed, gotten their mojo back in the second half, and become a force.
When the game slows in the playoffs, it works in the Celtics’ favor. They have the athleticism to ambush teams on the offensive end and stunt their efforts on defense. The Celtics have been there, done that. They’re a highly experienced team that is relying on stars who are on the cusp of their prime and complementary veterans. It’s going to take sharp basketball to get past this team.
Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.