Celtics

Five reasons why the Celtics are legit title contenders in 2020

Five reasons why the Celtics are legit title contenders in 2020

BOSTON — The season began for the Boston Celtics not all that differently than most teams whose goal was to win an NBA title. 

But when the season started, there were a handful of teams in the East that — at least on paper — were as good or potentially better than the Celtics. 

Currently third in the East behind league-leading Milwaukee and second-place Toronto, the Celtics are still seen as a squad that’s in the title-hunting pack whose best shot at a title might be in another year or two. 

But this group has not been one that’s all that patient when it comes to success. 

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Remember it was only two years ago that they were a half away from getting to the NBA Finals, led by a bunch of players still on their rookie deals. 

That’s why this current squad’s title aspirations are just as bright as Celtics teams in the near future. 

Here’s a look at five reasons why Boston’s title hopes now may be better than most anticipated for this group. 

KEMBA WALKER: A PROVEN, SELFLESS SUPERSTAR

The numbers that Kemba Walker is averaging this season speak to what he can do as a player. But him being voted in as an All-Star starter says more about how he’s viewed by his peers as well as fans throughout the NBA. 

There’s no question that Walker has played well enough and for long enough to earn the right to be viewed as one of the game’s best players. 

But more than what he does to opponents, it’s what he does for his teammates that gives the Celtics legit hope of getting out of the East this season. 

His leadership comes in the form of empowering the guys around him to perform at the highest level they can.

And if they falter, he’ll be there to carry the team when needed. There have been few instances when that has been needed.

But it’s good for the Celtics to know that they have a player with that level of clutch about him, who has shown his ability to take over games when needed.

RISING SUPERSTAR JAYSON TATUM

Right before the All-Star break, we saw Tatum show that he’s more than just a young player on the rise in the NBA when he absolutely outplayed Los Angeles Clippers star Kawhi Leonard.

Then Tatum took his show on the road and has been even more dominant, outperforming LeBron James and Anthony Davis on their own floor and followed that up with another impressive performance against Portland that continues to fuel the growing Tatum-is-a-superstar narrative that’s out there. 

In the three games he has played since the All-Star break, the Celtics are 2-1 with Tatum averaging 35.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists while shooting 54.0 percent from the field and 55.2 percent from three — which included him making a career-best eight treys in Boston’s 118-106 win over the Blazers. 

To win a title, it can’t be done with just one superstar.

And it looks like the Celtics have found that second, elite difference-maker in Tatum. 

BOSTON’S X-MEN

No championship run comes about without there being at least one or two players whose impact becomes greater than expected. 

For the Celtics, Daniel Theis is one of the first that comes to mind who fits into that category. 

The 6-foot-9 center has been solid all season, but he's been more of an offensive force recently. 

He’s averaging 8.8 points and 6.5 rebounds per game this season, but in eight February games, Theis has increased his output to 12.6 points and 8.5 rebounds while shooting 59.3 percent from the field along with making 38.5 percent of his 3's.

Another X-factor to keep an eye on is Grant Williams, who despite being just 6-foot-6, has been a surprisingly solid defender who more times than not, is shorter than whoever he’s tasked with defending. 

But as the season has progressed, Williams has shown a better understanding of what he needs to do in order to impact the team’s chances at winning. 

DEFENSIVE VERSATILITY

With Al Horford (Philadelphia) and Aron Baynes (Phoenix) gone from last season’s squad, Boston’s defense was supposed to take a step back.

But instead of struggling, they have surged ahead to be one of the league’s better defensive teams, as evidenced by their defensive rating of 105.8, which ranks third in the NBA. 

Boston’s defensive success has a lot to do with interchangeability at seemingly every position.

So when teams run the pick-and-roll -- a staple of every team’s offense -- Boston has the ability to defend it and not be put in a significant disadvantage. 

And despite not having the kind of frontcourt height that one would expect from a top-tier defense, the Celtics have been particularly tough to score on at the rim while allowing 42.2 points in the paint, which is the third-lowest per game total in the NBA.

“The combination of containment speed with great hands, to be in the passing lanes and get strips, makes it very difficult to attack the paint,” said Lakers head coach Frank Vogel. “It minimizes their need for an elite shot-blocker.”

ROAD TO SUCCESS

Regardless of how good a team’s overall record may be, winning on the road is essential to every team’s hopes of advancing deep into the playoffs. 

Teams with home-court advantage can end a series quicker by taking care of business away from the comfy confines of home, and those who start off on the road can quickly swing home-court advantage in their favor. 

The Celtics this season have shown themselves capable of success both at home and on the road. 

Boston (40-17) is one of just five teams in the NBA with at least 40 wins thus far this season. 

