The Boston Celtics are two wins from earning their first NBA Finals berth since 2010. It’s been a roller-coaster ride through the regular season and in the postseason, but the Celtics are one of two teams left standing in the Eastern Conference.
With young stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown leading the way, the Celtics brushed aside a mediocre start and turned things up a notch to close out the campaign. They are the favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals.
How does this team stack up against the last two Celtics squads that won NBA titles? Can they be compared to the 2008 team led by Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen? How about the 1986 team that featured Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish?
The 2022 Boston Celtics have shown flashes of greatness
This year’s Celtics team is a tough one to figure out. After the first three months of the season, nobody had them making any noise in the postseason. How could they? The Celtics were the classic case of inconsistency, with more bad play than good.
They often seemed like a dysfunctional group. After an early-season game against the Chicago Bulls, frustration took over. They blew one of many huge second-half leads, and Marcus Smart publicly called out Tatum and Brown. At the postgame press conference, he called them selfish.
“Every team knows we’re trying to go to Jayson and Jaylen,” he said after that loss. “Every team is programmed and studied to stop Jayson and Jaylen. I think everybody’s scouting report is to make those guys pass the ball. They don’t want to pass the ball.”
First-year head coach Ime Udoka questioned his team’s effort on multiple occasions. The Celtics looked like world beaters at times. Then they looked like they couldn’t be anyone. A few times, that happened in the same game.
By late January, something clicked. They became the hottest team in basketball, closing out the season with a 26-6 mark after going 25-25 through the first 50 games. The Celtics swept the high-powered Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the postseason. They dethroned the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks in the conference semifinals and find themselves tied at 2-2 with the No. 1 seed Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals.
How do today’s Celtics stack up against the franchise’s last two championship teams?
It’s always tough to compare teams and players from different eras, but we’ll give it a shot. Could the Celtics of today compare to the ’86 and ’08 championship teams? The short answer is no, at least when it comes to the ’86 team.
Bird, Parish, and McHale made up what could be the best frontcourt in NBA history. All three are in the Hall of Fame, and Dennis Johnson, the team’s starting guard, is also in the Hall. Some say that ’86 team might be the best ever. At least several members of that team felt that way.
Bird said he’d put that team up against anyone. Bill Walton, acquired prior to the 1985-86 season to shore up the bench, agreed.
“We had a great team, and we loved each other,” Walton said during a 2020 interview with Brian Scalabrine. “We loved the way we played and we knew we could get the job done. We’ll take our chances. We’ll take our chances anywhere against anybody, anytime. We had it all. We had size, strength, power, finesse, skill, discipline, talent.
“And at the end of the day, we had Red Auerbach, K.C. Jones, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and nobody else did.”
The 2008 Celtics featured two players, Garnett and Allen, whom Boston acquired right before the season. They helped give Boston its next version of the Big Three. Garnett, Pierce, and Allen earned a championship in their first season together. Two years later, they returned to the championship round, losing to the LA Lakers in seven games.
How does this year’s Celtics team stack up against those two championship teams? They’d definitely be ranked third — well behind the ’86 group and just behind the ’08 team.
Putting them well behind Bird’s squad isn’t a dig at the current team. That ’86 team was THAT good. The ’22 team is a younger and more athletic group, but that’s the only area where they outshine the ’86ers.
In a seven-game series, I’d favor the ’08 team over the current one, based on experience. The addition of All-Stars Garnett and Allen put them over the top, just as they were supposed to. Let the current team’s core stay together for a couple more years, and that might change. For now, their inconsistent play ranks them a clear third.
If this year’s team plays to its potential consistently, and the core of Tatum, Brown, Robert Williams, and Marcus Smart stay together, things could be different a couple of years down the road.