BOSTON – So … who are the Celtics?
Officially, Boston is 17-7, second in its division, fourth in the conference. A chance to climb those standings fell by the wayside on Thursday, when a Joel Embiid-fueled Sixers team muscled out a 117-109 win. Embiid, physically overwhelming against most teams, looked cartoonishly big against Boston, bullying a Celtics team that, Brad Stevens admits, doesn’t “have a lot of guys with that old school center strength.”
More than a quarter of the way through the season, and with the calendar inching towards Christmas, the true contenders are starting to crystalize. The West has the two LA teams at the top, setting up what could be a mouthwatering hallway series in the playoffs. Milwaukee is the class of the east, with the super sized Sixers lurking, riding the NBA’s only perfect home record.
Apologies, Dallas and Miami. Let’s talk again around All-Star.
Look, that the Celtics are even in this conversation is an accomplishment. A bad reality show last season, Boston saw Kyrie Irving, Al Horford and Aron Baynes walk out last summer, Kemba Walker come in and have regrouped faster than anyone expected. Jaylen Brown is playing like an All-Star, Jayson Tatum flashes All-NBA talent and the Marcus Smart/Daniel Theis pairing has anchored a shockingly good defense.
The Celtics can score with anyone. Walker has slid into the Irving role seamlessly, averaging a tidy 22.8 points per game while shooting better than 40% from three for the first time in his career. And while Irving struggled in a leadership role, Walker has embraced it. He leads vocally when he has to. He leads by example more. Against Cleveland, on Monday, Walker thought he was headed for an early night. When the Cavs made what looked like a blowout competitive, Stevens was forced to re-insert Walker to fend the Cavs off.
In the locker room afterwards, Stevens pointed to Walker.
If you want to be special, Stevens told his team, model your game after Kemba’s.
Brown has been brilliant. Boston hates handing out rookie deal extensions, preferring to take advantage of player-constraining restricted free agent rules and let the market dictate price. Brown, though, earned a four-year deal that could be worth $115 million.
If you think that’s a lot, it is.
If you think what he could earn next summer could be more, it could.
Brown has picked up where he left off in the ’17-18 playoffs. His scoring is hovering around 20 points per game. His field goal percentage is above 50% for the first time in his career. His three-point percentage is a shade under 38%. He’s improved off the dribble and is launching more three’s (5.3 per game) than he has in his career.
Think a team eager to add a 23-year old All-Star caliber forward in a barren free agent market might max a player like that out next summer?
That contract is worth every nickel.
Tatum has been good—with room to get better. There are some numbers you love with Tatum. His scoring is up above 20 points. He’s pulling down a career-high seven rebounds per game. He’s fifth in the NBA in real plus/minus, sandwiched between Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. And he’s doing it while shooting career-lows from the floor (41.1%) and from three (36.3%) while still launching a few too many possession-killing long two’s.
Smart has been his usual defensive menace. Gordon Hayward—a full two years removed from that catastrophic leg injury—is quietly piecing together a Utah-like season, shooting a staggering 56.3% from the floor. Theis has been a revelation. Asked to fill the Horford/Baynes role, Theis has been brilliant, anchoring a top-ten defense and emerging as a fearsome help defender.
The Celtics look like contenders.
But are they?
Watching Philadelphia play dump-and-chase with Embiid on Thursday, watching the Sixers All-NBA pivot create space for himself on the block and dunk on physically overmatched defenders, the Celtics biggest weakness was on full display. The connectivity on defense is still there. The muscle, as Stevens alluded, is not. Theis is an undersized five-man. Grant Williams, a physically sturdy rookie, is too. Enes Kanter was brilliant offensively—Kanter and Theis chipped in 36-points and 14-rebounds, nearly matching Embiid’s output—but his defensive limitations are well known.
You don’t need to be big to beat everybody.
To get past Philadelphia and Milwaukee in the playoffs, you probably do.
There is no Warriors-like juggernaut lurking this season. The era of the super team is (for now) over. There’s a window. Across the league, teams see it. A minor move here or there and poof, a team could wind up in the Finals. Maybe win a championship.
Boston feels like one of them. There’s no obvious path to finding frontcourt help. The Celtics do have draft capital to deal, including a top-six protected Memphis pick that has a solid chance of conveying next June. But they have little interest in dealing any core players, including Smart, once considered the teams most movable piece. Without a big salary to move, deals get more difficult. The buyout market often yields something, but unless Tristan Thompson wriggles free from Cleveland, there may not be a difference maker.
The Celtics have a lot to be pleased with. They have recovered from L’Affaire Kyrie. They have one of the most dynamic offensive lineups in the NBA. They are a lock for the playoffs and a solid bet to make the second round.
This is what the Celtics are.
What can they be? We may have to wait until March to find out.