And when it comes to winning on the road, Boston has proven to be one of the best at coming into someone’s building and leaving with a victory. 

Boston has a 17-12 record on the road and stands as one of just three teams in the East (Milwaukee and Toronto are the others) with a record above-.500 on the road this season. 

Part of that success is the team’s neverending, us-against-the-world mentality. 

Several factors have contributed to the Celtics' success this season on the road which includes their ability to limit opponents’ ability to get easy scores via assists. 

On the road this season, the Celtics are allowing opponents to tally a league-low 21.5 assists per game.

That means a large chunk of opponents on their own home floor are forced to generate offense in more one-on-one or isolation offense, which plays into the Celtics' hands as a team whose help-side defense has made isolating their defenders a difficult chore. 

Vogel added, “a well-coached program, good scheme and a core that’s been together and knows how to cover for each other, all those types of things, contributes to them being one of the best defenses in the league.”’

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Hindsight 2020: Would more Jayson Tatum have pushed Celtics to NBA Finals in 2018?

Hindsight 2020: Would more Jayson Tatum have pushed Celtics to NBA Finals in 2018?

Jayson Tatum was in his basketball bag, giving LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers all they could handle. 

He was scoring in an efficient manner (24 points on 9-for-17 shooting), rebounding the ball (seven rebounds) and making big shots.

And he was doing this on one of the biggest stages of them all: Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals.

A 3-pointer by Tatum put the Celtics ahead 72-71 with six minutes to play, a shot that capped off a Tatum surge in which he had scored seven of Boston’s last nine points. 

And then … nothing. 

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He took only one shot after that and missed it, going scoreless for the rest of the game.

The Celtics that year were a team that leaned on whoever had the hot hand. 

But on this particular night, they needed help figuring out who that was in the closing minutes — and in hindsight, head coach Brad Stevens should have stepped in and done more to implore his team to get the ball to Tatum in a better position to score. 

However Stevens stuck to what had worked so well for so long with this group: letting this young band of ballers figure out on their own who to lean on when it mattered most, as contributions seemed to come from a new player on a nightly basis.

But on this stage with all that was at stake, they absolutely needed Stevens to implore them to go to Tatum … a lot. 

And now, two years later, the domino effect of that game’s outcome is still felt. 

Brad Stevens has been at the helm for seven years here in Boston and ranks among the franchise’s winningest coaches ever. 

But in that Game 7 in 2018, the Celtics were less than six minutes away from getting to the NBA Finals, which is as close as this franchise has come to winning a title during Stevens' reign. 

When you look at the overall body of work since Stevens arrived in Boston in 2013, there are very few instances in which a decision or non-decision on his part stands out in a bad way. 

But this was one of those times. 

Yes, the Celtics were playing without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, who were both sidelined with injuries. 

And yes, there are undeniable benefits in having so many young players step their game up despite being without a pair of All-Stars in Irving and Hayward. 

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But as we’ve seen here in Boston and throughout the NBA, getting to the NBA Finals is not guaranteed for any team regardless of how much promise they show going forward.

And to be as close as they were at that time, there’s no way to completely move on from that sting of missing out — other than to take that next step and actually reach the Finals. 

You can go through all the missed shots and free throws and blown assignments defensively and find factors that led to Boston coming up short in that game.

But none looms larger than the Celtics' inability to put Tatum in a better position to score the ball in the final minutes. 

While the pain from that loss has in many ways helped Boston’s young core grow, the gains for the Celtics and the Tatum-Brown tandem would have been even greater had that group as they were constructed advanced to the Finals. 

When it comes to players making plays when it counts, of course it’s ultimately on them to deliver. 

But efforts must be made to best position players to come through in the clutch, the one thing in hindsight the Celtics could have done a better job in what was — and still is — the toughest loss for this franchise in the Stevens era.

2020 NBA Mock Draft 4.0: Teams still on schedule for June

2020 NBA Mock Draft 4.0: Teams still on schedule for June

The NBA season may be at a standstill, but that won’t slow NBA teams down from preparing for the upcoming draft that’s currently slated for June 25. 

While this draft is short on star power like this year’s NBA rookie class, which includes Zion Williamson of New Orleans, Ja Morant in Memphis and New York’s R.J. Barrett, all of whom turned in strong first seasons in the NBA, there’s still plenty of talent to pick over in the coming weeks. 

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And the Celtics will get their shot — make that shots, plural — with three first-round picks this year. 

Here’s a look at the Celtics’ possible draft plans as well as those of the rest of the NBA in the latest NBC Sports Boston NBA Mock Draft. 

Click here for the gallery.