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.”’

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Jazz, which begins Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 10:30 p.m. You can also stream on the MyTeams App.

Isaiah Thomas recalls Celtics' attempt at 'Funeral Game' vs. Wizards

Isaiah Thomas recalls Celtics' attempt at 'Funeral Game' vs. Wizards

The Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards had an entertaining rivalry going throughout the 2016-17 NBA season, and but it really escalated on January 24, 2017.

Wizards players showed up to the Verizon Center that night wearing all black ahead of their matchup against the C's. Washington went on to win 123-108, and John Wall dubbed it the "Celtics' funeral."

Boston didn't forget that when the two teams met months later in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

With his Celtics up 3-2 in the thrilling second-round series, Isaiah Thomas decided they were going to have a "Funeral Game" of their own. Boston showed up wearing all black, then proceeded to lose in Game 6 thanks to a game-winning 3-pointer from Wall.

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I.T. recalled the C's attempt at their own "Funeral Game" on the latest episode of NBC Sports Washington's Wizards Talk Podcast.

"I send a text out to everybody before we leave Boston," Thomas said. "Everybody wear black because we're going to a funeral and we're gonna end it [in Washington].

"Nobody knew but the players," he said. "So then everyone wore black and when everybody walked in, people started to talk. Then when we ended up losing and John hitting the game-winner and him doing the interview after he's like, 'Don't ever wear black in my city.' I'm like [busts out laughing]."

Apparently, the rivalry was even more intense than it looked. Thomas maintained close friendships with multiple players on the 2016-17 Wizards team but with all that transpired, he wasn't sure those relationships would last.

"John [Wall] is one of my close friends, like, I didn't even talk to John in the series," he said. "Markieff [Morris] is one of my close friends too from when we played on Phoenix and during that series, I didn't think we would ever talk again with how crazy it got."

Listen to the full interview below (Funeral Game talk begins at 14:14 mark):

It probably would be a more sensitive subject for I.T. had the series not ended up going in the Celtics' favor. Boston pulled off a 115-105 win with Thomas notching 29 points and 12 assists in what ended up being the Wizards' real funeral in Game 7.

That offseason, Thomas was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the deal that brought Kyrie Irving to Boston. He since has played for the Lakers, Nuggets, and coincidentally, the Wizards. Now, I.T. is a free agent and Irving is teamed up with Kevin Durant on the Brooklyn Nets.

Wall, Bradley Beal, and Ian Mahinmi are the only players from that 2016-17 Wizards team still with Washington. Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown are the only ones left on the C's.

Who are the best shooting guards in Celtics history? Ranking the Top 10

Who are the best shooting guards in Celtics history? Ranking the Top 10

The shooting guard position isn’t all that different than the others when it comes to the Boston Celtics. 

They have had a slew of elite-level players to man the position through generations of great basketball, picking up individual awards, honors and of course, championships. 

So naturally, whittling down the all-time great shooting guards to just 10 for the most storied franchise in NBA history is a task that’s easier said than done. 

Click here for the gallery.